Marvel Movies, Ranked (Part 3)
I did all of this, all of it, for you. And here we are! We’re at the end of the road, having gone through the MCU movies that are Not Great, to the MCU movies that are Pretty Good. And now here we are, with the movies that are Actually Good! These seven movies are legitimately good films — sure, they have their flaws, but they’re some of the best examples of what a superhero blockbuster can be.
As always, these are my rankings, so they’re totally correct and don’t ask any questions. But to be honest, once you get to these seven films, I could see an argument for any one of them being the best MCU film. So if you disagree with me, you’re wrong, but also please don’t hurt me.
7. The Avengers
The Avengers rocks so much. Let’s start with how completely insane it is! It’s easy to forget now that “Cinematic Universe” is in every media company’s earnings release, but at the time the idea of connecting all these stories in the same universe was extremely risky! How can you tell the stories of four different major characters who each had their own standalone films, while also giving enough space to two more members of the team and countless supporting characters? Can you even do that?
Well it turns out you can, if you really do the thing. And man, Marvel did the thing! They just jump right into this movie and expect you to know what’s going on! This is the first movie that shows Marvel’s latent disregard for casual fans. The Avengers spends a shockingly small amount of time reminding you who Thor, Iron Man and Captain America are — you’ve either seen the previous movies and know exactly who these characters are, or you haven’t and you’ll probably be a little confused. The Avengers doesn’t give a shit if you haven’t seen Thor — it just jumps right into the action and has the big man drop a hammer on top of Loki. The Avengers is the first Marvel movie that just isn’t as fun if you haven’t seen the rest — but that’s on you!
The movie has its problems, for sure. The first twenty minutes can be completely skipped. For some reason the movie believes we care about Maria Hill (we don’t). There are a number of weird throwaway lines to resolve problems no one cares about (oh, so Jane Foster is safe? Um, okay, whatever). Loki’s plan doesn’t make sense.
But none of that matters because the rest of the movie is SO GOOD! It is astonishing how good the chemistry is between the Avengers from their first go round, even though none of them (besides Black Widow/Iron Man) have interacted with each other before. Part of the reason this movie works so well is because they DON’T become fast friends immediately. Both Tony and Thor try to play the alpha man card, so of course they beat the shit out of each other. Bruce is so terrified of accidentally Hulking out that he doesn’t open up to these new arrivals. The only one who is really focused on “everyone let’s get along!” is Captain America, which (predictably) just leads to Tony calling him a huge dork.
Not only is the character interplay excellent, the action between these characters is even better! There’s a real joy to watching these heroes fight, both each other and together. You can sense the glee from the writer’s room as they have Thor shoot lighting at Tony and hit Hulk with Mjolnir.
That sense of fun and joy is so prevalent in the film’s final third, one of the best final battles in the MCU. Many Marvel films have a third act problem, where a tense and tightly written movie devolves into an explosion of lights and colors with some big stupid villain (*cough cough* Iron Man). But the final battle in The Avengers works because it drives directly from the storyline, and gives each member of the team a character moment.
We see Captain America take charge, and the rest of the team respond naturally to his well thought out instructions. We see the destructive potential of Hulk and Thor, Hawkeye’s professional calm and the creativity of Black Widow. It even has great moments for Loki! We see the god of mischief as a vicious, clever adversary who is always just a little bit in over his head.
But the ace, of course, is Iron Man. Tony Stark has spent the entire movie feuding with Captain America, and pushing back on the idea of teamwork or sacrifice. But at the climax, with all of NYC threatened, it’s not Captain America who jumps on a nuke — it’s Iron Man. The Avengers is the movie that really took the MCU to the next level, and it does it with style!
6. Spider-Man: Homecoming
Homecoming is so good because it understands the best Spider-Man stories are actually stories about Peter Parker (or Miles Morales). Spider-Man isn’t a powerful superhero who happens to be a kid, he’s an awkward, gangly, bright-hearted teenager who happens to be able to stop a speeding car with his bare hands.
That matters because it gives such a different structure to Homecoming. A lot of the MCU movies can feel very samey, and the overall structure doesn’t differ that much. But Homecoming feels really different! The main and most engaging parts of this story all have to do with Peter Parker’s story, not Spider-Man’s. Will Peter look cool in high school? Will Peter be able to win over Liz? Will Peter have a great homecoming dance? (No, sort of, definitely not). These are the main conflicts and tensions that drive the story, and it’s just so nice to have these relatable, ground-level stakes that everyone can sympathize with.
