Marvel movies – ranked!

Avengers: Endgame wraps up Marvel's epic, industry-defining superhero saga. But where does it sit amidst the 22 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? We separate heroes from villains

The Incredible Hulk [2008]


Hitting cinemas just a month after Iron Man, this second attempt at bringing Marvel’s not-so-jolly green giant to the silver screen has mild-mannered Bruce Banner on the run from a military general who wants to use the scientist’s gamma-irradiated alter-ego to restart the ‘Super Soldier’ program. Ignoring Ang Lee’s experimental 2003 effort (Hulk), director Louis Leterrier’s generic superhero flick ramps up the action, but still can’t craft a better finale than having two CG monsters beating CG lumps out of each other in the dark. Its dramatic side is given a boost by a cast that includes Edward Norton, Tim Roth and William Hurt, but the most notable thing about The Incredible Hulk isn’t the film itself, it’s the Tony Stark post-credit scene that inaugurates the nascent Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Thor: The Dark World [2013]


‘The second one is meh,’ said leading man Chris Hemsworth of this standalone Thor outing last year, and it's hard to disagree. Failing to build on the charismatic performance given in the previous year’s Avengers Assemble, here the God of Thunder is relegated to being a dull straight-man trapped in a perfunctory relationship with Natalie Portman’s underused Jane Foster, while Christopher Ecclestone is completely wasted as the film’s criminally bland villain Malekith. One a more positive note, this is the film where Tom Hiddleston’s Loki starts moving away from out-and-out villain to far more enjoyable Machiavellian trickster, and the portal-packed finale brings a verve and creativity to the action that the rest of the movie is sorely lacking. But it's still a film that even Marvel die-hards might find a chore.

Iron Man 2 [2010]


Reuniting leading man Robert Downey, Jr. with Iron Man director Jon Favreau and taking elements from the acclaimed Demon in a Bottle comic book storyline, Marvel’s first sequel looked like a sure thing on paper. Yet it didn’t live up to fans' expectations. Struggling under the weight of too many ideas for any single movie to deal with – Tony’s struggle with alcohol; a Russian ex-con out for revenge on the Stark family; a rival weapons manufacturer; introducing War Machine; and seeding the wider world of the MCU (including the debut of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow) – Iron Man 2 lurches from scene to scene before culminating in a bland showdown against an army of faceless ‘robots’ (a failing that will soon raise its head again...). That said, Mickey Rourke’s performance is Nic Cage-level crazy brilliance and Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer is so deliciously slimy that he deserves an MCU comeback in the future.

Avengers: Age of Ultron [2015]


With only one Thor-shaped blip (see …Dark World), ‘Phase Two’ of the Marvel Cinematic Universe saw the franchise go from strength to strength... until this curious misfire. A second Avengers film with Joss Whedon returning as writer/director and featuring fan-favourite villain Ultron sounded enticing, yet studio politics intervened to the point that Whedon claimed conflicts with Marvel left him ‘beaten down by the process.’ The result is a movie that didn't live up to the immense hype, and for all the sharp dialogue and great character beats (the scene of Earth’s mightiest heroes hanging out, trying to lift Thor’s hammer is prime Whedon goodness), there’s a sense here of the franchise retreading old ground – the perfunctory final showdown with an army of Ultron clones being a fine example. A Thanos cameo and the introduction of Wanda Maximoff propel the series forward, though.

Thor [2011]


Sir Kenneth Branagh directing a superhero flick? As crazy as this sounds, you can see why Marvel Studios decided handing a tale of sibling rivalry in the royal court of an ancient race of God-like beings to the modern master of cinematic Shakespeare was a smart move. Oddly, though, the Asgardian material is where Thor is at its weakest, its cod-Shakespearean fantasy melodrama failing to hit the mark. The movie is far more successful in its more down-to-earth moments, mining plenty of enjoyable fish-out-of-water comedy from Thor bereft of his powers and having to learn humility. It also doesn’t hurt that Hemsworth is joined by a fun supporting cast, including Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings, and the character of Clint Barton (aka future Avenger Hawkeye) makes his screen debut in the film.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 [2017]


There’s something about this second instalment of the Guardians of the Galaxy series that feels a bit smug, but it’s not an insurmountable problem. James Gunn's script lays on some terrific set-pieces, opening with Baby Groot dancing to Mr. Blue Sky while the rest of the Guardians battle an inter-dimensional monster; Kurt Russell appears as the universe’s worst dad; and Michael Rooker yells ‘I’m Mary Poppins, y’all!’ – all guaranteed to put a smile on your face. And it’s a strikingly colourful film, too, which makes the HDR image on Disney's 4K Blu-ray (the studio's first UHD disc release) that much more spectacular.

