No matter what people on the internet might tell you, it’s pretty damn hard to rank movies. There’s several million ‘definitive rankings’ of everything from McDonalds menu items (cheers BuzzFeed) to Call of Duty games – and every single time, there will be people who either wholeheartedly disagree, or just wish #32 and #33 were swapped around. However, I’m going to try anyway. With Ant-Man now in cinemas, and the number of movies produced by behemoth Marvel Studios now twelve, this is my attempt to arbitrarily shuffle all those movies into an order of worst to best. Remember kids, this ranking means literally nothing, and is probably wrong. Hey, I’ll probably change my mind tomorrow, but here the ranks are anyway:
To be fair to Hulk, there’s not an awful lot of difference between the bottom two here. To be less fair to Hulk, The Incredible Hulk is really not very good. This was an early effort from Marvel, and it shows – the villain, Abomination, is disposable and only really exists as something for Hulk to punch really hard in the face. Edward Norton, great in Birdman, looks bored out of his mind half the time, with a fairly insipid performance that doesn’t match up to Mark Ruffalo’s hugely superior successor – and there’s a couple of gratuitous sequel hooks that will never be resolved. There’s decent stuff here, such as an attempt to explore the innately relatable idea of being uncomfortable in your own skin, but The Incredible Hulk pretty much deserves its spot as a near-exile from canon.
11. Iron Man 2
The tasteless and strangely textured filling of the Iron Man trilogy sandwich (beat that for a metaphor), Iron Man 2 is well known as the movie that’s barely confident enough to present its own story, with set-up for The Avengers crammed to bursting in an already overstuffed movie. That’s partially true, even if some of that set-up is a lot of fun on its own – but the actual story of the movie is pretty bad too. Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash is quite frankly weird, and the movie is far too scared of meaningfully exploring Stark’s alcoholism in depth. Add in yet another finale with Iron Man fighting more damn suits, and you have a sequel that’s sporadically engaging with great action and a reliably charismatic lead performance from Robert Downey Jr, but generally throwaway.
10. Thor: The Dark World
At release, I probably wouldn’t have put The Dark World this low down. Unlike the mostly bad bottom two, there’s a lot of good stuff here – Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is entertaining as ever (with a fun double act with Chris Hemsworth’s Thor), and the final act is often inspired in its own crazy way. However, after Marvel delivered a doozy of a Captain America sequel a few months later, The Dark World couldn’t help but pale in comparison. The villain’s plot is nonsense, the Aether is a boring MacGuffin with an unnecessary amount of backstory, and most of Thor’s Earth-bound supporting cast are about as entertaining to watch as a colonoscopy (look, I wanted to be edgy). It’s the movie that proved that Thor is the most boring Avenger, and doesn’t exactly inspire hope for the upcoming sequel in 2017.
That whooshing sound you just heard was the passing of a threshold. Yep, we’re done with the ‘bad’ MCU movies – and, fittingly for a family-friendly superhero franchise, there’s a sharp line between the good and bad movies here. So if eighth seems harsh for Thor, it’s simply because Marvel Studios have a damn good track record. Indeed, Thor is a solid enough movie – Loki is still the MCU’s best movie villain, and it’s a fun expansion of the universe into the colourful alien world of Asgard. However, there’s issues here, such as the dull romance between Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster and Thor, and a small scope that’s less quaint, and more overly cautious than anything, which restricts the stakes and reduces the tension in the final act. Also, there’s not enough Idris Elba, which is a minor crime against humanity.
8. Captain America: The First Avenger
Next year’s third and presumably final Captain America movie, Civil War, is due to be one of the MCU’s most ambitious movies so far, with a gargantuan cast that’s anchored by the titular superhero, a sign of how huge the character is nowadays. Compared to that, Cap’s origin story is a pretty humble little indie movie – but that doesn’t mean that The First Avenger is by any means bad – like Thor, it’s a solid origin story that introduces an engaging lead character, but packs in plenty of flaws and doesn’t innovate a awful lot within the genre The period setting helps give the movie a fresh and entirely different feel from other, modern-day movies, helping to set aside a movie that’s generic in its plotting from the pack. Chris Evans is an eternally likeable presence as Captain America and Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter is Marvel’s strongest and most nuanced female character so far (and, if you haven’t seen it, Agent Carter definitely deserves a watch), anchoring an above-average set of characters. Yep, Red Skull is a terrible villain, and the plot is often by-the-numbers, but there’s heart and emotion to The First Avenger that help to put it above most of Marvel’s origin stories so far.
