Superhero movies have been popular for as long as they’ve been making them, but never has the caped crowd risen to the top of the cultural zeitgeist as it has today. There are more superhero movies in production than even a fanboy like me knows what to do with, and it seems like we can’t go three days without a new comic book TV show getting greenlit. Superheroes and geek culture have become mainstream, and have taken over the box office with no signs of ever letting go. Studios have stopped making cheap cash-ins and started taking the genre seriously, but none so much as Marvel Studios have done over the last 6 years.
While I enjoyed the superhero movies of the early 2000’s as much as the next guy, they never really captured the evolving, long-form storytelling and interconnectedness that made me fall so in love with the comics. It’s a crucial factor to the source material that was overlooked in their translation to cinema. And so Kevin Feige, freshly named president of Marvel Studios in 2007, set about righting that wrong. Though they no longer had the cinematic rights to Spider-Man, The X-Men or The Fantastic Four, Marvel would begin making films in house, retaining the rights they did have and maintain control of a larger creative direction. And thus, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born.
With Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel Studios is 10 movies into their colossal franchise, and with 2-3 movies scheduled each coming year there are no signs of them slowing down anytime soon. So in anticipation of next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, and with a nice round number of movies to choose from, what better time to take stock and rank them all from worst to best.
Full spoiler warning for all 10 movies, so if you haven’t seen any of Marvel’s movies then read on at your own peril. And, of course, no list would be complete without the comments section informing us of how wrong or right we got it. So whether you agree or disagree, let us know all about it in the comments section below.
10. The Incredible Hulk
Marvel Studios first cinematic endeavor is easily its least successful. The Edward Norton starred Hulk reboot feels more at home with the disposable licensed properties like Ghost Rider or The Punisher than it does a home grown Marvel Studios flick. The signature sense of fun that defines the rest of Marvel’s movies is nowhere to be seen and we are instead treated to stale melodrama, an awful 90’s macho production design, and a cast about as charismatic as 2 week old bread. The Incredible Hulk had the undeniable stink of a cheap B-movie, especially during the big showdown between Hulk and Abomination. References to Cap and a cameo from Robert Downey Jr. do manage to excite and tease at a greater world, but looking back they don’t really match up with the continuity. Likewise, the choice to skip the origin story and make it a pseudo-sequel to the Ang Lee-directed Hulk was a clever idea at the time, but now only further obfuscates the ongoing story of the franchise. In the end Marvel just swept the continuity errors under the rug, replaced Norton with Mark Ruffalo, and largely just ignore the whole thing ever happened. Probably for the best really.
9. Iron Man 2
Perhaps because most people forget The Incredible Hulk existed, Iron Man 2 has long been the whipping boy of Marvel’s lineup. With RDJ’s brilliant take on Tony Stark in the first Iron Man movie sky-rocketing the character’s popularity and kick-starting the whole damn franchise, many a fan were disappointed by the mess that was Iron Man 2. More than anything, IM2 was really just one big teaser for the Avengers movie, giving Nick Fury, Black Widow and Phil Coulson their (non-credit sting) debuts into the MCU. While all of that was exciting for comic fans like myself, it would have been nice if they could have put some focus on the movie they were making and not the one that was 2 years away. When you put all the Avengers foreplay aside, what’s left is a vehicle for the cast to revel in their characters and bounce off each other. On one hand it’s pretty indulgent and doesn’t really come together as a movie, but on the other the cast is genuinely great and there is a lot of fun to have within the cracks of the story. Between Downey, Jackson, Rockwell, Rourke and a great cameo from John Slattery (who was just announced to be reprising his role in next year’s Ant-Man), the energetic cast is at least enough to distract you from the absent plot.
8. Thor: The Dark World
Much like Iron Man 2, Thor’s second solo outing feels a lot like filler in anticipation for future stories. While we do get some decent gags and juicy material between Thor and Loki, The Dark World is at times painfully dry and impersonal. Malekith is easily the most poorly drawn villain of the entire franchise and the plot surrounding the ancient and powerful “Aether” only becomes interesting in the after credits sting, when it’s revealed they’re introducing the infinity gems (which means sweet F-all to anyone unfamiliar with the comics). So why does it beat out Iron Man 2? Because it’s so goddamn pretty. Far more than in Thor’s first movie, we get to see Asgard in all of its other worldly brilliance. With an inspired marriage of science and magic, TDW is second only to Guardians of the Galaxy in being Marvel Studios’ most impressive display of world building. Luckily, the creativity isn’t purely aesthetic and does bleed over into the action (black hole grenades FTW!) to give the film a bit more bite as it rolls on. I’d also be remiss not to mention the big teleporting showdown, which is easily one of Marvel’s most fun and inventive set pieces.
