Now that Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is complete as of last months Ant-Man, it’s time to look back on both the Phase One and Phase Two films and rank where we feel the films fall.
I asked all of our contributors to rank the MCU films for me from best to worst, and then added all of the points together. Below you see the results of that poll and the points each film received (lower the points the better). Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the clear winner here, with 5 of the 12 contributors voting it as their favorite film and the remaining voting it as their 2nd or 3rd favorite. If anything is clear from this poll it’s that the MCU is in good hands with the Russo Brothers.
- 1 – Captain America: The Winter Soldier (20 points)
- 2 – Guardians of the Galaxy (35 points)
- 3 – The Avengers (39 points)
- 4 – Iron Man (43 points)
- 5 – Avengers: Age of Ultron (63 points)
- 6 – Ant-Man (64 points)
- 7 – Captain America: The First Avenger (78)
- 8 – Iron Man 3 (88 points)
- 9 – Thor (92 points)
- 10 – Thor: The Dark World (102 points)
- 11 – Iron Man 2 (111 points)
- 12 – The Incredible Hulk (123 points)
The Incredible Hulk
The Incredible Hulk was a solid reboot to the franchise tainted by a poor outing a few years earlier. The film allowed for some nostalgic green eyes and showcasing more than just Hulk vs security and military forces. Emil Blonsky/The Abomination finally gave us an adversary that could go toe to toe with the Hulk, and General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross seemed even more hell bent on gaining some of the Hulk’s power. All that being said, it followed the formula where Banner is first introduced, Hulk destroys, see Banner upset, Hulk fights, Hulk wins, Hulk disappears. It also made it painfully apparent that until we see an intelligent Hulk, it’s hard to create a captivating movie based solely around the character. While compared to the rest of the MCU, the film falls short in many regards, it’s still a solid comic book movie compared to most other studios efforts.
Where I ranked it: 12
Iron Man 2
Iron Man 2 is the best example of what happens when Marvel Studios goes wrong. The film is a stopgap to The Avengers, relying on Robert Downey Jr.’s charisma instead of building a coherent plot. The central conflict between Stark and Ivan Vanko is a proxy war between their dead fathers, leaving them without obvious connections. Stark’s search for a cure to his infection was better explored in The Incredible Hulk. Mickey Rourke gives one of the worst performances in the MCU, aimless and mis-directed and full of odd tics that lead to nothing. This is the debut of both War Machine and Black Widow, but they only serve to clutter the film and distract from the (lack of) central conflict. But the film has a few bright spots, almost all of them involving Pepper Potts. Making her CEO of Stark Industries is one of the most inspired decisions for the whole franchise. Gwenyth Paltrow is the unsung hero of the MCU; Pepper is the yardstick by which we measure Tony’s humanity.
Where I ranked it: 11
Thor: The Dark World
Since release, Thor: The Dark World’s esteem has plummeted among fans, and it’s easy to understand why. The film shifts haphazardly between epic battles for the universe and physical comedy. Superfluous comic relief characters have full-fledged arcs, while Thor himself aimlessly runs from scene-to-scene, either following or chasing someone. Yet the film also contains moments of brilliance: Frigga’s funeral is perhaps the most beautiful and surreal scene in the MCU; Malekith’s assault on Asgard is an expertly-realized action scene; and Loki sitting on the throne is still the most tantalizing cliffhanger in the MCU. Following the stylistically conservative MCU Phase One, The Dark World was the first Marvel Studios film to really let its freak flag fly. Thor battles ancient elves with laser guns, chaotically bouncing between parallel universes. After the genre-assured tones of Winter Soldier and Ant-Man, and the idiosyncratic weirdness of Guardians and Ultron, it’s easy to look back on this film and only see the flaws. But Thor: The Dark World was the first film where Marvel Studios dared to be fuckin’ weird, and trusted their audience to come along with them.
