IT'S JUST A PHASE1 of 23
With 21 hit films in 11 years, Marvel Studios seems to be now in a victory lap as it approaches the finish line (for now) of its first era with Avengers: Endgame. But looking back... how was it?
While Marvel Studios wasn't without some missteps (especially in its earlier days), the Marvel Studios formula is now 'often replicated, never duplicated' except within the MCU.
And now with Captain Marvel joining the MCU film library, Newsarama is looking back to rank all 21 films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
THE INCREDIBLE HULK2 of 23
The Incredible Hulk came in dead last in our ranking of the MCU, though it was a closer call than you might think.
Chalk this one up to growing pains - it was, after all, only the second film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it was only a few years out from an ill-received attempt at a different Hulk franchise.
Still, even the arguably worst film in the MCU has a lot to love, including a winning performance from William Hurt and many of the building blocks of the MCU continuity.
Despite the placement of The Incredible Hulk at the bottom of the MCU totem pole, the Hulk himself later became one of the biggest fan-favorite characters in all of the MCU, leading fans to clamor for a seemingly unlikely sequel (though Hulk played a key role in Thor: Ragnarok.)
IRON MAN 23 of 23
The third film of the MCU - and its first proper sequel - is neck-and-neck in ranking with The Incredible Hulk as the least of Marvel's ouevre. But Iron Man 2 has its defenders - mostly owing to the film's proximity to the comic book stories of the 80s and 90s.
Iron Man 2 failed to replicate the blockbuster formula of its predecessor, and though the performances of the film are endearing (including the MCU's first major recasting in Don Cheadle taking over as James Rhodes from Terrence Howard), the story fell flat owing to a villain that was a hodgepodge of less popular comic villains and some continuity-related boondoggles.
THOR: THE DARK WORLD4 of 23
If there's one thing Thor: The Dark World did very right, it's that it doubled down on the presence of Loki and spent more time in Asgard and the other unearthly realms.
Still, even more of the fan favorite Tom Hiddleston couldn't save this film from a mire of swirling plotlines, some strange physics and story ideas, and Malekith, a villain that was little more than window dressing.
IRON MAN 35 of 23
The first post-Avengers MCU film, Iron Man 3 might constitute one of Robert Downey, Jr.'s best performances as Tony Stark, but one of his weakest as his armored alter ego.
In a story that largely took Tony out of his Iron Man armor, hinging on a villain that continued the franchise's tradition of botching classic villains, and a less than charismatic secret big bad, Iron Man 3 still has its fans - more than one of you voted it the MCU's best - probably thanks to Downey's winning performance as a damaged Stark. But the one-two-miss of Aldridge Killian and the oddly reworked Mandarin left Iron Man 3 a polarizing film to be sure.
Iron Man 3 certainly added some new depth to the character of Tony Stark, establishing some post-Avengers PTSD, and it came closer to the mark than Iron Man 2. Still, Marvel has yet to repeat the critical success of the first Iron Man in subsequent sequels, largely by failing to pit RDJ against an enemy who can match his energy.
AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON6 of 23
Avengers: Age of Ultron had a lot riding on it - it was following one of the most anticipated and highest grossing films of all time. But the sequel to Marvel's biggest blockbuster may have suffered from too many ingredients and too many cooks, with director Joss Whedon reporting that corporate mandate forced him to make changes and include story elements that altered his plans.
Even so, there's something to be said for good old-fashioned spectacle (anyone who says they didn't love the Hulkbuster scene is a liar) and Age of Ultron certainly capitalizes on that, while progressing the MCU's meta-narrative at a considerable pace.
Despite its overarching elements, Age of Ultron felt a little disconnected from the larger universe thanks to some odd choices with its titular larger than life villain and the too-fast-too-soon addition of three Avengers - even if only two of them made it out of the film's climax.
THOR7 of 23
The MCU's third venture into solo superhero movies (and third Avengers building block), Thor owes a great deal of its success to the inescapable charm and beefcake beauty of its hunky lead, Chris Hemsworth.
