Since 2008, The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been an ever-growing tapestry. Their universal appeal to all ages (and being bought out by Disney in 2009) helped expand their audience. Instead of just the die-hard Marvel fans (like myself), it opened up the door to a more mainstream audience. 26 films later, audiences all around the world wait with bated breath to see what our favorite heroes are up to next. Especially in the last quarter of 2021, there's eager anticipation for a possible magnum opus, "Spider-Man: No Way Home." So, in honor of the next major MCU outing, I've decided to go down the rabbit hole and rank all 26 films! While this list is more of my personal preferences, some surprises are definitely in store.
26. "Thor: The Dark World" (2013)
One of the overarching problems in this universe early on was its villains. We eventually got to absolutely great foes such as Thanos and Loki but had to sit through many that were very forgettable. None are as forgettable to me as the Dark Elves, villains who wanted nothing more than to destroy the galaxy. The film certainly cashed in on the charm and star power of Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, but everything else falls flat. Thor's romance with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) feels wedged in, and both Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings feel absolutely wasted. While it has moments of Marvel joy, it's definitely the weakest in a very impressive lineage.
25. "The Incredible Hulk" (2008)
"The Incredible Hulk" was an understandable choice in trying to jumpstart this universe. He's a popular character that mainstream audiences know and some really love. Unfortunately, this is what makes the Ed Norton starring vehicle all the more disappointing. The action sequences are engaging, but they're scattered around long sequences of science jargon. Bruce Banner's relationship with Betty Ross is interesting but not enough to make the film exciting. Making Bruce a man on the run against the government and Thaddeus Thunderbolt Ross is fun for a while but quickly runs out of steam. This film shows the MCU knows how to learn from their mistakes with the genius recasting of Bruce Banner with Mark Ruffalo.
24. "Thor" (2011)
When it was released in 2011, "Thor" was the biggest wildcard of the bunch. Filled with a relatively unknown cast (besides Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman), no one knew what to expect. The promise and possibilities for both Hiddleston and Hemsworth were incredibly exciting. What kept it from being a gem was how the story treated things in a Shakspearean manner. Solid action couldn't compensate for dialogue and dumps of exposition that were just dull. It's a case of this universe showing promise but lacking the execution that we would eventually grow to love.
23. "Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2" (2017)
With the massive success of "Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 1," fans were eager to see their favorite space misfits return. It's certainly great to see them again, but we don't learn anything new about them. Yes, the conflict of Peter (Chris Pratt) going up against his alien father Ego (Kurt Russell) is interesting. What makes this so low on the list is that the team we've grown to love is split up for half the film. This cast is great in these roles, but a large portion of the fun was seeing them all together. We're certainly treated to moments of that here, but none are quite as interesting as their first outing. It's a strategy that works against the story, which tries to compensate for it with a visual and sensory overload.
22. "Iron Man 2" (2011)
Most of my resounding problems with "Iron Man 2" are similar to "Guardians Vol. 2." In this sequel to the 2008 MCU introduction, we're treated to more of the same style choices. Robert Downey Jr. still has the same snarky humor, which is never dull but never quite lands the same way. Besides using Mickey Rourke as a most effective villain, it just plays out as a film that's nothing more than teases of future installments. We're introduced to the recast Rhodey (Don Cheadle) and everyone's favorite spy Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow). It's great to look back on these characters' starting points, especially knowing their outcomes, but their roles feel rushed. Throw in a plot point of Tony's alcoholism, and we get a lot of clever pieces (including some great action sequences) that never make a satisfying whole.
21. "Iron Man 3" (2013)
"Iron Man 3" had one of the most intriguing concepts with the inclusion of one of Marvel's most popular villains, The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). I was incredibly excited to see one of the Iron Man mythology's most prominent foes, which made the twist a huge disappointment. Refocusing the villain to be Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) again fed into Marvel's weak villain problem. Robert Downey Jr. was born to play this part, and he's certainly never dull, but the film takes away the suits. It's nowhere near as enjoyable seeing Tony Stark find himself when his foe is essentially just a fan who got angry with him years ago.