Where I ranked it: 4
Would you be surprised if I told you that Thor is my most re-watched MCU movie? While I don’t rank it as my favorite film, besides The Avengers, I’d say it’s the one movie that really cemented my obsession with the Marvel Cinematic Universe early on. The concept and merging of science and fantasy/mythology really struck a chord with me as a big conspiracy/Ancient Aliens nut and to this day has made Thor one of my favorite characters amongst the Avengers on the big screen.
All that craziness aside, it’s still a solid movie which does a great job of building up to the Phase 1 finale. It introduced most of the world to Tom Hiddleston‘s Loki and even has a bad ass Asgardian lady warrior in Sif (Jaimie Alexander). Plus we get some quality Phil Coulson action, probably one of his bigger parts so far out of the MCU films. What’s not to like?
Where I ranked it: 6
Iron Man 3
Iron Man 3 remains Marvel’s most narratively ambitious film. Marvel gave director Shane Black a long leash, and Black went balls-to-the-wall, literalizing Jungian archetypes and the Hero’s Journey as a madcap comedy. Tony Stark faces his doubles, encounters his childhood self, and slays a dragon, all while carrying Robert Downey Jr.’s trademark snark and wit. But among fans, the true legacy of Iron Man 3 is Trevor Slattery. Marvel has adapted the comic book histories of many characters differently (Drax, Ultron, Hank Pym), but kept the spirit of the characters alive. The Mandarin is the only time Marvel has changed a character whole-cloth, replacing Tony Stark’s yellow peril archnemesis with a buffonish British actor. Years later, the twist is still controversial, splitting fans between those who love Ben Kingsley’s incredible performance and those who want Iron Man to fight a proper Mandarin. Marvel is trying to walk the line with both camps, teasing a “real Mandarin” in the short film All Hail the King, though it’s likely that Trevor will be the only Mandarin for years to come.
Where I ranked it: 6
Captain America: The First Avenger
Among the attempts of ambitiousness that continue to define and mold the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America: The First Avenger stands as one of its finest and boldest. Much like its improved sequel, the thrill and enjoyment of seeing something that is both superheroic and fresh – an homage to the swashbuckling serials of the day – never gets old. It was the franchise that cut the deepest into the mythological fabric and the franchise that pretty much set the bar in terms of the unique cinematic tonal qualities that the MCU would be eventually known for. Evans was a surprise, Atwell was a charmer. Heck, even Weaving’s Red Skull was a blast to see and he didn’t even get to do much! All in all, one of best films in the cinematic history of the company, period. We’re still waiting on that Red Skull reappearance, Marvel.
Where I ranked it: 5
Ant-Man is Marvel’s first movie that is aware of the events of other movies in the cinematic universe without the cinematic universe being aware of it (yet). While combining the classic heist story-line with that of fathers redeeming themselves to their daughters in a humorous way, Ant-Man still falls prey to Phase 2’s villain problem. The attempts at illustrating Darren Cross’s/Yellowjacket’s menace tend to fall quite flat, though the macro fight scenes were visually stunning and funny. Ant-Man‘s strongest asset is combining the best elements of the MCU: tremendous talent, a brilliant cameo, great comedy, great action and special effects, and setting up what is yet to come. Paul Rudd (Scott Lang) and Michael Peña (Luis) steal the movie and leave us wanting more team heists (and Goliath ala Luis), while Michael Douglas (Hank Pym) and Evangeline Lilly (Hope van Dyne) make the case for finding out what exactly happened to Janet van Dyne.
Where I ranked it: 4
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Avengers: Age of Ultron is stronger than the first movie in so many ways – the story and thematic depth are considerably stronger than the threadbare plot of the first Avengers, and there’s a tighter focus on characters, with Joss Whedon managing to achieve genuinely unexpected and interesting things with familiar characters, and introduce plenty of new ones with complex and diverse motivations and personalities. The final act is cleverly focused around rescuing civilians rather than killing them in the crossfire, and Ultron is a mostly worthy successor to Loki due to the Age of Ultron‘s strong linking of the character’s motivations to the central themes and character arcs of the movie. (The late introduction of the Vision as a direct foil to Ultron only enhances the effectiveness of Tony Stark’s genocidal creation, and provides a quite literally killer, thought-provoking death scene for Ultron.) There are some pretty noteworthy flaws, of course. It’s a movie that shows the strains of Marvel’s expansive world building and the heavy lifting required to further the narrative of the cinematic universe like no other MCU movie so far, but Age of Ultron still ends up as an impressively character-focused slice of entertainment that combines an unusual introspectiveness with an enormous scope to create something that’s entirely unique in the ever-growing world of superhero movies.
