Over the years, Marvel Studios has assembled quite a filmography. From the early trial-and-error period of Phase 1, through the uncertain highs and lows of Phase 2, all the way up to the record-shattering renaissance of Phase 3, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has run the gamut of quality. Some are hits and some are misses, but these are the best Marvel movies ranked.
Now that the Infinity Saga has come to a spectacular close, we have a few months of reflection before the Marvel machine cranks out Phase 4. So, what is the best Marvel movie so far? There are no wrong answers (unless you say The Incredible Hulk or Thor: The Dark World), but you can check out our take on all Marvel movies ranked below.
LOWEST RANKING MARVEL MOVIES
The Incredible Hulk (2008) is doomed to haunt the bottom of the MCU barrel for all time, feeding off radioactive scraps of peripheral relevancy. In its defense, it was dealt a bad hand.
On the DC Comics side, The Dark Knight had just redefined the genre as grounded and sophisticated, while Jon Favreau's Iron Man was a revelation built around Robert Downey Jr. That didn't leave a lot of room for Hulk to stand on its own big, green feet.
At this critical juncture, Hulk could have been another trendsetter, but the movie just doesn't work. It's too melancholy and stuffy to appease the superhero crowd, and too absurdly cartoonish for the prestige crowd. It also didn't help that Ang Lee had just released a Hulk movie back in 2003, muddying the waters of the canon right from launch.
I wish there was another way to start a "Best MCU Movies" list, but unless a Phase 4 film completely drops the ball, it'll always be Hulk.
Cue the sad “Lonely Man” walking away song.
A DARK DISASTER
If there was ever a time to be cynical about the MCU, it was after the release of Thor: The Dark World (2013). The careful buildup to The Avengers was astonishing and unprecedented, so the overall weaknesses of Phase 1 were forgivable.
These films had a fun gimmick and that was fine. But once The Avengers came out, Marvel had to keep the momentum going. Iron Man 3 did that well enough, but then it all came screeching to a halt.
The Dark World is a mess. The plot occurs more out of contractual obligation than creative vision, which is particularly evident in the villain. The dark elf Malekith (whose name I had to Google) is faceless and forgettable, a total waste of Christopher Eccleston's talent. He exemplifies everything wrong with Marvel villains at that time.
It’s how the "Marvel movies have no risk" narrative began to take shape in the first place. The conflicts are hollow, but as Anthony Hopkins once said: “It doesn't matter; [viewers] will be eating popcorn.”
This movie also cashed in on Loki's Avengers popularity by shoehorning him into a bigger role than necessary. Perhaps all of this could have been avoided had Patty Jenkins helmed the project as planned, but then-Marvel was too risk-averse to see that.At least we got Wonder Woman out of the deal.
BAD SEQUELS TO GOOD MARVEL MOVIES
21. Iron Man 2
You know what they say about lightning striking the same place twice? Well, it's true even when you've got a villain with electric whips. Iron Man 2 (2010) falls so far from the heights its predecessor, which is one of the highest-ranking Marvel movies, and it all comes back to vision.
This is more of a stepping stone than a cohesive film. It was constructed to play off the first Iron Man’s success, introduce War Machine and Black Widow, and loosely further the Avengers Initiative through-line. Then, on top of all that, it needed villains.
Sam Rockwell does a standout job in an inconsequential role, while the aforementioned Whiplash just appears for... what, fan service? It's filler and redundant filler at that; Tony's ghosts come back to haunt him again and again throughout the MCU, from Quentin Beck to Quicksilver. It's a plotline that’s far more effective in the later films, but the trope is prematurely tired with Whiplash.
The most engaging showdown is between Tony and Rhodey, who butt heads over Tony's legal and psychological fitness to be a superhero. Once that comes to a head, there's not much left to watch. It's not all bad, though. Tony's suit-up at the racetrack is one of the coolest, and Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer has the best dance moves in the MCU.
RANKING MARVEL MOVIES
In 2019, Thor is known as a definitive member of the Avengers. In 2011, this movie was a risk. Thor wasn't exactly a headlining act. Way before Marvel Studios dared release Ant-Man or Guardians of the Galaxy, that was a bold move.
