Part of the journey is the end. And what a journey it was. Looking back, The Marvel Cinematic Universe feels like one giant entity made up of meaningful moments, scenes, feelings and characters, all meshing together to create an unforgettable cinematic experience.
An arrogant genius building high-tech armour in his fancy basement. A scrawny stick of a soldier going into a machine and coming out a bulging, towering figure with no less heart. The now-iconic circular shot of a series of remarkable individuals coming together in battle as one for the first time. A lift that becomes ground-zero for a breathtaking fight scene that ends in a pile of bodies. A space pirate standing by his new friends, facing impossible odds against a powerful villain, deciding to engage in a dance-off. An evacuated airport that becomes the stage for a superhero battle extravaganza. A teary-eyed teenager lying in the arms of his mentor, apologising and afraid, before gradually fading away into nothing. A reluctant leader finally coming to terms with his past and realising he is worthy, and summoning the weapon to prove it.
On the one year anniversary of Avengers: Endgame, the culmination of the MCU’s 10-year Infinity Saga, a franchise which defined a generation of Hollywood, here are my thoughts on a series of movies that I believe are the most enjoyable, rewatchable films ever made. Here’s my ranking of all 21 movies within the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Infinity Saga, from worst to best.
Infinity War was a heart-breaking, surface-level exercise in getting all these characters together for one big showdown without an iota of memorable drama. Our experience of the film hinged entirely on Thanos living up to the legend enough to justify shifting focus away from the characters we’ve loved for so long. A risk that certainly didn’t pay off for this writer.
It’s tough to see towering figures side-lined and watered down. Thor was his same life’s-just-one-big-joke Ragnarok self, Vision was feeble and just gets beaten up throughout, Bruce Banner whined from start to finish, and literally everyone on Team Cap just showed up to do battle. Perhaps its greatest failure is giving Captain America all of 8 lines and nothing to do. How ironic that he was so ignored at the hands of the very directors who made him. Weirdly, Doctor Strange was far more memorable here than in his own film as the rare gem in an otherwise hollow, bloated blockbuster.
Granted, on seeing Endgame you realise that these were in fact two halves of a larger whole and this was merely one giant set-up movie for the fitting pay-off that followed. Still, as a standalone film, it remains a shining example of what detractors believe the MCU is – all flash and no character.
Captain Marvel was the most nothing of the few nothing MCU films. A lazy, mostly pointless origin story with feeble writing which achieved little else than putting the final puzzle-piece in place to for the epic finale to come.
Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers felt uninteresting and utterly devoid of personality. What films like Civil War did to establish new characters like Black Panther and Spider-Man over a handful of scenes, Captain Marvel couldn’t manage for its titular character over an entire movie. A great female superhero has been long overdue from the MCU and this was a sorely wasted opportunity.
The movie also did what the MCU does all too often – build up great characters over multiple films and entirely undo them in one quick fell swoop. The thus far formidable Nick Fury was reduced to provider-of-punchlines. Who can forget that historically terrible final scene in which a newly-eye-patched Fury (following an alien cat scratch), has a eureka moment while thinking of a cool super-friends team name when he sees the word ‘Avengers’ written on the side of a plane? Painful.
Iron Man 2 was an incoherent, unfocused, bloated mess of plot. Despite a few memorable moments like that great courtroom scene with Tony Stark at his Stark-iest and finally seeing War Machine in action, the film was a desperate attempt to do something meaningful with the character.
You almost have to applaud that convoluted plot which included Stark slowly being poisoned by his own chest piece, leading to him breaking bad and going on a self-destructive bender. All of this while reconnecting with his dead dad who also happened to have discovered a new element which could save Tony’s life, the secrets to which were hidden in a map of an expo (?). And the purpose of all of this – to change the shape of his chest piece from a circle to a triangle. Yeah.
The film also had a bad case of forgettable-villain-syndrome with a one-note Mickey Rourke as Bigger-Russian-Iron-Man-With-Light-Saber-Whips. Not to forget the terrible character introduction of Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow who was reduced to mere eye-candy.
If the best thing about your movie is a mystical flying cape with personality and a side character with Beyonce jokes, you know something ain’t right. Dr Strange was a poor, shoddy origin story and hollow visual spectacle. Take away the magic-fuelled fight sequences and mind-bending Inception-esque visuals and all you’re left with is weak writing and forced, exposition-y dialogue.
The film’s greatest failure is that it gave the MCU a fascinating new world of magic, multiverses and mysticism to explore, which was brought to life as one big jumbled mess of dark dimensions and mirror dimensions and forgettable CGI villains. Where it does excel is in deserving the award for Great-Actors-With-Nothing-To-Do. It’s led by a bland Benedict Cumberbatch, a serviceable Chiwetel Ejiofor and Tilda Swinton, a two-scene Rachel McAdams, a sorely wasted Mads Mikkelsen and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Michael Stuhlbarg. Everything about this movie should have been better.
