Iron Man was far from the first comic book movie, but it doubtlessly set the tone for where we are now with the ever-expanding MCU and the push by competing studios to try and capture Marvel‘s secret formula of sustained and immense success. And that is to say nothing about the explosion of superhero TV and the generation of fans that have embraced decades-old comic book characters that are now ubiquitous in pop culture. But while Iron Man may also be the most important (or one of the most important) Marvel movies, is it anywhere near the best? We asked two of our writers to take a look back through the MCU all the way up to Captain Marvel, to rank how these films stack up against each other.
21. Thor: The Dark World (Amazon)
There’s truth in labeling with this dense and heavy sequel that mostly failed to match the popcorn feel of the first Asgardian adventure and the resplendent Ragnarok as Thor bounces through portals warring with a dark elf king (a poorly utilized Christopher Eccleston), who is on a quest to extinguish life in the nine realms. If nothing else, the film stands out as a contrast to Ragnarok, perhaps inspiring its looser and zanier approach as much as the success of Guardians Of The Galaxy did.
20. Avengers: Age Of Ultron (Amazon)
There are a lot of moving parts in Age of Ultron, but what keeps it grounded is Ultron himself. As voiced by James Spader, he’s a disarmingly charming monster, a robot who’s convinced himself that humanity is a virus that needs to be stomped out. He’s the calm center of a storm of frazzled heroes who are busy doing anything and everything to ensure he fails.
19. Iron Man 2 (Amazon)
In a lot of ways, Iron Man 2 is a classic sequel: It’s definitely bigger than the first, and it commits a very old school problem of having too many characters. Because of this, Iron Man 2 feels overstuffed and disorganized. Still, there are a lot of pleasures to be had, chief among them Mickey Rourke’s vengeful villain Ivan Vanko, who seems like he’s in a very different film than his co-villain, Justin Hammer (played by Sam Rockwell). Every time Rourke appears on-screen, he inspires a sense of danger, giving the film a sinister edge.
18. The Incredible Hulk (Amazon)
Do people remember that there was an Incredible Hulk standalone entry in the MCU that preceded Mark Ruffalo’s portrayal of Bruce Banner? Not the Ang Lee one that starred an over-broody Eric Bana. And it stars a semi-broody Edward Norton! And Liv Tyler! This movie really happened! It’s not bad, either.
The first Marvel movie after the original Iron Man finds the brand searching for a consistent voice, but some of the humor and charm is there as an MIA Bruce Banner returns to fight another, evil hulk (initially played by Tim Roth). Looking back, the film plays things a little too safe, but that was to be expected since its aforementioned predecessor, 2003’s Hulk, was so original that it featured Nick Nolte turning into a villainous cloud.
17. Iron Man 3 (Amazon)
The film that kicked off the MCU’s Phase 2 is among the U’s most divisive entries, though that didn’t seem so back in 2013; after all, it crossed the billion-dollar mark globally Among the complaints are that it’s too different, too silly, and includes a ludicrous twist that dishonors a classic villain (The Mandarin, played by Ben Kingsley). But to some, those are pluses.
Director and co-writer Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) goes with a “one for Marvel, one for me” approach, mixing his patented wisecracks with the deluge of unmanned Iron Man suits from the climax that must have made Marvel’s marketing department sing. The result can be uneven at times, but when it hits, it’s a reminder that MCU films are at their best when in the hands of a director who knows how to retain their creative voice in a genre that’s too often stifling.
16. Thor (Amazon)
The first Thor film effectively takes viewers through the title character’s (Chris Hemsworth) quest to become worthy of his awesome birthright after introducing him as an “arrogant, reckless, and dangerous” brat with a warrior’s temperament and a ruler’s ambition. And that’s about it. Expectations have continued to rise for these movies but while Thor isn’t a complex tale or a film that takes a lot of chances, it’s still a breezy re-watch thanks to that lack of complexity and a charming, star-making turn by Hemsworth.
15. Ant-Man (Amazon)
It could have been a disaster. Edgar Wright, the original director, pulled out of the project he’d been working on, on-and-off, for almost a decade because, as he said in 2017, “I wanted to make a Marvel movie but I don’t think they really wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie.” His replacement, Peyton Reed (Bring It On), was last-minute. And yet Marvel is such a well-oiled machine — and Reed is such an assured comedic director — that Ant-Man never feels like a mess. In fact, it’s a real charmer, complete with some ace comic work from Michael Pena, to say nothing of star Paul Rudd.
