“We’re in the endgame now” or so it seems with Avengers: Endgame promising to be the conclusion to 10 years and 22 movies worth of universe building. So what better time than now to go back and rank the films from worst to best (as decided by our team of writers).
21. THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013)
Ranking in the bottom of every person polled for this list Thor: The Dark World is the weakest of the Marvel affair because nearly everything involved in the project feels mailed in. Portman and Hemsworth’s chemistry has completely dissipated and it feels as though Portman is a prisoner within the frame just counting down the run time until she can leave the franchise. Even Hemsworth who typically brings a unique mix of bravado and naive charm to the role of Thor feels like he’s been sapped of his energy. Still, he is probably the best thing Dark World has to offer and naturally one of the few elements the franchise chose to retain when they soft rebooted in Ragnarok.
It’s a shame though because Dark World does to its credit attempt to shift away from the tonal homogeny of the universe but sadly its critical failings have seen Marvel lean increasingly on the established blueprint; something that has seen undeniable success for the MCU as a whole but has raised concerns over the repeated replication of a formula that aims for style over substance, spectacle over technique. – Nate Lam
20. THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008)
As the 2nd official entry at the time of the budding MCU, The Incredible Hulk not only had the challenge of living up to the dynamic introduction provided by Iron Man that same summer, but was also required to reintroduce and even reinvigorate the title character into this brand-new proposed shared universe while also giving fans and audiences what they wanted. No easy task, especially when considering the original mixed reception of a previous cinematic outing only 5 years earlier and the sour taste still fresh on the minds of many. So under the hand of Louis Leterrier, approaching the material with a more action-movie oriented direction than its predecessor, it was clear that in order for the project to please fans it was best to go big or go home. And as a film on its own, The Incredible Hulk is a fun and serviceable ride with enough action and tribute to satisfy fans of the character but still falls into traps of a franchise still evidently trying to find its footing. With plot threads going nowhere, moments of critical character development downplayed or traded in for familiar action scenes and a demonstration that the franchise still had a little more thematic growing to do in its solo adventures outside of delivering fan service.
Still the movie is not without its positives, some of which can be traced to such elements as performances; particularly that of Edward Norton’s Bruce Banner who, while certainly no Mark Ruffalo, ends up forcefully creating a lot of what-if mental perspective in which he had continued the role, as well as a fun reprisal of Lou Ferrigno as Hulk’s voice and the iconic spoken lines to follow. Side character performances including William Hurt, Liv Tyler and Tim Blake Nelson and another fun little villainous turn from Tim Roth as Emil Blonsky aka Abomination also deserve credit. While Leterrier’s direction can come across as a little too hectic, his ability to patiently hold until the Hulk’s actual reveal until later in the film, keeping him mostly in shadows and angles, is also a much appreciated choice; knowing to make his first full appearance all the more epic even if other transformations quite match up. And when able to cut loose into the action scenes with unapologetic CGI galore such as the Hulk vs Abomination fight in Harlem, New York City, these are admittedly awesome moments that earn at its very least a good-quality cheeseburger level of enjoyment.
But while certainly with its flaws, where The Incredible Hulk does deserve credit with its place stand out in the MCU, is in the way in which it proved that the MCU was very much in existence, even if only in its infant stage. If Nick Fury’s appearance in Iron Man’s conclusion was simply the tease, Tony Stark’s surprise appearance in this film’s conclusion was the epic promise to 10 years of even more promise in the making. And with that promise, as demonstrated through this film’s successful execution in reviving interest and even pay tribute to a popular character with still far more to come, the MCU still had a lot going for it and fans were ready to take the ride with it. –Ken Sims
19. IRON MAN 2 (2010)
In hindsight, Iron Man 2 feels like a necessary evil, tasked with establishing the world of the MCU while trying to tell its own Iron Man-centric story, and what we get is a mixed bag. The movie brings up Tony’s battle with alcoholism as he deals with his mortality yet fails to engage with it because it has to stop its story halfway through in order to shove an Avengers backdoor pilot into its back half, and to be clear, that backdoor pilot is fun. It’s enjoyable watching Tony deal with his father issues as he tries to create a new material to cure his blood poison from the arc reactor. His dynamic with Pepper was delightful as always, Sam Rockwell was hamming it up as Justin Hammer to incredible effect, and Sam Jackson’s inclusion worked in the context of the Avengers narrative it was trying to set up. But shoving all of this into an Iron Man sequel throws it off balance, and the movie never feels comfortable in its own skin.
