After ten years, eighteen movies, countless stupid fan theories, and oft forgettable villains, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will culminate on April 27 with Avengers: Infinity War.
We here at The Alabama Take are big fans and take this stuff seriously. So seriously, in fact, that we’ve ranked, quite definitely of course, each movie in the MCU. One thing that we all agreed upon is that there aren’t any bad MCU films (only Thor: The Dark World dips to a 66% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), but that some are just better than others.
And to celebrate the excitement of the upcoming Infinity War, we kick off our Marvel Week with The Alabama Take’s ranking of the MCU feature films.
Here we go!
- Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Poor Thor: The Dark World. It’s really not a bad movie, it’s just a little paint-by-number, especially in consideration of its predecessor in the franchise. The oft-heard complaint critics and fans alike say about the MCU films is the characterization (or lack thereof) of the villains, which is partly where The Dark World also struggles. As The Alabama Take writer T.D. Wood explains, the movie lands in the “Tier 4” category for him — aptly subtitled “Woof” — which he describes as “forgettable.” It’s not thoroughly disliked, though. Louisa Murray justifies the movie by pointing out that “[i]t’s not Christopher Eccleston’s fault! Marvel still hasn’t figured out how to properly write villains. CHRISTOPHER ECCLESTON FOREVER.” Go back to this one. It’s a lower-end Marvel film, but it sure beats some other forms of entertainment out there. (Ahem, DCEU.)
- The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Released just over a month after the original Iron Man, did The Incredible Hulk stand a chance? At times standard superhero fare, but other than that, what is it about The Incredible Hulk that causes it to fall to the bottom of many fans’ lists? It could be that the recasting Bruce Banner hindered how everyone views it in the pantheon of MCU, but overall it just seems to lay flat on the screen. I’ve personally watched this almost as much as any other MCU film, and I love it. It’s not shooting for any higher goal than to entertain. Louisa Murray disagrees, saying, “This movie is so bad. I would never have believed the franchise would do this well with this as [an early] film.” Oh well. One thing is certain: the movies in the Marvel Universe did improve overall.
- Doctor Strange (2016)
I was surprised to find that Dr. Strange landed toward the bottom of our list. It’s visual effects alone — a beautiful reminder of the Jack Kirby era at Marvel Comics — dazzles without being overbearing CGI. But at this point, most of us saw Dr. Strange as too similar of an origin story to Iron Man. It seems to be one of the movies, as T.D. Wood puts it, “[That] just kind of exist, either to setup another film, build a backstory or whatever.” Kelly Duncan more precisely pleads, “Sorry Benny! I still love you, boo.”
- Iron Man 3 (2013)
Iron Man 3 was a brave choice by director Shane Black (The Nice Guys, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and writer Drew Pearce (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation): put Tony Stark in harm’s way without the use of his Iron Man suit. It worked! What doesn’t work and seems almost unforgivable to many Marvel fans is the misuse of an excellent antagonist Mandarin and in turn misusing an excellent actor Ben Kingsley. The Ten Rings plot is still ripe for return in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here’s hoping they rectify that mistake, which Marvel Studio head Kevin Feige said that they’ve considered doing. Fingers crossed!
- Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Age of Ultron landing on the low-end of the list also came as a surprise. The stakes in this one seemed more heightened (an Avenger actually dies!), the additional characters (Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, Vision, Ultron) gave comic fans more of their wishes come to life, and that big Iron Man vs. Hulk battle in the middle act should have propelled this one to the top of the list. But with eighteen films in tow, some have to fill out the bottom half of the rankings. T.D. Wood puts Age of Ultron in the Tier 3 of the MCU: “not a complete waste of time,” but adding that “the rewatchability is low.” Maybe that’s it. And as Louisa Murray pointedly writes: “I’d like to complain about the terrible casting of Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, so here I am saying it.” But that opening raid on one of the last Hydra bases, though!
- Thor (2011)
There’s a lot going on beyond Earth — excuse me, Midgard — which viewers begin to piece together in the first Thor installment. It’s got its mix of Shakespearean father and son discord over the throne, the gods and their wars for the Nine Realms, and, most importantly, the introduction of Loki, Marvel’s most realized, if not not most used, villain to date. (Or as Kelly Duncan puts it: He’s “the guy your mama says don’t date and ultimately costs you thousands of dollars and hours in therapy.”) Thor does a good job of balancing the arrogance of Chris Hemsworth’s protagonist with his goofy, fish-out-of-water travels to Midgard. It’s heavy on the CGI to create Asgard and doesn’t find enough for Jane (Natalie Portman) to do, but it’s a fine introduction to a new realm of the Marvel Universe.