For what it's worth, the end product is fine. The script is self-aware enough to bask in the high fantasy world of Asgard, but also subvert it with a fish-out-of-water Aesop. Personally, I don't love that trope, but it makes for some feel-good comedy and leads into some passable action moments. It also differentiated this film from its terrestrial peers; that tonal change was critical to establish the small ensemble of Phase 1.
Granted, the tone came back to bite in The Dark World, since the franchise had committed to a Shakespearean fantasy world, but it was fortunately remedied by Ragnarok.Likewise, Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, and most of the leads are well-casted but dramatically underutilized. Just think of this film as an investment for the best Marvel movies. By the time we get to Ragnarok, Infinity War, and Endgame, it all pays off in droves. But, as a standalone entry, it's one of the good Marvel movies worthy of a popcorn night.
ALL MCU MOVIES RANKED
In theory, the Ant-Man franchise is great. It's the most unabashedly comedic of the individual MCU properties, dutifully helmed by Paul Rudd. He and Evangeline Lilly make a chemical odd couple whose respective family lives bring a lot of heart to the madness. Combine that with the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids sight gags, and you've got a good time.
Unfortunately, Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) isn't as good as it should be. Like Iron Man 2, this sequel got bigger without getting better, and the major emotional beats are squandered in the process. We're already dealing with the aftershocks of Civil War on Scott Lang, as well as the rescue of Janet van Dyne when they add the villain Ghost to the mix.
Plus, Scott's hooligan friends are still hanging around, so it’s a crowd. With so many frayed plot threads, there's a lot of canned exposition without any impact. One particularly frustrating scene sees the heroes talking to Laurence Fishburne for, just, way too long.Chronologically, Ant-Man and The Wasp released right after Infinity War, so it was considered a calm after the storm. It is, but it could have been even better if they reined in the story and told a classical tale about parenthood. Right now, this ant is holding too much weight.
GRACE IN THEIR FAILINGS
Took me a few years to admit that Age of Ultron (2015) isn't very good.
At the time of release, it was riding the high of Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, while directly following up one of the biggest and best Marvel movies of all time, The Avengers.
There are plenty of strong moments too: the Hulkbuster scenes are blockbuster splash page glory; the interlude at Clint's farm provides some much-needed character drama; little interactions like the afterparty scene or the final showdown between Vision and Ultron are among the best in the MCU.
How could the movie as a whole NOT be good?
Now that we've gotten so many masterful ensemble films, the cracks in this one show. Ultron is a weak villain, a weird hybrid of Tony Stark and Joss Whedon that's more eye-rolling than menacing. Some character dynamics, like Bruce and Natasha's romance, are flimsy and distracting, while scenes like Thor's cave vision belong in a different movie entirely.It was an open secret that Whedon and Marvel had issues behind the scenes and it shows. Age of Ultron feels cynical, a corporate commercial without the risk that's desperately trying to be art. I rewatched it after seeing Endgame, and it's better when you know where it leads, but it falters on its own.
A FAMILY WHO GUARDS TOGETHER STAYS TOGETHER
When James Gunn set out to make Guardians of the Galaxy, he wanted to tell a story about strangers becoming a family. With Volume 2 (2017), he wanted to tell a story about strangers staying a family. For the most part, he's successful! The interplay between the Guardians is as strong as ever, and the increased role of Nebula and the addition of Mantis just enhance that.
Gunn excels at giving each character a unique voice and letting them shine in balanced doses. With such strong players, the stakes are more engaging, so the losses hit harder. Upon release, this film had one of the most emotional MCU deaths to date — and those were few and far between. That said, it’s ironic that the film's biggest weakness is its emotional center: Peter and Ego's relationship.
Kurt Russell does a fine job as a charismatic planet-god, but he's so immediately untrustworthy that any dramatic revelations about him feel inevitable. That makes it difficult to invest in his and Peter's bond, which feels at odds with the film's moral compass about unconditional love.Regardless, many fans see their own lives reflected in the Guardians films. Whether it’s due to a relationship with an estranged parents or the love they found with some ragtag friends, that catharsis is more important than a plot that surprises and deceives you.