Thor is undoubtedly the MCU's heartthrob - the Avenger most likely to make Teen Beat - and his chemistry with fellow Tumblr darling Tom Hiddleston's Loki made for a memorable movie.
Still, despite giving us Marvel's best big screen baddie, too much Earthly drama and not enough space magic made Thor a dour proposition for some viewers, while others latched on to its quirky humor and family dynamics.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER8 of 23
The middle-of-the-road reception to Captain America: The First Avenger belied the heights its sequels would reach, cementing Captain America as the backbone franchise of the entire MCU.
Some of the lukewarm feelings towards The First Avenger may be related to its station as the MCU's only period piece to date, a format that inherently alienates some viewers. But it has a lot going for it, anchored by Chris Evans and Hayley Atwell's innocent but heroic chemistry, and Hugo Weaving's snarling Red Skull, ripped from the pages of Jack Kirby's work on the comic book.
The First Avenger was also the final lynchpin in the lead up to Avengers, which saw Evans's Steve Rogers become the central figure fans always knew him to be. And as for The First Avenger's other fallout, it led to a direct TV spin-off in which Atwell reprised her role as Agent Carter, running two seasons on ABC (and sparking major fan outcry when it wasn't renewed for a third).
ANT-MAN9 of 23
To say Ant-Man was a gamble for Marvel may be an understatement. If Guardians of the Galaxy was a dark horse, Ant-Man wasn't even on the track.
After the departure of original Ant-Man visionary and director Edgar Wright, many fans feared the worst about Marvel's first new solo hero since Avengers. However, while the final film was likely a little more typical of the Marvel model than an Edgar Wright film would have been, Peyton Reed's easy-to-digest story, and remarkable performances from Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, and Michael Douglas wound up winning over audiences and garnering comparisons to Iron Man.
Scott Lang quickly became a fixture of the MCU quickly thereaftr, with a sequel - Ant-Man & The Wasp - being greenlit in short order after the film's release, and Lang himself playing a *ahem* big role in Captain America: Civil War.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 210 of 23
It would have been nearly impossible for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 to top its predecessor – for one thing, it lacks the surprise factor of realizing a talking raccoon and his tree friend are your new favorite characters. But it at least lived up to the hype, and delivered on some incredible character based storytelling.
Though Guardians Vol. 2 is a bit smaller in scope than the first film, the lack of cosmic stakes (yes, we know Ego is threatening the whole Universe – but Ronan he ain’t) leaves room for even more of the familial humor and heart that made the franchise a surprise blockbuster.
DOCTOR STRANGE11 of 23
One of the latest new Marvel superhero franchises, Doctor Strange is also one of Marvel's most adventurous, opening the doors of perception and ushering in an age of technicolor magic to the up-til-now mostly scientific continuity.
Doctor Strange's parallels to Iron Man are no accident; in many ways the film is the start of the next stage of the MCU (even if it arrives somewhere in the middle of "Phase 3"). In fact, Benedict Cumberbatch's acerbic yet altruistic Stephen Strange is being hailed as the heir apparent to the leading spot in Marvel's next wave.
Doctor Strange actually managed to surpass Iron Man in the MCU's box office rankings, securing its place as a worthy successor to the MCU's best.
ANT-MAN AND THE WASP12 of 23
Ant-Man and the Wasp wasn’t exactly a barn-burner for Marvel Studios, but the sequel still managed to improve on the formula of the original while also delving into new territory for the franchise.
What Ant-Man and the Wasp does best is solidify its diminutive heroes’ place as the MCU’s requisite family adventure series. Never too scary or too high stakes, always bolstered by a joke and a warm family moment, the film feels like a palate-cleanser meant to deescalate the depressing ending of its preceding MCU film Avengers: Infinity War.
While Ant-Man and the Wasp’s lighthearted charm is often a strength, it does have the effect of feeling a bit too lightweight as well, especially against the universe-defining Infinity War. Still, the film balances its low stakes with brisk pacing that channels the spirit of classic Disney live action adventure movies.
Ant-Man and the Wasp also manages to introduce Janet Van Dyne and put her daughter Hope Van Dyne in the Wasp costume (finally) – two welcome additions not just to the Ant-Man franchise but to the MCU as a whole, completing the ersatz family at the core of the films.
