Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is about to begin with Captain America: Civil War. But first, let’s take a look back at the 12 existing films and rank the Marvel movies.
Before I begin, it should be noted that I’m a fan of all of the Marvel movies, and it would be disingenuous to call any one of them the “worst” as I enjoy even my least favourite of the bunch.
12. Thor: The Dark World
My initial opinion of Thor: The Dark World was much higher than it is now, based on the fact that I had a very good time watching it at the movies. But as time went on, it slipped down the list.
Thor: The Dark World is a competent if unremarkable action adventure movie, and a fun way to spend a couple of hours. It’s not the kind of movie that would stay with you beyond those two hours, as it’s not exactly a very memorable film. It has the weakest villain out of all the Marvel movies, but its greatest strength is Tom Hiddleston’s ever-charismatic Loki, who has a legitimate arc and plenty of banter with his brother Thor.
11. The Incredible Hulk
The Incredible Hulk is a movie that I rewatched on Blu-ray more times than its placement on this list would indicate. Its entertainment value manages to outweigh its flaws and make it another solid action movie.
The Incredible Hulk follows the Marvel movies trend of having a unique first hour or so followed by a generic third act that’s just okay. For the most part, it’s a chase movie with a fugitive for a protagonist. This setup led to several great sequences, such as the chase in Rio de Janeiro and the battle at Culver University. The film’s climax, a decent monster brawl, fell short by comparison. The love story didn’t really work either, but Edward Norton gave a sincere performance, and Tim Roth made for a decent villain.
10. Iron Man 2
Iron Man 2 is often criticized for being more of a Marvel Cinematic Universe setup than a film in its own right, and in many ways that is true. It is very light on plot, featuring a villain that, following a great introductory scene, spends far too much time offscreen and is dispatched quite easily in the end. And its central character arc, while solid, falls short of the “Demon in a Bottle” comic book storyline it was trying to evoke.
Still, the fact that it was tasked with so much worldbuilding and pulled it off while still being a solid and entertaining movie is no small feat. Robert Downey Jr.’s charm is ever-present, and he carries the movie almost singlehandedly, although Sam Rockwell does his fair share in an entertaining turn as Justin Hammer.
Rounding out the bottom four is a movie that, by all counts, should not have been as good as it is. It’s nothing spectacular, but Thor marks the point where Marvel leapt into the more “out there” parts of its comic mythology with surprising ease.
After the more sci-fi approach of the Iron Man films, Marvel had the difficult task of adapting a comic featuring a magic hammer-wielding Norse god from another dimension. And by injecting Thor a good dose of adventure and not letting it take itself too seriously, it succeeded. It wasn’t perfect; most notably, the scenes Thor spent on Earth going through his requisite humility arc got a bit plodding compared to the fantastical Asgard sequences. But director Kenneth Branagh—no stranger to Shakespearean films—managed the throneroom drama very well, and then-newcomer Tom Hiddleston made an immediate strong impression as Loki.
The middle third of this list is where things get much more even and interchangeable, and I spent a long time settling on an order for these next four entries.
It says a lot about the quality of the Marvel movies that an entry as good and beloved as Ant-Man is number 8 on the list. Ant-Man is a very likable movie, with a charismatic lead, plenty of humour, creative action sequences, and no shortage of the sort of self-awareness that any movie about an Ant-themed hero needs to have. But none of that would work without the genuine heart that Ant-Man possesses thanks to Scott’s relationship with his daughter Cassie, a parent-child theme that echoes throughout the movie between numerous characters. Ant-Man is also refreshingly small-scale (no pun intended), one of the factors that led many fans to prefer it over that same year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.
But it’s not without its flaws. The plot feels familiar and formulaic at times, even as it tries using the heist genre to separate itself from the crowd (a genre that inherently shares typical superhero story tropes like the training montage). There’s also a bit of tonal dissonance; the movie makes lighthearted jabs at its wacky premise, yet expects us to invest in serious scenes featuring Michael Douglas tearfully saying things like “she disabled her regulator and vanished into the quantum realm.” Not to mention the typically weak Marvel villain.
7. Captain America: The First Avenger
What do you get when you cross a World War II film with a superhero origin story? A pretty great movie, actually!
Captain America: The First Avenger brought a good old-fashioned comic book character to life in a movie about good old-fashioned heroism, proving that, despite what the recent Superman films would have you believe, the morals of yesteryear can still resonate with modern audiences. Joe Johnston was unquestionably the right man for this job, and the stylish 40s setting and recognizable World War II scenery allow Captain America to stand apart from other films in its genre even as it goes through familiar plot points. This is a movie that has actually improved with age, the passage of time (and addition of sequels) allowing me to more clearly appreciate what it was trying to evoke.
6. Iron Man 3
A lot of Marvel fans have mixed feelings about Iron Man 3, most notably its handling of the Mandarin and the low amount of time Tony spent in the Iron Man suit. You won’t hear any of that from me. I love this movie.
Shane Black takes the helm and instantly proves that his is the perfect style for a character like Tony Stark. Stark’s unique brand of humour is ever-present, keeping the film fun and energetic, even as he goes through a great and well-executed PTSD story arc following the events of The Avengers. The action scenes are very strong as well, from the ones where Tony is without his full suit and has to improvise to the airplane rescue and the fantastic climax with the armada of Iron Man suits. Not to mention the Lethal Weapon-like dynamic between Tony and Rhodey; this really is the first of the Marvel movies that made their friendship feel real and convincing.
