Movie Marathon: Marvel Cinematic Universe (Phases 1-3)
With the release of Spider-Man: Far from Home in July 2019, the first three “phases” of Marvel’s incredibly popular (and incredibly lucrative) franchise of interconnected films are coming to a close. Whether you like the Marvel movies or not, there’s no doubt that the project is ambitious in its scope — with the first three phases spanning a little over a decade and including 23 (!!!) films. So now seems as good a time as any to go back, re-watch all those Marvel movies, and consider in which films the franchise is at its strongest.
The Rankings (Worst to First)
23. Iron Man 3 (2013) – directed by Shane Black
Almost all of Tony Stark’s character arc in the Marvel films (at least post-conclusion of Marvel’s The Avengers) focuses on the character’s struggles with trauma and PTSD. To my mind, Iron Man 3 is the least successful in exploring this complex and potentially interesting aspect of Stark. And to make matters worse, there are additional issues: forgettable baddies (who are led by a forgettable “big bad,” Aldrich Killian), the mis-use of a classic Iron Man villain (The Mandarin), a child character whose only purpose in the story is pretty much as a comedic foil to Tony, etc. etc. Director Shane Black also co-wrote this script, and I’m a fan of many of Black’s other film scripts (e.g. the Lethal Weapon series, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Nice Guys, etc.); however, I think he really misses the mark here, unfortunately.
22. Thor: The Dark World (2013) – directed by Alan Taylor
Often considered the “worst” of the Marvel films, I think that assessment is pretty accurate. Easily the weakest of the three (so far) Thor films, The Dark World suffers from poor tonal choices, missed character opportunities, and lackluster performances. Opting for a more brooding feel, this film doesn’t have the (familiar but OK) “fish-out-of-water” narrative of the first entry or the (waaaaay more successful) cosmic ridiculousness of the third entry. I’ve seen enough of their work to know that Natalie Portman (Jane Foster) and Christopher Eccleston (Malekith the Accursed) are good actors, but they just seem to be sleepwalking through the paces here — perhaps the fault lies in the script or the direction? It’s a shame because this film’s failures mean we will probably never get to see Jane Foster Thor or a good representation of Malekith, who’s a pretty interesting and powerful magic user in the comics.
21. The Incredible Hulk (2008) – directed by Louis Leterrier
While “safer” and “watchable” compared to Ang Lee’s earlier Hulk (2003), The Incredible Hulk has its own problems. The CGI isn’t great — especially with the Hulk himself, as he often appears sorta glossy, as if the texturing wasn’t quite figured out. [An obvious issue since he’s the main character.] We also don’t see enough of Hulk’s true brute-force strength, as he’s often just destroying cars and tanks, which is pretty much a walk in the park for him. I also think the choice of villain (Abomination) was uninspired. I wish they would’ve leaned into the quasi-horror origins of the character (i.e. the Jekyll & Hyde stereotype), letting the Hulk be a “monster” for much of the film only to show his heroic side in the conclusion. In such a film, do we even need a “villain” for the Hulk? I feel like there are other ways that the Hulk could demonstrate his potential as a hero other than a final fight.
20. Avengers: Endgame (2019) – directed by The Russo Brothers
Most critics / audiences seem to have liked Endgame, and for the life of me, I don’t know why because this movie was…not good. Just a few reasons here: the film strips Thanos of any complexity earned in Infinity War, presents us with the worst versions of several characters (e.g. Professor Hulk, Sad Tony Stark, etc.), reduces Captain Marvel to a deus ex machina, uses Thor mostly as a recurring gag (“you see…it’s funny because he’s fat!”), is heavy-handed in several shots, and doesn’t really address the practical issue that suddenly doubling the population after five years would probably be very, very bad. Oh…and time-travel, which is the laziest comic narrative device. *sigh* The only good thing that I can think of with this movie is when Captain America wields Mjolnir, which was legit awesome. But what do I know? The Marvel Execs are too busy counting that cash to worry about any criticisms.