20. "Captain Marvel" (2019)
The problem I have with "Captain Marvel" certainly isn't with anyone involved in front of or behind the camera. Instead, my problems lie in the film doing nothing to distinguish itself from the stories before it. Carol Danvers is supposed to be one of the most powerful heroes in the universe, and we never feel it as an audience. Brie Larson is acceptable in the role, and her banter with Samuel L. Jackson (de-aged with great effects) is snappy but entirely familiar. Released between "Avengers: Infinity War" and "Avengers: Endgame," we're never given a moment to understand why she's so important. There are certainly some fun moments and a great performance from Ben Mendelsohn, but it left me asking, "that's all?"
19. "Captain America: The First Avenger" (2011)
Akin to DC's "Superman," "Captain America" is a difficult hero to establish on his own merits. The scrawny kid from Brooklyn who wants to help fight Nazis in World War II is admittedly a cliche. But once injected with the super-soldier serum, he becomes a symbol of patriotism. It's a rather standard narrative arch that doesn't leave much room for us to be surprised. Where it succeeds is the casting of Chris Evans as the iconic hero, someone who wants to do good in the world. The action is solid and helps establish this character as someone who rightfully deserves a place amongst the gods and men in iron suits.
18. "Avengers: Age of Ultron" (2015)
The "Avengers" release in 2012 was a cinematic moment that redefined the superhero genre. Being the first Marvel property to gross over one billion dollars, the entity of Marvel was born. With that massive success, audiences eagerly awaited the next Avengers level threat. "Avengers: Age of Ultron" left a mark that was more of a whimper than a bang. The biggest reason why this is so low on the list comes down to one key factor. Between the additions of Ultron (voiced by the villainous James Spader) and the Maximoff Twins (Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver) is throwing a lot at the wall. With the implications of The Avenger's time in Sokovia being carried to future installments, it's an important part of the universe. On its own, it's a film that does nothing to distinguish itself from the better films out there.
17. "Ant-Man and The Wasp" (2018)
Coming off the heels of "Avengers: Infinity War," this sequel had a lot to live up to. The cast is certainly game in these roles and is very funny to watch. What keeps it from being something truly exciting is knowing what's coming next. As we waited for "Endgame," this latest Ant-Man adventure felt incredibly slight. The banter is snappy and never dull but is also never as fun. "Ant-Man" from 2015 was a pleasant surprise because it played things smaller in scope. This one does the same thing but never quite reaches the original heights, especially with "Avengers: Endgame" coming next.
16. "Iron Man" (2008)
"Iron Man" was a gamble upon its release in 2008 for many reasons. Firstly, Marvel was its own entity that only specialized in comics. This film was an attempt to branch out and build a universe. It even included the reinvigoration of Robert Downey Jr. after a rather rocky time in his past. In essence, the odds were stacked against this film, which made its success all the more surprising. The action feels real, and an iconic lead character made his mark in a massive universe.
15. "Avengers" (2012)
Since 2008, "Avengers" from 2012 was a long time coming for Marvel Studios and fans alike. An epic culmination uniting all of our heroes and introducing a new Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), delivered on the crowd-pleasing spectacle. Out of all the films in this continuously growing universe, this one is what I consider to be the "comfort food." Seeing the birth of the style we've come to love is always entertaining to see. You can feel director Joss Whedon experimenting with certain character choices, but it can always be looked back on with fondness.
14. "Black Widow" (2021)
People always wondered when we'd get the story of the infamous Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff. Unfortunately, Scarlett Johansson's leading MCU role fell victim to the COVID-19 pandemic via numerous delays. Having the film released on Disney+ and in theaters simultaneously was detrimental. Seeing Natasha's origins and interactions with her makeshift "family," including Rachel Weisz, Florence Pugh and David Harbour, is just a delight. These new additions solidify their place in the universe without ever feeling like Russian caricatures. The spy-centric premise creates some great memorable action, combined with drama that's entirely moving. While also introducing a new favorite character in Yelena Belova (Pugh), it made an adventure that felt fresh. Still suffering from an unfortunate villain problem, we get an adventurous film with a so-so payoff.
