Did you watch all of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the lead-up to Avengers: Infinity War? I did, and for the last four months, I’ve recapped that journey week by week with discussions on how each film holds up, what they add to the MCU, things that have become more-or-less relevant in the big picture, and my personal opinion on the film.
Seeing Infinity War twice provided even more clarity to Kevin Feige’s incredible masterplan of films. This list isn’t just about my 100% scientifically accurate and inarguable opinion; it’s about the films that did the most to get the MCU where it is today.
It’s stink how much Edward Norton’s film doesn’t feel like an MCU film. Though it was leagues better than Ang Lee’s effort, the film ended up being too serious and unwilling to have much fun with the premise of a giant angry green man who smashes things. Fortunately, the MCU got a good General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross out of William Hurt.
Anyone who speaks positively about Thor: The Dark World would have rotten tomatoes hurled at their face, more than the film actually got from Rotten Tomatoes (it’s currently 66% fresh). Between the things that hurt the film – a thin villain, a MacGuffin in Distress, Darcy – and the things it does well – Loki and Thor’s relationship, the attack on Asgard, this cameo – this sequel stands in an uneasy position of being unacceptably OK-ish.
17. Iron Man 2
I don’t think anyone likes this sequel more than the first. (And if you do, more power to you.) It’s a case of overpromising and under-delivering, especially in regards to the film’s underutilised villains Vanko and Hammer. It’s still fun enough as a disposable action film and Don Cheadle’s introduction as War Machine is well-played, but the lost potential cannot be ignored.
Here’s a case of an intentionally modest film that came at the right time, being the easy-going chuckle-filled lark that acted as the perfect palate-cleanser to the world-ending MCU films that came before it. (The sequel is doing the same thing, releasing two months after Infinity War.) Though the first half is rough and the villain kinda blows, Paul Rudd proved to be the likeable Super Joe this film needed. The climax is also a standout.
There’s a lot to like in Joss Whedon’s sequel. There’s also a lot to dislike. Hell, there’s a lot of stuff going on in general and it ends up being too much. Subplots involving out-of-the-blue romances and secret magical cave pools bloated an already overfed story that revolved around Tony Stark’s anxieties and how they almost destroyed the world. Nevertheless, there are satisfying threads that strengthen the MCU here, including nods to Black Panther and the brewing conflict that led to Civil War.
It may not have shaken everyone’s galaxy like the first film did, but the second volume of James Gunn’s series managed to be a better sequel than other follow-ups in the MCU (namely Ultron, Dark World and Iron Man 2). Not as much of a rollicking adventure, this instalment made a conscious decision to deepen its characters rather than its plot. That didn’t jive with some people, but it did a lot to strengthen the events in Infinity War. It also tackled the MCU’s villain problem head-on by having not one, but two good antagonists.
13. Thor: Ragnarok
The third Thor is a film of two distinct halves. The weaker half sabotages almost everything the previous two films built upon with another weak villain and almost no regard for Asgardian lore or significant side characters. The stronger half is a mega fun time that takes the absolute mickey out of the God of Thunder with Chris Hemsworth being 100% game for self-parody. Ragnarok counts its losses in order to do its own thing, and while that thing is bloody entertaining, those losses still need to be counted.
It’s easy to forget how little of a chance this film was given before its release. Fortunately, Kenneth Branagh’s film proved itself worthy with a gorgeous cinematic rendition of Asgard, a genuinely captivating antagonist, and a star-making turn from the commanding Chris Hemsworth. The climax wasn’t all that great and every third shot’s a Dutch Angle, but the first Thor triumphantly established intergalactic magic to this cinematic universe and still stands as one of the most underappreciated successes of the MCU.
It’s one thing to sell a good-looking God-man to general audiences. It’s another to sell a green woman, a blue guy, a killer raccoon, and a talking tree – all of whom are led by an ‘80s-loving man-child. But, damn it, James Gunn knocked these bastards off with a hella-fun space adventure that still stands as one of the MCU’s most gorgeous films. It’d be higher on the list if it wasn’t for Ronan, who is perhaps the lamest villain in this entire universe.