19. Captain Marvel (2019) – directed by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck
There are things to admire about Captain Marvel — first and foremost, it was waaaaaaaay past time for a female-lead Marvel film, so I’m glad that finally happened. The relationship between Carol Danvers and Yon-Rogg has some good conflict baked into it. I liked subverting expectations with the Skrulls. And I think that most of the performances were pretty solid. I really wanted to like Captain Marvel, but, mostly, I was just really bored. At this point, 20-something films into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the narrative was just too predictable as a paint-by-numbers origin story; and the special-effects weren’t up to snuff (especially in the final space-battle scene, which looked poor compared to other Marvel movies). While I’ve never been the biggest Carol Danvers fan (in terms of her character development), I don’t think the writing/direction did this film any favors.
18. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) – directed by Joss Whedon
Despite not being a big fan of giant crossover movies (I prefer my MCU films with fewer characters), I don’t think that’s my only reason for ranking both Avengers: Endgame and Avengers: Age of Ultron so low. There are some good scenes here — e.g. everyone trying to lift Mjolnir — and casting James Spader as Ultron feels like an inspired choice. To me, the weaknesses stem from the mediocre script and forgettable direction by Joss Whedon. [Whedon’s work and sensibilities have never really resonated with me as a viewer, but I’ve known plenty of others who like his writing / directing.] Moreover, despite Spader’s casting, the film somehow strips Ultron of much of his intrigue and memorability, which is a shame (especially for a franchise that struggles to develop villains) because Ultron is easily one of the best and most important villains from Avengers canon. A better film is in here than the one we get.
17. Thor (2011) – directed by Kenneth Branagh
I think that Kenneth Branagh’s Thor gets a bit of a bad rap in terms of MCU rankings. When I first watched, it honestly didn’t really stick with me either; however, rewatching the film, I found it to be a solid, if unspectacular, entry in the franchise — especially given the movie’s timing and context as one of the earliest MCU films and as a tricky character to get right. It seems clear to me that Branagh is intrigued by possible — surprise! — Shakespearean-esque qualities to the character, and that exploration doesn’t feel completely off to me, though it also doesn’t feel like the most productive examination of Thor. Plus, Branagh’s film probably does the best job at incorporating important characters from the comics like the Warriors Three, and some humor gets worked in as well. Not a great film and not one that needs to be searched out, but a good enough effort to watch once if you ever stumble across it.
16. Iron Man 2 (2010) – directed by Jon Favreau
I remember being pretty disappointed with Iron Man 2 when I first saw it in theaters back in 2010 — probably because I was so pleasantly surprised with the high quality of its predecessor. Rewatching Iron Man 2, however, it lays some important groundwork for future MCU films by introducing Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow and inserting Don Cheadle as the new James Rhodes / War Machine (taking over for Terrence Howard in the original film). And there are some other effective aspects to Iron Man 2 as well — for instance, Sam Rockwell is entertaining as Tony Stark wannabe Justin Hammer, and the race-track scene (while ridiculous in a literal sense) is also pretty entertaining. Really…I think that the biggest problem with Iron Man 2 is that it feels a bit like Marvel is just treading water here waiting for the release of Captain America and Thor the following year.
15. Doctor Strange (2016) – directed by Scott Derrickson
Doctor Strange is a difficult film to evaluate because, in many ways, it feels like the MCU’s paint-by-numbers origin film (especially with the character development) but, in many ways, it feels quite unique (especially moments where the weird, trippy visuals from classic Dr. Strange comics are allowed to exist). Despite some controversy (i.e. Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One), and some unnecessary characters (i.e. the good Rachel McAdams has very little to do), the casting is pretty good here — e.g. Benedict Cumberbatch has the right combo of gravitas and arrogance to embody the Sorcerer Supreme and the underrated Benedict Wong and Chiwetel Ejiofor are both excellent as Wong and Mordo, respectively. [The film’s biggest sin is Mads Mikkelsen — i.e. the perfect MCU Doctor Doom — getting wasted as a throwaway villain.] Overall, I wish Marvel would lean into their classic weirdness a bit more.
