We rank all 18 Marvel Cinematic Universe films

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Beini Liu/Staff

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Whether you’re a “true believer,” a casual moviegoer or a pallbearer grieving the death of cinema at Marvel super-producer Kevin Feige’s hands, it’s undeniable that some films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, are simply better than others. After 10 years, 32 post-credit scenes, two Hulks and one record-breaking opening weekend for “Black Panther,” it’s time to rank all 18 films set in the MCU.

— Harrison Tunggal

  1. “The Incredible Hulk”

This film wasn’t, ahem, a smash. As the titular character, Edward Norton doesn’t match Mark Ruffalo’s endearing portrayal in the rest of the MCU, falling short of Ruffalo’s balanced dichotomy between sweet scientist and big, green rage monster. Worse yet, Norton claimed to dislike the script so much that he refused to promote the film, so you can’t really blame audiences for feeling cold on this early franchise entry — it only made $263 million off a $150 million budget.

— Harrison Tunggal

  1. “Thor: The Dark World”

Let’s first get out of the way the fact that this film’s plot was a mess. The “Thor” sequel did, however, bring two positive offerings to the MCU. One: It was cinematographically pretty. Two: It paved the way for “The Tragedy of Loki of Asgard,” the parody play which later debuted in “Thor: Ragnarok.” Utilizing a hilariously well-played cameo by Chris Evans during one argument between the pair, the film managed to recapture the strange sibling bond between Thor and Loki.

— Danielle Hilborn

  1. “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

OK, look. This movie was bad. It ignored the Maximoff twins’ Jewish, Romani identity. There was a nonsensical romance between Bruce and Natasha. Clint was married with kids, ensuring that there will never be a world with an onscreen appearance of the “Hawkeye” comics’ pizza dog. It happened and we can’t change that, so let’s just move on.

— Danielle Hilborn

  1. “Iron Man 2”

Before the MCU became a well-oiled, franchise-building machine, it made “Iron Man 2.” This sequel leaned into the MCU’s connectivity, though a little too much — it misguidedly focused on introducing characters such as Black Widow and War Machine without developing Tony Stark further. The result was a film that merely laid the groundwork for future entries, offering nothing of its own. It’s fortunate that Marvel has since learned how to manage the combination of set-up and compelling stories.

— Harrison Tunggal

  1. “Doctor Strange”

This film had everything going for it — Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mads Mikkelsen were excellent casting choices, and composer Michael Giacchino stepped in to offer the MCU’s most memorable score since Alan Silvestri’s theme for “The Avengers.” Still, the film suffered from a generic origin story and an unfortunate case of whitewashing with Tilda Swinton’s portrayal of the Ancient One. But to its credit, the third act of “Doctor Strange” stuns with its clever subversion of the typical superhero CGI deathmatch.

— Harrison Tunggal

  1. “Ant-Man”

Given that Edgar Wright very nearly lent his signature, hyperkinetic style to this film, it’s hard to watch Peyton Reed’s workmanlike direction. In Reed’s hands, a climactic battle on toy train tracks is merely cute, and one can’t help but wonder how the scene would’ve been more dynamic if done by Wright. Come for Paul Rudd, but stay for Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peña and some sweet Baskin Robbins jokes.

— Harrison Tunggal

  1. “Thor”

Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearean take on the god of thunder may have been a bit of a wash. Yet the film is easily one of the MCU’s most influential entries for one reason — the casting of Tom Hiddleston as Loki, who is widely considered to be the most compelling villain in the entire franchise. That is, until recently.

— Harrison Tunggal

  1. “Iron Man 3”

Look up “divisive” in the dictionary and you might find Shane Black’s trilogy-closer chumming it up with “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Nevertheless, there’s a lot to love about “Iron Man 3.” It’s the MCU’s only Christmas movie. The film’s Air Force One rescue scene is a genuinely gripping set piece. Still, one wishes that studio heads wouldn’t have reduced Rebecca Hall’s role — she was supposed to be the film’s villain, before it was decided that a female character couldn’t sell toys.

— Harrison Tunggal

  1. “Captain America: Civil War”

This film’s shortcomings may not have stung so badly if not for the fact that it was meant to continue the brilliant story of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Rather than keeping the cast small and giving the plot room to focus on Steve and Bucky’s relationship, the decision was made to shoehorn in the convoluted Civil War arc from the comics. The movie felt more like another Avengers story, rather than the Captain America sequel it was meant to be. The introduction of T’Challa was cool, though.

