Full disclosure: I’ve never read a Marvel comic in my life. You need to know that right out of the gate. The Hulk and Spider-Man are the only Marvel characters I had any passing familiarity with before the advent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and Spidey doesn’t even count in this scenario.
This is a good thing because I have no fanboy baggage coloring my opinion of these films (except maybe in one case, as you’ll see). The MCU is an entity unto itself as far as I’m concerned, and I like to think my lack of comics bias gives me a different perspective.
You should also know that no matter how I rank these films, I’d recommend watching all but one of them. They only suffer by comparison to one another.
All of which is a long way of saying that some of these rankings will probably surprise you. So let’s get to it!
Warning: SPOILERS! (duh)
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10) Iron Man 2
Let’s trot out the whipping boy of the MCU and get it over with. Iron Man 2 has lousy villains in Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash and Sam Rockwell’s cartoony rival weapons industrialist whose name escapes me. In fact, most of the film escapes me–seriously, I’m sitting here trying to remember anything about the story and the only thing that comes to mind is that badass suitcase armor sequence… And Roger Sterling as Howard Stark… And the Unisphere in Queens, but probably only because I used to drive by it a lot.
Granted, most MCU villains are weak and their stories are almost always incidental to the hero’s journey in these films. But for me Iron Man 2 has one irredeemable failing: it was the first MCU film I came to with expectations, and it failed to meet most if not all of them. What is this? A DC movie? Be gone Iron Man 2! You’ll find no quarter here!
The Good: Chris Hemsworth owns the role as the preening, overpowered Asgardian and somehow comes across as likable, despite being a smug, self-centered jerk—which is crucial, because when the clueless dope gets his comeuppance, you still feel bad for him. Also good: Supporting characters Erik Selvig, Sif and the Warriors Three. And Asgard completely subverted my expectations. The opera snob in me envisioned something Wagnerian. This Asgard looks like Coruscant.
The Bad: Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins, two fine actors who just don’t fit their parts. Hopkins brings suitable gravity to Odin, but little else. And there’s no chemistry between Thor and Jane. Sif is a much more natural, believable choice, but they can’t do that because the extended MCU craps out if Thor doesn’t have a link to Earth. Speaking of which, while I liked the primer Thor gives Jane about the Nine Realms, it did nothing to convince me that an Asgardian could realistically exist alongside Iron Man. The tone between the films is just too disparate.
The Ugly: Whatever cheap back lot desert town set they used for the climax; which was a fight against a giant robot. Nine realms, frost giants, rainbow bridges, a McGuffin of unspeakable power, and we get a glorified Gort??? Ugh.
The Loki: And so we’re introduced to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, THE MOST OVERRATED CHARACTER IN THE MCU.
8) Thor: The Dark World
I really like Thor as a character, but I’m just not that taken with his solo film outings. My biggest gripe with The Dark World is the Dark Elves. If they existed before time in a dimension without light, how are they humanoid? And if Jane gets infused with the power of their smoky red McGuffin, wouldn’t that give her dominion over them? Making her Thor’s adversary in the final act would have been epic, certainly much better than the wasted Christopher Eccleston (Best. Doctor. Ever.)
Logic nits aside, The Dark World is a tremendous improvement over Thor, especially in fleshing Jane into an actual, believable character. And the expansion and exploration of the Nine Realms is great. But for all that, it’s mostly mediocre fare—until the third act kicks in, turning the by-the-numbers proceedings into a hilarious, breathless, dimension-hopping thrill ride. This does a lot to make me remember The Dark World with a good feeling, but it doesn’t have much else going for it.
Oh, as for Tom Hiddleston’s Loki: Tom Hiddleston is in the movie. He plays Loki.
7) Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Here’s where I alienate many of you. I love Captain America, and want to see him in the MCU as much as possible. No one was more jazzed for Cap’s second solo outing. But The Winter Soldier is not a Captain America movie. It’s a S.H.I.E.L.D. movie that just happens to feature Captain America.
Look, I get it. If you’re going to have an expanded movie universe, you’re going to have to push the larger story forward somehow. I just wish it wasn’t at Cap’s expense. Yes his presence makes sense, because Steve is the ultimate company man; and S.H.I.E.L.D. is the only constant in his time-displaced world. The First Avenger would be the first one on the front lines when things go down.
But for all that, Steve’s arc and his relationship with Bucky are awkwardly shoehorned into the story just to provide some third-act tension when the former friends finally come face to face. And it amounts to little more than an afterthought in the face of the S.H.I.E.L.D. vs. Hydra shenanigans. This should have been a Nick Fury movie, with a special appearance by Colson and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. cast.
