To read my introduction to this set of rankings, go here.
I’ve broken the twenty-three movies from this franchise into tiers of irregular size. I still have a fairly firm ranking in my head for each of them, but I include the tiers to give a sense of what movies roughly match each other in terms of quality. I started at the bottom and worked up to our third tier. The last eight movies are here, but if you wanted to see movies 9-23, you can find the link here.
Tier 3: Surprisingly sweet
8) Captain America: The First Avenger – 2011, dir. Joe Johnston
Like Branagh’s Thor, Johnston’s Captain America bears the touches of a director who’s got identifiable flourishes and interests outside the MCU. (I like Peyton Reed’s work well enough, but almost half of his filmography as a director of features is going to have “Ant-Man” in the title by 2022.) Johnston’s movies frequently feature plucky underdogs who are little over their heads: Homer Hickam of October Sky, the shrunken kids of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids!, Alan Parrish of Jumanji, especially Cliff Secord of The Rocketeer for reasons that oughta be pretty obvious. A pre-serum Steve Rogers belongs in that group of people. He is a survivor, an Eddie Attaboy. That scene where he drops himself on top of what he believes to be a live grenade at basic training sums the kid up, and while there are maybe like, four or five too many scenes which talk up how important it is for the first recipient of the serum to have a big heart and a clear conscience, that’s what Steve is just as much as it was Homer or Cliff. Of the four Avengers who got origin or introductory movies between 2008 and 2011, Captain America is the last of them and the least powerful. There is no kingdom in the offing, no asshole charm, no gnarly green giant. There has to be some buy-in about a guy who’s such a cop that we’d probably want to beat up as much as half of Brooklyn does at the beginning of this picture, and it’s by leaning into Steve as a scrub. On one hand, I think that choice works, especially given that so much of the movie is about how desperate Captain America is for actual combat service as opposed to USO tours where the real soldiers do real things. One the other, maybe the only CGI/special effects choice that I’m actively dinging any of these movies for in these rankings is here. (I don’t think all that much of the CGI here anyway, but this is all relative to each other.) Physically speaking, a pre-serum Steve Rogers is a bad dream, a victim of CGI that was definitely not up to this task in 2011 and honestly I’m not sure would have been all the way up to the task in 2019 when this series ended. I’m not sure how else they would have done it, given that we had to recognize Chris Evans as this character all the way through, but on the other hand it takes an awful lot of squinting and sighing to get through that first part of the film. I think we’re supposed to be a little stressed out by the way the process of injecting the serum goes, how much screaming happens, the bright lights, etc., but I was mostly relieved to see Chris Evans attached to something resembling a proportional human body again. The ’40s setting of the movie is not particularly interesting even by the standards of 2010s movies set in the 1940s, but it is interesting to watch a superhero exert himself in a different time than our own, and as far as Cap’s pretty unflappable sense of by-the-book morality goes, it’s the only one where he really makes sense. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is the only MCU movie which I feel like has a romantic story I enjoyed. The romances in these movies are real nothingburger romances—maybe the best thing you can say about Captain Marvel is that it doesn’t waste time on one—Or maybe it’s just that Chris Evans has the chemical reactivity of your average halogen, and if it were 1993 I would be encouraging that fellow to own romantic comedies for the next several years.
7) Ant-Man – 2015, dir. Peyton Reed
Another movie (along with Homecoming and Doctor Strange, to some extent) where everyone’s aware that there are bigger and better superheroes out there who have the world-saving business covered. This doesn’t really have anything to do with the quality of Ant-Man, but I do have a soft spot for a superhero movie where the stakes are not the literal end of the world; corporate espionage is not typically my jam either, but it’s perfectly adequate for this basically charming and slightly off kilter movie. There’s an amusing little scene where Scott fights the Falcon which is a real tone-setter here. The year after, Civil War came out and everyone fought each other and it was a great big calamity in which friendships were splintered and everyone was real upset. Scott turning off Sam’s special backpack is treated as a potential problem by Hank and Hope, but once we actually get into the donnybrook itself, this is more silly than bellicose material. It’s fun, and it’s fun without the feeling of homework or angry eyebrows that so many franchise movies generally succumb to. I also like the cast here, which is a wacky little group indeed. Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly are a very odd couple to throw against one another, especially where Rudd seems concussed for most of them movie and Lilly is basically Sandra Bullock with a nun’s aspect. This is honestly about as much as I’ve ever liked Michael Douglas. That acerbic, worn out quality that seemed so unbecoming for a younger man in stuff like The China Syndrome is, many years later, kind of hilariously becoming. The impatience is warranted for him; you believe that he’s been out in the cold for many years, distant from an establishment of scientists and super-powered people who have betrayed his trust. No one in these movies does the prickly genius bit better than Douglas. I thought the movie references Scott’s family more than it actually makes those people meaningful to the story, which is to its detriment. There’s more Bobby Cannavale in here than Judy Greer or Abby Ryder Fortson, which speaks to the kind of movie this is actually trying to be. It’s about Scott’s struggle to go straight, and the way that his dalliances with the Pym-Van Dyne family open him up to increased scrutiny for law enforcement, which is already keeping a pretty near eye on this ex-con. Scott’s daughter, while important to him, is certainly a prop for Darren Cross to wave around in a room where Thomas the Tank Engine and one lonely ant can be blown up to enormous, terrifying size. Wood Harris’ line reading of “That is one messed-up looking dog” is a top ten laugh line across this entire series for me.