14. The Avengers (Amazon)
The culmination of many a comic book geek’s dreams brings the previously established heroes of the Marvel U together to fight off Loki and a swarm of Chitauri invaders as New York City gets pounded. Writer/director Joss Whedon finds plenty (too many?) of spots to inject humor and internal conflict in this merger of superpowered egos. Still, the film feels like a piece of something, standing out more for the spectacle of seeing those heroes on screen all at once (for the first time) than as a substantial, stand-alone work. What a spectacle it is, though.
13. Doctor Strange (Netflix)
Doctor Strange is a feast for the senses that eschews the more restrained look of many of its predecessors while embracing the cosmic nature of the source material. Once Benedict Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange happens upon the mystical Kamar-Taj, it’s a riot of colors and trippy images of cities being segmented, curling into themselves à la Inception or turning into kaleidoscopes. And while Marvel films sometimes have a problem with overlong endings, this one does not. The final battle here is a strong contender for the MCU’s most creative and entertaining capper yet.
12. Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 (Netflix)
For his second Guardians outing, writer-director James Gunn doubled down on the series’ particular brand of weirdness. This is a Marvel that, more than any other, feels hand-made. There’s not even much action, but there’s lots of Kurt Russell. As Ego, a celestial being with a thing for ’70s AM radio faves, the ’80s icon has rarely seemed like such an old-school movie star. He has the gravitas not of someone trying to be like John Wayne but of John Wayne himself, upstaging the actor playing his son, Chris Pratt, who is still working on putting out that same aura.
11. Ant-Man And The Wasp (Amazon)
In an entertainment world ever-changed by the many interwoven films of the MCU, Ant-Man And The Wasp stands out as a throwback in that its a lark with little impact on the larger Marvel story. At least, on its face. Paul Rudd does Paul Rudd things which are guaranteed to charm, but the film belongs to Evangeline Lilly (the film’s emotional core) as she fights to rescue her mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) despite near impossible odds. Michael Peña, who bursts through the middle of this film like the Kool-Aid man to deliver a hilarious breakdown of the action to that point, also deserves credit… and a spin-off.
Does Ant-Man And The Wasp inch up a few spots on this list because it’s most fresh in the mind and because it followed the knee-buckling Infinity War? Maybe, but it’s a beam of pure joy and that kind of thing deserves accolades.
10. Captain America: Civil War (Netflix)
The events of Winter Soldier are the cause and Civil War is the effect, with Steve Rogers no longer willing to fall in line without question; a transformation that brings real conflict to the MCU clubhouse, when previously, there had been little more than bickering. A legendary comic book arc partially brought to life (damn licensing restrictions) stands out for the impressive juggling act done by the Russo Bros, who manage to improve upon the previous Marvel team-up movies by delivering more than spectacle and focusing on the ever-growing complexity of these characters.
9. Iron Man (iTunes)
To repeat ourselves, Iron Man wasn’t the first big screen comic book hero film, and it has certainly been bested in terms of overall quality and depth in the MCU, but no one character has popped and sizzled out of the gate like Tony Stark, thanks to the attitude that Robert Downey Jr. brings to his portrayal. We’ve seen the “spoiled rich kid finds a deeper purpose” story before, but it was never such a complete transformation while, at the same time, not allowing the hero story to subsume the personality of the character. Without Downey and Stark’s electric charm, Iron Man is little more than a Batman knockoff.
8. Spider-Man: Homecoming (Netflix)
Like Batman and Superman, Spider-Man’s origin story is in our pop culture DNA. With great power comes yada yada… We get it. But while the thrill of seeing Spider-Man next to the heroes of the MCU in Civil War was enough to get people excited about this latest Spider-Man adventure, co-writer and director Jon Watts understood that he had to find a new hook. And he succeeds mightily, leaning into Tom Holland’s youthful exuberance and pairing it with a mix of impatience and a “look how cool this is!” spirit. But this film isn’t all about fun. There’s weight in Peter Parker’s journey to become more than his spidey suit and a true hero that carries over into his appearance in…
7. Avengers: Infinity War (Amazon)
The ending is gorgeous. We know many of these characters aren’t really dead; Spider-Man, for one, has a solo movie coming out next summer. But it was something else to see so many greats suddenly become dust in the wind. It was a beautiful bummer — a ’70s downer ending that was not only dropped into the summer movie season but kicked it off.
