After 11 years, 21 films and countless hours of entertainment, the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we currently know it is poised to close with a bang with the release of Avengers: Endgame. With that in mind, there’s no better time to look back on each of these films. Here is my definitive ranking of every MCU film, ranked from worst to best:
21. Iron Man 3
That’s right, Iron Man 2 is, in fact, not the worst Iron Man movie (although it’s not far off). That distinction goes to Iron Man 3, the weakest that the MCU has to offer. The third film in the Iron Man saga comes off the heels of The Avengers, where Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) grapples with PTSD after narrowly escaping the Battle of New York with his life. He becomes more determined than ever to protect Earth from whatever else may be out there, a struggle that fuels his desire to stop The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a figure supposedly behind a series of terrorist attacks.
Iron Man 3 does provide some intriguing character growth for Tony Stark, anchored by director Shane Black’s artistic flare. However, a thrilling opening act is negated by a plot that completely derails after the true villain of the film is revealed. RDJ proves to be the film’s saving grace, but even he can’t lift this film out of mediocrity.
20. The Incredible Hulk
One could argue that The Incredible Hulk exists in some parallel universe outside of the MCU proper, but I’ve ranked it nonetheless. Before Mark Ruffalo breathed life into the Hulk, Edward Norton took the character for a spin. Bruce Banner/The Hulk embarks on a search for a cure to himself of his superpowered abilities. Simultaneously, he is on the run from General Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt) who seeks to capture him.
The Incredible Hulk is 50 percent of a good movie; in fact, I would argue that the first and second acts are among the most thrilling in the MCU, particularly as Bruce Banner is chased through the alleyways of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It’s a shame that the film loses its momentum so sharply by the third act, where the Hulk is tasked with fighting a slightly bigger, greyer, uglier Hulk called The Abomination. Norton is fine in the role, but he lacks the heart and charisma that Ruffalo encapsulates in his debut in The Avengers.
20. Iron Man 2
Like I said, Iron Man 2’s not far off from the bottom, but I don’t think it’s quite as abysmal as other listicles tend to rank it. This sequel marks the second outing for RDJ’s Tony Stark, who has just revealed himself to be the man in the metal-suit. Tony is forced to deal with the consequences of this reveal in addition to stopping a new foe, Ivan Vanko/Whiplash (Mickey Rourke).
Iron Man 2 certainly isn’t as exciting as its predecessor, the film that kicked off the MCU. This is largely due to a meandering plot and an uninteresting antagonist. However, it did present some welcome new character additions, chief among them being Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, and Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard as James “Rhodey” Rhodes.
18. Doctor Strange
I wish I liked this one more. I really do. At the time of its release, I remember the trailers being incredibly gripping, which made me think that Marvel was finally treating us to something original. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case with Doctor Strange, which follows Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a renowned surgeon who gets in a horrible accident and must find a new path for himself.
I like to refer to Doctor Strange as “Trippy Iron Man.” When you strip away the film’s psychedelic visuals and admittedly impressive special effects, Doctor Strange becomes nothing more than a retread of the Marvel formula we’ve seen a dozen times over: unwitting, asshole-ish character finds his calling as a superhero and faces off against a one-off villain (Mads Mikkelsen). Cumberbatch is perfectly fine for the role, but I find it difficult to invest in Strange’s story.
Ant-Man sometimes gets thrown into the conversation for one of the most underrated installments in the MCU. You could make a case for that, but personally, the plot is relatively straightforward and, like Doctor Strange, leans into a tried and tested formula that hinders its potential to really stand out amongst the collection of MCU films.
Our protagonist Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a thief recently released from prison now wanting to do right by his young daughter, Cassie. However, his old habits bubble to the service, which grabs the attention of Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). With their help, Scott trains to become the titular Ant-Man. One thing this film does have going for it is its blending of the action and heist genres, making for some exciting visual effects opportunities given Ant-Man’s abilities. As previously mentioned, though, it’s just not enough to earn a higher ranking.
Given the arc that Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has had throughout his many appearances in the MCU, Thor feels a bit inconsistent in retrospect. You could blame it on the revolving door of directors that have handled the character (there have been five of them), but I ultimately think Thor was difficult to pin down as a character until the more intergalactic parts of the MCU were established.
This is when we are first introduced to Thor, an Asgardian god poised to take over the throne after his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). When Thor makes a critical diplomatic mistake, he is banished from Asgard and slowly betters himself while on Earth. I like Thor fine; in fact, it features one of the MCU’s strongest villains in Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s ill-intentioned brother. Where I think the film goes wrong (aside from its missteps in Thor’s characterization) is the decision to spend so much time on Earth instead of Asgard. Thor is kind of a weird character, so let him be weird!