It helps that Tom Holland is unbelievably fun as Peter Parker! We all knew someone like Peter in high school (or maybe you were that kid) — smart, awkward, well-meaning and perpetually in way, way over his head. Like, this interrogation scene is so delightful.
And so is the instant kill scene!
In all of these you can really clearly see Peter as a kid who’s in over his head, and it’s so fun to watch. The rest of the cast is excellent as well! Ned is great as Peter’s best friend, and Martin Starr has a nice little supporting role. Robert Downey Jr. has a ton of fun taking a step back and playing the mentor role. In his limited appearances, he builds a nice chemistry with Peter that ends up being one of the MCU’s strongest threads through Endgame.
Special shout out to Michael Keaton, who takes one of the most forgettable Spider-Man villains and makes him instantly iconic. Adrian Toomes is a truly nasty person driven by absolute selfishness. He’s the type of guy who doesn’t want to hurt you, but will absolutely ice you and your entire family if you cross him. He’s perfectly charming and has very relatable motives, but will also drop a building on a fifteen year old with zero hesitation.
The writing is great, the pacing is excellent, the cinematography is top-notch (the scene where Adrian’s face is subtly illuminated in purple and green as he realizes that Peter is Spider-Man is so good) and the action is super fun.
The only real weakness of this movie is the third act, specifically the final fight. The fight between Vulture and Spider-Man on the camouflaged plane is a confused mess, and it truly is just impossible to see what is going on.
But the rest of the movie is awesome! Come for Tom Holland’s incredible charm, stay for an extremely fun teen rom-com with your favorite superhero. What’s not to like?
5. Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
People sometimes think of Captain America as naive. But he’s not naive. He’s an optimist, he’s positive, he sees the best in people, but he’s not naive and he’s not stupid. The Russo Brothers fully understand that, which is why The Winter Soldier is so good.
Most of the time in the MCU, the script ranges from meh (Ant-Man) to good (Iron Man). But The Winter Soldier has a great script! It’s just very well written! From the first interaction with SHIELD, we see that there is something not quite right. Our introduction to Robert Redford is extremely pleasant and normal, but still — something is off about this whole set-up. The rest of the movie is a perfectly paced slow reveal that carefully unveils the grand conspiracy step by step. Cap is the perfect character to face this sort of challenge, as he just keeps asking straightforward, honest questions that cut through the bureaucratic nonsense until people suddenly start shooting at him. And when the masks fall off, he’s more than equipped to kick everyone’s ass.
All the characters here are excellent. Falcon and Black Widow take center stage alongside Captain America, and both are really fun! As good as Cap is, the actual best arc in the film is Black Widow. She starts out the film as a secret agent with massive trust issues, and ends the film disclosing her identity to the whole world. Along the way she proves to be the perfect partner to the more by-the-book Captain America. It’s an excellent arc, and beautifully written and acted throughout. And, huge props to the Russo brothers for not making Black Widow a pointless love interest for Captain America!
The Winter Soldier is a terrifying adversary. He moves with a brutality and clinical purpose that is deeply scary, a true emotionless killer. Here’s where the script really carries its weight as well — The Winter Soldier is teased really well, with just enough revealed scene by scene to make you really afraid of him. And there’s just enough of Bucky shown for the reveal to be extremely, extremely powerful. The fight scene between Cap and The Winter Soldier is a masterclass in both action and character work, and both Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan kill it.
That’s not the best action scene in the movie, though — you can’t talk about Winter Soldier without mentioning the absolutely badass elevator fight scene.
The politics of the movie are also surprisingly relevant for a 2014 major studio release. The very thought that right-wing forces have taken over law enforcement and secret service is chillingly prescient, and HYDRA’s plot to eliminate targets via helicarriers unveil is clearly a reference to Obama’s drone strike program. There’s even a scene where Nick Fury argues that they can reform SHIELD, but Cap shoots him down. Cap says that SHIELD is beyond saving, and they need to dismantle the whole institution. (#defundSHIELD)
Winter Soldier is probably the best put-together movie in the MCU. There just, isn’t really a weakness in the script? The story is well-tied together, and the acting throughout is really good. I think the only reason I’ve ranked it #5 is that I don’t love the tone of the movie. Most MCU movies have a sense of fun at the core of it, and Winter Soldier really doesn’t. That’s not a bad thing! It just means that as much as I like this movie, I’m not generally looking to rewatch it. But Winter Soldier is still really good!
