You’ve probably read a lot of these in the days past as well as the days to come, and that’s fine. Those people all have a right to their opinion, however wrong that opinion may be. But allow me to offer my thoughts on the subject. At this point, I can comfortably say that I’ve seen all of the Marvel movies at least twice, some many, MANY more times. I’ve gone back to all of my reviews — and I’ve reviewed most of them except for the earlier ones, when I wasn’t on the review staff yet — and for the most part, I hold true to my initial thoughts. But given that all of this is coming to a head with the looming release of Avengers: Infinity War, I figured now’s the time to review what we’ve all experienced so far. So without further ado:
#18: Thor: The Dark World — I’ll admit that this is one where I blew the call, and let myself get swept up in my own enthusiasm. This muddled second entry into the Thor universe was a sloppy mess, with a terrible villain (played facelessly by an utterly wasted Christopher Eccleston) and a generic, bland plot. Natalie Portman was on autopilot, and the film easily paved the way for her exit from the MCU. Not even the charming Kat Dennings could save this disaster.
#17: Iron Man 2 — In many ways, this is actually worse than Thor: The Dark World. It’s awful. But it has three saving graces: Scarlet Johannson was very good in her debut as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, the flying fight scene with the Hammer drones was damn good stuff, and it introduced Don Cheadle to the MCU, and that is three more than Thor 2. But otherwise? It’s an overblown pile of slop, making Tony the most unlikable that he’s ever been (I still cringe at the party scene). The incomprehensible Mickey Rourke as Whiplash takes it to a new low.
#16: The Incredible Hulk — There are moments of true greatness in this flick. Tim Roth is great fun to watch as the increasingly unhinged Emil Blonsky. Edward Norton isn’t half-bad as Bruce Banner, and it’s the first film to truly make it seem like you’re seeing the Hulk for real onscreen. But man, it is paint-by-numbers filmmaking, and General Ross is a borderline moron. I’ve seen it a few times because for a while it was the only superhero game in town and it at least helped wash the taste of Ang Lee’s Hulk out of my mouth (HULK POODLES!). But it’s really a pretty forgettable entry.
#15: Avengers: Age of Ultron — This is another one I was initially charmed by, but in retrospect, it falls apart under closer scrutiny. As with even the worst of Marvel movies, there are some things done very well. Ultron is pretty fun to watch. The opening siege of HYDRA’s castle is still outstanding to watch. But Whedon’s absolute assassination of Black Widow remains an unforgivable sin, as is the fact that the MCU is now saddled with her awkward, stupid romance with Banner. The banter is good overall, and the film is bookended by two pretty fun action sequences. But everything in the middle — the plight of Natasha, Tony’s almost supernatural arrogance, the weird addition of Hawkeye’s family, Aaron Taylor Johnson’s hideous accent, the garbled story — it can’t be saved from itself.
#14: Ant-Man — A film that will eternally be haunted by the ghost of what could have been, director Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man isn’t bad so much as it’s so very pedestrian. It’s salvaged by Paul Rudd being stellar as Scott Lang, who has solid chemistry with Evangeline Lily’s Hope, and terrific comic relief by Michael Peña and company. But without those performances, Ant-Man would have been a deafening thud. Corey Stoll is wasted as the villain (a serious recurring problem with MCU movies), the plot is dull and uninteresting, and it just never fully engages its audience.
#13: Doctor Strange — I remember really liking Doctor Strange when it came out in 2016, but I couldn’t really remember why. So I re-watched it, and realized that it works for two reasons — the effects are amazing and innovative, and it’s the rare case of a Marvel hero beating the bad guy by basically just being smarter than him, rather than punching his way to victory. So that’s good! But so much in the middle is unforgettable, and Mads Mikkelson — terrific makeup aside — never really captured my attention the way he should. Throw in the whitewashing of the Ancient One and a rare forgettable performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor, and it’s just a mixed bag all around.
