The Best and Not So Best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

I recently spent a weekend with Bayana in the throes of a Marvel marathon. Starting with the first Iron Man and ending with The Avengers we spent the better part of our weekend lying on the couch and live-tweeting what was happening in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). With all of the recent news surrounding the MCU; the release of Daredevil on Netflix, the release of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, upcoming release of Ant-Man and the EPIC casting news for Captain America: Civil War. I felt it was time to rank the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe from worst to best.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Can we all agree that the big guy just cannot sustain his own movie? While I think Edward Norton did a passable job as Bruce Banner, I was bored the entire film. During the movie, you are either anticipating a hulk out, mid hulk out or wondering how he is going to get out of the hulk out. Frankly, the only enjoyable Hulk is Mark Ruffalo in The Avengers where he can be expected to carry out a joke and not carry a movie.

While it’s worth noting that the idea for the Avengers did not finalize until the release of Iron Man 2 and, therefore, The Hulk was retroactively included into the MCU, the movie is definitely the least enjoyable of them all in my opinion. That being said it’s steal light years ahead of 2003’s The Hulk starring Eric Bana – not that that is such a historic accomplishment. The six fans of Howard the Duck could probably make a passable argument that movie is better than 2003’s The Hulk. Unfortunately during a panel for The Avengers: Age of Ultron it was hinted that there may soon be a new standalone Hulk added to the franchise. When will they learn?

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Robert Downey Jr. was made to play Tony Stark there is no arguing that the casting of Iron Man was brilliant from the very beginning. However, Rhodey started off a little rocky with Terrence Howard, I don’t know if it’s the stench of my dislike for Terrence Howard bleeding into his performance retroactively, but I did feel a favorable tone switch once Don Cheadle was cast as his replacement. Iron Man 2 also starts taking on those dark undertones that are synonymous with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tony struggling with his ego and his mortality that turns himself destructive is a theme that I think was very interesting and desperately wished they could’ve pulled off. They didn’t.

While Sam Rockwell is a great actor and plays the smarmy villain with the best of them I just didn’t believe that someone so incompetent could be the main antagonist to Tony Stark. I also didn’t fully understand or care about Rourke’s version of Ivan Vanko aka Whiplash. In the film, Whiplash is out to defend his father against some perceived slight that is not fully explained or thought out. Natasha Romanoff is undercover as Tony’s assistant in order to scout him for the Avengers Initiative (for which he is deemed unfit) but besides one instance of kick-assery, she may as well be set decoration. Iron Man 2 isn’t a terrible movie but it is terribly inconsistent and that is why it ranks so low on this list.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

I have a soft spot for period movies and while I remember hating Captain America, it was probably seeing it in IMAX 3D which was not only unnecessary – it left me with severe motion sickness, rewatching the film at home was infinitely more enjoyable. I am forever grateful that The Fantastic Four was such a disaster because it led to Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers. Steve Rogers is the ultimate cliche of a morally upright, patriot and American. As a Black person, I find his unwavering patriotism confusing and terribly naive. However, as a nerd Steve Rogers is where it all begins and in going through his origin story it’s hard not to think back to how Bruce Banner and even Tony Stark became who they are only because they were trying to recreate the super soldier serum that created Captain Ameria.

Steve Rogers’ Captain has a moral center that while a bit self-righteous is also above reproach. You trust him to do the right thing and make the tough choices and as you watch Peggy Carter (heyyy Ms. Carter) fall in love with him you can’t help but fall a little in love as well. While I think Captain America was too long and overly sentimental it’s a great film and the first in which you can see the vision of MCU reaching its stride and full potential. There are great supporting characters; Peggy, Howard Stark, Col. Chester Phillips and Bucky Barnes. There are big villains (Red Skull) and big stakes, the fate of the Tesseract and it has amazing rewatching potential.

Iron Man (2008)

Iron Man, like The Incredible Hulk, was retroactively included in the MCU. After seeing the success of this film and dedication of the fanbase Kevin Feige (a visionary) greenlit the establishing of the shared universe through film. As previously stated, Robert Downey Jr. is an amazing Tony Stark and it’s difficult to imagine another actor in the role, but unlike Iron Man 2, the villain in this film, Obadiah Stane aka Iron Monger, played by the brilliant Jeff Bridges is believable and makes sense! After being held hostage by a terrorist group in Afghanistan, Tony Stark manages to escape by making a prototype Iron Man suit and vows to shut down the weapon making section of Stark Industries. Obadiah Stane who is trying to take over Stark Industries is obviously upset about the announcement that leads to a massive drop in stock prices. Greed and power turn dude evil, yes, finally something I can get behind!

