Calling all Marvel superfans and comic book aficionados alike. With the upcoming release of Marvel’s next blockbuster entry in its interconnected cinematic universe, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, what better way to pass the time waiting for such a momentous occasion than by ranking every major release currently available? That’s right true believers, we’ve got it all from Iron Man to Doctor Strange, Daredevil to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, if you can name it, we have it ready to be ranked!
The Marvel Cinematic Universe began in the year 2008 with the release of Iron Man and has been growing exponentially ever since with each new installment in its wildly successful film franchise. From scenes of extreme action and suspense to the building of character relationships over almost a decade of films, there is something for everyone to fall in love with. But the time has come to get down to brass tacks and pull no punches by making a definitive list of every film and television series to date.
Gathered below are the twenty major entries into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ranked from worst to best. Will your favorite film series be at the top of the list? How will your ranking stack up against others?
Ranking such a popular series of films is always a hard thing to do, so definitely take my opinion on the films with a grain of salt! With that said, feel free to comment what your favorite Marvel film is and why, or where my list compares to your own personal preferences of the movies!
Iron Man 2 had the incredibly difficult job of following up its wildly successful predecessor, and managed to misstep at every turn. Sure, Robert Downey Jr. continued his charismatic playfulness as Tony throughout the film, but even he couldn’t salvage the train wreck that was Whiplash. In the comics, Whiplash is a worthy adversary, utilizing his signature whips and fighting ability on a level that would impress Scorpion from the Mortal Kombat series, but Mickey Rourke’s metallic tank top wearing villain rarely utilizes these weapons and never uses them to their full extent! The subplot with Justin Hammer is also excruciatingly painful. Hammer is a character who should be in the background of the Marvel universe, similar to Hydra, always plotting against the heroes and advancing their own nefarious agenda.
Going into Thor: The Dark World, I had very low expectations. Rightfully so, the original film was nothing to write home about, but this sequel faced the problem that continually ails the Marvel Cinematic Universe: lackluster, throwaway villains. The dark elves in the film are no more threatening than a gallon of expired milk, and are disposed of by Thor just as easily. This film felt like a two hour extended explanation of the Marvel Universe saying, “Oh, look! An infinity stone!” and was just as difficult to watch. Another thing that Marvel is always afraid of showing is the potential for collateral damage, which meant the final battle between Thor and the leader of the dark elves takes place between dimensions so no one would be injured. The one redeemable scene in this movie however was Loki, transforming into Captain America for a brief moment in what is arguably one of the funniest gags in the series.
Iron Man 3 had a lot of potential as a movie, in the same way that once you hit rock bottom (looking at you Iron Man 2), the only place to go is up. Iron Man 3 succeeds at doing so, but only marginally. It’s filled to the brim with a variety of random Iron Man suits that even the most hardcore of Iron Man fans would be left wondering where the suit came from in the first place. Oddly enough, one of the biggest problems with the film was that it was a Christmas movie that came out in Spring, which was incredibly jarring to watch in the theater in shorts and flip flops. Lastly, my biggest personal gripe with the film was the allusion to the Mandarin, one of Iron Man's greatest and most powerful villains, being reduced to a joke in his big reveal towards the end of the film.
Growing up, I remembered having my Luke Cage action figure and reading about his comic book exploits where he would partner up with Iron Fist (more on him later) and take on New York as the “Heroes for Hire.” Flash forward to now and we not only have Luke Cage as a supporting hero in “Jessica Jones,” he now has his own Netflix original series. Everything leading up to the show seemed like it would be one of the greats, from the soundtrack to Mike Colter reprising his role as the titular character. I enjoyed watching Luke Cage help out Jessica Jones in her show, but the pacing on his own season felt incredibly forced. The story arc with Cottonmouth should have either been extended or the show should have just ended after his demise because what followed was a mess. We learn about Luke’s brother as he becomes the next villain in the show but by that point I had lost interest in the series. I finished the season and expected some sort of closure or way to string this series together with its Netflix counterparts, but was let down here as well.