ALL MCU MOVIES RANKED
16. Captain Marvel
When I first saw Captain Marvel (2019), I wondered how it would set itself apart from the rest of the MCU. The Thor franchise was already occupying the celestial-fantasy territory, while Guardians of the Galaxy was a space adventure a la Star Wars. I concluded that the film is best viewed as a Star Trek proxy, even if it isn't a perfect one.
Like The Original Series, it deals in political allegories made digestible with sci-fi analogs. These analogs aren't grandiose battles but instead interpersonal dramatics, i.e. the quiet sequence at Maria Rambeau's house. Had directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck stuck to their indie roots, Captain Marvel may have been a better film.
As it stands, it gets distracted. Its superficial attempts to define itself, like the overabundance of 90s pop culture and music references, actually weaken it. Likewise, Carol's amnesia is used for suspense rather than character development—and it's not very suspenseful nor developmental.A strong narrative is buried in Captain Marvel, but it's overshadowed by gimmicks. Not to mention the external pressures it faced by preceding Endgame and by being Marvel's first female-led film. Ultimately, it’s not one of the best Marvel movies nor one of the worst; it's just another ho-hum origin story when it could have boldly gone where no man had gone before.
STRANGE AND PSYCHEDELIC SURREALISM
15. Doctor Strange
Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill are some of the most inspiring creatives in Hollywood right now, and if you're a young filmmaker, you should follow them on every platform you can. They should be appreciated even if you don't appreciate fully Doctor Strange (2016).
In a vacuum, this is a solid movie. But in the context of the MCU, in 2016, it was stale. The patterns are obvious: there's a snarky male lead who holds himself in high esteem, has combative sexual tension with a female co-star, has a POC sidekick then fights a villain of equal power.
The charm wears thin.
Fortunately, Doctor Strange's powers allow spectacle that the other installments don't. The visual effects are amazingly conceived and realized, and when the narrative leans into the psychedelic surrealism, it shimmers like a kaleidoscope.
Time-and-space shifting fights are some of the most breathtaking in the MCU, even when the fighters and stakes are lacking. This is a comic book adaptation that benefited from the conversion to film more than any other property before it. And yet, it keeps circling back to being a cookie-cutter origin story, so it can't escape those earthly bonds.Looking ahead to the sequel, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness sounds like it leverages the most surreal parts of the original while honing in on Derrickson and Cargill's horror expertise, so this may be the rough start of a beautiful franchise.
ALL MCU MOVIES RANKED
I swear, this movie is better than you remember it. When ranking Marvel movies in the past, viewers used to position it rather low, but lately, fans have seen how underrated it is. For starters, the wartime period setting textures the story with a unique atmosphere that's never recreated the MCU. But it also has a level of earnestness that the other films lack.
As the superhero genre evolved in the years following Iron Man, it sometimes became self-conscious. Directors and writers would either lampoon the sillier bits so they could be taken seriously or they'd lean way the hell into the silliness and lose the humanity. The First Avenger doesn't do either.
Steve Rogers is a pure-hearted underdog who believes in truth, justice, and the American way, and he becomes a hero because he hates bullies. He's not the archetypical Marvel hero—see: Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Thor, Star-Lord—who begins with hubris and gets humbled into heroism. It reminds me of Patty Jenkins’ quote regarding Wonder Woman: “It’s terrible when it makes so many artists afraid to be sincere and truthful and emotional, and relegates them to the too-cool-for-school department. Art is supposed to bring beauty to the world.”At the time of the film's release, that made Captain America the least interesting character of the bunch. Now, it's a breath of fresh air to see a hero who doesn't need to quip to be charismatic. By the conclusion of his character arc in Endgame, Steve has had a bumpy, introspective, and human story—and it all begins in The First Avenger.
TOP MARVEL MOVIES IN A SMALL PACKAGE
Phase 2 was a mixed bag for the MCU.
