The idea of “ranking” something as complex as art is one that is fundamentally absurd. Trying to quantify that which is unquantifiable is a fool’s errand, and it’s the reason why I never give numerical ratings or letter grades to any movies I review. Hell, I refuse to even assign star ratings to movies I track on my Letterboxd account.
With that being said, sometimes it’s fun to do things that are silly and meaningless in the purpose of something else. It’s completely arbitrary, but making a list like this gives me an excuse to revisit and discuss a series of movies I love. And I do LOVE these Marvel movies, even the ones that aren’t particularly good, and I had a blast going back through this universe of films.
So without further ado, here are my rankings of the Marvel Studios films.
Of all the Marvel films, this is the one I’ve cooled to the most. The whole thing feels cheap and superfluous. Almost nothing happens in this movie, and they shove in completely extraneous S.H.I.E.L.D. stuff to pad out the run time. Say what you will about The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2, but at least things happens in those movies.
Beyond that, the movie feels like Marvel spent a grand total of $8 on it. It switches between feeling like a made-for-TV movie and like a multi-camera sitcom. It’s amazing that they spent as much as they did on it, because none of that money shows.
The film’s saving grace is its casting. Hemsworth and Hiddleston are both really great, totally selling their silly faux-Shakespearian dialogue. If it weren’t for these two, the movie would be a total wash.
9. The Incredible Hulk
The Incredible Hulk is the weird dark horse of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; in so many ways, it just doesn’t fit. There’s the obvious issue of casting, with Ed Norton playing a very different Bruce Banner than Mark Ruffalo later would, but more so than that, the tone of the movie is totally incongruous. It’s incredibly moody and dour and it clashes with the lighter tones of the rest of the movies. As a result, this movie is kind of a drag.
I don’t know if I’d say it’s a bad movie (it’s close, though), but it’s a hard one to sit through. Unlike Thor, the movie has plenty of stuff going on, but not much of it is interesting. The stuff with Banner trying to find a cure sucks because you, as an audience member bought a ticket to see a movie called The Incredible Hulk, so god dammit, you want to see the Hulk! Even when we do see him, though, the action scenes aren’t very good. Hulk vs. the army is a total bore because there are no stakes to it.
The one part of the movie that works is the Hulk vs. Abomimation fight. Yeah, in retrospect it looks a lot like a video game cutscene, but it’s the only part of the movie that’s exciting and comes close to being fun. It has dourness draped over it, particularly at the end, but watching these two giant monsters fight is the kind of thing you want to see from a Hulk movie.
8. Iron Man 2
Iron Man 2 is a weird one for me. On one hand, I recognize that it has a TERRIBLE script. The film is literally about nothing – seriously, try to come up with a one-sentence description of the movie’s central conceit – and it’s immensely frustrating to watch it constantly change gears, never settling on an idea.
But on the other hand, there’s still a lot here to like. Robert Downey, Jr. is still great as Tony Stark (even when he’s given dumb things to do), and it’s this film where he really refined the character into the one we think of today. On top of that Mickey Rourke gives a wonderful weirdo performance as Vanko and I can’t not like a movie with this much Sam Rockwell silliness. The film also benefits from Favreau’s direction which keeps everything fun and charismatic even when it’s shoving garbage down our throats.
This one is definitely a bad movie – one with a narrative that doesn’t work on any level whatsoever – yet I can still have fun with it regardless. I will admit, though, that I enjoy this one a little less every time I watch it, so I might learn to resent this movie yet.
7. Thor: The Dark World
Thor: The Dark World is a movie that burned through two different directors and then was extensively re-worked in the editing room, and it feels as such. It’s a movie that lacks a singular voice and a singular purpose, but you know what? I still kind of dig it.
Maybe I’m just a sucker for what Marvel’s selling, but flawed as it may be, I have a lot of fun with this movie. For one, it’s completely unafraid to go big and crazy and weird. The first Thor technically introduced us to the cosmic side of the Marvel universe, but it all felt small and fakey – obvious sets and CG matte paintings. Even the cosmic stuff that poured into The Avengers was mostly Earth-bound. Here, though, we finally got to see the great cosmic side of the Marvel universe done right. It’s classic Jack Kirby weirdness brought to the screen for the first time and it’s so cool. Asgard feels both real and ancient here, and it’s a joy to spend time exploring it. Also, unlike the first movie, things happen in The Dark World that are interesting and actually feel like they matter.
That said, the story itself is sort of a wash – magic MacGuffin mixed with a doomsday device, blah, blah, blah, but it’s an excuse to spend more time with these characters and see these worlds and that’s sort of enough for me. Yeah, Malekith is probably Marvel’s weakest villain to date (a somewhat impressive accomplishment considering their noteworthy string of weak villains), but the movie doesn’t really care about Malekith either. It cares about Thor and Loki and Jane and weird, sci-fi/fantasy adventure, and it’s fun! Fun in a way that the first Thor wasn’t. Sure, I wish this movie was better, but I’m okay with it being just “pretty good.”
6. Iron Man
It’s a little bit strange looking back on Iron Man seven years later with the Marvel Cinematic Universe dominating our pop culture landscape. This film is clearly of a piece with the MCU, and yet it’s also so dramatically different from the Marvel films we’ve grown accustomed to. By comparison, this feels very subdued; while the newer films are cut to the bone, featuring wall-to-wall action, this movie has only three real action scenes. It’s also sort of crazy that this film featuring locations from both sides of the globe feels comparatively small in scope.
