June 24, 2024


Life is art

Every MCU release ranked in order of worst to best

 (Walt Disney Studios/Moviestore/Shutterstock)

(Walt Disney Studios/Moviestore/Shutterstock)

Regardless of whether you eagerly await a new Marvel film like Christmas or you see the studio as a box office freight train that needs to be stopped, you have to applaud studio president Kevin Feige.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been in full swing for 14 years now and looks set to easily continue for long into the future. With each now year comes up to three new theatrical Marvel films and, as of 2021, about four TV shows.

The episodic nature of the film series – with post-credits stings setting up the next blockbuster-to-be – may have started out as a costly experiment, but is now a formula other studios clearly view as a terrific business model.

While some MCU films are the best example of what they are – CGI-heavy superhero adventures – some are not so successful. An MCU ranking is a challenging ask for the sole reason that no fan could ever agree on the placement of certain films – but we’ve given it a go anyway, factoring in the TV shows, too.

From Iron Man to Doctor Strange and Captain Marvel to Hawkeye, below is a full ranking of every MCU movie and TV show to date.

31. Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2 barely holds together. Rather than making it a straight sequel to the successful Iron Man, Marvel overstuffed the film with universe-building references (Black Widow, Nick Fury and SHIELD’s Agent Coulson all make appearances) and two-dimensional villains (played by Sam Rockwell and Mickey Rourke). The resulting film lacks any direction and primarily serves as a Trojan horse set-up for the first Avengers film.

30. The Incredible Hulk

Edward Norton’s version of the smashing Hulk often gets forgotten by Marvel fans – and for good reason. Whereas Mark Ruffalo’s bumbling interpretation of the character has a gravitational charm, Norton’s moping monster is void of any charisma. With Liv Tyler phoning in her performance as love interest Betty Ross, the film falls flat emotionally and serves only as a by-the-numbers character introduction. You won’t like this Hulk, even when he’s angry.

29. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

Perhaps the most disappointing thing, watching The Falcon and the Winter Soldier on Disney Plus, is realising just how much potential it has. At points, it seems to subvert and interrogate the conventions of MCU superheroism, tugging at some of the darker socio-political implications of Marvel’s alternate reality. But the overarching plot of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is too ideologically and symbolically muddy to really land any punches. It just isn’t any fun.

Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie in ‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ (Marvel Studios)

Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie in ‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ (Marvel Studios)

28. Thor: The Dark World

Often (and unfairly) maligned as the nadir of the entire MCU, Alan Taylor’s follow-up to Thor saw Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster travel to Asgard after being infected by a sinister supernatural energy. The Dark World indulges many of the MCU’s worst habits, including an over-reliance on dreary CGI, an identikit villain (played by Christopher Eccleston) and unimaginative fight scenes. But there’s also some enjoyable stuff here, with Kat Dennings’ Darcy Lewis and the Thor-Loki sibling relationship providing levity amid the Norse dirge.

27. Black Widow

Considering that Black Widow is one of the few Marvel heroes who can’t fly, she spends a great deal of her own film plummeting through the air. Black Widow ends up landing as a valiant but chequered attempt to do justice to Marvel’s first female Avenger. Director Cate Shortland and writer Eric Pearson attempt to pry out new meaning from between the lines of the character’s official biography, setting their story in a time after Captain America: Civil War and before Avengers: Infinity War. A gritty, brisk but ultimately flawed instalment.

26. Ant-Man and the Wasp

A sequel that failed to really capitalise on its predecessor’s successes, Ant-Man and the Wasp is still far from an unmitigated failure, thanks in large part to Paul Rudd’s natural affability and the inherent comedy in Ant-Man’s big-and-small hijinks. Throw in Walton Goggins’s scene-stealing villain Sonny Burch, as well as Lawrence Fishburne and Michelle Pfeiffer, and you’ve got a caper that moves along at a nice, brisk pace – as watchable as it is forgettable.

25. Avengers: Age of Ultron

Just in case we’d forgotten that the Disney corporation is an all-consuming titan that owns half of Hollywood, the sequel to 2012’s Avengers Assemble decided to sneak in a little corporate synergy: when Iron Man accidentally creates a sentient robot (voiced by James Spader) who decides the earth’s only salvation is through the destruction of humanity, he announces his grim plans with the accompaniment of a little citation of the classic “I’ve Got No Strings” from 1940’s Pinocchio. It’s a moment that exemplifies the way Ultron feels like a cold, calculated operation from Marvel Studios and writer-director Joss Whedon. The film ends up choppy and unwieldy as a result, although there is time for the introduction of the glamorous Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who would go on to better things.

