Before the release of Doctor Strange in November, we're counting down the 13 entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, listing them from worst to best.
13. Iron Man 2 (2010)
After the one-two punch of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk kickstarted the nascent MCU in 2008, Marvel Studios took a year off before coming back with the third entry in the series, Iron Man 2, in 2010. Sensing that audiences were excited about the prospect of the films and their characters crossing over, Marvel went all in with the connections in this one. We saw the MCU debut of Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow. Samuel L Jackson was given his first crack at an extended role for Nick Fury, following his cameo in the post-credits scene of Iron Man.
Unfortunately, due to this being Marvel's first concerted attempt at widening their universe, the movie feels very much like an installment of a larger whole. It doesn't really stand up as it's own movie, with a weak villain and a meandering plot. Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark, so snarkily lovable in movie one, is frustrating in this entry. Even the action set-pieces are underwhelming.
Sam Rockwell is a hoot as Justin Hammer, though.
12. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Thor: The Dark World is by no means a bad film. In fact, it's perfectly enjoyable if you don't think too hard about what's happening on-screen. Chris Hemsworth is great as Thor, and Tom Hiddleston impresses again as the deviously watchable Loki. It's a nice movie to pass a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, but by this point in the development of the MCU, audiences had come to expect a bit more. The villain Malekith the Dark Elf, played by Christopher Eccleston, is visually interesting to look at, but little more. The Dark Elves and their technology as a whole are triumphs of design, but aside from that, they are weak antagonists.
Perhaps the lackluster film has something to do with the troubles behind the scenes, especially when it came to the revolving door of directors in pre-production. Patty Jenkins was hired after both Kenneth Branagh (who directed the first Thor) and Brian Kirk passed. The first woman to ever direct a superhero epic, she quit two months later. Alan Taylor was hired a few days after.
Taylor has been quoted as saying he was given creative freedom during filming, but in post-production the movie was taken away from him. His words indicate studio interference, which isn't the only time that accusation will rear it's head in this list.
11. Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015)
Even Joss Whedon, fan-favourite director of the first Avengers film and creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was not immune to stuggles with Marvel Studios. In the midst of the press tour promoting Avengers: Age Of Ultron in 2015, Whedon said that he was beaten down by the process of making the film. He revealed that creative disagreements with Marvel were unpleasant, and was openly critical of the final cut of the film.
All in all, it's tough to disagree with Whedon. The film is a disappointment, with a huge array of characters battling for limited screentime. The narrative clearly struggles with trying to act as a sequel to the first Avengers, as well as a sequel to the other solo movies. It is also tasked with laying groundwork for future movies. As such, it falls apart at certain points under the weight of expectation.
Over time, the wounds seem to have healed somewhat for the director, though. Whedon now says that he was simply exhausted after making two massive Avengers movies, but is grateful to Marvel for letting him make them so personal to his creative sensibilities.
10. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Depending on who you ask, The Incredible Hulk is either a disappointing film that is no better than the lamentable Eric Bana Hulk from 2003, or it's an underrated entry in the MCU. We fall into the second category.
The Incredible Hulk was released only a month after the mega successful Iron Man and was a minor hit. It reached number one at the box office. It ultimately made less than half Iron Man's total, but received generally favorable reviews. Edward Norton gave his all as Bruce Banner, and Tim Roth was on memorably nasty form as Emil Blonsky.
We feel the film actually built it's story nicely, with some scenes playing like a Jason Bourne movie with the Hulk in it. By the time the climactic battle happens, with Hulk battling Blonsky's monstrous Abomination, the destruction is exciting and intense. Even though it amounts to two CGI beasts beating each other up, director Leterrier handles it with aplomb.
9. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
The fifth entry in the MCU, this fun 'boys own' style wartime adventure is a welcome breath of fresh air. In 2011, Marvel were building full-steam ahead towards The Avengers in 2012, but knew they had a tricky task ahead of them. They had to create satisfying solo movies to introduce audiences to Thor and Captain America.
Brilliantly, their decision to attack different genres with the two films was one that has continued to resonate throughout the MCU. They ensured that both films felt completely different from each other, as well as miles away from the Iron Man and Hulk films. This tactic of flirting with genres outside of the generic superhero tale would go on to serve Marvel well.
