Ranking the MCU – A Formula That Works
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Welcome to my personal ranking of every Marvel Cinematic Universe film! But first, a little preamble regarding my thoughts on this franchise.
If I had to pick one word to describe the MCU, it would be "ambitious".
Sure, it's easy to say now that (now Disney) faces very little risk when greenlighting a new MCU project. It's practically guaranteed to make back its increasingly large production costs and then some.
But when this franchise first started, to aim for not one successful feature film but an entire interconnected universe of them, was unprecedented. In many ways, it still is - no other franchise has been anywhere near as successful with combining disperate characters into a world that feels real (I'm looking at you DCEU).
Within the last decade the MCU has become the world's preeminent blockbuster factory, pumping out multiple movies a year that draw billions of dollars. Yet despite the incredible success with viewers, there remains a stigma around "superhero" movies which keeps them out of awards shows and causes many critics to consider them "popcorn flicks."
That these movies are "all the same" has been a popular topic of discussion for years. This idea is ridiculous - easily disproven by a quick glance at the MCU's catalog ranging from a spy thriller to a space opera with a talking racoon.
While these movies certainly have a formula - witty quips, a villan with powers that contrast the hero's, a 3rd-act CGI battle sequence - that formula works. As Samuel Jackson has said, "these movies get butts in seats".
My butt is one of those. I don't love every movie, but I'm impressed with Marvel's level of consistency - MCU films make up a third of the top 30 highest grossing films of all time (as of March 2022).
In spite of the incredible success these films have at the box office, I believe they still do not get enough credit within cinemaphile circles. The fact that the MCU exists at all is a massive achievement that many take for granted.
That we are now over two dozen movies in without significant major plotholes, and few films I consider truly unwatchable, is something to be celebrated.
While the jury is still out on what comes next, and it is totally possible that capitalism milks this franchise dry to "Star Wars" levels, the recent success of "Spiderman: No Way Home" reassures me that it still has quite a bit of life left.
With those thoughts out of the way, here is my personal, biased ranking of every Marvel film:
SPOILERS BELOW, DUH
To jump to a particular section:
2022 Edit: The movies that have released since I wrote this article are the following:
- Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, which I'd put in high D, low C tier.
- Thor: Love and Thunder, which I'll put in B tier.
As I noted above, there are no truly awful films in the MCU's catalog. However, that doesn't mean there aren't boring or bloated movies I have no interest in ever seeing again.
Note: I haven't seen "The Hulk" (and he was recast anyway) so for the purposes of this ranking that movie doesn't exist.
Loki is great. The rest of this film is simply extremely boring. Nothing truly terrible, just intense mediocrity. Thor is such an interesting franchise to me, for reasons you'll see once you finish reading this post. Can you remember the name of the villan of this movie? Me neither.
This movie had so much potential. A story told across major human events about a godlike family? Unfortunately, the film fails to live up to its premise. There are too many characters, and so each is reduced to a single trait (mostly their superpower). The fact that I can't remember any of their names speaks volumes (particularly since they're based on the Greek pantheon). Someone determined how long it would take for Icarus to fly into the sun at the end of the film. They calculated that, as he can fly at 850mph and the distance to the sun is 93 million miles, it would take him 12.5 years to make that suicide journey. So whenever you're watching other future Marvel movies, know that meanwhile, Icarus is flying himself into the sun.
This film simply hasn't aged well. The plot is much weaker than the first film and the villan is not memorable. While it introduces Black Widow, she's over-sexualized and under-utilized (but still the best part of the movie).
These films are mostly boring, confusing, or poorly excecuted, with some redeeming qualities. There may be some hot takes in this tier.
Norse mythology is incredibly rich and interesting, and so it's a bit disappointing that the majority of this movie takes place in New Mexico with a generic romance. The "fish out of water" storyline is humorous though.
This movie should have come out half a decade before it did. Its prequel nature removes any stakes, and the mandatory third-act action sequence in this film is particularly over-the-top. I legitimately forgot this movie existed when first making this ranking, which pretty much sums up my feelings about it. Mind control serum seems like a pretty powerful thing to have lying around though.
This film works better as a puzzle piece for the greater cinematic universe. That's because it's fundamentally a pile of setup for a bunch of later films. It suffers from terrible pacing, random sideplots (like that Hulk fight), a forced romance, and the worst rendition of Quicksilver (please watch this scene from Days of Future Past). Ultimately, it is redemeed because of one celebratory scene (you know the one). Cap could totally lift that hammer.
While I enjoyed these films, I won't go out of my way to see them without some good reason. If they're on TV I'd put them on.
My issues with this film almost entirely surround the writing and direction. It's just not very interesting or entertaining. Captain Marvel's powers are mostly unexplained and an extreme example of dues ex machina. This makes her the closest thing to a DC hero - godlike and therefore difficult to relate to. I did enjoy the "buddy-cop" sequence with Nick Fury. Also, how he got his eyepatch...