It contains some good Marvel movies—even some of the best — but there was a looming fear that the films were getting samey. This narrative grew more prevalent after the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens when Disney got a reputation for not taking risks. The parting of ways between original Ant-Man (2015) director Edgar Wright and Marvel Studios fed into that narrative.
Despite those growing pains, Ant-Man came out solid. Director Peyton Reed took over a precarious ship and guided it with spirit, adding a fine layer of visual gags a la Edgar Wright while also keeping the story tonally grounded. What separates Ant-Man from other films is its intimate, personal stakes.
Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) isn't trying to save the world, he's just trying to keep his family together—and historically, he's been bad at it. The emphasis on family and humor keeps the mood light, even during the final battles.On the flip side, Ant-Man suffers from the classic Marvel movie problem—a forgettable villain with abilities that copycat the hero. Though it isn't one of the all-time greats, Ant-Man proved that Marvel Studios' Midas touch was real. Everything they make will be a hit.
ALL MCU MOVIES RANKED
12. Iron Man 3
After The Avengers, all eyes were on Iron Man 3 (2013) to see where Marvel Studios would go next. To their credit, they went to Shane Black.After his loquacious, dark-humored work in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Black proved he was born to write for Robert Downey Jr. This film finds both Downey's character and the Marvel franchise at a benchmark moment, and it delivers on both fronts. As is par for the course for Black, Iron Man 3 has black comedy and character eccentricities abound, all servicing the deconstruction of Tony Stark.
His trauma following the event of The Avengers is put on display, demonstrating both the consequence of those events and a new dimension to the character. We see much more "Tony" than "Iron Man" this go round, but the film makes up for it with an explosive climax filled with battle suits.Though his take on the Mandarin is a bit problematic (and it looks Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will contradict/correct it anyway), the conflict still wraps up this leg of Tony’s arc before we move ahead to the darker developments of Civil War and Endgame.
TOP MARVEL MOVIES
Though Avengers: Endgame is billed as the conclusion of the Infinity Saga, Far from Home (2019) is its essential epilogue. From a character perspective, it's an obituary for Tony Stark that both honors and challenges his legacy, then ultimately reassures fans that we'll be fine in his absence.
It allows Peter to further explore the responsibility that comes with his power, taking him to emotional and geographical places that Spider-Man films have never taken him before.
Cinematically, the set pieces get a lot of oomph thanks to Mysterio, played by the dreamy-and-crazy-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal. These surreal illusions are the highlight of the film; abstract compositions that flaunt Jon Watts' creativity and our VFX technologies.
It's exciting to see that in a Spider-Man film, which normally relegates battles to NYC rooftops or bridges. It’s especially exciting when Watts directs the best Spidey-sense (or Peter-tinge) sequence ever, bar none.The script's scope sometimes goes too wide for its own good, it keeps the stakes personnel so there's always emotional to latch onto. Far From Home is a worthy conclusiodqaxscxxn to the Infinity Saga, and could have cracked the top 10 Marvel movies if it didn't have such stiff competition. Now that the whole Marvel-Sony dispute is cleared up, there’s a bright future for these Spider-Man movies.
TOP 10 MARVEL MOVIES
10. The Avengers
The MCU has come so far since 2012 that it's funny to look back on The Avengers as an earthshaking achievement—but it was the linchpin that made the universe work. Joss Whedon proved to be the proper choice to unify four distinct movies using one voice, a daunting task for anyone.
Though his incessant and highly-identifiable quips can be grating, his script set a tone moving forward: Marvel movies are character-centric action dramas that marry expressionist action with smooth banter. Boom. A winning formula that makes up all the best Marvel movies.
Whenever I think about The Avengers as a piece of cinema, I recall what Christopher Nolan's frequent cinematographer Wally Pfister had to say about it: “Appalling,” he called it, “They’d shoot from some odd angle and I’d think, why is the camera there? Oh, I see, because they spent half a million on the set and they have to show it off.” As a fan of prestige/indie films and Marvel films alike, my response has always been... Yep. Exactly. That's exactly what they did. And it works perfectly.
