With all the money they’re making from them, Disney won’t be stopping production on Marvel movies any time soon. However, they did give us an ending of sorts with Avengers: Endgame. While there were plenty of sequels set up by the movie, it still felt like a satisfying series finale.
The 22-film arc that began with Iron Man and led up to Endgame has been called “The Infinity Saga.” In the 11-year span of these movies, the quality has been surprisingly consistent, but there have been ups and downs.
10 Best: The Avengers
The Avengers was the first truly great movie in the MCU. It was the first time that audiences really got on board with the idea of a shared universe of superhero movies. We’d had a couple of middling solo movies that introduced Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk, but when Joss Whedon brought them all together for the first time, the MCU was born.
It’s possible that in the years since The Avengers came out, there still hasn’t been a more memorable shot in the MCU than the pan around the heroes during the Battle of New York. Every superhero movie should not only look but also feel like The Avengers. It’s perfection, structurally and stylistically, bridging the gap between the conventions of cinema and the conventions of comics.
9 Worst: Iron Man 2
Iron Man 2 suffers from the same problem as Batman v Superman, in that it’s too bogged down in setting up its own universe to be a good movie in its own right. To be fair to Iron Man 2, it was the first movie to tie a cinematic universe together, so it was bound to be rusty. BvS has no such excuse, since it shamelessly copied the MCU and didn’t even learn from its mistakes. Also, what was going on with Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash? He couldn’t have been less necessary to the plot.
The real villain of Iron Man 2 wasn’t Whiplash or Justin Hammer; it was the U.S. government, desperate to control Tony Stark after he bragged about privatizing freedom. Focusing on this angle instead of universe setup and cramming in supervillains would’ve made a far more interesting movie. At least Iron Man 3 was original and different and actually presented Tony with a challenge: saving the day without the use of his Iron Man suit (and then with the use of dozens).
8 Best: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Russo brothers’ first contribution to the MCU was an exhilarating and visually delightful pastiche of all the government conspiracy movies that flooded the multiplex in the years following the Watergate scandal. But that’s all on the surface of an interesting character study of Steve Rogers as a man out of his time in the modern world.
The only problem is that it stumbles into predictable territory in the third act, with an all-too-familiar final battle. Still, as final battles go, it’s pretty darn good, utilizing Cap’s physical strengths perfectly and using his fight with Bucky as an emotional core to keep that spectacle grounded.
7 Worst: Avengers: Age of Ultron
Joss Whedon had his work cut out for him when he had to follow up his own MCU game-changer The Avengers. It’s not necessarily that Age of Ultron is a bad movie; it’s just that it doesn’t really need to be there. It’s less of a movie on its own and more of a bridge between various installments in the MCU. It’s just caught in the middle, mimicking what worked before and then dragging it down with long stretches like the sequence at Hawkeye’s house.
Ultron makes for a terrific villain, yes. He’s characterized as suitably creepy and James Spader plays him as an unnerving visionary, but the movie doesn’t really do anything with him. In the final battle, he’s underwhelmingly easy to defeat.
6 Best: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Since MCU movies deal with lofty ideas like the fabric of reality and magical mass genocide, they rarely have an overarching emotional theme. However, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is incredibly emotionally resonant, with its focus on family. Peter Quill meets his biological father and discovers he’s an evil Celestial and that Yondu was his real dad the whole time, since he raised him and took care of him and, in the end, made the ultimate sacrifice for him.
Rocket accepts the other Guardians as the family he’s found, while Gamora and Nebula put their differences aside and become real sisters for the first time. Every action sequence in the movie uses fantastical elements to develop these relationships in interesting ways. This is big-budget film-making at its finest. Plus, obviously, it has a great soundtrack.
5 Worst: Doctor Strange
Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange has some impressive visuals, especially in its dazzling Inception-style twisting of cityscapes. However, the movie is ultimately a disappointingly formulaic origin story, with a Groundhog Day parody in lieu of a climactic action sequence. Plus, as great as Benedict Cumberbatch may be, his Stephen Strange is characterized as a second-rate Tony Stark.
The visual effects may be spectacular, but they act as an attractive shell around an empty, insubstantial narrative. Hopefully, in the upcoming sequel, Derrickson will be able to escape the trappings of the origin story and take us to really trippy and surreal places like the more unhinged comics.
4 Best: Black Panther
You can’t fault Black Panther. Ryan Coogler’s slick, energetic direction breathed new life into a well-worn formula (just like he did with the Rocky formula in Creed) and everyone in the cast was terrific, from Chadwick Boseman playing the title role to Letitia Wright as his genius sister Shuri.
Black Panther even solved the MCU’s villain problem with Erik Killmonger, a menacing character who was ultimately human and whose motivations we could understand (portrayed brilliantly by Michael B. Jordan). It had an impeccable soundtrack with contributions by Kendrick Lamar. It’s no wonder it was nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars.
3 Worst: The Incredible Hulk
This one is marred partly by the fact that it’s an MCU movie starring Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, when we’ve all come to know and love Mark Ruffalo’s take on the character. Aside from that, though, it’s just a pretty generic superhero movie. There’s a couple of action set pieces, a shoehorned-in romantic subplot, and a big climactic showdown with the villain that totals a major city.
We can see all the story beats coming from a mile away, despite the initially intriguing setup of a self-exiled Banner living off the grid. Unfortunately, it looks like it’ll be the last Hulk movie we’ll be seeing for a while.
2 Best: Avengers: Endgame
Whether or not Avengers: Endgame is a truly great movie doesn’t matter, because it has morphed into something entirely different. No movie has ever been expected to pay off 22 movies before in the whole history of film. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a series finale and it’s never been done before.
As a sprawling narrative on an insanely epic scale, full of character moments, loose ends getting tied up, and scenes we’ve been waiting to see for years, Avengers: Endgame is an immensely satisfying conclusion to “The Infinity Saga.” Sure, it’s just three hours of giving the fans what they want, but what’s so bad about that? What’s the alternative, giving them what they don’t want?
1 Worst: Thor: The Dark World
The expression “third time lucky” certainly applies to Thor’s solo movies. Until Taika Watiti came along with the bonkers Thor: Ragnarok, finally realizing that the best way to depict Thor is by making him a comedy character, he was the most boring character in the MCU.
Kenneth Branagh’s first Thor movie was very theatrical and Shakespearean, which failed to grab audiences. But it was Alan Taylor’s Game of Thrones-esque take on Thor: The Dark World that really took the cake. Plus, this movie gives Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster her biggest role in the franchise, which ended up being her final major appearance as fans had finally had enough.