14. Ant-Man (2015) – directed by Peyton Reed
Of all the classic, frequently rostered Avengers heroes in the MCU thus far, Ant-Man is the one that I’m least familiar with from the comics. And in Ant-Man (the film), we actually get a version that focuses primarily on the Scott Lang iteration of the character rather than the Hank Pym iteration. [Pym’s Ant-Man is more historically important in the comics but also much, much more problematic, so it makes sense for Marvel to play it safe here.] While Ant-Man suffers from a lackluster villain — a recurring problem with many of the MCU films, where the villain is just a version of the hero — the rest of the cast does a great job, particularly the supporting characters aiding Ant-Man. But what makes Ant-Man most successful to me is its embrace of some genre-elements that make sense for the character — i.e. Ant-Man sorta feels like a “heist-film” that just happens to have a superhero in it.
13. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) – directed by James Gunn
Of all the MCU films thus far, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the film that jumped up the rankings the most for me upon rewatching. While it doesn’t quite capture the entertainment value and tonal quality of the original film, there are still many things to like here — e.g. Drax (Dave Bautista) gets more emotional development, the relationship between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) & Nebula (Karen Gillan) is explored more, and the casting of Kurt Russell as Ego is really clever, even if they don’t give him much to do. And the depth added to Michael Rooker’s Yondu character is a really refreshing surprise — Rooker easily steals the film for me, in fact. There are certainly problems: this version of Groot feels more of a marketing ploy than a character, and the stuff with the original Guardians feels underdeveloped. However, this film is one that does improve, at least for me, upon subsequent viewings.
12. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) – directed by Peyton Reed
Ant-Man and the Wasp is one of those rare sequels that actually improves on the original by keeping what works (the heist aspects, the supporting cast, etc.) and developing characters more fully from the first installment (Evangeline Lilly’s Wasp gets much more to do here and proves herself a better classic, beat-em-up type hero than Ant-Man). Moreover, the movie utilizes an interesting tactic of addressing the biggest weakness from the original film — i.e. the lackluster villain — by basically not having a villain (in a true sense) at all. [Hannah John-Kamen’s Ghost acts from desperation rather than villainy; and Walton Goggins’s Sonny Burch is a nuisance more than a threat.] Surprisingly, the Ant-Man films have shown themselves to be one of the better, most consistent of the MCU series — lacking the highs, yes, but also avoiding the lows of other hero series (e.g. Thor, Iron Man, etc.).
11. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) – directed by Joss Whedon
In the years since its release, The Avengers has slipped in my MCU rankings — although it’s not a “bad” film (per se). As I’ve mentioned, I’m not much of a fan of Whedon’s writing / direction; and, rewatching this film, much of the dialogue strikes me as hammy, even by comics standards. The MCU clearly painted themselves in a corner by failing to develop interesting villains, as they’re forced to rely on Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and his disposable army of utterly unforgettable aliens — even though it doesn’t make much narrative sense for this film. In retrospect, some of the MCU’s worst habits are on full display here — i.e. cloying “hero shots,” forced conflict between the heroes, and a focus on franchise of individual films. But introducing Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner / Hulk is certainly a positive; and in context, the ambition is admirable. Still…a pretty solid film that is more important than “good.”
10. Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) – directed by Jon Watts
The highs of Spider-Man: Far From Home are bigger and better than similar moments in the original; however, it isn’t quite as consistently entertaining as 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. [In terms of the aforementioned highs here, I’m thinking of a particular scene where Spider-Man falls victim to some of Mysterio’s nightmarish illusions, which is sorta reminiscent of the best trippy visuals of Doctor Strange.] Speaking of Mysterio, Jake Gyllenhaal is phenomenal in this role and successfully captures the crazed arrogance, believed victimhood, and over-the-top perfomativity of the comic character. Once again, Tom Holland is superb as Spider-Man, and the supporting cast of Jacob Batalan, Zendaya, Jon Favreau, Marisa Tomei, etc. remains strong. If you’re familiar with the comics, the “twist” that occurs isn’t particularly surprising, and there are some pacing / script issues. Still, very enjoyable.
