Marvel’s cinematic universe (the Paramount/Disney one, not the three or four other ones that each vie for their own piece of the pie) is truly one of the greatest modern-day achievements in film. The movies have all dominated the box-office, albeit to varying degrees, and the Marvel characters have established enormous pop culture relevance, in a world formerly occupied by their DC rivals.
Think back to just a few years ago, and it was all about Batman and Superman. Nowadays, Iron Man and his fellow Avengers have completely taken over. Sure, Warner Bros. are striving to change that in the next few years, but until then, Marvel rules the roost. Cry all you want, DC fanboys – you know it’s true.
With this week’s release of Marvel’s latest adventure Thor: Ragnarok, now seems the perfect time to look back on the franchise, and attempt to rank them in some sort of best-to-worst order. I preface this countdown by saying that, at least so far, Marvel has not made a necessarily “bad film,” per se. But you can’t deny some have soared just that little bit higher than the others.
So without further ado, here is The Jam Report’s definitive countdown of the films of Marvel’s cinematic universe:
16. Iron Man 2
There has to be a bottom, and it should come as no surprise the worst of Marvel goes to Iron Man 2. It’s a terrible film, plain and simple. The film spends far too much time with its eyes on the “Avengers Initiative” prize it forgets to give us anything of interest or merit. Mickey Rourke, right in the middle of his post-The Wrestler career resurgence (which has already died), chews every piece of scenery possible. His hammy villain Whiplash is a disaster. Try to even remember his villainous motivation. I’ll wait…can’t do it, can you? But you’ll remember he had a cockatoo. And electro-magnetised whips. And a horrendous Russian accent. Somehow those things equaled a villain.
Robert Downey Jr is still great, but he takes a huge backseat to the overstuffed storyline surrounding Tony Stark/Iron Man. Ultimately, the best part of this film is the introduction of Scarlett Johannson as Black Widow, who steals the whole thing, even with a sadly underdeveloped character, for now. Oh, and Thor’s hammer making an appearance after the credits.
15. The Incredible Hulk
It seems rather unfair to include The Incredible Hulk in this countdown. The film was produced before the cinematic universe really knew where it was going. This entry barely connects to the rest of the franchise, unlike its fellow members do. Even as a stand-alone, it doesn’t work.
After the intense criticism of Ang Lee’s emotionally-wrought but blockbuster-light Hulk in 2003, director Louis Letterier cranks the action right up, giving us something completely dull and genuinely boring. Edward Norton does his utmost, giving more than Eric Bana could, but it’s not enough.
After two solo films, it’s clear Hulk is a great side character, but can’t carry a film on his own. Maybe Mark Ruffalo can work out how it can be done. Bonus points for its great post-credits scene, with Tony Stark uttering the tantalising line – “What if I told you we were putting a team together?”
14. Iron Man 3
Unpopular opinion – Iron Man 3 is one of Marvel’s worst films. I know it received really quite strong reviews. I know most Marvel fans celebrate it. But something about it just never clicked with this viewer. It was an admirable experiment to mess with Tony Stark’s confidence, and give him some serious PTSD after the events of The Avengers.
It was an impressive U-turn on his character path. But it goes too far. He’s down-and-out much too long in this film. It’s really an Iron Man film where Iron Man spends the majority of the plot not being Iron Man. Adding to that, this one suffers from a lack of a major villain too. The Mandarin could have been something special, but that plot twist, while clever, ruins all hope. The less said about the finale sequence, the better. We go to an Iron Man film to watch Iron Man. Not 20 remotely controlled Iron Man suit things, flying all over the place. It basically rubbishes the entire existence of Tony Stark. Why do we need Stark when we can have a whole army of Iron Man clones without him?
All that aside, there were some great pieces still to be found here, but the film falls far more than it soars. Iron Man 3 does get one thing dead right though – Bruce Banner’s post-credits fatigued reaction to hearing Tony Stark recount the events of the film. I’m right there with you, Hulk…
13. Thor: The Dark World
The most paint-by-the-numbers, formulaic piece of cinema in the MCU. There’s barely anything remarkable or memorable about Thor: The Dark World. It’s easily one of Marvel’s biggest disappointments, considering the stellar debut chapter. I must admit to being completely taken by this film, at the time. It even made my top 10 list that year. But after a re-watch, I’m at a loss to understand what I was thinking.
