This President’s Day, “Black Panther” arrived in theaters with a storm of hype and critical praise, marking the 18th movie in the Marvel Comics Universe (MCU) and the last one before “Avengers: Infinity War” hits theaters in May. May will also mark the 10th anniversary of the first of these films, “Iron Man.” Over the past 10 years, the MCU has not had a truly terrible movie, though some of them have been fairly lackluster. In celebration of the fantastic “Black Panther” and in anticipation of “Infinity War,” here are the 18 films of the MCU, ranked:
18. “Thor: The Dark World”
“The Dark World” isn’t bad, but it is overwhelmingly mediocre. Natalie Portman is normally a phenomenal actress, but she is clearly disinterested in the film and in her ostensible love interest. Tom Hiddleston as Loki gives the movie some charm and some drama, and Anthony Hopkins provides gravitas as Odin, but the movie miraculously gets mired in boring Earth drama that distracts from even more tedious sci-fi fantasy. Chris Hemsworth’s physique is certainly mighty, but the second “Thor” is not.
17. “The Incredible Hulk”
Edward Norton plays Dr. Banner/Mister Hulk in a movie that technically belongs to the franchise. Norton isn’t bad here, but Marvel was able to replace him with Mark Ruffalo in “The Avengers” with barely anyone noticing. “The Incredible Hulk” offers a dull, rote love interest and a CGI climax that looked ugly 10 years ago and has since aged like Ultron. It has some charm, but not enough to be worth remembering or re-watching.
16. “Iron Man 2”
The second “Iron Man” is a little bit of a mess, and its many subplots don’t always work well with each other and don’t always pan out. And after the dynamite first “Iron Man,” it was a little bit of a letdown. However, Robert Downey Jr. is still fantastic as the sardonic Tony Stark, and the Iron Man suit is still the coolest thing a 10-year-old will ever see. Don Cheadle steps into the role of Rhodes effortlessly, and Gwyneth Paltrow remains the most dynamic female lead in any of these films. Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson are all fantastic actors and are fantastic in their individual parts, but they are too much in a film that is less than the sum of its parts. The movie is overstuffed, and the pieces of the whole don’t work, but it’s a whole lot of fun.
“Ant-Man” took a long time to finally make it to the screen, and along the way it lost its original director and creative engine, Edgar Wright. The film still bears marks of his visual comedy and wit, but it will always be marred by the thought of what might have been. Despite the behind-the-scenes troubles, Paul Rudd is hilarious as Scott Lang, Michael Douglas is a perfect jerk as Hank Pym and Evangeline Lilly kicks butt as Hope van Dyne, the soon-to-be Wasp. The villain is underwhelming, and the movie is very non-essential, but it’s light, breezy and very funny. It would have been stronger if Evangeline Lilly had gotten to be super from the start, but that’s the biggest problem in an otherwise very agreeable film. It doesn’t aim for much, but it hits its mark right on target.
“Thor” is a weird movie. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, known for his Shakespearean filmography, half of the movie embraces its epic, bizarre setting. The other half plays as a fish-out-of-water story set in New Mexico. The plot is very basic, but the movie paces well, short and sweet. As far as the cast, Portman isn’t so boring in this one, and Hiddleston provides the franchise with its most persistent and charismatic villain. Hemsworth is very muscular in this one, too, and he gets to show a little of his comedic side, a hint of what’s to come nearly a decade later in “Thor: Ragnarok.”
13. “Doctor Strange”
“Doctor Strange” goes through many of the same beats as the original “Iron Man,” but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Benedict Cumberbatch plays a great Dr. Steven Strange (which is the character’s actual name), and the movie has a trippy visual palette that is a lot of fun. The action is a deviation from the typical superhero movie fare, with teleporting, alternate dimensions and a snarky cape. Tilda Swinton is good, Mads Mikkelsen is wasted, and Cumberbatch antagonizes himself by also playing Dormammu through motion capture. The finale works as a counterpoint to the rest of the paint-by-numbers plot of the movie, with a funny, inventive and clever climax. What’s more, the movie works as the most expensive PSA against texting and driving of all time.
12. “Iron Man 3”
The reveal of Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin as a bumbling actor takes a lot of the gas out of “Iron Man 3.” Rebecca Ferguson’s character was destined to be the villain, not the murdered love interest, and the reworking of the film to focus on Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian as the antagonist really hurts it. Other than that clumsiness, though, the movie really shines. Shane Black directs, and the movie feels remarkably like a Black film, with his tonal and directorial sensibilities totally intact. In fact, his flair for dark comedy dovetails phenomenally with Downey Jr.’s snark. The movie offers a satisfying end to the “Iron Man” trilogy while providing room for the character to grow in later installments of the overarching MCU.
11. “Avengers: Age of Ultron”
“Age of Ultron” goes a little awry with attempts to set up later films in the MCU running into the pacing of the main story, and while James Spader’s Ultron plays well as a snarky Frankenstein’s monster of Stark’s creation, the movie is caught in the trap of trying to balance too many plates. A 10-minute deviation to set up “Thor: Ragnarok,” (which is hilariously out of sync with the movie that actually got made), an out-of-nowhere romance between Black Widow and the Hulk and the hasty introduction and death of Quicksilver leave the movie feeling disjointed. However, the action is incredible, and the introduction to Paul Bettany’s Vision, a godlike android who is both mythic and alien, is one of the high points in the entire franchise.
10. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”
The second “Guardians of the Galaxy” cranks up the humor, and, for the most part, it works. A few of the jokes undercut more serious moments, and the relationship between Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill and Michael Rooker’s Yondu could’ve been more developed, but the movie works. The soundtrack rivals the first film’s, Kurt Russell’s Ego is a far better villain, and the glorious color palette of the film pops with vibrant colors and a well-defined sci-fi aesthetic.
9. “Thor: Ragnarok”
“Thor: Ragnarok” turns the “Thor” franchise into an outright parody of the superhero genre, albeit a loving parody. Exchanges are improvised, and the jokes never stop coming. Like all the best parodies, “Thor: Ragnarok” also works well as the genre it’s parodying. The action is gorgeous, and the score is absolutely bonkers with dramatic choirs, triumphant symphonies and blazing synths. The film is the embodiment of the bizarre, tacky sci-fi fantasies of the ’80s, and because of its brazen confidence and unwavering willingness to just be silly, the movie about Thor and the Hulk having space adventures just works.
8. “Guardians of the Galaxy”
“Guardians of the Galaxy” offers a cosmic version of the Avengers, with many of the same draws. The dynamic of a team coming together is magical in a similar way, but what makes “Guardians of the Galaxy” so amazing is how it manages to introduce five protagonists and bring them together all in one film. Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket the Raccoon and Groot all enter the film as unknown entities and make their mark in a big way. The villain is a little weak, but other than that, the movie is an absolute jam.
7. “Spider-Man: Homecoming”
As the sixth “Spider-Man” movie and the third iteration of the character on the silver screen, “Spider-Man” Homecoming” has to work to justify its existence. Fortunately, the movie is a joy. Tom Holland is pitch perfect as a Peter Parker struggling to become an Avenger while trying to get a date for homecoming. Michael Keaton as the Vulture is one of the MCU’s greatest villains, giving the movie a killer twist, and Iron Man is able to exist in the film as a mentor without stealing the spotlight. The cast is peppered with great comic actors, from Martin Starr to Hannibal Buress to Donald Glover, who fill the film with humor while grounding it in Parker’s very teenage world.
6. “The Avengers”
Watching “The Avengers” when it came out was an event. A sequel to five different movies at once with characters from each different franchise was something never before seen. The action was huge, and the immense battle scenes were offset by persistent charm and quips. Ruffalo enters as the Hulk without a hitch, working better in a team-up movie than the Hulk ever could by himself. Different aspects of the previous films come into play in a way that doesn’t punish viewers for having missed some of the previous movies, while also making the universe feel very full and fleshed out. “The Avengers” is a ton of fun with Earth’s mightiest heroes.
5. “Captain America: Civil War”
The third Captain America worked as an Avengers movie, but its Captain America branding gave it the narrative focus necessary to create some real drama and tight plotting. Chris Evans is steady and dependable as Captain America, while Downey Jr. stands out in his best performance of Iron Man yet. This is the movie that fits most effortlessly into the context of the Marvel universe, introducing Black Panther and Spider-Man into the story all while servicing the fundamental conflict of the film. Daniel Brühl plays Zemo as a relatable villain, though he is overshadowed by the conflict between Captain America and Iron Man. The airport fight sequence where Avengers fight Avengers is the best in the series, and “Captain America: Civil War” is the best Avengers movie so far.
4. “Iron Man”
The first of the franchise, “Iron Man” came out nearly a decade ago and is still one of the high points of these movies. Downey Jr. was born to play Tony Stark, with his playboy attitude underlined by moments of real humility. The movie uses an awareness of the real world and its politics and consequences to ground the fantastic narrative in reality. The end credits scene, the first of many to come, hinted at a broader universe in the making. “Iron Man” is funny, dramatic and creates the foundation for a universe immersive enough to handle 18-plus films.
3. “Captain America: The First Avenger”
“Captain America” is a World War II war movie that features not just a superhero but a very good man. Director Joe Johnston uses the movie’s period setting to create a story of black and white morality, with larger than life heroes fighting larger than life villains. The anachronistic HYDRA, with its space age weapons derived from a magic cube, is the perfect villain for this blast-from-the-past pulp adventure. The film’s over-the-top conflict of good vs. evil allows for Steve Rogers, played by Evans, to exist as a paradigm of selflessness and self-sacrifice, which is a refreshing fantasy in the more conflicted modern age.
2. “Black Panther”
T’Challa was first introduced in “Civil War,” but in “Black Panther,” he has a movie dedicated to himself and his world, and the movie is better for it. The first act is a little long and the last act is a little short, but Wakanda and its cast are so fully realized that they more than makes up for the film’s pacing problems. Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger is a villain who steals the scene every time he enters, and he is a critical part of the film’s political ideology. “Black Panther” is continually embarrassed by a wealth of riches, with its stacked cast, kinetic action and a vital story packed with meaning and thematic resonance.
- “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” takes Steve Rogers from his simplistic, 1940s comfort zone of right and wrong and throws him headfirst into the 21st century. Robert Redford plays the film’s main villain, and his presence works perfectly with the film’s ’70s spy thriller tone. From bottom to top, the film’s construction is airtight. Humor is present in the film without undercutting the tension, and the action is as grounded as a superhero movie gets. While the film doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve as boldly as “Black Panther,” it is still an intelligent movie with a point of view. “The Winter Soldier” also worked as a major paradigm shift in the MCU, altering its trajectory for the better. With almost no fluff to speak of, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is almost a perfect piece of escapist entertainment.
A version of this article appeared on pg. 11 of the Mar. 1, 2018 issue of Daily Nexus.