Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe from Worst to Best

Originally posted at Smash Cut Culture.

The Internet clearly doesn’t have enough lists, so here’s another.

Many have attempted to rank the movies comprising the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Fewer have dared to add the four complete seasons of MCU television and Netflix series into the equation. I shall somehow rise to this challenge to ensure the Internet does not experience a shortage of lists. This was not easy, Internet. I swear, the top six were all neck-and-neck, and it came down to a photo-finish.

This ranking is from worst to best, not horrible to great. I’ve enjoyed all of these to varying extents, and the “varying” is what I’m measuring. None are bad. Conversely, none are works of towering artistic genius either. But it’s all damn fine entertainment worth revisiting.

SPOILERS ahead.

So, with that warning out of the way…

Here…we…go!

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16. Agents of SHIELD season 1—It’s not a bad show by any stretch, but nothing in the MCU feels more pedestrian than Agents of SHIELD. The main problem with this first season is that it starts far too early. While the early episodes are entertaining enough, and the pilot shows a lot of promise, the story doesn’t get truly exciting until it ties into the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Likeable cast, solid concept of exploring the overlooked corners of the MCU, and some strong individual episodes, but on the whole it seldom feels like it’s inhabiting a suitably epic world.

15. Agents of SHIELD season 2—The second season has a different atmosphere to it, and the show is stronger for it, but many of the same criticisms apply. The introduction of the Inhumans is a big plus, but even their presentation is rather tame for a secret civilization of super-powered people who are descended from aliens. Limitations of network television are no doubt to blame. Given those limitations, the cast and crew do a fine job. Room for improvement remains, and I think we’re starting to see more of that in season 3 so far (not included in this list because it’s just getting started). Gotta give AOS credit for this: It gets better as it goes, and it’s always building on itself.

14. The Incredible Hulk—The MCU’s beta test. Whereas the first Hulk movie aimed high and missed, this one targets a much lower bar and mostly succeeds in what it sets out to do. Mindless Hulk-smash action ensues, kind of forgettable, but hey, it’s fun and true to the spirit of the Hulk. One objective it fails in, however—making the case for more solo Hulk films.

13. Iron Man 2—A letdown from the unexpected pleasure of the first film, but thanks to a great cast, it remains entertaining despite itself. This is the first MCU movie that needs to worry about setting up future movies, but they neglected to figure out how to handle it gracefully. Worse than that, Tony Stark’s character has regressed from the development he achieved in the first movie. The movie seems to want to tackle the storyline from the comic books in which Stark became an alcoholic, but it never fully commits or comes to a satisfying resolution. Instead, the health problem driving Stark’s behavior gets resolved with a quick injection from Nick Fury and Black Widow. So yeah, it’s a mess, but it’s a fun mess. How can you not enjoy Tony Stark telling off Congress?

12. Thor: The Dark World—By this point, the MCU has “good dumb fun” down to a science, and that’s basically all this movie is. Nothing wrong with that once in a while. It is sadly a waste of Christopher Eccleston (the Ninth Doctor himself) as the villain Malekith. Of all the underdeveloped bad guys in the MCU—and they are legion—Malekith wins the prize for least developed. That’s saying a lot. But balancing him out is the MCU movies’ best villain, Loki, who is easily this film’s MVP.

11. Agent Carter season 1—Hayley Atwell can carry a show. The series doesn’t break any new ground, but that almost seems to be the point—it revels in its retro charm, which is further bolstered by the wonderful chemistry between Atwell’s Peggy Carter and James D’Arcy’s Edwin Jarvis. It’s the stuff of classic television—not extraordinary television, but classic. A good time indeed.

10. Ant-Man—If you’re going to make a movie about a superhero who can shrink to insect size and control ants…then of course you want to make it a heist movie that explores the dynamic between fathers and daughters…right? Apparently so, because while Ant-Man doesn’t reach any new heights of greatness (I guess he’s too short—ba-dum-ching!), it’s a solidly entertaining film that adds something different to the MCU and doesn’t feel like a rehash of previous concepts. It’s missing that special spark that Guardians of the Galaxy brought to its ridiculous, obscure characters, but it’s still an enjoyable outing with more emotional weight than you’d ever have expected an Ant-Man movie to carry. Added bonus: The tie-ins to the broader MCU world feel more organic than usual and don’t interfere with the main story.

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9. Iron Man 3—Perhaps the most controversial MCU film, but I actually like the twist with the Mandarin. I truly did not see it coming, and that’s a rare feat indeed. Way to mess with our comic book expectations, MCU. The film nevertheless has lots to nitpick, and I understand why some don’t like it, but damn if it isn’t a fun time with several exciting set pieces. Whereas the previous Iron Man film got muddled in trying to set up future pieces of the universe, this one gets to draw inspiration from previous events to tell its own story—a much more effective way to go.