While Iron Man set the tone for the new Marvel Cinematic Universe it is by no means perfect. While entertaining and action packed, it doesn’t have the gravitas and dark tones that the later films will employ. Tony Stark is a favorite among fanboys and girls all over Tumblr but the more films that Marvel releases the more Iron Man looks mediocre by comparison. It is by no means a bad movie, no films in the MCU are (even The Incredible Hulk is mediocre at worst). I will still stop whatever I’m doing to watch it when it comes on TV, but if given the choice of only seeing one movie out of the bunch, this is not the one I’m choosing.

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Though I don’t claim to be a journalist I feel as though I am gaining some journalistic cred by placing Thor: The Dark World in this position on the list, While Loki’s role is not nearly what I hoped it would be, I felt this movie to be a good follow-up to the first film and it recaptured many aspects of what I initially enjoyed. Most of that enjoyment stemming from the cast, with Fandral recast as Zachary Levi (TV’s Chuck), my fangirl was overjoyed with excitement.  The plot of The Dark World centers around Thor’s quest to save Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) who has been infected by the Aether, an Infinity Stone. Unfortunately, this means there is much more of the annoyingly dull romance between Jane and Thor. However, as always Loki is there to save the movie as he and Thor team up to save Asgard from the Dark Elf Malekith (CHRIS ECCLESTON, 9TH DOCTOR FOR THE WIN!). Loki helps a distrustful Thor save Jane from the Aether but as always he has some tricks up his sleeve and I’m so here for it.

The biggest issue I have with Thor: The Dark World was that after the balance of The Avengers and Iron Man 3 this movie went too dark. It did not have the levity that I’d grown accustomed to with Marvel films and the absence of jokes and gags only highlighted how much they’re needed. The best moment of the movie was also one of the few light moments in which Loki performs some magic and there are some surprise cameos that allow for a momentary respite from the too serious tone of the film.

The Avengers (2012)

I have a deep love for Joss Whedon so when it was announced that he would be writing and directing The Avengers the level of my excitement was off the charts. Avengers had everything I wanted in a superhero movie lots of action, lots of jokes, high stakes, and a great villain. Oh the villain, Loki. It is a bit disingenuous to think of Loki Laufeyson as a straight villain, in reality he’s a tragic anti-hero. He just wants to be loved, feared, respected and obeyed, honestly is that too much to ask? Loki is constantly overshadowed by his older (adopted) brother – I know those feels bro.

The Avengers has quite literally ALL of the jokes and the first seeds of tension between a fledgling new team that we are sure to see come back into focus during The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Loki invades Midgaard (Earth) and steals the Tesseract (that thing is nothing but trouble) taking Hawkeye and Prof. Selving with him by enslaving them with his scepter. Son of COUL (!) and Black Widow are sent out to bring in Dr. Bruce Banner, Tony Stark, and Steve Rogers to help bring Loki back and figure out why the Tesseract is so important. End to end the movie is completely enjoyable and the fact that it’s in the middle of the pack on this list only serves to show the high standard Marvel Studios has set for itself.

Iron Man 3 (2013)

Iron Man 3 is the first film released after The Avengers and signals the start of the second phase of the MCU. After his thrilling heroics during the “Battle of New York” Tony Stark has been plagued by panic attacks and taken to building numerous versions of the Iron Man suit. After Tony’s bodyguard Happy Hogan is injured in an attack by terrorist The Mandarin, Tony threatens the Mandarin in the most Tony Stark way possible, publicly on television by giving out his address. Tony’s Malibu mansion is destroyed in a sensational attack by The Mandarin, which I’m sure severely lowered the property value of all of his neighbors. After Tony escapes he ends up in Tennessee with an adorable young sidekick, Harley, where he is able to battle his demons and come up with a plan to bring down the terrorist and save Pepper Potts (she’s a damsel who is obviously in distress).

There is a great twist in Iron Man 3 and some pretty great action sequences and performances. Though there is so much going against Pepper Potts as a character, mostly her being played by Gwyneth Paltrow, Pepper really comes into her own in this film and even gets a few girl power feels out of me by the end of it. I appreciate how Iron Man 3 was able to hold it’s own after The Avengers and was really able to keep the stakes high with a single hero, it also brings back the jokes that made The Avengers so much fun. Something Thor: The Dark World was unable to do.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

The newest film in the Marvel Universe is also one of the best. Joss Whedon went bigger in size and scope adding more characters, more action and well, more everything really. The movie really turns on the character development that began in the second wave of movies. The PTSD that Tony Stark was dealing with in Iron Man 3 is still present in Age of Ultron and his fear of another alien invasion compels him to take risks and hide decisions from the team that ultimately affects everyone.