As usual, the villain (Aldrich Killian) leaves a lot to be desired, his deadly powers making him enough of a threat but nothing more than that. As for the other “villain”, well, I don’t care what anyone says; I absolutely loved the Trevor Slattery twist.
5. Avengers: Age of Ultron
Avengers: Age of Ultron had the daunting task of following in the wildly successful footsteps of The Avengers, and in many ways, it did not live up to the hype. It’s bloated, messy, and inconsistently paced. It relies way too hard on the Joss Whedon brand of humour that was so delightful in 2012 but that the Marvel movies had outgrown by 2015. And it’s crammed with setup for future movies, sometimes at the detriment of its own narrative.
But I’d be lying if I said any of that really bothers me when watching it. Because despite all of that, Age of Ultron works, and in its high points, it really works. Each action scene is more dazzling than the last, from the opening Hydra base assault to the Hulkbuster sequence. The new characters, especially Scarlet Witch and the Vision, are instantly memorable. And an existing but previously undercooked character, Hawkeye, gets plenty of development and the film’s best line. Ultron, despite being a different kind of villain than advertised, is a unique and enjoyable antagonist, thanks to James Spader’s magnetic performance.
The theme of legacy permeates Age of Ultron, tying together all of its leads’ character arcs—and they all get one (excellently outlined here). It might be too busy, but most of the material it tries to juggle is really great.
4. Iron Man
Kicking off the top third of this list where we jump from great to spectacular is the one that started it all. The whole miraculous endeavour that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe hinged entirely on the success of this first movie. Luckily, Iron Man knocked it out of the park.
Robert Downey Jr. was absolutely perfect, playing Tony Stark with wit and clever humour that would come to define not just his character, but the tone of the Marvel movies as a whole. Jon Favreau’s assured directing and complete trust in his cast is apparent throughout the film. The pacing is brisk, the dialogue sharp, the action exhilarating, and the whole ride is pure fun.
If there’s one thing to be said against it, it’s that the third act doesn’t quite live up to the first two. The villain is quickly inserted and a final confrontation worked in seemingly just to have one, because up until then the film was cruising along and enjoying itself. Despite that, Iron Man remains one of Marvel’s best films, and a worthy contender for the top spot.
3. The Avengers
This is it. The movie that proved the long experiment could work, and was very well worth it. The magnificent payoff for the shared universe that had been building for 4 years.
Unlike most Marvel movies, the third act is actually where The Avengers shines the brightest. In fact, the whole movie seems to be mostly a buildup to that final epic battle, one that left comic book fans agape with wonder and delight. That long, uninterrupted tracking shot that shows off all 6 heroes in battle exemplifies the kind of unapologetic superhero escapism this movie provides. The Avengers remains the ultimate superhero movie.
That’s not to say The Avengers is a bore for two hours until the climax. Watching the team slowly assemble, the different characters meeting and interacting, whether becoming instant friends, experiencing friction, or planting seeds for relationships that would develop in future movies, is just as enjoyable as witnessing them in action. And Joss Whedon keeps things light and snappy, punctuating the dialogue and exposition scenes with clever humour that doesn’t leave room for a single boring second.
2. Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians of the Galaxy is the movie that introduced us to the vast cosmic side of the Marvel universe, a world with talking raccoons and sentient trees. It was a challenging endeavour, but writer/director James Gunn’s approach, essentially an intergalactic Dirty Dozen, made it all work. As a result, Guardians of the Galaxy might just be the most enjoyable Marvel movie to date.
Chris Pratt evolved to full-on action star for this film while using his well-honed comedic talents to maximum effect. His Peter Quill has the right mix of Han Solo-esque roguish charm, an underlying sense of vulnerability, and just a bit of dorkiness to make him instantly likable. The rest of the group is just as magnetic, from Zoe Saldana’s Gamora to Dave Bautista’s surprisingly hilarious performance as Drax. This ragtag group of heroes is the main reason the movie’s so good.
Another reason? It’s a rollicking space adventure that takes us through action setpieces and prison breaks to outlandish and visually stunning locales, set to the sounds of lively songs from the 70s and 80s. Sure, the villain is less than memorable, but it’s forgivable with all that’s going on.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The best of the Marvel movies yet in this fan’s book. Captain America: The Winter Soldier marks a welcome mature turn for Marvel, one that leaves the quippy humour and superhero tropes behind, substituting them for a gripping spy thriller approach, strong characterizations, and themes of liberty versus security that resonate all too well in the modern world.
This is the movie that made Captain America, an outdated bland archetype, into one of Marvel’s strongest characters, using instead of discarding his old-fashioned morality to make him relevant to today’s world. This is also the movie in which Black Widow acts most like the spy she was always meant to be, and her best characterization to date. The action scenes remain the most intense and engaging out of all of the Marvel films, and the Hydra twist is a genius use of comic book lore for social and political commentary that elevated Winter Soldier to the upper echelon of superhero films.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo take the wheel with confidence and determination, imbuing the Marvel universe with a much-needed dose of seriousness, all while keeping things fun and never too dour. This movie is the reason they are the caretakers of the Marvel movies going forward, and it’s easy to see why. Winter Soldier is what I had in mind when I mentioned that Marvel movies had outgrown the Joss Whedon approach in the Age of Ultron entry above, and the biggest step in the evolution that was Marvel’s Phase Two.
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