What's the best Marvel movie? With Avengers: Endgame about to bring the MCU epic Infinity Saga to a close (although the future in Phase 4 will certainly be exciting), now is the perfect time to look back over 11 years and 21 films' worth of industry-changing, comic-book inspired cinema.
While Marvel Studios' output has often been discussed in terms of formula and references, across three Phases the MCU has been able to quite literally provide something for everyone. Political thrillers, high school comedies, Star Wars-esque space comedy, Shakespeare in the park, epic rock collecting - you name it, Marvel has done it in some form or permutation.
All of this means that everybody's opinion on what the best Marvel Cinematic Universe movie is varies wildly. Screen Rant's editors and writers have been dutifully rewatching the whole MCU ahead of Avengers: Endgame and, instead of declaring a collective winner, we've each selected our own personal picks.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier - Alex Leadbeater (Features Editor)
"It's not just a great genre film, it's a great film" is an irritating way to praise any sci-fi/horror/fantasy movie (please stop it), but that is honestly what went through my head as the credits first rolled on Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Not in the "wow, they made a superhero movie that's good?!" way some people protest, but that Marvel Studios had managed to create something that was the comic-infused MCU through-and-through, yet managed to use those established tropes to tell a higher reaching story. Yes, the writers and directors weren't to know that Edward Snowden's NSA leak would become a thing, but the fears of national surveillance needn't be all about Edward Snowden, especially when it's so centered on the lost friendship of Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes.
The balance the Russo brothers show here would be done with more bombast in Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War & Endgame, but it was never with as much heart as here. The action, the comedy is all imbued with character, and the flourishes (even the baiting casting of Robert Redford to ensure Three Days of the Condor comparisons in reviews) all elevate it. I just wish all it teased - the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D., reveal of Hydra, Baron von Strucker et al - had led somewhere rather than being rendered moot by Avengers: Age of Ultron.
I wrote our complete ranking of all MCU films, and as a four-month project that comes in over 6000 words, I'm not going to get too much into my honorable mentions and instead direct you there. Check it out, find out why the Russos are the best, Spider-Man: Homecoming is the most rewatchable, Doctor Strange is more Interstellar than Inception, and no doubt at least one placement you won't agree with.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain Marvel - Molly Freeman (News Editor)
Picking my favorite MCU movie was tougher than I expected because, despite how many of them I’ve disliked or just not cared much about, quite a few are my favorite movies ever. But I narrowed it down to the top two favorites as being Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain Marvel.
Captain Marvel is the movie I’ve been waiting for from Marvel, with a female hero and a storyline that manages to tell a superhero origin story from a uniquely female perspective, while showcasing how women can be strong in more ways than one. Even if it’s a movie about an Air Force Pilot (which I’m not, nor have I ever been) who gets blasted with Infinity Stone energy and becomes the most powerful being in the universe, it’s the MCU movie I relate to most, and that’s why it’s my favorite.
But before Carol Danvers was introduced to the MCU, my favorite of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes was Steve Rogers. His story across the first two Captain America movies is some of the strongest filmmaking in the MCU. Though it’s slightly stronger in The Winter Soldier, which is why the sequel edges out The First Avenger (though I do love the grenade scene). And Black Panther makes the cut as an honorable mention because I genuinely believe it’s the best movie Marvel Studios has produced yet. It’s truly great cinema and a fantastic superhero movie at the same time. Honestly, if I could have a four-way tie for favorite MCU movie, it would be these four.
Guardians of the Galaxy - Andrew Dyce (Comics Editor)
The greatest Marvel movie moments might span the entire twenty films or so released to date, but it's hard to imagine a tighter, more self-contained, and more unexpectedly fantastic movie than James Gunn's first Guardians of the Galaxy. It was a movie I loved from the first viewing, but has only gotten better with each year that the MCU has grown in size and scope.
It would be easy to rattle off the moments universally loved by almost every fan. Peter Quill's satisfied "finally" as his Star-Lord reputation finally precedes him, the bird-like attack of the Ravagers in their epic defense of Xandar, the shared look with Gamora to "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and one of the most honest 'speech' scenes you'll find in a genre filled with them.