7. Iron Man 3
Repeat after me: the problem with Iron Man 3 was not the Mandarin twist. Tony Stark’s third outing is often derided by hardcore fans for a midway bait-and-switch that revealed that Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin (a major foe in the comics) was a baffled actor named Trevor Slattery, hired as a front for the real villain, but that’s certainly not a problem for me. In fact, the Mandarin twist is a subversive stroke of genius in this writer’s opinion – a risky, unique idea that goes somewhere that other superhero movies wouldn’t dare to do by having a little fun with the very building blocks of a superhero movie. The rest of Iron Man 3 is solid, with a fun buddy-cop dynamic between Tony Stark and friend James Rhodes aka War Machine, an admirable attempt to explore the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and a couple of stunning set-pieces, but it never really rises to the irreverence and uniqueness of that halfway twist. In fact, the Mandarin twist forces the movie to wheel out a replacement for Kingsley’s hugely engaging ‘Mandarin’ in the form of Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian – unfortunately, Killian is a really boring bad guy, who lacks the charisma and unnerving nature of the fake Mandarin, so the second half ends up feeling a little underpowered as a result. Despite that, Iron Man 3 is a strong capper to Tony Stark’s solo adventures, delivering a payoff to Stark’s arc (Starc?) across the three movies that promised to upend the character of Tony Stark by chucking away all his suits.
Okay, that one didn’t pan out, with Tony back in the superhero game in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but Iron Man 3 still works despite Age of Ultron entirely ignoring it.
The newest addition to this list – so new that it wasn’t even here when I first posted this article. Considering the tumultuous behind the scenes antics that ended up with original director Edgar Wright kicked off the project, it’s damn surprising that Ant-Man has sneaked into the top half. Truth be told, I wish I could put this movie even higher, due to the admirable intent to send up some of Marvel’s own tired cliches such as the apocalyptic third act and flip the switch back to the smaller-scale origin stories of Phase 1.
Alas (I’m not pretentious, I swear), sixth will have to do. Ant-Man is pinned back from reaching greatness by some surprising issues – the first act, despite its strong focus on character building and drama, is far too slow-moving and deliberate for what is Marvel’s most family-friendly movie in quite a few years. For at least the first 45 minutes, Ant-Man steadfastly refuses to kick into top gear – and while that doesn’t mean the first act is irredeemably tedious nonsense, it does mean that the jaunty and enjoyable remainder of the movie jars with the generally quiet and often serious first hour or so. There’s also a couple of examples of sub-standard writing – the training sequences skip happily from major moments of conflict to overtly comedic fight scenes, and that means that Ant-Man never truly gets a proper handle on its tone until midway through the second act.
But yep, those are grumbles, and Ant-Man is endearing enough to make it easy to forgive some of the flaws. And, on the bright side, there’s plenty more good than bad. Paul Rudd is an extremely likeable lead – Rudd’s Scott Lang is made easy to root for partially by the compact and nimble storytelling that efficiently establishes reasons to feel sympathy for Lang, but also by Rudd’s grounded, deadpan performance. Scott Lang is essentially just an ordinary guy, and Rudd conveys that nicely by delivering a performance that’s far more understated and subtle than the more on-the-nose performances from the likes of Chris Hemsworth and Robert Downey Jr. After the introductions are over with, Ant-Man moves like lightning, with a near-flawless third act that delivers smart and innovative action that takes great advantages of Ant-Man’s shrinking abilities by setting fight scenes in extremely atypical locations, a handful of genius visual gags, and an emotionally satisfying resolution to Lang’s family drama. As mentioned above, some of the visuals of the shrunken world are superb, culminating in a visually stunning, clever sequence that mixes Interstellar with an overdose of LSD (honestly).
Most of all, though, Ant-Man succeeds by keeping the scope personal and the stakes small – it’s easy to get engaged in Lang and Hank Pym’s conflicts with their family when the movie keeps the scope confined to some areas of San Francisco, and sets the third act in suburbia rather than all across a crumbling city. It’s not a vintage effort from Marvel, but it doesn’t even need to be.
The one that started it all – the movie that made every subsequent movie on this list besides The Incredible Hulk (kinda fitting, really) a success. It’s high on this list, but here’s an edgy opinion for you: Iron Man is overrated. The actual plot is thoroughly undercooked, the third act isn’t that good, and Iron Monger is a forgettable and uninspired villain. With that edgy opinion out of the way, let’s talk about why Iron Man is snugly nestled in the top half and listed as the best Iron Man movie. Robert Downey Jr is frankly awesome as Tony Stark, bringing a pitch-perfect performance to the role of the arrogant yet vulnerable superhero. He’s such an entertaining presence that the scenes with him testing out the Iron Man suit with only a robot dummy to act with are some of the best of the movie, and no-one in the cast can really match up to him as a result. The ‘origin’ parts of the movie are superb, including a compellingly gritty set of scenes in an Afghanistan cave, culminating in a punch-the-air moment of catharsis when Tony suits up, kills his captors and flies away from the explosion. And, even during the weaker third act, it’s a breezy and fun movie that scores sky-high in terms of entertainment value, with a tongue-in-cheek ending that demolishes the perception that superheroes need secret identities. Tony Stark doesn’t play by the rules, and the offbeat, irreverent tone of Iron Man reflects that nicely.