— Danielle Hilborn

  1. “The Avengers”

The MCU is often credited with the renaissance of the superhero genre. Though the reality is more complicated, as the way was in fact paved by the “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” franchises of the early 2000s, the release of “The Avengers” was an undeniable turning point. This film truly marked the staying power of superhero films in today’s culture, setting the standard for team movies. While positively impacting the MCU, the bar set by “The Avengers” made the shortcomings of ensuring team movies such as “Age of Ultron” and “Civil War” even more disappointing.

— Danielle Hilborn

  1. “Captain America: The First Avenger”

Remember that feeling provoked by a bloody, beaten, tiny Steve Rogers as he gets back up in an alley to continue a fight he’s destined to lose? That feeling is what makes this movie, as the audience glimpses the Steve Rogers that existed before Captain America was born. “The First Avenger” manages to capture the extent to which Captain America was formed at the expense of Steve Rogers, tinging the character with a certain tragedy he never seems to shake throughout his subsequent franchise installments.

— Danielle Hilborn

  1. “Thor: Ragnarok”

Fans of Taika Waititi’s films will recognize his signature off-balance humor and heart that permeates every aspect of his Marvel directorial debut. As “Thor: The Dark World” showed, Thor and his story can be difficult to get right, but Waititi managed it while also throwing in a — somewhat clumsily executed — critique of colonialism and imperialism. Other honorable mentions include Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, Loki taking over Asgard and then putting on plays all day, Anthony Hopkins as Loki impersonating Odin and, of course, Jeff Goldblum.

— Danielle Hilborn

  1. “Iron Man”

As every major studio clumsily scrambles to assemble its own cinematic universe, it’s easy to forget that Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man” kickstarted the MCU by simply telling a good story. “Iron Man” showed the rise, fall and arc-reactor-powered flight of Tony Stark, and in a meta way, of Robert Downey Jr. himself. This film sold us on a character, rather than a franchise. So when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) appears in the MCU’s first post credit scene — “I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative” — he’s simply telling us what we already want to hear.

— Harrison Tunggal

  1. “Guardians of the Galaxy”

Before the summer of 2014, the Guardians of the Galaxy was an obscure comic book property, James Gunn’s best-known work was a “Scooby-Doo” script, and Chris Pratt was simply the dim-witted Andy Dwyer on “Parks and Recreation.” With “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Marvel did what it does best — fashioning icons from unknown characters and offering plenty of humor along the way.

— Harrison Tunggal

  1. “Spider-Man: Homecoming”

Tom Holland had big boots to fill — especially since Tobey Maguire is fondly remembered by most as their first introduction to the iconic role of Spider-Man, and many were bored of the character after Sony’s rebooted series starring Andrew Garfield. Despite these odds, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” delivered the most endearing portrayal of Peter Parker yet, in addition to addressing themes of social stratification and wealth inequality through Michael Keaton’s characterization of the Vulture.

— Harrison Tunggal

  1. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”

Namor’s got nothing on the waterworks elicited by the climax of James Gunn’s stellar sequel. “Vol. 2” tugs on heartstrings like no other MCU film, grounding its bonkers, candy-colored aesthetic in a thorough exploration of hubris and fatherhood. As an added bonus, it features the best opening sequence of any MCU entry — Baby Groot dancing his way through a one-take battle scene, all set to to Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky.”

— Harrison Tunggal

  1. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

Listen, the world hasn’t been the same since the Winter Soldier’s first appearance. That’s just a fact. Though not quite as successful as “Black Panther,” “Winter Soldier” tackles real-world issues with an explicit challenge of Patriot Act-type surveillance. At its core, the film succeeds because of its emotionally nuanced portrayal of the complex relationship between Steve and Bucky. The narrative challengers moral absolutism and considers how far we’re willing to go for people we love, making it one of Marvel’s best.

— Danielle Hilborn

  1. “Black Panther”

“Black Panther” manages to incorporate every aspect of a good Marvel movie. From its breathtaking cinematography to its strong characters to its compelling relationships and smart, fast-paced plot — the movie is incredible. T’Challa is hands down the best hero in the MCU. And Ryan Coogler’s film stands out from every other Marvel film in that it includes all this and then goes a step further, crafting the most nuanced, radical message Marvel’s seen to date. The film’s anti-colonialism message was significant, if somewhat surprising, given the tendency of the MCU to avoid anything that could potentially be seen as controversial. And in terms of representation, through its portrayal of Black superheroes, “Black Panther” hopefully indicates a more diverse and inclusive future for the MCU.

— Danielle Hilborn

Harrison Tunggal is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].
Contact Danielle Hilborn at [email protected].