Tier 2: Good hangs
6) Iron Man – 2008, dir. Jon Favreau
The difference between 4 and 6 on my MCU ranking here is nearer than the distance between any other two movies; I think I could envision the three movies in my second tier in just about any order. As it is, Iron Man, much the cleanest and most direct movie of the three, lands sixth; clearly I tend to gravitate a little more towards mess in my Marvel. It’s very easy to overstate the skill of Robert Downey, Jr’s. performance in these movies, or to get teary-eyed about his “character arc,” but I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the MCU doesn’t exist without what he does in Iron Man. The world’s greatest egomaniac gets kidnapped by a terrorist cell, he escapes (having BUILT THIS IN A CAVE WITH A BOX FULL OF SCRAPS), and then turns his energy towards becoming the world’s greatest egomaniac who can singlehandedly effect a new world through his power. It takes a factory to create a Jericho weapon, supply chains, investments. The second Iron Man suit, the one not made from scraps, is capable of outperforming high-performance jets, able to take a licking and keep on ticking, carries incredibly powerful weaponry. The idea of Iron Man is blisteringly cool, even though it takes some mildly embarrassing test drives in front of chortling machinery to get to that point. It is less blisteringly cool and more existentially horrifying when such a person can carry out vigilante missions in the Middle East and buzz the United States Air Force. Iron Man is not making it difficult for you to root for Tony Stark in the midst of all this; I mean, what are you, a terrorist sympathizer? The film takes a little trip back to California so Tony can eliminate a corporate coup being led by a guy with a bigger suit; they call this “the big finish,” and yet it is overshadowed by Tony’s overseas dalliance with personal vengeance in the middle of the movie and a press conference at the end. (It’s all overshadowed by a post-credits scene, but whatever.) The world’s biggest egomaniac hasn’t changed all that much. He is being kept alive with a funny little machine he’s made. At this moment he harnesses more power than any thousand of us put together could dream of for ourselves, and yet he cannot keep his big mouth shut.
5) The Avengers – 2012, dir. Joss Whedon
The most important shot of the 2010s, at least as far as popular and commercial cinema go, is in this movie. The camera starts by looking up at a roaring Hulk, and then continues counterclockwise around this circle of brightly colored heroes. Iron Man is floating in the background of that shot, and we see him turn and land as the camera touches on Hawkeye, arrow drawn, Thor, hammer at the ready, Black Widow reloading her handgun, Captain America fastening his shield tighter, and finally Iron Man, now on the ground, looking up and completing this circle of six heroes who are deploying themselves in a desperate resistance against untold thousands of alien shock troops. In that moment, The Avengers takes us back to the dream factory. William Faulkner said that every Southern boy dreams of being in that grove of trees in southern Pennsylvania on July 3rd; there are a lot of Zoomers out there who dream of being the seventh member of such a circle, facing down incredible odds and yet absolutely assured of victory. It’s the certainty that makes this so wonderful, I think, a guarantee of emotional closure before you even have to sink yourself into the emotion. It’s why that scene where the Hulk obliterates Loki has been referenced multiple times in this series, why it spoke to so many people. It is easily the biggest laugh I’ve ever been part of in a theater, and a lot of the laughter in there was doubtless bound up in relief. Don’t worry, the movie says to us in that moment. The Avengers have this. The earliest article I can find which connects the spate of superhero movies to 9/11 is this one from 2011, which actually makes the point that studios have been running away from depicting 9/11 on screen and that superhero movies are starting to fill a void. (There are a lot of articles which connect the historical tragedy with the reaction in moviemaking; I’m partial to this one by Jordan Hoffman.) The tragedy still occurs in New York, and people talk about it like “since New York” in future movies with the same kind of resigned sadness. In the hands of The Avengers, no one you know ever really needs to have suffered from 9/11, and everything can be settled in a hard afternoon instead of being turned into decades of forever wars across an ocean. In its own way, The Avengers is a fairly cynical movie, and it’s got a number of tropes of concurrent superhero movies that I find kind of annoying. “He wanted to get caught” is one of my least favorite plot contrivances and of course that dominates a fairly sizable stretch of the picture; I’ve also never had a lot of patience for “superheroes we know are on the same team fight each other,” which makes up a little of my Civil War disinterest. But there’s a remarkable steadiness in that final stretch of the movie that gives us the thrills we’ve been waiting for without ever smothering us. In that respect, if not really in any others, it’s a masterpiece.
