The question of “What is the best MCU movie” feels like a fairly pointless question, but as one of the idiots who lives in it, I’ve come up with my own set of answers. (You can find my intro to my rankings, 1-8, and 9-23 elsewhere on the site!) I feel pretty strongly about my own order, as everyone else seems to feel pretty strongly about their own order, but as I started this little mini-project I was curious about what other people think. After all, these are among the most widely seen movies since, well, movies, and I don’t have to explain the kind of reach they have. That curiosity came in two flavors. What do critical minds have to say? And what do regular folks think?
The first thing I completed was a meta-analysis of critical rankings of the “Infinity Saga” movies, a term which I find more pretentious than anything in your average arthouse flick but one which is at least descriptive for the twenty-three movies at hand. It’s been a while since I was in grad school, so I’m not going to make any promises about my methodology, but I did have some standards. I included Letterboxd, which is not a critical outlet by any means, but it is also the front-facing place for movie fans to congregate; IMDb is for Gen Xers. Working with the Letterboxd data required me to go through and check the star ratings and number of fans of each movie; star ratings determined placement first, and ties were broken by the number of fans on the site as of March 1st, 2021.
[UPDATE – When I originally published this post, I did a meta-analysis of fifteen sites. As you’ll see in a second, I did a better job on researching after publication and now I’ve updated this for the other twelve sites I did. This changes a few placements, and I’ve redone my charts, but on the whole this is not terribly different from what you might have seen when I originally posted.)
I also included Rotten Tomatoes, which has its own MCU rankings via the Tomatometer, which is kind of useful in a macro sense anyway. The other fourteen outlets (deep breath)—Buzzfeed, Collider, Complex, Digital Spy, Empire, Esquire, EW, The Film Magazine, Gamesradar, GQ, IGN, Independent, Insider, Mashable, Nerdist, Polygon, Screencrush, Screenrant, Slant, Techradar, Thrillist, Uproxx, Vox, Wired, and the Wrap—each had all twenty-three films in the Infinity Saga ranked. This excludes some groups which I would have really liked to have included but which didn’t have a ranking for all twenty-three, such as the AV Club, the Guardian, and the Screendrafts podcast, as well as some others which rank superhero movies more broadly but not altogether, like the Ringer. (Binge Mode went for “favorites, not best,” and I’m not sure that really fits in with the lists below.) I particularly lament that I cannot give the Screendrafts crew, which did a very entertaining draft of the first twenty-one films, although given the number of EW staffers on the draft it’s possible we’re kind of getting their general vibes already.
Here’s how it looks, and if you’re on mobile, I strongly suggest you do this in landscape:
And here are the results you’re actually interested in. Average score rounded to the nearest hundredth (lower is better, clearly), consensus position, the high and low rankings, and the range:
First off, God bless Slant for having a mind of its own and almost singlehandedly warping the data. No one else has Doctor Strange nearly as high as they have it (and no one should!), but their very idiosyncratic, almost fearless, list has a way of mixing up these rankings in a way that makes this whole experience much more fun. Some other quick observations which are about the larger picture and not about enjoying an online magazine:
- There is absolutely a top seven which you can see played out again and again: Black Panther, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Endgame, Thor: Ragnarok, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Avengers, and Iron Man.
- Winter Soldier and Ragnarok are separated by about four hundredths of a point, a closeness which is nearly matched by that of Infinity War and Civil War down there at ninth and tenth, but which is otherwise pretty special. For all intents and purposes, those two movies are tied, and I wonder how this list would look or feel different if Winter Soldier were backing up a similarly action-driven movie in Endgame as opposed to getting pushed down by the barest of margins. (On the update, they actually got even closer than they were after the first fifteen.)