24. Loki

There are meta thrills to be had in Loki, which explores the world of the Time Variance Authority (TVA), a bureaucratic organisation keeping every single event from the MCU – past, present and future – on track. It’s also entertaining to see Tom Hiddleston’s God of Mischief attempting to assert his power in a place where he’s entirely stripped of it, an event that not only humbles him, but provides him with a purpose after being killed in Avengers: Endgame. Ultimately, though, despite several fun moments (Alligator Loki!), the show felt like a buildup to the main event: the arrival of Jonathan Majors’ villain, Kang the Conqueror, who will return in Ant-Man: Quantumania. Dare we say a Loki film might have been the better prospect?

23. Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel is a pleasant if unremarkable introduction to Carol Danvers, with Room Oscar winner Brie Larson proving a refreshing addition to the MCU. Setting it aside is its 1990s setting, bringing a rare retro feel, which is bolstered by nifty twists and fun comedy turns (Ben Mendelsohn’s Talos is a standout). Ultimately, though, it feels small-fry when compared with other standalone debuts, and isn’t befitting of a cosmically super-powered character who sits up there as the strongest of them all. Here’s hoping Danvers’s forthcoming sequel does the character justice.

Brie Larson as Carol Danvers in ‘Captain Marvel’ (Marvel/Disney/Moviestore/Shutterstock)

Brie Larson as Carol Danvers in ‘Captain Marvel’ (Marvel/Disney/Moviestore/Shutterstock)

22. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2

The 2017 sequel to James Gunn’s hit space opera was received a lot more tepidly than the original –despite being a clear step up from its predecessor, visually. Guardians 2 takes the bright, unearthly hues of the original and doubles down. Kurt Russell makes for a cracking villain, a planet-God-cum-absentee-father who milks every every drop of his quintessentially 1980s charisma. But, in all, it lacks the vim of the original, and creaks at the seams by the climax. Baby Groot, an entertaining prospect at first, also grates by the end.

21. Eternals

Boasting one hell of an ensemble (Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, Bryan Tyree Henry), and being steered by Nomadland Oscar winner Chloé Zhao, Eternals prematurely convinced Marvel fans that the film would be a slam-dunk for the studio. However, it ranks as the MCU’s lowest-rated film to date on Rotten Tomatoes, an unfair placement considering Eternals at least tries to stray from the usual Marvel formula. It has flaws, sure, and is almost derailed by a mid-credits cameo, but Eternals deserves points for shooting for something a little different.

20. Thor

Thor is an oddity of a film, an often-jarring adventure that veers from sci-fi family tragedy to fish-out-of-water comedy with diminished success. For some reason, though, the film has aged rather well, perhaps due to being the first example of Kevin Feige’s willingness to hire people you wouldn’t expect (Kenneth Branagh) to introduce a character that would go on to become a household name. Thor’s sub-par Shakespearean prose would grow old quickly if it wasn’t for Chris Hemsworth, a jewel in the MCU crown, bringing a joyous simplicity to his debut.

19. Doctor Strange

The reaction to 2016’s Doctor Strange was strangely muted when it first came out. Was it Benedict Cumberbatch’s slightly strained American drawl? The abject waste of Rachel McAdams as his love interest? The controversial casting of Tilda Swinton in the historically Asian role of The Ancient One? It’s probably all that and more, but Strange was otherwise a perfectly serviceable slice of pseudo-mystical popcorn fare, with enough imagination in the visuals to hoist itself above the bottom of the Marvel barrel.

18. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Shang-Chi has plenty going for it, from Simu Liu’s spirited performance (his debut!) to Destin Daniel Cretton’s breathtakingly directed action sequences; the bus and scaffolding fight scenes rank high as some of the best in any Marvel film. When the film moves to the fantastical Ta Lo, a dimension protected by a maze in constantly changing bamboo forest, Shang-Chi should flourish. Instead, it devolves into a disappointingly drab third act, made confusing by, you guessed it, the over-reliance of CGI. It does a disservice to everything that comes before.

Simu Liu in ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ (Walt Disney Studios/Moviestore/Shutterstock)

Simu Liu in ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ (Walt Disney Studios/Moviestore/Shutterstock)

17. Captain America: Civil War

An Avengers film in all but name, this 2015 effort pitted Iron Man against Captain America in a war of ideologies (and, eventually, a battle of fisticuffs). There’s some interesting table-setting in Civil War – the nefarious scheming of Baron Zemo, the introduction of Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther and Tom Holland’s Spider-Man – but ultimately the film boils down to a conflict that is too silly, nebulous and threatless to really justify its own bluster.