All of that being said, the film still works! Mostly. All the origin story stuff with Tony Stark is really strong, and it’s to the film’s credit that it takes time to slow down and really let us get to know this character. It’s a lesson that some of the newer Marvel films could benefit from. It’s also fun to see how this is both a product of the 2000s-era superhero film while also being a refutation of that style and the first big step to move past it. The way they tease at all the secret identity angst only to pull the rug out at the end is so cool. On the other hand, nothing about the Iron Monger story works. It’s dumb and boring and it feels tacked on to a movie that really doesn’t need it, and it sucks all the life out of the film’s final act.
5. Captain America: The First Avenger
Overall, the quality of the Marvel Studios films improved by leaps and bounds after The Avengers, with nearly every Phase Two movie being better than Phase One. With that being said, few things Marvel has made to date have managed to top the first hour and change of Captain America: The First Avenger.
The first half of this movie is nearly perfect. It takes an incredibly risky idea – a superhero period piece about a character who has no internal arc and is a bit of a square – and does it so well that in retrospect it’s easy to forget how crazy the idea seemed at the time. There’s a few things that benefit this movie, for one, a really smart script and a perfect tone that’s a throwback to Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Rocketeer. The key ingredient, though, is Chris Evan’s tremendous turn as Cap himself. As time goes on, I’m increasingly sure of the notion that Evan’s Captain America is one of the all-time great movie characters. He’s just so good. From the first moment he shows up in this movie you can’t help but root for him. The “skinny Steve” stuff at the beginning is crucial to making this character work, because even after he’s an unstoppable super soldier, you still recognize the scrawny kid who just wants to do the right thing, no matter what the personal cost. He’s the only character in 40 years who manages to live up to the legacy of Christoper Reeve’s Superman.
The back half of the movie flounders a bit – it’s too montage heavy and the big final action set piece is the weakest one in the film. That said, it ends on the right note, and though it can’t live up to the exceptional first half, the later parts of this movie are still very good.
4. Iron Man Three
Iron Man Three is so good, so fun, so smart that I’m at a complete loss to understand how people actively dislike this movie. It takes this character we already love and breaks him down to his most basic level so that we can go on a journey with him to discover why we fell in love with him in the first place.
This is a Shane Black movie through and through with hilarious writing and razor sharp sarcasm in just the right places so that it never feels mopey in the same way Iron Man 2 did. The tone is just right, deftly transitioning from the superhero action you expect in the beginning, then taking a hard left turn, stripping Tony of his suit and casting him in a detective story.
Things fumble a bit when returning to the superhero stuff – the Air Force One scene is really good, but the shipping yard finale is a mess, but still this is a great movie, filled with smart, character driven storytelling and great inversions of expectations. I suspect that Age of Ultron and Civil War are going to force a lot of people to re-evaluate this one.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy
When Guardians of the Galaxy was announced, there was a lot I was looking forward to – big, cosmic weirdness, fun sci-fi adventure, Chris Pratt headlining a major movie, James Gunn directing a real blockbuster – but the best thing about the film was something I wasn’t really expecting. Of all the films in the Marvel Studios canon, Guardians perhaps has the most raw heart.
The structure here mirrors The Avengers in a lot of ways, it’s all about a group of clashing personalities learning to work together as a team, but where the Avengers end up as a group of really great friends, there’s a closer bond between the Guardians of the Galaxy, a familial bond. That’s the thing that truly tips this movie over the edge. It delivers on everything I wanted out of a James Gunn directed Marvel space opera, but it also packs a surprising emotional punch.
2. Marvel’s The Avengers
If anything, The Avengers is proof that characters are the single most important part of film. It’s not how the film looks or even the plot, because if we’re being totally honest, The Avengers is a bit weak in both categories – the digital photography in the film is remarkably ugly, and the plot involves a lot of wheel spinning to get to the big climax – yet it’s a huge triumphant success of a film.
The trick is that the film isn’t about its plot. The plot is window dressing, an excuse that allows for the real draw which is seeing these character meet, clash, and eventually come together as a team. It’s perfect blockbuster entertainment with every moment carefully designed to please an audience, and it’s done in a way that both caters to hardcore geeks without alienating newcomers. It understands why the geeks fell in love with this stuff and invites newcomers to fall in love with it too.
The climax of the film is a masterclass in blockbuster action, filled to the brim with exciting and fun beats that reveal who these characters are rather than just an endless series of punches and explosions.
It’s not a perfect film, but there’s a reason why The Avengers is one of the most successful movies of all time. It’s one of the best pieces of pure entertainment ever made.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
This is it. This is the ultimate example of what the Marvel Cinematic Universe can be at its finest. The Avengers is great fun and one of the all-time best movie theater movies, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier is just great cinema, period. It takes this world and these characters fleshed out by the larger Marvel Universe and uses them to create a smart, daring, thematically relevant genre film. This is a movie where a superhero wearing the Stars and Stripes goes toe to toe with the establishment of the United States Government, reveals that they are literally no better than Nazis, and tears down the entire system.
Beyond that, it’s a damn good spy thriller. People who complain that these movies are all too samey clearly haven’t paid much attention during Marvel’s Phase Two. Long gone are the days of the superhero movie being a genre to itself. In its place we have detective stories, high fantasy, political thrillers, and space operas that just happen to star costumed crime fighters. The Winter Soldier is a proper spy thriller through and through, but it never sacrifices what makes these characters and this world so compelling.
Everything just works in this movie. It works as a Captain America story, it works as a story about the larger Marvel universe, it works as a spy thriller, and it works as political allegory. It combines the greatest storytelling strengths of comic books and films to create something incredible, and that is the real power of what Marvel has done.
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