- Out of the twenty-three movies of the Infinity Saga, thirteen of them are rated either first or second in at least one of the twenty-seven sources for the meta-analysis, and only three of them (Thor, Iron Man 2, and The Incredible Hulk) fail to land in someone’s top ten. Take that out a little further to top five, and now sixteen of twenty-three are there. Admittedly, Slant is driving a great deal of variance all by its lonesome by punting Doctor Strange and Iron Man 3 into the top two, but in its own way it’s a bulwark against Letterboxd and several of the more fan-oriented publications, which are pretty chalky and very much weighted in favor of the same kinds of movies that Slant appears to be immune to.
- Speaking of the bottom, I think that’s a group even more set in stone than the top. Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 2, and The Incredible Hulk are all even more firmly in the bottom three than Black Panther, Guardians 1, and Endgame are in the top three. Only Uproxx and The Wrap avoid putting two of those three movies in their bottom three, and Uproxx still has the same bottom four movies as everyone else. However, there’s still some variety in that bottom four across the sample. Fourteen movies are listed at twenty or lower. Five movies have a range of nineteen or higher: Endgame, Infinity War, Captain America, Iron Man 3, and Doctor Strange. We’ll get back to The First Avenger in a sec.
- There’s a slight bias towards more recent movies in the top ten. Although if you average that out, it comes out to like, May 2015, which is when Avengers: Age of Ultron comes out and I don’t think that one feels “recent” for most people.
- The lowest ranked Phase 3 movie (jeez this terminology makes me sound like a jerk) is Ant-Man and the Wasp at 16. From my own work, I disagree pretty emphatically that that the six worst MCU movies are from 2015 or earlier. I don’t think I have enough ability to put all this data together on one chart, and the fairly consistent placement of movies which span the entire gamut of the Infinity Saga (what a jerk!) in the top ten makes this a little harder to measure. I do wonder if it’s possible that critically, everyone just kind of got used to these MCU movies, or started to buy the hype about the interconnectedness of the stories. When you compare the cynical brand allegiance of a movie like Spider-Man: Homecoming against the relatively generous strains of Thor, on top of the fact that neither movie is buoyed by a particularly involving action sequence or good acting, I just wonder how else we can explain that gap. Thor has Jeremy Renner filming his scenes in the absence of anyone else from this cast; Homecoming won’t shut up about the presence of Tony Stark. Is it the patina of Iron Man or Civil War that makes Homecoming almost unanimously more interesting for critics and writers across these outlets? Given how many of these are written by people who you can either hear on the record as fans of these movies or can guess from the way they write about the pictures that they really enjoy them, I hardly think I’m making some kind of crazy observation.
- Not to pound the Spidey pictures any more, but I think there is a eensy-weensy bit of recency bias creeping into the Far from Home discourse. The second-smallest variance of any movie of these twenty-three outside the bottom two is setting off my Peter tingle.
- I can’t get over the numbers on Captain America: The First Avenger. I would not have guessed that this was a particularly polarizing movie, but that film has two first place finishes, via Collider and Polygon, and out of the other outlets only EW, Mashable, Screencrush, Thrillist, and Uproxx also have it in the single digits. It is not the movie with the greatest range, thanks to Slant placing Doctor Strange first and Collider placing Doctor Strange twenty-second, but it is probably the movie with the widest discrete camps pitting it against itself.
- For movies with sequels, the best average spot between them belongs to the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, which only outstrips the Captain America series by a smidge despite Cap having an extra movie for people to dislike. The Ant-Man movies are the least well-reviewed in conjunction, though it’s the Thor series that has the worst score for a three-parter. The Avengers movies and the Spider-Man movies have the same score, though Age of Ultron is clearly dragging down the numbers.
- What those last two thoughts are gearing up to is the way that the Spider-Man movies are kind of floating along; does No Way Home shoot up to like, third or fourth overall, even after the release of three other movies prior to it, and challenge the Guardians or Cap? Or does No Way Home get panned and sink the movie down to Iron Man territory? My personal prediction, given the surprisingly good press the two MCU Spider-Man movies have gotten, is that it’s much less interesting than either Iron Man sequel and gets praise many times greater.
