PJ Media has set out to rank all 13 of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The explosive franchise has lasted eight years, since Iron Man in 2008, and it will persist for at least three more, to Avengers: Infinity War — Part 2 in 2019. Captain America: Civil War (2016) is the first film of “Phase Three,” and it packs a major punch!
Some films are better than others, but even the worst has a good deal to recommend. If you have any disagreements with this list, make your views known in the comments below. Enjoy! (And see where I ranked Captain America: Civil War.)
13. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
This movie smartly avoids the Hulk origin story, but nevertheless tries to balance too many conflicting issues. Bruce Banner escapes the U.S. government, but suffers from his own inner demons, from his heart rate, to the memory of the Hulk’s violence, to post-traumatic stress. These elements burden the film’s coherence, despite its fun action sequences. The chemistry between Edward Norton and Liv Tyler not only leaves a lot to be desired, but helps make the movie utterly forgettable. It is, indeed, the forgotten child of the whole franchise, and thus ranks last on this list.
12. Iron Man 2 (2010)
The sequel to Iron Man (2008) does a good job in developing the character of War Machine, but the many subplots overwhelm the film, and the villain proves underwhelming. Compared to the first film, Iron Man 2 proves utterly forgettable, despite a great action-packed battle featuring the titular hero and his new sidekick, fighting back Iron Man suits designed by a foe. The intrigues with S.H.I.E.L.D. go nowhere definitive, and while the film does a great deal of teasing for The Avengers, it often feels as though it is just killing time until that great reveal.
Next Page: Thor: The Dark World
11. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
This sequel to Thor (2011) copies the Nordic pagan themes of the original, but with lesser impact and weaker character development. The action proved solid, but the film made little sense. The hero’s final decision at the end, giving up power to be a good man, is a compelling and wonderful dynamic, but the story leading up to that point leaves much to be desired.
10. Thor (2011)
The first film featuring the titular Nordic god was a great success for its time. Mythic and heroic, it presented a fun alien world as the setting for battles with the pagan deities, contrasted with the mundane Earth. A disciplined focus on the growth of one hero between those two worlds enabled a powerful coming-of-age story that gave depth to the occasional silliness. Thor’s world is a bit too idyllic, but the film set up the perfect character development for the Nordic god and his foe Loki, which leads up well to the events of The Avengers.
Next Page: Ant-Man
9. Ant-Man (2015)
Paul Rudd made a fantastic and hilarious Ant-Man. The film smartly mixed action and humor, and gave the main character a great deal of development. Nevertheless, as fun as the action was, the film proved surprisingly forgettable, when compared to such characters as Iron Man and Captain America. A very fun movie that makes a great deal of sense, Ant-Man stands on its own much better than some of the other films, even while it featured some very fun Easter Eggs from The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. You know you’re dealing with a great franchise when a film like this ranks number nine.
8. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Few films develop a superhero better than Captain America: The First Avenger. Then again, few films waste a superhero in quite the way this movie does. You could argue that this film belongs below Thor and Ant-Man because of the latter, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Nevertheless, the tale of Steve Rogers proves remarkably compelling, and makes up for the anti-climactic final battle and the ridiculous way in which Captain America’s team is able to destroy Hydra’s bases, one after another. While the idea of a villain too evil for Hitler is fascinating, we don’t see enough of the Red Skull, and his whole enterprise seems rather weak when a small special ops team can destroy it so easily.
Next Page: Iron Man
7. Iron Man (2008)
The film that started it all was truly amazing and ahead of its time. It’s a real treat, even today, to watch the billionaire playboy who has to invent a metal suit to escape terrorists halfway across the world. The sheer genius of Tony Stark, the fascinating, innovative technology, and the budding conscience of a weapons tycoon make for a great and thrilling film. The villain Obadiah Stane proves less than compelling, although his gadget that causes temporary paralysis is nonetheless chilling.
This weakness makes for a lackluster final battle, which pales in comparison to the epic tinkering which saves Stark throughout the film. His closing declaration, “I am Iron Man,” nevertheless still sends chills up my spine at the end of the film. Definitely worth a rewatch.
6. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Age of Ultron is, above all else, a deep film. It delves into the complex guilt and aspirations of Tony Stark, as he feels responsible for the collateral damage of the Avengers’ world-saving work and wishes to bring it to an end. His legacy — a shield around the world — would protect the world without the drawbacks of human error. Nevertheless, his plan famously backfires, creating the villain Ultron. But it also leads to the creation of another superhero: Vision.
This complexity would have worked perfectly on its own, and indeed the film develops these themes very well, carefully inlaying them with action and intrigue. The film does bite off more than it can chew, however, aiming to give a backstory and character development to too many different heroes, and leaving the audience with a slight superhero fatigue. You might have convincingly argued that this fatigue is inevitable, for the eleventh film in the franchise, but Captain America: Civil War emphatically disproved such notions.
