It’s funny how time changes. It feels strange to think of a time when Marvel films were simply comic book adaptations, and not the massive events that they have now morphed into. If Iron Man lit the match, subsequent additions to the individual franchises, as well as ambitious crossovers like the very first Avengers have kept the spark alive. It has been so surreal to witness the change in real time — that a decade later, the MCU would change the experience of comic book cinema and people worldwide would be flocking in massive numbers to watch superhero movies. Batman and Superman may have been iconic names, cementing their place in popular culture, but the same could not be said of the roster of characters that Marvel Studios had found itself working with.
How strange indeed, then, that a journey of over thirteen years continues to give us an ever-expanding universe of heroes. With a towering catalogue of 25 films, and many more on the way, Marvel films have definitely changed the game.
With Shang-Chi’s recent release and No Way Home and Eternals on their way later this year, Marvel is officially back. Without much ado, here’s our ranking of the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe from worst to best:
25. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The Incredible Hulk was perhaps the most underwhelming film Marvel ever made. A formulaic story, sloppy direction, and confused plot left much to be desired. It delivered on the Hulk smashes but had nothing else to offer. While audiences were enamoured by Edward Norton’s split personality in Fight Club, his outing as Dr Bruce Banner/The Hulk falls embarrassingly short. Notably, it has the second lowest rotten tomatoes score in the MCU. It’s enough to justify its rock-bottom position.
24. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Generally speaking, the MCU has only recently mastered the art of follow-up, second films in franchises that live up to the first. Thor: The Dark World was no exception. Alan Taylor’s take on the God of Thunder was a lot of fun, no doubt. We saw the mighty Thor commuting through trains and put his magical hammer on wall hooks. However, the utterly bad villains and breakneck pace stalled the film from really going anywhere. Characters like Heimdall and Loki were severely underused, and the film was hardly distinctive from a run-of-the-mill alien flick.
23. Thor (2011)
Kenneth Branagh effectively mounted Chris Hemsworth’s first outing as Thor. It had a fine balance between introduction of Norse mythology and the quintessential superhero film elements. It only lacked humor which would have made the film even more enjoyable.The film was also caught between its fantasy elements and the origin story-plot, which got in the way of the tone of the film. Often stuck between giving long speeches, or making inane quips, the characters come off as two-dimensional, and Thor himself seems more generic than ever.
22. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Iron Man 2 was a good follow up to Iron Man that introduced a lot of pivotal characters. Unfortunately, its biggest failure was also the same i.e., to introduce too many characters at once, leading to a chaotic narrative. In its eagerness to recreate the magic of its first film, Marvel attempted to do too much, too soon. The climax was quite tame, and the film does more to set up The Avengers than it actually furthers Tony’s character arc.
21. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
The First Avenger was a fresh take on the genre of the period drama/war film and perfectly established its characters. It lent a believable gravitas to Captain America’s story, without going over the top. All the scenes featuring a skinnier version of Steve Rogers were gold. Chris Evans was great as Captain America. Hugo Weaving was wasted as Red Skull and Stanley Tucci’s Dr Erskine had limited screen time. The film had a heartwarming story and a stellar cast, but it never quite figured out how to balance them both properly.
20. Ant Man and The Wasp (2018)
After the heartbreaking intensity of Infinity War, Ant-Man & The Wasp serves as a good distraction to keep us busy until the next Avengers. But that’s all it was: a distraction. While this movie provides a lot of laughs like its predecessor, it isn’t groundbreaking. It lacks the ambition and the scale of Ant-Man. As the film tried to set up the next Avengers film by introducing the quantum realm, it utterly butchered the film’s charismatic antagonist, Ghost. This movie serves to be one of Marvel’s most ingratiating and sweet-natured releases, but it isn’t quite one of its most memorable.
19. Doctor Strange (2016)
Doctor Strange was basically the first Iron Man, albeit with sorcery. While not the best origin film by a long shot, it certainly was a step in the right direction. The run-of-the-mill writing was compensated by the psychedelic imagery and a class act from Benedict Cumberbatch. The visual effects were incredible and the final act, hilariously great. Tilda Swinton was fantastic as an unexpected dark horse, but one wishes the dynamic between Mordo and Doctor Strange was further explored.
18. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Sequels carry a lot of weight when the original film has done exceedingly well. James Gunn’s Guardians sequel was everything one could wish for. It retained the camaraderie of the original, while boasting yet another killer soundtrack. However, the biggest selling point of the film was the way it put personal stakes at the front. Friendship and family bonding was the central focus that made it special and stand out from the rest of the Marvel films. That being said, the film was a little too scattered, and enticed the audience with plot-threads and easter eggs that were never resolved.