Perhaps I was just too dazzled by Chris Hemsworth to notice how woeful this film is. Losing all the charm and humour of its predecessor, the sequel gets far too bogged down in a heavy, convoluted plot that takes itself much too seriously. Likewise with its underdeveloped villain, which sadly wastes the talent of someone as wonderful as Christopher Eccleston. But, of course, Tom Hiddleston is there to provide the much needed light and levity as lovable Loki, but even his involvement gets a little much. Chalk it up to the Loki mania created after The Avengers.
Loki’s scenes with his brother are the highlights, and their tumultuous relationship winds up being far more engaging than Thor’s romance with Jane. Perhaps that’s why Natalie Portman has vanished from this franchise…
12. Avengers: Age of Ultron
Maybe it was the insane hype which meant this film would never live up to the lofty expectations set by its predecessor. All the same ingredients were there. It’s just somehow it didn’t quite glue together this time. Perhaps it was the darker tones or the over-complicated (and numerous) storylines. Too much was loaded into this film, and it was rather exhaustive to even attempt to keep up. More was definitely less.
Maybe it was also the lack of a great villain. James Spader does an impeccable job at voicing Ultron, but the character lacks any true depth or development. His motivation seems entirely forced and without true merit. Ultron despises the Avengers, but why? Is it simply because they’re heroes? That’s not enough, and falls into the “I’m bad because you’re good” plot trap. This entire film really felt like one big setup for Captain America: Civil War. It’s rare to see Marvel so focused on the next step and lose focus on its current task.
That being said, it’s still enormously entertaining, in parts. The Hulkbuster v Hulk sequence is stellar popcorn entertainment. And while the finale gets ludicrously ridiculous (floating city, anyone?), it’s epic and enthralling stuff. Director Joss Whedon, under enormous expectations and pressure, does deliver something completely different to the first film, and that has to be admired. It’s just not what we wanted. Or needed.
11. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Suffering the most immense expectation and hype any sequel in the entire franchise has been saddled with, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 could never hope to top its predecessor. The element of genuine surprise was lost. We knew these characters now, and unlike the first film, we expected certain things from them. And to his credit, writer/director James Gunn delivers, yet again. It’s just maybe he goes a little too hard on the comedy this time.
Visually dazzling and incredibly entertaining, the sequel takes a vastly different approach in terms of its storyline. The first film brought the team together. The second splits them apart. It’s an admirable departure, and one that may have been entirely necessary. There’s also far more focus on character here, but it’s at the expense of a truly great plot.
Regardless, Chris Pratt sparkles, once again. Baby Groot is the cutest damn thing in this entire franchise. There are some sublime action pieces throughout. And, of course, we get another wicked and perfectly executed soundtrack.
After going through all sorts of pre-production hell, including losing its director a few months before cameras start rolling, Ant-Man was doomed to fail. The adventures of Scott Lang have never been the most popular in Marvel’s canon of heroes, and no one ever expected him to be given a solo film. And yet, this stands as one of the best debuts of any character in the franchise.
There’s a very simple reason for that – Paul Rudd. Perfectly cast as Lang, Rudd gives boundless energy and impeccable comic timing to a character most had never heard of. He brings genuine comedy to a film so desperately in need of it. The plot avoids the grand, apocalyptic themes of many others films of this genre, and instead focuses its stakes of the simple notion of a dead-beat father desperately attempting to earn access to his daughter.
It’s a wonderful change, and the film soars because of it. While it is let down by its villain, namely thanks to Corey Stoll’s unfortunate performance, there are some incredible visuals here, particularly the film’s toy train set finale. It’s a film that never should have worked, yet somehow remarkably does.