13. "Guardians of The Galaxy" (2014)
James Gunn's "Guardians of The Galaxy" had many audiences scratching their heads when announced. Gunn, whose filmography varied from the weird to absurd, concerned many for the MCU's future. Picking relatively obscure characters like Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Drax The Destroyer (Dave Bautista) left many wondering how they'd fit into the larger universe. Before that point, Gunn established an intergalactic "dirty dozen" space adventure. The jokes are rapid-fire, and the action is better than ever.
12. "Doctor Strange" (2016)
As an avid comic reader growing up, "Doctor Strange" was one of my favorite heroes. Maybe my affection stemmed from the arch of a disgruntled surgeon getting humbled, but the imagery is truly one of a kind. Director Scott Derrickson and writer Robert C. Cargill made a film that genuinely pays respect to the comic's original vision. The imagery is spectacular, and the great Benedict Cumberbatch helps make a cliched character arch feel organic. While still suffering from the normal Marvel villain problem, I could forgive it more often than not, thanks to the visual tricks and genre subversions that made it high on the list.
11. "Eternals" (2021)
The controversy around Chloe Zhao's MCU's outing was a bit of shock upon reading. Her story of heroes questioning their very purpose in the world is fascinating for this universe. Yes, some of the messaging and core themes can be indulgent, but its ambition to try and tackle those ideas is hard to ignore. Seeing the film projected in IMAX was a sight to behold and something I won't forget. Zhao has given these characters layers of humanity that help to make these immortal beings feel real. Its indulgent tendencies certainly hold it back from being perfect, but it's a one-of-a-kind adventure.
10. "Ant-Man" (2015)
There is not a single movie in this franchise that's left me with as big of a smile as 2015's "Ant-Man." Paul Rudd, as hopefully reformed criminal Scott Lang, is one of the funniest and most clever additions to this universe. People were incredibly upset when Edgar Wright left the project in 2014, but director Peyton Reed was able to craft his own style. Its ability to wink at the camera for its own absurdity made something incredibly memorable and clever addition to this canvas.
9. "Spider-Man-Far from Home" (2019)
Tom Holland's second adventure as the titular web swinger delivers on the goods we'd expect. It's equal parts an action superhero film, meets John Hughes love story. Adding Jake Gyllenhaal as Mysterio and amplifying the Peter/MJ (Zendaya) romance makes it feel like a warm hug. There's still the typical superhero spectacle, but it's got a serious heart on its sleeve that's wonderful to watch. Its homage-heavy style can be a little overbearing in some moments, but there's no denying how much fun it is to watch these perfectly cast actors.
8. "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" (2021)
Destin Daniel Cretton's superhero/martial arts film left me speechless upon my first viewing. Filled with references to the bigger MCU, "Shang-Chi" stands on its own as a stellar homage to the kungfu subgenre. Simu Liu as the titular hero crafts someone haunted by his past and wisely rides the line between funny and foreboding. He's a welcome addition, and I'm excited to see his future, especially if it involves Awkwafina. Besides the spectacular martial arts sequences, the real standout here is Tony Leung. Playing the real Mandarin (a useless tease in "Iron Man 3") is both menacing and sincere. It's a powerhouse performance in a film that entirely subverts audiences' expectations.
7. "Thor: Ragnarok" (2017)
As you can see from this list, Thor's previous adventures were some of my least favorite in this universe. It's not that the first and second films were dreadful, but just entirely unmemorable in the larger canvas. Thankfully the mind of Taika Waititi was a welcome one to reinvigorate this character. Whereas the first two Thor films had humor, the drama was the primary focus. Waititi makes the character a comedian, surrounded by a world that's heightened to the extreme. Taking these serious characters like Loki and the Hulk gives the character a needed jolt of energy. It's funny, exciting and promises a bright and exciting future for this character with a rather bland history.
