Here’s my list. Fight me.
19. Thor: The Dark World. The only MCU film I haven’t even finished. I got bored halfway through and turned it off–it was predictable, irrelevant, and trying too hard to be something it didn’t have to be. By far the weakest Marvel movie.
18. The Incredible Hulk. There’s a reason Hulk never got another stand alone movie after the first year of the MCU. Not awful, but also predictable and pedestrian. Also, Edward Norton.
17. Iron Man 2. The MCU’s flagship character returned with a pretty meh sequel where the internal and external conflicts are both so forgettable that they’ve literally never been mentioned again.
16. Thor. A fun little movie that hits all the standard beats, Thor’s strongest suit is Kenneth Brannagh’s underrated directing, which helped cement Marvel’s colorfully glossy look more than people acknowledge. Also, Tom Hiddleston.
15. Iron Man 3. By this point, the ongoing soap opera arc of the MCU was well under way, and this entry provided a nice small-scale opportunity for Tony Stark to get some of the lasting character growth that Iron Man 2 oddly only played around at creating. Super derivative, though.
14. Ant Man. We’re in the realm of really good movies now, and this one captures the fun of the MCU as well as anything else. Another standard template is at work here–not all that different from Iron Man–but Paul Rudd is a joy to watch, and where this movie is “fill in the blanks” in its structure, it gets creative with the details, allowing itself to never take itself too seriously.
13. Doctor Strange. Yet another movie where the details are creative–the gorgeous visuals alone make this movie worth it, and they’re even organic and solidly integrated–but the narrative is generic. Strange’s hero’s journey is forced, but everything about him is forced, like at beginning when we see that he has a complete mastery of obscure pop music trivia, which never gets mentioned again. It’s like the screenwriters said, “OK, he needs some random quirk in Act I, then we can move on…”
12. Captain America: The First Avenger. The skill of the MCU is to take their formula (and by now I hope we see that Marvel is a very formulaic outfit) and just use it with as much pop energy as possible. This genuinely rousing movie is the zenith of that art, with all the wholesome “gee whiz!” spectacle of the Superman movies of the 80’s. Also, Hugo Weaving.
11. Avengers: Age of Ultron. I remember one review of this one saying that it was a miracle it was any good at all, what with all the pressure and competing agendas at work here, and while that may be true, the consistent success of the Russo brothers in making movies even better than this one proves that it’s possible. Joss Whedon is a genius, but even genius can be overrated. Still, this Avengers outing was a solid follow up and immensely enjoyable. Also, James Spader.
10. Guardians of the Galaxy. Even more fun and even funnier than Ant Man, this is the movie that proved that Marvel could make a great popcorn movie out of anything.
9. Spider-Man: Homecoming. This movie is even more fun if you grew up in the 80’s and get all the clever references to that glorious decade.
8. Black Panther. I actually thought T’Challa was a better developed character in Civil War than he was in his own movie, and the CGI overload at the end made the final fight almost unwatchable, but this movie has given the MCU its single best villain, Killmonger. Yes, he’s even better than Thanos. Michael B. Jordan is one of the best actors of his generation.
7. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. This sequel not only doubled down on everything that made the first one a hit, but dug deeper into the visuals, jokes, and over the top energy. I’ve always thought the various conflicts and subsequent growth in this one were forced, but in the MCU, that’s an easily forgivable sin, and it makes the even better aspects pop out instead.
6. Thor: Ragnarok. Holy cow, what a fun movie. What a masterpiece of fun! This movie’s musical score alone puts Marvel at the vanguard of 80’s retro kitsch, but why isn’t everyone talking about what a surprisingly great comic actor Chris Hemsworth is? Seriously, his comedy chops are impressive.
5. Iron Man. The one that started it all is still one of the best. Robert Downey Jr. anchors the whole MCU in this hero’s journey with a twist–the arrogant confidence at the end introduces the biggest party franchise there ever was.
4. The Avengers. A pure celebration of childlike wonder, this movie is nothing but popcorn glee. It’s already hard to remember just how risky and brave this whole idea was.
3. Captain America: Civil War. One of the few movies I’ve ever seen where I really wanted to watch it again as soon as the credits rolled. The Russo brothers are masters of balance–I’m amazed by just how much got done with such high quality here. No wonder they went in to make Infinity War.
2. Avengers: Infinity War. “There’s no pausing for character development!” That’s what the first 18 movies were for. I actually love that this movie refuses to slow down and review anything. The fights are fantastic, and that’s why this movie exists. This is the most ambitious spectacle film since Lord of the Rings.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This movie combines the virtues of the rest of the MCU, but then goes further–this isn’t just a great popcorn flick, it’s a genuinely impressive film, as in a work of art. The heart and the brain in this movie are both profoundly strong, creating one of the best movies of the 21st century, period. This is easily the equal of every Cold War thriller it updates. Practically a perfect achievement, and solidly my favorite Marvel movie.