Over the course of the past eleven years, Marvel Studios has gifted us over twenty films in their cinematic universe, and every single one has led to the latest entry, Avengers: Endgame. Well, it’s official, folks. Endgame has been released, and the entire community of both film lovers and Marvel fans alike is in chaos over everything that went down. From the franchise’s humble beginnings to its latest extravaganzas, they’ve surely come a long way. This is, without a doubt, one of the most anticipated movies of the year – if not the most anticipated – but is that lead up really justified? How do the rest of the movies compare to Endgame, or more importantly, how does Endgame compare to them? Let’s take a look.
22. Thor (2011)
When one looks at the massive scale of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, many different entries, characters, and moments stick out as particularly noteworthy. Even in the case of mediocre movies, there’s usually at least one thing that’s almost somewhat memorable, for better or for worse. That’s not the case with Thor, an irredeemable mess of a blockbuster that feels so ludicrously tepid in both story and scenery that it’s hard to stay connected to literally anything that goes on within its 114 minutes. Lacking any sense of purpose, the film feels robbed of everything that makes a superhero flick good, carrying an indistinct tone and a script that’s both campy and dull. There’s no room for a good first impression when you make a movie about a literal god and strip him of everything that makes him so. Dryer than the New Mexico desert it takes place in, Thor is better off left forgotten.
21. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Iron Man 2 is a beast, and not in a good way. Usually in the case of sequels, you’d think the hero would have learned something from his previous adventure, but in this case it seems that Tony Stark learned nothing about being a decent human being, and instead chooses to spend much of this movie acting like a complete and utter asshole to everyone who cares about him. There’s a lot that could’ve been, and it’s a bit disappointing to see so much wasted potential in such a drawn-out and counterproductive venture. Everything about this film feels completely derivative and overstuffed to the point that its essence becomes correlated with that of an endless black hole. The action sequences are the only redeemable aspect, but even they’re too short to appreciate in full. Maybe it’s for the better that Jon Favreau didn’t return to the franchise – at least we’ll never have to know.
20. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
At the end of the day, The Incredible Hulk is easily the black sheep of the franchise, with many factors coming into play to give it the title of “Most Forgotten MCU Film”, not the least of which is Edward Norton’s later replacement with Mark Ruffalo. It’s unfortunate because Norton actually gives a great performance here, one that’s unfortunately overshadowed by everything mediocre about this movie. Bogged down by an underdeveloped antagonist, muddy visuals, and a sloppy CGI-fest of a final act, it’s a shame that the film didn’t lean into the desperation aspect of Bruce Banner’s character as much as it could’ve, choosing to sacrifice a more grounded story for big rock-em-sock-em action and becoming less tolerable in the process. It’s not a horrible movie by any means, but it’s not hard to see why people tend to forget that it’s even a part of the universe in the first place.
19. Iron Man 3 (2013)
What makes a hero? That’s the question that Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 asks and it’s certainly one of the most resonant themes that the MCU has offered. It’s really too bad that the kickoff to Phase 2 is so divisive in its execution because with some more refining, Black could’ve had one of the greatest superhero films of all time on his hands. Up until the end of the second act, it delivers on its themes of the duality of heroism and what defines those who embody that persona. But that’s all ditched for a haphazard final third, which is so generic and forgettable that it comes close to ruining the bar set by its excellent opening and middle. How do you go from an original and highly engaging thriller to an anticlimactic showdown that ends with multiple automated Iron Man suits and a fire person? I have no idea, and that isn’t a good thing. Iron Man 3 isn’t bad, but it’s certainly imbalanced.
18. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Thor’s second solo outing isn’t very highly praised and has since gone on to be hailed as one of the worst films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s ten-year history, but does Thor: The Dark World really deserve all of the hate it gets? Not necessarily. It seems as if the majority of its critics trash it simply because of its surface-level qualities – Malekith is admittedly a shoddy villain and his clichéd Dark Elves are nothing more than another faceless, easily-defeated army – but in all honesty, the film doesn’t get enough credit for setting up the Infinity Saga and providing some excellent character work for Loki in the process. Most of the other side characters still end up acting as nothing more than either comic relief or shoehorned plot devices, but at least The Dark World acknowledges that its titular hero is a god, and treats him accordingly.