9. Doctor Strange
Marvel’s most daringly original entry to date, Doctor Strange is unlike anything else in the franchise. Much like Ant-Man, this was a character few anticipated to see in a solo film. Stephen Strange follows many of the same tropes as fellow Marvel member Tony Stark. A conceited playboy suffering a horrible disaster to put him in his place, and consequently flip his world upside down. But unlike Stark and his discovery for weapons technology, Strange finds solace in the mystical arts, and winds up with a whole host of incredible abilities, including bending the confines of space and time.
We’re leaving reality far behind in this one, and with it, we get some of the most striking and incredible visual sequences ever seen on film. If it weren’t for The Jungle Book, it would have walked home with an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. But for all its visual grandeur, it’s still a wonderfully captivating character piece, led by Benedict Cumberbatch.
Another piece of perfect casting, Cumberbatch plays Strange’s existential crisis with flair and panache, and winds up being one of the best superheroes in Marvel’s arsenal. Yet again, there’s some villain issues, but the terrific supporting cast more than make up for this, and give us a grand piece that surprised us all.
8. Captain America: Civil War
Rivaling The Avengers in the stakes of sheer cinema joy, Captain America: Civil War delivers popcorn entertainment like few others in the saga. With its staggering roster of characters, this could easily have been Avengers 2.5. It was a thrill to see so many of Marvel’s best in one spot, especially against each other. Plus bonus points for introducing Spider-Man, at just the right time.
But for a film featuring almost all of Marvel’s superheroes to this point, it’s still first and foremost a Captain America movie. With the struggle surrounding the sudden political involvement in his activities, and the on-going battle to reclaim his beloved Bucky Barnes from the dark side, there is some serious exposition here. While not as plot heavy as the previous film, it still packs a punch thematically, named around the idea of how much personal responsibility should our heroes taken on-board in relation to the repercussions of their actions in battling villain after villain.
Unlike its Avengers chapters, the high stakes here are mostly not around saving the world from impending doom, but rather saving the entire Avengers Initiative from imploding in on itself. The events here change the franchise considerably, and it’s a delicious teaser for what’s to come next year. It also happens to feature the best and most incredibly entertaining battle sequence in Marvel history. The airport stand-off scene is utterly sublime in every possible, and something that will never get old.
Hiring noted Shakespearean actor/director Kenneth Branagh seemed like utter lunacy, at the time. But Thor really is a classic Shakespearean tale, full of both intense drama and absurd comedy, and Branagh delivered in spades. What begins as an epic family drama quickly becomes a fish-out-of-water comedy before turning into a tale of a brash and conceited God finding his humility and place in the world. Or should that be worlds?
It’s hard to remember a time before Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston weren’t household names, but before Thor, they were completely unknown. It’s another mark of Marvel’s astute skill at casting unknowns in the roles they were clearly born to play. Hemsworth is mesmerising to watch her. For all his muscles and brute strength, he gives Thor a deep sense of character, and his comic timing is truly perfect. Likewise with Hiddleston, who instills Loki with such deliciously naughty villainy. It’s no wonder he quickly became perhaps the most beloved character in the entire Marvel universe.
There’s great chemistry between the two, and a wonderful connection between Thor and Natalie Portman’s Jane, even if that chemistry couldn’t be sustained in the sequel. With some sensational visual pieces, and some truly humerous comedy, Thor is terribly underrated within the franchise. It’s worth a revisit to see why this introduction is worthy of its high place in this countdown.
6. Spider-Man: Homecoming
Finally coming home to properly join the cinematic franchise it has always belonged to, there was a lot riding on getting Spider-Man: Homecoming just right. Despite its best intentions, the Andrew Garfield films never quite got there. A reboot seemed far too soon, but entirely necessary. Sony Pictures rightly joined forces with Marvel Studios to craft something entirely fresh and new, and it was a massive slam dunk.
After his glorious appearance in Captain America: Civil War, it was clear Tom Holland was the right man (or boy?) for the job. With only one film, Holland has already proven to be the best cinematic Spider-Man yet. Yes, better than Tobey Maguire. Pulling back the reigns on the story gives us more of a great high school film about an awkward teenager coming to terms with his new powers, all while finding his place in the world.