4) Ant-Man and the Wasp – 2018, dir. Peyton Reed
I’ve already gone blue in the face talking about how I don’t think these movies do a particularly good job of showing any kind of life-or-death stakes. “Moving” is a strong word for it, but the survivor’s guilt he’s carried around with him because of what happened to Janet decades ago is something understandable in the abstract if not in practice. He intended to take the risk, his suit malfunctioned, Janet saved the day, and he didn’t see her again. The movie is throwing just about everything at the wall and hoping it’ll stick in this later part of the picture, what with San Francisco car chases and whale-watching jokes and “You got Pezzed!” Meanwhile, there is an incredibly personal moment happening many…silly units of distance…beneath the surface. Somewhere, a man who has grieved for his wife, who would self-define as a widower and has gone through all those stages of loss, has a chance to start over. It’s one of the lovelier thoughts I can think of from any of these movies, and I think the movie even takes that seriously. At this moment, it’s most important for an aged husband and an aged(?) wife to interact with one another, to be with each other again for a brief moment, than it is for everyone to see everyone all at once. It’s about a personal intimacy, and while there are other moments where I think there’s some intimacy or closeness (which are not the same as chemistry) across these other movies, there probably isn’t one that stands out for me quite as strongly as this one. It’s an unexpected, reasonably effective textural moment against a movie that’s mostly pretty smooth. The stuff with Ghost really does not work at all; it’s possibly the worst subplot in any movie in my top three tiers, and we still have the fire zombies from Iron Man 3 to go. Not coincidentally, it’s the piece of the film where the stakes are highest by your traditional superhero measure, given that a couple lives are at stake, and it is definitely overcompensating for how much of the movie is about like, Scott’s house arrest. It sure seems like this is a problem that could be solved with a calm conversation between adults rather than a dose of the ol’ kicky kicky punchy punchy, and the reason I say that is because in the end, this is solved with a calm conversation between adults who figure out how to fix the problem. When this movie is on the right track, though, it is absolutely cruising. The big-small and small-big action is a lot of fun here, with some clever sight gags and punchlines. I like the idea of a building that’s basically the size of luggage which everyone is fighting over; I like the whalewatching cruise in which Scott in the giant form fools a number of people and then very politely apologizes for not being a whale; I like the sort of hypoxic reaction he has to being as giant as he is, lamenting that the “air is chunky,” a vaguely scientific and totally gross way of expressing that he’s about to pass out. Most of all, Michael Peña is a little more reined in here than he is in Ant-Man, and it gives that single painfully, gloriously long storytelling manner he has a single place to rear its head. “You put a dime in him,” T.I. says, “you have to let the whole song play out.”
