It’s been eight years since Marvel first shook the world with a super-suit and a smug Robert Downey, Jr., and in that time, they’ve redefined the parameters of what a “film universe” could be. No longer stuck serving out standalone entries, the studio has made every step count, implanting teasers, easter eggs, and the occasional crossover cameo to construct a universe that’s all-encompassing while remaining distinct to their given hero. As such, every installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or the MCU) is both a finely tuned individual and a cog in the larger big screen machine.
The 12 entries that comprise Phase 1 (2008-2012) and Phase 2 (2013-2015) have proven colossally successful worldwide, to the point where rival studio DC is now scrambling to match up with a single (possibly overstuffed) project: Batman v Superman. But the ability to market products to the right audience has always proven a strong suit for Marvel; who is pulling something similar with this May’s Captain America: Civil War. Pitting Cap against Iron Man, this star-studded slugfest is sure to be a pivotal turning point in the MCU. Consequently, it seems like a great time to revisit everything that’s led up to it.
Here is Screen Rant’s Ranking of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Movies.
12 Iron Man 2 (2010)
For every good decision that the execs down at Marvel make, it's important to remember that they’re human too. They’re susceptible to errors in judgement like the best of us, and nowhere is this flaw more notable than in Iron Man 2 (2010). Coming off the surprise success of the first film, director Jon Favreau hams up a CGI buffet of shiny fights while letting his plot overcomplicate and underwhelm. Matters are made worse by the waste of Sam Rockwell’s villain and a post-comeback Mickey Rourke buried under a debilitating accent and absolutely zero characterization.
As the third film in the rapidly expanding MCU, Iron Man 2 was saddled with the responsibility of setting up the superhero storylines that succeeded it. There’s a decent amount of leniency to be had as a result, but even with Downey’s undeniable charm, Iron Man 2 takes the bottom rung on the Stark Industries ladder. Sorry, Tony.
Update: Unfortunately for DC fans, this film may be the most apt comparison for the recently released Batman v Superman.
11 Thor: The Dark World (2013)
The original Thor was a bro-fest of Asgardian proportions, steadied by the surprise delight of Tom Hiddleston’s tragic Loki. That being said, the fact that his role was heavily downsized in 2013's The Dark World was a bad sign of things to come. Sure enough, Hiddleston makes the most of his limited screen time and outshines the titular hero (Chris Hemsworth) in the midst of global destruction. The rest of the film, bouncing quite literally between Earth and outer space, provides an eye-candy display that comes up short of its intergalactic potential.
Hemsworth is a charming lead, but he's no Laurence Olivier, nor even a Kenneth Branagh (who directed the first film), and the limits of his acting are highlighted opposite performers like Anthony Hopkins and Idris Elba. At least the first Thor provided a cutesy romance with Natalie Portman’s Jane, but even this is relegated to make way for taxing political debates. The Dark World is also notable for highlighting a recurring problem amongst Marvel adventures post-Avengers: if all of Earth is in danger, why isn't the solo adventure-starring hero calling up another member of Earth's Mightiest Heroes for assistance?
Thor: Ragnarok has a little cleaning up to do come 2017.
10 The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Adding "Incredible" to the title in the hopes that an adjective might boost box office sales, the second Hulk adaptation only improved slightly upon the muddling original. Casting Edward Norton as Dr. Bruce Banner was definitely a smart move, but the acclaimed actor fails to make much of an impression behind a bland beard and a stoic demeanor. Aided by an underwhelming cast of Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, and William Hurt, this moody picture ultimately crumbles under its own mediocrity.
It’s obvious that The Incredible Hulk was striving towards a compelling character study, yet director Louis Leterrier’s penchant for sleek style and face-value thrills failed to align with such lofty seriousness. Released only months after the success of a certain charisma king (Tony Stark), Hulk’s only reference point in the MCU made for an unflattering comparison. After this film, the studio was more equipped to match directors with source material that fit their storytelling strengths.
