With dozens of movies over more than a decade (and more in the works), the Marvel Cinematic Universe has inarguably cemented its place as an unstoppable pop culture juggernaut. Of course, no matter how popular the franchise is or how many billions of dollars it racks up in worldwide box office revenue, some of those movies are bound to be better than others — the only question is which ones reign supreme, and which ones give you a good opportunity to go get another soda during your increasingly lengthy Marvel movie marathon.
Well, if you’re looking for answers, it’s time to pick up your shield (or hammer, if you’re worthy) and prepare yourself as we travel to Wakanda, Xandar, and the Quantum Realm in our quest to break down each and every cinematic entry in the franchise. We’ll be going from the superheroes to skip down to the best must-see movies of the bunch. Here’s a look back at every movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ranked from worst to best.
Updated on January 21, 2021: As the Marvel Cinematic Universe releases more feature-length entries, we’ll be here like Uatu the Watcher, keeping an eye on their films and ranking each one as they come out. So be sure to check back here with each new release to find out where they rank among the MCU’s ever-growing franchise.
27. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
If the problem with "Age of Ultron" is that there’s just too much going on, "Thor 2" suffers from the opposite problem. Despite a solid cast that features Chris Hemsworth being as charming as ever and the fact that it’s based on one of the greatest comic book arcs ever printed — the character-defining Walter Simonson run on "Thor" that introduced Malekith, Kurse, and a whole bunch of other stuff that would eventually make it to the big screen — "The Dark World" never lives up to its promise.
On paper, there’s a ton of cool stuff in this movie that sounds amazing. A "Star Wars"-esque attack on Asgard by spaceships driven by dark elves, underlining the Asgardians as interdimensional beings with technology indistinguishable from magic! The rock monsters from Thor’s very first comics appearance getting smashed into a pile of rubble! Thor and Loki teaming up for revenge against the villain that killed their mom, climaxing in a fistfight in which Thor and Malekith are literally punching each other so hard that they land in other dimensions!
Unfortunately, literally none of it is as good as its sounds, especially the part about punching somebody so hard they land in Jotunheim. Instead, there’s the constant feeling of wondering if you’re missing out on something, and it doesn’t really go away when the characters start talking about how they’re not sure how things are supposed to work either.
26. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
If you weren’t there to see it all come together in real time, it’s hard to accurately convey how exciting it was to see Nick Fury show up at the end of "Iron Man" and hint at the idea of a full-on shared universe of superhero movies. When "The Incredible Hulk" hit theaters a month later, however, it didn’t seem quite as exciting — even when Tony Stark dropped in after the credits to lay the groundwork for the Avengers.
In all honesty, "The Incredible Hulk" isn’t bad, it just happens to be the most forgettable movie in the entire franchise. It’s the one nobody ever remembers, which is a real shame when you consider that it does so much right. For one thing, if you’re going to make a movie about a nerdy scientist with anger issues so powerful they could level a whole town, getting the guy who starred in "Fight Club" to play Bruce Banner is a pretty solid move.
For another, even though it took a lot of care to distance itself from Ang Lee’s "Hulk," the filmmakers realized that since it came out only five years earlier, audiences didn’t need a full-blown origin story to get up to speed. Instead, what we get a revised origin tied into Captain America and the Super Soldier program, which serves as a first stumbling step towards building the full-on shared universe that these movies would eventually inhabit. Unfortunately, it just didn’t quite land. After two movies in as many months, it would be two more years before the MCU would get another film, and four years before the Hulk would return, with Mark Ruffalo taking over from the role from Ed Norton.
25. Eternals (2021)
Critics praised Chloe Zhao’s "Eternals" for its inclusivity and ambition, but the highly anticipated Phase 4 movie failed to live up to the hype on a storytelling level. The main story takes place in the modern day and hinges on the relationship between the immortal Sersi (Gemma Chan), one of the titular Eternals, and the human Dane Whitman (Kit Harington). When a Deviant (the invasive alien race that the Eternals were created to defeat) named Kro attacks them, Sersi’s super-powered ex (Richard Madden’s Ikaris) arrives on the scene to save the day, and things get complicated from there — and we’re not talking about the love triangle.
