Nowadays the mantra seems to go, “If you’ve seen ’em, rank ’em.” And me being the non-boat-rocking critic that I am, I’ve decided it pertinent to rank all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies what with Guardians of the Galaxy releasing wide today and all. As is with all lists, this numbered collection is infallible and completely definitive. Although other people may seek to disagree with the rankings laid out below, scientifically any contention is wrong. You know, because opinion is objective and I’m always right.
I’m sure everyone’s cooked up with own list, either on paper or in their minds, and mine will incite fire to spew from your eyes and burn a hole in the screen but this is how I have to break down the Marvel movies. I’m chiefly taking into consideration my enjoyment of any of the below films but am also considering the relative importance of each in the grand scheme of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and their impact on film in general. So ready your hunting knives, because here I go…
10. The Incredible Hulk
One of the two Marvel movies that I just straight up don’t like at all, The Incredible Hulk is a certifiable disaster. It’s an impoverished goon of a supertale crunches down its characters and caterwauls its dialogue. I know I’m not entirely alone in finding Ang Lee‘s Hulk a vastly superior film but somehow, that is not the popular opinion. This Hulk is just a mess from front to back; as boorish as the Hulk, as inexperienced as Bruce Banner. It’s a generic action figure spectacle from the get-go and never once manages to define its role as a film nor any of its thin stable of characters.
Louis Leterrier shot it as if we’re expected to pretend everything we’re seeing is new and yet be familiar enough with the territory to miraculously find it compelling. Let me assure you, it is not. Slamming two big, surly dudes together downtown provides the interest level of two babies competing over who can wail louder. Feel free to continue defending this abomination of a movie, but you’re better off keeping it to yourselves.
9. Iron Man 2
Following up on one of Marvel’s most lauded superhero tales, Iron Man 2 was a disappointment on pretty much all levels. The story was paper-thin, the nuance non-existent, the reason for its existence, slim to none. A notable performance from a man coming off a very high career point ended up being downright awful (Mickey Rourke) and the addition of Scarlett Johansson worked better on paper than on the actual screen. It had its soft appeals; RDJ was still as much a motormouth as ever, even though some of the charm had faded; the suitcase suit is still considered one of Stark tech’s finer moments; a scenery-smacking Sam Rockwell as a rival business tycoon is hard to balk at.
But there was so much that didn’t work. Take for instance the Rockwell-Rourke parrot scene – a perfect metaphor for the film at large in that it just had no idea what it was doing or any sense of what it was trying to accomplish. That or Stark lounging in an over-sized doughnut. That kinda hits the nail on the head as well. Overall, Iron Man 2 is an over-stuffed, derivative and often just plain bad film. I guess you can credit it for bridging the gap between Iron Man and The Avengers but it just didn’t work for me and is not a film I ever seek out for a re-watch.
8. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Snippet from my 2014 review: “Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely show savvy sneaking in some current political hot buttons as subtext but fail to tell the more personal story of a lost man adapting to a whole damn new century.”
It’s lonely at the top, they say, but not quite as lonely as being amongst the fading few who didn’t fawn over Cap 2. The Winter Solider isn’t so much a bad film as it is a bruising disappointment. It was set up so nicely and featured a great first act but all the goodwill that it built up with me was quickly jettisoned as it moved towards a nonsense-heavy finale and loaded up on twists you could see from a mile away. Fanboys and critics alike have piled on praise for political nuance but the only political themes I saw were about as subtle as a club to the head. And just about as thankless.
Somehow it’s that rare movie that thinks it’s smarter than it actually is and the audience has largely seemed to nod their head in agreement. Had they stuck with the superspy lost in time angle, this could have been the movie everyone seems to think it is. However, they decided to go with fisticuffs on top of a gunned down helicarrier.
7. Captain America: The First Avenger
Snippet from my 2011 review: “While some may tire of superhero creationism tales, Captain America’s origin makes for a perfect first act; setting up the pathos of the character and his strong motivations throughout. It’s endearing fun with just enough heart and drama to captivate an audience for a short spell of magic.”