Mostly disconnected from the rest of the MCU, this film exists to have more Tony Stark. Nothing in this film really matters to the rest of the MCU. On the other hand, it's entertaining and a solid standalone film (if you can consider a movie that's a sequel to two other movies a standalone). But at least you'll know who that random kid was standing at Iron Man's funeral!
The First Avenger continues the MCU phase 1 trend of telling a compelling origin story. This is in many ways a patriotic war film. It also might have one of the greatest after-credits scenes in the MCU. It's rough to be trapped in an iceberg for a generation.
Paul Rudd is Paul Rudd. This movie is very funny, and the use of the word "quantum" to justify any number of crazy warpings of physics continues to be extremely fun to watch. "Ant Man and the Wasp" mostly suffers from a meandering plot with both several and no true villains. That chase sequence with the hot wheels cars was super fun though. Also, buildings that could turn into suitcases would make for affordable housing.
I'll watch these movies every once in a while. They're fun.
Paul Rudd's introduction to the MCU is a fun physics-defying heist film with a bland villan. I really enjoy the side characters in the "Ant Man" films, and this one is a solid average MCU entry. The Thomas the Tank Engine fight at the end is peak MCU.
This movie has one of the best first acts of any MCU film. While it never quite reaches that early peak again, it's fun and very different from any other MCU film in its fight choreography and settings. As someone who has karaoked "Hotel California," I can attest to its supremacy.
This is a great Spiderman film. It truly captures the "teen high school" feeling that your "friendly neighborhood spiderman" should evoke. I like Tony Stark as Peter's mentor figure, and I appreciate how grounded this film feels in the universe Marvel has created. Gym would have been sweet if Captain America was teaching our workouts!
This film has some of the best CGI in the MCU. The visuals are absolutely spectacular, reminding me of the best parts of "Inception." Most complaints surrounding this film are that it has a plot incredibly similar to that of Iron Man and a relatively weak villan. Both of those things are true. However, I really enjoyed Iron Man (so more of that plot is fine with me), and while I can't even remember the human villan's name, Dormamu is a cool subversion for a final battle, which successfully bargained for this spot in the ranking.
Speaking of Iron Man, the first entry into the MCU is excellent. Robert Downy Jr. kills it in this role, and everything about his personal journey from "genius playboy billionaire philanthropist" to hero is great to watch. This movie gets a lot right about what makes a great superhero film. I'm not sure that I could build a suit IN A CAVE.
Civil War has some very fun scenes. The plotline regarding the team breaking up feels plausible and earned. Black Panther's introduction to the MCU is excellent and the Winter Soldier is great as always. The Sharon Carter-Cap ship is a little weird. While the airport scene is fun for the fan theories of "who would win," it's also one of the reasons I rank this film lower - I just prefer seeing superheros fight villans rather than each other. We know the answer though - Thanos won.
These are films I've watched multiple times. They're excellent and entertaining.
"The Avengers" is the ambitious capstone to the first phase of the MCU. It takes these characters, from films I feel middling about, and shoved them together to create a movie worth far more than the sum of its parts. What Marvel does really well is "team-up" films, and it first showed here. Our heroes not only banter off each other, but combine their abilities in combat. It's also not a perfect fit at first, which makes it all the better when they finally pose together at the end. Plus, shwarma.
I don't really have a justification for why this film is so high. I like the teen comedy aspect the first two MCU Spiderman films have. Mysterio is really entertaining and his "powers" lead to some amazing dream-like CGI sequences. The after credits scene in this film is also great. The added layer of "fake news" adds some additional meta relevancy. Nick Fury's right though - calling a bomb on your personal tour bus is pretty immature.
This film might be the most grounded of the MCU. Which is saying something since it's still about an evil secret organization infiltrating the government and trying to launch a defense system that will kill all their opponents. There are a lot of memorable sequences in this movie - the elevator scene in particular. Introducing Falcon and backed up by Black Widow and Nick Fury, this is the best Captain America film. On your right.
I either haven't seen or don't remember half of the movies this film references. The fact that they can jam so much fan service in a movie and still have it work for people who lack the context is part of why it's this high. "No Way Home" is also just a good movie, going through some dark moments and leading to an epic climax with some (very expected) cameos. It was worth it just to get the real-life spidermen pointing at each other meme.
Baby Groot dancing to my alarm, "Mr. Blue Sky" in front of a battle against an interdimensional monster. Must I say more? The Guardians films both manage to be funny and heartfelt. This one is even more expertly edited than the first, with a beautiful color palette and an amazing soundtrack.
These are the films that I think of when I think of the MCU. They are some of the best experiences I've had in a theater, and represent what I personally look for in a movie.
This movie is, without any of the social commentary or surrounding context, a great movie. It's funny, well-paced, and packed with entertaining action sequences. When you add back in the above it becomes even greater. Marvel only has a couple truly great villains, but Killmonger belongs up with the best of them. Vibranium is kind of like the word "quantum" in "Ant Man" where it justifies any kind of tech, but its relevance to the plot and how it ties into the broader MCU is well-executed. As a bonus, M'Baku.