8. Thor—Never in an Asgardian lifespan would I have expected to enjoy a Thor movie, but director Kenneth Branagh and company pull it off admirably. Thor gets a nice arc as he progresses from hot-headed “youth” to responsible hero. Switching between Asgard and New Mexico risks tonal whiplash, but injecting the epic into the mundane suits the spirit of Marvel.

7. Avengers: Age of Ultron—While the first Avengers film served as the MCU’s then-culmination and needed to succeed on its own merits, lest the grand Marvel experiment grind to a halt, this sequel does not have that luxury and suffers for it. It’s still a great time, though, even if future setups interfere with Ultron’s development as a compelling antagonist. This is a villain who, in the comics, is basically the “son” of an Avenger (Hank Pym there, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner here), and that fuels his Oedipal complex of wanting to kill and replace his “father.” Very appropriate for a robot who wants to supplant humanity with machines. That doesn’t shine through as clearly in the film. Despite that, the movie captures the essence of an Avengers comic, with plenty of thrilling action and fun interplay between great characters. And a floating city!

6. Guardians of the Galaxy—It’s like someone dared Marvel to build a franchise around the most obscure characters, just to see if they could, like some sort of twisted fraternity hazing prank. Well, they could. Clearly director James Gunn just gets this kind of stuff. Intelligent space raccoons, talking trees—he gets it and has a blast with it. Thus, we have a blast. The soundtrack is key—hands-down, the MCU’s best. Juxtaposing cheesy-in-a-good-way 70s songs with space adventure is brilliant, and it grounds even the most ridiculous elements. It all has such heart to it. That opening scene, ohh, that one will getcha…

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5. Captain America: The First Avenger—A great introduction for the MCU’s most shamelessly heroic character, and the best, most earned chemistry between the lead and romantic interest by far. Do you realize how hard it is to craft a morally perfect hero and have him be compelling?—especially in today’s more cynical age. When is perfection ever interesting? But by focusing on Captain America’s drive to do right and his underdog roots, the movie succeeds. There’s a reason a sizable chunk of Cap’s World War II service is covered in montage but the movie takes its time building up to Steve Rogers becoming Captain America. That’s not a case of starting the story too early—that is the story, and it’s a great, inspiring one. Just ignore the fact that he basically needed to take a bunch of steroids to become a super-soldier.

4. Iron Man—This was such a breath of fresh air when it came out, and it still holds up as a great adventure film, structured around Tony Stark building himself into a better person, literally and figuratively. Its sense of humor is vital to its success—a superhero film can’t take itself too seriously, but the characters do need to take their predicaments seriously. This movie nails that balance. It also sets the precedent of the villain being little more than an afterthought, but nothing’s perfect.

3. The Avengers—So there’s this joke…A billionaire, a Norse god, a World War II throwback, and a modern-day Jekyll and Hyde walk into an alien invasion…oh, and they’re joined by some super-spies…and it actually works. That’s movie magic right there. It’s an impressive juggling act that only someone like writer/director Joss Whedon could pull off after years of successfully juggling tonal shifts in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. It’s the sort of pure, shameless, brightly colored fun more summer blockbusters should aspire to…

2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier—…Or, you could put an unabashed hero in a morally ambiguous spy thriller that evokes real-world national security issues, and that works, too. The true antagonist in this film is a changing world, a more dangerous world than the good ol’ days. Steve Rogers’ man-out-of-time status evokes a feeling many should be able to relate to as we compare our present adult era with the seemingly innocent (in hindsight) past we grew up in. But even the past isn’t all that secure either, as shown by Cap’s old best friend returning from the grave as a deadly (if brainwashed) Hydra operative. The big Hydra reveal isn’t merely a set-up for future MCU episodes; it’s actually a pivotal part of this story that, as a side benefit, has repercussions on the other properties within this fictional world. Marvel’s finest movie, which leaves us with…

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1. Daredevil season 1—The Netflix format flatters the MCU. A run of 13 episodes gives everything room to breathe but not a lot of extra room to feel padded. Because of this, the villain finally gets enough attention to develop into a fully-formed character. A well-constructed nemesis like Wilson Fisk is the ingredient so many otherwise fantastic MCU movies were missing, and Daredevil reaps the benefits of this advantage. Amazing fight choreography doesn’t hurt either—I love how Matt Murdock seems physically tired after a fight. But here’s the show’s real key component—love. Every major character, even the villains, loves something and/or someone—the city, a friend, a relative, a job, a significant other—and that love contrasts against the dark storylines and brutal scenes, preventing any sort of bleak nihilism. This is not surprising when we see no fewer than three Buffy and Angel alumni on the writing staff (show creator Drew Goddard, showrunner Steven S. DeKnight, and episode writer Douglas Petrie). Love elevates Daredevil to the top of the MCU mountain.

All right, Jessica Jones. That’s what you have to beat.