Unlike the vast majority of MCU movies, "Eternals" is too much like hard work. With over a dozen new heroes and villains to get to grips with, the film feels somehow crammed and meandering all at the same time. Despite some big names in front of and behind the camera, this cosmic epic turned out to be an epic fail, and discussions over whose fault that is will likely continue for some time. Much emphasis was put on the acquisition of Oscar-winning director Chloe Zhao ("Nomadland"), though the general consensus in the Hollywood trades was that she was hamstrung by having to adhere to Marvel’s strict — and, at this point, painfully predictable — formula.
While it teases some exciting future projects, as a standalone movie, "Eternals" is a convoluted mess that ranks embarrassingly low in the MCU standings given the talent involved.
24. Iron Man 2 (2010)
He’s not the world-beater that Ultron or the Red Skull are, he’s not the tragic figure who almost has you on his side that you get with Loki, and he’s not the cold, hateful destroyer that Helmut Zemo is, but Justin Hammer is really a great MCU villain. Just the image of Sam Rockwell literally dancing across the stage to present his army of Iron Man drones is endlessly delightful.
Of course, there’s a lot in "Iron Man 2" that doesn’t involve Sam Rockwell busting a move — a scene that helps to cement him as a more amoral version of Tony Stark who never had Stark’s life-changing experience — and that’s where it fails to measure up to its predecessor. The inclusion of Whiplash as another "Evil Tony" keeps threatening to steer the story in an unnecessarily complicated direction, and the scene when Stark goes down into his basement with a particle accelerator to somehow build a new element is so goofy that it crosses the line from comic book superscience into pure deus ex machina territory. The fact that it’s only ever referred to as "a new element," including J.A.R.V.I.S.’s flat congratulations to Tony for adding to the Periodic Table, doesn’t really help it seem less ridiculous.
At the same time, if "Incredible Hulk" was a stumble, "IM2" was a confident stride towards the MCU, introducing the Black Widow and War Machine into the mix, setting up the adversarial relationship between the government and the heroes that would play a huge role in "The Avengers," "Winter Soldier," and "Civil War," and teasing Thor’s arrival in the next film. There’s a lot there to like, and even if it’s outweighed by the bad stuff, we’ll always have Justin Hammer’s dance moves.
23. Thor (2011)
"Iron Man 2" might’ve been the first big step towards fleshing out the Marvel Universe, but "Thor" was the first time we actually got to see its scope in action.
It’s a pretty bold move when you consider that the previous three MCU movies (along with other non-MCU projects like the "X-Men" and "Spider-Man" films) had been set pretty firmly on Earth. With "Thor," however, we got Asgard in all its glory, complete with a Bifrost made of rainbow lasers, epic battles against the frost giants of Jotunheim, and—perhaps most importantly—those big ol’ Jack Kirby hats that Norse gods apparently love to wear.
The trick, of course, is that the movie ended up dragging all that stuff to Earth, leading to the climactic battle against the Destroyer, a viking god robot with a face made of death lasers. That definitely served to emphasize Thor’s humanity and make Chris Hemsworth a little easier for us mere mortals to relate to—which in turn led directly to Loki showing up in "The Avengers" and turning that movie into a story more about Thor and his brother than anything else. At the same time, this is a movie that never shied away from giving us inter-dimensional high fantasy, either, and that’s what makes it work.
22. Iron Man 3 (2013)
Here’s the thing about "Iron Man 3": It rules.
It’s probably the single most underrated entry in the entire MCU, but it’s a perfect example of what makes these movies work so well. It draws from the comics, with the broad strokes of the plot lifted from Warren Ellis and Adi Granov’s "Extremis," but it blends that story with a film that’s focused on developing Tony Stark as a character, thanks largely to the work put in by writer/director Shane Black. It’s a movie that’s full of Black’s directorial trademarks — if you didn’t know this was the same guy who brought you "Lethal Weapon," the fast-patter conversations with a snarky tween and the fact that it’s set entirely at Christmas should be a dead giveaway—but his style works perfectly for using the superhero threat as a backdrop for exploring the idea of Tony dealing with the consequences of his own actions in a changing world.