This is where things started to get interesting. Both Iron Man and Hulk were comparatively grounded concepts and it wasn’t until the introduction of Thor and his trusty hammer Mjolnir that the MCU really began to come together. Though the Godly magic the Asgardian’s wield is explained as science by another name, the fantasy/superhero angle was quite literally worlds apart from what we had thus far seen. And of course, along with all this new history and exotic world building, we were finally introduced to Loki, quite possibly the only one of Marvel’s villain’s that’s been as well constructed and captivating as their heroes. Smartly, much of Thor’s runtime is spent following its titular character in an entertaining and exposition-friendly fish-out-of-water story that ensures the oft pompous Shakespearean demeanour of the Asgardians (which could very easily have made this movie an utter bore) is played for contrast and levity. The problem though, is that outside of Thor and Loki, Asgard and the rest of its inhabitants are just not all that fun to watch. While I’m a big fan of characters like Sif and Volstagg, if you are someone who has no familiarity with them from the comics then they completely drift into the background. While both Thor movies provide some very inventive design, the unfortunate truth is that Thor himself is never as interesting as he is flying around Earth and interacting with his fellow Avengers.
6. Iron Man 3
Tony Stark’s third solo adventure is probably Marvel’s most polarizing movie. Some loved its comedic bent and strong character focus, while others were put-off by its infamous plot twist and the fact that the movie was way more Tony Stark than it was Iron Man. While those complaints are very subjective and more about the baggage the audience was bringing in with them (let’s face it, the Mandarin of the comics is far too antiquated and frankly racist a design to have ever really made it onto the big screen), the film definitely did suffer from some contrived plotting and motivations. Luckily, the film finds its feet once the second act kicks into gear, moving on from all that exposition and getting down to the good stuff. Iron Man 3 feels like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – with superheroes, which is exactly what we all hoped for when Shane Black was announced as the new director. Black fits this world like a glove; fine-tuning the tone Jon Favreau brought to the first two films and giving us the definitive take on Tony Stark. From the gadgets Stark cobbles together to infiltrate a mansion, to the spectacular climax with Stark’s “Iron Legion”, IM3 dives right into what it is that makes Tony different from all the other heroes out there. Perhaps more impressively, it managed to keep the momentum going and stick the landing after Marvel got everyone’s attention with The Avengers.
5. Captain America: The First Avenger
Yes, Cap’s debut movie is too cheesy and nostalgic of pulp storytelling to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it just has so much goddamn heart. What makes Steve Rogers so interesting in Avengers and Winter Soldier is his outdated idealism and earnestness. Seeing him in his natural environment without modern cynicism for contrast could easily have been too sappy to handle, but we instead get a genuinely touching story about giving the little guy a chance. Both of Cap’s movies deal with the identity of America, but while Winter Soldier is politically focused, First Avenger is a far more spiritual discussion that asserts it’s the founding principles of the nation and not its strength or might that make it great. In terms of a superhero story, it was a lot more hit and miss. Setting the film over a large period of time was a clever step in justifying Cap’s later status as a veteran, but giving us all his greatest adventures in a brief montage was a little disappointing. And while Hugo Weaving’s scenery-chewing turn as the Red Skull was entertaining, it was one of the first times people really started to notice that Marvel Studios were having somewhat of a villain problem. Luckily, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci and Hayley Atwell are able to round the movie out and give it a bit more personality. Atwell especially steals the show as Peggy Carter (soon to be seen in her own spinoff series) and breaks your heart as she shares an unspoken goodbye with Steve as his plane goes crashing into the Arctic. And if that doesn’t make you feel something, it leads right into one of Marvel’s most quietly powerful moments with Steve’s “I had a date” line. Easily my favorite ending to any of Marvel’s movies.
4. Iron Man
While The Incredible Hulk was technically the first movie in the canon, Iron Man is where the MCU we all know and love really began. Without the critical and commercial success of Tony Stark’s debut, we would never have seen Thor, Cap or any of the Marvel heroes we’ve all come to love. But more than just proving commercial viability, Iron Man set the tone that Marvel would perfect over the next six years. The irreverent swagger, strong character focus and oh-so-perfect casting of Robert Downey Jr. were an instant hit with audiences and instilled the principals that are the backbone of Kevin Feige’s grand cinematic vision. Yes, it was still a little rough around the edges, but it’s easy to look past all its blemishes when it feels this rock and roll. RDJ breathed life into an untested and increasingly irrelevant comic book superhero and turned him into one of the most iconic and charismatic characters of the decade. For years superheroes have been stuck in a melodramatic ditch, brooding atop gothic architecture as they narrated about the injustices of the world. There have been some great movies that fall into that category, but it had become tiresome and the genre was stagnating (see above under ‘The Incredible Hulk’). With Iron Man, Marvel set out on a different trajectory and reminded the world superheroes were meant to be fun.
OK. This is where it gets hard.
