Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe from Worst to Best

Movies Lists Marvel Cinematic Universe
Share Tweet Submit Pin
Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe from Worst to Best

After 10 years and 21 films, it’s time to participate in the most hallowed of internet traditions and rank us some Marvel Cinematic Universe offerings! Mild snark aside, it has been an incredible run for this particular Disney-owned billion-dollar movie machine. As I sat awaiting the first scenes from Black Panther, I was struck by how amazing it is that the opening animation to all MCU films, which was once a flipping of pages showing scenes from Marvel comics—usually aligned to match whichever character the film was featuring—was now made up of pictures of the actual movie characters themselves. The mere fact this robust collage is now possible stirs within me a sense of joy and awe at the achievement that hard to explain to folks who didn’t spend the ’70s and ’80s being forced to accept that the limitations of studio imagination and, to be fair, CGI were preventing the characters who came to life in the pages I devoured from coming to life on the Big Screen. With all due respect to all those whose profess genre fatigue at the prospect of 3-4 comic book films a year, I’m not tired one whit. There will be plenty of bad superhero films in the future—no genre is immune to that—but meanwhile, I’m going to enjoy this particular Golden Age. —Michael Burgin

21. The Incredible Hulk (2008)


If it achieved nothing else, The Incredible Hulk deserves credit for picking up the ball from Ang Lee’s 2003 version, throwing it away, buying a new ball and pretending that radioactive tree poodle never happened. Just the second entry in the still brand new MCU, Louis Leterrier’s film also does something that we wish more films would do—it gets the origin story out of the way in the opening credits. (But hey, let’s show the deaths of the Waynes or of Uncle Ben one more time … we may have forgotten!) As the titular smasher of puny things, it’s hard to say whether Edward Norton is better than Eric Bana. (In fairness, Bana never got a fair shot.) But what can be said is this iteration actually gives viewers more Hulk (and more quickly) than its predecessor, and it trots out an actual Hulk-specific villain in Tim Roth’s Abomination. Besides being encouraging evidence that Marvel knew better how to handle its recently reclaimed property, such moves make some of the less sensible moments—and there are plenty—easier to overlook. No one will ever claim The Incredible Hulk is one of the best MCU efforts, but it deserves credit for being one of the first. —Michael Burgin

20. Iron Man 2 (2010)


For all of its star power and CGI wizardry (some of the action scenes seem perfectly calibrated to tickle your superfan receptors), Iron Man 2 can’t quite manage the balance between plot development and action. Just as you think there’s about to be some payoff for yet another overlong sequence spent plumbing Stark’s family history, or watching Mickey Rourke’s Vanko pace like a caged animal and generally devour scenery, the movie abruptly shifts gears and tosses in another joyless chase sequence or string of explosions. It’s a shame that director Jon Favreau didn’t place more of the film in the hands of his actors; where the first Iron Man was a character-driven delight—something of a thinking-man’s blockbuster—the sequel succumbs to, well, sequel-itis, opting instead to crank up the special effects and noise and hope for the best. The most cynical and calculating part of it all is that the movie never really finds a justification for its existence—except, that is, as a bald-faced setup for The Avengers. —Michael Burgin

19. Thor: The Dark World (2013)


In comic books, the Thor series has long been among the most otherworldly of Marvel titles. After all, its protagonist is a Norse god, basically immortal and mostly invulnerable. While so many of the other heroes of the Lee, Ditko and Kirby era were compelling in the way they mixed in the mundane and angsty with the heroic—the Fantastic Four bickered, Peter Parker struggled to pay rent, the X-Men just wanted to belong!—Thor always outshone his lame alter ego, Donald Blake. In Thor: The Dark World director Alan Taylor and Marvel Studios embrace the extra-dimensional grandeur of it all. The result is an Asgardian space opera the enjoyment of which is consistently buoyed by its grade A cast—and occasionally dragged down by “plot incidentals” best ignored by the viewer. As Thor and Loki, Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston make it easy to look past the flaws. Combined with a lushly realized production design, liberal doses of humor and a plot that doesn’t let the need for sustained coherence get too in the way, their performances prevent The Dark World from degenerating into merely a collection of bombastic action set pieces. Instead, it’s outlandish, occasionally silly and surprisingly fun. (See full review.) —Michael Burgin