9 Thor (2011)
Appointing thespian Kenneth Branagh to direct Thor seemed like a smart move on the part of the studio, especially given the character’s origins as a Crown Prince. This hunch works pretty well for the most part, with refined visuals and battles playing out like the space child of William Shakespeare and The Wizard of Oz. The cast is stacked to match that of prior Marvel installments, and even the exposition-heavy dialogue seems appropriate to a comic that always read on the stuffy side of the spectrum. Ironically, it is the inciting incident of Thor’s Earth exile that the film splits into a one-trick-pony of misplaced action and humor.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) effortlessly charms Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her cohorts, as the film’s best moments wind up being of the fish-out-of-water variety. When it comes time to kick extra-terrestrial tail, however, the self-serious fights come off a bit boring before returning to the charming banter at hand. A decent origin story, if not particularly memorable.
8 Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Following up one of the biggest blockbusters of all time has its setbacks, and it’d be idiotic to suggest Joss Whedon didn’t try his damndest to match the original Avengers. The writer/director maintains a remarkable command of verbiage in this supersized sequel, and Age of Ultron’s best moments often arrive when the team is allowed time for playful competition. The party scene, where our heroes attempt to budge Thor’s mighty hammer, easily claims a prize as the MCU’s most unabashedly fun moment. Tellingly, Ultron (James Spader) soon crashes the festivities, setting in motion Marvel’s most jam-packed adventure to date.
The complaints lodged against Age of Ultron are the classic sequel-itis conditions: too crammed with new characters and too much to tie up in terms of loose ends and story arcs. That it had to answer to the rest of the MCU’s expanding lineup barely left any room for its own progression. On top of that, delivering a project that pleased both the masses and avoided fanboy critique was no easy feat — kudos to Whedon for delivering what can at least be qualified as a highly entertaining mess.
7 Ant-Man (2015)
Released after nearly a decade of pre-production purgatory, Ant-Man very nearly carried the directing tag of Edgar Wright, who decided to step down from the helm due to creative differences. Popcorned over to Peyton Reed, the final product is a uniquely comedic entry within the growing grimness of the Marvel Universe. Still carrying with it many of the quirks that Wright brought to the table, Ant-Man revived the charm of a focused Marvel project, centering on a single story rather than Ultron’s seemingly infinite plot-lines.
The inspired casting of Paul Rudd furthered this singular vision, backed by Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, and a wonderfully sage Michael Douglas as the O.G. Ant-Man, Hank Pym. The stakes are refreshingly personal, while the heist elements of the film infuse eccentricity into it's small-scale action scenes. Reed takes full advantage of Ant-Man’s gimmicky abilities, and this overall delight only increases anticipation for Scott Lang’s cameo in Civil War. Greatness actually can come in small packages, who knew.
6 Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Plainly put, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is the square of the Marvel Universe. In the wrong hands, his first solo outing could’ve been a Boy Scout bog of boredom, so drenched in do-gooder attitude as to be nearly unwatchable. Luckily, none of this occurred, and director Joe Johnston instead channels wholesomeness into an inspiring story of courage and excitement. Rogers’ CGI-assisted skinniness takes some getting used to, but the sincere acting goes a long way in selling Evans as anything but a strapping superhuman.
Set against the backdrop of WWII, Captain America was the film in which Marvel began to show its ability to see the bigger picture. References to the Stark family and supernatural elements later found in The Avengers were skillfully weaved into the plot, as was an Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell) who would spin-off with her own MCU show in 2015. By pulling The First Avenger off, Marvel proved this foresight was no flash in the pan.
5 Iron Man 3 (2013)
Easily the most divisive entry on the list, Iron Man 3 rolled the dice on comic book lore by transforming arch-nemesis The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) into a mere misdirection for the story’s true villain. Hardened fans cried foul and demanded the head of writer/director Shane Black, while others rejoiced at the ingenious rethinking of a famed character. Either way, Black’s rattled-up direction breathed new life into the franchise, and cleverly incorporated the aftermath of The Avengers through Stark’s damaged psyche. In doing so, the film not only shined as the first standalone hit post team-up, but salvaged the Marvel hero's complexity after being done away with in Iron Man 2.