6. "Captain America: Civil War" (2016)
"Captain America: Civil War" is one of the most popular MCU comics out there. Iron Man and Captain America sparring against one another about superheroism provide a fascinating discussion. That morality tale is a fascinating discussion, including one of the best fight sequences in the entire universe. Seeing these faces battle over what it means to be a hero creates the best film of the Captain America franchise. Seeing Steve Rogers having to shift allegiances between old friends (Bucky Barnes) and new ones (Tony Stark) makes for compelling drama. Now include an array of other new and old heroes, and we're given a film that's so much more than what we expect.
5. "Spider-Man Homecoming" (2017)
Tom Holland, as the friendly neighborhood web slinger, was a delightful addition to the MCU in 2016. Having the chance to give him his own feature a year later created one of the most enjoyable films in the franchise. It's possible that my affection for the film might stem from the nostalgia I've had for this character. In essence, this is a story that's so much more than a standard superhero tale. It's about a character coming to terms with his own identity as a superhero, which kids can relate to. We haven't all been superheroes, but we've all dealt with growing up.
4. "Black Panther" (2018)
Upon its release in 2018, we can all agree that "Black Panther" was an absolute phenomenon. Not only was it a success from a massive cultural perspective, but a seamless integration of a fan-favorite character. Director Ryan Coogler made a film that celebrated black culture in an incredibly sincere way. Combining that with Chadwick Boseman's brilliant performance made this an unforgettable entry. It also rode the difficult line of making the villain relatable. Thankfully, the plan of Michael B. Jordan's Erik Killmonger was one that was clearly understood. This is easily one of the MCU's best solo outings, showcasing brilliant action sequences and a great soundtrack.
3. "Avengers: Endgame" (2019)
The epic conclusion to the first portion of the MCU was something eagerly anticipated. Seeing our favorite heroes gather back together after the loss in "Infinity War," this ending was delivered. Not only were we given some of the best action in the franchise, but each hero was given their moment. In its three-hour runtime, directors Anthony and Joe Russo made an adventure that we all dreamed of. Between the banter, brilliant pacing and emotionally resounding sendoff, this one felt like comic panels coming off the page. It's a truly special film that rewards its audience with a pristine package with surprises to spare.
2. "Avengers: Infinity War" (2018)
Amongst the entire MCU, every film has left me with a different emotion once the credits rolled. As I sat in my press screening and the lights came on, a feeling of both shock and fear washed over me. Seeing our dearly beloved heroes lose against the mad titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) was something many didn't expect. Being programmed over the years to expect our heroes to constantly "win" made this an installment that subverted expectations. Yes we're delivered the normal comedy and action, but the drama is something else. Not only do we root for our heroes, but we have an entirely understandable villain. Thanos's plan makes sense, and his victory feels oddly cathartic for this chapter. It's an experimental piece of filmmaking that had a massive payoff.
- "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (2014)
Before "Avengers: Infinity War" or "Avengers: Endgame," directors Anthony and Joe Russo went and made Marvel's riskiest film. The idea of Captain America as a symbol of patriotism was the film's surprising core question. That question, "can we truly trust the people who say they're protecting us?" For the symbol of patriotism to question his purpose is truly incredible. Chris Evans was born to play this part, and his surrounding cast is certainly up to the occasion. It's the sort of MCU performances like Robert Redford, Scarlett Johansson and Anthony Mackie that feel fresh. Besides making the first true spy film on the MCU, it allows each character to be distinguished by their fight sequences. Seeing everyone's different fighting styles as we get to know them made for a thrilling watch. If you haven't seen this sequel (But let's be honest, who hasn't?) I do recommend it!