Thor was the fourth movie to come out in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, releasing a year after Iron Man 2. The film struggled to find an audience because normal audiences were not accustomed to the otherworldly locations like Asgard and the die hard comic book fans felt that the movie failed to represent the character accurately. In retrospect, Thor is a decent enough film and funny enough to keep it memorable. The dynamics between Loki, Thor, and Odin are believable and their struggle for dominance interesting. The film also introduced viewers to a number of new elements that are now main staples in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Hawkeye, played by Jeremy Renner, made his debut cameo in the film and has been a great, although minor character in many of the films to follow. We also get a glimpse at the Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos’ weapon of choice for the upcoming Infinity War film, as an easter egg when Thor walks through one of Asgard’s halls.
The story of the Incredible Hulk in film is an extremely troubled one, from recasting to poor reception of the film and the fact that it is so difficult to make a compelling film about an unbeatable monster. In the movie, Ed Norton’s Bruce Banner is hiding out in South America to avoid being hunted by the military and various private corporations. Couple that with Abomination, the film’s villain, looking nothing like his comic book counterpart. Sadly, a majority of the film doesn’t even show the hulk. When he does eventually Hulk out, the level of action is boring and uninteresting for a hero of his size and strength. Thankfully, this will hopefully be remedied in the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok film that is drawing inspiration from one of the Hulk’s greatest storylines: Planet Hulk. In that comic, Hulk is forced to compete in gladiatorial combat or else face certain death.
Captain America: The First Avenger was a step in the right direction for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Chris Evans was given another shot at superhero stardom after the miserable Fantastic Four films where he played the Human Torch. This time around, Evans dons the Captain America suit to battle the Red Skull, Hydra, and Nazis alike alongside the United States military. The introduction of Bucky Barnes also caught the eye of the attentive comic book fan who knows his history and how he would eventually go on to play a much larger role in the series as the misunderstood Winter Soldier. Steve Rogers’ love interest in the film, Peggy Carter would also go on to receive her own show.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is the longest running Marvel Cinematic series to date and has gradually increased in quality as the seasons go on. The show benefits from incorporating the events of the larger films into subplots on the show and showing the ramifications of the Avengers’ actions in the real world on a much smaller scale. The inclusion of new characters in the show like Deathlok, the Inhumans, and most recently Ghost Rider, has made the show something worth keeping up with. Some of the plot lines are similar, with the team chasing after one villain or bad guy after the next, but the explanations behind things like how Phil Coulson is still alive keep things interesting. The characters are all defined and go through different phases, changing based on things that happen to them, showing just how dedicated the Marvel world can be to adding a human element to its story. And let’s not forget Samuel L. Jackson’s cameo in the first episode!
Agent Carter started as a one-shot short film that was bundled in with the release of Iron Man 3 on Blu Ray and DVD. Originally appearing in the first Captain America movie as Steve Rogers’ love interest, little was heard about Agent Carter until she got her time in the spotlight. After receiving high praise and good press, the show was picked up for a pilot and first season on ABC where it received good reviews and a second season as well. The show operated as a backstory for the modern development of S.H.I.E.L.D and Agent Carter herself was an intriguing spy/agent in her own right. Throw in Howard Stark as her friend and confidant and you had a recipe for success. Sadly, the show was cancelled in 2016 and there have been many attempts by fans and critics alike to see if they can revive the show or bring it to Netflix.
Iron Fist is the newest series in Netflix’s line of original programming and has been met with the worst reviews among critics and fans, calling it boring and uninspired. The show centers around Danny Rand, a plane crash survivor who spent many years following the accident to learn martial arts and finally return home to New York City to reclaim his family name, only to be met with skepticism and hostility. He must use the power of the Iron Fist to take down his enemies and return honor to his name. The show received such lackluster reviews because it doesn’t do anything particularly interesting to the superhero formula. Like most of the Netflix level heroes, his powers don’t make him suitable for the Avengers, but they are interesting enough for his own show. Like Luke Cage, Iron Fist would benefit from a team-up series about the two’s endeavors as the “Heroes for Hire” which is the direction Netflix should take following the release of “The Defenders.”