10. Iron Man 3
The most divisive film in the MCU harbours a love/hate with fans thanks to THAT twist with The Mandarin, so it seems fitting that it winds up in the middle of this list. Villains aside, Shane Black’s film goes deeper into Tony Stark’s head than any other film with an appreciated focus on his anxiety that beautifully links the first Avengers to the second. It’s also funny as hell, has a proper good climax, and wraps everything up with an extremely clever reinterpretation of the line “I am Iron Man.”
Justice League never got to the heights of The Avengers because it failed to do the groundwork. Captain America is honest-to-goodness groundwork. Unlike Tony Stark, Steve Rogers was a virtuous and heroic person BEFORE he got his powers, making him the Patriotic Yang to the Iron Yin. This film does the man of justice justice, making a corny comic book character work by fully acknowledging and calling out the propaganda machine that created him.
If nothing else, Homecoming deserves praise for being a Spider-Man reboot that neither shows Uncle Ben dying again nor stars a 30-year-old teenager. The fact that Tom Holland is also the best Peter Parker we’ve ever seen (yes, I’m calling it) and that Michael Keaton’s Vulture trumps almost every other MCU villain out there is a testament to how hard this hammer of a film hit the nail. There’s also the well-handled Stark-Parker relationship that plays strongly into Infinity War.
Though the Origin Story Blueprint was visible in this reality-warping entry in the MCU, it wouldn’t be fair to call Scott Derrickson’s superhero flick a lazy copy-paste. More accurately, it bends and twists the formula in ways that aren’t immediately evident, managing to feel both refreshing and familiar. It’s a good setup for the most extravagant and creative use of CG in the MCU, reminding us that while story comes first in the superhero genre, cinematic spectacle has its rightful place too.
6. Iron Man
The second greatest superhero film of 2008 laid the foundation for the MCU’s success by telling a solid redemption story, displaying some fun action sequences, and cracking a dump truck full of jokes. It also let Robert Downey Jr loose in a star-remaking performance that did a lot to make this a winner. Had this one not worked, we probably wouldn’t have 18 other films to talk about.
The one that broke up the Avengers also solidified Captain America’s films as the best trilogy in the MCU. Managing to feel epic without placing the world in immediate danger, Civil War told a mature and complex story about authority, responsibility and freedom without ever giving a right-or-wrong answer. And then there’s that airport fight. That glorious, glorious airport fight.
4. The Avengers
The Avengers did something new in the blockbuster landscape. Joss Whedon successfully brought the heroes together with a platter of elbow-nudging jokes and tag-teaming smackdowns that never left anyone on the bench. With one-liners as memorable as the spine-tingling finale, the MCU reached a significant milestone with this crowd-pleasing epic.
The mere existence of a black-centric blockbuster was cause enough to celebrate while hoping like hell it didn’t suck. So it felt even more invigorating to see Ryan Coogler’s film tell a socially relevant story that acknowledged the rightful anger brewed from a colonialist history while paving an optimistic future. Though the action lacked in parts, Black Panther earned its status as a great superhero film thanks to a sympathetic villain, a wide cast of memorable characters, and a stupendous art direction that made Wakanda a place of glory.
Holding the world’s attention before its release, the “most ambitious crossover event in history” could have satisfied the masses by being nothing more than a superhero smash-em-up (a comic book nerd’s Dunkirk, if you will). However, with the focus squarely placed on Thanos, Infinity War not only delivered the MCU’s best villain but also questioned the definition of heroism.
People were elated, angry, sad, and confused, causing an online wildfire of speculation as to what the future holds. Who would’ve thought the biggest movie in the MCU would also be one of its most thought-provoking?
This was the ultimate game-changer. While The Avengers made the superhero genre bigger, Captain America’s sequel took it to a different arena. The Winter Soldier is the MCU’s espionage thriller in plot and tone with an intricate plot and incredible action sequences that championed practical effects.
It proved that future films didn’t need to rely on CG spectacle and could actually benefit from crossing more grounded and intimate genres, from heist films (Ant-Man) to coming-of-age films (Homecoming). It widened the net of what was possible in the MCU, which is what you truly need to start a universe.