Fittingly, Captain America: The First Avenger is an unashamedly nostalgic movie. It is beautifully shot by veteran director Joe Johnston, and hearkens back to the pulpy adventure serials of the 1940's. Chris Evans equips himself well as Steve Rogers. He is entirely convincing as the scrappy, sickly Rogers who simply doesn't like bullies and desires nothing more than to serve his country. But he is also great as the buff adventurer Captain America. And even though the action scenes aren't exactly amazing, they are decent enough to give some thrills.
8. Ant-Man (2015)
Ant-Man is the film that proved, to us at least, that by 2015 Marvel Studios had some sort of hoodoo cast over Hollywood. By even the most generous estimation, Ant-Man is a C-list character in the Marvel Universe. There is the unmistakable hint of silliness in the concept, despite it truthfully being no more ridiculous a notion than Spider-Man, for example. Ant-Man just doesn't sound as cool, though.
So, imagine our surprise when the film emerged and was a thoroughly charming, effortlessly funny heist movie. Paul Rudd just exudes likeability in the role of Scott Lang, and he bounces well off his co-stars Evangeline Lilly and Michael Pena. Hell, even Michael Douglas (yes, that Michael Douglas), who is someone we never expected to see in any comic book film, let alone Ant-Man, is great as Hank Pym.
Marvel even managed to buck a trend in this one, too. Despite an extremely troubled production history, with geek god director Edgar Wright leaving the project under a cloud and the replacement director being the much less beloved Peyton Reed, the decision ended up working in their favor. Reed understood the material perfectly, and pitched the tone of the film amazingly well.
7. Thor (2011)
We mentioned earlier that Marvel knew they had to get both Thor and Captain America right in 2011, in order to ensure the best possible footing before the release of The Avengers in 2012. Audiences had to buy into both characters and their stories. If they didn't, the whole future slate of films could be in jeopardy.
Thor was first up to bat, released in May 2011. Marvel brought together a superb cast for the film. Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman, both Oscar winners, backed up Australian newcomer Chris Hemsworth in the title role. Hemsworth turned out to be a revelation. He was charming and funny when he needed to be, but tough and intimidating when the scene called for it. He was able to nail a tricky character, one that could easily have been cheesey in the wrong hands.
Perhaps Marvel's best decision, though, was in hiring director Kenneth Branagh. Mostly know for his Shakespearean adaptations, Branagh wouldn't have been at the top of many fans' lists for this film. But, considering Thor could be seen as 'Shakespeare in space', he was an inspired choice. He cannily tapped a rich vein of fish-out-of-water humour that endeared the characters to the audience.
6. Iron Man 3 (2013)
Iron Man 3 was the first MCU film released after The Avengers, which was an all-conquering box office behemoth. Fittingly, considering Iron Man is arguably the most popular Avenger, this movie received a bump from The Avengers. It made a massive $1.2 billion worldwide.
Written and directed by Shane Black, the whip-smart creator of Lethal Weapon and The Nice Guys, the film is funny, exciting and dramatic in equal measure. Black had never directed a film of such scale before, but had worked with star Robert Downey Jr in 2005's Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. The collaboration works great in the film, with Downey Jr at his charismatic best.
The film, though it received positive reviews upon release, has gone on to be controversial in fan circles. This is due to Black's treatment of The Mandarin, Iron Man's most well-known enemy. In the movie, Ben Kingsley plays the character as a menacing terrorist with global destruction in mind...until it turns out that he's actually a drunk actor named Trevor, hired by the real villain Guy Pearce. Some fans felt this was disrespectful to the source material, and we can certainly see why some may feel that way.
We found it funny, though.
5. Iron Man (2008)
More Iron Man! This time, the movie that started it all.
These days, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the most reliable franchises in Hollywood. It's an unprecedented franchise, in that it has smaller franchises built into a larger framework. It also has characters that can appear across all films. The 13 films have made over $10 billion at the worldwide box office.
