Every Marvel movie ranked: From Iron Man to Thor Ragnarok

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is back. Whether Black Widow and The Eternals will actually see the light of day in 2021 remains to be seen, but we’ve got at least three TV shows to ease our withdrawal symptoms following an entire calendar year (the first since 2009) without so much as a morsel of big, loud superhero fare. 

WandaVision kicked off the so-called “fourth phase” of the MCU this month, giving us an opportunity to take stock of everything that came before it. The result? A comprehensive ranking of all 24 releases. Were the Thor movies pre-Ragnarok really so bad? Is Endgame the best Avengers movie? We’ve sorted the Infinity Wars from the Incredible Hulks

Here goes, don’t @ us…

24. Iron Man 2 (2010)

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It wasn’t just Mickey Rourke and his electrified whips. But Mickey Rourke and his electrified whips were a big part of it. That Iron Man 2 lost its way after a very decent first film was a surprise, but in hindsight, it seems like it was too much too soon for the franchise – parallel underwhelming storylines about a gruff Russian villain exacting revenge on Tony Stark and the US government trying to appropriate his Iron Man technology for its own uses smothered the vim and pep of the first film. Stark’s barely believable “palladium poisoning” arc wasn’t welcome, either (turns out it’s not hugely entertaining to watch someone pretend to have heartburn for two hours). The result was a mess that suffered all the more for comparisons with its far superior predecessor. Like Stark, we felt close to death for most of the film’s runtime. TB

23. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

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Not my Hulk! Edward Norton’s turn as the big green guy has been forgotten almost entirely. It was hit with such bars as “more like, the adequate hulk” (AO Scott in the New York Times) upon its release and it hasn’t gained a cult audience since. It’s very much in the “clunky origin story” camp, showing us how radiation exposure (how else?) gave Bruce Banner his uncontrollable alter-ego. The early-stages CGI Hulk was asked to do dramatic heavy lifting it couldn’t quite handle and Norton was just a little unlikeable as Banner. The film’s greatest offence? Keeping us from a Ruffalo-led film, which would surely be a delightful Black Widow-Hulk romcom. BA

22. WandaVision (2021)

Fair to say that, upon first meeting them in the MCU, the sitcom spin-off couple you might least expect would be Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), a “witch” with telekinetic powers, and Vision (Paul Bettany), a superbot who was created from an infinity stone, Tony Stark’s operating system, and a machine that tried to end all life on the planet. But here we are. It might be too early to judge the show – at the time of writing we’re only three episodes in – as so far we’ve had strong hints at an overarching plot that we’re still very much stuck on the runway of. But as that runway is an episode-by-episode parody of period TV comedies – which more often than not simply act as rather unfunny homages – it’s fair to say we’re currently still waiting for take-off when it comes to Disney+’s first episodic MCU foray. Stuart McGurk

21. Captain Marvel (2019)

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With a bit of distance we must face the fact that Brie Larson’s introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a dud. Time will not be kind to it. The plot was so convoluted and deeply uninteresting that very few people who have seen the movie could actually recite it to you – something about shapeshifting aliens at war with each other? – and the central character was so lifeless that she couldn’t be saved even by an actor of Larson’s talent. It was particularly unfortunate because there were so many misogynist trolls who wanted it to fail (which it did not: it pulled in more than $1 billion at the box office). In spite of all of this, we have great hopes for the Nia DaCosta-directed sequel, after Captain Marvel showed plenty of personality in Endgame. BA

20. Thor: The Dark World (2013)

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Visually muddy (“dark” is not an acceptable mood board concept), slow moving and with easily the most forgettable villains of any Thor film (go on, name them without looking it up), The Dark World was Thor at his gloomiest. Supposedly, director Alan Taylor was inspired to bring the mood of his work on Game Of Thrones to the film, which is certainly… a decision. In the end, we didn’t get a superhero Red Wedding, nor was there any twincest, but, hell, perhaps that would have made proceedings a little bit more fun. TB