9. Black Panther (2018) – directed by Ryan Coogler
Black Panther may not be as great a film as reviews claimed, but I do think it’s a good film and an important one in terms of diversity. All the actors do excellent work here with what they’re given, and we get some really great additions like Killmonger, Shuri, and Okoye. For me, there are script issues holding the movie back, especially with character development — i.e. I find T’Challa / Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) to be less interesting in this film than in Civil War, lacking the (earned) arrogance/edge from the comics. Surprisingly, the direction here is also inconsistent — e.g. questionable CGI, poor lighting, bad fight choices (i.e. no more fighting-while-falling, please!). I say “surprisingly” because Ryan Coogler is the most talented director thus far in the MCU, but I don’t think this is his best work. This movie’s financial success, however, will hopefully encourage further diversity in the MCU.
8. Captain America: Civil War (2016) – directed by The Russo Brothers
Inspired by (but not based on) a huge multi-title storyline from the comics, the final entry in Captain America’s trilogy isn’t a great as its predecessors but still mostly works as an events-based narrative — crucial to the mythos of comics. Weirdly, much of what I admire about Civil War is problematic: For example, Spider-Man’s inclusion makes little sense narratively, but it does introduce the best Spider-Man (Tom Holland) we’ve ever gotten. The villainous plans of Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) are convoluted even for comics; however, I do love that these superheroic “gods” were undone by just an ordinary dude (albeit a smart, well-trained one). Civil War has a difficult balancing act — being a standalone movie while also setting-up the tricky character dynamics that will take us through Endgame. Great fight scene between Iron Man & Cap / Bucky; plus, Ant-Man in giant Goliath form!
7. Iron Man (2008) – directed by Jon Favreau
In retrospect, it’s funny to think that Iron Man — an important character in the comics but not really a hugely popular one (like Wolverine, Spider-Man, etc.) — started the biggest, most successful franchise in film history. Even as a comics fan, I remember not being terribly excited about Iron Man back in 2008, however, I was impressed then and continue to be impressed now by how much they got right in this movie. In terms of casting, has there ever been a better choice than Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark? Very few could have managed the intelligence and arrogance of this particular character while also infusing him with charm. Although the film’s “beats” as a comics story feel predictable a decade later, it’s important to remember that this is because Iron Man created the formula that so many MCU films adhered to in the years that followed — for better or worse. Influential and engaging.
6. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) – directed by Jon Watts
Count me among the highly skeptical of another reboot of what is arguably Marvel’s most popular character. After a disappointing end to Sam Raimi’s trilogy and then Marc Webb’s two lackluster efforts, I was burnt out with Spider-Man adaptations. [In fact, this was the only MCU film that I didn’t originally see in theaters.] But I was pleasantly surprised here! Thankfully, this Spider-Man really embraces the high-school roots of the character, and Tom Holland brings both Spider-Man and, importantly, Peter Parker to life. Michael Keaton’s Toomes / Vulture is compelling and better realized in this film than in the comics (in my opinion), even if his links to Spider-Man feel a little forced. Homecoming does a lot of the heavy lifting to set-up a father-son dynamic between Stark & Parker, which, in turn, allows Infinity War‘s most emotional scene (i.e. the post-snap moment on Titan) to really work.
5. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) – directed by Joe Johnston
Like Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Tom Holland’s Peter Parker, Chris Evans feels like perfect casting. I think this film works because it chooses to invest so much time in Steve Rogers (before he’s Captain America); so when we finally see the physical strength and emotional sincerity, we believe it to be true. It would’ve been so easy to make this character — a literal walking-talking representation of American ideals — preachy and, worse, boring. So it’s a real testament to the quality of writing, directing, acting, etc. that what we get instead is depth and nuance. The supporting cast is also really great — particularly Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter) and Hugo Weaving (Red Skull). For whatever reason, I feel like The First Avenger doesn’t get quite as much love and respect as it deserves in the MCU; however, if, like me, you enjoy period-piece genre films, you’ll probably like this WWII era superhero flick.
