Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Written pre-‘Infinity War’)

Considering that “Avengers: Infinity War” is not only the 10th anniversary of the Marvel Studios Cinematic Universe, but could change the series’ landscape going forward, now seems like a good time to do a full retrospective on the franchise and rank all of the movies that have been released since 2008. Now, keep in mind for this section, the films are ranked relatively. I didn’t find any of these films hard to sit through, just not as enjoyable as others.

18. Thor: The Dark World (2013)

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Chris Hemsworth as Thor in “Thor: The Dark World.”

After a decade and nearly 20 films, “Thor: The Dark World” remains the worst Marvel film. Was it the worst movie that year? No. But, so much of it was average and forgettable.

This was mainly because of the supporting characters. Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgard are wasted here in lame comic-relief roles. Thor’s friends, known as the Warriors Three, meanwhile, have little in terms of character depth when compared to side characters like James Rhodes from the “Iron Man” series. The weakest character, though, was Malekith, the film’s villain. The character was so stock and Christopher Eccleston offered nothing to enhance the villain’s screen presence.

The three leads in the film, Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman and Tom Hiddleston were fine, and there was a neat climactic battle that utilized traveling through portals to make things unique. However, the writing and many of the characters just didn’t work.

17. Thor (2011)

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Chris Hemsworth as Thor in “Thor”

I was quite underwhelmed with the original “Thor” film. The first thing I noticed about it was how it felt somewhat small in scale. The first two “Iron Man” films and “The Incredible Hulk,” had a few different locations, whereas this took place in just a small, random town. I get what it was going for, having Thor learn to be a bit more humble in small town, but I do feel like Thor could have been more epic by taking place in some other locations, which could have raised the stakes.

The film also had a poor introduction to the Warriors Three, offering them very little personality besides archetypes and the romance between Thor and Jane was never quite believable. Plus, Thor’s story of becoming more humble seemed a bit rushed. Everything here seemed shallow.

16. Iron Man 2 (2010)

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Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in “Iron Man 2.”

Oh, “Iron Man 2.” The hype on this picture was incredible, it was the first sequel in the Marvel universe, the secret agency SHIELD would be more prominently featured, it could be a game changer. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

The simple fact is that “Iron Man 2” bit off way more than it was able to chew. It wanted to cover Tony Stark’s arc reactor affecting his health, but it didn’t have enough time to dig into the issue. The same could be said about Stark’s alcoholism, SHIELD’s plan for the Avengers and corporate espionage with the character Justin Hammer.

This sequel tries to juggle all of these, but it’s apparent that it’s too much. With that said, there’s still enough to push it over the “Thor” pictures. For example, talented performers are brought back with Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow. Plus, new great actors and actresses are featured, including Don Cheadle, Mickey Rourke, Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell.

15. Iron Man 3 (2013)

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Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in “Iron Man 3.”

It’s the biggest deal maker or breaker in the film so let’s just get it out of the way. So, spoilers for this part. The Mandarin twist, in my opinion, doesn’t work. Not only does it ruin what could have been a great villain in Ben Kingsley, it also completely wastes the opportunity for a great opponent for Iron Man to fight. The actual Mandarin from the comics is supposed to have 10 rings with magic powers. That would be perfect, magic vs Iron Man’s tech, a new issue to overcome.

But nope, instead the Mandarin turns out to be an actor, pretending to be a terrorist, all because Aldrich Killian (played by Guy Pearce) is upset that Tony Stark forgot to listen to his science presentation, a la Edward Nygma from “Batman Forever.” The film also has maybe the biggest plot hole, as Iron Man dares a terrorist to attack his house, but doesn’t send out his army of suits to protect his home, or call an Avenger.

Plus, the movie seems to slow way down when Tony meets a young kid who has to help him repair his suit.

Downey Jr., Paltrow and Cheadle are all fine, and the special effects are especially impressive. I remember in my initial review giving credit to how well the final battle sequence looks, showing off all the moving parts in Tony’s suits. There are good things here, and as a whole, it’s better than “Iron Man 2,” but only just so.

14. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

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A team of superheroes, the Avengers, unite for their second film, “Age of Ultron.”

Things start off well enough in “Age of Ultron.” The opening battle does a good job in showing that the team is now well organized and quite competent in their operation. The same can be said where they’re interacting at a party.

However, the film starts to struggle as the story becomes unfocused and convoluted. This is because on top of its main tale it’s trying to tell, the movie also has to make room to introduce Skarlet Witch and QuickSilver, showcase how Vision is created and follow Thor’s sidequest in investigating the Infinity Stones.

Additionally, I felt the stakes were a bit low here, and that may have been because the humor was kept up in a lot of scenes, even with the more serious moments. When the Hulk is fighting Iron Man in the Hulkbuster suit, Tony Stark spends a bunch of time making jokes, despite their being potential casualties all around. The same can be said about the villain Ultron himself. I thought James Spader did a fantastic job with the voice, but they made him joke around too much. I don’t mind some comedy, but this over did it.

Still, the film did have some entertaining moments, and the picture is benefited by the chemistry of the team.

13. Ant-Man (2015)

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Paul Rudd as Scott Lang in “Ant-Man.”

So, for “Age of Ultron,” I wanted the comedy a bit dialed back. However, here in “Ant-Man,” it worked. This was a very self aware movie, the filmmakers knew the premise was a bit silly, and decided to run with that.

This is accomplished both with a fun cast of characters and some great moments of using unconventional battlefields (such as a miniature train track), which really pushes the entertainment value. The movie also works by incorporating a heist concept.

Some of the detriments, though, is an underdeveloped, shallow villain and a rushed romance.

12. Doctor Strange (2016)

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Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange in “Doctor Strange.”

I’m going to get the negative out of the way first. “Doctor Strange” is a bit rushed. It felt like Strange went from being a rich doctor, to being depressed because of his injuries to learning mystical arts, very fast. The first act just was a bit too quick for my liking and the movie also had very noticeable similarities to the first “Iron Man.”

With that said, once the pace starts slowing down a bit in the second half, things improve, and watching the protagonist develop is compelling. The film really catches its stride in having Cumberbatch being perfectly cast as Strange as well as giving an audience a visually amazing experience.

Plus, the film has one of the best climaxes in any Marvel Studio film. Instead of going with a typical action filled sequence, the movie has Strange come up with an interesting concept to defeat the big bad without throwing a punch.

11. Captain America: Civil War (2016)

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Captain America battles Iron Man in “Captain America: Civil War.”

There are a lot of things I like about “Captain America: Civil War,” especially the last half hour. There’s a great moment of dialogue between Black Panther and the film’s main villain, as well as an emotionally wrenching fight between two heroes you’ve come to really enjoy watching.

The film also deals with some important themes, such as how much control should be given to the Avengers, considering they’re basically an independent military force, as well as how far can loyalty and friendship go in extreme situations.

The film, however, hit some snags. The second act, for example, gets bogged down with some side-quests. This is most noticeable with Tony Stark recruiting Spider-Man. Now, as a character, the film got Peter Parker and his alter ego completely right. However, considering how many powerful characters Iron Man had on his “side” cough Vision cough, bringing in Spider-Man to help confront Captain America didn’t seem necessary.

Plus, there’s the fact that much of the main antagonist’s master plan was based on a lot of coincidences happening. If they don’t happen, the Avengers probably wouldn’t go to fight each other like they do. And that’s another thing, the only time this felt like a real conflict was at the end. During the big fight at the airport, it seemed like a light scrimmage, especially with so many characters having quips and one-liners. Not only did it make it feel like the stakes were low, but it was also incredibly jarring when War Machine was injured.

10. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

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Chris Evans as Steve Rogers in “Captain America: The First Avenger.”

