After Avengers Endgame, a definitive ranking of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s 22-film Infinity Saga
Would Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige have known in 2007, when he first spoke publicly about the possibility of a shared universe of superheroes, that in 2019 it would be nearly impossible to score opening day tickets for the fourth Avengers film in India?
Would he ever have imagined humongous billboards with Iron Man and Captain America’s faces on them, erected outside housing complexes in small town Uttar Pradesh? Would he - or anyone else for that matter - have ever believed that a day would come when children with no regular access to electricity or plumbing would know who Black Panther is?
No one could have anticipated the level of success that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has achieved. Once considered a bold, some would say even reckless risk, the 22 movies in the MCU are now a part of the highest grossing film franchise in history - poised to add at least a couple of billion more after Avengers: Endgame
This is no small feat. I still remember the first time Samuel L Jackson took to the hallowed stage of Hall H at the San Diego Comic Con, and introduced the characters we’d spend the next decade of our lives with. Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, The Incredible Hulk and others. The roster has expanded since that momentous day, and it will continue to expand for decades to come.
But it all began with Nick Fury’s words, spoken for the first time in The Avengers. “There was an idea.The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people, to see if they could become something more, to see if they could work together when we needed them, to fight the battles we never could.”
With these words in mind, let’s undertake the most difficult endeavour any fan could, and let’s rank the 20 films of the MCU - from worst to best.
Thor: The Dark World
Perhaps the only Marvel movie that doesn’t warrant a second viewing. The Dark World came at a moment of flux for Marvel, when they couldn’t really decide in which direction to take their characters - thankfully, this tonal inconsistency has since been addressed. It was also one of the few times that Marvel openly aped another property - on this occasion it was Game of Thrones. They even brought veteran GoT director Alan Taylor onto the project after Patty Jenkins (who later went on to direct Wonder Woman) departed due to creative differences. Taylor later became the first filmmaker to publicly denounce Marvel. More would follow suit.
Ant-Man and the Wasp
Just like Iron Man 2, which all those years ago felt like a hasty excuse to introduce the concept of a potential Avengers film, Ant-Man and the Wasp feels like a feature-length introduction to the quantum realm, which is supposed to feature heavily in the upcoming Avengers 4. The only reason it’s ranked below the first Ant-Man is because even the Luis scenes aren’t memorable in this one.
The story behind Ant-Man is easily more intriguing than the film itself, which is a jarring clash of two opposing styles and tones. When original director - and firm fan favourite - Edgar Wright dropped out of the project just weeks before filming was scheduled to begin - once again, creative differences were blamed - Marvel quickly hired their least auteuristic filmmaker, Peyton Reed. The final film retained much of Wright’s inputs, particularly the cast he had assembled and the action sequenced he had pre-visualised, but couldn’t help but feel incredibly slight.
The Incredible Hulk
In hindsight, The Incredible Hulk isn’t as inconsequential as you might have initially thought. But in what seems to be a common thread between my least favourite Marvel movies (with one major exception), it too was bogged down by creative troubles. The Incredible Hulk was Marvel’s second film, back when they weren’t under the umbrella of Disney and made movies for different studios. In the end, The Incredible Hulk felt like a compromised vision, between opposing corporate voices, and a lead actor who began taking over director Louis Leterrier’s film. Edward Norton was not invited back.
There’s a lot to enjoy in Captain Marvel, though - especially since the pre-established goodwill of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will likely be forgiving to its many flaws - but it can’t help but feel stunningly insignificant in the larger scheme of things. It’s like a feature length trailer for the character – all set-up with little payoff – and reignites repressed memories of Iron Man 2.
Iron Man 2
Others would probably rank Iron Man 2 lower on their lists, but there are several things to enjoy in the movie. For example, how can we not collectively celebrate the presence of Mickey Rourke, hamming it up as a wronged Russian who only seemed to be interested in one thing - his burrrd. Also somewhat forgotten is Sam Rockwell’s cocky supporting performance as Justin Hammer, who was, in many ways, a stupider version of Tony Stark.
Doctor Strange is one of the most disappointing entries in the MCU, simply because unlike so many of the other films they’ve made, it actually looked like it was aiming higher. Director Scott Derrickson was a unique choice for the material, Benedict Cumberbatch inspires confidence in whatever he touches, and those trailers really did look amazing, if a little derivative. But it ended up being exactly what Marvel movies at the time were being accused of - bland, unoriginal and as generic as Cumberbatch’s American accent.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is what Ant-Man should have been, an offshoot of the larger MCU about characters that felt real and stakes that didn’t feel overblown. Without pushing the envelope in any way, Homecoming achieved exactly the vibe it set out to achieve - it doesn’t hide the fact that it’s a tribute to the coming-of-age films of John Hughes - and for that, it must be appreciated.
Guardians of the Galaxy
The first Guardians movie was one of the biggest gambles Marvel ever undertook, but it paid off. Director James Gunn was untested in blockbuster territory, and even though they mostly managed to keep it from being reported, Guardians of the Galaxy was massively over-budget. It was, however, the most offbeat MCU film to that point - Gunn brought a much needed visual flair to the increasingly uniform MCU, and even Marvel knows that if you give people a whiff of Star Wars, they have an almost Pavlovian response to it.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
When Marvel hired Joe & Anthony Russo to take the helm of Captain America 2 - their previous credits included episodes of Arrested Development and Community, both sitcoms, and both great misdirections from the film they were about to deliver - no one expected them to be the ones who would help Marvel grow up. The Russos made a movie that seemed to respond to real-world problems, and they more than made up for their lack of finesse in directing action with a dense, character-driven plot.