15. Ant-Man and the Wasp
I’m definitely in the minority with this one in ranking Ant-Man and the Wasp above its predecessor. But as I said in my review, it was abundantly obvious to me at the time Ant-Man was released that Hope van Dyne was getting short-changed in that story, so the mere fact that she’s getting more (and action-packed) screen-time in this one was all it really took to tip the scales for me.
Ant-Man and the Wasp sees the gang reunited as they attempt to traverse the quantum realm in order to find Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer). I recognize that the plot becomes a bit MacGuffin-y, which is what prevents it from being ranked any higher on my list. However, Rudd’s effortless charm as Ant-Man combined with Lilly’s increased prominence makes it a thoroughly enjoyable watch.
14. Thor: The Dark World
The reason I give The Dark World the edge is precisely because we spend more time in Asgard. In this film, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Thor’s love interest, becomes infected with a mysterious substance called the Aether, later revealed to be one of the six Infinity Stones.
Not only does this plot allow us to establish Asgard more fully, but it expands the mythology of the MCU as a whole. This is one of Thor’s greatest strengths as a character — his ability to place Earth in the context of a much more expansive universe. The Dark World may not have the strongest villain in Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), but it’s got some thrilling set pieces (particularly the escape from Asgard) and a fair bit of heart.
13. Spider-Man: Homecoming
It’s the deal we never thought would happen, but Disney inevitably found a way to bring Peter Parker/Spider-Man into the MCU. Peter (Tom Holland) stole the show with his introduction in Captain America: Civil War, and Homecoming is an adequate continuation of his characterization.
Peter finds himself in a difficult balancing act between his responsibilities (and great power…) as a superhero and his life as a high-schooler. This struggle becomes more pronounced when Adrian Toome/The Vulture (Michael Keaton) makes his presence known. I appreciate the John Hughes-vibe that Homecoming gives off, and I genuinely think Holland is the best version of Spider-Man we’ve seen yet. However, it suffers from its explicit attempts to connect to the rest of the MCU — namely, the heavy inclusion of Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) throughout the film. From a branding perspective, it makes sense to connect this version of Spider-Man to the MCU given that we’ve had so many iterations of the character in the past, but I don’t think this does any favors for the story as a whole. It’s truly Tom Holland’s performance that anchors the film.
12. Captain Marvel
Ahead of Avengers: Endgame, Captain Marvel is the latest addition to the MCU and marks the first solely female-led superhero film on Marvel’s side. Since I didn’t do a formal review for Captain Marvel, here’s a mini-review coming in hot:
Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) fights a war alongside her fellow Kree warriors against an alien race called the Skrulls, who can shapeshift into any being. As this is going on, Carol struggles to piece together memoral fragments of her past, all of which come bubbling to the surface when she finds herself back on Earth.
Captain Marvel benefits from its scope, finding a solid balance between adventures in space and on Earth. Captain Marvel proves herself to be a hero you don’t want to mess with, and for her part, Larson is more than up to the task of the role’s inherent physicality. She also injects the character with snarky, sharp wit that suits the character well, and her chemistry with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury (with both his eyes intact) helps the pair inhabit a buddy-comedy dynamic throughout the film.
All of that works well, but what prevents Captain Marvel from being ranked any higher are the extraneous plotlines that detract from Carol’s character arc. In choosing to reveal information to the audience as Carol learns it, it becomes difficult to invest in any one story element of the film because it’s unclear which will end up being of importance. The true heart of this story lies in Carol’s connection to her friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), whom we later learn was in the air force with Carol during her time on Earth. Their interaction was the moment I became invested in the film, but because this event comes near the middle of the film, it leaves something to be desired in terms of pace and stakes in the first half.
Much like Thor, Captain Marvel would benefit from an artistic voice that can isolate what works best about the character. Directing team Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck do a competent job with the film, but I’m not convinced they are the best equipped to continue with the character moving forward.
11. Iron Man
We would be nowhere in the superhero genre as it currently stands without the film that started it all. It might seem like a no-brainer now, but Iron Man was a risk simply because the character wasn’t nearly as established. RDJ had also somewhat fallen out of stardom, making him a less-than-obvious choice for the genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist. When we first meet Tony Stark, he is the head of Stark Industries running weapons tests, an endeavor forever changed when he is kidnapped by a terrorist group. This compels him to build the first of many Iron Man suits and puts him on a better, more sympathetic path.