Age of Ultron, as it turns out, was a bit of a Marmite movie. Some loved it for its deeper exploration of characters, heightened stakes and stronger plot, and some hated it for being a tangled mess of too many cooks (characters), jumbled character arcs and generic action scenes. Some saw it as outright sexist and bigoted on the part of Joss Whedon. All interpretations are wrong, except mine.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is a little bit of everything I mentioned above. It’s stronger than the first movie in so many ways – the story is considerably stronger than the threadbare plot of the first Avengers, and there’s a tighter focus on characters, with every main Avenger possessing a relatively detailed character arc and motivations (the visions, in particular, are an ambitious way to sketch out every character’s inner fears and hopes within a few minutes). The final act is a triumphant up-yours to Man of Steel‘s Innocent Civilian Slaughter Power Hour by focusing on rescuing civilians, and the new additions generally work, especially Paul Bettany’s Vision (introduced with the best visual gag the MCU has ever pulled off) and Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, and Ultron is a 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.
But yep, there’s flaws aplenty. Structurally, Age of Ultron is a mess – Thor’s Infinity Stone subplot is sparse in terms of dramatic or story value and feels utterly out of place, not every character arc reaches a satisfying conclusion and there’s simply not room to give attention to Quicksilver before he’s killed off in a death that’s presented as a tragic moment. There’s detours to set up characters for Black Panther, set up for the next solo outings of Thor and Captain America and significant groundwork laid towards the eventual showdown with Thanos and his Infinity Gauntlet in the two-part Infinity War, but none of these feel truly organic, as if they’ve been awkwardly shoved into an already formed movie. Age of Ultron shows the strains of world-building like no other movie in the MCU, and it’s a concerning sign that Phase 3 movies like Civil War could end up collapsing entirely under the weight of the set-up needed for future movies.
It’s a mess, but the intent behind Age of Ultron is clearly impressive – it generally accomplishes its lofty ambitions, and does some really unexpected and interesting things with well-worn characters. It could have done with a rewrite, but what we got almost matches up to the first movie in terms of entertainment value, and surpasses it in terms of character development and thematic depth.
3. The Avengers
Avengers movies are like buses. You wait half the post for one, and then two come along at once. This was my undisputed champion until last year came around, and I’m sure that this movie is at or near the top of nearly every one of these lists (and believe me, there are a lot – what, did you think I had an original idea for a blog post?).
The Avengers was a turning point for the MCU in terms of box office and cultural significance, and it’s easy to see why. It’s less ambitious than its sequel, but that means it doesn’t overreach itself – there’s very little that The Avengers does badly, even if certain aspects are weaker than they are in Age of Ultron. Where The Avengers succeeds is in the comic-book thrill of seeing these heroes team up for the first time – there had been plenty of methodical and careful build-up in the solo movies, so this movie was allowed to let loose and just be a blast on its own terms. The script is genuinely witty, the dynamics between the heroes are diverse and intriguing, and there’s plenty of strong emotion in scenes such as Coulson’s death (thankfully, he’s alive and kicking nowadays, thanks alien blood!) – the road towards the heroes assembling in the first act may be a little rocky in its tediousness, but once the heroes get together, The Avengers never ceases to be top-tier entertainment.
The third act is everything that’s hated nowadays – a destructive battle that levels New York – yet it succeeds where others have failed by acting as a culmination of the tensions between the group. Age of Ultron had several individual character arcs, which were messier to sort out, yet The Avengers only really has a group arc as the team learn to work together, and it comes to a head beautifully with the hugely satisfying assembly of the team, and yet another gem of a visual gag with Hulk smashing Loki into the ground in a moment that’s both hugely cathartic and really damn funny. This movie spawned a hell of a lot of cinematic universes (including, weirdly, Universal’s monsters) in an attempt to one-up Marvel – but no-one’s really matched up to the payoff that’s given here.
Two left, then. It’s easy to figure out what movies will make up the top two, but obviously the #1 movie will be revealed by virtue of it not being at #2. You don’t care? Oh, okay then. Here’s the movie that just missed out on the top spot.