The Avengers is a big scale, big-budget, big stakes blockbuster chock full of celebrities and it's a glorious thing. Some parts haven't aged well—the overabundance of CGI does look very 2012, while the wardrobe decisions were and are still questionable—but it holds up as a classic action movie and a rich payoff to one of Hollywood's biggest risks.
ALL MCU MOVIES RANKED
After Joss Whedon got Marvel fatigue, the Avengers franchise changed hands to the Russo Brothers. They had already proven their capability as action directions (which we'll discuss more in The Winter Soldier), but with Infinity War (2018), they had to prove that they could manage it at 100x the scale. Thanks to some unconventional experience directing ensemble casts in Arrested Development and Community, they assembled one of the best MCU movies.
The star of the show is Josh Brolin as Thanos, who brings a sympathetic but deranged performance that's enhanced by some picture-perfect CGI on his character. After years of buildup to Thanos' arrival, it's relieving to see Infinity War stick the landing and create one of their best villains to date. The fact that the movie still fires on every other cylinder is icing.
Infinity War marks the beginning of the end of Phase 3 and the Infinity Saga as a whole, so it's stuffed full of plot and characters. In the calamity, some elements fall to the wayside.
The Children of Thanos are more interesting than their screen time allows them to be, while Bruce Banner's non-closure with Hulk is a jarring endpoint to that storyline. But it's astounding that writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely balance as much material as they do, especially when coupled with Endgame.
SONY MAKES ONE OF THE BEST MCU MOVIES
Spider-Man has had a spotty history in film. The first two Sam Raimi movies are well-received, while the third one dampened the legacy. The Amazing Spider-Man was fine enough to warrant sequels, but those got stopped mid-sling after the critical failure of The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
There was a common consensus that the MCU could restore our friendly neighborhood hero to his former glory and his role in Civil War supported that—but it still had to be different.
The Jon Watts-directed, Tom Holland-led Homecoming (2017) is the refurbishment the series needed to become one of the best Marvel movies. It cleverly avoids the redundancies of the previous installments—the spider bite, Uncle Ben's death, recycled villains—and instead relies on the lore of MCU as a whole to fill it up.
By setting Peter side-by-side with Tony Stark and the Avengers, the film emphasizes his age and the uncomfortable set of problems that come with being a teenager with undue responsibility.
Watts draws influence from classic coming-of-age high school films then entwines them with heroes and villains. The central foe is Vulture, played with menace and sincerity by Michael Keaton. He's probably the first morally-grey, compelling antagonist in an upswing of them in Phase 3. Even then, he doesn't compare to the perils of high school.
TOP 10 MARVEL MOVIES
Coming off the heels of Thor: The Dark World, there was reason to be concerned about The Winter Soldier (2014). An insipid, Olympus Has Fallen-tier action movie wouldn't fly. Fortunately, the Russo Brothers and their writing partners Markus and McFeely delivered a character-redefining installment.
Rather than give Captain America another "Man vs. Man" conflict — the go-to for superhero flicks—they tell a story about "Man vs. Society." When you've got "America" in your name, that's a big deal. The film forces our flag-waver to ask questions about the integrity of government, the military-industrial complex, mass surveillance, and whether patriotism is loyalty to an institution or to its people.
No wonder it did so well in China.
Not only does it talk big, but Winter Soldier also introduced consequence to the MCU. In The Dark World, Thor's hand is dismembered and Loki dies—but both are illusions; in Winter Soldier, the entirety of S.H.I.E.L.D. crumbles and it's still in disrepair five years later.
The introduction of propelling ramifications upped the ante of Marvel films and made their serialization all the more important. It's a trend that the Russos & Co. would continue in Civil War and through to Endgame.
THOR HAS ONE OF THE TOP MARVEL MOVIES?
At long last, Thor is worthy.
It took several missteps before the MCU figured out how to write him, and though the setup for this film looked worrisome Ragnarok (2017) rocks. Utilizing Taika Waititi's penchant for irreverent humor, the third Thor is certainly the funniest if not one of the best Marvel movies without sacrificing any of the action.