"Honest" might be the best word to describe what Guardians has that seems increasingly rare in a genre (and movie universe) prioritizing "epic" scale, stakes, and emotion instead. Guardians is, at the end of the day, a story that bears its heart as much as it shows its sense of humor. Not to mention a soundtrack that won't just remain untouched by any imitators (even its own sequel), but is destined to be held as one of the greatest in movie history, period.
Thor - Mansoor Mithaiwala (Features Editor)
Thor isn't the best MCU movie to date, but it's certainly my favorite. Right from the start, the first Thor movie circumvents what has now become the standard Marvel origin story. By deconstructing Thor's relationships with his brother, Loki, and his father, Odin, we're presented with two age-old arcs: the story of two brothers at odds with one another and the story of a young monarch who doesn't know what it means to be king.
Throughout the film, Thor surmounts all odds and not only becomes worthy of wielding Mjolnir but also lives up to his name as told in legends. With these two stories, Kenneth Branagh managed to imbue his playwright capacities into a superhero movie. And the crazy thing is, it worked. So did the Shakespearean themes and the fish-out-of-water side plot. In the end, Thor wasn't about defeating a big bad enemy but rather coming to terms with one's family - just on an epic, galactic scale. Furthermore, Thor learned what it meant to be a god by becoming human. His power wasn't innate at the time; instead, it was something born out of mutual respect.
One of the many things that grasped my attention while reading comics growing up was the wonder of it all - the fantasy and the escapism. Seeing that come to life in Thor was a truly thrilling moment. It's just disappointing that the bridge between science and fantasy in the MCU was cast aside after Phase 1. It had a good run.
It's easy to look back at Iron Man as being the movie that started it all, which it technically did, but without Thor - and, more importantly, without Branagh and the screenwriters - The Avengers (and, by proxy, the rest of the MCU) wouldn't have worked. Plus, it isn't far-fetched to say that Thor also has one of the best soundtracks in the MCU, which is all thanks to the great composer Patrick Doyle.
Guardians of the Galaxy - Chris Agar (News Editor)
Since I first saw it, my all-time favorite MCU film has been the first Guardians of the Galaxy. As a Star Wars fan, the space opera element always appealed to me, but there's so much else I like about the movie. In particular, Peter Quill's relationship with his mother genuinely affects me. Star-Lord opening Awesome Mix Vol. 2 at the end is still the only MCU moment that made me tear up. Yes, Guardians has a little bit of goofiness (a climactic dance-off), though that's part of its unique charm.
Marvel movies are often criticized for being bland and formulaic, but James Gunn made something special. The humor, heart, and great collection of characters all hit the right notes for me and I'm happy Gunn's back to round out the trilogy. Even without MCU connections, the Guardians series would be a strong franchise.
Iron Man - Stephen Colbert (Features Editor)
The movie that kicked it all off. Many movies have come close, and some have even surpassed it in some capacities, but Iron Man is still the best all-around movie in the MCU. Even though its Iron Man's first appearance, somehow (likely due to more reliance on practical effects), the Iron Man suit has never looked better. The movie was shot on film and has higher contrast lighting and color grade than a lot of the flatter muddy concrete look the MCU has come to be known for with many of its later movies.
Iron Man also has more of a sense of personality than most other MCU films. Movies like the Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok certainly have a personality of their own, but there's still a sense of uniformity in the humor, quips, and use of music. Iron Man comes from an age before the Disney acquisition and before the MCU properly existed, leaving it free to do more of its own thing. After the 20+ MCU movies that followed, it's still a surprise to watch Iron Man and see how it's full of bolder, and often edgier, moments that just wouldn't exist in most Marvel movies today.
Tony Stark's story is also one of the best single-movie arcs. He's continued to evolve through later movies, but his transition from a selfish billionaire rockstar inventor to a proper hero who's willing to put his life on the line to help others set the template for everything that followed, also setting up one of the MCU's best closing moments: "I am Iron Man".