Here we go with the top 10 and rounding the list is Cap! The first outing for Steve Rogers was also the first film that showed how Marvel Studios could change the formula for superhero pictures. The film did this by mixing a superhero origin story with a World War II epic. In doing so, the film was able to create its own charm, incorporating elements of a war movie while still having its other worldly, sci-fi pieces.

Rogers was also handled very well as a character. The movie was able to make Captain America, who at first glance seems like a simple, overly patriotic hero, into a developed character who’s a bit more complex than one might think. It’s a great balance the character has here, where Cap acknowledges the symbolism he carries with his uniform and shield, while still being completely selfless with a tight focus on finishing the mission at hand. He wears the stars and stripes, but there’s more to him than that.

Making this work is a solid performance from Chris Evans, who convincingly plays Rogers as a noble man with an iron will. The film also wisely had Tommy Lee Jones as the military commander in the movie, which really added to the film’s war feel.

9. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

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Edward Norton as Dr. Bruce Banner in “The Incredible Hulk.”

This film is notoriously underrated. Now, I think that Mark Ruffalo has made a better Bruce Banner than Edward Norton and the CGI in the film doesn’t look as good in today’s standards. However, that’s really the only criticism I can find.

Plus, while I think Ruffalo is better, it’s only by a thin margin. Norton was great here as the troubled Dr. Banner, who’s trying to get his life under control while dealing with the danger of the Hulk. Norton’s acting is spot on, as he portrays Banner using his scientific methods to see if he can prevent becoming the Hulk while also learning meditation to prevent the Hulk from appearing. There’s a significant amount of desperation that Norton gives the character, but at the same time he still has very human, relatable moments.

It was also a good move here to not have this be an origin story, either. After a brief montage at the start showing how Banner received the Hulk powers, the film picks up a while later. This was especially important as this came out just about a month after the 2008 “Iron Man.” It showed how the Marvel Cinematic Universe can be diverse in its presentation.

Instead of an origin story, this is more of a fugitive, man-on-the-run type action film, making the pace feel very quick as the protagonist can’t stay in one place for too long. Things are still capped off with a great battle scene, though, where Banner becomes the Hulk and battles the film’s primary antagonist. It’s a great fight, highlighted by the Hulk ripping apart a police car and using the two halves as boxing gloves.

The film’s cast is also well rounded with Liv Tyler, Tim Roth and William Hurt.

8. Spider-Man Homecoming (2017)

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Tom Holland as Peter Parker in “Spider-Man Homecoming.”

After a “Spider-Man” trilogy in the early 2000s and a failed reboot movie series that bit off more than it could chew, it seemed rather surprising that that the powers that be would attempt another one. However, thanks to this Spider-Man being in the Marvel universe, it was able to set itself apart from its predecessors.

It also distanced itself as it managed to be a funny high school, coming of age comedy while also being a crime fighting flick. The film managed to capture teen life really well, with natural dialogue that made Peter Parker’s life compelling to follow, especially considering he’s dealing with his alter ego’s life as Spider-Man.

This was thanks to a solid performance from Tom Holland, who was perfect in the role, especially as he portrays Spider-Man’s growth as a hero. The cast is also well rounded with a stellar performance from Michael Keaton and good support from Robert Downey Jr. and Marisa Tomei.

7. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

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The mercenary team, Guardians of the Galaxy, join with new allies in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.”

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” has a lot going on, in fact it pushes the run time to two hours and 16 minutes. However, this movie still really works, and one of the reasons is how it ties its many subplots together with the theme of family. As the film takes place, it explores Peter’s relationship with his father and Gamora’s relationship with her step-sister Nebula, along with Rocket learning to rely more on the team.

This great character development was very crucial in making audiences even more invested in the protagonists that they already knew from the first film. Tying everything together this way was also important in making the movie’s ending quite emotional.

Like its predecessor, Guardians Vol. 2 was also benefited from a very funny script, great soundtrack choices and wonderful performances from the returning cast. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper and Michael Rooker especially stand out in this film, where they really bring their A-game in their respective roles.