#12: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 — Now we’re getting to the meat of things, where we’re going to quibble a bit more. This is where this list is based more on what’s good, rather than what’s bad. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a good movie. It’s fun, it’s the role that Chris Pratt excels in (brash, arrogant, funny, immature), and its cast is a joy to watch. It’s got Kurt fucking Russell, who is never not fun. It’s got goofy effects and yes, it’s a little muddled by the family drama, but it’s just so damn fun that I forgive its errors. Plus, Michael Rooker yelling “I’M MARY POPPINS Y’ALL!” is my everything.
#11: Thor — This is an odd one, especially because when you think about it, much of this film does not feature Thor being Thor. So much of it takes place with Chris Hemsworth stuck powerless in a small town in the Southwest, but it works thanks to his relentless charisma and dedication to shirtlessness. Throw in a fabulous Hiddleston as Loki, good enough chemistry with Natalie Portman (who would miss the mark in the sequel), Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgård, Anthony Hopkins and Renee Russo, and it all worked out quite nicely.
#10: Captain America: The First Avenger — The film itself is entertaining as hell, and Hayley Atwell basically steals the damn thing as Peggy Carter. Evans has a combination of earnestness and openness throughout the film that just felt so right as the early scenes, even if as Captain America he didn’t quite hit his stride. But the Howling Commandos are fun as hell, Hugo Weaving crushes it as the Red Skull (one of the better, more underlooked MCU villains), and it’s the perfect example of just a damn fun movie.
#9: The Avengers — Whedon’s The Avengers blew the doors off of what we thought we knew about superhero movies. A movie that seemed impossible 10 or 15 years ago, he somehow made it (mostly) work. While Whedon certainly has his flaws — both personal and professional — he was an excellent choice for the one to guide everyone together out of chaos and create a team. And that team — Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, Hawkeye, Black Widow — performed together terrifically, with easy chemistry from the beginning. An army of generic faceless villains was unfortunate, but the Battle of New York was a game-changer, and Hiddleston was masterful as Loki.
#8 Captain America: Civil War — This one gets dragged a bit, mostly for its plot and for Steve’s unwavering devotion to Bucky which is often seen as foolhardy. Personally, I think it absolutely nails the crux of their friendship, and I love it for it. If there’s a hole in the film, it’s the needlessly complex machinations of Zemo, which felt akin to playing dominoes uphill in a hurricane. It’s a one in a million plan, but what the hell. Evans and Stan are amazing, Johansson (who is generally underrated as Black Widow) is great, and Downey Jr., though I profoundly disagree with the character’s tactics, is very good. Hell, everyone is good in this. And as an added bonus, it does a terrific job of introducing two of the best characters in this now-massive universe — Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther and Tom Holland’s Spider-Man.
#7: Iron Man — It’s hard to understate just how phenomenal it felt to sit through Iron Man back in 2008 (and yes, it’s been ten years now). Rarely is a genre role nailed as perfectly as Robert Downey Jr., who slid effortlessly into a character he was born to play. The story doesn’t quite gel properly, but all of its smaller pieces — Downey’s development of the suit, his goofy robots helpers, the early phases of Jarvis, damn good work by Paltrow and serviceable work by Howard (who was fine, though Cheadle is a much better choice), and a great performance by Jeff Bridges as the traitorous Obidiah Stane — come together to make this film a joy to watch and re-watch.
#6: Iron Man 3 — There was a time when this would have cracked my top five, and if you catch me on a different day, it still might. Iron Man 3 is a contentious film, in no small part because it strays so far from the conventional formula. Shane Black went a completely different route for the third Iron Man film, something sorely needed to erase the mistakes of the lame Iron Man 2. Instead of going bigger, he went smaller, creating a character-focused film that was more buddy cop film than smash-em-up hero film. It’s mostly removed from the overall MCU storyline, and it’s better for it. The ending is a fascinating mess, featuring dozens of various robot-piloted Iron Man suits and a buff-as-hell Paltrow saving the day. It’s weird and wild and so, so good.
#5: Guardians of the Galaxy — Guardians was the beginning of Marvel’s willingness to take real risks and experiment with different styles, and the universe is better for it. This film, directed by James Gunn, is wonderful and strange and goofy and easily the funniest film in the MCU pantheon. It was a wondrous coming out party for Dave Bautista, whose deadpan comedy made Drax one of the best characters the series has to offer. It made Bradley Cooper fun again. It turned Chris Pratt into a superstar (even if he’s misused that stardom in shitty Jurassic Park sequels) and showed the world what we’ve always known about Zoe Saldana — that she’s a being of pure wonder and fun and beauty and should be in all things. I could go on, but I’ll try to control myself.