Doctor Strange - Cody Gravelle (Gaming Editor)
Doctor Strange liberated me from superhero movie fatigue and refreshed my love of Marvel. While the struggle of humanity versus evil or humanity versus morality is captivating in its own way, the journey of Doctor Strange versus reality was as fascinating as it was fresh. The character opens the door for so many different modes of expression simply because there are so few rules that restrict him, and his victory condition is literally losing so often he annoys an enemy into submission. Doctor Strange might not be the coolest hero in the MCU — he might not even be close, to be honest — but he’s every bit as weird as the name promises and for that, his movie sticks out as the most memorable in the lead up to Avengers: Endgame.
Black Panther - Thomas Bacon (Features Writer)
There's never been a superhero movie quite like Black Panther. The film excels at world-building, with Marvel Studios and director Ryan Coogler putting in a phenomenal amount of effort to make Wakanda feel like a real place. Black Panther pretty much embodies Afrofuturism, imagining an African paradise that had never been touched by Western colonialism. Every detail feels so very authentic - from the language to the costumes, from the culture to the technology.
Although Marvel has promised that diversity is the future, it's worth remembering that Phases 1-3 weren't exactly noteworthy in terms of diversity. 2017's Spider-Man: Homecoming was literally the first time a black female had a single line of dialogue in the MCU. Against that, Black Panther is authentically African in terms of casting, and it was even more diverse behind the scenes in terms of the production crew. For me, this was the film where Marvel transcended superhero movies and simply made a real classic. It deserves its Oscar wins.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier - John Orquiola (Features Writer)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier broke away from the "comic book movie" formula and plunged the entire MCU into the grey morality and paranoia of a 1970s-style political thriller. The Russo Brothers raised the MCU's bar for complexity, intrigue, and visceral action. Captain America has simply never fought better, harder, or more heroically. The elevator fight, Steve's escape from the Triskelion, and the highway fight with Bucky are MCU high-water marks. In all, The Winter Soldier is the movie that truly turned Steve Rogers into a hero for our time.
Honorable mentions: Iron Man, Thor: Ragnarok, Captain America: Civil War, and Avengers: Infinity War.
Avengers: Infinity War - Cooper Hood (News & Feature Writer)
Avengers: Infinity War could've gone wrong in so many ways. There's two dozen characters, a giant CGI villain we've barely met before, and a busy plot as a result. But, somehow the Russo brothers managed to make it all work. Turning Thanos into the main character was a brilliant choice that allowed us to get inside the twisted psyche of the Mad Titan, while the narrative is then perfectly balanced (as Thanos would like it to be) with groupings of characters that give us crossovers we've waited for years to see. The action delivers on the blockbuster scale necessary and then wraps up with a shocking and devastating ending (even if they're all but guaranteed to return) that is rare to see for a franchise of this size. It had the weight of the entire MCU on its shoulders, and Infinity War still found a way to deliver.
Doctor Strange - Max Farrow (Features Writer)
The Avengers, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Black Panther. How do you choose between so many marvelous (heh) movies? But three years on - and even after many of these hits - Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange still stands out.
Sure, the snarky, white pioneer who masters a new way of life after being punished for their hubris is a familiar origin story. But while Doctor Strange follows a recognizable recipe, it improves and enrichens it along the way. Its dynamic score, eye-popping visuals and talented cast are among the best the MCU has to offer. Plus, Strange’s bargaining might be a meme now, but the way in which it foregrounds brains over brawn means that it's one franchise's most thematically powerful conclusions.
Maybe it’s because this tale of a man opening himself up to the possibility of flaws, failure and sacrifice really rang true to me after a personal loss. But to my mind, few films have spoken to the immolation of superheroism quite like Doctor Strange. After Avengers: Endgame, Strange’s sequel is my most anticipated Marvel movie which, coming from a fervent fan of Homecoming, is saying something.
- The Avengers 4 / Avengers: Endgame (2019) release date: Apr 26, 2019
- Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) release date: Jul 02, 2019