There’s teenage angst. There’s genuine youth-orientated humour. And there’s a wonderful character journey, all cemented by Holland’s impressive performance. Michael Keaton also gives us one of the best villains in the entire franchse, with Vulture being far more grounded and realistic than many of his cohorts. But the greatest joy of Spider-Man: Homecoming is it is truly fun, more so than perhaps anything else in the MCU.
5. Captain America: The First Avenger
Another unpopular – Captain America: The First Avenger is one of Marvel’s absolute best. Perhaps it’s just been too long since people have seen it to remember how utterly spectacular this film really is. But outside of Tony Stark’s unbeatable debut, this still stands as the best and most impressive introduction piece of any of Marvel’s superheroes.
Captain America doesn’t read well on paper. For all his comic popularity, he’s a very one-dimensional character. Enter Chris Evans, the truest example of Marvel’s knack for casting brilliance. Evans plays Steve Rogers with such genuine heart and glorious heroism, instantly making us all fall in love with Captain America, the greatest of all Marvel superheroes. For all its “U.S.A, U.S.A” themes, the film never feels like propaganda, which is ironic, given that was decidedly the intention of the comics. Its World War II setting is the perfect introduction for this character, and the production design and costuming are utterly magic. As is the villain, with Hugo Weaving giving a masterful performance as the menacing Red Skull.
There’s something so wonderfully old-fashioned about Captain America, even if it can come across a little corny. But it embraces that corniness, and never shies away from its true intentions. It’s everything a Marvel film should be – fun, colourful, entertaining, warm, exciting, and it just so happens to deliver the most deeply emotional conclusion of any Marvel film so far. Plus who could forget that “You’ve been asleep, Cap” Times Square reveal, in the film’s closing moments? Truly magic.
4. Iron Man
The one that started it all. The one we really owe the entire cinematic universe to. If this film had failed, who knows where we’d be right now. And it very easily could have. For all his popularity now, Iron Man was relatively unknown in 2008. The true Marvel comic fans knew him, but the general movie-going audience did not. Introducing him to the world, and beginning the potential franchise featuring his fellow Avengers team members, was incredibly improtant. And it all fell down to one man – Robert Downey Jr.
Now, it’s easy to forget that in 2008, Downey Jr. was not the box-office draw he is now. In the early years of the 21st century, he was more likely to be found in a quirky, independent piece of cinema than a summer blockbuster. But he was born to play Tony Stark, perfectly blurring the line between incredible arrogance and lovable charm. The action and explosions were important, but getting the character inside the suit right was key. And they nailed it with Downey Jr. Director Jon Favreau gives the film his wonderful vision, and creates such a perfect template for the entire franchise to follow. Even with the epic future plans of Marvel in front of him, Favreau avoid the temptation to make this a “setup” film, and it stands alone with such strength and independence.
We get a great villain, some wonderful dialogue from a cracking screenplay, and the formation of the leader of what will soon be the greatest superhero team in cinema history. And that ending. That “I am Iron Man” ending. Glorious. And just when you think they’re done, we’re handed the now infamous Marvel post-credits scene, with the introduction of Nick Fury, and his Avengers Initiative plans. Genius. There is no better way to craft a huge franchise than to deliver one perfect film to kick things off, concluding with a killer teaser at what’s to come.
3. The Avengers
The one we were all waiting for with baited breath. The one that never should have worked, but somehow did. After headlining their own solo films, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the Hulk were finally coming together. But how do you handle such colossal characters, all sharing the screen for the first time, without the film becoming a giant mess? You put Joss Whedon behind the director’s chair. And you have them face the now-beloved Loki as their chief antagonist.
Whedon, with his history of strong character pieces, understood there needed to be more than just action here. Bringing these four heroes together, plus Black Widow and Hawkeye, would not be an easy ride. The apocalyptic conflict may be with Loki, but the real battle was within the Avengers themselves. Whedon crafted a screenplay that tapped into that conflict perfectly, so that when our heroes finally put aside their differences for the greater good, it’s the stuff of cinematic magic. Just think of that revolving shot of our mighty Avengers finally standing together. It’s perhaps the most iconic shot in the entire franchise, and one of the most iconic moments in cinema of all time.
