Marvel’s been putting out movies and TV shows in its connected universe for almost a decade now, to generally high acclaim. They’ve had a few misses here and there, but their worst movies are still better than half of DC’s offerings, so let’s not get too worked up about it.
For the purposes of this list, I’ve put some parameters in place. First of all, I’m only ranking the theatrically-released Avengers movies, and the full Netflix series of the Defenders characters. I’ve watched 3 seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., with varied enthusiasm, but ultimately decided against ranking those seasons. Likewise, I only watched a handful of episodes of Agent Carter and didn’t care for it, so I didn’t finish it. Inhumans and Cloak & Dagger both look interesting but I’m going to put them in the same camp. I think the level of their production quality (the TV shows) is beneath the threshold of the Netflix properties or the big screen films.
If you’re still reading, here’s my ranking.
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The more I think about it, the less of a contest it is. So far, TWS is the best Marvel movie. No plot is airtight, and the idea that half of S.H.I.E.L.D. is composed of Hydra soldiers presents some logistical problems, but the delivery and reveal of that twist blew me away on the big screen, and was executed to perfection. On top of that, we see Cap realize that he’s not exactly allied with the good guys, and he had the courage to go after both factions when they were wrong. A timely lesson indeed.
- Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2. Just wow. Marvel took a barrel full of lesser-known characters and gave them more heart than almost any other roster in the MCU. The graphics, the humor, the music, and the ultimate story centering on the meaning of fatherhood and love…I’m sorry but I’ve never seen that in a space opera before, and had it hit me so hard. Superb.
- Captain America: Civil War. My post-theatrical impression was AHHH, THE PERFECT MOVIE! I’ve felt this way before about other Marvel films, which speaks to the skilled execution by the cast and directors. Once the high wore off, I would figure out some of the flaws. I think the plot was tighter than a lot of critics claim, and made a lot of sense. It just gets bumped down on the list because it’s slightly less of a Cap film and slightly more of a broad-roster Avengers film wherein Cap just gets the most screen time. Still immensely epic.
- Iron Man. With The Dark Knight still looming on the summer schedule, I didn’t expect this one to seize my attention as much as it did. It was our first taste of a well-rounded character with a healthy serving of humor, mixed in with the elements that would eventually make the hallmarks of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The guys at Marvel probably didn’t even know what they’d unleashed at this point, but 9 years later, this film still holds up.
- The Avengers. Like Iron Man, it holds up even five years later, with its mix of all the right elements. To top it off, it pulled off a highly ambitious achievement with soaring colors, and solidified crushes on Tom Hiddleston the world over.
- Captain America: The First Avenger. An excellent period piece that introduced one of the lesser-liked (if still better-known) comic characters, and turned him into a widely emulated icon for his traditional patriotic values. Despite following the initial Marvel movie mold (good guy and bad guy have the same powers, but different values) it still found its footing and made a name for itself quickly, setting up the best trilogy (so far) in the entire MCU.
- Guardians of the Galaxy. There is nobody who expected this movie to be as good as it was. An entire generation discovered a mixed tape of rock hits from the 1970s, and even though the zealot villain and MacGuffin plot were nothing super original, the characters and execution definitely were.
- Daredevil (Season 1). Honestly, the bar wasn’t very high after the Affleck debacle from 2003. Still, the present-day MCU operators took this property and breathed new life into it with vigor, to the point where a large portion of its viewers were almost disappointed when Matt Murdock shed his DIY costume for the more iconic armor of the comics. Add in Vincent D’Onofrio as the villainous Kingpin, and you have an on-screen powerhouse. My only knock was that it went overboard on the violence several times in the first half of the season.
- Spider-Man: Homecoming. Finally! It only took 13 years, but we got another great Spider-Man film, and with a villain we’ve never seen before! Not only was the teenaged Peter Parker highly believable, the Vulture was an excellent, grounded, blue-collar villain with whom I could actually sympathize…right up to the part where he decided he didn’t give a crap about killing people. And come on…the state-mandated Cap videos at school stole the show.
- Doctor Strange. This was among Marvel’s more ambitious attempts, and without Cumberbatch, I think it would have fallen flat. That said, he played the character to near perfection, and even though the plot followed the formula of bad-guy-has-same-powers-but-is-evil, Kaecilious’s motivation was more profound than other cookie-cutter villains in the franchise.