Also, as an introduction to Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, this movie did not incite interest in her character, it actually did the opposite. Her actions scenes were overly edited and choppy, with her posing for the camera after every punch and every kick, and every time she was on screen, the camera lingered on her body to the point where it felt like the only reason she was cast was that she is a good looking actress. Luckily Joss Whedon corrected the character for his Avengers movie and The Russos were able to perfect Black Widow’s role within the larger tapestry of the MCU, but in Iron Man 2 she feels shallow and one note. – Musa Chaudhry
18. ANT-MAN (2015)
If there was any film in the MCU that, while showing potential, had much of its work cut out for it…it was certainly Ant-Man. Aside from an already controversial character history in comics (both old and current), it wasn’t helped with further controversy surrounding the film behind the scenes by Marvel Studios following the departure and replacement of directors as well as alterations of the original script through further rewrites until ultimately shaped into its final form.
Much like Guardians of the Galaxy a year prior, Ant-Man takes full recognition of the absolutely ridiculous premise on display with its hero but still manages to take full advantage of its potential through Peyton Reed’s fun direction, good writing and characters, and incredibly clever use of action and special effects. And while as a story it lands into familiar territory, Ant-Man still stands as a small, refreshing, and even surprisingly unique, fun superhero adventure, giving the character a whole new life and identity beyond his original source material. The characters in this film are excellent; Paul Rudd has an incredibly likable charm as the underdog hero in Scott Lang, all the while having great chemistry opposite of excellent performances from Evangeline Lily and Michael Douglas. Other stand out supporting performances include Bobby Cannavale’s Paxton as a doubting foil in Scott’s side; Michael Pena, David Dastmalchian and “T.I.” Harris as Scott’s entourage of a heist crew, providing more than a few of the film’s laughs and, quite honestly, a truly underrated villain performance from the great Corey Stoll as Darren Cross / Yellowjacket who develops into a surprisingly different and more sinister twist to the typical “bad-guy in suit” role often found in the MCU’s tech-based hero films. The use of special effects, especially in its showcasing of shrink and growth physics, is an absolute spectacle to watch and as a result have led to some very fun and very clever action set pieces never before seen to this effect; from Scott’s ant-assisted jailbreak, to the heist of Cross Industries and its escalating twist to action-scene formula to the suspenseful destruction-laden but absolutely hilarious climactic hero-villain showdown set on a Thomas the Tank Engine toy-set.
Much like the title character himself and his journey throughout the film, Ant-Man stands as very much a surprise with how good it turned it out to be despite the many odds originally stacked against it. But much like its journey from the start of over 10 years ago, the MCU never seems unwilling to step up to a challenge to the most absurd ideas, and approach it with the same imagination, drive and respect that the properties have come to deserve. And while Ant-Man, in comparison to its brethren might not be considered the top tier of the MCU family tree, as a truly great film on its own it just further demonstrates that the old idiom still stands true: good things do come in small packages. –Ken Sims
17. IRON MAN 3 (2013)
This movie feels like the ugly stepchild of the MCU that they would rather forget about. It feels like they’ve retconned everything this movie established and reset Tony Stark to his pre-Avengers self, where he’s able to take alien invasions in stride and doesn’t grapple with his own limitations. And maybe that’s why I love Shane Black’s perspective on superheroes because he confronts Tony’s existential crisis by grappling with his response to an alien invasion, showing us his faults as a human being. Iron Man 3 is about Tony wrestling with his own perspective on Iron Man, telling a personal story with specificity to its characterization and nuance in its exploration of a broken down hero trying to do his best to be a hero when that idea doesn’t make sense in a world with superheroes.