And that’s the best thing about it. At this point, we weren’t just three movies into Iron Man’s saga, we were seven films deep in a cinematic universe dealing with grand-scale threats it had never seen before. Black and Downey explore how the smartest guy in the room deals with living in a world that’s becoming something he can’t predict. It’s a movie about a superhero with an anxiety disorder, and not only does that feel refreshing and interesting, it’s a permanent consequence that leads directly to "Age of Ultron" and "Civil War."
Plus — not to spoil it for anyone who skipped out the first time around — the twist with the Mandarin is brilliant.
21. Doctor Strange (2016)
For longtime comics readers, the fact that a big-budget "Doctor Strange" movie was actually going to happen came as something of a surprise. There was a big question of just how the mind-bending psychedelic sorcery of the mystical side of the Marvel Universe — something that had only really been hinted at with the mixture of high fantasy and sci-fi in "Thor" — was going to fit into the movies.
The good news is that from a visual standpoint, they absolutely did it. The splitting fractal realities in the movie’s fight scenes were beautifully weird, and the ghostly ethereal plane where life-and-death battles for the fate of the Earth could rage unseen alongside day-to-day reality was great for showing how different Stephen Strange’s world was from the other Marvel superheroes. The bad news is that from a storytelling standpoint … well, they basically just did "Iron Man" with magic instead of technology.
The beats of Dr. Strange’s journey from self-absorbed surgeon to Sorcerer Supreme felt familiar to the point of distraction, with even Benedict Cumberbatch’s jokey patter about Beyoncé feeling like something Robert Downey Jr. could’ve said without rewriting a single syllable. It’s not until the climax and Strange’s time-bending bargain with Dormammu that "Doctor Strange" really comes into its own and does something in a way that could only work for its title character. That part’s great, but the road that gets us there is one we’ve been down before.
20. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
We’ll get to this in a little more detail when it comes time to talk about the first "Avengers" movie, but one of the biggest hurdles to get through when you’re putting this many superheroes into a single movie after two or three features on their own is that it tends to flatten out their characters quite a bit. There’s just not enough room to have everything going on at once, and all the character development they get in their solo movies tends to be pretty broad when they’re all competing for the spotlight.
That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker — "Civil War" actually did a pretty great job of it with even more characters by giving everyone a single shining moment — but in "Age of Ultron," consistency and depth get thrown out. Captain America’s a prude, Thor’s a meathead, and while Iron Man gets away better than the others from a character standpoint, the lessons Tony Stark seemed to learn in "Iron Man 3" seem completely forgotten here. Oh, and also he’s responsible for creating a murder robot, so, y’know, that’s going to be a problem. On top of that, most of the character notes that are here — like Black Widow lamenting that she’s a "monster," Hawkeye having a secret family just to set up a "two days away from retirement" character swerve, and where the heck did that Hulk/Black Widow romance come from? — just feel awkward.
Despite a pretty great final battle full of some really fun action sequences, "Age of Ultron" ultimately feels unbalanced.
19. Black Widow (2021)
Scarlett Johansson’s standalone Black Widow movie got pushed back several times due to the coronavirus pandemic. By this point in her Marvel career, the actor was well accustomed to delays. It was way back in 2010 when Kevin Feige confirmed that a solo outing for Natasha Romanoff was indeed in the pipeline, but over a decade would pass (as would the character) before "Black Widow" hit cineplexes. It dropped on Disney+ at the same time, a move that reportedly cost Johansson (whose contract entitled her to a share of the box office) around $50 million. The legal sparring that followed threatened to overshadow the long-awaited film, but the majority of critics ignored the noise and rated "Black Widow" based on its many merits.
Taking place right after the events of 2016’s "Captain America: Civil War," Cate Shortland’s prequel finally sends Natasha (a fugitive from the law due to her flouting of the Sokovia Accords) back to Budapest to deal with her past. There, she teams up with her Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova, a fellow Red Room trainee who once posed as Romanoff’s sister. With the help of David Harbour’s father figure, Alexei Shostakov, they set about taking down the Black Widow program.