- Luke Cage. This one worked on a lot of levels, as an insight into both a location and a demographic of which I have never been part. One of the other parts that worked well was the fact that I didn’t know much about it going into the pilot, beyond Luke’s appearance in the first season of Jessica Jones. If I have any complaints, it’s that it moved slow, and while that worked often, it really needed to pick it up in a few parts. The jazz music was rich and used well, much like the rock music in Guardians. Diamondback was another unique villain, even if his costume at the end was a little bit…weird.
- Daredevil (Season 2). I was really revved up for this after season 1, and while I still liked it, I think it bit off more than it could chew. It was almost two seasons in one, with the Punisher arc and the Elektra arc, even though they intersected a few times here and there. While the ninja stuff was cool, I felt like later in the season it struggled to find its identity, and the decay of the hero’s personal life is never a fun journey to watch, even when it’s credible. Still, the characters shined, especially the Punisher. Much like the first season, the violence went overboard more often than I would have liked.
- Ant-Man. Like Guardians, this is among the more humorous entries in the MCU, even if the plot is really pedestrian, and the villain was little more than a beardless Obadiah Stane who lived farther up the California coast. But it set up a lot of really good stuff, including the WASP in a future volume.
- Avengers: Age of Ultron. This was another film that I thought was wonderful after I left the theater, only to spot its flaws later. It still works as an awesome spectacle, but falls victim to corporate control as Disney forced Joss Whedon to shoehorn a ton of stuff into it that distracted from the central story. I admit to being a little confused and even annoyed when Vision showed up. He was almost the hardest part of this to accept, but the Russo brothers put him to good use in Civil War. I liked it, but it had problems.
- Iron Man 2. Another one that I liked because it was fun and cool, despite getting a little big for its britches. Whiplash was a bad villain, but Mickey O’Rourke did a good job with him, and of course Sam Rockwell plays an excellent corporate tool. It worked a little bit as a sequel to its great predecessor, though its function was clearly to help segue the franchise into a future Avengers conglomeration.
- The Incredible Hulk. I liked this one better than a lot of people gave it credit for, and Edward Norton was far better in the Bruce Banner role than Mark Ruffalo. What started as a cerebral story later devolved into a smashfest, which was fine and fun to watch, but did very little to advance Banner’s personal arc.
- Iron Man 3. I feel like Tony Stark’s story here was a little bit of a rehash from the first two, as well as what he did in Avengers. We get it Tony, you’re a mess. This is a story about a guy you were mean to coming back for revenge. Like the HISHE video points out, it’s pretty much an MCU version of The Incredibles, with slightly less hard than its predecessors. The change of directors really showed.
- Thor. What a perfectly average installment whose only purpose was to get one of the three pinnacle members of the Avengers on the big screen, so that they’d have an excuse for him to be in the real movie next summer, along with that movie’s villain.
- Jessica Jones. This one had flashes in the pan, real moments of greatness from a good number of its characters (like Jessica, Kilgrave, Trisha, and Luke Cage). Then it went off the rails, focusing on Jeri Hogarth’s pointless affair and divorce arc, or giving far too much screentime to the incestuous ginger twins who lived in Jessica’s building. Kilgrave was a top five Marvel villain, and Jessica definitely had her hands full dealing with him. That part of her story was great. The rest of it (seriously, how many scenes to we need of her and Luke power-boinking her bed into splinters?) was trying too hard to be edgy or dark, and lost its purpose. Where Daredevil was often over-violent, Jessica Jones was in equal measure over-sexual.
- Thor: The Dark World. Wow. This movie only got made because it had to. And about the only relevant part of it for the MCU at large was the fact that the villain was using an Infinity Stone, which won’t be relevant on screen for a few more years. Boring story, boring acting, and only a few laugh-out-loud moments…all of which were sparked by side characters whose main career work is on TV sitcoms. To date, this is the only MCU movie I didn’t bother to see in the theaters, because it just didn’t look like it was worth it from the trailers…and I was right.
- Iron Fist. If Thor 2 was boring and pointless, Iron Fist stands alone on an island of awful. It was mooning-the-crowd-at-a-preschool-graduation bad. This thing had no idea what it was trying to be, trying to accomplish, or trying to go. I can’t give you a solid breakdown as to why, without outright parroting Larry Correia’s shakedown of it, which is pretty detailed. They really dropped the ball with this one.
So that’s my rankings so far. In a few more months, we’ll get another Thor movie, which so far looks like it’s carved from the same stuff as the Guardians flicks. Then we get another Avengers movie next year, plus Black Panther and Ant-Man and the Wasp. I’m revved up. I’ll update this as they come out.