Captain America: The First Avenger [2011]


The final stepping stone on the way to Avengers Assemble, Captain America: The First Avenger faced the challenge of taking the most US-centric of superheroes and making him relevant to audiences around the world. Director Joe Johnston’s cornily earnest flick largely succeeds in this task by dialling back the clock to Cap’s World War II comic book origins and pitting him against everybody’s favourite bad guys: Nazis. Johnston’s journeyman directorial sensibilities provide little in the way of visual flair, so the film’s real coup comes from the casting of Chris Evans in the title role, who brings real heart to the all-American hero. Hayley Atwell injects so much life into love interest Agent Carter it’s no wonder she got her own TV spin-off.

Doctor Strange [2016]


After lifting the lid on the cosmic side of the MCU in Phase Two’s Guardians of the Galaxy, for Phase Three Marvel Studios went magical, with Benedict Cumberbatch cast as the spell-chucking Doctor Strange. Unfortunately, despite the odd moment of visual inspiration – such as Stephen Strange’s first experience of astral projection and some Inception-inspired folding cityscapes – director Scott Derrickson’s film is formulaic in how it adheres to the superhero origin story template (and Strange’s character arc follows most of the same beats as Tony Stark’s, only ending up in a magic cape rather than a suit of armour). What elevates Doctor Strange above others on this list, however, is its audacious finale that upends MCU tradition by focusing on restoring rather than destroying, before climaxing with a thrilling battle of wits rather than firepower.

Ant Man & The Wasp [2018]


Arriving shortly after Avengers: Infinity War, this follow-up to Ant-Man was the perfect reminder that not all superhero films need to feature world-ending threats. Befitting the tiny stature of its heroes, Ant-Man and the Wasp deals with deliberately small-scale villainy from both a black-market tech dealer (Walton Goggins) and a ‘ghostly’ thief (Ava Starr) and – as with the original – has great fun playing with scale through its size-changing set-pieces (particularly impressive in its 3D incarnation). A jolly, high-energy piece of popcorn cinema, with some of the best VFX in the entire MCU pantheon.

Captain Marvel [2018]


It took 21 films and a little over a decade, but Marvel Studios eventually let one of its many comic book heroines take centre stage in Captain Marvel this year. Co-writers/co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck delivered a rollicking celebration of ‘grrl power’ centred around a star turn from Brie Larson as a woman trying to discover who she really is. The biggest surprise, however, was the decision to turn the story into a buddy movie, with Larson’s Carol Danvers and Samuel L. Jackson’s (digitally de-aged) Nick Fury hitting the road together. But the appalling editing that hampers several of the film’s action scenes takes some of the shine off.

Iron Man 3 [2013]


Perhaps the most contentious film in the entire MCU, Iron Man 3 alienated a legion of comic book fans who couldn’t handle changes made to legendary super villain The Mandarin (played here – kinda – by Ben Kingsley), moving the character away from his ‘yellow peril’ origins towards more contemporary fears about Middle Eastern terrorism, and subverting that concept as the story progresses. But if you can get on board with this tweak, Iron Man 3 has plenty to enjoy. The smart script by Shane Black (who also directs) and Drew Pearce leavens a particularly dark plot that strips Tony Stark of all his toys and friends (as well as making him confront his post-Avengers Assemble PTSD) with some laugh-out-loud zingers – and while lighter on superhero action than other MCU entries, it still pays off with a suitably spectacular finale that manages to reverse the whole ‘drone’ setup of its predecessor’s climax to impressive effect.

