Endgame: The Marvel Cinematic Universe Movies, Ranked

Before the complete set of original Avengers-based Marvel flicks completes its run with next month's Avengers: Endgame, let's look back at the entire 21-movie set — and pick the winners and losers.

Rather than try and rank them all in order, which seems a fruitless task and entirely too nitpicky, I've divided them into three tiers of seven movies each.

The Bottom Tier

I know I said I wouldn’t rank them in order, but there is one that is clearly the very worst and deserves to be recognized as such.

For my ticket money, Avengers: Age of Ultron was barely worth one viewing on the big screen. There were some fun moments, especially concerning Vision, Steve Rogers, and Thor's hammer... but the rest of the film was a bloated mess. Worst of all, the charmingly weird James Spader was wasted as the voice of the title villain. Writer-director Joss Whedon is better than this, as you’ll see shortly.

It isn't that Captain Marvel is necessarily bad, despite a questionable PR campaign by star Brie Larson. It's that the character is over-powered (dullsville) and that Larson doesn't bring any heft or even charm to the character (double dullsville). They could have made a more interesting movie out of Nick Fury: Closet Cat Person.

2008's The Incredible Hulk barely counts as part of the Marvel universe. It stars an actor, Ed Norton, who never reprised his role, and serves as a sequel to a non-MCU movie (Ang Lee's 2003 misguided Hulk), which few saw and even fewer remember. If you saw this, you might have enjoyed it. But if you didn't, you didn't miss a single thing having anything to do with the other 20 movies.

I actually enjoyed Thor: The Dark World, and this was the point where choosing which movies needed to go into the bottom third got really difficult. But director Alan Taylor lacked the Shakespearean gravity Kenneth Branagh gave to the first Thor movie, yet couldn't match the crowd-pleasing laughs of Thor: Ragnarok. The middle Thor just kind of falls between the cracks.

In the comics, Doctor Strange often serves as the deus ex machina who saves the day with magic when the writers write themselves into a corner they can't figure out how to write their way out of. On the plus side, I'll watch most anything with Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, or Mads Mikkelsen — and all three of them are in this movie. I get the feeling this one got made, in part, so that movie audiences would have enough awareness of the character for his vital role in Avengers: Infinity War. BONUS: Tilda Swinton is as entertainingly odd as ever.

Iron Man 2, again, not a bad movie. As much as I enjoy Don Cheadle in anything, I wish Terrence Howard had stuck around after Iron Man to play Rhodey/War Machine throughout the MCU. Howard and Robert Downey Jr. just had a better Tony/Rhodes chemistry. The movie gave us a pair of decent villains in Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell, and some nice character development from Tony Stark himself. But like the middle Thor movie, this one just gets a little lost between its superior bookend flicks.

The first Guardians was so much fun, that it really pains me to put Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 in the bottom third. The script was maybe two rewrites away from being just as good, maybe even better than the original. But it featured an unnecessary Sequence of Mock Peril getting Rocket and Yondu to the scene of the final fight, and the writers leaned too hard on Dave Bautista's (admittedly epic) laugh. I don't know if this production was rushed or just a little lazy, but it could and should have been better.

The bottom tier finished, let’s move on to...

The Middle Tier

On the third attempt at casting Spider-Man, they finally got it right with Tom Holland in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker was pitch-perfect in the first two Sam Raimi films, but his Spidey lacked the comic book character's high-school smartassery. Andrew Garfield's take in the reboots more accurately captured the Spidey side, but his Peter was just an unlikable jerk. Holland brings everything to the role, in a movie that would have made the top third if they hadn't made it so much about the knock-off Iron Man suits provided by Tony Stark. Spider-Man is about Peter's inventiveness, not Tony's.

Iron Man 3 is just a really solid effort from veteran writer-director Shane Black, and everyone is so comfortable in their well-established roles that you just want to give them each a hug every time they come on screen. The best part was seeing Tony’s wild past come back to haunt him, in ways that really required multiple, quality movies to establish. And speaking of charmingly weird actors, Guy Pearce brings on the charm and the weird as supervillain Aldrich Killian. The final big battle was so big that it could have been a hot mess, with automated Iron Man suits flying around every which way, but Black kept an easy hand on all the action.

Ever wanted to know what would happen if famed Shakespearean actor-director Kenneth Branagh could be enticed into directing a big-budget superhero action flick? Asketh thou no more. Chris Hemsworth was super-fun in Thor’s fish-out-of-water scenes on Earth, giving a hint of the comic chops he'd put on full display in Ragnarok. Even better was the chemistry between Thor and his adopted brother, Loki, played with wicked charm by Tom Hiddleston — a complicated relationship that would play out over ever-increasing stakes throughout the much of the rest of the MCU.

Ant-Man and its just-as-good sequel Ant-Man and The Wasp are tied, right in the middle of the pack. There's nothing terribly original about either movie, but both featured well-drawn, likable characters. I might give the edge to the second one, for featuring a sympathetic villain (complex characters are much more interesting), and for giving me an age-appropriate heroine to lust after in Evangeline Lilly's Wasp. I could watch her kick ass all day. BONUS: Every single time Michael Peña says words.

Avengers: Infinity War wasn't nearly as tight as the superior The Avengers. But that was probably an impossible task, given that the cast had, by necessity, ballooned up to 17 major heroes. But I give the Marvel crew (especially the Russo brothers) big credit for making the villain essentially an interstellar Al Gore (Thanos), and for somehow keeping such a big cast, multiple locations, yuge battles, and a jillion backstories, all comprehensible. It's kind of The Longest Day of superhero movies: Too big to be truly great, but always impressive nonetheless.