3) Guardians of the Galaxy – 2014, dir. James Gunn
I get it. This is, in its own way, every bit as safely funny as something like Captain Marvel or Spider-Man: Homecoming. This is not a Preston Sturges movie. It is not nearly as zany as think a lot of us pretend it is. And yet…I dunno, there’s something about this movie which is still incredibly fun. In a lot of these movies—like, I dunno, Guardians 2—you can feel the pressure to have fun up against your temple like the muzzle of a gun. I rarely felt that pressure of “or else” in this movie, although John C. Reilly’s character definitely stretches that limit. Amazingly, the character I felt least pressured by was Rocket, who is so obtrusive in the rest of his appearances in this franchise that he may as well be blacking out at Steve Wonder songs. In later movies, the running gag about him needing certain people’s body parts to pull off some whirlwind engineering project will get stale, but in this first appearance his insistence for a guy’s prosthetic is an enormous guilty laugh. There’s a little too much Sorkin DNA in this movie, a few too many jokes which only work because the character saying the joke is totally ignorant and it’s up to someone else to correct them. Drax’s literal brain is certainly more funny than not, and I’ve already expressed my deep personal affection for Groot, but the forced connection Thanos through these Infinity Stones and the presence of his Technicolor daughters gives this movie a purplish pall that drops its quality a little bit for me, example number 1,028 of how the insistence that each movie has to set up three others is a problem. The back-and-forth between these characters hangs by a thread for so much of the movie, and I don’t think they ever really got the right balance. I have a history of thinking these movies would be better if they shuffled up the casts a little more, and I think it’s obvious that switching Bradley Cooper and Chris Pratt would have done wonders for this little series. The ceiling on this movie is on Pratt’s inability to aw-shucks his way through the central role or to find a gear above “come on, fella!” (The proof is in his best line, which I think Bradley Cooper could pull of just as easily. In response to why he should care about saving the galaxy, he yells, “Because I’m one of the idiots who lives in it!”) The highs, at least, are many, and most of them are more interested in action than humor: an incredibly fun prison break, a surprisingly taut scene where little interlocking planes try to hold off a spaceship’s inevitable descent, Drax’s futile attempt to kill Ronan.
Tier 1: More than a link in the chain
2) Black Panther – 2018, dir. Ryan Coogler
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Black Panther is the most inevitable of the MCU movies, the one that will be remembered historically as an “important” movie, the Best Picture nominee, the flowering of the late Chadwick Boseman, the movie that was a genuine phenomenon. It is a truth universally acknowledged as well that everyone talks about what a pudknocker the last half-hour of this movie is. I think The Avengers has a really strong action sequence at the end of the movie. I think Ant-Man has a surprisingly decent action sequence taking place in a child’s bedroom. On the side of good endings in the sense that the final scene or two is really affecting, that particular quality belongs to Iron Man and Iron Man 3. I mean…that’s the list! Over and over again, Black Panther gets denigrated a little bit because people use the action sequences towards the end as a canard. How many times in your own MCU discussions have you heard “It’s a really good movie but the battle at the end isn’t great,” with the implication that like, Civil War is doing it better? With the stated exceptions above, I don’t know that I’d say any of these movies are doing something interesting or particularly effective with their climactic battles. I don’t want to say that Black Panther is somehow underrated, because that’s emphatically not true. It is emphatically the best-reviewed MCU movie among critics, it is very popular among fans, and it has crossover appeal for those of us who never really got into the MCU. (For what it’s worth, out of the movies I’ve seen with a 2018 release date, I don’t think it would even make my top thirty for that year. When I think about that it definitely puts the rest of these into perspective for me!) I think what people are looking for when they talk about the battle scene of Black Panther is that the movie itself is dissatisfying, and what they land on is the part that’s obviously, kinetically dissatisfying; that’s why no one ever says that they’re disappointed by the man-to-man fights between T’Challa and M’Baku and T’Challa and Killmonger, respectively. The same thing happens, to a lesser extent, with the fight between Tony and Obadiah in Iron Man; people are just sort of dissatisfied after all the good stuff that’s come before. They were promised more than they were given.
Black Panther is a victim of the MCU’s success, in its own way. This is the eighteenth movie in the series. People come to expect a certain series of events in their superhero movies, a certain dash of comedy, perfectly timed chase scenes in the first half, daddy issues a little after intermission, and then the big finish. Black Panther must play by those rules, even though I think this movie would be absolutely stunning if it got to go its own way a little bit. More than any other MCU movie, I am tantalized by the film that Black Panther could be if it give itself more time to explore Killmonger, or if it did more than nod at the idea that T’Challa is not everyone’s king. Truly there is no movie in this franchise which has more interesting ideas percolating around, and because of the film’s structure it can only take Killmonger’s violent liberationist ethic and smooth it down to something which is not all that different from Ultron’s point of view about how the world should basically be made better through fire and brimstone. It’s a disservice to the film’s own ideas; no wonder it feels a little dissatisfying!
