Well, it’s that time again. There’s been another release in another long-running franchise/director’s filmography/arbitrary grouping and so it’s now time to push out a ranking of those films. Some people may tell you that putting art in a list is missing the point and not really fully contributing to overall discussion. To be frank, those people are lame. Lists are fun and this is my blog dammit.
That new release is Doctor Strange and that long-running franchise is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That means it’s time to figure out where it fits (quality-wise) in the whole scheme of things and where my taste is totally wrong (I have a feeling I know where) and you feel the need to yell at me in the comments.
14) Iron Man 2
The only really lackluster film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While there’s a few cool ideas and some decent enough thematic work with Tony and his father as well as the first appearance of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, the film is a little too messy and dramatically inert to really forge anything as interesting the MCU would later pull off.
While much of the weakness of this film was attributed to its set-up for the Avengers, a rewatch reveals how little is ultimately dedicated to that. Unfortunately, the amount that set-up grinds Iron Man 2 to a halt speaks more to how all-over the place this film is, no strong enough dramatic core to overcome those diversions.
13) The Incredible Hulk
The effective red-headed stepchild of the MCU, The Incredible Hulk is perhaps the least-referenced film of the universe and one never followed up on, mostly due to the Hulk recasting that followed (Edward Norton played Banner/Hulk in this film).
While it’s not exceptional, The Incredible Hulk does boast a strong central performance in Norton’s Banner/Hulk and Tim Roth’s Blonsky/Abomination as well as some fairly thrilling fight sequences. While still never getting over the fundamental problems of a Hulk movie, this isn’t a bad shot, and I have to say that I wouldn’t mind seeing more. With a little more inspiration and a little more…intelligent work, this movie shows what Hulk could be.
12) Thor: The Dark World
While perhaps the banner-waver for “Terrible Villains Dragging Down the Films,” Thor: The Dark World is more fun than we give it credit for. The film doubles down on the camaraderie between Hemsworth and Hiddleston and introduces how much fun this universe gets when it goes big and cosmic.
I’ll never forgive it for wasting Christopher Eccleston or forget how much of a drag the Earth stuff can be. But when it leaves that behind and sticks to Asgard, the movie achieves a pulpy propulsiveness and even a beauty in a scene or two.
11) The Avengers: Age of Ultron
Age of Ultron is a hard one. From a sheer technical perspective, it’s a better film than the original Avengers. It’s got more meaty thematic work, more comfortable performances and design, and a first act that doesn’t totally drag. It introduces two of the MCU’s best new characters (Scarlet Witch and The Vision) and gives Hawkeye the spotlight. There’s so much to love.
But it takes less swings than The Avengers does and it certainly has far more misses. Ultron is a woefully undercut villain at every turn. The Hulk and Black Widow relationship was poorly handled, whether we agree or disagree with it being in there. The film also seems to exist out of time, pushing back against former things and not really setting up future things. As much as there is to like, there’s a lot to sigh at.
Ant-Man (god help me) is a small picture in the MCU. Which really is an admirable thing. It’s kind of all of the cylinders firing in this universe on a minor scale. A great cast with a tight and fast-moving plot and perhaps the most potent sense of humor in the films. Nothing is particularly exceptional, but there’s so much to love.
As long as the Thor franchise will live, this film will be the one time it worked to have any of it take place on Earth. While some of it is a drag, this one knows Hemsworth has PHENOMENAL comic timing and gives him plenty of fish-out-of-water material to play with.
However, the Asgard stuff is particularly strong in this one, owing to director Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearean experience. High drama in outer space works like gangbusters, even if the entire thing is filmed while the camera falls over.
8) Iron Man
As much as many have this as one of the best ones, for me it’s best as a proof of concept. It put this universe into place and showed how it could work from a tonal and storytelling perspective. RDJ’s Tony Stark here is fantastic and Bridges is a worthy adversary. Iron Man is well-worth rewatching and there’s a lot to admire, but it’s aged so much in comparison to the heights this franchise could and would later reach.
7) Captain America: The First Avenger
No one has ever been more made for a movie than Joe Johnston was for Captain America: The First Avenger. A masterful work of Americana anchored by the no-one-saw-it-coming-great Chris Evans. A montagey middle section is still rollicking fun and the first and final acts are nothing short of fantastic. Captain America is the best franchise of this movie, and this is the one that would kick start it.
6) Captain America: Civil War
While a movie I’ve definitely cooled on since my rapturous praise on its release, this is still a remarkable work. A zenith point of shared universe storytelling, it draws upon our now 8 years with these characters to craft a story of morally grey dealings with a difficult world. Great character work abounds in Civil War, including one of the MCU’s few non-Loki villain success stories in Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl). It’s the kind of film that probably doesn’t stand up on its own, but certainly stands tall in the place it has in this franchise.
5) Iron Man 3
Man, I don’t know what movie people so often seem to have seen with this one. This is a Shane Black movie through and through, a fast-paced action comedy with a surprising amount to say when you peel under the surface. Both a personal story about a man overcoming PTSD and a broader story about terrorism in the modern age and the manipulation of the masses, Iron Man 3 is a phenomenal time at the movies and a film that only gives more and more every time you watch. The best RDJ performance, some of the best action sequences, and the most clever villain idea this universe. I urge you, if you haven’t, to give Iron Man 3 another look.
4) Doctor Strange
Yes, the newest one, but also one that I realize was never going to be anything less than a favorite. Seemingly made for me, Doctor Strange is a surprisingly rich little story cloaked in total convention. A thoughtful perspective on faith and our place to do good combined with some of the most jaw-dropping visual spectacle we’ve seen in years? I can’t see how I wouldn’t love it.
3) The Avengers
More than anything else, The Avengers was the proof that this universe could be a thing. The ultimate experiment (combining disparate franchises into one single film) and it worked. Sure, it was hard to believe that for the first 25 or so minutes, but as soon as this film lands in Germany, it kicks off like only the best blockbusters can. An amazing cast bouncing off of each other and having the time of our lives, The Avengers is one of those milestone movies in the history of studio productions.
2) Captain America: The Winter Soldier
First, I want to note that at anytime, this could also be number one. It flips so often. But The Winter Soldier is a tight, smart thriller with some of the most pulse-pounding action this universe has seen. It made Steve Rogers perhaps the most interesting and complex of the mainline heroes and added shading to everyone Winter Soldier touched, most notably Black Widow. A gamechanger for the universe and a film that still feels relevant now, The Winter Soldier is an exceptional example of its genre.
1) Guardians of the Galaxy
This is a movie that doesn’t so much demand you like it as fall in love with it. A fantastic new world with James Gunn as your guide, it’s like nothing you’d ever quite seen in this mode of storytelling before. An irreverent sense of humor and a colorful design sense made this one of the best times I’ve had in the theaters no matter how many times I ultimately saw it (4). This is what can be done with studio pictures, taking the familiar structures and giving them the shadings and the details that make them feel fresh and new and exciting and alive. Guardians of the Galaxy is simply a great movie, through and through.
Marvel Netflix TV Shows, Ranked (I haven’t seen enough Agents of SHIELD):
- Jessica Jones
- Daredevil Season 2, Episodes 1-4
- Luke Cage Season 1, Episodes 1-7
- Daredevil Season 2, Episodes 5-13
- Daredevil Season 1
- Luke Cage Season 1, Episodes 8-13