The screenplay is loaded with Whedon’s trademark wit and humour, with some deliciously wonderful lines of dialogue and genuinely humourous sequences throughout. The final Battle of New York may go a little over-the-top, but you’re having too much fun with this movie to even care. Each character somehow gets ample screen time, and a perfectly executed individual storyline, which is perhaps the film’s greatest triumph. It was a true moment in history that every Marvel fan will never forget. It still holds up today. It will still hold up in decades to come. It’s something very special, and always will be.
2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
One of the only films in the Marvel franchise to deftly deliver some timely social and political commentary somewhat unexpectedly found itself being one of its greatest. Captain America: The Winter Soldier sets itself apart from all others by taking a page from world events and spinning them into the Marvel universe – something the comics were often known for doing, but the films have strangely shied away from.
A deeply complex conspiracy-filled tale of government corruption and political surveillance, the film is dark and gritty, but still somehow enjoyable and entertaining. With all the saga surrounding WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden, this film could not have been more timely. Placing Steve Rogers squarely in the middle of a paranoid state where no one can be trusted is a mark of genius, with Captain America finding himself battling against the very corporation he has always sworn to protect. How can you stand for America when America is swiftly turning to the dark side? Seems even more timely in a post-Trump world, doesn’t it?
Making matters even worse – the reemergence of his thought-to-be dead best friend, Bucky Barnes, reborn as the brutal assassin The Winter Soldier. Barnes’ transformation is jarringly wonderful, as is Sebastian Stan’s star-making performance. For all its lashings of government espionage and conspiracies, the film shines even brighter with its action set-pieces, particularly when Captain America and The Winter Soldier face off.
These films always find a new way to show Cap’s incredible strength, and this one has a doozy. How can you forget the image of Cap desperately holding on to a helicopter with one arm and the side of a building with the other? Nice bit of eye candy too, with Evans’ muscles on full display. It’s another iconic moment in this franchise, and one that will long be synonymous with the MCU. With the film spiraling to an incredible climax, it’s clear the Captain America trilogy is the greatest of the Marvel franchise.
1. Guardians of the Galaxy
Marvel’s biggest gamble yet turned out to be their crowning achievement. Remember when you first heard they were making a movie starring the chubby guy from Parks & Recreation, the girl from Britney Spears’ disastrous film debut Crossroads, WWE-wrestler-turned-actor Dave Bautista, a talking raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper, and a walking tree voiced by Vin Diesel? Remember feeling Marvel had truly lost their damn mind? Remember seeing it for the first time and realising how incredibly wrong we all were? Somehow Guardians of the Galaxy became a true masterpiece of cinema. Somehow this incredible film became the greatest Marvel film to date.
It’s really lightning in a bottle stuff here. You can’t plan it. You can’t repeat it. It just happens. A lot of it has to do with James Gunn’s wonderful direction and impeccable screenplay, loaded with great humour, enormous heart, and a wonderful plot. Perfectly cast, the ensemble has such glorious chemistry, especially in their initial stages of truly despising each other. They all truly seem to be having a blast here, and the results speak for themselves. When Star Lord first dances onto our screen (literally), it marks the arrival of a truly great cinema hero. And the arrival of a true star in Chris Pratt, who gifts Peter Quill with equal parts Han Solo and Indiana Jones, but somehow, his own character entirely.
The film is genuinely fun from start to finish. It demands repeat viewing because you can seemingly never get enough of this wonderfully wacky adventure. Director Gunn crafts such a gorgeously designed world for his characters to inhabit, and the visuals in this film are worth the price of admission alone. It’s the kind of epic space adventure Star Wars fans were crying out for, but were never gifted with.
You add in that now-iconic soundtrack, a truly great villain, and a whole swag of characters you will genuinely care about, especially the popculture phenomenon that is Groot, and you have the greatest piece of cinema in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It has set a benchmark all Marvel films will be judged against. It’s a bar set so high, it may never be topped.
So there it is, folks. My take on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Where will Thor: Ragnarok slot in? Find out when The Jam Report releases its review this Thursday!