Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Photos: Marvel/Disney

As Endgame looms, we rank the previous 21 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Photos: Marvel/Disney
Graphic: Rebecca Fassola

In a few days, Marvel Studios will finally pay off the agonizing cliffhanger of last summer’s Avengers: Infinity War with the culmination of 11 years of comic-to-screen storytelling. How will the hotly anticipated Endgame measure up to the 21 movies that have come before it, going all the way back to Iron Man in 2008? Conventional critical wisdom holds that the floor and the ceiling of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are not so far apart—that in devising a recipe for success, the company has managed to avoid any outright disasters, even as its principle of quality-without-risk also more or less negates the possibility of a true pop masterpiece of the genre. Still, as anyone who’s sat through both a boring Iron Man or Thor sequel and last winter’s Oscar-winning zeitgeist phenomenon Black Panther can surely attest, there is a range of quality within this franchise of franchises. Which is to say, while every MCU movie has been a hit, they are not all created equal. Below, The A.V. Club has offered its ranking, from worst to best, of every Marvel movie leading up to this week’s new one. Like the studio, we wouldn’t dream of spoiling our endgame. Okay, here’s one little hint: Ed Norton fans, this won’t be your day of vindication.

21. Iron Man 2 (2010)

Despite what its position at the very bottom of this list may imply, Iron Man 2 is not completely devoid of fun. For example, the suitcase armor is still a very cool concept, and Tony Stark activating it while staring down Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko is a great moment. Speaking of which, who could forget Rourke’s weird pronunciation of the word “bird”? That’s all good stuff. Unfortunately, everything else is less good. The movie features the introduction of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, and while she would eventually go on to become a core pillar of this series, here she’s practically just an object to be gawked at like that portable gear. Then there’s the big final battle, with Tony fighting an army of faceless Iron Man clones and then taking out a newly armored Vanko in a matter of moments, neither of which are particularly cool or satisfying. [Sam Barsanti]

20. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Even back in 2008, the then-nascent MCU’s new version of The Incredible Hulk was something of a hedge. It recast and rebooted the character just five years after Ang Lee’s divisive (and memorable!) take on the character, yet left enough wiggle room for less attentive audience members to assume it was some form of sequel. When the role was recast again for The Avengers, this Universal release was further consigned to also-ran status, and with good reason. Though Ed Norton is well-cast as both soft-spoken Bruce Banner and his furious alter ego, and director Louis Leterrier knows his way around pulpy action, this watchable, forgettable movie’s brain-to-brawn ratio is all out of whack, perhaps in part due to Norton’s squabbles with the filmmakers over the movie’s tone. At the time, this was considered part and parcel with the actor’s difficult reputation. Years later, though, Edgar Wright, Joss Whedon, and others had their own behind-the-scenes struggles with the Marvel machine to relate. [Jesse Hassenger]

19. Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Chris Hemsworth spoke for all of us when, with a withering “meh,” Thor himself dismissed The Dark World as “the second one.” Sandwiched between Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the entry benefits from its clean, handsome direction, but stagnates thanks to a toothless villain, a perfunctory romance, and oodles of mythological mumbo-jumbo. Its greatest sin, though, is in not capitalizing on the straight-faced levity Hemsworth flexed in the God Of Thunder’s first outing and doubled down on in The Avengers. Here, Hemsworth’s Thor feels more dutiful than dashing, and not even Tom Hiddleston’s reliably sly Loki can subvert the film’s self-seriousness. Speaking of Loki, though, The Dark World does deserve credit for helping transition the trickster god from villain to wild card, an archetype he’d play to perfection in Thor: Ragnarok. [Randall Colburn]

18. Thor (2011)

How is the movie that introduced one of the MCU’s best bad guys and one of its most consistent goofball delights such an easily forgettable slog? Maybe Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearean aspirations just didn’t gel with the fun-first Marvel model. Maybe the negative chemistry between Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman tossed a big, heavy hammer right through the movie’s heart. Maybe it’s Hawkeye’s fault. (Hands up if you remembered that this was Clint Barton’s big cameo debut. No? That’s what we thought.) And maybe Asgard is just boring as fuck—full of simplistic, dopey characters who are nowhere near as interesting as Thor and Loki themselves, whose ongoing, lived-in sibling rivalry remains the film’s most enduring contribution to the MCU. Thor, ironically, is at its best as a small-scale, Earth-set comedy, with Kat Dennings stealing scenes from the sidelines and Hemsworth getting to show off his comic timing instead of his dull, overly self-serious side. But then, just when you’re getting comfortable, here comes another big, computer-generated robot to smash those good times to bits. [William Hughes]

17. Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015)

The first Avengers was a monumental feat of blockbuster filmmaking, assembling the stars of its five precursors and making good on the gigantic bet placed on a humble Samuel L. Jackson cameo. The second, while nearly as huge at the box office, almost proved the folly of such a massive endeavor: It’s a swollen, globe-trotting expedition that’s more important for what it sets up—vibranium and Black Panther, Vision’s tragic role in Infinity War—than for anything having to do with the Avengers battling a rogue AI voiced by James Spader. Age Of Ultron’s production was tortured enough to drive Joss Whedon out of the big-screen superhero game, but at least he gave us those scenes of Earth’s mightiest heroes hanging out like drunken co-workers before he went. [Erik Adams]

16. Ant-Man (2015)

If you’re going to alienate Edgar Wright from making your Ant-Man movie (despite him being the only reason anyone wanted to make your Ant-Man movie), you could do a lot worse than hiring star Paul Rudd and his Anchorman collaborator Adam McKay to work on the script, or hiring Peyton Reed (Bring It On, Down With Love) to direct. This snappy team explains why Ant-Man is entertaining and light on its feet, while Wright’s departure helps to explain why the whole thing isn’t ever quite as clever or hilarious as it should be. Part of the problem is the movie’s soft-pedaling of Rudd’s likable career criminal-turned-superhero Scott Lang. Lang never really registers as a bumbling ne’er-do-well, just as Ant-Man never really registers as the heist picture it’s supposed to be. It’s just a bit of MCU ephemera, enlivened by Michael Peña’s delightful sidekick turn. As a whole, Ant-Man is good enough to get by, but it feels like some kind of indictment that Rudd is funnier in Captain America: Civil War. [Jesse Hassenger]

15. Doctor Strange (2016)

One complaint frequently lobbed at the Marvel movies is that they operate by a rigid, tried-and-true formula. But Doctor Strange may be the first of the studio’s blockbusters—various sequels included—to feel explicitly like a rerun. In forging a grand introduction for surgeon-turned-wizard Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), director Scott Derrickson and his cowriters essentially stuff the original Iron Man in a magic cape, offering the conspicuously similar origin story of a goateed, wisecracking egomaniac getting in touch with his selfless side. And yet if Doctor Strange dutifully, sometimes dully hits some very familiar plot points, it breaks the Marvel mold in at least one welcome respect: The special effects are uncharacteristically amazing, for once applying those Mouse House resources to the creation of some jaw-dropping set pieces, from Strange’s psychedelic head trip through the multiverse to a city-bending showdown that does new wonders with the dream physics of Inception. Maybe the inevitable sequel will marry that visual wizardry to a more magical story—or at least a less derivative one. [A.A. Dowd]

14. Iron Man 3 (2013)

As it turns out, people aren’t all that enamored of an Iron Man movie without much Iron Man. Iron Man 3 can be great fun, thanks to a snappy script and fleet direction by writer-director (and embodiment of an action-comedy pro) Shane Black. But it also spends the majority of its running time with Tony Stark out of his super-powered suit. True, that’s the whole point of the narrative—strip Tony of his toys, and he’s still Iron Man on the inside, a resourceful hero—but it means the film is less a superhero movie and more a Shane Black vehicle, even turning into a rough approximation of one of the writer’s Lethal Weapon films for the middle act. Add to that a fire-breathing Guy Pearce for a villain, and you’ve got a tonally odd Marvel release, one that still counts an excellent sense of humor among its strengths, but that didn’t deliver what many fans were hoping for in the wake of The Avengers. [Alex McLevy]