Watching Romanoff right her wrongs after so many years is undeniably satisfying, and "Black Widow" benefits from the fact that it doesn’t need to waste time planting MCU seeds. This self-contained spy thriller is a gripping watch and a worthy sendoff for an OG Avenger.
18. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
If the first "Guardians of the Galaxy" movie proved that the MCU could get weird and cosmic and still be incredibly entertaining, the second one proved that wasn’t a fluke.
If anything, it went more cosmic. The first movie brought us stuff like the Nova Corps and Ronan the Accuser as adversaries for the heroes, with Nova Corps and an appearance by planet-destroying Celestials serving as the background for a spacefaring adventure. The second movie, though? That thing has about a half hour of superheroes battling it out in the core of Ego the Living Planet, which is actually a giant purple planet with a big ol’ Kurt Russell face on it, and that’s honestly just the tip of the iceberg of the wild sci-fi this movie gets up to.
It’s got waves of space drones swarming into starship battles, a warp drive sequence that knows exactly how silly it is, and it features the best Stan Lee cameo in cinema history and the single best use of a Zune in anything, ever. The only thing that keeps it from surpassing the first movie is that the soundtrack’s not quite as good, even if "The Chain" still rocks pretty hard.
17. Ant-Man (2015)
It’s tempting to say "Ant-Man" shouldn’t have worked as well as it did and that a second-tier superhero with the ability to get really tiny and talk to ants was a big surprise when he became the next entry in a franchise that raked in over a billion. Really, though, it’s not that unexpected, especially considering that Marvel’s first big movie success came from Blade, a pretty obscure D-Lister from the pages of "Tomb of Dracula."
Of course, the adventures of Paul Rudd’s tiny crimefighter couldn’t be more different from Wesley Snipes scowling about ice-skating uphill and declaring war on suck-heads, but the point stands. Audiences have always been interested in stories that twist the expected superhero plot points around into something new, and that’s where "Ant-Man" really delivers. As easy as it would’ve been to portray Scott Lang as a microscopic version of Iron Man whose hero’s journey followed the same beats, his story felt different, and the ties to the larger MCU worked really well.
There are a few missteps here for sure — the movie goes out of its way to justify not having the Wasp show up until the sequel in a way that’s actually pretty frustrating — but on the other hand, this is a movie in which the hero loses a fight with a toy train, and Chekhov’s Gun is actually Chekhov’s 60-Ton Soviet Tank.
16. The Avengers (2012)
That "The Avengers" works at all is pretty impressive, but that it works as well as it did? That’s basically a miracle.
Even less than a decade later, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that this was the first time that anything like this had been attempted at this scale — a superhero team movie that combined heroes who, while they might have been planned for a shared universe, had been all been established in their own films, each with their own tone and style. In bringing them together, Joss Whedon had to juggle the fantasy of "Thor," the snarky sci-fi of "Iron Man," and the sincere superheroics of "Captain America," combining them all — along with Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow — with stakes that were high enough to bring everyone together for a single adventure. And this movie does it.
It’s far from flawless, though. Those big stakes mostly result from an army of faceless aliens, it’s still pretty weird that the Avengers needed Phil Coulson to die before they decided to go be a super-team, and character development suffers. There may not be a single line in the entire MCU that lands quite as badly as Captain America smugging his way through "there’s only one God, Ma’am." That said, there may not be a more fun moment in the entire MCU than Loki getting Hulk Smashed like a Looney Tunes character.
15. Iron Man (2008)
It’s safe to say "Iron Man" surprised us all.
It’s not that we expected it to be bad. Tony Stark’s origin story is pretty easy to restructure into the beats of a Hollywood action movie, it had a great cast that included Jeff Bridges as the villain of one of the best "Iron Man" stories ever, and while director Jon Favreau might’ve been best known for "Elf," that wasn’t really a bad thing. But still, none of us expected it to be so good that it would stand up as the foundation on which every other piece of a cinematic universe would be built.
There are times when this feels less like a "superhero" movie and more like a popcorn revenge flick where the hero just happens to have a flying suit of armor, but it did its job so well that those shortcomings are easy to forgive. Robert Downey Jr. didn’t just fit the role of Tony Stark, his portrayal revitalized the character across all media, including doubling back into the comics and making him a household name in the Marvel Universe in a way he hadn’t been in years.
14. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
There’s a lot of great stuff about "Ant-Man and the Wasp." Every set piece plays with the idea of changing size in a different way, from the Wasp running along the blade of a knife that was hurled at her in a kitchen to a portable office building to Ant-Man using a flatbed truck as a razor scooter.
That actually leads to the second great thing about it: It’s genuinely hilarious. That might not be surprising given that the movies were trending that way already, but after the relentless downer ending of "Avengers: Infinity War," the film’s lighthearted take on superheroes, with stakes that were far more personal than cosmic, was a welcome shift in tone.
And that’s actually the best thing about it. It’s easy to argue that the best thing about the MCU is that it feels like a universe in the same way that the comics do, full of moving parts that intertwine and build off of each other even when they’re not directly interacting. The knowledge that "Ant-Man and the Wasp" and "Infinity War" happen roughly at the same time is maybe the best expression of that, and knowing that Thanos is out there trying to murder the universe while Scott Lang is running through an elementary school in an oversized hoodie because he got stuck at 3-feet-tall shows just how much potential there is in the whole thing. Plus, it sets up a heck of a gut punch at the end.
13. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Audiences love them, but origin stories are always a little tricky to pull off. At the very least, we all know how it’s going to end, and the temptation to just skip all the training montages and figuring-out-your-powers scenes and get to the part where the hero’s punching out supervillains is pretty strong. "The First Avenger," however, does it better.
A lot of that has to do with Chris Evans. In a franchise that’s full of amazing casting choices, Evans pulls off the incredible feat of embodying a square-jawed, insanely ripped, relentlessly earnest product of the military-industrial complex in a way that makes him impossible not to like and respect. For all the super-strength that lets him bicep-curl a helicopter and throw a metal frisbee through a brick wall, that’s a character whose real super-power is making you believe in him. With scenes like a pre-Cap Steve Rogers pulling himself back up to his feet and saying "I can do this all day" to a couple of bullies — a moment that has a great callback a few years later in "Civil War" — that’s exactly what this movie does.
As good as it was on its own, it also serves as the proof-of-concept for the superhero movie as a period piece. Not only did that give the MCU a history that goes back further than 2008 and Tony Stark’s cave, it paved the way for other projects that would flesh out that history in really fun ways.
12. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
The first "Guardians of the Galaxy" movie isn’t just entertaining, it manages to balance so much stuff going on that you almost don’t notice how complicated it is for all the fun you’re having. There’s the team of lovable misfits coming together and dealing with their own issues while fighting against a massive threat, a glimpse at the cosmic scope of the MCU that includes Celestials, the Nova Corps, and expansive interstellar empires, and a retro feel supported by a classic rock soundtrack that doesn’t feel like it’s wallowing in the past.
That’s a tough bunch of plates to keep spinning while still telling a story that’s fun and adventurous enough to make Rocket Raccoon a household name. But thanks to writer/director James Gunn, it totally works. Plus, it breaks the formula in every way it can, to the point where it’s a superhero team movie that ends with a dance-off and the heroes literally saving the universe with the power of friendship. That’s awesome.
11. Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)
Following up an epic spectacle like "Avengers: Endgame" with a movie that’s at least 30% high school road trip rom-com is, to say the least, a pretty bold choice for the MCU. At the end of the day, though, "Far From Home" is the perfect epilogue to the "Infinity Saga" that made up the first 23 films (!) in the MCU.
For one thing, it’s a movie that’s directly built around the question of what this universe looks like without Tony Stark, the hero who kicked the whole thing off back in 2008, not to mention the other heroes who rode off into the sunset at the end of "Endgame." There’s an idea that there’s a void in the MCU that needs to be filled, and that Spider-Man, the character who’s so "Marvel Comics" that he used to be on their letterheads and paychecks, might just be the one to do it. That’s why Mysterio’s plot — which is both wildly complicated and comic booky as heck, in a good way — goes all the way back to the first "Iron Man" film and weaves through the events of the MCU. Making it all make sense through these callbacks was a pretty impressive feat to begin with, but tying them all together to mark the end of an era? That’s, well … amazing.