Waititi—and his writers—take jabs at the verbose Shakespearean exposition and theatrics of the Asgardian people, while also shifting the action to a brand new setting.
Credit also goes to the cast, Thor's so-called Revengers, which includes Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, Tom Hiddleston as Loki, Mark Ruffalo as Hulk, and Waititi himself as Korg. This eclectic bunch remedies a long-time issue of the Thor franchise: the lackluster supporting cast. Waititi literally kills off the Warrior Three as a slapstick gag and we're all better off for it.
Between the jokes, the movie finds the time to deliver some heart as Thor evaluates his worthiness in the eyes of his father and his people. Reimagining him as a Nordic space bro may have sounded blasphemous on paper, but it's exactly the shot in the arm that he (and Chris Hemsworth) needed.
THE MAN THAT LAUNCHED A THOUSAND MOVIES
5. Iron Man
Kicking off the top 5 Marvel movies, we have the one that started it all: Iron Man (2008). Before the MCU, Marvel had shortsightedly sold off its biggest franchises to external studios who were running them into the ground. With no winning formula and no IP value, it was up to Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. to scoop up the b-tier Iron Man property and create enough intrigue to sustain years of storytelling.
Even to this day, Iron Man holds up as one of the top Marvel movies. Downey deserves some lifetime achievement award for the work he's done as Tony Stark, the genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist with a damaged heart of gold. That performance drives this entire film and lets it soar.
At the same time, Favreau's direction created a template conducive to both unexpected humor and poignant melodrama, carving out a version of a "superhero film" that other directors hadn't yet grasped.It was only in 2008 that the Batman IP had fully recovered from the aftershocks of Batman & Robin, so Dark Knight wasn't going to risk that by being too much fun. Iron Man, on the other hand, had the freedom to be The Dark Knight and Batman & Robin all at once. Then, on top of a solid standalone film, they slipped in that history-changing credits scene that launched a thousand movies.
BEST MCU MOVIES WITH A VISION
To this day, I'm astonished that Black Panther (2018) exists.
We joke about how The Avengers films are these massively-ambitious endeavors (and they are), but Ryan Coogler spearheaded a project that was ambitious on a different level. Black Panther is a film that has something to say, and it does so not with subtle themes or allusions, but with gravitas.
It actually has a LOT to say, the breadth of which is the only real pitfall of the film. Oh, and the wonky VFX. But otherwise, it weaves an engrossing epic that embraces African tradition while also unraveling the rich world of Wakanda.
Following the events of Civil War, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is a new king whose not only at odds with a villain but at odds with society, technology, fate, and himself—yeah, EVERY conflict. They’re all masterfully arranged to enhance the character and the setting he inhabits. And yet, the flesh-and-blood villain is still the best of any superhero film.
Kilmonger is imperialistic and unhinged, but his beliefs are undeniably right. It's the extremist absolutes of Wakanda, as well as the racist institutions of America, that radicalized him in the first place. Yes, in the end, he and T’Challa do have the classic Marvel "hero and villain with the same powers" fight, but in this case, it speaks to the very nature of the movie's intercultural message. And it’s set to a killer soundtrack.
BREAKING THE MARVEL MOLD
That's what everyone was saying in 2014 when Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) came out. Once Phase 2 had completed all the obligatory Big Three sequels, they took a huge leap of faith by investing in a nothing property with minimal marquee value. The previous headliners had at least some recognizability, but this was deep cut territory only charted by the savviest comic fans.
It worked out that, one year before Disney relaunched Star Wars, the fans were aching for a new space adventure flick. And it became one of the top Marvel movies.
While I've given credit to other films on this list for wiggling out of the mold, it was Guardians that sealed the deal. It didn't look like a Marvel film—it's set in space, with five leads, two of which are a tree and raccoon—nor did it sound like a Marvel film—it's scored by music from the 60s and 70s rather than a bland, cinematic symphony.
Plus, aside from some shared lore, it had absolutely no connection to the rest of the universe. Later films play serialization as a strength, but this one came out right when versatility was key.