#4: Spider-Man: Homecoming — I used to say that Tobey Maguire was a terrific Spider-Man, but a poor Peter Parker, and the converse was true of Andrew Garfield. Well, in the sixth iteration, in the capable hands of relatively new director Jon Watts and with the absolutely delightful Tom Holland as Parker, we finally have the Spider-Man we’ve been waiting for. The tone of Homecoming is note-perfect, thanks to excellent casting and a smaller, street-level story. Michael Keaton makes Vulture an all-time great villain, even if he isn’t supremely powerful or bent on world domination. There’s a great little rogue’s gallery that comes with him, and Parker is surrounded by solid cast-mates, with Robert Downey Jr. at his best as Tony Stark and a delightful assist from Jon Favreau. Homecoming strays far from the formula as well (a trend among the top contenders) — there’s no origin story, no world-threatening big bad, none of the trappings of the other films. But it all works smoothly and seamlessly.
#3: Thor Ragnarok — Speaking of straying from the formula, with Thor Ragnarok took the brightly colored wackiness of Guardians of the Galaxy and went absolutely bananas with it. Thor Ragnarok is a story of fallen heroes, brotherhood, and redemption. But it’s also a bonkers collection of light and sound and music, a completely off-the-wall romp that is so perfectly composed that it’s hard to believe it exists in the same universe as the staid Thor: The Dark World. It’s so much fun that it can be watched repeatedly, with new bits or weirdness catching your eye each time. With Cate Blanchett vamping and sneering and seductively smiling through it, and Jeff Goldblum just Goldbluming all over the damn place, it’s easily the best time you’ll have with a Marvel movie. It’ll leave you breathless, hair mussed, makeup smudged and smiling like a lunatic.
#2: Captain America: The Winter Soldier — The Russo Brothers’ first foray into the Marvel Universe was an absolute juggernaut. Framed around the spectacular Ed Brubaker run of the same name, The Winter Soldier is an action movie, a mystery, and a deep, complex, labyrinthine spy story all rolled into one. In fact if anything, the superhero aspects come in last. Focusing intimately on the friendship between Steve and Natasha, it did so in a refreshingly non-romantic manner, treating them as intellectual equals, while also introducing Anthony Mackie as Steve’s new bud, Falcon. Meanwhile, Sebastian Stan kills it as the tortured HYDRA brainwash victim, and oh yeah, Robert goddamn Redford shows up. It ends with a chaotic spectacle of mass destruction that completely upends the MCU as we knew it at the time, and it’s just all so beautifully done. This is another one that I rewatched recently and my god — It’s like the Empire Strikes Back of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Full of surprises and darkness and humor. It’s also the film where Chris Evans really became Captain America. It’s so good.
#1: Black Panther — This fucking movie. It’s a lot to process. But it’s the unequivocal top of the list because it matters. Not just to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but to… everything. Black Panther matters. It’s a game changer in ways far beyond how it affects the fictional universe it resides in, but in the way movies and race and actors and directors will be looked at for years to come. No other film in this genre can say that. But, as an added bonus, it’s an absolutely spectacular film — the most well-crafted, meticulously designed, ambitiously directed film the MCU has to offer. It’s casting choices are flawless across the board, its story is wild and scary at times and grim and hopeful. It is mostly removed from the rest of the MCU’s overall storyline, but it tells a story of such depth and has such magnificent fantastical elements that it is near-perfect. It introduces a host of new, amazing characters (Shuri! M’Baku! Okoye! Nakia!) that will continue to play roles in the expanded universe, instantly diversifying a universe that was in dire need of diversity. Black Panther changed the Marvel universe in so many ways, and it did it while also being the most thoroughly satisfying film in a massive, sprawling series of films. Perhaps Infinity War will blow us all away so thoroughly that it’ll take the top spot, but until then, Black Panther deserves its place as number one.