19. Iron Man 3 (2013)

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Following the trash fire that Iron Man 2 turned out to be, Iron Man 3 felt superfluous from the very beginning. Stark had already gotten the girl (Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts) and his Avengers team-up had shown us that he works best as part of a crew (his shtick for two hours straight can be a bit much). Downey Jr and director Shane Black clearly had a lot of fun in making it, but the quips aren’t up to much and the ill-thought-out terrorism plot – Stark turns into Jack Bauer when a series of bombings orchestrated by villain Mandarin take place around the globe – is extremely dull. BA

18. Thor (2011)

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We… had to google this one to remember what happened in it. Today, Thor himself is a mainstay character of the MCU, helpfully spanning the charisma gap between Tony Stark’s tech billionaire fizz and Steve Rogers’ earnest righteousness. That’s all well and good, but it wasn’t always that way. The first Thor was dour and often ponderous, as was its lead. What it did get right – very right – was Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, who pretty much saved this from total obscurity amid much better MCU offerings before and since. TB

17. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

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Notable only for the introduction of Bucky (Sebastian Stan, The Winter Soldier himself) and Sam (Anthony Mackie, Falcon) to the MCU. In it, Steve Rogers, alongside Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanov, faces off against Stan’s Winter Soldier, an old army friend turned sleeper agent for terrorist organisation Hydra. The movie owes a debt to 1970s conspiracy thrillers and tries to say something about the surveillance state. It’s when these movies try to speak to the real world that they seem most ridiculous… BA

16. Ant-Man (2015)

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Phase two of the MCU wrapped up with Ant Man, whose production pre-dated even the first franchise film by a couple of years and which undeniably suffered from what might be described, in diplomatic studio speak, as “differing creative visions”. Edgar Wright had been attached to the film for years, writing the script alongside Joe Cornish before leaving the project to make way for Peyton Reed in 2014. Not helped much by a hero who could hardly be described as a household name (who’s Scott Lang compared to Bruce Banner or Peter Parker?), Ant-Man ended up as a camel of a film, designed by committee. Though it still made more than half a billion dollars. TB

15. Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015)

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If you’d told me, back in 2015, that the two characters in this film that would wind up with their own TV show would be Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen’s villain with a dodgy Eastern European accent) and Vision (Paul Bettany as a boring, sentient robot), I would not have believed you. And yet, here we are! Age Of Ultron is the weakest of the Avengers films, with a convoluted plot and a bottom-tier villain (Ultron, Tony Stark’s Frankenstein). But that scene where they all try to lift Thor’s hammer is good! BA

14. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

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Captain America has always been a bit of a hard sell on this side of the pond. The mythology of the character and the all-American values he embodies are a shade too earnest, and the nostalgia factor of the character doesn’t quite translate. Despite being slightly hamstrung as a result, Captain America was a totally passable film. The 1940s period setting was a welcome visual change after the previous four films in the MCU all took place in broadly similar modern settings (Asgard in Thor notwithstanding) and Chris Evans began carving out what would become a comfortable niche in the Marvel ensemble. Otherwise, was it hugely memorable? TB

13. Ant-Man And The Wasp (2018)

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Paul Rudd’s charm and that recurring gag where Michael Peña narrates an exaggerated story elevate this movie from “boring MCU filler” to “pretty good MCU filler”. It’s also quite nice to see Evangeline Lilly get her dues as The Wasp. It may only exist to facilitate the big-time travel plot in Endgame, but that’s OK. It’s a romp! BA

12. Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)

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They didn’t even bother trying to make the plot plausible. The Rugrats had a more believable reason for going to Paris than Peter Parker and his whole class did here. The villain (Jake Gyllenhaal, brilliantly slippery as Mysterio) managed to find him anyway! The thing is, Tom Holland’s Spider-Man is so damn endearing and affable that they could have just done just about anything and had us hook, line and sinker. Zendaya, JB Smoove and some trippy visual effects did enough to keep us interested throughout. And that cliffhanger… BA