17. Captain Marvel (2019)
Captain Marvel is, by no means, the best Marvel movie out there, but it certainly is a solid origin film. Brie Larson does a splendid job capturing the swagger of one of the most powerful heroes in the Marvel Universe. The fact that it is a female superhero film long overdue adds a certain bittersweet pathos. The decision to spend more time on Nick Fury’s friendship with Carol Danvers steers the plot in the right direction. The film might not add a lot to the Marvel Universe pre-Avengers: Endgame, but it is a wonderful standalone film.
16. Iron Man 3 (2013)
There is a lot to love about Shane Black’s Iron Man 3. It’s not only a standalone, old-school superhero film that delivers barrels of fun, but also a spin on 80s detective films. Most of the film sees Tony and Rhodey out of their respective armors, coming up with inventive ways to take down the bad guys like a superhero edition of Murtaugh and Riggs. Ben Kingsley’s campy, fake-out Mandarin and Robert Downey Jr.’s full throttle avatar of genius, billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist was extraordinary.
15. Black Widow (2021)
Scarlett Johansson’s last outing as the titular Russian spy is heavy with emotion, even as Black Widow introduces a stellar cast of new characters. Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova steals the limelight with the perfect balance of her character between ruthless assassin/baby sister. The film’s timing works against it — set after Civil War, it could have come out earlier and would have been a lot more effective. The film balances a heartfelt story with a grounded approach, although I do wish it fully leaned into the dark espionage aesthetic of The Winter Soldier. It would have suited the gritty reality of Natasha’s past reality as a spy, rather than having her parachute off of dangerous heights and miraculously survive.
14. Ant-Man (2015)
Peyton Reed’s version of the silliest named superhero in the MCU was definitely unique. After a series of overblown comic book movies, Ant-Man was a breath of fresh air that reduced the stakes and heightened the humor. The comic timing and special effects were absolutely amazing. Paul Rudd brings a homegrown warmth to the world of superheroes and explosions, and Michael Douglas as Hank Pym is equal parts intense and hilarious. It is a brilliant example of the MCU creating smaller, more original stories around characters who were previously not so well known.
13. Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
Shang-Chi is one of the major releases from Marvel after almost an year and a half of no films, and it is a glamorous exhibition of the Marvel film-making machine at its might. Visual spectacles and a wonderful vision for storytelling is at the centre of Daniel Destin Cretton’s take on the iconic character. A stellar cast including heavy-hitters like Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh is instrumental to the film, and it strikes a nerve with the issue of Asian representation in cinema. A bit explanatory in parts, Shang-Chi is one of Marvel’s best origin films nonetheless, and opens up the Marvel universe to amazing possibilities.
12. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
You really want to live in a universe where Chris Pratt casually dances to a song amidst a life and death situation. Guardians of the Galaxy has been the most marvelous film about a bunch of ragtag individuals who reluctantly save the universe and form a strong bond. Full of splendid visuals and stunning art design, the film is a masterpiece. There are characters you care about, villains you feel afraid of, bigger things you wish to explore, and a soundtrack you love to listen to over and over again.
11. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
This Avengers sequel had a lot of pressure. It not only had to act as a standalone film for those not following the MCU but also take the universe forward. While it succeeded for most part, especially by putting focus on the less valued Avengers (Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Bruce Banner), it failed to do justice to its overhyped villain, Ultron. James Spader’s menacing voice provided the perfect tone for the film, and it did a great job of introducing a host of new characters to the Marvel Universe. While it was not as exciting as Avengers, it continues to be an influential film that reverberates across subsequent films even today.
10. Spiderman: Far from Home (2019)
The follow up to Homecoming, Spiderman: Far from Home continues to present a fresh new take on the friendly neighbourhood web crawler. Plagued by legal disputes between Sony and Marvel leading up to its release, the film balanced action with heartfelt emotion as Peter grappled with the loss of yet another father figure in the form of Tony. Jake Gyllenhaal was an excellent antagonist, sweeping the rug out from under the audience’s feet as Mysterio. The film had just the right amount of goofy antics and emotional heft to its plot, and was a well-made piece to follow in after Endgame.
9. Spiderman: Homecoming (2017)
Homecoming was a film that was most likely to fail considering it was the third incarnation of the web crawler. Surprisingly, it turned out to be awesome with a good story, well-etched characters, and a memorable villain. Tom Holland surpassed both Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire by portraying the best blend of Peter Parker and Spiderman. The film’s unique take on the theme of “great power, great responsibility”, as well as the bond between Peter and Tony set it apart from the previous Spiderman films.
