(If you’re just here for the links to the actual rankings, bless you: Infinity Saga/Marvel Cinematic Universe Movies Ranking – Part 1 and Infinity Saga/Marvel Cinematic Universe Movies Ranking – Part 2. You can also find the results for the meta-analysis and poll here.)
I’ve seen all of these now, which I guess makes me like everybody else. Out of these twenty-three movies, none of which is a better picture than a Fruitvale Station or a Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, I watched three in theaters at the time of release. Most of them I watched for the first time via streaming service, knowing basically what would happen, in the privacy of my own space, with a single other person with me, on a reasonably sized television with a reasonably good sound system. I have not gotten the MCU boost, in which an excited crowd of die-hards lives and dies with the doings on screen; then again, I’ve been immune to other people’s hype since I was a kid, so maybe it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The way I watched these movies is more or less the same way I watched Ben-Hur and Doctor Zhivago, two movies which I’m sure, if I could turn back time to see them in the roadshow days, I would have a some measurably different experience with a crowd. I’m sure there’s also some minute amount of wonderment that I’ve lost by watching these years removed from their original release dates, and knowing a good deal about them going in. I generally don’t believe that knowing as little as possible about a movie is important going in, but I do think that these movies are designed that way. Either one’s previous knowledge of certain comic books and their landmark storylines is the kind of thing that the movie encourages you to bring along, or one’s total ignorance of what will happen is the source of much of the drama.
I bring all this up at the beginning because these are the last movies of the blockbuster era. Theaters were hanging on to the MCU for dear life already, and with the destruction of theaters by COVID-19, the rollback of U.S. v. Paramount Pictures, and most importantly the might of streaming services tied to major studios, I don’t know that we’ll ever have the right atmosphere in place again for theatergoing. If the option had existed on a seasonable November evening in 2013 to watch Thor: The Dark World in theaters or to watch it on Disney Plus, how many people would have paid that equivalent tax to the price of tickets not to move from the couch? When Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness comes out in March 2022 (hahaha, did you hear how certain I sounded about that release date), will Disney release the film in theaters and on Disney Plus concurrently? Will they cave for Black Widow in the next few months? The MCU has seemed as inevitable as Thanos, but what with the movement to make TV shows like WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier into essential cogs in the (deep sigh) storytelling venture, I think the idea of these movies with monstrous budgets and monstrous profits must be jeopardized. Maybe it was all so much more ephemeral than we thought at the time. These movies are too big too fail, but then again, so were John Carter and Prince Caspian and Paint Your Wagon and Cleopatra.
On my poll up there (which I encourage you to complete!), one of my questions asks what you make of the MCU movies in terms of movie quality. If I were taking it, I’d have to choose the answer “These are mostly mediocre to bad movies being propped up by a brand.” While I’m spending way less time and energy on this little mini-project than I usually do, I also have never spent this much time and energy on movies that I thought were basically disposable. What it reminds me of most, funnily enough, is a ranking of all the Disney/Pixar movies I did a couple years ago. Some of them are really pretty bad. Most of them are okay. I don’t necessarily begrudge the MCU for not having a WALL-E or Beauty and the Beast or Fantasia. The aims are different, and of course a franchise which traces itself back merely to 2008 rather than a pair of studios with roots in the 1930s will have less to work with. I wonder if in this next round of MCU movies, which will doubtless lead to some other species of Thanos (and which I have a feeling I’ll get to a few years after the fact), someone will manage to make an MCU movie which is as good as Aladdin or Monsters, Inc., let alone Bambi. Will the expectations of the audiences and producers allow something that heartfelt and generous, or will it only ever top out in movies where interesting ideas peek around corners lest they be punched into submission?
But that’s enough musing for the present. The rationale for what movie goes where on these rankings is on a subject which I don’t think has ever gotten enough press: how well does each entry work as an individual motion picture? The MCU as a “franchise” or “series,” as a business venture or brand experience, is well documented. So too is the endless and thus vaguely pointless debate about whether or not these movies are “cinema,” which people usually use as a fancy term for “good movies” in the same way that people say “myself” when they mean “me.” People very rarely seem to be asking the question of “Is Captain America: The First Avenger a good movie?” so much as they’re asking “Are these twenty-three movies from fifteen directors/directing pairs made over more than a decade good movies?” These are movies with clear similarities, sure, but they aren’t so similar to one another that you can choose any one as a stand-in for the rest. The other side of this is that I don’t approach this from a perspective of how well it sets up other movies, nor do I care all that much about presenting a character’s “arc” over the course of half a dozen pictures. My rankings have to do with how I judge these movies as movies, and while I’m sure not everyone would agree with me even from a standpoint of quality, my vibes tell me that this is, a little depressingly, an unusual enough approach to these movies to make yet another MCU ranking worthwhile.
I’ve split my rankings into two posts (trust me). This takes you to films 9-23, and this goes to 1-8. If you’re curious about how I’ve ordered these before you go ahead and read how they got there, I’ve put the full list below Snappy Gilmore here.
23) Doctor Strange
22) Captain Marvel
21) Captain America: Civil War
20) Avengers: Age of Ultron
19) Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
18) Thor: The Dark World
17) Spider-Man: Far from Home
16) Spider-Man: Homecoming
15) Avengers: Infinity War
14) Avengers: Endgame
13) The Incredible Hulk
12) Thor: Ragnarok
11) Captain America: The Winter Soldier
9) Iron Man 2
8) Captain America: The First Avenger
6) Iron Man
5) The Avengers
4) Ant-Man and the Wasp
3) Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 1
2) Black Panther
1) Iron Man 3