On the upside, Anthony Mackie knocks it out of the park as Falcon, and Scarlett Johannson gets to be more Natasha Romonov, less Black Widow, giving greater depth and nuance to her already terrific MCU character. And Evans is great as always. Make no mistakes. I’ll be first in line for Cap 3. I just hope it will actually be about Cap.
6) The Incredible Hulk
Well if you weren’t alienated before, you certainly are now. But The Incredible Hulk is undoubtedly the most unfairly maligned film of the MCU, and unassailable proof that I don’t understand what makes Hulk fans Hulk fans. Because I really enjoyed this movie. A lot. I don’t know what essential Hulk essence is missing that so disappoints fans.
Granted, my bar for the Hulk is low. He’s a big green guy who smashes stuff. Of which he does plenty. Edward Norton is a likable and sympathetic Bruce Banner. Liv Tyler is fine as Betty, and it never hurts to have William Hurt join the party. Even Tim Roth works well with what they give him. And Abomination is just straight up fanboy cool, even though I never knew the character existed before the film.
And here’s where my only potential fan bias becomes an issue. All of my prior Hulk knowledge is derived from the Bill Bixby TV show that I watched as a kid. So it doesn’t hurt that the “origin” sequence at the top of the film is a direct nod to the show. Including deHulkinated Bruce wandering to “The Lonely Man” theme also scores big points in my book. And the final scene that has Bruce learning to trigger his transformations at will is awesome. I think this movie would be more well regarded if not for the much-publicized behind-the-scenes rancor between Norton and Marvel Studios. And if that ain’t it, then what? What the hell did this film get so fundamentally wrong??? Tell me in the comments section below.
5) Iron Man
What can I say that hasn’t already been said about the wild success of the MCU’s inaugural outing? Marvel Studios made lightning strike with the right story, the right lead actor, the right director and the right seriocomic sensibility. Iron Man set the tone for everything to come. And it was the perfect antidote to Nolan’s dour, ponderous take on Batman.
(I elaborate heavily on the differences between these two movie-verses in DeFlip Side #101: Man of Iron, Man of Bat. Have a listen.)
As a Marvel neophyte at the time, one of the elements that most struck me was Iron Man’s use of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” in the opening scenes. Most Sci-Fi fare exists in its own world, but here came Tony Stark, and he was unequivocally in my world. It’s a small thing, but it helped me warm up to the MCU almost immediately. And Marvel knows this. (Case in point: a certain “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” that shows up later in the list.) It’s a cheap trick (unless you count buying the rights to all those popular songs), but an effective one.
4) Iron Man 3
Marvel hit it out of the park with this, its first post-Avengers offering. Because honestly, where do you go after the fun, spectacle and wild success of The Avengers?
Well, if you’re Tony Stark, you go down. Hard. The choice to make this film mainly about Tony’s PTSD struggles after the battle of New York is inspired. Tony is still his glib, abrasive self, but even he’s not buying his line of bullshit any longer. Kudos to Marvel for using its multi-film approach to give these characters legitimate growth and development, and not taking the safe road and making every solo outing a formulaic one-shot. By the end of this film you honestly don’t know whether Tony will continue being Iron Man, and you’re okay if he doesn’t because it feels like an organic character choice based on everything that has come before. Of course, we know Tony will be back in the suit for Avengers: Age of Ultron. But that movie will have to convince me that Tony is heading back into action reluctantly.
A word on Ben Kingsley and The Mandarin/Trevor Slattery “reveal.” The twist is enjoyable in the moment, but disquieting upon reflection. A drunken British actor pretends to be a monstrous, murderous despot for free Budweiser and chicks? I have trouble swallowing it. We can’t assume that he’s an unwitting pawn. No one is that stupid. And because of that, Slattery becomes the worst kind of monster, sowing death and destruction for next to nothing. Yet he’s glossed over as a comedic red herring. That’s some fucked up shit right there.
3) The Avengers
And so Marvel’s audacious hopes and dreams for the MCU culminate in this action-packed thrill ride buzzing with electricity and humor. The Avengers is a terrific film that wonderfully showcases Marvel’s outsized character roster without making a single hero feel slighted or underused.
It’s a masterful balancing act performed by writer/director Joss Whedon, whose ensemble storytelling chops and ear for character-driven banter are on grand display here. I won’t go so far as to say that no one else could have done it, but I’m certain The Avengers wouldn’t have been as special without Whedon’s unique touch.
Whedon’s success comes from knowing how to wield these characters. So the big three—Iron Man, Cap and Thor—are mainly used for crowd-pleasing action sequences (including a fangasm smackdown against each other), while the more low-key Avengers—Black Widow and Hawkeye—get most of the narrative heavy-lifting. Then Whedon reintroduces the MCU’s most marginalized character—Bruce Banner/Hulk—and makes him the berserker catalyst that forces the team to learn to work together. The helicarrier fight sequence is the most exciting scene in any Marvel film before or since.