For me, the first time was a charm. Call it low expectations working it its favor but I was largely won over by Chris Evan‘s first time donning the ol’ stars and stripes suit. The First Avenger was campy to a fault but Evan’s sympathetic performance managed to make a superhero as dated as the Pledge of Allegiance seem like a man with real flesh and blood. Joe Johnson‘s popcorny flick didn’t always work but when it did, we got some ridiculous shenanigans of super-human feats and a wowing transformation from Evans without all that highfaluting, egocentric jumble that percolated up in installment numero dos.
Snippet from my 2011 review: “Ultimately, we can thank Branagh for adding layers of complexity to a character that just seems downright difficult to translate into film, as Thor really had the potential to be simply terrible. The high points of the movie were the constantly evolving family relationships, which admittedly got convoluted at points, and Thor’s initial inability to catch on to the mannerisms of Earth.”
Way back when, before any of this Avengers stuff polluted the web and infected the mind of every teenager south of Antarctica, my expectations for Thor were jeeringly low. I wrote, “Honestly, from the trailers, posters and attached talent, I have extremely low expectations for this project. It looks like a confused hustle that really only cares about ejaculated an origin story to set up a role in The Avengers.” Upon beholding Kenneth Branagh‘s curiously mystifying final product, I was starting to think this Avengers thing might just work out.
More important than introducing us to the blonde lunkhead with a hammer, Thor made our acquaintance with Marvel’s bonafide best character: the wonderfully devious Loki. And Branagh’s casting finally made sense when Thor turned out to be the closet thing we’d get to a Shakespearean drama in the realm of superheroes.
5. Iron Man 3
Snippet from my 2013 review: “Where the other Iron Man movies have depended on climaxes that pit metal-on-metal, the action here is far superior. Instead of the tired and inconsequential pounding of iron suits, the fiery Extremis enemies offer some variety both from a visual and blocking standpoint. Director Shane Black handles the action sequences in a cool and casual way, fishing for the feeling of 90’s action buddy comedies.”
Marvel’s third Stark outing met some backlash when it messed with a fan favorite, but being of the Comicus Ignoramus variety, I admired the subversion of expectation. Both Guy Pearce and Ben Kingsley were significant improvements over the “more dudes in a suit” angle that we’d already seen twice in Iron Men movies and each did as good a job as any in their antagonist mantles. More than just a gun for hire, Shane Black wedged not just Christmas into the proceedings but some much needed PTSD for the battleworn Tony Stark. For once in the Marvel Universe, we actually saw a character effected by his prior endeavors. We saw a super maturing.
While 2 gave the suit a new coat of paint and tried to sell it as a new product, 3 actually tread on new ground and soared because of it. Iron Man 3 wasn’t always flawless but with enough wit and zany effects-driven set pieces, Black’s installment into the franchise was a welcome return for Marvel’s most ubiquitous character.
4. Thor: The Dark World
Snippet from my 2013 review : “Here, bigger is better as The Dark World benefits greatly from the ever-increasing magnitude of its dazzling set pieces. A mid-film airborne assault on Asgard showcases Taylor’s knack for staging battle and begins a course of acceleration that doesn’t let up until the final credits roll.”
This entry will probably invite the most contention but I’m poised to defend it. My open and shut argument is that Thor: The Dark World had an epic feel to it that escaped other Marvel movies. The first Thor looks puny when compared to this bigger, better sequel and with Game of Thrones‘ Alan Taylor at the helm, you get a sense of time and space that escapes other superhero films, Marvel or no. Take for comparison’s sake The Green Lantern, an utter embarrasment of a film on anyone’s terms. While Green Lantern spent half of its time on a horrifyingly-CGI alien planet, it never felt real; never seemed lived in or organic.
