While Star Wars was a defining event for me as a kid, it was one that opened me up to a whole host of other things. One of those was comic books since there was an adaptation of the first Star Wars movie. Which lead to my shock of it continuing past that with new original stories. Through that, I was exposed to a range of house ads from Marvel for years that got me hooked on all sorts of other characters in the late 70’s and early 80’s and I was a pretty strong comic fan until the mid 90’s just as the bottom fell out of everything with the glut. So, in 2008 when Marvel put Iron Man out and got everything underway for what has become the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I was all in since they were adapting right, choosing from different eras, modifying for the modern, and then connecting it all together – just like the good comics do.
As we get into Avengers: Infinity War that works toward its sequel that will essentially close out the opening run of Marvel films and launch the next phase, I thought it was a good time to look back at what has come before and figure out where it all ranks on my list. These films were a journey for me just like they were for my daughter. Iron Man as her second “grown up” film that she had seen with me and as she graduates high school this year more than half her life has had this film series in it. So I can understand the meaning of it all, and just how much of an impact it has, because these characters have been with me for decades.
So, without further ado, let’s rank them from best to worst:
1) Captain America: The First Avenger: When that first batch of films was announced that would go beyond Iron Man, this is the one I worried about the most. I could see how everything else would fit into place, but all I could see were the many ways this could be done wrong. Yet, they mostly did everything right by taking us back to the true origin and spending the film in the 1940’s to showcase the First Avenger and how he came to be. While there are regularly World War II films made, doing a World War II genre film is a far different thing and audiences were being groomed for modern superhero material. But with the right director, a strong screenplay that gave us a character that embodied good but without the flaws of most of the other heroes, it’s a character that inspires in a way that none of the others truly do. Cap almost isn’t the usual Marvel model of a character because his flaws are harder to work with for many writers and he’s harder to connect with in some ways. But through the extensive time spent with him before the transformation, Cap wasn’t just Cap, he was Steve Rogers and was the kind of man that many should want to be. This is the film that truly told me that the people shepherding all of this knew that it couldn’t be a one-trick pony and that each character really had to be dealt with properly, honestly, and in acknowledging its origins in the right way.
2) Iron Man: The first film may have hoped to work the whole expansion and I’ve lost track over the years as to just how much was planned and how much was a reaction to the success of the film. But this is the one that brought us to this dance and it deserves much respect because it pretty much did just about everything right. The success of this is certainly spread among the creative that picked the right elements to draw from in updating the origin, just as the comics do, but the reason it succeeded is because of Robert Downey, Jr. As he says at the end of the film, he is Iron Man. And that just exuded throughout the film as he was able to really embrace this in a great way. I’d enjoyed a lot of his films years prior but all of that shaped him and put him in the right place at the right time to be this character and to play it flaws and all. This film has plenty of little easter eggs in it and it seeded much of what’s to come but it also proved the other really important thing that most of the films have also largely embraced in that they must stand alone. Yes, you get more out of it the more you see and know, but it also has to tell a story that anyone can drop into and figure out. This one is one that I revisit regularly and each time I see it the whole thing just impresses me more and more.
3) Black Panther: The only film on the list I’ve seen once (so far, this one ranks as high as it does for a lot of reasons. Each is highly important but the one that I come back to is that this is a change film. The title character drew a lot of interest from the Civil War film and the team that took over for this (and helped shaped Infinity War through it) had a huge task ahead of them by essentially maturing the MCU. Conflicted and complex characters abound in a part of the world that’s alien to how the rest of the world has been presented so far, almost like what we see in Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok. It’s here that the tools are there to help truly change the world compared to the other characters that exist in it, inspire within it, but largely play hero and little more. It’s the realization of the promise of what Tony Stark wanted to do but was unable to because of his own fears and ideology in the face of great threats. Wakanda and its residents, those close and those spread to the winds, can be broken down to their simpler parts but that’s an injustice. These are complex layers woven here that go back decades in some cases and centuries amid the bigger picture of the nation itself. Everything that plays out here is, in a way, a small thing in dealing with a couple of characters. But they represent the way a nation is going to see itself and move forward to lead the world or to remain isolated and withdrawn.