17. Iron Man (2008)
Sure, Iron Man jump-started the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but does it really deserve all of the credit it gets eleven years after its release? That’s a bit of a hard question to answer to completion, but the overall verdict is that yes, it definitely does. Getting in the way of a fully formed stance is that of the franchise’s evolution, leaving Iron Man to fend for itself based on brownie points and nostalgia, but it really is an excellent movie on its own merit. Robert Downey Jr. exudes a great amount of charisma as both Tony Stark and Iron Man, and while the action sequences aren’t particularly notable, they feel sleek and refined, if a bit amateurish at points. The MCU wasn’t even the MCU at this point, so its weaknesses are much easier to let slide than some later entries.
16. The Avengers (2012)
More than anything that came before it, The Avengers feels like the closest one might come to a perfect comic book movie, in both the best and worst of ways. Right from the opening shot, there’s a sense of heritage: the film feels deeply rooted in its source material. It’s packed to the brim with a campy charm that carries throughout, one that feels both flamboyant but also uneven. Despite the awesomeness that it brings to the table, there’s very little visual style. It’s one of those films that suffers from feeling dated upon recent reflection, especially when the viewer is forced to come to terms with the fact that ultimately, this is a very low-stakes film. Despite that, though, there’s still an undeniable sense of fun to be had and it’s enjoyable purely based on character interactions and action. Certainly not without its flaws, but a fine first romp nonetheless.
15. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
Coming hot off the success of Avengers: Infinity War, fans needed a breather before they were inevitably thrown back into the pit of darkness that they left off on. Ant-Man and the Wasp gives them just that: a breather, and that’s really all that needs to be said about it to know how much fun it is. When watching it, there’s nothing really special to look out for in terms of plot elements or dialogue and a lot of it feels very forgettable. However, it at least transcends what its predecessor attempted to do with the shrinking tech and serves up some highly entertaining set pieces in the process, including one of the most ridiculously cool car chases in cinema history. What it lacks in clarity it makes up for in confidence, proving to be a refreshing palate cleanser before the end of the world.
14. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
It’s going to be hard to talk about Captain America: The First Avenger at this point without sounding like I think it’s a bad movie because in all honesty, it’s not. It’s actually quite a good one. But compared to the rest of the franchise, it feels a tad safe and isn’t really memorable in many senses. Where it counts, this is a heartwarming tale of heroism lifted from average to above-average status thanks to a powerful and moving performance from Chris Evans, and it works in many different ways to create both an incredible origin story and the perfect setup for the future adventures to come. A bit campy in some spots, sure, but there’s no denying that Joe Johnston’s nostalgic romp is fueled by a classically inspired panache for popcorn entertainment. By the film’s end, you’ll be emotionally invested in Steve Rogers’ story, something truly lacking in many modern superhero flicks.
13. Doctor Strange (2016)
Doctor Strange borrows many of the basic ingredients that have been known to correlate with superhero movie success, but it also knows when to utilize the evolution of the genre to its advantage, allowing the viewer to undergo one of the biggest sensory overloads of the century. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange feels much like another Tony Stark waiting to discover his wrongdoings, but by the end of the film he feels like a completely different being altogether. Boosted by uproarious visual effects and a heartfelt, poignant story at its core, Scott Derrickson’s grandiose epic proves that there’s still new ground to break in the superhero world, even if it seems like the elements it uses as its base are less than stellar. For what it’s worth, this is a highly satisfying and unique journey that definitely favors style over substance but is still able to dish up greatness anyway.
12. Captain Marvel (2019)
Setting aside the ridiculous and unjustifiable controversy surrounding this film’s release, Captain Marvel is nothing short of a good time, but it also brings much-anticipated lore, characters, and explanations into the MCU with balance, beauty, and precision. A marvelous cosmic adventure, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s throwback piece feels a bit jarring at some points, but that doesn’t stop it from achieving what it set out to do. Not only does it introduce Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers into the MCU with style, but it also manages to defy expectations that fans had preconceived months before it was even released while never once feeling forced in the execution of those actions. This is a movie that enables one to care about the relationships between these characters and not just the things they do – a rarity in modern mainstream cinema.