16. Spider-Man: No Way Home

You’ve heard of weaponised nostalgia? Well, get ready for nostalgia that could militarise a small continent. Bringing back characters, actors and story beats from previous Spider-Man films (Willem Dafoe! Alfred Molina! Jamie Foxx! Others, probably!), Spider-Man: No Way Home was a big, bombastic ode to corporate synergy. Despite its unabashed fan service – and a few genuinely touching character beats – No Way Home doesn’t really succeed as a Spider-Man film, miring its characters in a too-long mess of ideas, crossovers and webbing.

15. Avengers Assemble

Marvel’s first crossover film was an unparalleled cinematic event – one that arguably changed Hollywood filmmaking forever. These days, every major studio wants to have a “shared universe” franchise of their very own. Although the MCU has refined the template since, Avengers Assemble established the focus on humour, character, and heart that would come to define the success story of Marvel Studios. It’s a blockbuster that feels large on all fronts, delivering thrills not only in the “Battle of New York” finale, but in the knitting together of a team of characters that feel perfectly balanced and complementary.

14. Captain America: The First Avenger

Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, would eventually become the brooding centre of the Avengers, but there was once a time when he was all about the old-fashioned heroics. Director Joe Johnston stayed true to the film’s 1940s setting in a film that embraces that pulpiness of early comic book history, as Steve punches Nazis and romances military officer Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Thankfully, her character is never relegated to the role of damsel in distress.

13. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Despite centring on a super-powered American nationalist, the Captain America trilogy consistently delivered. Its crowning moment comes with The Winter Soldier – an adrenaline-fuelled conspiracy thriller that features a spectacular twist and provokes pertinent questions about modern day surveillance. However, given that the Russo brothers root the rest of the movie in realism, the bombastic CGI-heavy ending is a little ridiculous.

12. Iron Man

Where it all started. Iron Man subverted expectations by not only reintroducing Robert Downey Jr as a major blockbuster players, but by displaying the monetary potential of a whole swathe of Marvel superheroes. Other cinematic universes fail because they attempt to introduce too much (a mistake made in Iron Man 2). The first Iron Man, though, had a self-contained story that only hinted at a bigger world – a world that would eventually become a multi-billion-dollar franchise.

Robert Downey Jr right back where it all began, in ‘Iron Man’ (Marvel/Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock)

Robert Downey Jr right back where it all began, in ‘Iron Man’ (Marvel/Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock)

11. Thor: Ragnarok

For all of the love directed the way of Thor: Ragnarok, it’s often forgotten that the first 30 minutes of the film is actually quite weak. However, in retrospect, it’s clear director Taika Waititi crammed in everything he was asked to by the Marvel bigwigs before being able to let loose and inject the film with his own style. It pays off: when the hammer-wielding God of Thunder arrives on the garbage planet of Sakaar, Thor: Ragnarok amps up, becoming not only one of the most vibrant of Marvel films, but it’s funniest too.

10. Spider-Man: Far from Home

Is Spider-Man: Far from Home one of Marvel’s most underrated films? Quite possibly. This sequel charts Peter Parker’s struggles with keeping his identity as the webslinger under wraps while on a school trip across Europe. Tom Holland is a spirited as ever, with Jake Gyllenhaal indelibly proving his days of taking himself too seriously are behind him with an intentionally over-the-top performance as the villainous Mysterio. While nothing quite beats the Vulture reveal in Homecoming, there are several rug-pulls that come close – and it also earns points for being the refreshing calm before the No Way Home storm…

9. Hawkeye

Clint “Hawkeye” Barton always posed something of a problem for the Avengers films: why exactly did they keep this normal-powered guy around? Given his own series, and slightly more down-to-earth stakes, the appeal becomes clearer. Paired with a winning Hailee Steinfeld as his young protégé Kate Bishop, Jeremy Renner’s character comes into his own here, and the story works well as a self-contained Christmas-set romp.

8. Avengers: Infinity War

Back in 2018, Marvel redefined cinematic narratives once more by creating a single culmination to a decade’s worth of films. While it plays as total nonsense to anyone who’s a newcomer to the franchise, for long-time fans it provided an unmatched emotional release. Directors the Russo brothers faced the monumental task of making each crossover – from the Guardians of the Galaxy to the kingdom of Wakanda – work in a way that feels natural, while also ushering the MCU’s biggest villain, Thanos, into centre stage. Epic both in its sense of scale and stakes, Infinity War also stages one of the bleakest finales in blockbuster history.