4) Avengers: Part of me would place this film further down the list in a more general sense but this was the place where Marvel Studios had its biggest bet riding. Could they really put them all together with a big enough threat and pull it off. Expectations were huge and while it may not feel as strong as it did then in the here and now because of the interconnected nature of the film universe, at the time this was just monstrous with what it did and how it ties Loki into everything to be one of the bigger bads. It may be a flat looking film in many ways but finally seeing such a project brought into reality after decades of reading comics and years watching the individual character films meant this had the payoff it needed. It also really made clear the larger threat that is only now taking shape in Infinity War. A lot of pieces from this became cultural touchstones with phrases and memes but it also put into clarity that the crossover aspect is one of the bigger strengths of the MCU.
5) Guardians of the Galaxy: Much like it was risky to put the first Captain America film in the 1940’s for the entirety of it, this one was risky for being complete offworld and disconnected from the established ongoing continuity. Plus the whole talking raccoon and walking tree aspect. The film did what was needed in embracing the space opera elements while adhering to the “Marvel Style” of the other films, essentially becoming a version of the Avengers without the ability to draw on separate films for the cast. That meant a lot of heavy lifting to connect characters without being able to dig deep. It was also the first film where while watching it I was really unsure of it in the first fifteen to twenty minutes because of the humor that James Gunn employed, which was one of those important shifts to help separate it from the other MCU films. Once it got its groove and I got into the groove, it worked very well and helped to broaden the MCU into the galactic side – which was always an area that I loved. My only disappointment was that this wasn’t the Guardians I grew up with as mine were from the 30th century…
6) Spider-Man – Homecoming: Having not been a big fan of the original trilogy of films and its lead actor, I really enjoyed the first Amazing film and the risks it took in the second with Gwen Stacey, even if the villain side never really came together for it. So going into a new iteration of the character was going to be a bit dicey but like Black Panther, we got some solid foundation through Civil War. In Homecoming, it did a great job of connecting to the larger world while still being its own thing and giving us an honest to goodness teenage character and actor with the very ground level problems that Peter Parker would have and that I grew up reading. The foundations from Civil War and the ties through Happy Hogan and Tony Stark served it all very well but what clicked in a big way was Michael Keaton as the Vulture. With a compelling villain that didn’t quite stick the landing in regards to economic injustice issues that could have elevated it more, both Peter and Spider-Man had a lot to play off from combined with the training wheels side. Admittedly, I would have liked to have seen more of pre-Civil War Spider-Man and how Peter came into his own but at the same time we’ve seen so much of it. Being able to avoid so many familiar pieces from past films was huge and helped to propel the character forward with an infectious energy.
7) Captain America – The Winter Soldier: With the first film in the mainline Cap trilogy going so well for me, the second film was going to be a make or break thing after Avengers. Here, we got to see another area of maturation in the MCU as it dug into the past by bringing it into the present with Hydra in a fantastic way that was later able to give the Agents of SHIELD TV series a whole lot to work and play with. While comic films had to wait decades for Bucky Barnes to come back, here it was just a few years but it paid off well with an engaging storyline and a pairing up with Black Widow that helped to breathe some real character into the character. I loved the comparisons to it being a 70’s thriller with some strong action in it but it also drew upon some great actors for a range of roles, including allowing Robert Redford to chew up some great scenery that just made me grin from ear to ear having loved his work for far too many years.