So it's easy to forget that without Iron Man, none of this would've been possible. And this movie was a significant risk when it was released in 2008. It was the first movie funded entirely by Marvel themselves. Robert Downey Jr was not a movie star at this point. Rather, he was a character actor on his second chance in Hollywood, after experiencing troubles with drugs and alcohol in his youth. The director was a former comedic actor whose biggest success as a director was the Will Ferrell comedy Elf. Iron Man, as a character, was B-list in the comics, never able to compete with the likes of Spider-Man and the X-Men.
And yet...it was marvelous. Utterly marvelous.
4. The Avengers (2012)
Sometimes movies come along that transcend, becoming cultural phenomenons. The Avengers was one of those films. Even though Marvel had made successes of their previous five entries in the MCU and would've had high hopes for this, they surely couldn't have predicted the mind boggling success they were in for.
At $1.5 billion worldwide, the movie is still the MCU's biggest. The world was primed and ready for the biggest superhero team-up ever attempted on-screen. Sure, we had seen team movies before like X-Men. But Marvel's method of giving each team member their own solo movie first had never been done before.
Seeing Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and Hulk on-screen together, backed up by Black Widow and Hawkeye, was truly a sight to behold. It's no exaggeration to say that this was the dream of many a fanboy. Director Joss Whedon's trademark wit and clever dialogue mixed perfectly with his aptitude for action, and the movie deserves every plaudit that comes it's way.
3. Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014)
The fact that Guardians Of The Galaxy is such a wonderful science-fiction film is one thing. The fact that it is also genuinely one of the funniest comedies to come along in recent years is another. The notion that two of the main characters are a talking CGI racoon and a talking (kind of) CGI tree is incredible, because they're both utterly lovable creations. And the fact that the movie is a visual feast for the eyes and features star-making turns from Chris Pratt and Dave Bautista is really just the cherry on top, too.
All in all, Guardians Of The Galaxy took everyone by surprise. Director James Gunn, who has to be seen as a true visionary after this film, saw something in a ragtag bunch of Marvel characters that few fans had even heard of, let alone the general public. And he turned it into the biggest movie of the year in America, as well as one of the biggest hits worldwide. The movie's marketing campaign, which focused heavily on the excellent 80's pop soundtrack utilized in the film, was a stroke of genius, too.
We cannot wait for Guardians Vol. 2.
2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
2014 was, for our money, the best single year in MCU history. We've just waxed lyrical about Guardians Of The Galaxy, the epic space comedy that charmed the world. But earlier, in March of that year, Marvel released a paranoid conspiracy spy thriller. It was called Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And it was amazing.
Winter Soldier, as a movie, could not feel more different from The First Avenger. Cap is now in a modern day setting, working with SHIELD. He is discovering the murky moral conundrum that is politics and surveillance in this day and age. The movie is a smartly scripted pot-boiler.
Of course, it's also a kick-ass action movie. Cap goes up against a cybernetically enhanced soviet assassin...who just happens to be his brainwashed best friend! Oh, and it also stars Robert Redford.
Robert Redford! In a superhero movie!
What a world we live in.
1. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
So, here we are. The number one on our list. The most recent Marvel movie, Captain America: Civil War narrowly pipped it's predecessor to the post. Why?
Well, for one thing, it's the most spectacular Marvel movie yet, with arguably the best script of them all too. Taking the time-honored comic book tradition of 'heroes fighting heroes', Civil War presents all the issues in a much more nuanced and balanced way than most expected. Captain America (Chris Evans, superb) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr, excellent) square off throughout the course of the film, and at different times, the audience will sympathize and take the side of both heroes. Neither one is all the way right, but neither is all the way wrong either. And both make questionable decisions that will have massive repercussions for the MCU going forward.
We'll finish with some gushing praise for The Russo Brothers, the directors of this film and Winter Soldier. They have made two MCU films. We've counted them as the very best two. They understand this universe perfectly, and are masters at balancing character development with truly scintillating action scenes. We're ecstatic that they are going to be directing the next Avengers movie.
Oh, and also? Spider-Man is in this movie. And he's all kinds of great.
What say you, true believers? Do you agree with our list? Do we love Captain America too much? Or not give Thor enough kudos? Let us know in the comments section below.