We also see the emergence of the Inhumans that have been developed on the television show Marvel’s Agents of Shield and the introduction of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch to the universe though they’re referred to as “enhanced” humans who have been experimented on by Hydra agents. We also see the further development of secondary Avengers Black Widow and Hawkeye. Though there was some pushback from fans about Black Widow’s story arc, which is another post for a later time, I really appreciated the effort to round out these characters. I also very much appreciated the emergence of grumpy old man Hawkeye since his source material could have allowed for a much darker characterization and there is enough darkness in the main heroes.

Most exciting about Age of Ultron was the introduction of Vision which caused me squee with such delight that I actually shocked myself. There were so many moments filled that filled me with joy, the opening montage of the Avengers on a mission, the Avengers trying to lift Mjolnir, War Machine trying to impress Thor and Iron Man with tales of his heroics and the ultimate showdown between Avengers and Ultron, complete with slow motion. There were some issues as well but they were overshadowed by the sheer size and scope of the movie.

Thor (2011)

Why is Thor above both The Avengers movies in this list? Two reasons: jokes and sexy men. Honestly, Thor raises the bar on bae per minute in a superhero movie, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston AND Idris Elba?? Stahp! All the handsome and talent is in this film and the Shakespearean tone used in a superhero movie makes it all the more enjoyable. Chris Hemsworth does a wonderful job early in the film transitioning from a warrior prince (heh) to a clueless outsider who seems insane to the other characters he encounters.

Since this list is obviously subjective and based on my own illogical and every changing criteria for what makes a great Marvel movie I must admit that any movie in which Tom Hiddleston is portraying Loki Laufeyson is an instant classic in my book. Just as RDJ is born to play Iron Man, Tom was the perfect casting for Loki. He is able to seamlessly switch from mischievous to malevolent. Equally believable as a power hungry megalomaniac and a hurt child acting out for attention. If they changed the name of this franchise from Thor to Loki I doubt many people would complain, well I wouldn’t complain. But you know Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Hopkins, and Kenneth Branagh did a great job too, whatever.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Guardians of the Galaxy is the first film in the MCU that doesn’t center around a member of the Avengers until Ant-Man is released in July. Guardians is also one of my favorite comic series from Marvel (though full disclosure I haven’t read a large amount of any comic storylines). As much as I love Chris Pratt I was shocked by his casting as Peter Quill since it signaled the film would be a much more comedic film. Though there was some background given between Peter Quill’s origin and when he enters space to become Star-Lord there was a lot left out which I assume will be revisited in future sequels.  Guardians does not tie neatly into the Marvel Cinematic Universe as it is now and I can only assume that there will be some more in-depth crossover with the release of future films and Guardians of the Galaxy 2. As a standalone film there is a lot of really great aspects of the movie that shine but as this is the latest in a series of movies that, while not technically related certainly have close ties, I spent a good amount of time waiting for a cameo or mention of other heroes which never came.

There was also a lot of star power that was a bit squandered – Rocket Raccoon is voiced by Bradley Cooper, Groot is voiced by Vin Diesel and Nebula is played by a barely recognizable Karen Gillan. While it is a bit shocking to see those names not being used to their full advantage the performances were good and the comedy was spot on while still managing to portray some darkness and tender moments that give the films in the MCU a much appreciated depth. Overall, Guardians is a great film and I have very high hopes for the next installment especially if it does more to explore these characters role in the Infinity Wars.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

By far Captain America: The Winter Soldier has been my favorite film released in the MCU. While Steve Rogers isn’t as regal as Thor or as sharp tongued as Tony Stark, his story is one of the most complex and endlessly intriguing in the MCU. He’s young and handsome, old-fashioned and moral and his interactions with the people surrounding him are a goldmine for both drama and comedy. The reason Captain America: The Winter Soldier tops this list is because it is also the most inclusive film in the Universe so far. The plot has major implications for the television show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, includes the charismatic Sam Wilson (played by the problematic Anthony Mackie) and gives Black Widow her biggest role yet.

Captain America gives us a real sense of what Kevin Feige’s vision for the Marvel Cinematic Universe is. Not only do these movies acknowledge each other but the decisions a character makes has an effect on the other characters. It’s reminiscent of what happens within the comic world but more condensed and accessible to a wider audience. As a nerd I always tend to pinpoint a flagship example of why I love a thing, interested in Doctor Who, I’ll tell you to watch the tenth episode of episode 3 “Blink”. Need an example of how great The Harry Potter series is? I’ll point to the book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the movie that I will use to point to why Marvel is dominating box offices now and into the foreseeable future.