Avengers: Infinity War has finally arrived, marking the culmination of 10 years and 19 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since its release, it has crushed box office records much like Thanos crushed our favorite Marvel superheroes without breaking a sweat — but how does it stack up against the other 18 movies in the MCU?
Now that the world’s biggest film has been in theaters for just over a week (and everyone has had a chance to see it), it’s time to answer that perpetual question: which of the Marvel Studios movies is the best? Here are the 19 films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ranked from favorite to least favorite, as judged by our wonderful staff. Enjoy!
Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe (First 10 Years)
19. Iron Man 2 (2010)
With superhero movies, more often than not the second film tends to be the best of the series. The reason is simple: having dispensed with the obligatory origin tale, the filmmakers can now weave a more compelling narrative. One only needs to look at Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, and Captain America: Winter Solider as just a few examples to back this claim. Unfortunately, Iron Man 2 does not fit in that camp, and is in no way as good nor better than its predecessor.
That’s not to say the second installment of the Marvel comic-turned-movie-hero’s adventures isn’t worth seeing, because it is. As in the first Iron Man, the main attraction here isn’t the plot, but Robert Downey Jr., who once again owns the film with his innate charisma and ability to deliver cutting lines of dialogue with pitch-perfect timing. In fact, he’s so good that despite the appearance of both Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell (two fine actors in their own right), the best scenes are those that revolve around Downey and Gwyneth Paltrow (as Stark’s resistant assistant, Pepper Potts), or those that revolve around just Downey himself. That isn’t to say that the villains aren’t memorable, because they are; Rockwell’s Justin Hammer proves the ideal adversary, and Rourke’s Russian physicist Ivan Vanko does pump new blood into the franchise. But without Downey, Iron Man 2 would be just another run-of-the-mill summer blockbuster.
If anything, Iron Man 2 further proves what I’ve been saying for ten years: the casting of Robert Downey Jr. might just be the best casting choice in the history of Hollywood blockbusters, and without him the Marvel cinematic universe may not be as popular as it is today. (Ricky D)
18. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Call me crazy, but Thor: The Dark World is a seriously underrated film. It may not be the finest movie to come from the Marvel brand, but The Dark World offers plenty of the humor, great world building, high-stakes action, and one of the better villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet.
For my money, Thor: The Dark World is, if anything, better than the original — a looser, sillier and more violent hybrid of science fiction and fantasy. Written by the fantasy vets Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the second installment escapes the oppressive duty of franchise building and expands on both the titular character and his homeworld, Asgard. Replacing Kenneth Branagh in the director’s chair, TV-trained Alan Taylor (Game Of Thrones) adapts more gracefully to the Marvel house style; for once, the action is clean and coherently staged, and Taylor brings some of the gravity and grandeur to this universe.
That said, the movie’s most valuable asset may be Tom Hiddleston, reprising the role of Thor’s deliciously malevolent adoptive brother, Loki. He’s the only person onscreen with truly complicated motives, and Hiddleston reveals new depths to the character. Forget the fairy-tale romance between Jane and the God of Thunder — the real emotional center of the Thor series is, and always has been, the sibling rivalry. (Ricky D)
17. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
It feels like blasphemy to think that Marvel never knew what it was doing, but in its infancy in 2008, that was exactly the fear with the first post-Iron Man piece of the Avengers. The Incredible Hulk was the reboot, releasing five years after Ang Lee’s iteration was panned by comic book aficionados. Acting as something of a stealth sequel, director Louis Leterrier’s version compresses the origin to a single main title sequence before finding Bruce Banner on the run in South America. As played by Edward Norton, this Banner is part Bill Bixby TV version, and part every other milquetoast Norton character. He uses a heart rate monitor to prevent his adrenaline from spiking and unleashing the beast, a departure from years of Marvel lore (and an affectation quickly dropped in the ensuing sequels). Once back in the States, Banner must face the nefarious General Ross, continue his pining for Ross’s daughter, Betty, and go big-toe-to-big-toe with Emil Blonsky aka The Abomination.
What results is a mash of chase thriller, Frankenstein love story, and laughable CGI throwdown that neither thrills nor satisfies. In a way, Incredible Hulk is the green-headed stepchild of the MCU, torn between what the franchise would become and what it had been for years (think of all the Marvel movies that aren’t good Spider-Mans or X-Mens). Norton brings none of the wry humor of Mark Ruffalo or the convincing anguish of Eric Bana. In fact, every cast member seems like a downgrade from the previous Ang Lee version: Liv Tyler < Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt < Sam Elliot, Tim Roth < Nick Nolte. By the time we get to the smashing, it’s as safe and perfunctory as Hulk’s purple little shorts. Say what you will about the 2003 Hulk, but it swung for the pop art fences. The Incredible Hulk is a placeholder in a franchise that would soon value formula above all, but a winning formula nonetheless. (Shane Ramirez)
16. Thor (2011)
When it comes to the Thor series, most people would agree that the third time’s the charm, but the original Thor still has a few things going for it. Kenneth Branagh brings a Shakespearean feel to the Asgaard portions, and Sir Anthony Hopkins as Odin is an example of perfect casting. Most importantly, Thor introduced the world to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, Marvel’s only decent villain. Bad guys have always been the MCU’s Achilles heel, to the point where Civil War abandoned them altogether and just had the heroes fight each other. Loki has always been the one exception. More than just something for Thor to punch, Loki is a villain with pathos. Sure, he’s a jerk — but he’s a relatable jerk. Who among us hasn’t lashed out at a parent or a more popular sibling?