Captain America: Civil War
The immense success that the Russos had with Winter Soldier earned them a promotion. Civil War was very much an audition for the Avengers movies they would go on to direct, and they nailed it. It was, if it’s even possible, a more layered movie than the Winter Soldier, and is a great example of the long-form storytelling that Marvel has perfected. The Captain America movies feel like they belong in the same world, which doesn’t sound like too much to ask for from a series about the same character, but look at the Thor and Iron Man trilogies.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
There was no way that Avengers: Age of Ultron was going to come close to the majesty of the first Avengers (more on that later), but director Joss Whedon, despite his vocal complaints about his experience working on the film, came so very close. Age of Ultron wasn’t like the first Avengers film at all, and perhaps that is what took fans aback - instead of being a colourful romp, it was a more toned-down exploration of these superheroes’ psyches, their fears and insecurities. Not that it didn’t come through with the action, but it felt like an evolution, it felt risky - and that’s not something that can be said of too many Marvel.
Alright, so here’s the first controversial choice. It’s safe to say that Kenneth Branagh’s Thor is no longer a part of any conversation - inside and outside the MCU - especially since the Thor series has been routinely reinventing itself with every new film, and Thor: Ragnarok’s cartoonishness has little in common with the Shakespearean tone that Branagh brought to the original film. But before Joss Whedon’s Avengers made fun of the character for being a stoic, stuck-up prude, that’s exactly who he was, and who he should have been. On a side note, Patrick Doyle’s score is uncommonly good for an MCU film, a fact that director Taika Waititi recognised and revisited in Ragnarok.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2
Like Age of Ultron, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 isn’t what fans of the original would have expected - it’s more sombre, less light-footed and more emotional. Watching it reminded me of some of the best Pixar movies - like those classics, Vol 2 was a movie that wasn’t afraid of tackling serious themes. When all is said and done, we will look beyond Marvel’s razzle dazzle and appreciate the MCU for boldly telling stories that no one really acknowledges, stories about parents and children - be it Howard and Tony Stark, Thanos and Gamora, Odin and Thor or Ego and Peter Quill.
There’s a sense of finality to Avengers: Endgame that feels wholly unprecedented in the MCU. The Russos are probably operating at their most mature here, examining themes of parenthood and patriarchy, loss and legacy - and of power; how it switches forms as it moves from one hand to another (literally). The only way to confront radical terrorism, the film asserts - and Thanos is a radical terrorist, make no mistake about that - is through unity and bravery.
Captain America: The First Avenger
The First Avenger could have easily been ranked higher on another day, the fun throwback to the good old days of Lucasfilm that it was. And under the direction of Lucasfilm alum Joe Johnston, who previously made the underrated The Rocketeer, it was a surprisingly moving period picture, traditional in its sensibility and style - and it featured one of the best post credit scenes of any Marvel movie. Unfortunately, it has been overwhelmed by the rest of the MCU cannon, and deserves an immediate reappraisal.
Avengers: Infinity War
Despite being more bloated than any other Marvel movie, Infinity War’s strengths lie in the relationships that we’ve developed, over 10 years, with these characters - and the relationships they’ve formed with each other. New friendships will be made, as will new enemies. And as we’ve made more than clear with the $18 billion we’ve paid to watch these movies, we don’t really have anything better going on for the next 10 years either.
The one that started it all, all the good and bad - everything from Marvel’s ongoing problem with making their villains evil versions of their heroes, to the unique tone that has now become synonymous with their movies. And to think that they were hesitant to cast Robert Downey Jr in the role. We can’t really imagine a Marvel Universe without him, let alone the character of Tony Stark.
It’s no secret that after the lukewarm response to The Dark World, the Thor series was in need of a strong reboot, and Marvel, harkening back to the early days of Phase I, when they used to appoint filmmakers with a unique voice to lead the charge, went and brought Kiwi Taika Waititi into the mix. And like their appointments of Branagh, Whedon and Favreau; and later, Ryan Coogler, it was an inspired choice. Raganarok went on to become the highest-grossing (and highest-rated) film of the Thor trilogy, which means that it has set the tone for the character’s future.
Iron Man 3
And speaking of strong directorial voices, for precisely one glorious moment in their decade-long history, Marvel gave the impression that they’d cut someone a blank cheque to do whatever they wanted. There is no other film in the MCU that feels like it is the product of one vision than Iron Man 3, directed by Shane Black. It’s unthinkable that Marvel would have the courage to pull a Mandarin ever again, but that reveal remains, to this day, the single most surprising moment in any Marvel film. It counts, of course, if the Mandarin isn’t sacred in your eyes.
To quote my review of the film, “There is not enough that can be said about what director Ryan Coogler has achieved with this film. Better minds will continue writing about it for years. They will make videos about this movie, it will be discussed among friends of all ages, all races, all shapes and sizes; it will be taught in school, debated among intellectuals, it will be seen as the moment everything changed.”
The great critic Roger Ebert would often recall the impact the first Star Wars movie had on him. He would bring it up, almost reverentially, when referring to modern blockbusters that aspired to its greatness. I believe that for our generation, that difficult-to-describe feeling can be likened to watching the Avengers team up for the first time, to the Hulk telling Cap that he’s always angry and punching the giant alien in the face as the camera swirls around the team and that wonderful theme plays in the background. You’re humming it now.