The Mandarin twist was the controversial straw that broke the camel’s back for many people, and while I understand the idea that they took a very serious idea and twisted it into a punchline, I still feel like it serves a purpose in exploring the weaponization of terrorism as a white man in a suit uses it to push his own agenda behind the scenes, and the scene itself is genuinely funny, playing with our expectations and subverting them in a clever way, setting us up for a climactic battle that is kinetic and beautifully composed with genuine stakes. And this movie has one of the best Iron Man moments ever committed to screen, with him saving those people on the plane, being a genuine hero, showing a connection to a world he’s trying to save. It’s a beautiful film with genuine heart and a specific perspective from its filmmaker, and maybe that’s why Marvel has shunned it because it doesn’t fit into the MCU formula that they’ve worked so hard to establish. – Musa Chaudhry
16. ANT-MAN & THE WASP (2018)
Ant-Man & The Wasp isn’t a particularly big film (no pun intended) in terms of scale or stakes in comparison to some other entries in the MCU, in fact, its plot is largely self-contained to the personal conflicts of its characters. This is however less a detriment to the film as much as it is rather refreshing in contrast. Simple perhaps to a fault, the film struggles with many of the issues that plague its fellow brethren namely a poorly defined villain and a sloppy third act but these problems are at least partially distracted upon by the infectious charm Paul Rudd brings to the titular role. To date one of the greatest strengths of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been its ability to cast, cleverly drawing from a pool of already established but not yet fully appreciated actors. Rudd is a more natural comedian than his peers and he brings with him an enthusiasm to the character that translates across the screen.
While the MCU has achieved mass success creating this intertwined universe there are questions of how the individual films will hold up over time as they have become increasingly interdependent on one another. Ant-Man & The Wasp functions best as a pure comedy and it is through this utility and a narrative segregated from its peers that it should be one that viewers can jump into without having first been inundated with knowledge from previous films in the MCU. – Nate Lam
15. THOR (2011)
With the first Thor, Kenneth Branagh had the task of introducing us to a completely new realm of existence, needing to establish Asgard as its own universe with its own societal rules while exploring it in the context of other worlds within its own realm, and at the same time it needed to make Thor accessible to modern audiences, and somehow, Branagh pulled it off. He was able to explore the Shakespearian trappings of Thor’s journey while framing it in the context of a fall from grace of sorts, banishing Thor to Earth so he could learn humility and rid himself of the arrogance that comes with being destined for the throne, with a villain that challenges Thor’s perspective in an interesting way. While it would have been easy to convey Loki as this mustache-twirling bad guy with nefarious plans, Branagh infuses the character with an empathetic story that frames his psychology as that of a lost child, unaware of his place within the confines of the world he finds himself in, which shapes his perspective as Thor’s adopted brother.
Branagh even made Jane Foster a respectable character that helps Thor along his journey. Of course, casting Natalie Portman helps, and her chemistry with Hemsworth is what sells this movie, but their relationship and the way it builds into something worth exploring feels respected and earned, which is more than I can say for the sequel. – Musa Chaudhry
14. AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)
I remember being disappointed in Age of Ultron when it was first released. I didn’t quite know what to make of its weird plot threads, nihilistic villain and heroes who aren’t faced with consequences for actions that put the national security of the world at risk. To this day, one of the biggest issues I’ve had with this cinematic universe is the idea that Tony literally rode away into the sunset at the end of this movie, when in reality, his actions directly led to a city being wiped off the map. Ultron essentially uses a city as an asteroid, intended to wipe out life on Earth in a twisted way of ridding the planet of those that inflict the most harm upon it. And yet, Tony gets a happy ending. I remember Joss Whedon describing this as the dark chapter in The Avengers saga that would leave our heroes in a darker place, and the movie we got was compromised of its intended vision. It feels like it wants to go in that darker direction without fully engaging with those ideas, with a palpable war between director and studio playing out on screen, and it never quite feels right.