Black, a crackerjack screenwriter with a history of blending violence and holiday cheer, continues this trend with a story reminiscent of another Downey collaboration: 2005's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Also worth noting are the similarities to A Christmas Carol, as ghosts (or villains) of the past, present, and future pay visit to Stark’s stuffy Super Scrooge. A risky conclusion (?) to the MCU’s bread-and-butter franchise, but one that ultimately passes with flying colors.
4 Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Somehow, someway, a movie about a ragtag bunch of space pirates became the biggest cinematic sensation of 2014. Sheer luck? Not exactly. By this point in the game, Marvel has mastered the practice of mining talent, and they were positive that director James Gunn was the ideal choice to helm this unconventional action-comedy. Part Star Trek (1979), part Big Trouble In Little China (1986), it was a film that demanded a distinct flavor to fully work, and Gunn’s eclectic mix of violence and humor in projects like Super (2010) solidified this as a match made in galactic heaven.
Driven by the talents of Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, and Vin Diesel, Guardians plays so comfortably within its niche market that the feeling is infectious, topped off with an oldies soundtrack and lowbrow humor that predates Deadpool by almost two years. Perhaps most importantly, however, it showcased the unstoppable machine that Marvel had become. If the studio could make a property this obscure into a hit, there was no telling what could be done moving forward — especially with Vol. II arriving next year.
3 Iron Man (2008)
Without this nifty originator, all of the other films in the MCU would most likely not exist. And for that, there will always be a soft spot for director Jon Favreau’s quick-witted Iron Man. Crafted on a shoestring budget in comparison to future releases, the film is lush with the energy of its star, Oscar nominee Robert Downey, Jr. Back after what seemed like an eternity away from the mainstream, the charming actor saddles the role of Tony Stark and catapultes himself into icon status with a performance equal parts playboy and repressed humanist.
On the stylistic side of things, Favreau fleshes out the blueprint of the Marvel Universe: colorful, expressive, and realistic without being restrictive. The Jeff Bridges storyline may seem like small potatoes compared to the stuff that Stark has since had to deal with, but the charisma of both actors — lumped in with Gwyneth Paltrow’s spitfire Pepper Potts — never gets old. The simplest, and still most exemplary execution of the Marvel formula.
2 Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
A study in contrasts, The Winter Soldier incorporates Marvel’s most upright character into a world of moral ambiguity. Juggling real-world concerns with Cap’s own adjustment to modern society, Soldier swaps the patriotism of The First Avenger for a paranoia reminiscent of Alan J. Pakula’s finest work. All The President’s Men (1976) star Robert Redford even brings his refined air to the role of a corrupted council member, deepening this throwback connection. Evans grows into the title role powerfully, and friendships with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) stabilize an otherwise white knuckle affair.
Barring these crucial connections, The Winter Soldier also houses some of the most dazzling sequences to ever grace a superhero film. The highway chase is a concise thing of beauty, balancing stuntwork and storyline to capture a mayhem that’s staggering to absorb, while Nick Fury’s run-in with the titular baddie may forever be his coolest onscreen moment. As a pure piece of cinema, The Winter Soldier is the sharpest product that Marvel has yet produced, and by far its brainiest.
1 The Avengers (2012)
Iron Man, Winter Soldier, and Guardians are all great, but The Avengers (2012) easily tops the list as Marvel's masterpiece. It eclipses the simple parameters of a movie — it was an “event” that had insane expectations going into its release, and somehow surpassed every one of them. Joss Whedon, who had only one feature film under his belt, was charged with both compiling the crew for the very first time and finding a new Hulk to replace Edward Norton after the disappointing 2008 film.
The wisecracking TV vet did it all and then some. Avengers is the most fluidly paced blockbuster in recent memory, serving as a greatest hits of all the movies that preceded it; while providing mayhem that was previously limited to the dreams of comic book fans. A top-notch villain, an implausible amount of chemistry within the team, and a 143 minute runtime flashes by in a refreshing breeze. As a movie watching experience, few adventures prove as satisfying. As the culmination to the MCU game-plan, it’s downright heroic.
Do you agree with our rankings? Where do you think Civil War will rank on this list when it makes its theatrical debut in a few short weeks? Be sure to let us know in the comments section.