Ant-Man [2015]


Another title that led to wailing and gnashing of teeth amongst some Marvel fans, this time when director Edgar Wright jumped ship from Ant-Man due to ‘creative differences.’ Yet as The World’s End proved, Edgar Wright isn’t exactly infallible. Nor did his departure really matter, as the Ant-Man movie we ended up with (with Peyton Reed behind the camera) is an absolute blast. Comic actor Paul Rudd is well cast as good-hearted-thief-turned-superhero Scott Lang, demonstrating solid action chops alongside the expected goofy sense of humour, and the backup cast (including Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas and Michael Pena) is equally strong. The real highlights, however, are Ant-Man’s miniaturised set-pieces. Given the MCU films’ frequent problem with escalating threats to the point of abstraction, how can you not love one that climaxes with its hero and villain (Yellowjacket) fighting atop a toy train set?

Spider-Man Homecoming [2017]


Spider-Man is one of Marvel’s most recognisable heroes, but since the mid-‘80s its movie licence has resided in the hands of Sony Pictures, stopping Marvel Studios from actually using the character. Resolution arrived in 2015 when Marvel and Sony signed a deal to share film rights – first with an appearance in Captain America: Civil War and then his own solo jaunt. Did we really need another Spidey movie? Yes. Taking Peter Parker (played by Tom Holland) back to high school resulted in a fresh and funny flick, and Michael Keaton’s blue collar Vulture is one of the MCU’s more interesting villains. Top-tier action (the Staten Island Ferry scene being a standout) and a cameo from Iron Man ensures this reboot spins a web any size, catching fans just like flies…

Iron Man [2008]


Returning to Iron Man today – the film that started it all – it’s startling to note what an assured piece of cinema it is. It doesn’t rewrite the rulebook when it comes to origin movies, but the combination of Jon Favreau’s solid direction and – especially – Robert Downey, Jr.’s performance as billionaire playboy-turned-superhero Tony Stark make the otherwise familiar character beats feel completely re-energised. And the success of Iron Man goes much deeper than this; it comes from the confidence of the storytelling and the swagger with which the film has been put together (right from the pitch-perfect use of AC/DC’s Back in Black over the opening scene). It's both the ground zero for a shared cinematic universe and – more impressively – a brilliant self-contained, standalone story (okay, the fairly rote final scrap with Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane is a bit of a letdown...).

Avengers: Infinity War [2018]


After years of patiently building up Thanos (Josh Brolin) as the ultimate baddie of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this third Avengers teamup finally brought him to the fore. It also fused together a lengthy list of characters – not just the Avengers, but the Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, Black Panther, the Winter Soldier, Doctor Strange, and various associates (only Ant-Man and chums were absent). Probably, it could have been a mess, but in the hands of co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo, Avengers: Infinity War was everything fans could want from an epic two-and-a-half-hour crossover and a whole lot more besides. Unexpected character pairings? Check. Spectacular action sequences? Check. One of the most soul-crushing finales in modern blockbuster cinema? Check. It's the movie that proves Marvel knows how to handle a 'shared universe', while other studios flounder.

Thor: Ragnarok [2017]


With 22 movies to craft in 11 years, Marvel has had to cast its net far and wide in pursuit of directing talent. For Thor: Ragnarok it snaffled New Zealand director Taika Waititi (known for the humour-laced What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople), a decision that saw the film lean in to its leading man's comedic sensibilities, resulting in something far more playful and self-deprecating than previous Thor flicks. Understanding the character works better with others than as a solo act, Ragnarok also has the sense to team him with another over-the-top hero, Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk (‘He’s a friend from work!’), and brings Tom Hiddleston’s duplicitous Loki along for the ride, too. And before you think it’s all about the laughs, Thor: Ragnarok doesn't forget that spectacularly staged action set-pieces are the franchise's bread and butter – they're just not usually accompanied by Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song.