Another middling sequel, Ant-Man And The Wasp lacked the creativity and distinct comedic charm of its predecessor. While it gave us a whole bunch of new mini-sized gags and shrunken badassery (largely from The Wasp – one of the MCU’s coolest female characters), it proved to be a suitable-at-best follow-up. Inconsequential plot aside, the film essentially answered the question of just how much of the first film’s greatness was down to its previous writers Adam McKay and Edgar Wright. Evidently a great deal.
Iron Man 3 was…just fine. A serviceable addition to the Tony Stark story. Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 was in many ways Iron Man 2 done right, successfully giving Tony real inner conflict as he struggled to understand where the man ends and suit begins along with PTSD stemming from The Avenger’s Battle Of New York.
Aside from a bunch of exploding baddies, IM3 also brought to screen The Mandarin – Iron Man’s most iconic adversary – in a clever little twist. But with him, we got yet another vanilla villain in Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian (the franchise’s third wannabe-Tony Stark bad guy).
Spider-Man: Homecoming was a cheerful, breezy film meant to firmly integrate Spidey into the MCU by offering a new take on the iconic character. But, like Captain Marvel, it also felt like yet another Marvel assembly line product, ticking off a franchise checklist.
Homecoming relied too heavily on nostalgia, rather than being memorable on its own. This latest iteration of the character wasn’t particularly better than the previous Sam Raimi and Marc Webb versions, just… different. As a coming-of-age high school comedy, Spiderman: The Teenage Years did well to explore the conflict of being a normal Spanish-tests-and-trying-to-be-cool teenager vs superhero-dom and facing off against a fitting foe in Michael Keaton’s working-class villain, Vulture.
But the film suffered from the MCU’s frequent continuity issues. It was a little tough to see the same guy who went toe-to-toe with some of earth’s mightiest heroes in the stellar Captain America: Civil War, clumsily crash into fences in this one.
Despite being hailed as one of the best Marvel films to date, for this writer Taika Waititi‘s Thor: Ragnarok was a hollow and heart-breaking experience. In a desperate attempt to reinvent the Thor franchise, Marvel essentially pressed the reset button, casting aside all character development and conflict thus far, turning a layered, complex family drama into a spoof of itself and reducing some of the MCU’s greatest characters into cartoons.
None more so than Loki, one of the MCU most complex and fascinating figures, who was diminished to a pitiful parody. What’s more, unlike Thor: The Dark World’s tragic character deaths, Ragnarok killed significant characters left, right and centre including Odin whose loss made you feel next to nothing. While Ragnarok is undeniably hilarious and a whole lot of fun, it single-handedly undid years of storytelling before it. Remove both punches and punch lines and what are you really left with? It’s a film which didn’t just refuse to take itself seriously, it worked extremely hard to get you not to care.
James Gunn’s follow up to one of the most surprising and beloved additions to the MCU was essentially more of the same. While it had the same crackling energy and reunited us with our favourite ragtag team of dysfunctional, squabbling idiots, it all just felt like empty entertainment that didn’t really mean much of anything. Volume 2 suffered from a predictable plot involving Quill reconnecting with his ‘secretly’ evil father which you could see coming from a mile away, along with a number of weak, hit-and-miss character arcs. The entire Rocket-and-Yondu-being-two-peas-in-a-pod angle was poorly fleshed out as was Yondu’s sudden discovery of his feelings.
And for all the hilarious, visually imaginative gags (see giant Pac Man and that delightful opening credits sequence), you could feel the effort this time around in trying to be constantly zany and whacky. Having said all that, good Lord how adorable was Baby Groot?!
Why Thor: The Dark World gets such a bad rap, I fail to understand. Granted it’s hardly among the MCU’s standout entries, but Thor 2 had a lot going for it as one of its most emotionally charged films. Frigga’s death, Odin’s anger, Loki’s sacrifice and so many damn feels. Like Iron Man 3, it also addressed the fallout from the events of The Avengers, with Thor finally coming to terms with who Loki really is. It is in their complex dynamic that the movie really went places.
The film’s issues stem from how little we got to explore Asgard and Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster being woefully underutilised, not to mention yet another case of great-actor-playing-scary-looking-villain-who-basically-just-growls-a lot in Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith. But despite these, it remains a satisfying sequel.
Easily the most overlooked MCU film, Ant-Man was the refreshing, imaginative breath of fresh air that burst into the scene just when you thought you were tired of origin stories. In a world consumed by spies, super soldiers and space pirates, Paul Rudd gave us the endlessly likeable everyman reluctantly thrust into a world of superhero-ing who refused to take himself, or any of it too seriously. Throw in arguably the MCU’s most lovable supporting character in Michael Pena’s Louise.