11. Ant-Man (2015)
Ant-Man is not a film without issues. It squanders characters who have far more potential than given credit for and its primary antagonist is nothing more than a tiring bore who meanders on and on with too much talk and not enough show. However, Paul Rudd’s incredible turn as Scott Lang is more than enough to make up for those shortcomings; peppered with charisma and exuberance but also a devotion to emotional resonance, and the story of a man who only wants to do right by his daughter is more than enough to guarantee excellence. Director Peyton Reed isn’t exactly the most exciting director to helm an MCU film, but he certainly knows how to do Ant-Man’s powers justice, crafting intricate small-scale set pieces that feel larger than life when they play out.
10. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Now, this is a controversial placement, but bear with me for a moment. Is Avengers: Age of Ultron a perfect film by any means? No. Its titular villain is a worn-out, stale prototype (literally) with a god complex that feels tonally disjointed, ultimately becoming just another annoyance for the heroes to overcome. In addition, the pacing is uneven, making an already long film feel even longer. But once one gets past those (admittedly glaring) flaws, it’s clear that Age of Ultron is more of a worthy Avengers (and Marvel film in general) than its predecessor, with higher stakes, a weightier emphasis on character mortality, and a more satisfying end result that feels both a longing for the past and a look forward to new beginnings. It’s filled with truly fulfilling moments (most notably the Hulkbuster fight, which is an amazing scene in its own right), but more than anything, Age of Ultron feels concise and secure in its own existence, and that’s all that really needs to be said to justify this stunning epic.
9. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Appreciating Avengers: Infinity War on its own merit is a near impossible task. Truth be told, it’s not so much a film as it is part one of two films, both of which are the actual final product overall when combined. As a result, most of the movie feels like so much of a setup towards the next stage in the MCU’s evolution, so much so that the ending feels weaker and less like an ending and more like a brief halting point. It’s definitely not the best Marvel film but it’s certainly the most Marvel film, and because of that, most of Infinity War does have trouble finding its balance among all of the characters and plot threads. In the end, however, it’s a fun ride and while not flawless, it feels the closest to a milestone crossover event that cinema could ever possibly achieve.
8. Black Panther (2018)
At one point, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther seemed like top-tier MCU, and for the most part, it still holds up as a super powered and emotionally investing story that plays out from multiple sides of the story. One of them – T’Challa’s – is more concerned with the “right” side of a conflict and acts on that in a way that makes our hero seem more than a little boring in retrospect. The other side – Killmonger’s – feels more aligned with a way of thinking that resembles that of a different kind of leader, one who’s not afraid to make the harsh choices but, like many others, doesn’t want to. It’s a film that really takes quite a bit of brainpower to process in the end, and this would be great if the script didn’t hold up as lousy as it does upon a re-watch. It’s still a beautiful film, though, and serves to remind me of how much of a cultural phenomenon it was and makes me wonder if cinema will ever achieve anything like it again.
7. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Spider-Man: Homecoming feels like a combination of two different stories at once, colliding with uncertainty. One of them is a standard superhero movie, and the other is a John Hughes-esque coming-of-age film. Both have their flaws, and there are quite an abundance of them, but at least Homecoming knows what it’s aiming for. Weirdly, the one Marvel film not completely owned by Disney feels the most appealing to those who would watch their films, and it’s heartwarming to see Tom Holland tackle a completely new version of the character with an innocence only a teen could enlighten audiences with. Michael Keaton’s Vulture remains one of the best MCU villains to date, and will surely stay that way for a long time. Like many of the other films, it has a hard time balancing its primary characters with its secondary ones, and the constant attempts of Holland’s Peter Parker to live up to Tony Stark do become a bit grating after a while. But if there absolutely had to be a new version of Spider-Man and his classic friends, this is how to do it.
6. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
With Thor: Ragnarok, director Taika Waititi took the MCU in a bonkers and bold (but mostly bonkers) new direction. At this point in the franchise, Thor wasn’t a horrible character, but he was certainly lower on the rung than his Avengers teammates. Ragnarok changed all of that, turning him from a middle-tier hero to a top-tier one with ease. Everything about the film seems perfectly catered to fans longing for something new: after all, a universe isn’t a universe unless it ventures outside the realm of Earth. Somehow it manages to balance most of its characters’ desires and purposes, with Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster and Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie being easy highlights among a whole roster of them. A cosmic venture that’s both challenging and rewarding in equal measure, Ragnarok never feels like it could be anybody else’s vision but Waititi’s, and that’s a beautiful thing.
5. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Captain America: Civil War represents everything Marvel does incredibly well – and everything they don’t. On one hand, the uproarious clash between two former friends feels like a contained epic, something so massive in scale at a point, but that eventually boils down to two people with different sets of values. It feels very humanistic because of this, but also fails at giving us a reason to really root for either of the heroes. In a sense, they’re both wrong and maybe that’s the point. Maybe the message attempting to be sent here is that opinions are subjective and when people can’t agree on that statement alone…well, that’s when it gets complicated. The airport battle still remains the best set piece in the franchise’s history, though, and despite a lack of focus in regards to the many different subplots (all of which the film chooses to hastily abandon), this is at least a more grounded vision from beginning to end.
4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Hot take: the Russo Bros. don’t know how to make an action movie look appealing. All three of their Marvel entries are ugly in some way, shape, or form, this mainly being an issue in the terms of the look and feel that the viewer undergoes while watching. That being said, their first effort, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, is the most tolerable of all of these: at least the gritty look fits the hard-as-nails, pulse-pounding atmosphere that this film envelops its viewer in. Its Washington D.C. setting does enough to establish the film as way more than your average superhero movie (it’s a political thriller in actuality), and even though it suffers from many of the third-act tropes that these movies suffer from – including but not limited to a big CGI battle – it contributes more than enough thrills and tension to create a heightened sense of originality not commonly found in the superhero genre.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Nothing could’ve prepared anyone for what director James Gunn brought to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in August of 2014. Guardians of the Galaxy is more than just a movie, it’s a cinematic masterpiece and a groundbreaking, inventive entry in the medium. Marvel took a lot of risks bringing this space-set story to the big screen, but it paid off in the long-run. With a different cast and screenplay, maybe a film about a galactic rogue, a bounty hunter, a cybernetic raccoon and a talking tree wouldn’t work, but does anybody really care? No, because it did, and that’s all that really matters. Its primary villain is a drab slice of cardboard and its third act is pretty much just a big space battle, but are either of those issues…really issues at all? Gunn’s film feels rooted in the legacy of classic sci-fi epics, and that’s a good thing. Even it’s more clichéd moments feel more like subtle homages instead of blatant redundancy. It’s one of two truly perfect films in the franchise.
2. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t a perfect film, but it comes damn near close to one. Shortcomings aside, it’s a full-fledged celestial adrenaline rush from start to finish, tossing the more edgy parts of its predecessor aside in favor of an utterly bonkers adventure. It’s brighter, more colorful, packed with witty humor, and most of all, never stops hurtling emotional beats at the viewer. Sometimes it is a tad too self-indulgent for its own good, with bits of the humor coming off as unfortunately flat at points and the pacing feeling much more uncontained than it could be. But sometimes the self-indulgence works in its favor. At least this is a film that knows how insane it has the potential to be and ultimately delivers on that expectation. The character work is truly some of the best the MCU has ever seen, and it’s truly amazing how a movie as absurd as this can somehow come together in the end.
1. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
After eleven years of anticipation, twenty-one preceding films, and dozens of well-realized characters coming together across the span of their respective universes, Avengers: Endgame delivers a sensation like no other. This is a movie that somehow manages to create an overwhelming sense of hope for the characters we’ve grown to know and love, and carries a load with more weight than possibly any other film of the century so far. Everything has lead to this milestone in action film-making, a truly groundbreaking and heart-wrenching triumph on all levels.
All three hours are equally mesmerizing spectacles in their own right, packing enough of a wallop to physically ravage viewers’ bodies and souls until they feel like they can’t look any longer. But even with all of this emotion on display, it’s not all sad. It signifies an end, but part of the journey is the end, and out of an end comes a new beginning. It gives me so much warmth and happiness to say that Endgame truly is a perfect film. It lives up to every ounce of hype and then some, creating such a sense of closure for over a decade’s worth of buildup. Nothing can prepare one for what they will experience when they view this beautiful monster. Everything about it is layered in immense grandiosity and it truly is perfectly balanced (as all things should be).
Thank you, Marvel Studios, for everything. We are forever in your debt.