One of the trends that I’ve been interested in is seeing what kind of MCU movies each kind of critic favors. The categories that I’m most interested in are what I refer to, with only a little levity, as “kickpunchers” and “woke and joke.” The best reviewed kickpuncher movie is Winter Soldier, in which the fighting and the implied thematic darkness are at a premium; the most kickpuncher movie is probably its sequel, Civil War, which has all the six-year-old spilling his action figures on the kitchen table and yelling FIGHT. “Woke and joke” is a broader category, but generally speaking these are movies which aim funnier but which also tend to center people of color, women, or socially conscious themes: Ragnarok is probably the best omnibus here, but Black Panther and Captain Marvel are kind of obvious. (In case you’re saying to yourself, “Well, I dunno about that, Captain Marvel is more of an origin story,” I hear you, and this data is really not all that different if you swap in Guardians 2 for Captain Marvel.) Anyway, I made another chart which I hope will give some sense of how each publication or online magazine generally positions itself. Once again, landscape is your friend on mobile:
I think this is fairly revealing! There are some publications here which definitely lean kickpuncher. Empire and Screenrant hit all four of the kickpuncher movies before getting to any woke and joke titles. Letterboxd squeezes three out of four into its top three, only leaving out Civil War. Gamesradar favors those movies without getting all the way wrapped up in them, it seems, and while Techradar puts most of this small sample into its top ten, only Black Panther checks in before the majority of the woke and joke movies. And then on the other side of things, Wired gets all four woke and jokes in before knocking out any of our kickpunchers. EW, Esquire, Independent, and Polygon all seem to be more in favor of the woke and joke, generally. There’s hardly a one-to-one correlation across the board or even within publications, given that just about everyone says that Black Panther, Guardians 1, and Winter Soldier are good, but I like this chart a lot anyway. I think it makes it much easier to see how these get grouped, and how the political or “apolitical” versions of the same list reveal themselves. It hasn’t been that long since Black Panther came out and became something of a referendum on Black culture and its presence in mainstream cinema, or since we had to deal with the “Just a Girl” discourse from Captain Marvel. By the same token, Winter Soldier and Civil War raise far more questions about why the world ought to tolerate the presence of superheroes or what comes with them than it provides answers for. As you can tell, I’m sort of skeptical about most of those movies, but given the choice it sure seems like I favor woke and joke.
Here’s another chart which is a lot less busy:
Where the red line is longer, I am lower on a movie; where it’s blue, consensus is lower on a movie. There are versions of this chart which make me look much stranger than I am, but I just want to point out that I am hardly immune to the power of “Black Panther, The Avengers, Iron Man, and Guardians 1 are all top-notch MCU movies.” This is also far and away the easiest chart to make out of anything I put together, and if you find yourself wondering about which movies are underrated or overrated, or which movies you’re a little out there on compared to other people, now it’s much easier to visualize.
The second thing I completed was much more personal. I made a poll. (I exhibited tremendous restraint and did not infect the poll results with a personal submission.) The respondents are not that far away from me by Internet standards; I solicited Facebook friends and acquaintances, and then got Facebook friends to solicit their own friends and acquaintances. Nor is it a huge poll—my final number of individual respondents comes in at seventy-seven—but it has a nice mixture of fans and non-fans, and there’s enough here that I think evinces some patterns about how people who are watching MCU movies tend to take that stuff in. (I just want to say that my poll group is about the same size as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and thus we’ll take about $50 million from NBC to air these every year. I’ll also guess that we are less racist, too!) Of those seventy-seven respondents, twenty-seven have seen all twenty-three movies, but seventeen have seen half of them or fewer. About as many people waited for these movies to hit streaming or don’t really care about them as rushed to the theater as soon as possible when they came out. And while just shy of half of my respondents said that most of these movies are solid to good, an opinion where my respondents and I start to diverge, this is also where I got a bunch of write-in opinions from people, most of them leaning more towards a mixed opinion. In short, we’ve got a bunch of opinions here, and I’ve enjoyed hearing from people who have given me a really surprising number of opinions on these movies. Even before I did my meta-analysis, I found from these folks that there are more ways to skin this cat than I would have guessed, from ranking movies on the usual metrics to ranking movies by how much you’d like to bed the handsome male protagonist. (I have multiple responses which highlight an appreciation Chris Evans from the front and the behind, and I do not judge any of them!)