Avengers: Age of Ultron faces the same problems most superhero sequels do by not being able to live up to their predecessor. I don’t think anyone was expecting this film to be better than the original, but even still, the film felt like a letdown in terms of what we had come to expect from Marvel. With that said, the film still has plenty of great set pieces, most notably the fight between the Hulk and Iron Man in his giant Hulk-buster armor. That fight made so many childhood dreams come true. The final battle against Ultron and his minions was also grand, with the sweeping shot showing all of the Avengers working together in slow motion, made for a great scene, but still lacked that magic captured by the first movie. Standout performances from James Spader’s Ultron made the AI a likeable adversary but the movie was still unable to make the leap from good to great.
Jessica Jones is another one of Netflix’s original shows and benefits from excellent writing, acting, and art direction. Jessica puts the “flaw” in flawless as she struggles to maintain a normal life following her time being trapped under the influence of the season’s antagonist Kilgrave, played by the magnificent David Tennant. The show also introduces Mike Colter as Luke Cage, a bulletproof hero who has an incredibly sexy relationship with Jessica; talk about hot! Kilgrave is a compelling villain due to his childhood trauma and unique ability to bend people to his will by the use of his voice alone, making them do whatever he says without any resistance. The show was successful and well received because it was not the typical superhero beat-em-up we’ve come to expect but instead a detective story where Jessica Jones tries to find someway to incriminate Kilgrave without breaking the law or taking his life. It's compelling and smart and one of Marvel’s best.
Doctor Strange is the most recent film in the expansive library of Marvel movies and has the best special effects of any superhero film to date. Created by Steve Ditko, one of the most talented comics artists of all time, Doctor Strange is a character who lives up to his title in every way, from his psychedelic adventures through the cosmos to his use of the mystic arts. The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the sorcerer supreme and his charismatic charm and sarcastic narcissism rivals that of Tony Stark. This film followed the success of Guardians of the Galaxy, which introduced viewers to a more expansive and creative take on the Marvel Universe. Doctor Strange is also one of the few characters in existence in the movie universe capable of wielding and effectively using an infinity stone. Also, that post credits scene setting up Thor: Ragnarok was absolutely amazing!
Ant Man is a great superhero film because it harkens back to a style of superhero film that has been absent in recent years. So many modern superhero films attempt to throw so much into one movie that they lose sight of the heart and compassion in characters. Ant Man doesn’t follow this trend and is a very condensed, family story. Paul Rudd’s character, Scott Lang, is a comedic small time criminal and his experience with gaining his powers is reminiscent of the original Spider-Man movies with Tobey Maguire. Lang must use his newfound shrinking powers for good to infiltrate a corrupt company which will, in turn, protect his daughter. The special effects in the film are fantastic, from the anti-aging effect on Michael Douglas to the sequence at the climax of the film, when Lang is unable to stop himself from shrinking at an exponential level is extraordinary.
The Avengers was one of the most anticipated superhero films of all time and the biggest blockbuster release to ever come out at the time. It was amazing to see all the heroes that we had seen come together to fight an unstoppable alien threat. Watching the dynamics between Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and the rest of the team work to come together solidified how dynamic these relationships are. In retrospect, the aliens were fairly generic, but that is often overlooked because the film itself was such a gratifying experience. Each member of the team had their own time in the spotlight, including the more minor characters like Hawkeye and Black Widow. The post credits scenes were absolutely stellar, introducing viewers to Thanos, the greatest threat the Avengers will ever face and then the shawarma scene wraps the film up perfectly with the battle ravaged team taking a break to grab a bite to eat.
