Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Comic book fans and tabletop role-playing enthusiasts are used to world-building. It’s something that we have all watched happen and participated in, time and again; from the moment we first see our favorite heroes teaming up in four colors to the massive, multiverse-spanning epic where every hero faces some cosmic threat., from the first photocopy of a character sheet we hand to a player to the final die roll made against our carefully crafted villain.

Since 2008, the whole world has taken a journey of building a universe, alongside the creative minds responsible for making the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. From the first shot of Tony Stark having a cloth sack ripped off his face to the last line of ‘I know a guy,’ in the most recent of Marvel epic, we have seen characters grow, worlds develop, and a universe come together.

Having reached the end of Phase Two of the MCU, with Ant-Man, it seems like it’s the right time to take stock of the amazing dozen films we have seen, thus far. What follows is a rating of the Marvel films based off something less arbitrary than just what I am into. I have built this list based on three factors: story, characters, and cinematography, attempting to be as un-biased as I can be. Maybe there will come a point where I will rank these in the order of my favorite to my least favorite, but today, I will endeavor to be impartial.

#12. Iron Man 2 (2010)

Don’t get me wrong, I really dig the second Iron Man film, but, for a number of reasons, it simply doesn’t stand up when compared to how skillfully the other Marvel films are made. Ultimately, it stands up, when watched now, based on character development that occurs in subsequent movies (Jim Rhodes in Iron Man 3, Senator Stern in Winter Soldier, etc.), but on its own, Iron Man 2 is simply a beat-em-up, exploder, more along the lines of a Michael Bay flick than the more subtly powerful Marvel franchise of films.

#11. Thor (2011)

This may be surprising to many people, but, in many ways, the first Thor film is simply ‘less than’ when compared to most of the Marvel films to come. It certainly looks beautiful and the performers portraying the characters are top notch, but where it falters is in the overall plot. The story just isn’t strong enough to keep pace with the epic imagery presented on the screen. It would be easy to blame a lot of this on writer J. Michael Straczynski, former writer of Babylon 5 and a comic book writer known for having great concepts but unable to follow through with them. It would be very to blame him for the faults of this film, so I will.

#10. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

There are a great many fans of the Marvel movies who are not aware that this is considered part of the MCU, but it most definitely is, if, for no other reason, only for the post-credits sequence where General Ross has a conversation with Tony Stark. Ultimately, this film is a far superior treatment of the characters than the previous Ang Lee take on the Hulk from 2003 (which is, most definitely, NOT in the MCU) but it still falls short in a couple of areas when compared to future Marvel films. One lesson that would be learned from Incredible is that keeping true to the design of the character is advantageous, every time.

#9. Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Based on my second favorite (and one of the best-known) stories from the Thor comics, Dark World is a huge improvement on the first Thor film. Offering Natalie Portman something to do, as opposed to gawking at Chris Hemsworth’s abs, was a big step in the right direction. In point of fact, the second Thor movie takes advantage of a huge portion of the first film’s amazing cast, letting them take the spotlight, here and there. Unfortunately, aspects of the plot (aspects = holes) cause this movie to fall a little bit flat. However, with a huge improvement on the first Thor, it definitely is moving in the right direction.

#8. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

An interesting aspect of the second Avengers film is that there has been some debate about the quality. I think everyone pretty much agrees that it is good, but how good is in question. The fact remains that AoU has to exist to allow the transition to the next stage of the evolution of the MCU franchises: Phase Three. In many ways, the alterations to key characters (Ultron, Vision, Scarlet Witch, and, ultimately, Quicksilver) served a greater narrative rather than that of the film, itself. For this reason, Age of Ultron simply doesn’t hold up to the first Avengers film nor many of the other films in the MCU. However, everything that this film lacks in a necessity to move to the next Avengers films, which could potentially be the most awesome things ever.

#7. Iron Man (2008)

It was the first but, on this list, it’s the seventh. However, any potential flaws with the feature film debut of Iron Man can be chalked up to lack of experience. When Iron Man was made, Marvel had just started making movies (Fox, Sony, et al, having made Marvel films, prior). What this movie proved, however, was that Marvel could make Marvel better than anyone else. Iron Man looked like Iron Man (and Iron Monger looked like Iron Monger). All the characters would grow and develop in the coming films, but this was where it all started. The only issue is that it shows that its the first one.