And yet, upon revisiting the film after it left theaters, I can’t help but admire its ambitions. This is a superhero movie that delves into the nihilistic perspective about the futility of life and juxtaposes that with a character in Vision who recognizes the futility in being human and having this life cycle, and yet also recognizes the beauty of the human experience in a way that Ultron can’t possibly comprehend. Ultron’s fear of the human experience is what sets him off. He has the knowledge of the world and chaos caused by our existence on this planet, and he doesn’t want to experience what we put ourselves through, while The Vision acknowledges the futility in life while recognizing the beauty in that sort of existence. When you look at the other Avengers movies, where the first one ends with a giant battle before Iron Man sacrifices himself, and Civil War ends in a punching match and Infinity War ends with a giant battle before Thanos snaps his fingers to wipes out half of humanity, Age of Ultron ends with a conversation between father and son, and the opposed philosophy of these two beings, with a poignancy in this dialogue that speaks to the overall ideas that this film wants to convey. It may be messy, but it is a glorious mess ripe with ideas and philosophies that are worth revisiting. –Musa Chaudhry
13. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016)
While introduced as the final installment in Captain America’s trilogy of solo films, Civil War stands as not only one of the best conclusions to a character’s arc in these adventures but was much more than that; it also stood as a game changer to MCU’s films in general. Since its start in 2008, the MCU smartly delved into a familiar yet detailed pattern in terms of cinematic releases that has continued to this day in slowly and effectively fleshing out the franchise. Following one or two individual adventure films of one or more of our solo heroes as they attempt to save the world (while providing plot points for further world-building), perhaps the introduction of a new hero or team to provide a little more variety, and finally culminate with a crossover event in which all or most of these heroes come together to face a threat greater than they could face alone in which the very conclusion of this adventure guarantees the course of their lives and the franchise’s direction to be altered.
Captain America: Civil War is the first, and even possibly the only solo film, to completely turn this cinematic pattern on its head at the time of its release both as a surprise massive crossover and also taking a sledgehammer to the original status quo of the MCU as we knew it. While Cap may be the headliner, it’s not only his great story at play here, as the movie made it its purpose almost in line to its ambition. To also acknowledge and explore the journey in following the formation of a new Avengers team and those around them in addition to further character growth in Tony Stark and a hard-hitting look into his past, exploring Cap’s loyalty to his comrades in arms (past and present) and as they see him, the budding relationship between Scarlet Witch and Vision, alliances are formed and shattered all at once as the past comes back to haunt them and the film even manages to successfully integrate not only one but two origins of iconic heroes in the MCU’s rendition of Spider-man and Black Panther.
But not only content in its ambition to the large scale of the project, Civil War also was not afraid to delve into legitimately difficult debate of how power may or should be controlled with both sides voicing legitimate concerns, not only creating excellent parallel for drama but humanizing our characters in such ways as not been approached before. Creating a rift so powerful that it actually made not only the idea of heroes fighting amongst themselves a possibility but a very unfortunate and yet spectacular to watch reality. Civil War, to me, is an example of the MCU in all its continuity at its very best, as this film demonstrated just how confident and comfortable they were to take dynamic risks with its property and also demonstrate just how much of an impact the franchise had left on audiences with its relationships through with them multiple movies. It was through risks like this film and its courage to pit iconic heroes against each other, which without the risk of even attempting a cinematic universe to even begin with, that demonstrates just how much Marvel was and is willing to grow and challenge the blockbuster medium, resulting in choices and success that led to an epic conclusion more than 10 years in the making and predictability in its overall future no longer a factor. –Ken Sims
“When the arrogance of a wealthy elite nearly costs him his life, he embarks on a journey of humility and self-mastery – and finds himself in need of saving the world along the way.”