Next Page: Iron Man 3
5. Iron Man 3 (2013)
Iron Man 3 is the real sequel that the original film deserved. In this movie, Tony Stark learns that his heroic personality as Iron Man is not dependent on the suit that gives him power, but rather on his powerful inventive creativity. He also deals with villains from his past, foes of his own making, which makes the film an excellent prequel to Age of Ultron. The flashy tech runs throughout the film, and the ultimate villain proves eminently fascinating. A fiery closing sequence, replete with an army of flying suits and a strong performance by Pepper Potts, gives a strong movie a great finish.
Iron Man 3 is just deep enough to be compelling, without losing the wit and humor that make the Marvel franchise so much fun. Stark’s closing line sums up the movie’s meat well: “My armor, it was never a distraction or a hobby, it was a cocoon.”
Next Page: Guardians of the Galaxy
4. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Guardians did something unique for a superhero flagship film: it introduced not just a central figure, but a band of heroes. Even better, the movie blended the seriousness of the end of the world with a light humor that never took itself too seriously. The silliness of Drax the Destroyer being simultaneously a powerful muscular behemoth and a walking thesaurus fit wonderfully with the treebeast Groot, who could only say his own name, and the genetically engineered raccoon who became a true rascal. Even the assassin Gamora is a reject — enslaved by the ruler Thanos and desperate to escape his grasp.
This band of misfits is led by the ultimate misfit, a half-human from Earth who lost his mother as a child and spent his life roaming the galaxy, listening to ’80s rock tunes. The whole opening credit sequence, with him using a mouse-like creature as a microphone, is more than hilarious, and the moment when these rejects band together to survive direct contact with an infinity stone and become the Guardians of the Galaxy packs some powerful catharsis.
Next Page: Captain America: Winter Soldier
3. Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014)
As Steve Rogers acclimatizes to the twenty-first century, he begins to realize the terrible danger of a police state, and risks everything to stop it. Any libertarian should love this film, as it is a theatrical vindication of their distrust in the power of government. But the movie also makes for a great mystery as Captain America slowly realizes that an organization founded to protect the world is really about to destroy it.
Winter Soldier also features the complex character of Bucky Barnes, who has been turned into a human weapon via intense training, a metal arm, and mind control. This makes for some wonderful action between him and Captain America, and ultimately leads to the great big reveal and the massive carnage at the end — truly a fantastic final action sequence. One of the greatest superheroes in the franchise truly comes into his own in this movie, and (pardon the pun) it is a marvel to see.
Next Page: Who doesn’t like The Avengers?
2. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
From start to finish, The Avengers is a penultimate thrill ride. Action packed, character driven, and accompanied by a powerful score, the movie takes entertainment to new heights. Beat by beat, the pacing is nearly perfect, and it has just the right amount of build-up to each major action scene to make it wonderfully dynamic. The murky plotting of Loki, combined with the internal tension of the superhero team, builds masterfully to one of the most explosive action sequences of modern cinema.
While the aliens in the Battle of New York have no backstory, they make for a fantastic visual image, as Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye each use their unique talents to bring down the greatest threat mankind has ever faced. Watching Iron Man go full Jonah and fly right into the belly of a beast is wonderful, as is the character development given to each hero. The audience sees just enough character tension to understand why the Avengers clash amongst themselves and then come together at the end. Pacing, more than anything else, makes this movie a grand success. I left the theater both times so energized I had to go for a run.
Next Page: The best one yet, Captain America: Civil War
1. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Of all the Marvel films, this one is likely the most mis-named. Civil War does feature Captain America, of course, but it is fundamentally an Avengers film: bringing in all the heroes and putting before them the question of whether or not superheroes need government oversight. One of the best parts about the film is how much justice it does the previous movies.
In The Avengers, you see Steve Rogers (Captain America) agonizing over the idea of powerful weapons in the hands of people unchecked by law, while Tony Stark (Iron Man) is thrilled by the idea and confused by Rogers’ hangup. Civil War sees those positions wonderfully reversed, as Captain America has become more suspect of government control, while Iron Man turns to embrace government oversight.
Each of the characters from the previous films (with the exception of The Incredible Hulk) makes an appearance in Civil War, in a fantastic battle sequence that gives the Battle of New York a run for its money. The cameo appearances of Black Panther and Spider-Man heighten the movie, and add some great hilarious dialogue to a fast-paced, intrigue-driven plot. The villain proves wonderfully mysterious, and unpredictable, even as he acts in plain sight. All these elements and more make Civil War by far the best Avengers film, and number 1 in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.