Beyond all that, though, it’s got everything you want from a Spider-Man story. Peter Parker has to wrestle with an impossible responsibility and the heavy self-doubt that comes along with it, the romance with MJ is both heartfelt and sweet, and finally, at long last, we get some consequences for Spider-Man always walking around with his mask off in these movies. Throw in the world-shaking surprises of the mid-credits sequence and the genius of making a massive special effects blockbuster with an evil special effects guy as your villain, and you’ve got a super fun time at the movie theater.
10. Captain Marvel (2019)
"Captain Marvel" arrived in theaters under the burden of some pretty heavy expectations — it was, after all, the first Marvel movie to focus on a female superhero — something that fans had been waiting for since at least Black Widow’s introduction in "Iron Man 2." For any installment of the MCU, the audience knows they’re going to get a larger piece of an ongoing puzzle, but in this one, we also knew that we were being introduced to a character who could have a huge impact on what was shaping up to be the biggest superhero movie of all time. That’s a lot for a single film to carry, but "Captain Marvel" didn’t struggle under it. It soared.
Rather than falling into the tried and true "Iron Man" formula that had been used to introduce characters like Doctor Strange and Ant-Man, "Captain Marvel" positioned itself as a search for identity, and built its themes around the idea of what it truly means to live up to your potential. Naturally, it did this through the metaphor of an intergalactic war, and that "potential" was mostly represented by the main character glowing with literal cosmic fire while she punched her way through spaceships. So, you know, that’s pretty rad.
The worst thing you can say about "Captain Marvel" is that it’s a little heavy-handed and sometimes dips a toe into being outright corny. The flipside to that, though, is that "corny" really just means honest and unabashedly fun, and between cosmic battles and jokes about Blockbuster Video, this one more than lived up to the hype.
9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
If "The First Avenger" introduced us to what makes Captain America great, "Winter Soldier" delivers on that promise.
Everything about this movie reinforces the idea that he’s exactly the guy you want to have the power to save the world. The notebook full of pop culture references that he needs to look up to understand the world around him. The friendship with Sam Wilson that starts with bonding over their wartime experience. The loyalty to his friends that leads him to risk his own life to save Bucky. The resignation of giving his opponents one last chance to back out before he beats up an elevator full of traitors tasked with taking him out.
Those are all great set pieces, but they add up to a whole that’s incredible, even before you get to how much of the movie is based around Steve Rogers just kicking the living crap out of bad guys. That stuff’s pretty fun, too.
8. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
Marvel’s ultimate goal with "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" was to repeat the success of "Black Panther," according to Deadline. The studio wanted to "introduce a new hero who blends Asian and Asian-American themes, crafted by Asian and Asian-American filmmakers," said the Hollywood trade when it broke news of the project in 2018. Comparisons to "Black Panther" continued up until the release of the film and were still being debated at length afterward, but the consensus among critics was that "Shang-Chi" marked another step in the right direction for Marvel. "With its predominantly East Asian cast, story inspired by Chinese folklore, and martial arts action sequences, ‘Shang-Chi’ is the latest sign that Hollywood is starting to listen to calls for more Asian representation on screen," said the BBC.
"Shang-Chi" doesn’t stray very far from Marvel’s tried-and-tested origin story formula, but it sets itself apart when it comes to action. Destin Daniel Cretton’s movie pays homage to the frenetic choreography of Jackie Chan (during the bus fight scene, in particular), as well as Chinese wuxia films past and present (there are bright colors and gravity-defying feats galore). Simu Liu brings the perfect blend of humility and heroism to the title role, while Awkwafina, Tony Leung, and Michelle Yeoh are all on their A-games too. Add in a couple of unexpectedly hilarious cameos, and you’re onto a winner. In terms of pure fun, few Marvel movies can match up.
7. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Even though Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes are unquestionably the focus of the movie, there’s a pretty convincing argument to be made that this movie should’ve been called "Avengers: Civil War" instead.
