Black Panther is king of the global box office and probably will be for a while, which means it’s time once again to take the 18 (!!) films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and rank them. It’s become a bit of a ritual with each new one that gets released, but it’s always something of an eye-opener because it makes you realise just how good these films actually are – even at their worst, they’re still nowhere near bad.
18: The Incredible Hulk
The one people often forget is part of the franchise, not least because the other films often seem to forget as well. Mark Ruffalo took over as Bruce Banner and Liv Tyler hasn’t been mentioned since; it’s really only General Ross’ re-appearance in Civil War that connects it. It’s not a bad film, really, but it is a bit forgettable, and seemed to solidify the idea that the Hulk just doesn’t really work in solo films.
17: Iron Man 2
Perfectly enjoyable while you’re watching it and somewhat forgettable after the fact, like Marvel’s other weaker entries, Iron Man 2 main flaw is in spending too much of its running time setting up The Avengers and not enough on giving Tony Stark interesting stuff to do.
16: Thor: The Dark World
Another muddled but undeniably fun entry, this has great gags and the usual terrific interplay between Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, but gets badly undercut by having quite possibly Marvel’s most underwhelming villain to date. It was originally supposed to be directed by Patty Jenkins, and in light of Wonder Woman, it becomes very intriguing to ponder what that might have been like.
And this is where things get a bit silly. Thor is a good movie, but the rest of the Marvel output has been so strong that it still ends up near the bottom of the pile. It had one of the series’ best villains in Loki and Kenneth Branagh brought a Shakespearean grandiosity to proceedings that was very welcome. Still, an awful lot of it does take place in a dusty New Mexico town instead of the infinitely more interesting Asgard, no doubt due to (relative) budget limitations.
14: Doctor Strange
An odd mix of some of the best visuals any of these films have yet produced and a deeply familiar paint-by-numbers superhero origin story, Doctor Strange is redeemed by its unique, striking, psychedelic style and a brilliant supporting cast that includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton and Mads Mikkelsen. Even if the latter is yet another one of Marvel’s under-served, one-and-done baddies.
13: Iron Man
The one that started it all, Iron Man was hugely important and defined the stylistic template of these films for a long time… but alas, a lot of the subsequent films have outstripped it. Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark is a character for the ages, but it does run out of steam towards the end and seems almost quaint compared to the increasingly bonkers places this franchise has gone since.
12: Captain America: The First Avenger
As with Thor, I really like The First Avenger. It’s a great pulpy throwback that successfully introduced one of the most difficult Marvel characters to get right on film, and also boasted a gleefully cartoony villainous turn from Hugo Weaving. But it’s undeniable that, as good as it is, subsequent entries in the franchise improved on the formula, even if Red Skull remains a badly under-appreciated villain.
11: Avengers: Age Of Ultron
Bigger, bolder and far more ambitious than the first Avengers, you can’t complain about Age Of Ultron resting on its laurels. The character interplay is great, particularly the now-famous party scene, and the action is a big step up from its predecessor as well; but for all that it’s less focussed, a bit more baggy and scrappy than the first one. It’s still great, but the scars from the behind-the-scenes struggle aren’t hard to see.
Coming hot on the heels of Age Of Ultron, with its own air of controversy after Edgar Wright quit over creative differences and an inherently silly hero, the deck was rather stacked against Ant-Man. Which made it all the more enjoyable when it turned out to be quite a delight, a refreshingly small-scale palate cleanser after the sturm und drang of the films before it, and one of the MCU’s funniest entries.
9: Spider-Man: Homecoming
And not dissimilar to it is Spidey’s first solo adventure in the bigger Marvel Universe, which keeps things thankfully far away from the apocalyptic stakes of the Avengers’ missions. Tom Holland is a near-perfect Peter Parker, and while this may not quite reach the highs of Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man films, it’s worthy of standing in their company.
8: Captain America: Civil War
With three Iron Man films and two Captain America films before it, we’d had loads of time to get to know and understand both characters before they came to blows – which proved crucial to Civil War‘s success, because to see them fighting each other really felt like it meant something after so much build-up. The fact that it introduced Black Panther so well on top of that was the icing on the cake.
7: Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2
Not unlike Age Of Ultron, this is the sequel that aims much higher than the original but doesn’t achieve its goals quite as well: interesting character development and a drastically better villain (played by Kurt Russell!) manage to make up for the slightly looser, shaggy nature of this one. The sheer charm of the cast and the soundtrack go a long way as well.
6: Iron Man 3
One of the most unfairly criticised films of the series, almost entirely because of the big twist regarding Ben Kingsley’s villain. The problem with the criticisms is that the twist is inspired and Trevor from Croydon is an absolute treasure. We can thank Shane Black for that, as well as the buddy-cop vibe of the whole film, which is definitely one of this franchise’s high points.
5: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
One of the Marvel machine’s great strengths is that their films aren’t just superhero films, but belong to all kinds of different genres, helping proceedings stay much more fresh than they otherwise might. And rarely has that been demonstrated better than here, which brings a political conspiracy thriller air to the series and, in situating the old-fashioned and idealistic Cap in the grey and cynical present day, established a winning new side to his character that’s still going strong.
4: Thor: Ragnarok
Thor: Ragnarok is really, really, really funny. Taika Waititi may have seemed a left-field choice at first, but his pitch-perfect comic sensibilities were exactly what the Thor franchise needed to revitalise itself. And it gave us Space Jeff Goldblum, which counts for a great deal on its own.
3: The Avengers
Narrowing down the top three was exceedingly difficult, and in truth any of them could happily sit in the top spot on the list. The Avengers has already gone down as one of the superhero genre’s classics for doing what people thought couldn’t be done, and the fact that it made it look effortless was more remarkable still. More than any other, this is the film that the MCU was built on, and it’ll be influencing superhero cinema for a long time to come.
2: Black Panther
Black Panther‘s staggering box office success is a testament to the sheer undeniable quality of the thing, even without taking into account how much it means for diversity and representation in this still very white genre. A true ensemble piece despite the trappings of a solo outing, it’s packed with great characters, jaw-dropping visuals and a story that feels both grand and deeply personal. It could very, very easily have taken the top spot – and with a bit of distance and reflection, there’s every possibility that it will in future.
1: Guardians Of The Galaxy
But for now, it feels a bit premature to label the most recent entry in the MCU the best one, which leaves us with Guardians Of The Galaxy. What more needs to be said about this one, really? It took a group of characters that even most comic readers had never heard of and, almost overnight, turned them into worldwide stars so popular that their involvement in Avengers: Infinity War was the trailer’s closing moment. Thanks to this film, a talking racoon and a tree that can only say “I am Groot” are some of the most beloved characters of any of these films. That is genuinely incredible.