11. Guardians Of The Galaxy 2 (2017)

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It was never going to be quite as good as the first movie, having lost the element of surprise. And yet a strange, nothing plot — which sees Kurt Russell play… a planet? Who also happens to be Starlord’s dad? — doesn’t distract too much from the fun stuff we loved in the first film. The tunes still slap, the jokes still land and there’s a surprisingly emotional ending, which hits pretty hard too. And that opening musical sequence with Baby Groot? Gold. BA

10. Doctor Strange (2016)

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Magic and superheroes don’t really mix. Normally, within the MCU and superhero films more widely, the explanation for the wondrous powers bestowed on our protagonists are explained away through technology (“Tony Stark is a genius inventor”; “Wakanda has access to a priceless, versatile mineral”) or some sort of loose science (“Peter Parker’s genes mutated because he was bitten by a radioactive spider”). Out-and-out magic is the realm of fantasy, while superheroes come under the sci-fi umbrella. Not so with Doctor Strange, whose arcane arts gave Marvel and its small army of special effects supervisors a whole new palette of weirdness to work with, to great effect. Via sling rings and Inception-style city-bending, we were introduced to the hypnotically arrogant Steven Strange; we can’t wait for his return to centre stage in next summer’s Multiverse Of Madness. TB

9. Avengers: Endgame (2019)

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By the time the gargantuan Endgame rolled into view in 2019, moviegoers thought they knew what to expect from Marvel films. But the Russo Brothers’ three-hour, $356 million behemoth of a movie managed to surpass what was expected of it nonetheless. Left to deal with the devastating “snap” ending of Infinity War, Endgame managed to negotiate the minefield that is movie time travel and plausibly save the previously doomed heroes, all without making that plotline feel like a cop-out. It didn’t have the same cold, visceral impact Infinity War did, of course, for that very reason – it didn’t end with half the cast looking like they had been scraped out of a toaster – but it was a satisfying and smart ending to a run of Avengers films that numbered, by then, a mind-boggling 22 films. That’s no mean feat. TB

8. Captain America: Civil War (2016)

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A movie that features its fair share of men shouting at each other in rooms – it sees Captain America and Iron Man falling out over whether or not to nationalise the Avengers – Civil War succeeds by leaning towards the “war” bit rather than the “civil” bit. It’s an Avengers movie in everything but name, with a larger crew of superheroes involved than anything that came before it (not to mention the first appearance of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man). For the first time, consequences come for our superheroes after they had inadvertently destroyed a large part of fictional Sokovia and killed innocent civilians in Lagos. It’s got some interesting ideas, but who are we kidding, we’re mainly in it for that big fight scene at the airport where they all run at each other. BA

7. Iron Man (2008)

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Would the MCU have succeeded if it had launched with, say, Thor? Or even Captain America? Something about Iron Man was irresistible in 2008 and Tony Stark’s first outing made an easy £400m plus change as Robert Downey Jr reaffirmed his status as the most charismatic man in Hollywood. Iron Man had wit in bags, it had spectacle (the entire sequence when Stark escapes his terrorist captors with the homemade Iron Man suit remains a highlight of the whole MCU franchise) and it set the whole deal up nicely. Bonus points for being the only film to manage, somehow, to make arms dealing seem romantic. TB

6. Black Panther (2018)

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On top of being the first family-friendly blockbuster to feature a song on the soundtrack with the lyrics “slob on my knob” on it, Black Panther is also a near-perfect film. Absolutely every component hits, from Ludwig Göransson’s percussion-heavy score to Ryan Coogler’s deft hand behind the camera and the late Chadwick Boseman’s talismanic central performance. It is a world-building movie that never labours its point; Wakanda comes to life so seamlessly, the result of brilliant collaboration in front of and behind the camera. And, lest we forget, Michael B Jordan’s Killmonger is perhaps the best villain of the entire franchise to date. The box office receipts (it took in $1.3b worldwide) do not lie. BA