2. Guardians of the Galaxy
You may know the story here. Like The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy was a huge movie for Marvel, proving that even C-list characters can make a small fortune if adapted into a movie, and emboldening them to announce a five-year slate of movies including several new franchises just a few months after. I’ve reviewed Guardians before on this blog, but it’s worth re-iterating how shockingly good this movie was. It’s by far the most fun – James Gunn’s script packs in the witty humour of Whedon’s Avengers scripts, but with a clever streak of self-referential humour that’s proved to be the template for how to sell these obscure characters; by inviting the audience’s sense of trepidation about these weird characters, and warmly assuring them that Marvel think they’re a bit silly too. Everyone’s in on the joke, so everyone wins.
Guardians also creates a handful of genuinely iconic personalities – Groot, the talking tree with a limited vocabulary, becomes the most sympathetic and likeable character in the movie through just facial expressions and different intonations of ‘I am Groot’, Rocket Raccoon is a lovably weird psychopath with a subtle, understated sense of deep vulnerability underneath the snarky humour, Star Lord is an engaging lead that you root for from the start despite his slightly skewed moral sensibilities thanks to Chris Pratt’s (praise him) powerhouse performance and Drax is a surprisingly hilarious character thanks to the juxtaposition between his brutality in battle and his innocent, childlike demeanour. Admittedly, there’s a few reasons why Guardians missed out on the top spot. The plot is skeletal, plagued by the same troubles that pulled The Dark World down to the lower end of this list – the central MacGuffin is boring, the movie never provides an engaging villainous counterpart to the heroes with either Ronan the Accuser or Nebula and unfortunately, Guardians doesn’t quite hit the target with its female lead, Gamora – Zoe Saldana is entertaining enough, but the character is underwritten and overshadowed.
Still, there’s a hell of a lot to like about Guardians, from the well-rounded character development to the quirky and unique visuals and the clever use of 70s pop hits on the soundtrack, and it’s fair to say that it’s a movie that blew everyone away when it came along, and set quite frankly unreasonable expectations for cultural significance, critical reception and box office that Ant-Man, as well as it’s doing, just couldn’t match up to. However, there was one movie that managed to top even Guardians. Guess what it is? Yep, it’s the movie that I haven’t mentioned yet! Get that for a shocker!
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The king of the hill, the cream of the crop, the top of this overly long and entirely unnecessary list. The Winter Soldier is actually a strange movie for me to pick as the pinnacle of Marvel Studios’ movies so far, as it’s one of the movies that feels the least like a traditional Marvel movie in the MCU. It’s not as dark as DC’s movies, but it’s further in that direction than normal – and it’s this different tone that helps to make The Winter Soldier as good as it is. For a good chunk of this movie, there’s a thick sense of paranoia and a feeling that the stakes really are high – the choice to give this movie a ‘political thriller’ feel means that there’s far more unpredictability than usual as the traitors creep out from the wreck of the seeming paragon of virtue that was SHIELD.
The actual story is far stronger than Guardians, with several properly surprising twists and a hugely relevant, grounded theme of the dangers of surveillance and modern drone warfare. It’s a movie that resonates with real life, which is pretty damn unusual for a franchise that stays on the side of the fantastic more often than not – but a little variety, in this case, pays dividends and shapes The Winter Soldier into a distinctive yet essential part of the MCU. The twist that SHIELD has been infiltrated by HYDRA is the sort of plot development that creators of interconnected universes should aspire to – a twist that works as both a major development for the movie itself and the cinematic universe as a whole. The Winter Soldier possesses major repercussions for the entire franchise, ensuring that this is an absolutely essential mythology episode that uses the advantages of a cinematic universe to become far more than just a second movie for Captain America; despite only starring two Avengers, The Winter Soldier matters every bit as much to the MCU as a whole as either Avengers movie.
The HYDRA twist is communicated in a clunky and inorganic way, but the way the movie uses well-known faces such as Sitwell to increase the impact of the twist is both a little cruel and pretty clever – having people we’ve grown to like over a few movies turn out as basically Nazis is a bit of a blow, and that’s exactly the intention. The third act is perhaps a little too simple, discarding political intrigue for explosions and CGI – but there’s still a lot to love in the final act, including a great entrance for Falcon and a final showdown between Captain America and the Winter Soldier that acts as a terrific and emotional callback to the first movie, as well as setting up an intriguing mystery regarding the Winter Soldier’s allegiances for Civil War to solve. The Winter Soldier works as both an entertaining, thought-provoking and often surprising thriller, and as the next step in the development of the MCU – and unlike other movies like Age of Ultron, it rarely trips up trying to accomplish this. It’s one of the strongest superhero movies around, and it’s certainly going to be hard to top.