Ranking The Marvel Cinematic Universe Films (So Far)

Photos: Marvel Studios

Avengers: Age of Ultron is right around the corner, with the sequel to 2012’s highest-grossing film hitting theaters on May 1st. That got us thinking about all of the previous films in the fairly new Marvel Cinematic Universe and how they stack up against each other. Which do we consider the best? How about the worst? To answer these questions, it really boils down to three basic factors: how important the film is to the overall world Marvel is constructing, faithfulness to the source material (for all of us nerds out there), and the quality of the film by itself. Criteria set. Enough yakking; let’s get cracking.

#10 – Thor (2011)

ranking marvel films, thor

As a whole, Thor had virtually nothing to do with the overarching storyline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It introduced us to Thor and Loki, but other than that, it’s pretty useless. That’s OK, though, as it was only the third film in the MCU, which was still a pretty experimental concept at the time of its release. The best thing this movie had going for it were the visuals in Asgard, which were vastly expanded on in the sequel anyways. As far as lead characters go and the movie as a whole, that too was pretty bland. Chris Hemsworth hadn’t nearly come into his own with the character yet, and Natalie Portman seemed like she was playing Jane Foster for the paycheck and nothing more. In the end, you could have skipped this movie entirely and not missed a beat as far as the big picture goes, and for that it secures its place at the bottom of our list.

#9 – Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

ranking marvel films, captain america the first avenger

Captain America: The First Avenger is almost painfully cheesy at times, but we ultimately chalk that up to the direction of Joe Johnston, whose past works include films such as The Rocketeer, Jumanji and Jurassic Park III. Basically, had it been directed by someone with a bit more experience in modern action films, it may have produced a better final product. Who’s to say? After all, Marvel was probably looking to give the movie a more classic feel anyways considering the era it takes place in. All that aside, this film had one main thing going for it to keep if from scraping the bottom of the MCU barrel: setup. The ending of this movie more or less sets up the groundwork for The Avengers, and on that alone, it couldn’t be in last place. It just barely squeaks past it, though.

#8 – Iron Man 2 (2010)

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There are a lot of people out there with a strong distaste for Iron Man 2. While it’s not without its charms, it’s fairly easy to see why. After all, you saw most of the action from this film in the trailers, and even that wasn’t anything mind-blowing. Plus, much like Thor, this sequel had very little to do with the story Marvel was (at the time) slowly building towards, and that can be a bit frustrating when you consider that everyone knew by this point that that was the big plan. However, it never strayed far from major comic book storylines or really rocked the boat in any way at all, so it was hard to knock it for anything besides being a little dull. Oh, and you could probably have gone without seeing this one, as well, and not missed much more than the fairly basic introduction of Black Widow and slightly more screen time for Nick Fury than before.

#7 – The Incredible Hulk (2008)

ranking marvel films, the incredible hulk

This movie is virtually useless to the entire MCU considering Edward Norton wound up being fired as Bruce Banner and the entire post credits sequence involving Tony Stark putting together the Avengers ultimately made no sense, but as a standalone film it is still much better than the previous entries. Plus, considering most of us were left with a very bad taste in our mouths after the disaster that was Ang Lee’s Hulk in 2003, anything but complete trash was going to come out looking like a masterpiece. This movie could hardly be considered that, especially when compared to the Marvel films of late and their production value and scope, but we have to simply chalk that up to being a product of an early Marvel film, not to mention having to follow up the massively successful Iron Man. Even with all that stacked against it, it’s still plenty enjoyable.

#6 – Iron Man 3 (2013)

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While many will argue that this film should be much higher on the list, it fails in a major way when it comes to one of our three main criteria. Whether you loved or hated the big Mandarin twist near the mid-point of the film, it still very much went against not just the source material, but everything the Iron Man films had been building towards for the past five years. Even though your average moviegoer likely didn’t care that **SPOILER ALERT** the Mandarin, one of Iron Man’s biggest rivals from the comics, wound up being a huge phony, it was a gut-punch to even the casual Iron Man fan. You can get an A+ in two categories, but if you completely bomb the third, you still come out barely passing. For a movie with such potential and the biggest box office gross of all three Iron Man films, it’s a shame that’s how things had to turn out.