Where to start with this film. The excitement leading up to it was incredible. Thanks to the 22 preceding films, it was one of the most anticipated movies of all time. And so the fact that it lives up to that hype (unlike some other media that came out that month) is even more impressive. The fan service is strong here, but it integrates neatly into the story. I generally dislike time travel as a plot device because it usually introduces massive plot holes, but for whatever reason that doesn't bother me here. This movie takes the decade of films that came before it, including dozens of characters and multiple phases worth of cinema, and pays off almost every major story arc. This film is long, often bleak, and paced very slowly at the beginning. But it was also the greatest theater experience of my life. When Cap summoned back Mjölnir and said the words, I cheered with the rest of the theater.
This film is a blast. It is just non-stop action for 3 hours straight. It brings together almost every major character up until that point to face the greatest threat their universe had faced yet, and which had been building up for years. And then, it makes the surprising choice to not really focus on our protagonists. No, this film is as great as it is because it's secretly a solo film about the villan. By focusing on the journey of Thanos and showing how he can justify his actions in a way viewers can understand, even if they disagree, this movie creates one of (if not the) most compelling villan in the MCU. While the "snap" heard around the world was surprising, I expected those heros to return. What I didn't expect was for the film to end with Thanos, having won, sitting on his farm and watching a sun set over his "grateful universe." There just aren't that many films where the heroes ultimately lose. Why is Gamora?
Of all the movies on this list, I've probably seen this the most times. While I love team-up films, "Guardians" has the best of both worlds - an ensemble cast that works as a standalone film. The premise is ridiculous in all the right ways - with one of the main leads being a literal talking racoon tree - and it never fails to entertain me. Not to mention, the soundtrack absolutely slaps. We are Groot.
I find it amusing that the Thor franchise bookends my ranking. I truly love this film. It's funny and endlessly rewatchable. It has a great soundtrack, real stakes, and tells a complete story while completely revamping Thor as a character. The discovery that Chris Hemsworth was funny carried over into other MCU films, and the franchise is all the better for it. This is the best "Thor" movie, the best "Hulk" movie, and (at least in my opinion), the best Marvel movie. Help!
That wraps up my ranking. There's a couple interesting trends here I'd like to further explore. The first is that the majority of Marvel's phase 1 ranks fairly lowly on my list. I enjoyed those films, but I also recognize it took a while for Marvel to find their footing.
I also generally ranked origin stories (with few exceptions) lower than sequels. Moreover, I ranked "team-up" or ensemble cast movies such as "Avengers" and "Guardians" films highly. This is a personal preference - but I also think it represents the strengths of the MCU.
Seeing these characters you've individually grown attached to come together and bounce off each other is an amazing feeling. It's one I expect to continue drawing me to theaters for quite a while longer.
My thoughts on the MCU TV shows are as follows: not one is required viewing, yet. A couple are bad, but a few highlight real potential, so we'll see where it goes:
Note: I only counted "official" Marvel shows on Disney+
This show is all over the place. The primary problem is that it has too many villians, and then attempts to redeem all of them. There's an "evil" Captain America - which is an interesting premise - but then he's redeemed? in the finale. There's the freedom fighter "terrorist" Karli who is killed in a way that makes it seem as though the audience should feel sympathetic towards her. There's Baron Zeemo, a strong antagonist from a previous film who now hangs out at dance parties. And then there's Sharon Carter, who the show also tries to paint as a good guy/bad guy. I love morally gray characters, but not one of these have the nuance necessary to make that work. That, mixed with a plot that is clearly bloated for TV purposes, makes this one of the weaker entries in the MCU. Which is disappointing, because I really like both Sam and Bucky. Their banter makes it worth trying if you're into that.
Disclaimer: I never finished this show. Which is why I can't give it a firm score beyond a tentative D, because I'm usually averse to rating media I haven't seen/read. But in this case, I watched the first few expisodes and it just didn't draw me in. Hawkeye has never been my favorite Avenger, but I don't hate anything about what I saw here. It just wasn't for me. I highly recommend the other show Hailee Steinfeld was in that came out at the same time though.
I have mixed feelings about Wandavision. I'm not a huge fan of old sitcoms, so while the premise is pretty cool - to have a show where each episode is based on a different era of sitcoms - I didn't love the first few episodes themselves. I like that these shows allow Marvel to explore characters and stories they wouldn't be able to in traditional film format. I also applaud the creativity and experimentation this show had. They got me with the Quicksilver cross-universe fakeout cameo!
This is (by far) the best of the MCU TV shows, and not only because it stars the titular Loki - one of my favorite characters. The story is tighter, the worldbuilding is more engrossing, and the mysteries more captivating. This is time travel done right. Plus, who can say no to alligator Loki?!
Since I've seen all the X-men movies, and those are technically Marvel now, here's where they fit into this list. I'll write more about these later when I'm bored.
That's it, for real this time. Thanks for reading :)
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