A year and a half into the pandemic, only one thing could convince the world that normalcy was set to return: an MCU movie in the theaters. The MCU is back with a solo Black Widow movie, several months and also several years late. I’m not a huge MCU fan, although my interest has grown over the years. I decided to take advantage of a Disney+ subscription, the long delay, and Black Widow’s arrival to watch all 24 movies. I approached them in timeline, not release, order, so I started with Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain Marvel. I watched all of them for this project except Far From Home, since what I saw in the theater wasn’t worthy of spending money to rewatch (although I spent money to watch the even worse Hulk solo movie). A handful of the movies were first watches, not rewatches: Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 3, and Ant-Man and the Wasp. Some of the movies I have watched several times (and recently). Others it has been awhile (13 years for The Incredible Hulk).
A preview of where I come down on the MCU: I ranked the Captain America trilogy ahead of the Iron Man and Thor trilogies, on average, and the average rankings put Phase Three ahead of Phase Two, and Phase Two ahead of Phase One.
(Links to my original reviews are included where I wrote them, but I ignored them while ranking the movies. I found my views on rewatch frequently different than my initial impression in the theater, and I wasn’t trying to keep the ratings comparable across MCU movies when I set them.)
My ranking of the twenty-four MCU movies, from worst to first, after the jump:
Thor: The Dark World
The worldbuilding doesn’t reconcile well with rest of MCU and, to the extent The Dark World develops Asgard, that is wasted after the events of Thor: Ragnarok. And I don’t like Jane as much here as in the first movie.
The Incredible Hulk
Edward Norton is a great actor but he is miscast here. I also hate the look of the Hulk in this movie, especially in comparison to his later MCU look. The set pieces are entirely unimpressive outside of the (non-Hulk) parkour scene in Brazil. Hulk fights his evil counterpart, a complaint that will recur throughout this post.
Iron Man 2
Iron Man’s second outing is overstuffed, although not entirely to its detriment. The Formula One set piece is the highlight, even if it makes zero sense on a few levels. The introduction of Black Widow is the real highlight.
The fish out of water humor is effective. The Asgard scenes and the off-kilter camera angles less so. There is little-to-no Thor action, despite that being the main draw for a, you know, Thor movie.
Iron Man 3
The only thing worse than Thor not wielding his hammer is Iron being out of his suit. Iron Man is out of the suit for most of his third solo movie. The suit porn is always the best thing about Iron Man. The Mandarin’s non-Mandarin persona is extraordinarily annoying, and there is an annoying kid sidekick character, but I actually kind of like this movie.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Ultron was so freaking creepy in the trailer, and such a wisecracking disappointment in the movie. Hulk and Black Widow’s romance may be my favorite part. The introduction of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are another highlight; Vision is not. He is an overpowered cypher here; he only gets developed as a character in later movies. This is all Iron Man’s fault, something no one—especially Iron Man—is especially interested in addressing. And it is overlong.
It is frankly unnecessary to Endgame, and that colors my views. The emotional beats are strong. This was a movie I liked a lot in the theater but that left me relatively cold on rewatch.
Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2
Volume 2 misses too many emotional beats. The humor is hit-or-miss too, especially Drax who is extraordinarily uneven here. Another overlong one. Ego looks awful at times, a rarity for MCU CGI by Phase 3. It may be the first MCU movie since The First Avenger to not have A+ effects. I do like it a bit better on rewatch than I did on initial view. Having a toddler, especially, makes Baby Groot even funnier. It doesn’t manage to hit its emotional beats as squarely as volume 1, although they remain a Guardians strength. The catalyst for the plot is still extraordinarily stupid.
Spider-Man: Far From Home
Iron Man is dead and it still has to be all about Iron Man. And they manage to take Spider-Man even further from his natural habitat of Manhattan than Queens. Their versions of Mysterio and MJ don’t do much for me.
Ranking the first Iron Man movie against the next couple were hard because they have so much in common. As always, the best part is the suit and the worst part is who is in it. (I really don’t like Tony Stark, if you haven’t noticed.) There is a lot to like here, and I can see why so many people like it so much. But it gets bogged down in its origin story. And it features Iron Man fighting his evil counterpart. Maybe that hadn’t worn so thin at this point, but it probably deserves extra opprobrium for teaching the studio that it was a viable approach.
Would people recognize Tony Stark as the awful, terrible, no-good person he is if he were less charismatic? After Doctor Strange, I think we can answer yes. Doctor Strange suffers from feeling disconnected to the greater MCU, despite his importance to Infinity War. On the other hand, there are some extremely cool visuals. You can do more with magic than throw cars at people, Wanda!
