Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is finally here and what a wild ride it is! Marvel Studios has come a long way since Iron Man, but how do the 15 films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe stack up? Let’s be honest: different people are always going to rank the movies differently. A lot of it depends on whether you’re in the mood for a comedy-heavy movie like Ant-Man or an action-packed spy thriller like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and of course, the Avengers movies have the added boost of teaming up all of our favorite heroes.
However, one can’t argue that some entries into the universe are weaker than others, while some are just a step away from absolutely perfect. We’ve set out on the impossible task of ranking each of the MCU films in as unbiased a way as possible, focusing on the strength of storytelling, character development and technical achievement of each movie. Keep in mind that when we get to the top five or so, the movies could basically take any spot depending on what kind of movie you’re in the mood for on a particular day. That said, here are all 15 films of the MCU ranked from worst to best!
15. THOR: THE DARK WORLD
Thor: The Dark World isn’t necessarily a bad film. If you saw it before anything else in the MCU, you’d probably consider it a really cool superhero movie, but the rest of the MCU sets such a high standard that it just fails to deliver. Most of the problem can be summed up in one word: unmemorable. Malekith doesn’t have a clearly defined goal and ends up being overshadowed by Loki who isn’t even a villain in this movie.
It also has a supporting character problem. Natalie Portman is a fantastic actress, but Jane Foster doesn’t serve much of a purpose outside of being Thor’s love interest. Even worse is her intern, Darcy, the intended comic relief character who ends up just being annoying. To be fair, Loki is great as always, his banter with Thor is fantastic and the final showdown with Malekith is pretty cool to watch.
14. IRON MAN 2
With War Machine, Black Widow, Whiplash and Justin Hammer, Iron Man 2 should have been incredible, but it tries to set up the future of the MCU too much while losing focus on the main plot. Even the main story suffers from some odd decisions though. The solution to Tony’s paladium poisoning is an element that his dad discovered years ago and kept secret in a model city for some reason. Iron Man and War Machine have a fight set to pop music and perhaps worst of all, Iron Man pees his suit.
We get that he’s going through an existential crisis, but it’s hard for an audience to respect a superhero that wets himself. Still, the final battle against the drone suits and Whiplash is pretty cool, Robert Downey Jr. is as charismatic as ever, and Don Cheadle solidifies himself as the perfect casting for James Rhodes.
13. THE INCREDIBLE HULK
The Incredible Hulk is another entry into the MCU that suffers from a problem of being unmemorable. This problem is made even worse by the fact that Bruce Banner was recast for The Avengers and all the future set-up for the MCU in this movie was promptly abandoned. It would almost not even count as part of the universe if not for Robert Downey Jr. showing up in the credits scene and General Thunderbolt Ross reprising his role eight years later in Captain America: Civil War.
It’s not an altogether bad movie though. Edward Norton makes a charming and tragic Bruce Banner, the action scenes are spectacular and the city-destroying fight with Abomination in the finale is still one of the more epic conclusions to a Marvel movie. Compared to Ang Lee’s Hulk just five years before, The Incredible Hulk is a breath of fresh air.
Much like its sequel, Jane Foster and Darcy Lewis don’t really have much of a point in Thor other than to give Thor someone to talk to. While it’s certainly more memorable than its sequel, Thor spends most of the movie without his powers, so it ends up kind of boring for a superhero movie about the Asgardian God of Thunder. Even de-powered though, Thor proves himself to be pretty formidable taking down S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in an attempt to get his hammer back.
You also have to respect the movie that gave us Tom Hiddleston as Loki, one of the MCU’s most compelling villains. Chris Hemsworth proves himself irreplaceable in the role of Thor, and Sir Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba and Stellan Skarsgard turn in brilliant performances that almost make up for the inclusion of Darcy.
11. AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
Much of the criticism for Avengers: Age of Ultron was probably due to expectations vs. reality. The trailers showed us a dark and intimidating Ultron, but what we got was a quippy, jokey Ultron that kind of wasted how terrifying James Spader can be. The shoehorned romantic subplot was a point of contention, Baron Strucker was wasted and the film seemed to rush from action sequence to action sequence, not giving the characters much of a chance to breathe.
The Hulkbuster vs. Hulk battle was one of the most epic battles of the MCU though, and the finale was on the most massive scale that we’d seen yet. The movie will probably be seen in a better light after the conclusion of Phase 3 when all that foreshadowing finally comes to fruition, but as of now, it’s a case of too much set-up and style vs. not enough substance.
10. IRON MAN 3
Iron Man 3 is a divisive movie among fans to say the least. It wastes The Mandarin, one of Marvel’s most deadly villains, for a cheap misdirect, which is made even worse for wasting the acting ability of Ben Kingsley. It doesn’t help that Tony spends so much time out of his suit, and Pepper Potts gets the killing blow on the villain.
There’s a lot to love about Iron Man 3 though. It answers the question asked in The Avengers, “Take away that suit and what are you?” In Iron Man 3, Tony proves the answer is still, “Iron Man,” using his intellect to infiltrate a mansion full of armed guards, and completing his character arc started in Phase 1. Iron Man gave him a suit. The Avengers made him a hero. Iron Man 3 proved to Tony that he was still a hero even without his suit.
9. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER
Captain America: The First Avenger may not be as action-packed as future installments of the series would be, but it does the job of establishing Steve Rogers as a true hero to his very core. Even as weak and skinny kid, he’s the guy who throws himself on a grenade to save others. Despite its flaws, it had the monumental job of filling the shoes of Captain America, and a lot of people didn’t have faith in Chris Evans to pull it off. These days, most people agree that they can’t see anyone else in the role.