Iron Man is truly the “origin story” at its finest, laying out a solid base for the rest of the MCU to build off of. RDJ makes this role look so effortless, bringing multiple layers to Tony’s seemingly one-note exterior. While the third act isn’t quite as strong as the previous two, it’s hard to deny the legwork that Iron Man did for this entire genre.
10. Avengers: Age of Ultron
We’re finally down to the top ten! Age of Ultron gets a bad rep for being a little too “fluffy,” especially compared to the first Avengers film and other installments of its kind. I understand that criticism, but I would argue that the things that feel extraneous about this film is actually its greatest strength. During the events of Age of Ultron, Tony Stark is compelled to enact a technological peacekeeping program to protect the world against future threats following the Battle of New York. This leads to the conception of Ultron, an A.I. that goes rogue and becomes intent on wiping out humanity.
This premise is somewhat dark on its surface, but director Joss Whedon uses Age of Ultron as a means for character revelations and developments via heartfelt moments and sharp dialogue. He chooses to place Clint Barton/Hawk Eye (Jeremy Renner) and Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Ruffalo) at the film’s center. Whatever your thoughts on that may be, these are two generally underappreciated characters, and I think it’s a bold move to give them the spotlight above big-ticket characters like Tony Stark or Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans). It’s the little moments that ultimately make characters worth following, and Age of Ultron has that in spades.
Hot Take: The Bruce Banner/Natasha Romanoff romance was weird…but cute…
9. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Vol. 2 embodies a similar energy to Age of Ultron in the sense that the film is less about what happens and more about how the characters react to the situations they’ve been placed into. We are once again reunited with Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and the rest of the Guardians gang on another routine mission. The status quo is soon interrupted by the re-emergence of Peter’s father Ego (Kurt Russell) who gives Peter greater insight into his past and presents him with difficult decisions.
Ego is ~the~ most underrated villain in the entire MCU. He provides very real, very devastating stakes for Peter to grapple with and summarizes very plainly what the Guardians films are about: the desire for family. Vol. 2 is one of the few MCU films that feels like it has a lasting impact on its characters, which makes it more than deserving of a spot in the top ten.
8. Captain America: Civil War
Often referred to as “Avengers 2.5,” Civil War rounds out Captain America’s trilogy with beautifully directed action sequences and character growth. Following the destruction in Sokovia that the Avengers left in their wake, the government presents the team with a proposal to limit their scope of autonomy in, well, avenging things. Guilt-ridden over the lives lost due to the team’s mistakes, Tony Stark agrees this is a necessary step, while Steve Rogers steadfastly believes “the safest hands are still our own.” Their dispute turns violent as the Avengers square off against one another.
The “airport scene” in which this confrontation takes place is enough to catapult Civil War above most of the other films on this list. It also serves as a preliminary test for the Russo Brothers to see how many characters they can balance at once (a feat we see them miraculously pull off in Avengers: Infinity War). There are certainly some great moments to be had in seeing Cap struggle with his decision to “go rogue” so to speak, but my biggest gripe with Civil War is its ultimate lack of lasting stakes. There was incredible potential to make this disagreement amongst the heroes devastatingly impactful, but the film largely elects to remain self-contained. It’s still an enjoyable, well-executed installment; I just wish it had gone a little bit deeper.
7. Black Panther
Black Panther proved to be a groundbreaking achievement in more ways than one. Not only is it among the highest grossing films of all time, but it was the first superhero film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. After his introduction in Civil War, T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) takes center stage as the new king of Wakanda, a highly advanced country whose technology has been hidden away from the world. When Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) emerges to challenge T’Challa for the throne, T’Challa must decide what it takes to be a king.
Perhaps the film’s strongest element is the introduction of an exceptional villain in Killmonger. While I wish Jordan had more screen time, he steals every scene he’s in and gives the audience a sympathetic antagonist — which is often a rarity in superhero films. Equally significant is the characterization of Wakanda as a setting. Inspired from various African cultures, Wakanda becomes a vibrant, colorful, exciting world to experience. Add to that the diverse depiction of strong new characters, particularly Shuri and Okoye, Black Panther is a welcome departure in many respects from the standard MCU formula.
6. Captain America: The First Avenger
Regardless of what anyone else believes, I firmly contend that The First Avenger is the most undervalued superhero film (that’s right, out of every superhero film). Back in phase one, Steve Rogers/Captain America’s (Evans) was the last Avenger to be introduced before our big team-up movie in The Avengers. When we first meet him, Steve is a scrawny kid whose primary ambition is to serve his country in WWII. He agrees to be the test subject for the “super-soldier” serum which gives him incredible, superhuman abilities.