Epic set pieces aside, you know Whedon is doing something extremely right when the least powerful members of the team prove to be the most interesting. The Avengers makes me clamor for a stand-alone Romanov/Barton film.
And now we get to it. The one thing I don’t like about The Avengers is Loki. I simply don’t understand the raves over Tom Hiddleston’s performance. He’s supposed to be raw and grandiose, but he comes across as flat and whiney. And enough with the smirking and mugging already. We get it. You’re eee-vyl. Unfortunately, Hiddleston simply doesn’t have the screen presence to pull off the swagger. I understand Marvel’s need to use Loki’s world-domination scheme as a vehicle to introduce the larger, more esoteric universe that we’ll see in later films. And it works on that level. But he’s just not that compelling a villain in his own right, and certainly not worthy of the combined might of a team like the Avengers. Here’s hoping that Age of Ultron will provide a more believably threatening villain.
2) Guardians of the Galaxy
Just as Iron Man set the perfect tone for the MCU’s Phase I, so does this hilarious, gonzo space opera set the stage for bigger, bolder, more cosmically bizarre adventures in Phase III. But never mind its context in the bigger picture; Guardians of the Galaxy is just a flat-out terrific movie, a flight of unadulterated cinematic joy. Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket and Groot form the most fun and memorable team of mismatched film heroes this side of 1985. (The year of The Goonies. What? You were expecting a Star Wars reference?)
And the film’s central team dynamic evolves much more organically and enjoyably than it did in Marvel’s other big team outing, The Avengers—probably because we get to know these characters wholly within the context of the film. So when Rocket tells Peter to get some poor chump’s false leg merely as a cruel joke, it comes off as a hilariously definitive character moment. Conversely, consider how uncharacteristically nasty Tony is to Cap in The Avengers to amp up the tension. Tony is often flippant and dismissive, but he’s never a total dick.
As for Rocket… Let’s just step out of our accepting fan bubbles for a moment and consider Rocket. Not only did Marvel make a TALKING FUCKING RACCOON a major character in a tent-pole summer blockbuster, they made him the coolest antihero since Han Solo. Now that’s balls. Imagine the heads that would’ve rolled had Guardians tanked. But the gamble paid off, and now any future Guardians movie without Rocket would be unthinkable. I enjoy living in this version of reality.
And let’s not forget Peter’s “Awesome Mix: Vol. 1.” As in Iron Man, Marvel grounds this spectacle with songs so popular that they’ve become ubiquitous. I’ve heard “Spirit in the Sky” and “I Want You Back” so many times that I stopped noticing them. But I’ve been listening to the soundtrack for weeks now, grinning idiotically and thinking of dancing Groot. You did it to me again Marvel!
The only downside to Guardians is the same as most Marvel films: two-dimensional villains. Lee Pace is unrecognizable and poor Karen Gillan is wasted. The only one who brings any nuance is Michael Rooker, chiefly because he spends the film being Michael Rooker. But as this initial outing was about getting to know the ensemble of heroes, we can let the villains slide this time. It’ll be a different story in the sequel.
1) Captain America: The First Avenger
A lot has been made of the fact that Marvel built its roster on heroes with feet of clay—real people with real world problems and weaknesses that their superpowers tended to exacerbate rather than remedy. But in the MCU, Captain America is the exception to that rule—or, rather, Steve Rodgers is.
As The First Avenger makes abundantly clear, Steve is a hero with or without the Super-Soldier Serum; his transformation into Captain America only enables him do what he desperately wants to do: serve and fight for his country.
Steve’s sincerity and self-sacrifice have become such outdated motives for comic heroes that his first outing had to be a WWII period piece to give modern audiences a “believable” context for his old-fashioned ideals. What that says about our current society goes beyond this flippant contemplation. Suffice it to say that Captain America: The First Avenger takes a page from Norman Rockwell’s playbook: It doesn’t represent America as it is, but America as we’d like it to be. And it does so with lots of humor, action and tremendous heart. Which is what makes The First Avenger my first pick of this remarkable MCU bunch.
Or maybe I’m just a sucker for a period piece. And Hayley Atwell in that smart uniform.
And there you have my MCU Report Card. As I said, my grades probably veer from the fan norm, and may stray even further afield with the releases of Ant-Man, Guardians 2, Age of Ultron and Doctor Strange.
But as a life-long reader whose favorite books have all been hitting the big screen in recent years, it’s refreshing to be able to watch this cinematic universe unfold unencumbered with prior knowledge or expectations. Maybe this list will help you see some of your own favorite characters through fresh eyes.
Or maybe you think I’m full of it. Sound off in the comments section below with your own rankings!