Here it is, the film that started it all. Iron Man was a great success in theaters because it showed a new breed of Marvel films. One that understood how to play to its audience and deliver pulse pounding action along with a heartfelt story. The film knew how to pay homage to its source material, from the Mark I armor that looked like a giant tin can, harkening back to the first appearance of the hero to the charm and sarcasm of Tony Stark. Looking back, there isn’t a single actor who could have done more justice to the character of Tony Stark than Robert Downey Jr. The main villain left a little bit to be desired, but the film as a whole planted seeds that have helped create the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe we know and love today. The cameo of Nick Fury at the end of the credits showed audiences that Marvel was planning for something bigger, something much, much bigger.
Daredevil was Netflix’s first foray into its original programming tied to the Marvel movies and there is a reason it’s been so successful: it's freaking awesome. The show follows a similar storyline to a graphic novel called “Daredevil: The Man Without Fear” written by Frank Miller in 1993. This dark telling of Daredevil’s origin and his rise to crime fighting in Hell’s Kitchen is mirrored perfectly on the show. The dark tone of the show is enhanced by stellar action and fight scenes. The main villain of the first season, The Kingpin, is a flawed man and viewers are shown just how troubled and traumatic his life was and what created the man he is today. Season two introduced us to the Punisher, played by the amazing Jon Bernthal. I had never seen such a performance from an actor in a superhero setting that nearly moved me to tears but Bernthal managed to do just that. The show has been renewed for season three and is highly anticipated.
Captain America: Civil War might as well have just been a third Avengers movie. It included all of the major players, except for Thor and the Hulk, spanned the globe, and was full of nail-biting action. Based on the major comic arc of the same name, Civil War deals with the criticism of superheroes and vigilante justice following a terrorist attack that left many innocents dead. The team is unable to make a unified decision and thus the lines are drawn and the fighting begins. We are introduced to new characters like Black Panther and a new version of Spider-Man, played by Tom Holland, both of which are welcome additions to the Avengers roster. Civil War has one of the best superhero fight scenes of all time, taking place at an evacuated airport, we see the conflicted heroes pull no punches and throw quick one-liners back and forth at each other as the battle rages. The fight choreography is excellent and the special effects are out of this world. The best thing about the film is that it leaves the team divided and continues to set up for the ever-looming Infinity War.
What can be said about Guardians of the Galaxy that hasn’t already been said a hundred times before? It succeeds because it was such a wildly unpredictable success. Leading up to its release, my only association with the guardians was through Rocket Raccoon, who was a character in a fighting game called “Marvel vs. Capcom 3” but today every member of the guardians team is a household name. The film is a perfect blend of story, spectacle, and action, along with heart as a rag tag team of nobodies must find a way to work together to protect themselves and the world around them. It’s funny, smart, and well performed by every member of the cast, from the blunt and abrasive Drax to Vin Diesel’s Groot, everyone was bound to find a favorite character. It also marked the start of Chris Pratt’s rise to blockbuster fame following his time on the hit comedy Parks and Rec. The soundtrack absolutely steals the show and the fact that Thanos played such a big role in the film only sweetened the deal.
Captain America: The Winter Solider is without a doubt, the greatest movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is widely accepted as the best film in the Captain America series and has a perfect balance of action, mystery, and intrigue. No one is to be trusted as S.H.I.E.L.D has been infiltrated by Hydra and Captain America is now wanted for questioning in his involvement with his long-time friend Bucky Barnes, AKA the Winter Soldier. The introduction of Anthony Mackie’s Falcon character adds to the dynamic of Captain America and makes for some really cool fights. Robert Redford serving as the head of S.H.I.E.L.D secretly working for Hydra to eliminate all threats to their domination was a surprising reveal and the final battle aboard the three helicarriers was nothing short of intense. At the end of the film we were left wondering how Cap would ever find Bucky again and were forced to wait until Civil War to get any answers.