8) Captain America – Civil War: In terms of trilogies/character series, the Captain America series is the one that tops them all for me. Though this one can easily be called Avengers 2.5, it is a full on Captain America story with the way that he’s able to provide contrasting leadership and views in contrast to what Tony Stark brings to it. This is a very packed movie that also essentially launches two other franchise from it with Black Panther and Spider-Man but at the center of it all is Cap and the impact he’s had on so many. Which makes sense that Tony is a big part of it simply because of Cap’s time with Tony’s father and how all of that made him feel over the years of hearing the stories of such a great and inspirational man – which is amusing considering the version of Howard Stark we see in both Agent Carter and The First Avenger. The film works as a great way to bring the main trilogy of films to a close as it shows that the Steve Rogers, the little guy, will always stand up to those that will abuse power. And he knows that any government controlling the Avengers will abuse that, just like Hydra amassed power in secret and abused it.
9) Thor Ragnarok: The Thor trilogy is one that I’m continually conflicted about because it didn’t get quite the linear look as other characters did. Ragnarok closes out the trilogy there with something that goes radically different from the first two films and just embraces the weirdness of what the books did for so long in a big way. I was thrilled just to get Hela on the big screen and even more so for going with the costume design. I loved seeing Cate Blanchett chewing scenery as her even if she didn’t get a story to really back it up with enough meat. The film covers a lot of unique ground compared to the other films thanks to its director and his perspective but it also serves up a lot of fun. The teaming up element with Hulk gives it something fresh with a fan favorite character that’s been used minimally overall but smartly while it also expands on the larger galactic side. With a brighter color palette than other films, it pops off the screen with a weird mix to it and a score and soundtrack that’s pretty damn infectious. It holds up with with repeat viewings so far and it also serves to bring to a close various character arcs, notably with Odin and the family side itself, nevermind Asgard.
10) Ant-Man: Oh this troubled film. As much as I love what Edgar Wright has done over the years and you can tell his touches on this film, I’m glad that his departure didn’t get the film killed. This is one that’s similar to Spider-Man in that it’s smaller and more grounded because of the person behind the suit that’s just trying to live and get by, making mistakes along the way and paying the price for it. Paul Rudd was an inspired choice that worked far better than many expected and it just has a great ease about it and a smoothness that delights. Yes, the villain may be weak but that’s inherent in the MCU in general for the most part. But it all worked because it got to do some creative things and it filled it all with a great cast alongside all the tricks of the size aspect. Add in a great little surprise Avengers tie-in with Falcon and I was just grinning from ear to ear. Plus it also got to give us some of the MCU in the 60’s, an area I still hope gets explored more. Similar to Spider-Man, Scott Lang’s character was one that provided the right kind of levity in Civil War that reminded us just how serious so many of the Avengers characters are.
11) Doctor Strange: One of the characters that I came to really enjoy during the 80’s comic reading period was Doctor Strange as a path and guide to the mystical side of the Marvel Universe. This film opens the door to that in the cinematic universe to good effect, showing us a wider range of worlds and things to deal with while also giving us a familiar flawed character, essentially a Doctor Tony Stark in many ways. The parallels are a bit too strong at times and there are problematic accents here and there, as well as a very underused Rachel McAdams, much to my dislike, but the opening up of a whole new area made this an enjoyable film for me. Some choices were certainly poorly made here while trying to deal with international market pressures when it came to the Ancient One, but the film also showed some great smarts when it dealt with the villain as it had one of the more creative endgames of the overall franchise.
12) Avengers – Age of Ultron: Oh the weight of expectations on this film combined with a script that just couldn’t handle it. There’s plenty to like about the film with a lot of character interactions, some interesting additions that are obviously different from the comics in a big way, and some set pieces that are a lot of fun. There’s a great deal of missed opportunities along the way and more subplot moments owing more to pleasing potential theatrical showing locations than anything else. But it also gave us our first taste of Wakanda from a distance, introduced my favorite character in Klaw, and set into motion other issues with what happens to Sokovia – which I still want to hear in a future film is reverting to its original name of Latveria after all that has happened.