6. Captain Marvel (In Theaters)
A sometimes-cosmic/sometimes-Earthbound ’90s era origin story, Captain Marvel never really gets bogged down by its massive scale, nostalgia, or responsibility as a narrative bridge between epic team-ups (Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: End Game, of course). Instead, the film — Marvel’s first with a female lead — establishes its identity with charming yet strong performances (we need more road-movie adventures from Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson), an engaging and empowering story that feels at home in 2019, and a joyous kind of heroism that is too rare in comic book movies. The final result doesn’t just make you wonder how Captain Marvel will handle Thanos and save the Marvel Universe, it makes you eager to find out what comes next in her solo adventures.
5. Captain America: The First Avenger (Amazon)
Captain America’s origin story is richly realized by Joe Johnston in a spiritual successor to The Rocketeer (which he directed) and the Nazi-punching adventures of Raiders Of The Lost Ark (which he worked on as visual effects supervisor). A World War II era period piece, Johnston gives the film a bit of visual flair in what feels like the first creative muscle flex of the MCU’s young existence. There’s also ample heart thanks to the epic and tragic love story between Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter. Remember when people worried Chris Evans didn’t have the chops to play Cap?
4. Thor: Ragnarok (Netflix)
Over the last few years, the world, including maybe even Chris Hemsworth, has discovered that Chris Hemsworth is hilarious. Once Hemsworth nearly stole Ghostbusters, it was clear that hiring New Zealand comedy director and performer Taika Waititi (of the vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows) for the third Thor was a sound move. Waititi is the real star of Ragnarok. This is his absurdist, silly vision, and he packs the film lousy with loopy jokes, bizarre twists, and loud, retina-searing colors. He’s also the cast’s MVP thanks to his mo-capped performance as Korg, a disarmingly sweet gladiator. Or maybe that’s Jeff Goldblum as a junk planet’s dandy despot.
3. Guardians Of The Galaxy (Amazon)
Marvel likes to roll the dice and the universe likes to reward them with big wins. The MCU is, in and of itself, the prime example of this, but Guardians Of The Galaxy qualifies for the silver medal. We’re talking about a semi-obscure group of heroes (including a tree monster and a talking raccoon) led by the paunchy goofball from Parks And Rec (Chris Pratt), an unproven director with cult-movie sensibilities (James Gunn), and a big leap into Marvel’s weirder and wilder cosmic locales and stories. Somehow, it all clicks, giving Marvel what was, at the time, its most vibrant and quirky adventure and something that manages to be highly rewatchable and influential.
2. Black Panther (Netflix)
It’s not just that it’s the first Marvel film, across 18 films and 10 years, to put a black superhero front and center, although it’s absolutely that, too. It’s also that Black Panther is the vision of a singular director. Ryan Coogler (chasing the one-two punch of Fruitvale Station and Creed) did not shy away from bringing his all to the MCU.
This isn’t another tale of good and evil. Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa realized he was wrong and that he had to change with the times to use Wakanda’s great powers to help the rest of the world. He only learns this because of the ostensible villain, Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, who is so much more than your standard “complex” villain. Killmonger’s anger is righteous, understandable, beautiful. He went too far, but he was a necessary evil in the literal sense, and his final line is devastating because it denies a tortured character much-needed closure.
This was everything that Marvel films do well, all while being much more than a Marvel movie.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Amazon)
The Winter Soldier is, far and away, the most tightly constructed of all the Marvel movies, standing out as a spy thriller on par with that genre’s best.
As a comic book movie, it’s a bit of a square peg when compared to the rest of the board, but the course the Russo Brothers put Captain America on gives a somewhat dry film its emotional center. In comics and on the screen, seemingly pure characters like Superman and Captain America are at their most interesting when the foundations they’ve built their beliefs upon start to crack. Causing Cap to question what it is to be a good soldier and who he trusts is something that has continued to yield results for Marvel movies, giving dimension to a character that could have been lost in a crowd of more interesting options.