Hugo Weaving is equally perfect as the Red Skull, however most would agree that he was gone too soon. The movie established that Captain America was the kind of hero we needed in the present day, and of course at the end, it pulled him forward to our time to lead The Avengers.
Ant-Man seemed like a risky movie in nearly every aspect. His powers were almost as silly as his name, it was riddled with behind-the-scenes drama and Paul Rudd as a superhero? To the surprise of critics though, everything seemed to work. The film had a heavy focus on comedy, which made Paul Rudd a great choice, but it also had a surprising amount of heart, focusing on the father-daughter relationships of both Hank Pym and Scott Lang.
There was a little bit of set up for Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange and Ant-Man and the Wasp, but it never weighed down the main story, proving that Marvel had learned its lesson from previous attempts to build the universe. The supporting characters were fun, the visual effects were cool and a second act fight with an Avenger proved that Ant-Man’s powers weren’t so silly after all.
7. DOCTOR STRANGE
Doctor Strange had the task of introducing the mystical side of the Marvel universe to the MCU. By the time it came out, people generally weren’t second guessing Marvel anymore. Doctor Strange is a fascinating character with worlds of possibilities for incredible stories and visually stunning mystical dimensions. Stephen Strange is a respected character in the Marvel universe, and whoever was cast would have to bring a decent amount of gravitas to the role, so when Benedict Cumberbatch was cast, it was a universally praised decision.
The visual effects were incredible enough to warrant an Oscar nomination, and the epic finale is probably one of the best Marvel has ever done. Best of all, Scott Derrickson, who’s mostly known for his horror films, has expressed his intention to move the Doctor Strange movies in a horror direction, so the future could see some genuinely unique and terrifying Marvel movies.
6. IRON MAN
Iron Man deserves a certain amount of respect for starting the MCU in the first place, and it’s still one of the best films in the shared universe. Robert Downey Jr. instantly won over audiences as the cocky billionaire engineer, and when he finally put on the high-tech suit and started taking out terrorists, we knew this was a movie they could build a franchise on.
No one knew what was coming though. Few people probably even stuck around for that first post-credits scene, but those who did got to see Nick Fury actually name drop “The Avengers Initiative,” hinting at more than just an Iron Man franchise. Though the subsequent Iron Man movies may have had more action and more refined characters, nothing can beat walking into the theater for Iron Man for the first time, not realizing they were about to witness the beginning of the golden age of superhero movies.
5. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR
Captain America: Civil War had the biggest job in the MCU since The Avengers. It had to bring more heroes together than ever before, it had to adapt one of the most well-known comic book events of the past two decades, it had to follow up the incredible Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it had to set Captain America and Iron Man against each other and, most importantly, it had the monumental job of introducing Spider-Man and Black Panther to the MCU.
Incredibly, it succeeded on all counts. Spider-Man and Black Panther were both instant hits with most fans, and the emotional rift between Captain America and Iron Man was both believable and tragic. It also gave us some of the most incredible action of the entire MCU, some of which is certain to go down among the most iconic scenes in film history.
4. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
Critics were sure that Guardians of the Galaxy would be Marvel’s first flop before it released, and if it hadn’t been done right, it could have been. The Guardians didn’t have the name recognition of Captain America or Thor, and any movie starring a foul-mouthed talking raccoon is, as a rule, a risk. Now, it’s widely considered to be one of Marvel’s best films, with Rocket being a major fan-favorite.
Each character gets little moments of emotional depth as well as laugh-out-loud one-liners. It’s one of Marvel’s funniest movies to date, but the humor doesn’t ever detract from the action or the heart. The opening scene sees young Peter Quill tearfully saying goodbye to his dying mother, and in the next scene, he’s dancing through a space cave to “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone. Most people accepted in that moment, that they were going to love this movie.
3. THE AVENGERS
The Avengers was the make-or-break film of the MCU. Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger had all achieved success, but if The Avengers couldn’t pull off bringing all these larger-than-life characters together, then the MCU would have ended up a series of loosely connected films that never saw major crossovers again. Incredibly, The Avengers was faithful to each character, and managed to be both action-packed and funny while featuring great character development and universe-building.
It set up the initial premise for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., each character’s future films and Thanos for Avengers: Infinity War without losing sight of its own story, a feat that Avengers: Age of Ultron couldn’t quite pull off again. We got to see our favorite heroes go head-to-head for the first time and the final battle against the Chitauri invasion is one of the most amazing action sequences of all time.
2. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2
How does Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 stack up against the first? In most respects, much better. We know each character already, so no time is wasted on introductions. Instead, each character gets a lot more depth. The film explores Gamora and Nebula’s sisterly relationship, Yondu’s relationship with Quill and what makes Rocket act like such a jerk.
Vol. 2 is easily by far Marvel’s most visually stunning film yet. From beginning to end, it’s brightly colored and beautiful to look at. It also solves the villain problem that the first (and nearly every Marvel movie has) with Ego, who has compelling motivation, backstory and depth. He’s also nearly unkillable, which makes the grand finale of the movie that much more incredible. Most importantly though, this is a movie where the Guardians become more than just a team, they become a family.
1. CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER
The only reason Captain America: The Winter Soldier edges into the top spot is because it knows exactly what kind of movie it wants to be, and it succeeds in every respect. The first action sequence immediately gives us the Captain America we wanted to see in Captain America: The First Avenger and Black Widow has her strongest performance in the MCU yet. Nick Fury gets an amazing action sequence and the Winter Soldier is genuinely menacing. Not to mention the big reveal that HYDRA has been essentially manipulating the world for decades.
What truly sets Captain America: The Winter Soldier apart is that it doesn’t even need the Marvel universe to be great. Even if superheroes had nothing to do with this movie, it would still be one of the best action thriller spy movies of all time.
Let us know in the comments which MCU movie you feel should be at the top of this list!