#6. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

This was a tough one for me because I love this movie. It’s so well done and the characters and setting are so rich that it’s hard for me to put it this low on any list. However, this isn’t any list, this is a list of Marvel films and the bar is a little different. Frankly, the first Cap film felt as though they tried to cram the story for a season or two of a TV show into an hour-and-a-half movie. Still, great movie, but has its flaws.

#5. Avengers (2012)

I have, easily, watched this film more than all but one other Marvel flick. It is, in a word, amazing and a first of it’s kind. Nothing had ever been done like Avengers prior to its unveiling and every studio has been rushing to repeat the success of the gathering of ‘Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’ since before sitting down to watch the new episode of the Simpsons the Sunday following its release (episode 2320, ‘The Spy Who Learned Me,’ in case you were wondering). As great as it is, Marvel has done better, since.

#4. Iron Man 3 (2013)

A character study, plain and simple, Iron Man 3 provides an insight into a character who might have been considered somewhat shallow, prior. It also works at showing the effects unimaginable circumstances might have on someone who is, ultimately, only human. There are those that point at this film and state that they are attempting to show PTSD, but I have always disagreed. While there is definitely a psychological element to Iron Man 3, attempting to add meaning to a key plot point in a superhero movie is adding way too much consideration to the screenplay. It’s a solid film with solid production and solid character development.

#3. Ant-Man (2015)

The latest of the Marvel films; and the last of Phase Two; benefits immensely from those movies that have preceded it. The fact is that Ant-Man doesn’t really need to define anything. We already know what a superhero is. We already know what to expect with Marvel movies. Basic concepts have already been established and we can pretty much just get to the story. Which they do. Ant-Man weaves an incredible tale and every character is rich and multi-faceted (insomuch as you can really do in an action flick). Every aspect of this movie built upon the foundation of what had come before to make it come off as polished and original.

#2. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

If anything proves that this is not a list of my personal favorites, it’s that GotG is not in the number one spot. I have written more than 40,000 words on this film which is more than I have written on anything, ever. It is, without a doubt, my favorite movie of all time. Guardians is, to me, Star Wars and Star Trek wrapped up in a tidy bow. It has also become the film upon which comic book films are measured, which is a pretty astounding thing when you consider that it’s written and directed by a guy who really didn’t have too much in the way of major film success (although, he’s definitely been known on the indy scene), does not star the top stars of Hollywood (although there is definitely star power, don’t get me wrong, but the tops stars are doing voices of cartoons), and is about characters that no one really had any significant awareness. Setting the bar and then saying, ‘you’re welcome.’ But, not quite as well-produced a film as…

#1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Hands down, Winter Soldier is the best-developed, best-made film in the entire MCU tableau. From beginning to end, the second Cap film has an economy of story development, a complex set of characters, and a look that is as close to flawless as I can remember seeing in a movie. What’s interesting is that there are films on this list that are not as high because they are transitional, but Winter Soldier, while having a plot point that is so critical to the Marvel film series that it continues to have ramifications throughout every film that follows as well as a popular television show. Captain America: Winter Soldier changed the course of the MCU by introducing Hydra but did so, so deftly and cleanly, that the film’s course change does not reduce the quality of the film.

So, that’s the list. Do you agree? Do you disagree? Let me know!

My wife doesn’t fully agree, so, for the first time ever, I give you our guest contributor, my beautiful wife, Kristen’s rundown of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As just a list.

#12. The Incredible Hulk

#11. through #6. ‘Nobody cares about what I think about the in-between ones.’

#5. Avengers

#4. Ant-Man

#3. Iron Man

#2. Captain America: The First Avenger (‘The quintessential origin story.’)

#1. Guardians of the Galaxy

What’s great about these movies is that all the things I love about comic books comes to life on the big screen and I can share it with my friends and family who haven’t been into comics.

Including my wife. Who is wonderful and doesn’t want to think about what she likes the least about a bunch of good films because she’s a normal person and not an obsessive geek-nerd like I am.

Well, we’ve got a ways to wait until Captain America: Civil War. Will that move every other film down a slot? Will it end up somewhere in the middle? Will it end up at the bottom? I’ll let you know May 6th.

Until then, Make Mine Marvel Making Marvel!