8. Thor Ragnarok (2017)
Where the first two films failed, Taika Waititi’s Ragnarok succeeded. The third Thor outing had some of the best scenes that the MCU has been blessed with. Often feeling like an indie film, Ragnarok had great comedy and action to ensure the audience got bang for their buck. Hela as the primary antagonist was a brilliant move, and Cate Blanchett did justice to her character. A heartfelt equation between Loki and Thor that was often missing from the previous installments, a satisfying climax set to Led Zeppelin and insane space fights and adventures lend Thor: Ragnarok an out-of-the-world quality.
7. Captain America Civil War (2016)
An Avengers 2.5, Civil War was the necessary bridge that led to Infinity War. Creating a divide between two sagacious superheroes was never going to be an easy task (for instance, Batman Vs Superman) but the Russo Brothers did a remarkable job and surpassed all expectations. Also, we got a monumental action scene in the form of the Airport battle. It is never easy to focus on the titular hero when there are so many new characters on the scene, but the film did a superb job of making us sympathize with Cap’s side, while also letting us feel the depth of the Avengers splitting up.
6. Iron Man (2008)
This film gave rise to multiple things – first, the MCU, second, Robert Downey Jr as a charismatic superstar, and third, a belief that comic book movies can be darn good. The first forty minutes of the film are still riveting to watch, and it is still as relevant today as it was in 2008. The story has continued to influence nearly every other superhero origin film since. With its sheer originality, fast-paced plot and a devil-may-care attitude, it won’t be an overstatement to say that the film reigns supreme as the godfather of MCU films.
5. The Avengers (2012)
Joss Whedon’s Avengers was a one of its kind affair — nothing will ever live up to the sheer excitement of the first time comic book fans witnessing their childhood heroes coming together to save the world. This ensemble was boldly ambitious and changed the game of comic book filmmaking. The insane success of the film led to the trend of building cinematic universes. The film was gobsmacking in all aspects and simply amazing in its introduction of beloved characters.
4. Black Panther (2018)
Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is extraordinary in every sense of the word. Unlike other Marvel films, Black Panther cuts loose from the stereotypes and delivers an absorbing story that highlights real world problems. The astounding production design, incredible visual effects, uniformly robust performances, and a rousing score by Kendrick Lamar make it one of the best MCU films till date.
3. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
If Avengers: Endgame was the brains, Avengers: Infinity War was all brawn. The biggest Marvel movie after Endgame, Infinity War made full use of its big-budget and star cast in providing us an entertainment filled, two and a half hours of pure excitement and adrenaline. After all, this was the first time we were seeing all our heroes back together (mostly), and of course, the Guardians of the Galaxy as well. Packed with comedy, action, and some jaw-dropping moments, not to mention the shock ending that sent everyone into hysterics, Avengers: Infinity War can proudly call itself one of the best Marvel movies till date.
2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
The fact that it took a movie of the scale of Avengers: Endgame to knock this movie down to second place speaks volumes. One of the best action films of recent times, The Winter Soldier elevated the superhero genre and reignited our love for superhero films. It also marked the start of MCU’s experimentation with bolder filmmaking choices, and subverting genre tropes within the superhero film. Emotive and full of realism, the film minimized use of CGI and stuck to old-school stunt choreography. With an aesthetic that fully invoked the thrills of old-school spy flicks, the film manages to deliver predictable twists in a devastating manner. Sebastian Stan outdid himself as the silent, tortured anti-hero, and the film derives its weight from the history between his character and Evans’ Cap. With The First Avenger and Civil War, Captain America stands as the best film trilogies ever made.
1. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
It has all been leading up to this. The end of Marvel’s Infinity Saga, Endgame is a ride of emotions, putting the audience through an emotional ringer, ranging between two extremes: euphoria to despair. Avengers: Endgame made fans realise how close they’ve felt to the characters after 10 years and 22 movies, and provides the most satisfying conclusion to one of the greatest movie sagas in cinematic history. As the film says goodbye to our beloved heroes, it also introduces some new ones. It’s going to take something truly special to knock this one off the top spot.
With an ever-expanding universe that continues to introduce new realities and timelines, the MCU has cemented its place as one of the most influential cinematic franchises of all time. There have been a few missteps, but overall, Marvel’s quality of filmmaking remains ambitious and consistent. With films that are both critically appreciated, and blockbuster hits, Marvel has solidified its status as a dependable brand. Its recent foray into television was much lauded, and a slew of new releases ensure Marvel is all set to continue the legacy of the Infinity Saga even further. We cannot wait to see what awaits our favourite heroes.
Which is your favourite MCU film of all time? Let’s talk in the comments below!
(Additional writing by Prachurya Das, Aditya Sarma)
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