Entertainment

All The Marvel Studios Movies Ranked From Worst to Best

What are the best — and worst — of the 13 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? This is probably going to be controversial. (Now with Civil War!)

13. Iron Man 2 (2010)

Francois Duhamel / Marvel Studios

Francois Duhamel / Marvel Studios

Marvel Studios

 

Director: Jon Favreau
Screenwriter: Justin Theroux

Everything that was so much fun about the first Iron Man sours in this sequel. Tony Stark’s charming bad-boy behavior curdles into unlikable self-destruction, the sort of damaged-goods broodiness that worked in the Dark Knight movies but doesn’t sit well within the can-do spirit of Marvel’s cinematic universe. The first film’s sharp, fizzy, semi-improvised repartee devolves here into self-indulgent globs of endless cross-talk banter that wear out their welcome within a few seconds. And Mickey Rourke — playing villain Ivan Vanko, aka the largely made-up-for-the-movie Whiplash — is in an entirely different, much weirder film (at times, it almost seems like he doesn’t know his lines).

There are a few bright spots. Both Scarlett Johannson (as Natasha Romanoff) and Don Cheadle (replacing Terrence Howard as James Rhodes) acquit themselves well. Sam Rockwell has a blast playing a skeezy defense contractor with self-tanning stains on his palms. And Jon Favreau still knows how to stage a good action scene. But that can’t keep the movie from becoming actively, almost aggressively un-fun.

12. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Marvel Studios

Marvel Studios

 

Director: Louis Leterrier
Screenwriter: Zak Penn

It is nowhere near the fiasco that was Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk (made before Marvel Studios existed), but let’s be clear: This isn’t a very good movie, either. Still, its sins are gentler, more generic. As an action director, Leterrier lacks the visual imagination of the rest of the filmmakers on this list. Tim Roth’s villain — special-ops soldier Emil Blonsky — barely registers as a character before he starts tearing through Harlem as the Abomination. And the romance between Edward Norton’s Bruce Banner and Liv Tyler’s Betty Ross is kind of silly. But they’re still appealing in the roles, and if Norton, who did uncredited work on the script, hadn’t famously declined to promote the film after Marvel pushed for a shorter, more action-heavy cut, perhaps he wouldn’t have been replaced in the role in The Avengers by Mark Ruffalo.

11. Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Marvel Studios

Marvel Studios

 

Director: Alan Taylor
Screenwriters: Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely (with story by Don Payne and Robert Rodat)

The first Thor gave the Asgardian god-warrior a true narrative arc — from self-assured hubris to self-deprecating humility. In this sequel, Thor (Chris Hemsworth, a hunky god of sorts himself) remains a good, thoughtful warrior from start to finish. But he only really comes alive as a character when he’s sharing the screen with his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, who is the best thing about the film, but is in the movie less than his internet-melting appearance at Comic-Con suggested). Also: Natalie Portman is given almost nothing to do, other than get “infected” with a soupy universe-destroying substance called the Aether. But Taylor (best known for his TV directing on Game of Thrones and The Sopranos) keeps things moving, and the climactic sequence on Earth has some great, mind-bendy moments. It’s a mess, but at least it’s a lively mess.

10. Ant-Man (2015)

Marvel Studios

Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios

 

Director: Peyton Reed
Screenwriters: Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and Paul Rudd (with a story by Wright and Cornish)

After 11 movies that had only grown more grandiose in scale and scope, Marvel Studios’ 12th film downshifted into a refreshing change of pace. In Ant-Man, the world is not in immediate, existential danger — and, for that matter, neither is San Francisco, the city Ant-Man is supposedly set in (though the movie was largely shot in Atlanta). Instead, the stakes are human-scaled. Semi-reformed burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) yearns to reunite with his young daughter, while Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) strive to mend their frayed bond. Similarly, Ant-Man’s powers — Super small! Can talk to ants! — work as enjoyable visual flights of fancy that cannot affect much more than his immediate surroundings.

But despite the appeal of the cast, including a marvelously silly performance by Michael Peña, the movie’s familial dramas are built with clichés that never quite manage to take on a life of their own. (Corey Stoll’s fuzzily motivated villain makes an especially weak impression.) Reed (Bring It On), stepping in to direct at the last minute after Wright (Shaun of the Dead) left the project due to creative differences, maintains such a relentlessly upbeat pace that the characters and set pieces rarely have time to breathe. The result is a spry and diverting movie that feels small in every dimension.

9. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Marvel Studios

Director: Joss Whedon
Screenwriter: Joss Whedon

In sharp contrast with Ant-Man, the second assembly of Marvel Studios’ central mega-franchise is so big that it ends up defining the creative boundaries of the Marvel Cinematic Universe by nearly bursting at the seams. It is overgrown with characters — there are 10 major ones, and another 12 (at least) significant supporting roles — and havoc and carnage abound from New York to South Africa, and South Korea to a fictional Eastern European country that is literally blasted into the sky. The psyches of our dashing superheroes are unraveled in dark, fractured fever dreams, and by the end, the Avengers have been splintered apart and reformed anew.

You can feel Whedon’s tattered nerves as he strived to fulfill his own vision while also servicing Marvel Studios’ need to use the film to feed its growing network of interconnected franchises. But the movie also manages to be about something — about several somethings, actually, including our penchant for creating our own villains, the sacrifices that come with extreme heroism, and the soft fascism inherent in a self-governing world police. It’s an ungainly movie, one that entertains and fatigues and provokes and confounds, sometimes within the same scene. But no one can fault it for not trying to take a massive swing.

8. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios

Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios

 

Director: Joe Johnston
Screenwriters: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

This rousing, period war picture was the first to prove that Marvel Studios can turn out a good movie that doesn’t revolve around a hero with larger-than-life abilities. Chris Evans’ transformation from weakling to dear-lord-look-at-the-size-of-those-pecs adonis is something to behold, and Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull is easily my favorite Marvel Studios villain next to Loki. My biggest complaint is that Evans’ Steve Rogers, like the movie itself, is sorta square — a kind way of saying “bland” — and some of the visual effects lack the polish of the rest of the movies on this list. There are people who love this movie; for me, it’s Marvel in a minor key, but still an enjoyable one.

7. Thor (2011)

Marvel Studios

Marvel Studios

 

Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenwriters: Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, and Don Payne (with story by J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich)

After Iron Man 2 was such a disappointment, there was reason to wonder how Marvel could make a quasi-Nordic god whose weapon is a giant hammer into a viable feature-film hero. The answer, it turns out, is to hire a director with a deep understanding of Shakespeare who can make the movie into a rich brothers-competing-for-their-father’s-love saga that evokes the Bard himself. Plus, this film introduces Loki, one of the best movie villains of the last 25 years. Period.

6. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Marvel Studios

Director: James Gunn
Screenwriters: James Gunn and Nicole Perlman

For some, Guardians of the Galaxy is Marvel Studios’ best movie. And I totally understand why. This movie is a blast, with smart-ass dialogue that crackles, a gorgeous sci-fi visual flair, and a fleet, irreverent sense of humor that is unafraid to be blissfully weird. Chris Pratt becomes an automatic leading man as Peter Quill; Vin Diesel has arguably never given a more appealing performance as the giant tree person Groot; and Rocket Raccoon — with Bradley Cooper’s voice and an on-set acting assist from Sean Gunn — was one of the breakout characters of 2014.

The plot, however, barely registers — it’s stop-the-bad-guy-from-getting-the-MacGuffin boilerplate with pretty much zero connection to the main characters, other than Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer. Ultimately, the movie feels like it’s setting up an outrageously great sequel, which is due out in 2017. That bad guy, Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser, looks cool, but he’s a snooze-fest of “I’M A VILLAIN” posturing otherwise. And it feels like there was a lot more of Benicio del Toro’s brilliantly bizarro Taneleer Tivan that was, oddly, left on the cutting room floor.

Other than that, though? A delight.

5. Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Marvel Studios

Marvel Studios

 

Directors: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
Screenwriters: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

Captain America may be in the title, but this is unmistakably a third Avengers movie. The film spends as much time ruminating over Tony Stark’s guilt for creating Ultron as it does pushing Cap into making some surprisingly rash, selfish choices to protect his BFF Bucky (Sebastian Stan). And then there’s the burgeoning relationship of Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), the introduction of T’Challa, aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and the machinations of Zemo (Daniel Brühl) to get all these superheroes fighting each other.