6. Black Panther (2018)

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Chadwick Boseman as King T’Challa in “Black Panther.”

“Black Panther” has two major strengths in its execution. First, the film benefits from showing T’Challa, an already accomplished and courageous man, still have to learn more about himself. For example, because he’s now king, he has to deal with more politics than before. It creates real human drama on top of the action we expect from this type of movie.

Secondly, the movie sets itself apart from just another superhero film by telling a monarchy-related story. This is largely driven by T’Challa having to defend his throne from the film’s antagonist, Erik Killmonger, who makes a great villain. The story about these two characters is elevated to a high level thanks to the fantastic acting of Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa and Michael B. Jordan as Erik.

“Black Panther” also excels thanks to exciting action sequences and an awesome musical score that gives the film a lot of style.

5. Thor Ragnarok (2017)

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Chris Hemsworth as Thor in “Thor: Ragnarok.”

“Thor: Ragnarok” hit theaters like a bolt of lightning and blew me away with how good it was. As the rest of this list points out, I wasn’t as big of a fan of the past two “Thor” films. “Ragnarok,” though, changed the whole thing.

This film was funny, entertaining and developed Thor (Chris Hemsworth) as a character while also giving Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) more development as a bonus. Great new characters, such as the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and the new villain Hela (Cate Blanchett) rounded things out nicely, too.

It’s simply a blast to watch from start to finish, from Thor fighting the Hulk in a gladiator match to him learning more about his own powers and what he’s supposed to inherit. Plus, seeing him interact with Bruce as well as Valkyrie put the cherry on top.

It should also be noted that this is another movie in this franchise that had the protagonists use a rather inventive idea to defeat the villain rather than just throwing punches.

If I had to recommend just a few Marvel films, this would be on the list.

4. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

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The team of mercenaries, known as the Guardians of the Galaxy, come together in “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

I think a film like “Thor: Ragnarok” was only possible because of how well “Guardians of the Galaxy” ended up working. While I really like its sequel, I still love the original more. First of all, the makers did this project a great service by filling it with great nostalgic pop culture, and doing so in a meaningful way by tying it in to the lead character, Peter’s, backstory.

This definitely wasn’t a one person show, though, as all of the Guardians are given fantastic depth and personalities as characters and as an audience, you want to see them team up and work together soon after they meet.

One of the biggest strengths the film has is its comedic script. There are so many great lines here, for example, Peter calling Rocket “Ranger Rick” still makes me laugh to this day. Not only was the writing funny, though, but the acting delivered on this front, too. Dave Bautista is spot on as the socially inept Drax, Bradley Cooper lends an awesome performance to Rocket, Zoe Saldana fits great as the cynical, dead-panning Gamora and Chris Pratt is perfectly cast as Peter.

Along with the comedy, the lead performers also did great work in the more serious moments, and made the team bonding moments quite convincing. Plus, the action sequences featured here are a lot of fun and many of them were unique, especially when the Tree-character Groot was involved.

3. The Avengers (2012)

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A team of superheroes, The Avengers, assemble for the first time. “The Avengers.”

“The Avengers” still wows me in how well it all worked out. When I wrote my original review way back in 2012, I noted that the main story here is quite simple. However, there was a lot more going on here than just the Loki vs Avengers concept going on.

What “The Avengers” is really about was watching the team come together and exploring how this effected each character. The previously self-centered Thor, for example, who’s still learning to be humble, still appeared in “The Avengers” to be trying to grasp how to work in a team.

Bruce Banner, meanwhile, has to come to terms with being back in society while having the Hulk inside him and Tony Stark is confronted with who/what he fights for. There’s even a scene where Steve Rogers (Captain America) calls out Stark for something along the lines of “fighting for himself.”

The list goes on. This movie is about characters, and all of the characters are compelling, they have backgrounds and most importantly, they’re very well acted. Just look at the film careers of some of the people on screen here, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Scar Jo. These are all award caliber actors, and they share the screen with other great talents.