4. Avengers: Infinity War (2018) – directed by The Russo Brothers
Now, this is how you do a big crossover-event comic-book movie! Infinity War succeeds because it finds just the right balance of over-the-top comic grandeur and carefully tuned narrative pacing — humming along, trusting that its viewers are aware of the story thus far, providing huge action sets, and never outlasting its welcome. Thankfully, Infinity War doesn’t sacrifice character at the altar of spectacle; in fact, if anything, the film deepens our appreciation of the heroes (because they lose) and also provides complexity to a villain (Thanos) who could’ve easily been a cookie-cutter threat — see: Endgame for example. At its core, Infinity War is really a story about two father-figures — Tony Stark and Thanos — and how they deal with trauma, aspirations, responsibilities, grief, etc. Humor to spare throughout and also some of the most heart-wrenching moments in the MCU. A great film!
3. Thor: Ragnarok (2017) – directed by Taika Waititi
Although I’m a fan of his earlier work, I didn’t know what to think when I learned that Taika Waititi was directing Thor: Ragnarok. After all, while I loved What We Do in the Shadows and enjoyed Hunt for the Wilderpeople, neither of those films scream to me: “destined to direct MCU movie.” But I was pleasantly surprised by just how much this director, this cast and this crew nailed their attempt at Thor. Ragnarok leans hard into the camp and cosmic aspects of the character, while incorporating some aspects of both classic Thor mythology and the Planet Hulk storylines into the movie — all while putting tweaking things here and there for effect. Chris Hemsworth gets to show off his comedic chops here, Tessa Thompson is a wonderful addition to the MCU, and it’s fun to see actors like Cate Blanchett and Jeff Goldblum ham it up. A bit tonally predictable at times, but still lots of fun!
2. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – directed by James Gunn
Back in 2014, I had no expectations going into the theater to see Guardians of the Galaxy. I knew nothing about these characters and, therefore, had no real emotional stakes in whether the filmmaker “got it right.” As it turns out, Guardians is, for me, probably the most easily rewatchable MCU film. While there are some missteps (e.g. another forgettable villain), this movie bends and/or breaks just enough of the stale comic origin-story beats while giving us memorable characters, expanding the cosmic scope of the franchise, and providing some memorable visuals. Interestingly, Guardians also embraced sound/music as a narrative device more so than any other film in the MCU up to this point. And while some of these techniques and tones have been copied in lesser films, Guardians did it first and, in many ways, did it best. This film opened (and still opens) a lot of potential paths for the MCU ahead.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – directed by The Russo Brothers
Anyone who reads / watches movie reviews probably knows that Captain America’s second entry, The Winter Soldier, is often a trendy pick for “best MCU film” among the intelligentsia, even if casual audiences might pick a flashier film from the catalog. But in this case, I think that the critics are correct — it really is the best MCU film! Earlier, I mentioned that I wished more MCU films really leaned into their genre elements — which is one of the reasons why a film like Ant-Man works for me and The Incredible Hulk doesn’t; and this particular MCU effort is probably the one that most leans into that genre-based theory. Really…The Winter Soldier is, at its core, a spy thriller (and a very good one!) that just happens to also have superheroes. Here, we get notable additions like Sam Wilson / Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and notable returns like Bucky Barnes / Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) — all while problematizing the ever-present SHIELD that the characters (and viewers, too!) had just taken for granted. Great fight scenes, fantastic and interesting character development, and just an excellently told story!
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that, for the most part, the MCU films for Phases 1-3 are pretty good overall. With the exception of a handful that I’d not recommend, a high percentage of these films are, at minimum, pretty enjoyable and, at best, pretty fantastic! If I had to say, I’d recommend that anyone — whether you like comic books or not — watch The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Ragnarok, and Infinity War because they’re all great films. And, if you like those, then checkout the good-but-not-quite-great movies such as First Avenger, Homecoming, Iron Man, Civil War, Black Panther, etc. etc.