18. Doctor Strange (2016)


When the folks at Marvel Studios truly realized, likely via The Avengers in 2012, that these films were comedies just as much as they were action-adventure stories, it crystallized the format in ways both positive and somewhat limiting. The result is that one can never quite take seriously claims that a new film is going to “break the mold” of the MCU, but at the same time it’s hardly something to complain about, when that mold is fundamentally solid and entertaining. To that end, Doctor Strange is crowd-pleasing and exciting—funny when it should be, sober when it has to be and crackling with a magical mystique that adds a veiled layer of depth to the inner workings of the Marvel universe. Even without too many overt references to the rest of the MCU, everything in Doctor Strange makes one wonder how the revelation of the Marvel Multiverse will affect the likes of Iron Man, Captain America and others. (See full review.) —Jim Vorel

17. Ant-Man (2015)


Compared to the two Marvel films that immediately preceded it, Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man provided a welcome respite from extinction-level threats and superhuman bombast. Instead, and in what can only be considered power-set-appropriate, everything feels smaller and more human. That’s not to say that there’s not plenty at stake, or that the superhuman action isn’t dependably fun, and occasionally really fun to watch—the film just lacks the genocidal ambition of Ronan in Guardians of the Galaxy and Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron. And while Ant-Man has more than its share of logic lapses and convenient (read: sloppy) scripting, most viewers won’t care. In much the same way Guardians of the Galaxy is powered by the charisma and affability of Chris Pratt, Ant-Man is buoyed by the charm of Paul Rudd. The combination of a charismatic lead, a solid supporting cast, and the debut and dramatization of a new (to moviegoers) superpower (or two) has proved a winning formula for Marvel Studios for the last, oh, 10 or so films now—and it’s no different here. With Ant-Man the MCU’s Phase Two ended on a small note, but it was just the right one. (See full review.) —Michael Burgin

16. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)


The second Avengers film was warmly received when it initially arrived, but then suffered a bit of immediate blowback, with many superhero genre geeks asserting themselves that although it was undeniably an entertaining film, it represented something of a step back from Joss Whedon’s record-smashing original. Even if it can’t quite match it, and occasionally feels like a bridge toward the next Avengers story, there’s still a whole lot to enjoy in this action-packed yarn. James Spader excels as the voice of the godlike Ultron—a wonderfully arrogant, immature AI character who is only undermined by plot, rather than performance. Ultimately, though, we may remember Age of Ultron more for the storyline fallout it helped generate in the MCU, as Tony Stark’s guilt at creating Ultron is instrumental in driving his position in the fabulous Civil War. Looking back on it in the wake of several other MCU films, its stature has somewhat grown as a result of what it has helped build. (See full review.) —Jim Vorel

15. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)


In Ant-Man and the Wasp, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is still under house arrest after the events of Captain America: Civil War but days away from release when he receives a message from Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), the mother of Hope/Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) and wife of Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who has been trapped in the Quantum Realm for 30 years and needs him to gather her family so they can save her. Meanwhile, there’s a former colleague of Pym’s (Laurence Fishburne) who wants to help save the life of his adopted daughter, Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who is suffering from some sort of quantum displacement, and oh yeah there’s Walton Goggins as an evil entrepreneur who wants Pym’s technology and can you tell we’re in yet another wildly overplotted Marvel movie? Much of the fun of the Ant-Man franchise is playing with perspective, the idea that a superhero can have the strength of a full-sized superhero but be the size of, well, an ant. I still think Edgar Wright would have played around with this idea more than Peyton Reed does, but nonetheless, the movie does have its moments of inspired silliness. There’s when Scott waits for his usual insect to fly him off and away but keeps having his rides intercepted by hungry seagulls (“Murderers!”), and the big chase sequence that makes up the last half hour of the film that makes good use of San Francisco as a location, particularly the idea that its hills and turns, so glamorized in cinematic chase sequences of the past, take on an entirely different dimension when everyone’s sizes keep getting blown up and shrunken down. The movie’s ending has the jazzy, goofy rhythm that you want from a movie like this. (See full review.) —Will Leitch

