This Friday brings about the second Avengers movie, and like many of you I plan on doing my American duty to line up to see a blockbuster sequel. Of course it will obliterate any and all records, and it will inspire a bunch more overwrought think-pieces about how superheroes are destroying American cinema. I remain highly dubious on DC’s attempts to turn every one of their properties into an existential slog on the big screen, but it’s hard to fault Marvel for their adherance to what has been a highly successful model.
The key to Marvel’s movies isn’t that they are all amazing. Probably only three or four of them rise above the level of “pretty good.” But what they lack in blow-you-awayness they make up for in simply being reliable. At this point they’re merits relative to other movies don’t really matter, at least not to fans of the MCU. The question is always “Where does this rank in the overall Marvel pantheon?” The question is not “Will this movie compete for Oscars?”
(Yes, I know that “it won’t win any Oscars” has been used to excuse a lot of mediocrity in cinema, especially among genre movies. My point is that the conversation about Marvel movies almost never occurs in the context of the cinematic landscape, unless you’re a critic and you live in constant fear of the Marvelocalypse.)
Anyway, this seems like as good a time as any to really dig into the list of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, and see how they stack up against each other. Unlike my Disney list I’ve actually seen all the movies on this list. Also, I won’t be mentioning the TV series, since they exist on kind of a separate level for me. (Daredevil is great, and I keep waiting for that to happen with Agents of SHIELD, though it hasn’t yet where I am.)
10. The Incredible Hulk – This is kind of the black sheep of the series, one of those cases where a modest success actually managed to have almost no impact on the rest of the MCU. Ed Norton isn’t a bad Bruce Banner, but he’s not given much to do, and Mark Ruffalo made us forget about him in a hurry. Also, this movie has like no dialog. It’s almost entirely made up of intese grimaces and meaningful looks, most of which don’t carry a lot of weight because they aren’t given a lot of context. But when it decides to smash it smashes good, so even as the worst entry it’s at least entertaining.
9. Iron Man 2 – This was the first indication that the MCU was really taking shape as a franchise, and at the time that felt exhilerating. Five years later Iron Man 2 looks kind of misshapen and lumpy. It draws inspiration from numerous Iron Man elements, and the seams definitely show. It doesn’t squander the goodwill generated by its predecessor, but neither does it excel in any meaningful way.
8. Thor: The Dark World – I love Thor. He’s definitely my favorite Avenger, and probably my favorite Marvel hero. The Dark World shows how well the MCU has done with casting its heroes, because Chris Hemsworth is just great as the God of Thunder. Of course Tom Hiddleston is still great in his third turn as Loki, and this one also contains my favorite MCU climax, where characters ping-pong between dimensions while trying to prevent all of them collapsing. The downside is the villain, who is waste on two levels. First of all, this conception of Malekith the Accursed is awfully flat in this movie, little more than generic evil. Malekith and the Dark Elves could be terrific, but they are squandered. Secondly, Christopher Eccleston is far better than this material, an inspired casting choice utterly wasted by the script. The good generally outweighs the bad, but a better villain would have made this one of the great entries.
7. Captain America: The First Avenger – A common criticism of the MCU is that all of the movies have the same sheen, and there’s merit to that argument. But the first Captain America feels pretty distinct, with an Indiana-Jones-cum-Rocketeer atmosphere. The major knock here is that even the subtitle seems to indicate this is just another cog in the larger machine, though it’s an enjoyable cog to be sure. Let’s get the Red Skull out as one of the big villains in this series, okay Marvel?
6. Thor – This is the better of the two Thor movies, if just because it lets Thor be a lunkhead, and Loki be a manipulative schemer. But more than most movies in the series, it depends on a knowledge of how the comics feel. Otherwise the ridiculous Asgardian get-ups and goofy faux-Shakespearian dialog threaten to sink the whole deal. To put it another way, it played a lot better for me the second time through, especially after I was familiar with the comics.
5. Iron Man 3 – The second Iron Man struggled to stitch together its own story from its different sources, but Iron Man 3 does that much better. Rather than feeling like a few different stories at once, it’s able to defy expectations and surprise even people who are familiar with the source material. It’s an off-beat entry into the MCU, but it’s exactly what it needed after the explosive finale of The Avengers. You could make the argument that the interpretation of The Mandarin was disappointing, or that we didn’t need a third Iron Man in the first place, or a million other quibbles. But in the end it’s nice to have something that forges a new path not just for its title hero, but for the franchise in general.
4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier – A lot of people declared this to be one of the best entries upon its release, and it’s easy to see why. The political intrigue of SHIELD is a great fit for Cap, and it’s one of the rare films where the odds really do feel insurmountable, at least for a while. Those political thriller elements are more a dash of flavor than the main course, but it is another case where an established setting is able to offer some genuine surprises.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy – I was halfway tempted to call this one my favorite, because it plays the most to my own tastes. I love space opera, even in its cheesiest form, and Guardians of the Galaxy does it as well as any movie since the original Star Wars trilogy. (Not that it has a lot of competition.) I slotted it here, because it relies on many of the same tropes as the rest of the series, with its own Galactic Knick-Knack of Great Importance, and the patented Explosive Marvel Climax. But it does such a great job with its ensemble cast, and it looks terrific too. Definitely one of the best entries in the MCU, and one of my personal favorites.
2. The Avengers – This would be number one for most people, and you could make a great argument for just that. It is a great culmination to the five movies that came before it, and it draws on all of the character beats to create not just its own climax, but also one to a whole franchise. It also contains the most fist-pump moments, when you feel the need to actually applaud a movie. It’s also less able to stand on its own because of this, but at this point that could be levelled at just about every MCU entry. The Avengers is super-heroes done right, and probably the most influential blockbuster of the 2010’s.
1. Iron Man – None of us saw it coming. Iron Man was an eternal b-lister in the public consciousness, and Marvel in general was venturing out without either of its biggest properties (Spider-Man and X-Men). This was the movie that made everything possible, and it’s not hard to see why. The cast? Robert Downey Jr. set the tone not just for Iron Man, but the entire MCU with his witty and human portrayal, and Jeff Bridges might have the best performance of any Marvel villain so far. Not only that, but this might be the only superhero movie to make an origin story actual fun. When you consider what a risk this movie actually was, it looks even more amazing than it already is. Simply, it’s the best MCU movie, and one of the great superhero movies of all time.