It does, after all, have everyone in it, and they aren’t just cameos, either. This is the movie that brought in Ant-Man, put him on the tip of Hawkeye’s arrow, and blew him up to giant size in the middle of a superheroic Royal Rumble. Scarlet Witch made a huge impact, and we saw her character develop as much as it did in "Age of Ultron." War Machine got taken down, and the Avengers were split by the machinations of a villain who just wanted to divide them—and got exactly what he wanted in the end. And if that wasn’t enough, it’s also the movie that introduced movie audiences to Black Panther and Spider-Man.
But where it really succeeds is in not flattening out the characters to make more room for a huge cast. Everyone gets a spotlight moment that works, leaving room for the conflict triangle of the main characters to expand to the point where it destroys the team.
6. Black Panther (2018)
Black Panther’s introduction in "Captain America: Civil War" was the biggest highlight in a movie full of great moments. It was so great, in fact, that it put a ton of pressure on T’Challa’s first solo outing. Expectations were high — and director Ryan Coogler and star Chadwick Boseman managed to not only live up to them, but exceed them by delivering what is unquestionably one of the greatest superhero films of all time.
Maybe it’s because Boseman’s T’Challa is a character struggling with the weight of expectations himself, under the pressure of having to live up to the idea of his father, leading a nation of fantastic sci-fi technology in a world where cities fall from the sky and bright green anger monsters rampage through the streets. Like Boseman, the Black Panther is more than up for the challenge, but the journey he takes to get there is full of incredibly compelling complications. The reveal that his father wasn’t as honest as he thought — and the challenge of a villain with justifiable anger at the world around him — creates the kind of moral challenge that makes for a superhero struggle that goes far beyond just the punch-out battle in the climax. In terms of changing the geopolitical landscape, Black Panther arguably has more power than any other hero we’ve seen, and while other heroes might have to learn the lesson of the great responsibility that comes with it, T’Challa already knows that. His question is what form that responsibility needs to take.
In general, the Marvel movies are at their best when they embrace the wild, cosmic action that comes from life in a universe where the Infinity Stones can warp reality and where cosmic beings hold gladiatorial games. "Black Panther" never shies away from its high-tech comic book roots, but tells a story that’s very much rooted in the real world, and does it beautifully.
5. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
If "Avengers" was the movie that proved you could pull together disparate characters who had been established in their own films and unify them into a single believable team in the face of an evil that threatened the entire world, "Infinity War" is the movie that takes that idea to a whole new level. This movie brought together the entire universe, juggling a massive roster of characters and pitting them against a villain that threatened the entire universe.
More than anything else, it captures the feel of a comic book crossover, complete with all the twists, turns, and tie-in issues that superhero fans have come to expect. There are multiple stories going on at the same time, each with their own flavor and feeling, but all of which are interconnected on every level. They build and bridge between each other, spotlighting individual heroes and story arcs and making sure every single character, from Gamora to Spider-Man to Doctor Strange to Black Panther, all have their big signature moments. And when it comes together at the end, it’s with a fight across multiple planets where the unbelievably high stakes become very real for both the characters, and for fans who have been invested in these movies for a full ten years at this point.
That’s a tough enough bit of storytelling to pull off well in comic books, and they’ve had practice that goes back to at least 1985 and "Secret Wars." Seeing it done here, in a huge movie that still has that feeling of a story that starts in an issue of "Doctor Strange" leading to an issue of "Thor" until it all comes together? No other movie has ever done that, and it’s hard to imagine another one doing it this well.
4. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
"Homecoming" is one of the best things the MCU has brought us, partly because it’s a movie that couldn’t exist without the rest of the universe around it.
As good as it is on its own, the fact that Peter Parker swings into action after 15 other movies means we don’t have to waste time with an origin story, and thematically, the movie builds on everything that came before in a truly incredible way. There are direct callbacks to Tony Stark’s character arc that show how different Peter is from the hero he’s trying to impress—there’s a good reason that the climactic fight involves the villain trying to steal a crate load of Arc Reactors—and the idea of a superhero universe erupting around otherwise normal people is the conflict that drives everything about the movie.
Take that away and you’ve still got great characters, great action, and one of the best scenes in the franchise. With it, though, you’ve got pure magic.
3. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
The Marvel movies are at their best when they use the comics for inspiration without attempting to recreate exactly what happens on the page in live action. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have some great source material to draw from, and that’s where "Ragnarok" really shines.
To say that it lifts heavily from Walt Simonson’s epic mid-’80s run on "The Mighty Thor" is putting it mildly — the only things in this movie that weren’t directly inspired by Simonson are the pieces it pulls directly from Greg Pak and Carlo Pagulayan’s "Planet Hulk" storyline, right down to the Hulk’s gladiator gear. The thing is, Taika Waititi’s film chops up all those pieces and rearranges them into something different; rather than just re-telling a familiar story, it captures the feel of that comic. The interplanetary scope, the mix of sci-fi and high fantasy mythology, the massive stakes? It’s all here, and as far as Marvel movies going cosmic, it’s never been done better.
And it’s also genuinely hilarious. That part isn’t surprising, considering that before "Ragnarok," Waititi was probably best known for co-directing the vampire mockumentary "What We Do in the Shadows," but it takes advantage of Chris Hemsworth’s infuriatingly good comedic timing and does an amazing job revealing character. Plus, having Doctor Strange be immediately prepared to deal with Loki as a weird, magical threat to the planet is probably a better moment for him than anything that actually happened in his own dang movie.
2. Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
Three generations of "Spider-Man" movies collide spectacularly in 2021’s "Spider-Man: No Way Home," a critical and commercial home run. Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is the main focus of this threequel, but "No Way Home" is closer to an Avengers-style team-up than it is to the two films that precede it. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange plays a huge role, coming to Parker’s aid when the pressure of public scrutiny becomes too much. Strange agrees to make everyone forget who Spider-Man is, but Parker has some last minute doubts. His hesitation distracts Strange, and the spell has some undesired side effects: Villains who know Spider-Man’s true identity in other universes start showing up.
Jamie Foxx, Alfred Molina, and Willem Dafoe reprise the roles of Electro, Doctor Octopus, and the Green Goblin, among other baddies. Furthermore, in what was one of the worst-kept secrets in MCU history, the Spider-Men they face in their films also arrive. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield are on hand to offer Tom Holland’s Peter Parker sage advice and much-needed comfort.
Holland finally gets his "with great power comes great responsibility" moment in this film, and it’s one you won’t forget. The Brit turns in his most accomplished performance in the Spidey suit, and is expertly backed up by the all-star supporting cast. "No Way Home" is the best "Spider-Man" movie to date, a title it seems poised to enjoy for a long time.
1. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
"Endgame" might actually be the easiest movie in the entire franchise to screw up. Not only does it follow up on the incredible downer ending of "Infinity War," it’s also meant to serve as the climax of all 21 movies that had come before. Just by sheer number of moving parts and scattered plot threads to tie up gave the cast and filmmakers countless opportunities to stumble right off the delicate balance of action, comedy, and heartbreaking moments. With that in mind, saying that they pulled it off isn’t just saying "they made a good movie," although "Endgame" certainly is that. It’s saying that they pretty much pulled off a miracle.
The film is loaded with callbacks to virtually every installment of the MCU to date, in ways that you don’t even realize until you stop to think about them. Captain America starting a support group because that’s what Sam Wilson was doing when they met in "Winter Soldier." Thor founding a New Asgard in exactly the spot where Odin told him "this could be Asgard" in "Ragnarok." Black Widow obliterating the "red in my ledger" that she talked about back in "Avengers" by saving everyone. It’s payoff after payoff, but it never feels like pure fan service, and that alone is a monumental achievement. It really does feel like an ending.
But apart from that, "Endgame" still has enough great moments on its own to fill its 3-hour runtime in a way that feels a lot shorter. The time-travel hijinks, the debut of a new kind of Hulk, the audacity of skipping ahead five years to a world where the good guys lost, and the sheer fist-pumping awesomeness of Cap tightening up his shield and standing alone against the apocalypse are going to stay with moviegoers forever. It really is the thundering climax of everything fans have wanted since Nick Fury first walked into the frame back in "Iron Man."