13. Ant-Man And The Wasp (2018)

Ant-Man And The Wasp is the rare sequel that surpasses the original, thanks to the increased importance of Scott Lang’s new partner—Evangeline Lilly as The Wasp—and the refinement of the Paul Rudd-as-superhero slapstick strategy pioneered by its predecessor. While the first Ant-Man was a fun, light-hearted romp, Ant-Man And The Wasp takes that frivolity further; it’s basically a comedy threaded through a superhero movie. Even the nominal villain (Hannah John-Kamen’s Ghost) is sympathetic, leaving most of the drama to rest on the heartfelt reunion between Hank (Michael Douglas) and Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) in the Quantum Realm. Meanwhile, Rudd hams it up as Scott plays pranks on the cops who want to keep him under house arrest and name-drops “Cap,” and Lilly’s Wasp gets her own size-changing set-pieces, adding another ass-kicking woman to the testosterone-heavy Marvel roster. It’s a small but bright spot in the franchise. [Gwen Ihnat]

12. Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Having one massively successful Marvel movie under your belt tends to earn a director a little more leeway to shrug off the conventions of the studio’s house style and pursue their own vision in the sequel. (At least it normally does.) After the critical and box-office success of the first Guardians, James Gunn returned to his motley assemblage of outer-space weirdoes with diminished but entertaining results. The story of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) discovering his father is a literal living planet, only to learn he’s also trying to basically replace all existence with himself, is surprisingly sentimental, with Gunn delving deep into the ersatz family dynamics of Star-Lord, Ego (Kurt Russell), and Peter’s pseudo-adoptive dad, Yondu (Michael Rooker). Guardians Vol. 2 possesses a warped wit and Day-Glo-absurdist imagery that keeps it fun and engaging, but the whole endeavor ends up feeling strangely weightless. Perhaps it’s the literal lack of gravity? [Alex McLevy]

11. Captain Marvel (2019)

The MCU was extremely overdue for its first woman-led production—Black Widow remains one of the only main Avengers without their own movie. So Captain Marvel had a lot riding on it. Brie Larson was fortunately up for the challenge, matching Skrull battle cry for Skrull battle cry. The space travels, battles, and feline hijinks are fun, alongside Carol Danvers’ relaxed banter with a digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson (as Nick Fury) and the ’90s-rock soundtrack. But at its heart, Captain Marvel is a movie about identity: Who are we if even our memories are suspect? We meet Carol as Kree warrior Vers (her repeated line is “You don’t know me”), only to discover that she’s actually a brave American test pilot who’s had to get up off her feet after being knocked down again and again, mostly by men. That inspiring montage aims to lift the heart of every woman and girl who sees it, and by the end-credits scene, it’s obvious that if anyone can defeat Thanos, it’s the as-yet-unnamed but all-powerful Captain Marvel. [Gwen Ihnat]

10. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Quite possibly the most expensive exercise in wide-scale furniture-moving ever brought to screen, last summer’s massive multi-hero pile-up Infinity War occasionally stumbles into moments of humanity and warmth, almost in spite of itself. There’s an undeniable crossover spark to seeing, say, Tony Stark and Stephen Strange get into a metaphysical dick-swinging contest, or watching a newly one-eyed Thor trade quips with Rocket Raccoon. But not even Infinity War’s cleverest touch—constructing the entire story as a slow-burn hero’s journey for Josh Brolin’s would-be finger-snapping conqueror, Thanos—can fully overcome the sheer drowning tide of excess that threatens to overwhelm the movie at every turn. Too many fights, too many “shocking” character deaths, and too many generic CGI baddies all conspire to turn Infinity War into a sludgy, big-budget waiting game—even if individual performers like Robert Downey Jr., Tom Holland, and Zoe Saldana do everything in their considerable powers to elevate the film above the flood. [William Hughes]

9. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Let us first thank Spider-Man: Homecoming for leaving the radioactive spiders in the past. Jon Watts’ reboot, the character’s third in 15 years, catches up with Peter Parker in the months after he gained his signature powers, when he’s as awkward at slinging webs as he is at asking girls on dates. Truly, Homecoming’s best scenes have nothing to do with action—the CGI is boilerplate and Vulture (outside of that scene) feels way too familiar—and everything to do with friendship, parties, and coming of age, be it as a teenager or a superhero. Tom Holland’s excitable energy gives Peter a boyishness his predecessors lacked and, as such, the danger is felt that much more when, say, we see him legit crying beneath a stack of flaming debris. Consider also his parting words at the end of Infinity War; they wouldn’t have spawned a thousand memorial memes if Peter weren’t, first and foremost, just a kid. [Randall Colburn]

8. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

There’d be no MCU if Marvel hadn’t nailed Iron Man, but the MCU wouldn’t be what it is today if the studio hadn’t also struck the right tone with Captain America. Frankly, it’s a miracle that The First Avenger works as well it does, especially since it rejects the tongue-in-cheek snark of the Iron Man movies and the weirdo tone of Thor in favor of a simpler superhero story about an absurdly skinny kid in the 1940s who is desperate to join the war—but not, as Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers explains to Stanley Tucci’s Dr. Erskine, so he can kill Nazis. He just doesn’t like bullies. The movie works because of the big-hearted way that Evans plays Cap, but not enough credit goes to its supporting characters—especially Hayley Atwell’s brilliant Peggy Carter, who deserved even better than the two-season show on ABC she did get. [Sam Barsanti]

7. Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014)

With its great cast, tight pacing, and sharp humor, Guardians Of The Galaxy is basically an Avengers movie. You’ve got your cocky would-be leader (Chris Pratt), a sly and deadly assassin (Zoe Saldana), and the remaining “muscle/tech whiz/smartass” roles filled by Dave Bautista and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel. This team of space misfits assembles to track down the latest MacGuffin and fight off a world-ending threat (Lee Pace as Ronan The Accuser, temporary lackey of Thanos), becoming a family along the way. Director James Gunn, who’s officially back in the saddle to wrap up the trilogy, makes the first foray into the Marvel Cosmic Universe worth the trip. There’s no shawarma-chomping button, but there is dancing, a kaleidoscopic palette, exceptional chemistry among the cast, and one of the most moving moments of self-sacrifice in all the MCU. Guardians Of The Galaxy also sets a new bar for use of music in comic-book movies, starting with an early scene that’s the perfect mix of whimsy and rollicking action. [Danette Chavez]

6. Iron Man (2008)

Origin stories can be a drag; as the argument goes, they’re everything that happens before the fun begins. But Iron Man proves that they don’t have to be. The very first MCU movie finds a lot of humor and drama in the prelude portion of a superhero saga, building a sterling pre-armor character arc for Tony Stark, the sardonic playboy-mogul whose brush with death jump-starts his conscience. What director Jon Favreau really has going for him is Robert Downey Jr., whose witty, sneakily complex performance provides the film—and the universe it launched—with a glowing fuel cell of movie-star charisma. Iron Man, of course, is also the origin story for a whole franchise, establishing some of its strengths (humor, good acting) and weaknesses (boring villains, serviceable action and effects). But it remains, a full decade later, one of the studio’s most satisfying and well-rounded entertainments, mostly for how it privileges the man over the iron, and finds the fun in where those two sides meet. [A.A. Dowd]

5. Captain America: Civil War (2016)

There’s no greater action sequence in a Marvel movie—maybe in all comic-book cinema, in fact—than the big airport tussle that arrives late into Captain America: Civil War, pitting one half of the studio’s ever-growing superhero population against the other. More than just a playful, extravagantly orchestrated blast of splash-panel fisticuffs, the scene also serves as a microcosm for the larger feat of multitasking achieved by directors Joe and Anthony Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. An Avengers movie in everything but name, Civil War somehow manages to juggle a dozen characters, shortchanging none of the regulars even as it introduces new players like Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and a newly teenage Spider-Man (Tom Holland), all while racing to a painfully personal, mano a mano climax. Some have insisted that Civil War is too long and too serious for its own good, but this big-budget ensemble soap opera handles its long list of obligations with grace. Certainly, it’s a more elegant crossover event than the actual Avengers movie its creative dream team would tackle next. [A.A. Dowd]

4. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

The best Marvel movies are the ones that find their own niche within the larger framework, whether it’s putting Captain America in a gritty ’70s thriller or dropping Spider-Man into another coming-of-age-story. With Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi gave the MCU its best comedy to date, buddy or otherwise. The What We Do In The Shadows director plays up the deadpan humor and awkward interpersonal dynamics, finding killer pairings in Chris Hemsworth and every single one of his co-stars, from Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk to Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, who is at his most charming here. That would be enough to make it the strongest film in the Thor trilogy, but Waititi also delivers some of the most striking visuals in all the MCU, creating a blacklight-poster aesthetic for this apocalyptic tale. Thor: Ragnarok pushes further still, intermittently setting aside its screwball energy to tell a poignant refugee story. So although he was tasked with bringing Asgard to an end, Waititi ended up breathing new life into Thor and his solo series. [Danette Chavez]

3. Black Panther (2018)

The rare Marvel film that’s as much a triumph of aesthetics as character or action, Ryan Coogler’s Oscar-nominated Afrofuturist blockbuster derives vibranium-assisted levels of power from its jaw-dropping, perfectly realized setting, in a way that the MCU’s usual assemblage of generic secret bases and random New York streets never could. Everyone who sees the African paradise of Wakanda instantly recognizes it as a utopia worth fighting for—and so they do, spurred on by one of the best-written, most understandably motivated villains in the franchise’s long, troubled history with antagonists. But to single out Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger would be to gloss over the sheer volume of scene-stealing talent—Letitia Wright! Winston Duke! Danai Gurira! Angela Bassett! Sterling K. Brown! Martin Freeman! Lupita Nyong’o!—that Coogler has surrounded Chadwick Boseman’s King T’Challa with. Black Panther set a new standard for what a stand-alone, “smaller” Marvel film could look like, employing razor-sharp world-building and casting to mine individualistic glory from the wider MCU rock. [William Hughes]

2. The Avengers (2012)

The first all-hands-on-deck superhero team-up film in the MCU is still the best, and the bar by which all future ones will be judged. The balancing act pulled off by writer-director Joss Whedon is a marvel (no pun intended) of blockbuster moviemaking: He manages to service the story of every titular hero from previous standalone films, create character arcs that feed into the larger plot, and provide a beginning, middle, and end to the story of Earth’s mightiest heroes coming together for the first time. And he does it all with a breezy wit and meaningful emotional stakes that keep you engaged for the entire two-and-a-half hours. Under the one good eye of Nick Fury, the story unites Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America, Thor, and S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton (admittedly, Hawkeye gets the short end of the stick, serving as the brainwashed pawn of Loki for most of the film) in a battle against the God Of Mischief, who plots to lead a Chitauri invasion of Earth. From the character-based humor to the actually great epic final fight, it’s everything a Marvel fan—or even casual moviegoer—could want. [Alex McLevy]

1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Much has been made of the way Captain America: The Winter Soldier drops unfrozen war hero Steve Rogers (a soulfully sincere Chris Evans) into its own modern version of a 1970s political thriller. That element is definitely there in the paranoia that colors its trust-no-one narrative, to say nothing of Robert Redford’s appearance as a shady politician. It’s just kind of an accent—a genre flavor. The Winter Soldier refines, rather than shatters, the MCU mold, which is key to why it’s the franchise’s rip-roaring highpoint. The Russo brothers, in their first gig for the studio, deliver fully on their mandate, offering all the team-building rapport (between Cap and Black Widow, Nick Fury, and The Falcon) and future-sequel setup required of a post-Avengers installment. But they also augment the usual CGI fireworks with some truly exhilarating practical stunt work, and push the company’s character-first ethos even further, locating multiple dimensions in their title Avenger, a rah-rah, fish-out-of-water anachronism grappling with our troublesome political now. The Winter Soldier isn’t the funniest or the most extravagantly shot movie in this forever franchise, nor does it boast the scariest villain or strongest performances. But it might be the platonic ideal of a Marvel movie: the kind of exciting, propulsive Hollywood thriller the studio is capable of creating when firing on all cylinders. Hopefully, there’s still room for its (relatively) leaner brand of superhero spectacle in the aftermath of Endgame. [A.A. Dowd]