Now onto the bad: Thor is also our first on-screen introduction to Hawkeye, the most useless Avenger of all. Thor himself is also just not that interesting of a character — at least without the other Avengers to bounce off of (Hawkeye not included). Thor presents the mighty thunder god as an easy-to-manipulate, quick-to-anger, spoiled little prince who won’t hesitate to throw a temper tantrum when he doesn’t get his way. Chris Hemsworth’s initial portrayal of Thor is stiff and light years away from the easy-going joker he plays in Thor: Ragnarok. The fish-out-of-water parts of Thor that take place on earth are nowhere near as interesting as the royal intrigue going on in Asgard, and exist only to introduce Thor to SHIELD and potential love interest Jane Foster. Natalie Portman and Chris Hemsworth don’t have a ton of chemistry, and their budding romance feels shoehorned in. Thor would have benefited from a structure similar to Captain America: The First Avenger — set the whole story in Asgaard and save Thor’s arrival on Earth until the very end. Instead, we got a film that keeps switching from an engaging location to one that’s just… blah.
Thor is not a bad movie; it’s not even the worst Marvel movie (hey Iron Man 2, how’s it going?) but it’s not a good movie either, and it’s certainly not essential. If you’re trying to catch up on the MCU, you can skip right from Captain America to Avengers and not miss a beat. However, if you’re a completionist than by all means give Thor a watch. Just be prepared to focus most of your attention on his brother. (Zachary Zagranis)
15, Ant-Man (2015)
As far as Marvel Cinematic Universe success stories go, Ant-Man is at the top of the list. Marvel began work on the tiny-sized hero way back in 2006 with Edgar Wright attached to direct. After a falling out due to creative differences, Peyton Reed stepped in and gave life to Hank Pym and Scott Lang in San Francisco. Ant-Man as a story is a Phase 2 adventure that works on the outer rim of the MCU similar to Guardians of the Galaxy — it’s a film that introduces audiences to a character that’s relatively new to the comic book scene, and increases the genre diversity of Marvel. Ant-Man is a heist film that is closer to the ground in the MCU than ever before, with its own added visual flair to match.
Scott Lang is a likeable character that falls in line with some of the other Marvel Universes lovable idiots, and the film does a great job of showcasing that — from the debate to why he’s even there in the first place when our future Wasp, Hope Van Dyne, is clearly more prepared and equipped to stop Darren Cross to the hilarious learning curve when he eventually dons the Ant-Man suit. Ant-Man’s visuals and the world gets a lot better when Scott shrinks down to ant-size (and even smaller when in the Quantum Realm), and there’s something to be said about a film that gives the audience an emotional reaction to an ant dying. From the insane suitcase and Thomas, the Tank Engine fights to the connections to the larger Marvel Universe, Ant-Man is a film that stands comfortably as one of the more unique Marvel properties. The film set out as an action-comedy that’s about a superheroic heist, and it paid off in spades because at the heart it’s about a Dad trying to do right by his family. (Terrence Sage)
14. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Avengers: Age of Ultron is tonally and visually very similar to the first Avengers film (no surprise there, with director Joss Whedon helming both), but after the giddy delight of watching the team eat shawarma together amidst New York rubble, the heads at Marvel had to work a little harder to maintain the magic of simply seeing our heroes on screen at the same time. It used to be enough to watch Captain America and Tony Stark size each other up and trade barbs, but Age of Ultron needed to go a step beyond its predecessor to add depth and tension to character relationships, and it doesn’t always meet the mark.
Released a year after genre-bending game changers like Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Ultron plays it safe in most regards. The cast is only getting stronger with new additions like Elizabeth Olsen and a full-bodied Paul Bettany, but that means less screen time for each character as the stage continues to fill. It doesn’t help that they aren’t given much to work with in ways of unique material.
James Spader voices Ultron, the main villain who turns against Tony in an almost Frankenstein-esque manner. Spader is a wonderful voice actor and brings a lot of energy to the film, but his broad threats of another apocalyptic doom don’t exactly set him apart from most Marvel villains. Natasha and Bruce start to develop a tentative connection that humanizes both of them in new ways, but their relationship is left dangling before it can really begin. Strangely enough, Thor spends most of his time away from the main action, pursuing knowledge about the Infinity Stones, a shoehorned arc that acts as both an afterthought of Thor: The Dark World and a prologue to Thor: Ragnarok.