5. Avengers Assemble (2012)

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Surely you remember the moment, because we certainly do: the Avengers theme swelled, the camera swung 360 degrees through a burning New York City and The Hulk, Iron Man, Black Widow, Captain America, Hawkeye and Thor stood defiantly back to back as heroes who finally shared a common world. After years of preparation, origin films and crossover planning, Joss Whedon’s Avengers Assemble was the moment the entire MCU project really clicked – proof in celluloid form that what had until then only been conceived of in paper could, and would, work. This was the birth of the first billion-dollar “cinematic universe” of the modern era and blockbuster filmmaking hasn’t been the same since. TB

4. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2018)

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To understand the scale of Tom Holland’s impact on the MCU, you only have to look at the frenzied casting around the as-yet-untitled Spider-Man 3 film. By the time the credits rolled on his first full-length instalment as Peter Parker, Holland was well on his way to supplanting Robert Downey Jr as the golden boy of the Universe and for good reason. Spider-Man: Homecoming hit the perfect balance between typical high school genre beats (15-year-old Peter fumbling his way through agonising science classes and pining after girls) and Spider-Man’s public role as defender of New York City. As a result, Homecoming was smart, heartfelt when it needed to be and an entirely modern take on the superhero film. TB

3. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

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The snap heard around the world. The greatest cinematic cliffhanger of all time. However you dress it, one thing is certain: the child in the Spider-Man costume, who bawled his little eyes out as his dad carried him out of the screening I attended after watching his hero turn to dust, is still traumatised. The power of cinema!

The decision to kill off half of the heroes of the MCU at the end of this movie, meaningless as we all knew it was, was very brave for a gigantic family movie franchise. And despite this grim conclusion, Infinity War is arguably the most entertaining film out of the bunch, thanks in no small part to Taika Waititi and James Gunn, who helped to carve out its comedic tone. The interplay between the Guardians and Thor is delightful, and there’s a climactic battle that far outstrips the one in Endgame. BA

2. Thor Ragnarok (2017)

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That Hulk reveal gets Thor: Ragnarok into the top half of this list on its own, but throw in the rest – from romping, acid-trip humour to a banging Led Zepp soundtrack to a generous helping of silky Jeff Goldblum – and the film is one of Marvel’s best. Taika Waititi jammed as many different genre aesthetics as he could into the 130 minutes he had to play with, as Norse god Thor was stranded on a neon-steampunk-Mad Max-type planet where he had to deal with a load of aliens before he could get back to Asgard to defeat the dreadfully creepy Hela. That absolutely doesn’t sound like it should work as a Marvel film, but it did. An experiment in creative freedom that paid off, Ragnarok looked good, moved fast, somehow drew on Tron and Gladiator in equal parts and was generally a wonderful bit of art. TB

1. Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014)

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The Guardians Of The Galaxy was the skeleton key to the all-important back third of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first 23-film run. Writer/director James Gunn injected so much humour and life into the film series with a bunch of rag-tag, bottom-of-the-pile comic book heroes and, in Starlord, created the archetype for the endearingly incompetent leading man that would carry the series forward. The role they would play in Avengers: Infinity War – where they wound up with more screen time than the majority of the name-brand Avengers – is evidence of their speedy rise to the top.

And yet, as a stand-alone movie, it is the best of the lot too. A group of alien loners are forced to team up to take down a villain. There’s a heist, some scuffles with bounty hunters, a couple of spaceship getaways… It’s Star Wars with a better sense of humour. The core cast – a star-making performance from Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper as a talking raccoon, Vin Diesel as a talking tree – are as close to perfect as you’re likely to find in a modern-day blockbuster. And then, there are the tunes. Starlord’s mixtape, packed with disco bangers from the 1970s and 1980s, is one of the great movie soundtracks of the 21st century. BA

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