CAPTAIN MARVEL13 of 23
'Prequels’ almost always run the risk of showing their seams when retroactively trying to fit into and add new layers to established continuity, but Captain Marvel pretty artfully fits into the MCU like a round peg in an almost round hole and even fills in some gaps we never know existed.
It also does the one thing that almost guarantees moviegoers will have a good time - its lead characters have a good time being the lead characters. Carol (played by Brie Larson) likes being Captain Marvel and Nick (Samuel L. Jackson) likes knowing Carol and in turn, we like seeing them enjoying their roles.
Add in a unique, funky pace all its own and some plot twists that playfully uses Marvel comic book fans knowledge against them and you’ve got not the best but a certainly welcome new entry into the MCU family.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR14 of 23
Marvel's biggest film to date, Captain America: Civil War pulled in nearly all its major heroes to adapt the highest selling crossover in Marvel Comics history (and one of the top selling comic books stories of all time). It also introduced a pair of new leading men - Black Panther and Spider-Man (joining the MCU after years under Sony's control and out of Marvel's reach).
Now, Civil War is not without its flaws. There are some leaps in the story relying on some prodigious timing and happy accident on the part of its villain, Baron Zemo, but it's hard to argue with the unrivaled thrill of seeing these heroes not only come together in a movie of this scale, but also clash in spectacular fashion.
Oddly, Civil War is somewhat polarizing, with fans (according to our poll, anyway) seeming to love it, or hold it in little regard. In the end, however, the "ayes" have it, and Civil War in some ways fulfills the promise of Avengers with a compelling - if a bit crowded - story for Earth's Mightiest Heroes and the MCU at large.
SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING15 of 23
Spider-Man: Homecoming isn’t great just because it brought Spidey’s big screen adventures home to Marvel (thought that’s certainly a plus). It’s also, quite simply, a great Spider-Man movie. Though some of the trappings are a bit palette-swapped (think Adrian Toomes instead of Norman Osborn), Homecoming dialed into the core aspects of Spider-Man’s personality and gave us the closest film version of Peter Parker to the comic books yet.
Spider-Man: Homecoming also gave us the Vulture, one of the best MCU villains (and superhero movie villains) pretty much ever. Michael Keaton’s performance is defining.
And if you need to be convinced Homecoming is also just a solid film, just watch the scene where Adrian figures out Peter is Spider-Man while driving him to prom with his daughter. Just those few minutes practically sell Spider-Man: Homecoming’s position as one of the MCU's best.
THOR: RAGNAROK16 of 23
Thor: Ragnarok marked a turning point not just for the Thor franchise, but for Marvel's approach to filmmaking. For once learning the right lessons from success, Ragnarok represents the next logical step in Marvel's relationship with auteur filmmakers after the success of James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy.
That's not to say directors like Peyton Reed and Scott Derrickson didn't pour their hearts and souls into Ant-Man and Doctor Strange necessarily, but Ragnarok is a film that drips with director Taika Waititi's idiosyncratic approach to both filmmaking and comedy.
With a breakout star in Tessa Thompson's Valkyrie, a compelling villain in Cate Blanchett's Hela, a cult-classic performance from Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster, and a pitch-perfect buddy pairing in Chris Hemsworth's Thor and Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner, Thor: Ragnarok shows what's possible with Marvel's characters when the studio allows its creators to step a little off-center.
BLACK PANTHER17 of 23
A lot can be said about the cultural impact of Marvel Studios' first film with a black lead and primarily Black cast - but Black Panther has more going for it than just inclusiveness. Blessed with likely the best pound-for-pound supporting cast of the MCU, Black Panther proved that there's life in the Marvel model yet - as long as auteur filmmakers are allowed to make their voices heard.
Black Panther presented a story that transcended the superhero genre - influences ranging from fantasy, to espionage, to comedy and sci-fi made their mark on the film.
And, of course, there's the cherry on the sundae, that sends Black Panther over the edge - its sympathetic but still undeniably bad antagonist Erik Killmonger, played to perfection by Michael B. Jordan.
AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR18 of 23
On its face, Avengers: Infinity War feels like it shouldn't work. It's a blockbuster tentpole built on 18 previous movies of story featuring dozens of characters and locations - and yet, somehow, Infinity War doesn't just work, it delivers on multiple levels.
What's more, Infinity War isn't just a gimmick that gets by on mashing characters like Thor and Rocket Raccoon or Iron Man and Doctor Strange together (though lets be honest, all of that stuff helps). It's a weighty film built on an almost shockingly human performance by Josh Brolin as the cosmically malevolent Thanos.
Avengers: Infinity War also has the distinction of feeling specifically like watching a comic book event play out on the big screen - including some of the faults of a big event, like less time spent on some characters.
Still, Avengers: Infinity War managed to live up to the hype and be a damn good comic book movie in the process. Perhaps, when taken as a whole with its upcoming sequel Endgame, the Infinity War saga will shake down as Marvel's best film ever.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY19 of 23
Guardians of the Galaxy could be considered the MCU's miracle movie. An unknown property that relied heavily on a genre only adjacent to its typical superhero fare, GotG took the box office by storm and essentially proved Marvel Studios can do whatever it wants.
Director James Gunn took a winning script from Nicole Perlman and brought its immediately lovable characters to life. That Rocket and Groot, a CGI raccoon and talking (with a limited vocabulary) tree, became not just movie stars, but household names is a testament to the charm of GotG.
It helped that, despite being almost literally removed from the world of the MCU, GotG had deep connections to the Avengers meta-story. But even without Thanos and the Infinity Stones, the humor, heart, and space opera at the film's core made a perfect recipe for success.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER20 of 23
Perhaps no other MCU film has come as out of nowhere as Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Replacing Captain America: The First Avenger's director Joe Johnston with the Russo Brothers, hired on the strength of their Community episodes, The Winter Soldier won over even critics weary of the superhero genre with a political thriller vibe and dialed-in - but never small - focus on its characters.
It's no wonder the Russos have become the guiding force behind the MCU's biggest productions, from Civil War to Avengers: Infinity War and the still-to-come Avengers 4. They took Captain America, whose debut was something of a middle of the road prospect, and elevated him to the forefront of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
IRON MAN21 of 23
Iron Man is not only the first film of the Marvel Studios continuity, it's also the blueprint for everything that came after - for better and for worse.
While it's impossible to call Iron Man flawless, it's reign as Marvel's best solo debut is only now being challenged.
Back in 2008, Robert Downey, Jr.'s Tony Stark became immediately iconic, redefining the character in the public eye, and even in comic books. It's hard to imagine now, but back then Iron Man was considered something of a second stringer at Marvel.
But Iron Man worked so well, it's no wonder many of Marvel's subsequent solo films followed its formula of a humanized but larger-than-life lead, a villain that is a dark reflection of the hero, and a clear trajectory from reluctant heroism to out and out superheroics.
While Black Panther has now shown the world how expansive a Marvel debut can be, the Golden Avenger's first outing still ranks up and there with Batman Begins as the modern superhero movie's best origin story, which is sometimes the hardest one to pull off.
And who can forget the chills they got the first time they heard Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury utter the words "Avengers Initiative?"
THE AVENGERS22 of 23
Is there any wonder why The Avengers is still at the top of its list? Not only is it a great (and fun!) film, it was something of a pop culture event, a then-unprecedented effort to unite relatively disparate franchises under one banner.
True, Avengers cut small, mostly minor corners to get Cap, Thor, Iron Man, and the rest in the same film, but when the end result was this epic, this action-packed, this downright funny, those kind of things get smoothed over, especially in hindsight.
Avengers provided more than just big popcorn action. It also recast Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, making the character one of Marvel's top heroes, even if he's been relegated to a supporting role. It also codified Agent Coulson as a player in the MCU, leading to his starring TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..
If Iron Man proved Marvel Studios could make a compelling movie Avengers proved that their shared universe model wasn't just viable, it was vital to their continued success. That Avengers is still one of the highest grossing films of all time is a testament to its staying power as the crown jewel of the MCU.
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