12. DR. STRANGE (2016)
Does the above logline represent 2008’s Iron Man or 2016’s Doctor Strange? The answer is “both,” and therein lies most of the problems of the latter. Doctor Strange is by no means a bad film, it’s simply one who finds itself trapped in plot beats well past the point of familiarity. It comes as a double-edged sword: the backstory of surgeon-turned-sorcerer Stephen Strange is complex enough that it can’t exactly be glossed over, but another origin story as the fourteenth film in a franchise is destined to cover similar ground and feel like a step backward instead of forward. Beyond the narrative, however, Doctor Strange fares better. Benedict Cumberbatch is a fun addition to the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe ensemble, and director Scott Derrickson, who has roots almost exclusively in horror, steps out of his comfort zone and efficiently introduces us to the multiverse of the MCU in eye-popping fashion. The psychedelic nature of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s character is beautifully captured, as reality literally bends and warps in each new set piece. A highlight is Strange’s first foray into the Astral Dimension, a cacophony of sight and sound that is arguably the most visually inventive sequence to come out of the franchise. – Andrew Milito
11. CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019)
In the everlasting feud between Marvel and DC, the one area in which DC beat Marvel to the punch for once, is having their first female-led superhero movie. Being as overdue as it was, Captain Marvel loses the effect of having the same momentous impact for representation as Wonder Woman or especially Black Panther, but it shouldn’t have to. The more commonplace that it becomes to have a female-led superhero movie, the closer we get to achieving actual equality. Despite its “Girl Power” messages and No Doubt needle drops, Captain Marvel isn’t as powerful of a feminist statement as it seems to think it is and doesn’t amount to anything more than any other semi-enjoyable standard superhero movie. An ironic inverse of the first Thor film, Captain Marvel actually becomes more entertaining once we move away from its high-concept intergalactic sci-fi setting (which gets far too bogged down in expositional jargon and an unclear conflict) once our hero gets stranded on Earth. The addition of a de-aged Samuel L. Jackson provides a much-needed lively presence, and the turn that the film takes with its depiction of the Skrulls was a surprising subversion as to what we can normally expect from our Marvel villains and their homogenous alien armies. Once Carol finally achieves the full potential of her powers, the film basks in the slight glimmers of the childlike wonder that make seeing superheroes on screen so awe-inspiring, akin to Captain America’s portrayal in The First Avenger, which would make her a fitting new leader to take over the Avengers once Chris Evans finally hangs up the shield. – Mike Pisacano
10. SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017)
The quiet dissolution of Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man series gave way to the return of the web-slinger back into the hands of its parent company. Making a brief cameo in Civil War, the new Peter Parker (Tom Holland) makes his literal and figurative homecoming in the aptly titled Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Here it is more about control more than anything else because where many of the other heroes in the MCU are fresh to audiences, Spider-Man has the burden of being compared to those who have previously held the mantle. Smartly taking from what these previous versions have done well, Homecoming returns the hero back to his high school roots where it draws from a not so subtle John Hughes influence and pits it against a very game Michael Keaton as Birdman…err…I mean… Vulture. Famously “with great power comes great responsibility” but the strength of the foundation established in the MCU means that Holland’s version of Spider-Man now longer has the weight of the company on his shoulders. Thus Homecoming is content simply hitting a safe double rather than going for it all. A perfectly fine endeavor to be sure but when the next batter hits a bonafide grand slam, it retroactively begs the question: why, with so much security in the already well-established MCU, did they not swing for the fences? – Nate Lam
9. THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)
One of the larger criticisms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole has been the degree to which its slew of rather varied filmmakers has been able to put their own stamp on a film simultaneously striving for stylistic continuity with twenty others. Fortunately, one of the biggest counterpoints to this criticism came with the arrival of Thor: Ragnarok, helmed by New Zealand oddball Taika Waititi. Waititi’s first foray into big-budget filmmaking finds him handling the film’s rip-roaring cosmic adventure with relative ease but also grants him the freedom to incorporate his improv-heavy comedic stylings. Ragnarok’s ensemble is constantly bantering back and forth with a sense of humor unlike most everything else in the franchise, and the cast has a lot of fun with the material. Among familiar faces like Mark Ruffalo’s long-awaited return as the Hulk are several newcomers, all of whom shine: Tessa Thompson’s fierce Valkyrie, Cate Blanchett’s delightfully campy Hela, Jeff Goldblum doing what he does best as The Grandmaster; even Waititi himself makes an appearance and steals the show as Korg. But perhaps Waititi’s biggest triumph is his handling of the titular Norse god: he and Hemsworth, infectiously charismatic here, simultaneously embrace the silliness of Thor and boost him into a proper badass worthy of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” as a battle anthem. When it comes to the God of Thunder, the third time really is the charm. – Andrew Milito
8. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 (2017)
With the characters’ origins out of the way, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 allows James Gunn a larger galactic playground to play in: the result is an adventure that’s maybe less groundbreaking, but certainly bigger and wackier. Gunn once again choreographs action sequences with a striking visual eye and an infectious sense of fun: from the “Mr. Blue Sky” one-shot opening credits sequence to a stunning prison break, Gunn embraces craziness with open arms. Our quintet of lead actors themselves are in great form once again, and Gunn expands the ensemble with some new faces as well, notably Pom Klementieff’s adorably naïve Mantis and the always smooth Kurt Russell as Peter Quill’s father Ego. But amid the inherent silliness, Gunn once again understands the genuinely tender emotion that lingers within the personalities of these cosmic misfits. With the first film finding Quill settling into an unexpected family, Gunn tests familial dynamics even further – Quill and Ego and Michael Rooker’s Yondu (who really steals the show), but also the rivalry between Gamora and Nebula and the more lighthearted banter between Rocket and cute-as-a-button Baby Groot – and finds a story with a beating heart unlike most everything else in the genre. There’s a magic to the first Guardians film that will likely never be captured in quite the same way, but if attempts to do so turn out like Volume 2, maybe that’s not so bad. – Andrew Milito
7. AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018)
The beginning of the endgame, Avengers: Infinity War is the explosive first part of the MCU’s ultimate finale. With the number of characters and diverging storylines that this film has to balance, at times it feels as if you’re binging through an entire season of a television series rather than watching a contained two and a half hour movie, but that factor only adds to the expansive climactic nature of the film as an event, despite feeling structurally uneven. After an onslaught of countless unmemorable and tiresome multicolored alien villains whose sole motivation is to wipe out all life in the universe, this franchise finally delivers one with gravitas and personal suffering behind his motivation, making Thanos a worthy and formidable opponent for the Avengers to take on in their last stand. For a franchise with several largely disposable entries, this culmination treats its characters with the weight and pathos that reminds us why these heroes have left such a strong impact on moviegoers over the past decade, and why we are continuously willing to follow them to the end.- Mike Pisacano
6. IRON MAN (2008)
The first introduction to billionaire Tony Stark and his technologically exquisite alter ego, Iron Man, the 2008 film of the same name is like its titular hero a thrilling and intelligent film outing. As the first film in the MCU, the continued success of the Marvel movie brand would all depend on how well the stories of these individual Avengers would be presented.
With Iron Man, audiences would need not worry, for, in the capable hands of director Jon Favreau and star Robert Downey Jr., it was clear that the MCU had a bright storytelling future. Featuring wonderful visual effects, a witty, smart and emotional screenplay, and of course, charming and commanding performances from Downey Jr. and Jeff Bridges, in particular, this inaugural portrayal of Iron Man on screen remains one of the MCU’s best films, even over ten years later. It is certainly without a doubt, that if Marvel-based films stopped being produced after Iron Man, then it would stand as surely amongst the best of the best. In the years since its release, the formula set out by this film has been improved on, and yet it remains this film that began the renewed rise of the hero Iron Man in the public consciousness and the wildly successful Avengers films that would follow. – Michael Vecchio
5. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014)
For those who proclaimed the characterization of Captain America boring because he is too vanilla, too boy scout, too one dimensional – Captain America: The Winter Soldier offered up a new dynamic making the pure-hearted hero public enemy number one. Engaging as a Bourne-esque spy operation, Cap’s approach is this film is more spy than soldier though he maintains his core values having seen the horrors firsthand of what can happen when people blindly follow orders and subscribe to ideologies. It is one of the few films in the MCU that feels like it has something to say amidst the usual fanfare. Aided by some of the most inspired action scenes in all of the MCU (including a standout elevator sequence) it is memorable because it manages to challenge preconceived notions of the universe however briefly. – Nate Lam
4. THE AVENGERS (2012)
When Nick Fury approached Tony Stark in the end credits scene of the first Iron Man, he proclaims: “ You’ve become part of a bigger universe…you just don’t know it yet”. At this early stage, I’m not sure even the most faithful of Marvel fans or even the brass orchestrating this ambitious plan could anticipate what the MCU would become. Then Joss Whedon’s The Avengers gets released – a culture-defining showcase of the power a collective universe could have on the public consciousness. Uniting these heroes collectively for the first time, the film weaves together multiple threads and transitions them officially into one unified universe. Capturing audiences worldwide to the tune of record-breaking box office numbers, Whedon’s script with its mix of comedic quips and light-hearted banter along with his brighter more vibrant production design would establish the blueprint for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to come.