3. The Avengers
This was the big one. After years of post-credit stings and teases of an interconnected universe, The Avengers was the carrot dangling overhead through all of Marvel’s disparate origin stories. While Marvel hoped the titular team would prove to be more than the sum of its parts, there was every chance in the world The Avengers would be too ambitious a project and utterly collapse under its own weight. Enter the real hero of The Avengers: Joss F!*%ing Whedon (not his actual middle name). A former Marvel comics writer himself, as well as one of the best in the biz at balancing characters in a team (as evidenced in Firefly or his incredible run of X-Men comics), Whedon was a smart choice for Marvel’s biggest project, and man did it pay off. Even the most cynical of viewers couldn’t deny how absurdly fun and exciting it turned out to be. We got the best versions of all the heroes we’d been introduced to (especially with Mark Ruffalo finally giving us the Hulk we always wanted), Whedon’s signature dialogue and humor, brilliant chemistry between the contrasting heroes, and one of the most epic superheroes stories ever to have graced the big screen. The Avengers won the world over and transformed Marvel Studios from an intriguing idea to a stamp of quality. So, being it’s the culmination of Marvel’s entire catalogue and the most universally adored of all their films, why did it only land the #3 spot? Well, while focusing on character and scale was absolutely the right approach, there are a lot of plot holes that would be unforgivable if the rest of the movie wasn’t so damn good. But more than that, it’s that The Avengers builds on all that came before and on the promise of where it’s heading. This is not a criticism at all, and I love Marvel exactly for this long-term approach, but ultimately too much of what makes The Avengers great is capitalising on external elements. It doesn’t quite stand tall as its own film like our top two picks.
2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
With Iron Man 3 being so character focused and The Dark World largely treading water in terms of plot, The Winter Soldier was the only entry that really felt like it was carrying the story of the Avengers forward. Not only did it lay waste to the MCU’s status quo, but pairing Cap off with another Avenger and having them working closely with Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. was exactly the sort of interconnectedness everyone was hoping for in the post-Avengers landscape. More than just progressing the plot of The Avengers, The Winter Soldier maintained its tone and scale of consequence. A superhero/espionage/thriller hybrid, The Winter Soldier juggled lots of moving parts and boasted Marvel’s most tightly written and socially relevant script, but still had plenty of that Marvel humour and moments of levity to break up the tension and keep things fun. Though much smaller in scale than the giant New York battle in The Avengers, Winter Soldier showcased some of the best action the studio has to offer. Tight, fast and tactical, the Russo brothers keep you on the edge of your seat with sequence after sequence of suspenseful and creatively character driven set-pieces. After his aww-shucks origin story and his trying to catch up with the world in Avengers, it’s great to finally see Cap get a chance to take charge and kick ass the way he does here. On top of all that, Marvel actually managed to buck their trend of forgettable villains and give us some genuinely interesting bad-guys, with Alexander Pierce (played by the legendary Robert Redford), Crossbones and the Winter Soldier himself.
1. Guardians of the Galaxy
Now, this is how it’s done. Guardians of the Galaxy feels like the culmination of years of experimentation and growth, finely tuning everything we love about Marvel Studios into an exact science. Whether it’s great character work, disarming comedy, fun action or awe-inspiring world building, GotG supplies some of the best examples of all Marvel’s strengths. Drawing heavily from the critically acclaimed, but largely unsuccessful, comics by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, writer/director James Gunn throws us into the deep end of Marvel’s cosmic lore, but still manages to make the experience feel grounded and personal. While there are epic battles and billions of lives at stake, the core of the film and its entire climax comes down to five lost souls coming together as a family. And what a family it is. All five members are complex and charismatic inventions in their own right, but the chemistry and interplay between them outshines even what we saw in Avengers. The entire cast revel in their roles, but I’d be remiss not to make special mention of Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord, who is probably Marvel’s biggest get since RDJ rolled onto the scene in 2008.
But the real reason it gets the number one spot on the list? Unlike every other corner of Marvel’s catalogue, which all took multiple movies to reach their potential, Guardians is an amazing film completely independent from any of the 9 that came before it. This far into the game Marvel still managed to give us something that felt fresh and exciting, that capitalised on all their goodwill and yet was completely accessible to someone who had never seen another Marvel movie in their life. The Guardians will soon fold into the greater MCU and its ongoing story (and I can’t wait to see that happen), but for now it exists as its own special thing, reminding me of just how great it is to watch this studio bring these characters to life.
No longer is it all about seeing everything come together in the next Avengers movie. Rather, I find myself more intrigued about what Marvel has planned for Ant-Man, Dr. Strange and their other new properties, and suddenly I feel that spark of excitement I first felt when Tony Stark showed up in that first after-credits sting and told us there was a whole world of superheroes out there.
Here’s to ten more.