4. Guardians of the Galaxy
Yeah this movie is just a ton of fun. There are relatively few MCU movies that are truly able to stand on their own — as in, you can show one of these movies to someone who has never seen an MCU movie before. Iron Man, Black Panther…it’s a pretty thin list. Guardians of the Galaxy is the best movie to show to someone who has never seen a Marvel movie before, because it is just a goddamn good time!
This movie fully understands what it is, and what it is here to do. You’re here to see a bunch of unsavory but charming ruffians go up against an unstoppable force of evil and win against overwhelming odds. Yeah, there’s probably a plot MacGuffin and some random nice people that need to be saved, but honestly that’s all secondary. It is, in essence, a Star Wars movie! And a really, really good one!
The action is kinetic, the visuals look amazing and the music, of course, is so so good. The action setpieces are stunning — the prison break scene is one of my favorite scenes in all the Marvel movies, and the Knowhere space battle is almost as good.
But the real joy of Guardians is the characters. Guardians has so much conviction in its cast that it goes all-in on TWO Han Solo-inspired character arcs. The obvious stand-in is Star-Lord, who grows from a careless, amoral thief into a thoughtful, responsible leader of this band of misfits. But just as inspiring is Rocket’s arc, where he goes from being a cynical mercenary to a self-sacrificing member of the team.
Every character here is likeable. Drax is unintentionally hilarious, but also working through a lot of pain and rage. Gamora is probably the least well-written of the characters, but she doesn’t detract from the team. And Groot somehow manages to be the heart and soul of the Guardians without ever saying anything besides “I am Groot.”
Guardians has a ton of fun with its secondary antagonists as well. Nebula is a nice foil to Gamora, and Yondu steals every single scene he’s in. The whole universe that the Guardians inhabit is like a pastel version of the Mos Eisley Cantina — gritty and lived in, but also bright, colorful and fun.
The rest of the plot is replacement level. Ronan barely registers as a threat, and all of Xandar doesn’t move the needle. The plot doesn’t make any sense, a ton of the dialogue is space gobbledygook, and the Power Stone is a complete MacGuffin. But luckily, everything in this movie moves fast enough that it it gets you past the meh parts pretty quickly, and then you’re on to something fun. Forget about Xandar! Let’s watch Rocket and Drax get drunk and bet on lizard fights at an intergalactic dive bar!
Yep, that’s the good stuff.
3. Iron Man
A lot of ink has been spilled on how big a risk the MCU was. How do you get a studio to sign off on the expense of funding MULTIPLE blockbusters, when any one bust can torpedo the entire plan? (RIP Green Lantern). How do you get buy-in for comic book movies, a product that is capable of amazing returns (The Dark Knight) but also horrifying catastrophes (X-Men: The Last Stand)?
Well, you start by making Iron Man, because Iron Man is an excellent movie. This truly is a movie that you can show to someone who’s never seen a single Marvel movie, or may never see another Marvel movie again. It’s just an excellent, well put together action film driven by a solid character arc powered by an all-star actor.
From the very first, this is the Robert Downey Jr. show, and he carries the action from start to finish. Unlike other superheroes, Tony Stark doesn’t enter our frame of life bereft by the loss of his parents/uncle/planet — his life rocks! He’s a billionaire who gets to design cool toys, bask in the adulation of the public, and drown himself in intoxicants and women. He’s Howard Hughes without mental illness, Larry Ellison if people gave a shit about Oracle, Elon Musk without Twitter. His life is awesome!
And then, his life gets upended. When Tony gets abducted by terrorists, we see him backed into a corner, and fighting back against overwhelming odds.
We also see the wheels turning in Tony’s heads as he realizes how much damage his weapons have done in the world. So, when this selfish asshole decides to suit up and take on the bad guys — it makes a lot of sense, and we’re with him the whole way!
Watching Tony in this movie is so much fun. Huge segments of this movie are basically just Tony welding things together, but it’s so fun watching him tinker and adjust, to see his brain and wits in action.
The secondary characters are pretty fun as well. Gwyneth Paltrow is particularly fun as Pepper Potts. It’s really fun to watch these smart, driven characters bounce off each other — their work dynamic just barely covering a deep mutual affection.