Director James Gunn delivers on that with a fully-realized galaxy, populated with scene-stealing characters and easter eggs that turn a c-list property into one of the best Marvel movies. Plus, many fans related to the leads: outcasts dismissed by society, turned into unconventional heroes who became a family.
BIGGEST AND BEST MCU MOVIES
Avengers: Endgame (2019) isn't the biggest film of all time for nothing. It’s also one of the best Marvel movies of all time.
It capped off 11 years of storytelling in a truly epic fashion, both rejoicing in a victory lap while also jettisoning the characters to new heights and some dark depths. If you aren't a Marvel fan, you probably won't get much out of it—it's not an accessible film.
But I encourage you to respect the feat that the Russos & Co. pulled off. Stitching together the story threads of 21 films while honoring each film's respective vision, then directing those pieces in a way that maintains coherence and emotional integrity, is an art.
To pull that off, the film takes its time. It's three hours long. But unlike the slogs of similar length (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Pearl Harbor), it makes the most of it. The first hour is a character study a la The Leftovers that catches up with the Avengers after years of defeat. The next hour or so is the highlight real, packed with fan service and introspective developments.
Then the last hour is the climactic battle, where nearly every character gets a moment to shine before the day is won.
And it's a pyrrhic victory — the aftermath will affect the MCU for years. I’m eager to see how Marvel Studios could possibly top this, but then again, no one could have predicted they would come this far.
WHAT IS THE BEST MARVEL MOVIE?
1. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Any of the top 5 Marvel movies could contend for the #1 spot.
If we're talking about the best film in terms of traditional filmmaking sensibilities, then maybe it's Iron Man or Black Panther. If we're talking about the peak MCU experience, then maybe it's Endgame. If you're into the more lighthearted fare, then it could be Guardians or Ragnarok. But we’re going with Captain America: Civil War (2016) because it embodies a paradigm shift in the very nature of "superhero movies.”
Throughout Phases 1 and 2, the films were disjointed. Characters operated in divided worlds, regardless of the scale of their conflicts, then they joined forces for the Avengers team-up films. It was a reliable marketing gimmick, but it was just that: a marketing gimmick.
The assuredness of an Avengers film meant the heroes would always live, the villains would never matter, normality would always be restored, and the story would stay stagnant until then.
Civil War did away with that stigma. It acknowledged the consequences of the previous films and retooled them as a source of contention between the heroes. It made the viewing experience culminate in something substantial.
By building conflict out of that history, it pays them off and makes the emotional and ideological conflict more palpable than any other installment. It's Captain America versus Iron Man, man! Those are people's childhood heroes.
I’ll also acknowledge that Civil War isn't a flawless movie. Sharon Carter is an awkward and underutilized character who is immediately dropped and whose name just reminds me of Aaron Carter.
Likewise, Baron Zemo’s plan is rather contrived and unnecessary given the natural friction between Captain America and Iron Man without his intervention. To praise the movie is not to be blind to those things, but to take them in stride with the bigger picture.
"So wait," I can hear you thinking, "Civil War deserves praise because it does what cinema is SUPPOSED to do? Convey emotions? Psychological experiences? Between human beings?" Yeah. Yeah, it does, because no film or film franchise up until this point had ever successfully balanced a thoughtful, ideology-driven narrative with high-budget blockbuster skin—at least not on this level.
It just didn't happen. And if it did, it was never with the volume of success that the best Marvel movies have had. That's WHY they continue to shatter records. They are heightened experiences, but human experiences nonetheless.
ALL MARVEL MOVIES RANKED
MCU Rankings Over Time
In the chart above, you can see all Marvel movies ranked compared to their release order. As far as our list is concerned, there’s still some disparity in their quality to this day, but the overall numbers are looking up. If this trend is any indication, then the best Marvel movies are still yet to come!
More from Marvel
The depth and complexity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe cannot be understated. There is so much content to read, watch, analyze, theorize and we've collected it all here. If you want to know about all the upcoming Marvel releases or see the MCU in order of release date or in story order, look no further. Or perhaps you're curious about our idea for the best order to watch the MCU: The Pegasus Order.