Captain America: Civil War [2016]


An Avengers movie in all but name, …Civil War pays off years of character development for Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Tony Stark (Iron Man), as the former colleagues find themselves on opposing sides of an ideological argument as the UN seeks to introduce political oversight for superheroes. A guilt-wracked Stark supports the proposal; Rogers sees it as handing too much power to government. All of which is preamble for the ultimate superhero battle, as Team Cap and Team Iron Man (including MCU debutants Black Panther and Spider-Man) come to blows at an airport, each character getting the chance to shine in the closest cinema has ever come to replicating a series of comic book splash-panels. And following that, we're treated to a final emotionally charged showdown between Rogers, Stark and the Winter Soldier, after which none of them will be the same again…

Avengers: Endgame [2019]


The end of the ‘Infinity Saga’ is more than just the capstone to a massive storyline, it’s also a celebration of a generation of superhero cinema, and one that constantly confounds expectations. It's a towering achievement, despite some very minor niggles. The film’s first hour is completely bereft of action, dealing with how the surviving members of Earth’s mightiest heroes are adjusting to life post-‘snap’ – these sort of downtime character moments have always been one of the MCU’s biggest strengths, so this is no bad thing. For the second hour …Endgame transforms into a knockabout heist flick, as various teams of heroes pursue magical MacGuffins and, in the process, reflect on the changes they've undergone. Then comes the expected big-budget blow-up, which is wholly satisfying as the forces of good and evil face off one last time. It's the end of an era – but what a remarkable end it is.

Black Panther [2018]


Much has been made of Black Panther’s box office success and its appeal to black audiences, and with good reason. But there's more to it than just providing the likes of Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong'o with headline roles; the film is also a spectacular piece of world-building, one that leaves the grey urban environments that dominate so much of the MCU and embraces the Afrofuturism concept to create something vibrant and unique. And then there’s Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens (Jordan). Traditionally, the MCU has had a bit of a villain problem, but the complex and sympathetic Killmonger completely turned that around, giving us a character who could well have been the hero in any other story (and undoubtedly is, in his own). It’s just a shame some dodgy VFX is a distraction during Black Panther’s otherwise enjoyable action scenes, such as the Busan car chase and the final battle for Wakanda.

Guardians of the Galaxy [2014]


Having introduced cinemagoers to the various superheroes that make up the Avengers, by the mid-point of ‘Phase Two’ of the MCU, Marvel Studios was feeling brave enough to venture a little off-piste. Comprised of a cocky Earthling (Chris Pratt), a deadly assassin (Zoe Saldana), a literal-minded muscleman (Dave Bautista), an anthropomorphic racoon bounty hunter (Bradley Cooper), and a walking tree capable of only saying ‘Groot’ (Vin Diesel), the Guardians of the Galaxy are the ultimate space misfits – but they’re so richly drawn and perfectly performed that you buy into them. Credit too to co-writer/director James Gunn, who successfully made the jump from low-budget schlock to mega-budget blockbuster, without losing any of the wild creativity and imagination necessary for the former. The pop-tastic soundtrack is the icing on a very tasty cake.

Avengers Assemble [2012]


The original Avengers movie is still the best. Writer-director Joss Whedon was tapped to pull off Marvel's first genuine ensemble piece, and give fans their first taste of what the MCU was really all about. We got a smart, funny and action-packed flick that found logical reasons to bring the series' established superheroes (Iron Man, Captain America and Thor) together alongside newcomers Black Widow, Hawkeye and the Hulk, and still find time to give each of them an effective character arc. Yes, it culminates with the expected extended action sequence (the destruction-heavy Battle of New York), but it's packed with individual mini-moments that'll make the hairs on your neck stand up. In fact, the only negative we can think about the entire movie is Captain America’s horrid redesigned suit.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier [2014]


From Guardians of the Galaxy to Thor: Ragnarok, Marvel's best movies are ones that try to do something a little different with the genre. Enter 2014's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which harks back to the political thrillers of the 1970s (right down to casting Robert Redford in a key role), albeit viewed through the spectrum of a franchise action blockbuster. Chris Evans (Captain America) and Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) sink their teeth into the meatier material, bringing gravitas and depth to what are, after all, comic book superheroes. Meanwhile, franchise newcomers Anthony and Joe Russo direct it all with unexpected skill and aplomb – no wonder they immediately became Marvel’s go-to directors for its Avengers movies. Better yet, from Cap’s smartly choreographed brawl with Batroc to the elevator scrap and Heat-inspired street shootout, Captain America: The Winter Soldier delivers the best practical fight scenes anywhere in the MCU. Top that! This article first appeared in HCC #303, in September.