- Ant-Man (2015)
Marvel starts to dig deeper with some of its more tertiary characters with Ant-Man’s first feature. They score big by getting Paul Rudd to play the titular shrinking man and by making this another genre movie: in this case, a heist film. T.D. Wood puts the movie in Tier 2 of Marvel movies, noting that Ant-Man is “what blockbusters should be: fun-filled action, good comedy, a solid enough script to keep you hooked.” It lands in the middle of our list because of what writer Louisa Murray asks: “Why Ant-Man? There are so many other better Marvel characters to take to the screen. But Paul Rudd, I still care deeply for you”; as Kelly Duncan points out, “Paul Rudd needs more dry humor.”
- Iron Man 2 (2010)
It seemed like everyone was ready for Iron Man 2 upon its release. After the huge success of the first installment, it’s a reasonable assertion that the second one was a bit of a let down, perhaps due to packing as much in as possible: it’s the first time to see Black Widow; not one, but two primary villains; the health of Tony Stark; more Nick Fury screen time. The film does balance most of it well enough. Ivan Vanko, to me, was a good antagonist thanks to Mickey Rourke and his crazy eyes. And who can argue with Kelly Duncan’s take on Robert Downey, Jr.: “Sassy and smart. Is there a better combination?”
- Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
What undoubtedly hurt this smart movie was the fact that this was the third iteration of Spider-Man that fans had seen in a few short years. But Michael Keaton as the Vulture? Here’s to a lot more of bad guys with clear, empathetic motives! Keaton brought a specific sinister sneer to the role that paired well with Tom Holland as the new webslinger. But, do we really need a Ned for Peter Parker? That decision, along with two possible love interests for Peter, felt shoehorned to try to achieve that John Hughes feel that Jon Watts wanted. Louisa Murray feels even stronger than that, labeling it as flat-out “boring.”
- Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
The First Avenger feels different from the rest of the MCU because it’s partly a period piece in a superhero sort of way. There’s a big heart to this movie, namely Steve Rogers, who goes from the skinny, beat-up kid to America’s first superhero. The rewatchability is pretty high with this one, especially since many of the threads with Hydra, Bucky, and Cap pick up in later movies and pay off in spades. T.D. Wood notes that any “missteps are minor enough to not take anything away from my enjoyment of the film.” Good point.
- Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2017)
The first word most say when it comes to the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise? Fun. These films really shouldn’t have worked. It’s a rag-tag list of Marvel characters whom few seemed to know going into the movie; until Infinity War, the Guardians didn’t have anything to do with any of the previous movies; they featured a talking raccoon and a talking tree. But throw in Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Kurt Russell, and James Gunn as the writer and director? It’s a wonderful ride. All that, and there’s Baby Groot!
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
So much in this one pays dividends yet stands perfectly on its own. It’s full of espionage thrills, action pieces, and, of course, superhero antics. Cap’s opening raid on a ship? Both electrifying and well shot. Nick Fury’s scene in his SUV being chased by police? Heart pounding. Steve Rogers alone in an elevator with enemies moments before he deduces they’re out to get him? Exhilarating. The movie gets a lot of extra credit, too, for permanently changing the course of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D for the better and making it a wonderful sidebar to the movies. There may not be a better paced movie in Marvel stable.
- Captain America: Civil War (2016)
If there’s one scene that the fanboy in me cannot stop watching from the entire MCU, it’s when the entire collection of good guys fight one another in a bare airport runway as the centerpiece of Civil War. By sidestepping some bland villain issues Marvel has encountered in the past (the movie largely dismisses villains for the majority of the movie) and pitting the heroes toe to toe, the Russo Brothers who wrote and directed it raise the stakes like no other on this list. That airport fight is both well filmed and well balanced. Amazingly, no one feels short changed as each character gets more than his or her own beats. But that scene isn’t the whole movie, of course. From start to finish, this movie is stellar. It’s a realistic idea that superheroes would destroy cities at a time, so who’s to blame and who’s to pay and what should be done going forward? The question that’s well handled from both sides. To this day, I still can’t decide if I’m Team Cap or Team Iron Man.
- Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Give cursory information about where Thor’s been, put him in action, make it fun, and crack some jokes. Who would’ve guessed? There’s more to the formula than that (if you can call it formulaic), but we at The Alabama Take loved Thor: Ragnarok. Cate Blanchett is more memorable — and more evil — than most baddies and, as Thor and Loki’s evil long-lost sister, she is having a blast in this one. For good reason: director Taika Waititi frees Thor and the gang of those stiff restraints of the earlier films in the franchise by trapping Thor on a trash planet and having him try to get back to his home before anything bad happens. (Spoiler alert: a bad thing happens.) Also, Jeff Goldblum! Plus, the Hulk talks! And, Thor and Hulk fight gladiator-style! Oh, and Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie! This one has it all! Including a wild, vintage sci-fi feel that hooked contributor Louisa Murray: “I was IN TO IT.”
- Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
Seeing that first batch of Avengers come together on that New York City street while the Loki-led aliens pour out of that giant hole in the sky still gives me chills. It is still an adventure to see Captain America order the troops into battle, each with specific details, only to look at Hulk and tell him to “smash.” After seeing most of these characters separate over the course of five previous films, this is pure joy. Having each character develop his or her personal story before bringing them in as a team had to feel like a gamble at first. Now it just seems logical. From the opening scene where we’re told that the Tesseract has awakened to the final shot of the Avengers getting around to the hard-won quiet of enjoying sharma is damn near movie-going perfection. The rewatchability of this one is astronomical (pun intended). Oh, and you know what else? It’s our first glimpse at Thanos, thank you very much.
- Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
The original Guardians of the Galaxy was the first Marvel film that I actually considered skipping in the theater when I first heard of its production. But then I saw the first trailer. I thought that I might be wrong. Then I read the first trickling of reviews and really thought I could be wrong. Then I went to the theater to see it. I was wrong. It was great. Seeing Star-Lord, Rocket, Groot, Gamora, and Drax come together as a substitute family came with no expectations that previous Marvel films had. To this point, it was the funniest, most offbeat, and most irreverent of the MCU movies, even though none of the lack humor. The perfection of the movie is in the cast. None of them steal the show from the other: Chris Pratt as Star-Lord is just as intriguing and fun to watch as Dave Bautista is as Drax, and as a wrestling fan, that’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. Writer T.D. Wood claims Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the “undeniable classics of the MCU” and author Louisa Murray backs that up, ranking them high and adding that the Guardians franchise films “are peak Marvel.”
- Black Panther (2018)
It’s a good idea that Marvel seems to be shifting some of its focus to Wakanda: it’s resident hero, T’Challa, nearly stole the show of Civil War. But then the powers that be — notably the wunderkind Ryan Coogler — almost made the Black Panther a secondary character in his own movie while pushing brilliant female characters like T’Challa’s sister Shuri, his bodyguard Okoye, and his on-again-off-again love interest Nakia into the spotlight. It was a move that paid dividends. Nothing proved as excellent, though, as truly creating a lasting villain, the best since Loki himself. Many crowds didn’t know whether to root for Black Panther or Erik Killmonger. Why does the character work so well? Kelly Duncan succinctly summarizes: “Michael B…..duh.” All of the pieces fit and no scenes were wasted, though I’m not so sure I would’ve killed off Klaue so soon. This is a in-depth look at a brand-new culture for the Marvel Universe and we are all ready to see more. #WakandaForever
- Iron Man (2008)
You can’t overstate how big Iron Man is as both a movie and as a character in the MCU. Had this movie flopped, that would’ve been it. No Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s been reported time and again how Marvel took a chance on Robert Downey, Jr. during a period when he wasn’t getting a lot of high profile roles. Both fans and critics alike appreciated the risk. Try to think of Tony Stark without imagining Downey. They were also taking a risk on Iron Man. This wasn’t the more popular Spider-Man or X-Men.
I remember seeing a picture of the Iron Man suit in a magazine several months before the movie released and thinking, “Wow! That looks cool!” And it was. But it wasn’t just the suit. Jeff Bridges, playing against type as Obadiah Stone, was a perfect menacing presence. Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts held her ground with Downey in each scene and felt more than just a love interest. Even Terrence Howard, who was eventually replaced by Don Cheadle in subsequent films, fit well. The story, the pacing, the suits, the swagger, the ending (“I am Iron Man”), the action: nothing was done half-heartedly and every beat of it was joyful. Only a few of the MCU movies have a rewatchability factor as high as Iron Man for all these reasons and more.
I remember finding out a day or two later that Iron Man had an post-credits scene and I was both shocked and crushed because I had no idea to stay until the very end. I rectified that a few days later by seeing it again. Then a few weeks later, I saw it again. I think I’ve seen it a total of ten times or more. With each viewing, I was engaged.
Long live Iron Man. Robert Downey, Jr. deserves all the thanks and praise, but so does the rest of the film’s team for kick-starting such an amazing ten years.
(Also noteworthy: Iron Man hit theaters two months before The Dark Knight. It’s hard to think of the two being released not just in the same year but so close together.)
Contributors to the rankings include: Kelly Duncan, Corey Hannah, Jaimee Hannah, Natalie Morrow, Louisa Murray, and T.D. Wood. To see our individual ballots, click here.