Plus, the film boasts a very strong, funny script. There are such great lines here, such as Thor mentioning that his brother Loki is adopted when confronted with some of the destruction that’s happened.

The action is also amazing, there’s one part in particular where all the Avengers are working together to fight and to me it’s like the culmination of every comic book film ever made.

2. Iron Man (2008)

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Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in “Iron Man.”

The original still holds up and is near the top in terms of Marvel quality. Despite using an origin story formula that was already quite familiar (getting powers in the first act, testing them in the second and a final battle for the third), “Iron Man” still stood out as something new and fresh back in 2008.

The film seemed to have so much more style and swagger than many of its comic book film counterparts at the time. The film was also very accessible, even to audiences not as interested in the genre. This is likely because of the realism displayed here, which made the movie much more relatable. The realism was partly because instead of getting powers, the lead character Tony Stark had to build and construct everything he uses. As a result, while still going into science fiction territory, “Iron Man” remained largely grounded, making it very easy to get into as a viewer and to a larger point, being the perfect film to start the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Plus, the casting was downright perfect. Downey Jr. was so impressive as Stark, capturing everything from the character’s arrogance to his regret and his resolve. He made the character his, and it’s the reason he’s remained one of the key figures in the franchise. The character was also well developed throughout the film, starting off as arrogant and selfish but revealing a deeper person behind the ‘rich playboy.’ Seeing Stark’s character arc of being a weapons developer to going in the opposite direction is compelling and watching him develop the Iron Man armor is interesting and engaging.

The cast is also filled with extremely talented performers, such as Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow and Terrence Howard. While Howard only appeared in one Marvel film and was later replaced by Don Cheadle, he was still great in the role.

It’s smart, entertaining and one of the best Marvel films to date.

1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

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Chris Evans as Steve Rogers in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

This is the gold standard of Marvel. “The Winter Soldier” isn’t just a Marvel comic book film, it’s a spy espionage thriller that even has time to commit to social commentary. This film includes two great characters betrayed by their own agency, as well as government secrets and conspiracies related to surveillance.

The movie is also very much about the characters, specifically its lead. From start to finish, audiences get to watch Steve Rogers (Captain America) adjust to the time period he now lives in while also dealing with things from his past. The latter especially comes into play later in the movie where it turns out Rogers has to fight one of his former friends.

The movie also benefits from the relationships Rogers has with those around him, such as his friendships with Natasha (Black Widow) and Sam (Falcon). The group of characters is rounded out well with head spy Nick Fury played fantastically by Samuel Jackson and government official Alexander Pierce, portrayed in convincing fashion by Robert Redford.

The picture also features exhilarating action sequences that are some of the best in this Marvel franchise. Highlights include a stealth mission on a ship, Rogers taking down a jet by himself with just his shield and a battle on a highway. All of these, and more, are top notch in effects and choreography.

Plus, while the film is played mostly straightforward with a good amount of seriousness, the script did include some very well timed pieces of humor, allowing for some moments of relief for the audience and banter that developed the characters.

Those characters also work so well thanks to the talented cast. Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Jackson and Redford are all on point here.

Other Marvel movies may have had more action, or more comedy and in some cases even more character development. However, in my opinion, nothing else has brought so many elements from this franchise together and made it work so well as “Winter Soldier.”

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Author: Matthew Liedke

My name is Matthew Liedke. I'm a reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer in Minnesota, but I also have a passion for the art of film. This passion led me to start writing about film in 2008. From 2008-2016 I wrote pieces at my own website, After the Movie Reviews. Then, from 2016-May 2018, my write-ups were featured on AreaVoices, a blog network run by Forum Communications Company. Today, I now write film reviews and other pieces here on Word Press. More about me: I'm a 2012 graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead where I studied journalism and film. Outside of film, I enjoy sports, video games, anime and craft beers.

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