7. Guardians of the Galaxy

As an introduction to a new batch of characters set in a far-flung, never-before-seen reach of the MCU, Guardians of the Galaxy ticks practically every box. James Gunn was an inspired choice to direct, successfully making these characters as loved as the original crew; no mean feat considering Iron Man, Thor, Captain America et al were firmly wedged in fans’ hearts. Gunn proved not only his blockbuster directing mettle with Guardians, but his skill as a writer, flitting from moments of hilarity, emotion and catharsis with ease. The soundtrack, featuring Redbone’s “Come Get Your Love” and David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream”, is a winner, too.

Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldaña and Bradley Cooper star in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ (Marvel Studios/Kobal/Shutterstock)

Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldaña and Bradley Cooper star in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ (Marvel Studios/Kobal/Shutterstock)

6. Spider-Man: Homecoming

After a run of three average Spider-Man films over at Sony, Spidey’s first solo entry in the MCU was a welcome return to form. Tom Holland proved himself adept at playing a young, breezy iteration of the webslinger, while Michael Keaton was magnetic as Adrian “The Vulture” Toomes. The whole thing played like the MCU’s take on a teen coming-of-age flick – a combo that worked so well we could overlook the fact that skilled comic performers like Martin Starr, Hannibal Buress and Donald Glover went criminally underused.

5. Ant-Man

Perhaps it was Ant-Man’s status as a lesser-known Marvel hero that gave the impression that Ant-Man was a small-time player in the Marvel canon; perhaps it was simply the nature of his superpower. But while Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang might not be dealing with world-saving stakes, Ant-Man endures as one of the MCU’s more charming efforts – a film whose modest scale belies a powerful grasp on what makes these movies appealing in the first place.

4. Iron Man 3

In making Iron Man 3, writer-director Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang; The Nice Guys) was left with the unenviable task of following not just one of the MCU’s worst efforts – the veritable stinker Iron Man 2 – but also the box office juggernaut Avengers Assemble, which had boulderised cinemas one year earlier. Iron Man 3 reckons with the fallout of that film, as Tony Stark’s struggles with PTSD form one of the MCU’s more affecting story threads. But Iron Man 3 also boasts probably the franchise’s wittiest script to date, and some of its most accomplished storytelling.

3. Black Panther

Black Panther checks all the required boxes for a Marvel film, providing a bridge to films both past and future, and ending in a thrilling cinematic battle filled with perhaps its finest usage of CGI away from an Avengers film. On top of that, Ryan Coogler’s real achievement as director is to use a familiar framework to tell a radical story within mainstream filmmaking. In the strife between Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa and Michael B Jordan’s Killmonger, he provided a nuanced, layered commentary on colonialism and Black identity. It’s a film that triumphs both within its genre, bringing new perspectives to the superhero story, and outside of it, satisfying purely as a piece of narrative drama.

2. Avengers: Endgame

The apotheosis of everything the first 21 Marvel films were building towards arrived in 2019. That it lived up to expectation deserves relentless praise. A cynic might argue that it was easy to succeed when your film ends with approximately five moments that were guaranteed to make its audience erupt into cheers, but the two hours preceding the fist-pumping climax is more refined than you’d expect. The grief experienced from those left behind after Thanos dusted half the population is greatly felt, and the Infinity Stone heist, which essentially serves as a glory tour of moments experienced in previous films, was deftly handled. It’s hard to see a Marvel film ever topping this.

1. WandaVision

Beginning its foray into television with WandaVision was a risky decision for Marvel. A nine-episode series about grief focused on two characters not entirely beloved by long-running fans was a hard sell, but one that Marvel heads were willing to go along with to see what an MCU TV show would look like. The result was the best thing Marvel has ever done – taking its cues from sitcoms old and new, WandaVision was an endlessly inventive, genre-shaking explosion of creativity, anchored by Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany’s soulful performances as the star-crossed couple.

Elizabeth Olsen in the brilliant ‘WandaVision’ (Marvel Studios)

Elizabeth Olsen in the brilliant ‘WandaVision’ (Marvel Studios)

It offered up the usual Marvel fare – hidden Easter eggs that led to intense weekly Reddit theories – without skimping on the quality. The more it begins to set up future Marvel instalments is when the series shows signs of flagging, but as an origin story, depicting Wanda’s transformation into Scarlet Witch, the series proved the staying power of characters given short shrift in the film series that can soar when given TLC by talented writers.