The sheer level of heart in this film is staggering. Steve is as genuine a character as they come, but his tortured, underdog mentality keeps him grounded and relatable. Every time I see Captain America on screen, I can’t help but think back to the young man who falls on the grenade at base camp. Not to mention, Steve’s self-sacrifice at the end of this film while speaking with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) — arguably making for the best onscreen couple in the MCU — is utterly heartbreaking. Captain America sometimes leans into the cheekiness of its period-piece aesthetic, but the film’s emotional weight is undeniable.
5. The Avengers
We’ve grown accustomed as an audience to seeing big superhero team-up movies on the big screen, and looking back on The Avengers, director Joss Whedon makes it look effortless. After a series of now-iconic superhero origin stories, we see our heroes team up for the first time to stop Loki (Hiddleston), who is in possession of an alien object called the Tesseract (perhaps better known now as the Space Stone).
Above anything else, The Avengers is pure fun. Whedon presents us with well-choreographed action set pieces and the thrill of seeing these characters finally interact one another. Not to mention, it has that beautiful, 360 degree money-shot of the Avengers finally assembled, ready to take down an army of aliens. Perhaps it’s not as thought-provoking as other MCU ventures, but any shortcomings in brain are more than compensated for in brawn.
4. Avengers: Infinity War
By this point, the Avengers are no strangers to universal threats, but none have quite matched up to the obstacles they faced in Infinity War. All of the setup done by virtually every installment that preceded this film finally amounts to some exceptionally satisfying payoffs. Featuring key players across various franchises — from our traditional Avengers to the Guardians of the Galaxy — we see a team-up of massive proportions as our heroes try to prevent Thanos (Josh Brolin) from acquiring all six Infinity Stones needed to snap half the universe’s population out of existence.
From a purely filmmaking perspective, it’s a Herculean feat for directors Anthony & Joe Russo to believably balance so many characters on screen at once. While sometimes tonally inconsistent, Infinity War finds time for each of our favorite characters to earn a moment in the spotlight. It also finally features an MCU film with a truly tragic ending (outside of Captain America: The First Avenger, perhaps). The stakes couldn’t be higher for Avengers: Endgame, and that’s due in large part to the success of Infinity War.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy
The Guardians of the Galaxy franchise is the only section of the MCU that I feel has been consistently driven by a distinct, directorial voice in James Gunn. Every Marvel film has a formula, and this one is no exception, but Gunn takes liberties with this established mold by presenting us with new settings, anti-heroes and a killer soundtrack.
Much like Vol. 2, the original Guardians is also about finding family, but with this film, we see how Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) unites with fellow guardians Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel). Similarly to The Avengers, Guardians is a joy to watch after every viewing, but Gunn’s somewhat unconventional approach to the MCU combined with effortlessly cool style earns it the number three spot.
2. Thor: Ragnarok
Like I said before, Thor is weird. No one grasps “weird” better than director Taika Waititi, who brings the character to life in a way not yet seen before. After the passing of Odin (Hopkins), Thor’s long-lost sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) arrives to wreak havoc in Asgard, which could bring about the Ragnarok that Thor envisioned back in Age of Ultron. Thor’s journey in stopping Hela will lead him to cross paths with Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and The Hulk (Ruffalo).
Waititi seems to take a page out of Gunn’s playbook in choosing to place this film almost exclusively in space (barring a brief stint on Earth with Doctor Strange). His sense of humor shines through hilariously throughout much of the film, providing Thor with more ease and levity that feels more suited to his (and Hemsworth’s) sensibility. However, that doesn’t mean that Ragnarok sidesteps the darker aspects inherent within its story; in fact, the film’s events have several lasting effects on Thor and his fellow Asgardians. Waititi has been a gift for the MCU, and Ragnarok is an excellent testament to that.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
I’ve always liked Captain America (Evans), but after seeing The Winter Soldier, I knew Captain America was (and remains) my favorite Avenger. Director Joe Johnston did a great job capturing the character in The First Avenger, but it was really the Russo Brothers that took Captain America and injected him with fresh, 21st century blood.
The Winter Soldier adds a spy-thriller spin on Steve Rogers’ story, placing him at odds with S.H.I.E.L.D., which has now been compromised by Hydra, complicated all the more by the opposition of a mysterious agent known as the Winter Soldier. From the opening scene on the S.H.I.E.L.D. ship, to Cap’s fight scene in the elevator, to unexpected character pairings and a solid, consequential villain, The Winter Soldier summarizes everything that is great about the MCU. Evans cements himself as the perfect choice for Captain America, one that generations to come will look towards. Because of that, The Winter Soldier is the clear choice for me as the best film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.