Marvel Studio’s Ant-Man
MCU movies tend toward the formulaic, but they are nice enough to mix things up by pulling in other genres. Ant-Man is a good heist movie. It is very funny; Paul Rudd is funny in everything he is in and every time Michael Peña opens his mouth in this movie it is hilarious). It is forgivable that it basically rips off the first Iron Man movie (although Corey Stoll is no Jeff Bridges). Even Evangeline Lilly’s haircut is forgivable. It has creative set pieces, not normally the MCU’s forte.
I am still bitter we were robbed of a Black Widow movie for years, in favor of a Captain Marvel movie instead, and until after her death. Like virtually all prequel works, it is pointless. If they had to make a prequel movie—and they did, because they waited too long—I would have preferred they push it far enough back to
The MCU is generally better the more superheroes it throws together, but it will do much better than this. It’s initial team-up rips off The Dark Knight. Whedon’s dialogue sometimes robs the story of needed gravitas and emotional resonance (another ongoing MCU complaint, although the tension between humor and emotional beats is usually handled better). The mook army is boring, and I am very far from Loki’s biggest fan.
Captain America: The First Avenger
Like Steve Rogers, The First Avenger is earnest and heroic. Captain America is the best of the primary Avengers. But, in a sharp contrast with the top-notch effects in the later MCU movies, it has a lot of bad CGI explosions. The Howling Commandos, including, inexplicably, Sebastian Stan, who does great work in later MCU offerings.
A tremendous amount of acting talent is on hand. Black Panther is best when it is balls-to-the-wall Afrofuturism, and it is excellent example of the benefits of a more visually confident MCU, perhaps exceeding only by Thor: Ragnarok. Suffers from—once again—a villain who mirrors the hero. The pacing is a little off on rewatch, with a rushed final act. Black Panther was one of the movies to suffer most on rewatch, but the initial bar was very high.
Tom Holland is a great Spider-Man and a great Peter Parker, and Michael Keaton as the Vulture is a great villain who for once isn’t just a mirror image of the hero. The only thing stopping Homecoming from being a great superhero movie is that the MCU power-that-be didn’t want it to be. Spider-Man must be subordinated to Iron Man and taken out of his natural element among the skyscrapers of Manhattan.
Marvel Studio’s Ant-Man and the Wasp
Any MCU movie with Walton Goggins in it is a movie I will like. The plot is maybe a little two convoluted for me to fully appreciate on one, distracted viewing. The string of set pieces at the climax is long but very effective. Louis remains the funniest character in the MCU. This is such a fun movie, and it just takes tremendous joy is constantly shrinking and expanding things. Not needing an origin story helps it exceed the original.
Captain America: Civil War
The choice between Captain America’s side and Iron Man’s is an easy, or at least it should be, not the least because Iron Man’s actions are driven by his own selfish narcissism. This is more of an Avengers movie than a Captain America movie, but it doesn’t suffer for it. The hero-on-hero set pieces are as good as anticipated. The movie does a good enough job introducing characters that a novice viewer could skip Ant-Man, Homecoming, and Black Panther before proceeding to Infinity War.
It isn’t as good as Infinity War, but it doesn’t detract from Infinity War. Far from it: Endgame and Infinity War make each other better. The same is true for Endgame and much of the rest of the MCU, for that matter. The emotional beats may be cashing checks written over the course of almost two dozen movies, but it has earned them nonetheless.
Guardians of the Galaxy
The movie I least expected to work going in. It manages to be very funny without ever stepping on its emotional beats, something a lot of MCU movies have a problem with. It also has some of the most inventive set pieces in the MCU. The first fight among the Guardians is one of my favorite set pieces in the whole MCU.
After two of the most disappointing MCU movies, Thor roars back with one of its best. Ragnarok steps the humor, already an MCU strength. It is visually bonkers and impressive (the MCU goes full Jack Kirby). It continues to grow on me with each rewatch. It complements Infinity War (Ragnarok, Infinity War, and Endgame almost form a trilogy). The jokes sometimes step on the emotional beats, but there are lots of individual decisions to be heroic, something always appreciated in these parts.
Avengers: Infinity War
“He’s from space. He came here to steal a necklace from a wizard.” At this point the MCU filmmakers have complete storytelling and visual confidence. Infinity War is the perfect culmination of dozens of movies, and it really doesn’t suffer from being the first part (managing to exceed the itself satisfying second half). It has very, very strong emotional beats (e.g., Captain America’s first appearance, Thor’s arrival back on earth). And, of course, boffo set pieces.
Captain America: Winter Soldier It features the two best Avengers, Anthony Mackie as Falcon is a very solid addition, and Sebastian Stan kind of comes out of nowhere after The First Avenger. It is both a great superhero movie and a great spy thriller. Winter Soldier ranks behind only Logan among all superhero movies in my estimation.