13) Thor: While it’s in the lower end of the overall rankings, I have a lot of love for the Thor film. It’s simply that others have done more since then. With Kenneth Branagh directing and giving all the Asgardian elements the grandeur they need, it fell short on the Earth side and had an awkward connection to Avengers with it introducing us to Hawkeye in it. The studio got a lot better later on about such things but it was problematic here and a distraction rather than an addition. That said, the film launched Loki as a great villain, gave us a boisterously fun Thor that had to be put through quite the rough patch, and started to showcase how it could mix magic with science fiction as we got our first real taste of things from beyond the realm of Earth.
14) Incredible Hulk: Having still not seen the Ang Lee film, this one is still a whole lot of fun for me and fits into the continuity nicely with a few touches that I do wish got explored more. I liked Edward Norton’s interpretation here and there are plenty of nods to so much of the Hulk’s past in film, TV, and comics. It works as a very good self-contained movie and every time it comes up in my playlist there are a lot of parts of it that I just stop and admire, especially that opening panning sequence across the staggered city. Additionally, it’s also a good movie that managed to avoid doing the whole repeat performance of the origin story for which I’ll always be grateful.
15) Iron Man 2: After the success of the first film it was probably for the best that the second film, rushed into production, got a whole lot of criticism that forced them to make sure they were doing things right the first time and really thinking it through. That said, with repeat viewings and years of distance, I enjoy this film a lot more than I did the first time around. Yes, the overall structure is weak and Vanko isn’t presented as a compelling opponent, but it’s a strong expansion on the overall universe, gave us more Phil Coulson and Nick Fury early on and introduced us to Black Widow. The narrative is awkward as hell in places but it has some good set pieces and the humor works when it comes to dealing with our Hammer friends that I still wish had been dealt with more.
16) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: A similar case of learning the wrong lessons from the first, more Guardians of the Galaxy is a good thing but the narrative just doesn’t hold. It ends up too busy and chaotic without the emotional weight that it needs. I thoroughly enjoyed what we get from Kurt Russell as he just had a blast in all the right ways with this and Mantis is an easy favorite within the overall franchise to the point I can’t wait to see what she’s like in Infinity War. But a lot of this comes across awkwardly, especially the mutiny aspect and all things related to Taserface. The brilliant moments are brilliant but the weak moments drag it all down.
17) Iron Man 3: Similar to the second film, expectations were high and the thought of a good course correction after the second and a strong writer/director would fix things. I do think that the creative twist when it came to the villain works better in hindsight as comic fans were really expecting one thing and felt duped by the reality, but it’s also a film that simply allows us to spend too much time in Tony Stark’s wallowing. I loved the drunk Tony storyline from the comics in the 80’s because it could take the time to really work us through it and how he got out of it, but the film isn’t able to deal with Tony’s PTSD from the Avengers here in a strong enough way as it gets distracted too easily and doesn’t have a strong enough through line. There are great set pieces and some really fun character moments and I really wish that it had utilized AIM as an actual mad scientist kind of organization since all the right pieces were there. I enjoyed the hell out of the performances but it never felt like it gelled together as a whole.
18) Thor – The Dark World: Someone has to come in last and it usually is this film, which I always feel bad about. It’s another project that I think repeat viewings will alter a lot of people’s views on even if not really changing them because of the flaws of the film. The Dark Elves never connect and Eccleston is wasted in his role that’s never given a true villain’s weight and importance. And for those that hate Natalie Portman and/or Jane Foster, it’s even more problematic. What we did get were some intriguing Asgard moments and a whole lot of fun with Loki as well that made for some fun buddy moments. I liked how it worked with the fallout from Avengers here with him and what Thor had been up to as well. Mostly, this feels like a not fully developed film and one that needed some cleanup with a few scenes edited out, rewritten, and some new ones added to smooth it all out.
And now we just wait to see how Infinity War will fit into the rankings (plus Ant-Man and Wasp this summer!)
Chris has been writing about anime, manga, movies and comics for well on twenty years now. He began AnimeOnDVD.com back in 1998 and has covered nearly every anime release that’s come out in the US ever since.