Where I ranked it: 4
It’s the film that birthed the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the film that, to this day, is seen as one of the best superhero origin stories to ever hit the big screen. While films like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man have showcased Marvel Studios’ willingness to take risks, there was no greater than risk than Iron Man when it was first released. While Robert Downey Jr. is now seen as one of the biggest draws of the franchise, at the time, his past mistakes with the law had hurt his career. Which is why his casting as Tony Stark has since proved not only to be Marvel’s greatest risk, but also their most rewarding. With excellent direction by Jon Favreau, wonderful character development, an exciting plot, and a great performance by Downey Jr., Iron Man, which was released over seven years now, is still seen as one of Marvel’s greatest films, and it’s hard to imagine that’ll ever change.
Where I ranked it: 1
The Avengers completed the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Joss Whedon tied together the culmination of the five movies to come before it by bringing the six heroes we had previously met together to save the world for the first time. Getting to see so many heroes interact with one another was something most fans had only dreamed of and this movie made the most of it. While there are some flaws with the story and character usage (I’m looking at you, Hawkeye), this movie changed the future of the movie industry by showing that a connected universe can and will work. For me, this is the most memorable theater experience I have ever had in a movie, thanks in large part to The Hulk stealing the show in the third act, which is why I had it at the top of my list and one of my favorite movies of all time.
Where I ranked it: 1
Guardians of the Galaxy
There is no better film that defines Marvel Studios than Guardians of the Galaxy. It has high production values, nuanced characters, hilarious jokes, and the distinct voice of its writer/director James Gunn. It also has clunky exposition, a milquetoast villain, a glowing MacGuffin, and spends a good chunk of runtime advertising for the next film. Yet, no Marvel Studios film has a scene as moving as Peter Quill, dying and disintegrating, reaching for his mother and finding his friends. Historically, superhero stories idolize the individual, propping him up as the lone savior. Guardians of the Galaxy perfectly encapsulates the humanism at the heart of Marvel Studios: that we are strongest when we cling to each other.
Where I ranked it: 2
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Marvel Studios was batting .500 for me in Phase Two when I hit the theater to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Iron Man 3 worked well for me whereas Thor: The Dark World left me feeling a little underwhelmed. The film generated a lot of buzz during production as Marvel Studios’ attempt to work a spy thriller into the MCU and for being the film that would shape Phase Two. While I’m not sure any film in Phase Two held any big picture sway on the MCU, Marvel’s foray into the spy genre hit big for me and for audiences around the globe, cementing Marvel’s ability to make box office busters without Robert Downey Jr.
From beginning to end, Captain America: The Winter Soldier hit on just about every note. While fans of the comics may have seen the HYDRA/S.H.I.E.L.D. deception and the non-death of Nick Fury coming, those moments were played to maximum effect on the general audience. While the film put the world at risk, the biggest stakes were for Steve Rogers. After finally having found his place in the world and coming to grips with his past, Rogers finds himself working for the enemy he thought destroyed and fighting against his best friend he believed to be long-dead. Rogers exits Captain America: The Winter Soldier with nearly nothing resolved, still searching for his place and hunting for his friend. It was his portrayal of Rogers in this film that cemented Evans as Captain America for me. The film’s action was excellent and included several memorable fight scenes. One of Marvel Studios’ most rewatchable film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier became the anchor for Phase 2.
Where I ranked it: 3
Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will officially kick-off when Captain America: Civil War hits movie theaters on May 6th, 2016.