With this many storylines to service, it’s no wonder this is the MCU’s longest film to date, and it’s also no shock that this is the MCU’s most TV-like film so far as well. So much of what resonates here — between Tony and Cap, Cap and Bucky, Rhodes and Tony, and Black Widow and everyone — links back to some of the earliest movies in this ever-expanding world. If you’re the kind of cinema purist who needs a feature film to feel like a movie and not the eighth season of the most expensive TV show ever made, then Civil War is bound to be a least a little confounding.

But it’s also enormous fun, and not just due to the sight of Ant-Man becoming Giant-Man. Whatever corporate magic Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige wielded to get Spider-Man (Tom Holland) into this universe was completely worth it — Holland is just gangbusters in the role. And unlike the other superheroes-fighting-superheroes movie from this year, the final fight between Cap and Iron Man feels deeply personal, precisely because it draws upon so many years of history between them — and our emotional investment in them.

4. Iron Man (2008)

Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios

Director: Jon Favreau
Screenwriters: Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway

Marvel Studio’s very first film as an independent filmmaking company gets just about everything right, from casting Robert Downey Jr. (a risky venture in the pre-Obama days) as Tony Stark, to establishing a bright, unironic, playful style that has remained consistent through just about every other Marvel film since. Watching it now, with its story of Homeland-style Islamic terrorists and out-of-control military spending, the film feels almost adorably small in comparison to the ones that followed. But it still looms immeasurably large within the Marvel universe.

3. The Avengers (2012)

Marvel Studios

Director: Joss Whedon
Screenwriter: Joss Whedon (with story by Zak Penn and Whedon)

For so many reasons, this movie should not have worked. But by some miracle, Whedon found a way to bring all these desperate characters together that not only made (comic book) sense, but was fabulously exciting to watch, especially in a theater packed with other moviegoers. Sure, the invading alien force was a bit nonspecific, and yeah, it is a little numbing to see New York City reduced to rubble in yet another effects-driven summer movie, but this is popcorn-blockbuster filmmaking of the highest order. And, finally, they get the Hulk totally right.

2. Iron Man 3 (2013)

Marvel Studios

Marvel Studios

 

Director: Shane Black
Screenwriters: Drew Pearce and Shane Black

Think this is ranked too high? Well, hear me out. For one, co-writer-director Shane Black figures out a way to probe Tony Stark’s troubled psyche without making him into an obnoxious bore, and the film is all the more psychologically compelling because of it. For another, by keeping the plot’s stakes from becoming apocalyptically huge, Black instead finds the breathing room to introduce some surprisingly topical sociopolitical satire with a twist that is just too delicious to spoil years after the film’s opening weekend. Both Ben Kingsley and Guy Pearce seem to have the time of their lives as the film’s two heavies, and, at long last, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts is allowed to do more than alternate between dewy love and measured exasperation. The action pops, the jokes are laugh-out-loud funny, and there is even an adorable kid sidekick who you don’t want to throttle for cutesifying the movie. What more could you want?

1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios

Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios

 

Directors: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
Screenwriters: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

Like many of Marvel’s best movies, this has spectacular, peerlessly directed action scenes, with at least one sequence — Cap defeating a squadron of Hydra goons in a glass elevator, with one arm tied behind his back — that should be studied in film schools for how to be awesome. And, like many of Marvel’s most recent movies, it has a thrilling, high-flying climax in which millions of lives are at stake, and giant things in the air crash into tall buildings on the ground and go boom. (There is a separate discussion to be had about how the Marvel Studios’ movies have been Hollywood’s most high profile reaction to September 11 outside of the Dark Knight trilogy, but let’s not digress too much here.)

What sets Cap 2 apart from the rest of the pack is how tightly connected the story is with its title superhero. Marvel’s plots often tend to be well-crafted excuses to see superheroes be super heroic, but, like Iron Man 3, this movie uses the plot to crack open Cap and reveal what makes him, indeed, a hero — in the most personal way. That plot also takes a Thor-like hammer to S.H.I.E.L.D., the infrastructure that has held the Marvel Cinematic Universe together, with a deeply relevant exploration of how global surveillance by a faceless government entity is pretty damn evil. Also: Nick Fury takes off his eye patch. Oh, and also: Anthony Mackie makes a great addition as a regular human soldier who can fly like a falcon. And ALSO: Several women — especially, but not exclusively Scarlett Johansson — kick major ass. This is Marvel in a major key, and the music is so, so sweet.

UPDATE

This post has been updated to include an entry for Captain America: Civil War. Earlier updates included entries for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Ant-Man.

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