For better or for worse The Avengers changed cinema. That feels like hyperbole to even type but suddenly the massive success of the film sparked a shift towards the franchising of seemingly every intellectual property out there. What began as hopeful ambition through a few end credit sequences has now become a multi-billion dollar behemoth. – Nate Lam
3. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL.1 (2014)
What was once seen as a risky oddball offshoot with characters that no one had ever heard of or cared about, has now become the superhero summer blockbuster template that every studio wishes that they could create. The Guardians of the Galaxy have endeared themselves to audiences through their quirky eccentricities, nostalgic music tastes, and the familial bond that makes them undoubtedly the most lovable characters in the MCU. James Gunn saw not only the humor and the cosmic weirdness that comes from these characters but the heart and emotion that truly makes them resonate on a universal level. For a property with barely any recognizability, the decision to start this fun, action-packed space fantasy with a child watching as his mom takes her last breaths on her deathbed, was a bold storytelling choice with narrative significance that strengthens Peter Quill’s journey to learn to love and accept this rambunctious assortment of equally damaged weirdos as the family that he’s been longing for this whole time. For all of the adorable alien sidekick characters and the memorable soundtrack of 80’s throwback hits, it’s the emotion and heart that Gunn and the cast put into this team that made audiences fall in love with them as a family. We Are Groot. – Mike Pisacano
2. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)
Far too often the MCU has suffered at the hands of universe building. There can never be closure or real stakes because the show must go on, so more often than not films end on a linger or actions have no real consequence because everything has to be reset so the next film can happen but Captain America: The First Avenger sees Steve Rogers sacrifice everything. He loses his best friend (Bucky Barnes), the love of his life (Peggy Carter) and his entire world for the sake of others. As strong as the super soldier serum made him it cannot do anything to lessen the emotional pain of the life he left behind. These are real stakes with real consequences at its center where in spite of all his losses he retains that wide-eyed self-sacrificing idealism that saw him dive onto a bomb long before he was given superhuman abilities.
Origin stories are difficult because it often feels like a checklist of mandatory to-dos but in order to achieve the final payoff that it has been so carefully building towards for the past decade, there has to be a solid foundation wherein the audience builds that connection to the characters. Where one could argue that Tony Stark experiences the most dynamic arc in the MCU evolving from self-centered playboy to eventual selfless hero, Steve Rogers has it all along. He’s the ultimate underdog, the guy who gets up each time after getting knocked down. That’s what endears him to audiences (and why this movie ranks as high on our list as it does) because of all the heroes within Marvel’s now expansive gallery, Iron Man may be the face of the franchise but Captain America is most definitely the heart. Here behind Chris Evans’ sincere performance in the titular role, the foundational heartbeat is set for the rest of the universe to follow. – Nate Lam
1. BLACK PANTHER (2018)
There can be no denying the cultural significance of 2018’s Black Panther, not only breaking and setting numerous records but also bringing into the vivid spotlight voices and stories so often kept back in the history of Hollywood filmmaking.
Amongst its impressive numbers and accolades include a $ 1.3 billion box office gross, 3 Academy Awards (from 7 nominations, including Best Picture), the first MCU film with a majority black cast, and the highest grossing film ever to be directed by a black person, Ryan Coogler; of course these feats are only part of the story, and it was indeed the sublime craftsmanship of all those involved in the production of Black Panther, that made this lesser-known Marvel creation a triumph on the big screen. After years of development hell, the success of a Black Panther movie was never guaranteed, but with the explosion of the MCU, making this movie was at least worth a shot. And did it ever pay off; thrilling, emotional, intelligent and wondrous, Black Panther and its spectacular views of Wakanda have given moviegoers a rich theatre experience, filled with all the heart and action the very best Marvel films have had; add in its history-making role for advancing black cinema and smashing down barriers and records, it is a definite crown for the MCU thus far. – Michael Vecchio