14. Thor (2011)


Of the three “origin tentpole” movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor—Kenneth Branagh’s film has come off the least critically valued of the three. (In box office, it comes in second.) But this initial installment in the adventures of everyone’s favorite Asgardian distinguishes itself from those of everyone’s favorite armor-suited industrialist and everyone’s favorite super soldier in what it portends about MCU world-building. While Thor spends plenty of time on Earth, Branagh and company make sure the out-of-this-world landscapes of Asgard and its nearby realms are presented with vigor. For comic book fans, this was particularly encouraging. A Thor film should be as different from an Iron Man film as the two comic book series are from one another. Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios’ willingness to trust their source material—a willingness that yielded Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange—was first and most evident here. This, added to Chris Hemsworth’s perfect portrayal of the beefy thunder god, Tom Hiddleston’s near-transcendent turn as Loki, and Branagh’s sure-handed direction (with Anthony Hopkins as Odin, no less), ensure Thor will remain firmly rooted in the top echelon of superhero films as a whole and may well rise as it ages. (See full review.) —Michael Burgin

13. Captain Marvel (2019)


One thing Captain Marvel has going for it that Ant Man and the Wasp didn’t is that it gives us a lead character we can care about and (even more important) an actor (Brie Larson) who rises to the occasion. In many of these Marvel origin stories—and by my count, this is the eighth one since the original Iron Man—the movie goes through great pains to explain to us why we should care about this new character, why, with everything else we have to keep track of, we should readily agree to adding one more to the mix. Captain Marvel, like many MCU movies, sometimes labors under the weight of having to tell its own story while still connecting to the larger, ongoing saga, but it has no issues with justifying its main character: We see in her eyes, from the first second, what’s different about her. The movie has us on her side before she ever says a word.

The film is otherwise entertaining and exhausting in the equal measures we have come to expect from modern Marvel movies—if you’ve seen one bad guy bent on galaxy domination, you’ve seen them all. You know the music, so it’s all about how they play the notes. Larson gets valuable support from Jackson and Ben Mendelsohn, still reliably Ben Mendelsohn even under layers of alien makeup, and the ’90s backdrop is at least a welcome changeup from the usual formula. But this movie isn’t about the supporting characters, or the setting, or even how well its big action set pieces play out. It’s all about whether or not they can sell this Captain Marvel as someone who, later, even the mighty Avengers can call to someday help them save the world. In Larson, they have a star who is more than up for the task. You’ve seen this movie before. But you haven’t seen her. (See full review.) —Will Leitch

12. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)


It’s simultaneously easy and impossible to forget that Spider-Man: Homecoming is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Easy, because unlike most every MCU film before it, with the partial exception of Doctor Strange, it manages to extricate its characters (and especially its scope) from the world-ending catastrophes faced by The Avengers to tell a story that is a little bit more “close to the ground,” to use Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) own words. Impossible because, well, Tony Stark is in this. Quite a bit, actually. Nevertheless, Homecoming manages to pull off the most difficult feat for just about any franchise installment: It justifies its own existence. Briskly paced and charming to a fault, it’s a Spider-Man movie that fully embraces both its source material and the perils of 21st century teenage life. (See full review.) —Jim Vorel

11. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

In addition to the meticulous construction of the cinematic recreation of their decades of comic book world building, if there’s one thing Marvel Studios is absolutely crushing it in, it’s the casting of its superhero leads. Chris Evans as one of Marvel’s most famous faces (and shield) could have been seen by other studios as a gamble; after all, it hadn’t been too long since Evans was shouting “Flame on!” as Johnny Storm in the (admittedly awful) film adaptation of the famous Marvel property, The Fantastic Four. But Marvel movie boss Kevin Feige clearly knew the perfect fit when he saw it—Evans’ turn as supersoldier Steve Rogers would quickly make audiences ask, “The Human Whatnow?” Period-perfect sets, costuming and turn-of-phrase from director Joe “The Rocketeer” Johnston and a killer supporting cast, including the likes of Tommy Lee Jones as the sardonic Colonel Phillips, and Hugo Weaving as the Nazi-riffic baddie Red Skull, add up to one of the more enjoyably vibrant superpowered movies in recent memory. (See full review.) —Scott Wold

Also in Movies