#5 – Thor: The Dark World (2013)

ranking marvel films, thor the dark world

The second biggest leap on this list from original to sequel, Thor: The Dark World improved on its predecessor in just about every way possible. It was tense, it was fun, it was dramatic, it was sad and it did all this without the corniness of the original. Sure, it also had the added benefit of co-starring Loki, who at this point had become one of the MCU’s most charismatic characters, but he alone didn’t make the film or it wouldn’t be ranked as high as it is. Its only real downfall is that it again didn’t tie into the larger universe in any major way, but since you cared so much more about these characters now and the actors were finally firing on all cylinders, the entire experience was so much more invigorating. Even Natalie Portman seemed like she was trying this time around.

#4 – Iron Man (2008)

ranking marvel films, iron man

Considering that your average person knew very little about the character of Tony Stark/Iron Man when this film was released, it was nothing short of a miracle that it resonated the way it did with audiences around the world. When you stop to think about it, had this movie tanked, the entire MCU would likely not be the powerhouse it is today. Remaining faithful to the comics didn’t matter much in this case, as it was the very first official MCU film and, ultimately, asses in the seats were much more important. Luckily, Marvel took a gamble on Robert Downey, Jr. and it paid off in just about the biggest possible way a gamble can–with the jackpot. There may never be an actor better suited for a specific role, and because of that, this movie works in every conceivable way, making it possibly the first truly great film on this list. And it only gets better from here.

#3 – Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

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Besides the previous entry, Guardians of the Galaxy is easily the second riskiest movie Marvel ever produced. Starring an entirely new set of characters that even most die-hard comic nerds didn’t know much about, this was essentially Iron Man in space in terms of starting fresh. Only this time, the studio was already well-established and could afford to bomb if it just so happened to shake out that way. Fortunately, it didn’t, and we were instead treated to the most entertaining outer space action/adventure flick since the original Star Wars films. On top of that, it painted a much clearer picture of the cosmic side of the MCU than we’ve seen before, and the road ahead looks brighter than ever because of its massive success not just as an addition to the current roster, but an all-around film.

#2 – The Avengers (2012)

ranking marvel films, the avengers

Don’t hate us because we don’t consider The Avengers to be the best film in the MCU. We assure you that the decision wasn’t made lightly or to simply push people’s buttons. In fact, it was easily the toughest decision of this entire list. We have no doubt that once May 1st rolls around, there will be a new heir to the throne anyways, but for now, hear us out. This movie is virtually flawless, with Joss Whedon being one of the greatest screenwriters of all time, but it’s still the first in a new series of films. Specifically referring to Marvel movies (with the exception of Iron Man), they tend to only get better from there. Having said that, there is one particular Marvel sequel that did just that, knocking this film out of first place by a hair. Directors are always going to learn from previous works, and even though “The Avengers” was brilliantly made, we can tell those behind the next film studied it well, even managing to improve upon it somehow.

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

ranking marvel films, captain america the winter soldier

While we’re not exactly stoked that Avengers: Infinity War, Parts I & II won’t be directed by Joss Whedon, thanks to our number one entry, we know the franchise couldn’t be in better hands now that the Russo Brothers have officially taken over the reigns. As we said, we feel like these brothers took everything that made The Avengers great and made it better in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. We can say the same for the source material, as we studied it extensively prior to the film’s release. At the end of the day, this film juggled just as many characters as “The Avengers” did, but the difference was that half of them were new to the audience. When you can pull that off and still make the people watching genuinely care about each and every one of them in the span of just over two hours, you deserve the top spot on this list.