The lands and realms that Thor only steps foot in for a moment here have more life and energy to them than anything in that steamy trash collective. And with the family dynamics back big time, I just couldn’t get enough. Maybe you can chalk it up to Loki being my favorite character in the MMU, but Thor: The Dark World had me bouncing up and down in the theater while battles commenced through worm holes in a finale that proved Marvel could keep up the legendary pace of The Avengers and no longer had to resort to hookey, dinky climaxes.
3. Iron Man
The one that started it all. What may have initially looked like a flash in the pan turned out to be a critical darling and a beloved iteration of the character for fans. Remember too that Iron Man came out the same summer as The Dark Knight and still managed to be a part of the conversation. That’s because, it looked like it actually was trying to say something. Seeing a weapons baron face the global implications of WMDs in a post-911 world while the conversation about terrorism was at an absolute peak was meaningful stuff. Seeing a billionaire beaten and forced to reckon with his monsters had a lick of power to it that Marvel’s been trying to top ever since.
It stumbled towards the end – a trait that would go on to define most of Marvel’s fare – but having Stark out himself from the superhero closet was a perfect closing moment and closed the book on how history would go on to define Marvel’s first outing. Plus, Iron Man marked the rise of the post-credits scene. Most can take it or leave it nowadays, but damn was it cool seeing a patched up Samuel L. pitch the Avengers Initiative.
2. Guardians of the Galaxy
Snippet from my 2014 review: “Guardians, in all rights, is about the creation of a mythology. It’s about carving out your stake in the world. It’s about grabbing a whip and a fedora and making the name Indiana Jones mean something. It’s about calling yourself Star Lord and not being satisfied until everyone else calls you that too.”
With great risk comes great reward. So proved James Gunn‘s Guardians of the Galaxy. As much backfire as Marvel has incurred from essentially booting Edgar Wright from Ant-Man, they should still be given props for taking a risk on James Gunn. I mean, the guy is a confirmed stranger. And yet, he was allowed to bring that zany wackness to Guardians and it works so well because of it. With a tone like A New Hope and some perky 70s jams to liven the mood, Guardians is as good a time as you’ll want to have at the theater all year. It’s simmering with fun, boiling over with boisterous loveliness and just the kind of wild wild west adventure in space you never knew you wanted. I even considered placing this at the top spot but I think that’d be a touch reactionary since it hasn’t quite had the time to settle that many of these others have. Plus, the baddie (Ronan the Accuser) is fine but didn’t do too much for me. He’s seriously got nothing on Loki.
1. The Avengers
Back in 2011, I poorly prognosticated that The Avengers would flop. I thought there was no way to balance five larger-than-life characters, give each the appropriate screen time to matter within the context of some larger, effects-driven summer spectacle and then somehow turn all that into cohesive, set-piece-orientated blockbuster pulp. Sitting in the glorious A/C of a Chiang Mai movie theater, I was happily proven wrong. Not only did Joss Whedon pull off the super-stunt of making it all work, he did it really, really well, delivering one of the most celebrated and critically acclaimed superhero films this side of Christopher Nolan.
I shuffled this entry around a bit between first and second place but ended up having to give it the crown spot because of two things… First, the performances are top notch all around. Mark Ruffalo was an amazing addition to the cast as an updated Hulk, Robert Downey Jr. saved some of his best wisecracks and Tom Hiddleston was unbound as a slithering, megalomanical Loki. I just ate it up with a spoon. Secondly, the spectacle was just unmatched. Give me more space worm battles and the funky chemistry of a ragtag group banding together and flubbing it up over and over again.
Sure, The Avengers has its issues and, like all Marvel movies, never quite lives up the second time round (especially on a smaller screen), but the sheer stopping power of Joss Whedon’s big screen behemoth is undeniable from the flickering pages of the Marvel logo to the second post-credits sequence.
Now the fight begins… tell me where I’m wrong. Argue over your own Marvel hierarchy. Share your list. Go on and try to fit Hulk into the upper crust. I dare you.