The rest of the characters (Rhodey, Stane, Agent Coulson) are perfectly serviceable, but the real joy of this movie is watching Tony go over around and through whatever’s in his way!
The only issue with this movie is that the third act…does not make a lot of sense. Obadiah Stane makes perfect sense as a villain who wants to kick Tony out of his company. But after spending most of the movie quietly outmaneuvering Tony behind the scenes, Stane makes the decision to…jump in a giant robot suit and go toe-to-toe with Tony? What? Why? That doesn’t make any sense. So yeah, that final battle doesn’t make a ton of sense and isn’t particularly interesting.
But even a weak final battle can’t hold this movie back. At the end of the day this is one of the best MCU movies, because it just gets out of Tony Stark’s way and lets him cook.
2. Black Panther
In 2018, I wondered if Erik Killmonger was a better character than T’Challa. Rewatching it in 2020 as defund the police protests sweep the country, it’s clear that Killmonger captures the zeitgeist in a way even the Black Panther can’t. Michael B. Jordan turns in an electrifying performance and Ryan Coogler writes an amazing arc for the character. N’Jdaka’s moment in the spirit world with his father is absolutely heartbreaking.
His final monologue is the best speech in the MCU.
Most compellingly, Killmonger has the best arguments in the movie. Why shouldn’t Wakanda help the black people of the world? Why should Wakanda be let off the hook for standing by as black people are enslaved, arrested and oppressed across the world? Why shouldn’t the Black Panther suffer for killing his father and leaving him in Oakland? From his electric charisma, brutal pronouncements, and enthusiasm for violence (most notably directed against the black women in the film), Killmonger perfectly encapsulates the problematic male black radical. He is the best villain in the MCU, by far.
Oh yeah, the rest of this movie is also great. First of all, everything in Black Panther just looks, sounds and feels amazing! The music, the costume design, the lighting…everything is absolutely on point. The car chase scene in Korea is one of the most fun and electric scenes in the MCU.
This movie is filled with memorable side characters — from techie Shuri, to badass Okoye and intimidating man-mountain M’Baku, this movie is filled with characters that we really care about. And the central problem of this movie is one of the best written conflicts in the MCU. What is the responsibility of a black superpower in a world where black people are perpetually oppressed? How can the oppressed strike back at their oppressors without duplicating the same power structures that were used to oppress them? The fact that Killmonger was trained as a US CIA operative is a very nice nod, and a well-drawn contrast to T’Challa’s firmly Wakandan roots.
I also don’t really incorporate cultural relevance these into these rankings (because honestly, idk how?) but it bears noting for this film — Black Panther is the most culturally relevant MCU movie, by far. Black Panther singlehandedly demolished the outdated myth that non-black audiences wouldn’t support a black film. Black Panther inspired a wave of reactions in fashion, music and art. Black Panther was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture. Black Panther made Wakanda part of the vernacular. There is no point in telling you to watch Black Panther, because even people who don’t like superhero movies have watched Black Panther.
So, why isn’t it #1? A couple reasons. First of all, Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa is just — fine? It’s not a bad performance, but compared to his time in Civil War (where he has the best arc in the film), he doesn’t actually do that much in this movie. T’Challa is mostly reduced to standing around and reacting as things happen around him, which just makes him less compelling. Secondly, his romance with Nakia is another totally forgettable pointless Marvel romance. Finally, while the action in Black Panther is generally really good, the final fight between Killmonger and T’Challa just does not look good at all and is a CGI mess. These are small points though. At the end of the day, Black Panther is amazing.
1. Thor: Ragnarok
Ragnarok is so, so much fun. It is an absolutely bonkers acid trip of a movie, dispatched with gleeful abandon by one of my favorite directors. It’s somehow silly and fun while also being poignant and full of pathos. This is a family drama about three siblings fighting to uphold different parts of their difficult father’s legacy, and it’s also a movie where the heroes escape their pursuers on a trash planet by accidentally setting off celebratory fireworks in Jeff Goldblum’s orgy pleasure yacht. Ragnarok is deranged, and I love it so much!