Age of Ultron is still fun and even delightful when it slows down and allows the cast to interact, both in battle and out of it. The best scene of the film takes place with the heroes as they drink and laugh, trying to lift Thor’s hammer. In this ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is nice to just take a breath every once in a while. All that said, even with a reliable cast and tight cinematic action sequences, Age of Ultron is little more than a solid stepping stone between Phases Two and Three. (Meghan Cook)
13. Doctor Strange (2016)
You could make an argument for why Doctor Strange does nothing new. It follows almost beat-for-beat the pre-established formula showcased by the countless Marvel films that came before it. Yet you could also make the argument that Doctor Strange is fantastic because it follows the successful and lovable structure that has helped the MCU succeed so extraordinarily.
There is so much that is familiar. Give us an eccentric and wealthy individual, brimming with confidence and lacking humility. After a life-changing event, this character is rocked to their core, unable to continue living in the manner they did before. They seek a new answer and begin training whatever ability they are destined to master. Eventually, they excel past all those around them, face a homicidal adversary, and get greenlit for a sequel. I could be talking about Iron Man, Captain America or Ant-Man, so you can see why unlike Civil War, Guardians of the Galaxy, or Iron Man 3, Doctor Strange is a generic MCU origin story. That doesn’t mean it isn’t good. We’ve come to expect these films, and religiously tune in knowing full well that a sequel or team-up movie is where this character will really shine.
Perhaps Strange will get the Ragnarok or Civil War treatment, but for now, he’ll have to settle with a familiar-but-incredibly-well-polished origin story. It isn’t a fantastic piece of cinema in isolation, but if you’re invested in Marvel’s expansive cinematic universe, it’s a necessary and enjoyable inclusion. (Chris Bowring)
12. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Before the Marvel template was in full effect, before quips became the punctuation of choice for superhero dialogue, before both preventing and causing rampant destruction became a prerequisite for exciting action, director Joe Johnston crafted an old-fashioned adventure that recalled a bygone era when things just made more sense. Captain America: The First Avenger is the perfect introduction to a character out of time; it tells its story with filmmaking techniques of yore (or at least pre-Avengers), unafraid to take time to develop, and confident enough to substitute actual sincerity in place of snark.
Though a typical origin story in many respects, Captain America: The First Avenger is one of the few Marvel films that doesn’t seem ashamed by this, disinterested in moving on to bigger and louder things. Audiences will spend a good deal of time with Steve Rogers the runt, witness to his many failings yet also a party to the indomitable spirit that catches the wise eye of a certain ex-Nazi doctor with an experimental drug that could give Steve the physical ability to match his mental nobility. The early scenes of Skinny Steve are vital to understanding the mind of a man who until now has been frustrated by his helplessness when it comes to helping, and when the young man is artificially juiced into the muscular pinup idol audiences currently cheer, one can’t help believe that this guy will actually follow through on turning the world’s wrongs into honorable rights.
That character development also lends its weight to the eventual action. The pursuit of a Hydra agent through 1940s New York is both tense and entertaining as the Cap discovers his new power, yet also tinged with sadness and outrage over the death that instigated it — because of a relationship allowed to breathe. After a montage depicting the powerful-yet-powerless hero paraded around like a dancing bear for the USO, a solo mission to free some POWs from a German base feels more like Captain America is finally breaking out of his own prison and into the man he was always meant to be. The last act does sag a bit, but the assault on Red Skull’s base and subsequent hijacking of his death plane beats any city-destroying rampage that came after it simply by focusing on story more than spectacle — and that time-travel ending is a knockout. Honest, dedicated, hard-working, genuine; the world needs heroes like Steve Rogers, and Marvel needs more entries in its ever-expanding universe like Captain America: The First Avenger. (Patrick Murphy)
11. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
The third Avengers movie and the 19th entry into the ongoing series set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) seems made specifically to tie all the loose knots, connect all the dots, and make lots and lots of money. It does all that and so much more!
Avengers: Infinity War knows what it wants to be, and goes about pursuing that goal with relentless energy. The filmmakers aren’t interested in a stand-alone story — instead, Avengers: Infinity War is an epic crossover with an unwavering devotion to spectacle and action. It’s overstuffed with an all-star cast, beloved characters, and moves with breakneck speed, yet despite the many ingredients to stir into this overflowing pot, the talented team at Marvel Studios have found a way to balance the many moving parts and deliver what is truly an entertaining movie from start to finish.
Infinity War won’t change the hearts of those who say they’re tired of the superhero genre, but it will satisfy the deep-rooted escapist desire most movie-goers expect. Of course, there’s a sense of incompleteness surrounding the ending that will leave some viewers wanting more, but until 2019 rolls around, we always have 19 films to go back and watch. (Ricky D)