1) Iron Man 3 – 2013, dir. Shane Black
I realize this is not a consensus pick, and trust me, I am aware of this movie’s several shortcomings. I’ve already poked fun at the fire zombies, who deserve some serious poking fun at. I can’t say that I think much of Guy Pearce’s performance, either. I think that Pepper as a temporary fire zombie, even if it’s useful, is sort of a dumb choice; heck, virtually everything in that final setpiece falls flat for me. (You know what’s not a dumb choice? A sock puppet Mandarin who plays on the fears of a racist America, and whose existence is seen as a helpmeet by the highest echelons of the American government. Aside from being a very funny twist, this is also about as close as to sharp political commentary as any of these movies get, and I’m including the last movie I talked about here.) Iron Man 3 is a rare superhero movie indeed, because I think it actually has a remarkable degree of control over the ideas it’s working from. No superhero in the MCU is both so deeply troubled and so thoroughly changeable as Iron Man. Captain America is always just and right, no matter how confusing the world is for him. Thor has possibly been even more things than Iron Man as a person, but the man’s body is an Iron Man suit even when he’s got my body shape. Hulk…I like uncomfortably hot professor Hulk as much as the next guy, but the biggest change in that character was when they replaced Norton with Ruffalo. From there, you’re talking about people who either haven’t been given the time and space to change or their own movies (thus far) to do so. Tony Stark is very into being Iron Man. Part of the reason the ending of this movie feels a little odd is because the last few minutes are given over to the way that Tony is done being Iron Man. He gets rid of the excess suits that he was building to sate his insomnia and his fear. He has surgery to finally remove that shrapnel from his chest, giving himself over to somebody else to help keep him alive. He soft tosses his latest arc reactor into the ocean. He then says that you can’t take away the fact that he is Iron Man, which feels like a weird thing to say when you’ve divested yourself of most of the trappings of the persona. I don’t think it’s out of line to suggest that there’s something cynical about ending this series of movies with this idea that Tony’s done when you know that he’s going to show up in (counts) five more of these movies as Iron Man; he can’t not be Iron Man.
All the same, if there’s something that I think Iron Man 3 goes to significant lengths to prove, it’s that Tony Stark is almost as much a cyborg as Vision. How many times have you heard the old saw that a tool is only as good as the person using it? And what is the Iron Man suit and all its dozens of variants if it’s not a tool in the hands of an idiosyncratic, brilliant, and damaged user? In Iron Man 3, the film is genuinely concerned with Tony Stark the person. It is not wondering about the distractors, the hype machine, the what-might-be, the Easter egg. It’s wondering about what happens when you have had a near-death experience on top of a near-death experience. It asks why, if a man can be so powerful that he can move mountains, why can’t he be powerful to protect the people he cares about? Tony Stark built the Iron Man suit as security, and he builds a heck of a lot more in this movie as added security. Rich as Croesus and for all his newfound experience still foolish as Midas, Tony and his latest, glitchiest suit find themselves in semirural Tennessee after his iconic Malibu mansion is obliterated by a helicopter attack. Without being able to call for help, without the suit operative enough for him to use it, he goes to Wal-Mart and makes stuff with a bunch of scraps. The tools are only as good as the person using it, and as the suit continues to glitch, continues to be insufficient for his purposes, and in one glorious moment gets wiped out by a semi after it’s been used via remote control to save a bunch of people from an airplane, Tony gets better. It turns out that he is more than the man in the suit; the brain that no one will shut up about turns out to be as good as it’s ever been; the people who he cares about turn out to be able (no matter how weirdly!) to care for him in return.
I hate the term “character arc.” In high school English, we try to leave behind “dynamic and static characters” fairly early, and all a character arc is a statement of whether or not a character changes. In other words, it’s a summary, not an analysis. What Iron Man 3 is doing is not some halfway point of a character arc. It’s a story which, as much as anything with 3 in the title can be, is self-contained. How Tony Stark and Iron Man grow is what this movie is concerned about. Maybe Tony Stark driving his sports car away from the site of his old mansion doesn’t feel like that big a moment en route to taking up that giant gauntlet and snapping his fingers one last time. As a movie on its own terms, this is an enormously satisfying moment, and because we’re not here to talk about an Infinity Saga but the films that make it up, those last few minutes are enough to push it to the top of my list.