The final two questions are the most important reasons, for me, why I opened up this poll. What are your top ten MCU movies generally (to be clicked off a list), and what are your top five specifically? I tracked every top ten mention each movie got, and made note of first-place honors too. I also awarded a movie some number of points for a top five mention: five points for first, one point for fifth, you can do the math from there. Here’s how it shook out, your phone isn’t in portrait mode, right:
Or, if you’d rather see how it looks when you see how many votes a film got in each slot, you can check out the chart below. (Because of about about ten idiosyncratic answers, there are not 1,155 points assigned, as you would guess if everyone had filled out the poll straight.)
The poll shook out with the following films in the top ten: Guardians 1, Ragnarok, Iron Man, Black Panther, Endgame, Avengers, Infinity War, Winter Soldier, Civil War, and Captain America.
- A quick reminder that my final results about the poll definitely make some movies look worse than others based on how many points they scared up. When a voter considers a baseball player for the Hall of Fame, very often a decision about that player comes down to peak versus longevity, or, in other words, how good this player was at his best versus how long he kept up his play. The greatest players, of course, had both. In giving points for 1-5 placements and nothing for 6-10, I have some slightly inelegant data, but I also wanted to reward movies for passion rather than comfort. The clear benefactor from this is Ragnarok, a movie which was sixth in total mentions but was second by a nose in points. Other movies where passion triumphed in significant ways include Iron Man (third in points, fifth in mentions), Iron Man 3 (fifteenth in points, nineteenth in mentions), and Captain Marvel (seventeenth in points, twenty-first in mentions.) On the flipside, movies like The Avengers (second in mentions by a good margin, but only sixth in points), Homecoming (eleventh in both, with as many points as mentions), and Guardians 2 (eighteenth in points, fourteenth in mentions) don’t seem to arouse the same fire in my poll group.
- My last place spot flips when you measure it this way, too. The Dark World apparently gets more passionate feelings than Ant-Man & the Wasp, which had almost three times as many mentions. You never can tell.
- You know how if you get twenty-three people into a room together, there’s a 50% chance you’ll get two people with the same birthday? And if you have seventy people in a room it’s a practical certainty that two people will? If you poll seventy-seven people, it sure seems like you’ll be able to find at least one person who will give any MCU movie their first- or second-place vote. Or at least that’s what happened to me!
- Avengers is an interesting case even beyond the question of where it ranks in points and mentions, because with nine first-place votes, it trails only Guardians 1 and is tied with Iron Man for second-most. I haven’t done the math on this down the line, but I’d be surprised if there were any other movie in the top ten that’s getting more than half its points from first-place votes.
- I love that bar for Guardians 1, because there is just one person I polled who has Guardians second. That’s Respondent 59, who is going to show up again later. Guardians got fifty of its 102 points for first place votes, and another thirty-nine from third-place votes, and just four from second-place.
- Black Panther did pretty well in the poll, fourth overall in points and mentions and fifth in first-place votes. However, the poll is definitely lower on Black Panther. My initial hypothesis was that this is a probably a statement about getting bigger fans into the data than we have elsewhere, and while I think that’s a relatively compelling hypothesis, a quick check through the data makes me think that’s not necessarily what’s happening. Three out of seven first-place votes for Black Panther came from people who have seen all twenty-three movies, and while no one who has seen all twenty-three has it second, the other three spots are pretty evenly split between normal fans/apathetic folks and superfans. All the same, seeing as this is the MCU movie with the most press in the movie world, it is interesting seeing people without criticbrain a little lower on it.