The first two Thor movies, while I find them delightful, are honestly not great. Taika Waititi takes a much-needed razor to the franchise, slicing away all the useless dead weight. The pointless side characters are gone — Jane, Erik and Darcy are disposed of offscreen, and the Warriors Three are quickly dispatched by Hela. Even Odin is gone (ironically, in Anthony Hopkins’ best performance). The only one who is still around is Heimdall, and that’s only because Taika is forced to admit that he needs to keep around someone in Asgard for the sake of the story. Oh, speaking of Asgard — we basically spend no time in that boring, dull Palace of Naboo. And barely any time on earth as well!
To replace all the uselessness he’s carved off, Taika throws in a couple new, extremely fun additions. First off is Jeff Goldblum, playing himself. I honestly believe that Taika never gave him a script, and Jeff Goldblum just ad-libbed every single line. He is a delightful villain, and such a breath of fresh air.
There’s also Korg (voiced by Taika himself), a hilarious bit of comic relief. I assume Dr. Strange’s appearance was mandated by corporate higher-ups, but Ragnarok uses Dr. Strange so well (he’s there as a bit of a change of pace, he moves the plot along, he doesn’t overstay his welcome) that it’s barely noticeable.
But there are two big additions that Taika throws into the mix that make Ragnarok so much fun. The first, from preexisting Marvel movies, is Bruce Banner and the Hulk. Ragnarok is the first MCU movie to get that the Hulk is a real character, not just an out-of-control side of Bruce Banner. Bruce has previously talked about the Hulk as “the other guy,” and here we get to see that it’s really true! Hulk is another guy, and he has his own relationships with each of these characters. Hulk is his own character, and watching Bruce and Hulk separately navigate their relationships with Thor, Loki and Valkyrie is a treat.
Speaking of Valkryie — oh man, Tessa Thompson rocks so much. Valkryie is a stonecold badass who is cynical and grizzled to the core, while also having deeply buried dreams of her own. Her chemistry with Thor is super, super fun. Unlike the Avengers, who are generally the ones getting Thor to be more responsible, Valkyrie forces Thor to be a leader and take charge. And unlike Loki, who’s always trying to betray him, Valkyrie is actually a stable ally who will support him once he’s gotten her (grudging) support. Ragnarok also doesn’t make Valkryie a pointless love interest —there’s a strong hint of potential romance with Valkyrie, but she fully exists as her own character with her own motivations, journey and arc.
But it’s the two characters who Taika keeps here who are the main draw to Ragnarok. I’m speaking, of course, about Thor and Loki. Through Thor and The Dark World, the chemistry between Hemsworth and Hiddleston helped elevate mediocre movies. Now, in the hands of an actually good film, these two really shine. Watching the gods of thunder and mischief bounce off each other is an absolute delight. Each hilarious story and betrayal isn’t just funny, it serves the plot and the ongoing relationship between these two. I could watch these two doing taxes, and Taika has them jetting off on a bonkers space adventure in an acid-soaked galaxy. What’s not to love?
These two characters aren’t just super fun, it’s also great to see them grow as characters during this film. I love that the climax of the film involves Loki, the perpetually difficult and inconstant ally, showing up and saving the day for all of Asgard. At the same time Thor, the dumbest himbo in the world, realizes that he CAN’T fight his way out of things and needs to summon Surtur to destroy Hella. At the finale, it’s Loki who’s the hero and Thor who’s the trickster. That’s just really fun!
Ragnarok has its issues, for sure. Hela is serviceable as the main villain, but she isn’t anything special. Karl Urban’s Skurge is meh. It’s not a perfect movie.
But Ragnarok is an absolutely delightful romp through space with some of the most charismatic and fun characters Marvel has to offer! It ties into the larger MCU universe really well, but also can be watched on its own as a deeply entertaining standalone film. It avoids the biggest issues most MCU movies have (no pointless love interest, no stupid third act battle), but more than that — it leans into what makes these movies fun, and the delirious sense of excitement and joy that superhero movies can provide. It’s gleeful, it’s deliriously fun and it has amazing writing, direction, cinematography and action. It is, in my humble opinion, the best MCU movie.
End of Blog
We did it!
We made it through all 23 of the MCU movies from the ones that are meh, to the ones that are pretty good, to now, the ones that are actually great! And no matter whether your favorite MCU movie is The Incredible Hulk or Thor: Ragnarok, I hope you can join me in appreciating how fun these movies are, and what a joy it is to have them! Thank you for joining me on this journey, because these movies are always a treat.