Captain America: The First Avenger. What a perfect introduction to the character who serves as the conscience of the MCU, all while strong-arming evil abroad and at home, from Nazi-occupied Europe to present-day Washington, D.C. Chris Evans as Steve Rogers is just so good and so brave and so right, that he makes for my all-time favorite all-American hero. I'm not sure exactly why Peggy Carter had her nationality switched from American to British, but if it was only to cast the delectable, tough-yet-feminine Hayley Atwell in the role, then I'm all in favor. So why does Cap sit at the top of the middle rank? Because there are seven films that are even better.

The Top Tier

In no particular order, other than the final two...

Forget the Hollywood-PC hype about First Black This/First Black That movie that surrounded Black Panther from pre-production. Forget the silliness of an ancient technological super-society that still picks its rightful leader through a fight to the death, and that also lacks an Air Force despite having all this hover technology. Instead, focus on Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa, the quiet moral center of every storm. And focus on villain Killmonger, played with righteous anger by Creed's Michael B. Jordan. And marvel, if you'll forgive the pun, at a world unlike any you've ever seen on the screen.

A sequel better than the original? It happens sometimes, and it did here with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The Russo brothers did a smash-up job, giving us a complex and, eventually, a sympathetic villain in the Winter Soldier. It also puts Steve Rogers on the complicated moral path he'll find himself on in an even later movie. Perhaps best of all, this film more than maybe any other feels like a superhero movie set in the real world we can all relate to. The highway fight scene in the movie's middle act is viscerally good, and the chemistry between Evans and Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff is fun and sexy, but without tacking on an unbelievable (and unnecessary) romantic angle. I dock this one a point for the laziness of making the ultra-super-villain a stereotypical Rich White Guy with a Bad Agenda.

Marvel finally found the perfect cinematic voice for Thor in Thor: Ragnarok. Let's face it. A thunder god is kind of silly, so director Taika Waititi (working from a delightful script by Eric Pearson and Craig Kyle) effortlessly brought the laughs, yet somehow never lost sight of the thrills or the stakes. This one is already the most-watched MCU movie in my family's iTunes library, but it only hit home video last year. Popcorn fun and comic book thrills — what's not to love? BONUS: Everything Jeff Goldblum.

I'm a sucker for shows where an awkward team has to come together, which is kind of Joss Whedon's specialty (think Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Serenity). In this star-studded spectacular, Whedon takes characters from all the previous MCU movies and forces them to work together in ways none of them like at first due to differences in faith, conviction, and personality. And then Whedon presents them a memorable villain in Hiddleston's Loki, and an invading alien army courtesy of Al Gore... er, Thanos. There's also the Whedon-esque death of a beloved character, raising the stakes to a very personal level just in time for the third act. This is so good that it makes Whedon's failure with the sequel absolutely inexplicable.

My 13-year-old assures me that Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t a good comic book. But writer-director James Gunn made a breezily enjoyable movie which is really about loss, family, love, redemption, and kicking supervillain ass. I admitted that I’m a sucker for watching a team come together, and more than any one other thing, the cast makes this movie what it is. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, and Vin Diesel make one of the most awkwardly lovable superhero teams in superhero movie history. And it’s all set to a deliciously 70s soundtrack which is itself both a plot point and a virtual character in the movie. Watch this one at maximum volume.

Finally... I’ve mostly avoided ranking the movies in any particular order, but I do have to pick a best and second best to top out the list. And the decision wasn’t easy, and maybe I’m wrong, but here you go...

I really wanted to make Iron Man number one for a variety of reasons. Let’s start with Robert Downey Jr.’s drug problems (he’s long been in recovery) and prison time, which had made him virtually unemployable, and certainly too big a risk for a big-budget action movie. And then we have to go to director Jon Favreau, who took the risk anyway, and whose light touch/sure hand provided the template for the entire MCU. And to executive producer Kevin Feige, whose vision created a multibillion-dollar entertainment franchise out of a once-broke comic book publisher. Maybe best of all was Downey’s ad-libbed “I am Iron Man” line at the movie’s end, which mercifully spared us endless variations on the tired secret identity motif. I hesitate to call a charming popcorn action flick a stellar achievement, but given all the goodness that followed, it might be apt.

Which brings us to...

I never knew a superhero movie could have such depths, but then we got the Russo brothers’ masterpiece, Captain America: Civil War. In it, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark are pitted against one another, in the ultimate example of The Avengers’ family dysfunction. The best part is — and it took several quality movies to get to this point — Steve and Tony’s character arcs. The unredeemable Batman versus Superman tried to shoehorn all of that development into one movie, which is the major reason it failed. But Kevin Feige never rushed the MCU.

Captain America started off all Follow Orders & Salute Everybody in his first film, but over time learned a libertarian distrust for authority that served him well. Tony, the rebel, found he couldn’t quite trust his own technologically-enhanced self, and ended up on the side of the authorities — who were clearly in the wrong. Add in yet another sympathetic villain with the insight to take advantage of our heroes’ loggerheads, and you get an action movie with a lot more going for it than Spandex and fight scenes. In the end, when a victorious Rogers stands over Stark and warns him to stay down, your heart goes out not to the victorious hero, but to the vanquished. This is the sort of moral complexity we deserve more of in our movies, but that remains a rare bird in the sky, indeed.

So... what did I get wrong?