- Once again, the Spider-Man movies interest me as a zone of other people’s reactions, and they seem not to have really struck a chord with the viewers I’ve collected. They got fifty-six top ten mentions between them and managed only to get fifty-five total points. From this I wonder if a teensy bit of the positive reaction from critics in reference to Homecoming specifically is not just a “oh, thank God it’s not another Andrew Garfield movie.”
- On my own spreadsheet, I highlighted respondents who have seen all twenty-three movies. Some tasty tidbits from comparing the 0-22 club to the all-23 club…Ragnarok got eight first-place votes, but only one from someone who’d seen all twenty-three…Guardians 1 has something similar going on, with just two of its ten first-place votes coming from people who’d seen all of the movies…Endgame and Infinity War fare extremely well with people in the all-23 club, although I’m a little surprised that Winter Soldier has less of a full-throated response from that group…more than half of the responses for Captain Marvel which gave that movie points came from people who have seen all the movies…five out of eleven Ant-Man responses come from people who have seen all the movies, which is not a great big proportion, but I think that’s the movie outside the top 10 that all-23 folks would squeeze most often into a top five.
- I did do the math on the recency bias in this set of voters, and the averaged date for when their top movies come out is like, September 2014; by a happy coincidence, the MCU movie with a release date closest to that is Guardians 1, their top pick. (I did mine while I was here: January 2013, which, another happy coincidence, puts me closest to Iron Man 3.) Anyway, the critics appear to like the newer ones more than anyone else!
- Back to the poll. I asked people to provide a favorite MCU character if they wanted to shout someone out, and while I’ve not gone through and done the numbers on that, they shake out more or less like you’d expect: a lot of answers for Tony Stark and the Guardians. Some favorite unexpected answers include shoutouts for Shuri (good sister vibes), Korg (because he’s made of rocks), Thanos (because he was right), Ant-Man and Luis (because they’re funny! Respondent 59 strikes again!). But my absolute favorite response to this question is the one that said Hawkeye and led with “I know this is an unpopular opinion.” I think I was most surprised that people really liked Captain America for the ideological sternness and moral fiber, which I guess isn’t surprising—unless you’re that one respondent who highlighted your affection for his butt, I don’t know what else you’d be watching him for—but it definitely caught my attention.
Finally, here’s how the online poll stacks up against me stacks up against the critical consensus:
I think what’s incredible interesting about this chart is the way that the critical consensus and the online poll—again, a group of people primarily made up of fans and normies—are really not so far away from one another. The poll group doesn’t think Homecoming is a top ten movie, and the critics don’t think Captain America is a top ten movie, but other than that both groups agree! They even agree on the identity of four of the top five MCU movies, with the only exception of the critics favoring Winter Soldier and the poll group favoring Iron Man. I cannot think of a group of movies where there’s been more pushback from hardcore fans about “let’s make sure we call this art, huh.” And yet even though I don’t know that you’d be able to convince some of the critics writing up those lists that Black Panther is a movie on the same level as like, Touki Bouki, or that Iron Man is a better movie than Taxi Driver, there is certainly some common ground between what the blue check brigade and the hoi polloi think at least in terms of what goes where. (I want to reiterate that I know this is only seventy-seven people; I have an inkling that if I had ten times that number of respondents, the results wouldn’t budge that much.)
If you’d rather see it in a chart that I find more than a little funny (and where the little symbols are, in fact, meant to send pointed messages):
If you made it this far, bless you. I want to thank everyone who saw themselves in this post, whether you’re one of the people who filled out the poll for me or you’re like, Alfonso Duralde. I very sincerely mean it when I say I couldn’t have done it without you, especially if you’re someone who helped me wrangle other voters. I know that, again, for a fairly stupid thing to be interested in, this helped me clarify where people place these movies. At least now when I inevitably get into some argument about whether Doctor Strange is underrated, I can at least ask, “By critical or audience consensus?”