Brimming with irreverent energy, Ant-Man was the innovative comedy of the Marvel roster, co-written by some of the best comedic minds, including Adam McKay, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish. It also had some of the most visually creative and ridiculously well-designed CGI sequences (see the briefcase battle or that epic final toy train showdown). Ant-Man triumphed in making one of Marvel’s weirdest, most random superheroes just plain cool.
It’s difficult to fault a film like Black Panther. It managed to tick every box of a well-conceived superhero movie whilst also being powerfully rooted in real-world issues, and serving as a cultural breakthrough.
Ryan Coogler’s film was made with conviction and sincerity on all fronts – from the formidable ensemble cast to the finer detailing to the action sequences to, above all, the unforgettable female characters who dwarfed the men around them. But for all it achieved on a macro level, it lost out in the micro. The film was far more interested in giving us a fantastical new world to explore and using it to comment on the state of the world, rather than having us invest in its central hero’s journey.
While Black Panther makes for a great standalone entity, when put in the wider context of the MCU and its characters who we’ve grown with across multiple years and movies – it didn’t quite stack up in the same way. Aside from its social triumphs, what stayed with me most about Black Panther was the idea of the film and its remarkable ambition, rather than a story, drama and characters that refused to budge from your subconscious.
The First Avenger was a strong origin story that introduced us to the man who would go on to become the very soul of the MCU.
Cap’s first film explored the very idea of what it means to be a hero. A scrawny kid from Brooklyn who refused to back down from a bully, Steve Rogers was always a hero in the truest sense, willing to pay any price to do what’s right. His physical abilities are secondary to who he is at heart – the little guy who fights for other little guys. The serum merely improved the packaging.
The unflinchingly earnest Chris Evans proved to be the ideal choice for the man out of time, brimming with a simple goodness whilst also bringing conflict and complexity to the perfect man. The First Avenger also gave the MCU its greatest female character in Hayley Atwell’s Peggy. And along with it, arguably its most heartfelt romance in Cap and Peggy.
While director Joe Johnston may not have known at the time what Cap would go on to become for this universe, The First Avenger was by all accounts a worthy origin to his story. True to the words of Dr Erskine before administering the serum – good did, in fact, become great.
Kenneth Branagh’s emotionally-charged Shakespearean family drama disguised as a superhero movie was our first taste of just how diverse these movies could really be. Backed by one of the MCU’s best scores (by composer Patrick Doyle), Thor was tightly-made and felt poles apart from its predecessor Iron Man. Thor showed us what powerful performers could do to make strange, far-off magical realms of gods and monsters feel real and believable. Inspite of the perfectly-cast Anthony Hopkins, and the introduction of the superb Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston stole the film as Loki, the scheming son scarred by a life of rejection.
Thor was the coming-of-age story of an entitled, war-hungry, glory-seeking prince who learnt compassion in exile. Thor was simple, but never simplistic.
Iron Man introduced the world to one of modern pop culture’s most iconic characters – Tony Stark. As the weapons manufacturer and warmonger who has a change of heart after coming face to face with the consequences of his empire, Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark is charming and flamboyant but also complex and flawed. The self-proclaimed ‘genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist’ is wonderfully full of himself, a stark contrast (pun intended) to the standard ‘good guy’ archetype.
Iron Man offers a transformative experience, a coming of age arc, a great villain, and one of the most memorable ‘discover your powers’ or in this case ‘build your armour’ sequences you could ask for.
Guardians Of The Galaxy is the most purely fun film in the MCU. A ridiculously entertaining romp filled with bursting personalities, glorious banter and oh-so-much attitude. Director James Gunn cemented himself as one of the most distinct voices in the MCU with his heightened comedic approach and cool visual style.
The film gave us our favourite bunch of loveable A-holes. The group of jackasses standing in a circle we never knew we needed. Guardians represents one of Marvel’s greatest strengths – taking a bunch of nobodies and using winning storytelling to make them overnight pop culture mainstays.
If a decade ago you told me I’d be deeply invested in a repetitive talking tree, a Bradley Cooper-voiced racoon with a thing for big guns and a blue dude with a fin-head and a formidable flying whistle pen, I’d have some questions. If Captain America: Winter Soldier raised the stakes of dramatic storytelling and Avengers took us to new heights of spectacle, then Guardians did the same for an unapologetic good time at the movies.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is one of the most exciting and entertaining MCU films with some of the franchise’s coolest moments. Aside from more mind-boggling set pieces (that explosive opening single take, the final Sokovia Battle and Veronica Vs The Hulk), Age Of Ultron delved deeper into the individual struggles of these characters.
The film set in motion some of the best MCU narratives to come like the idea of the Avengers being a destructive force and establishing Tony Stark as the man who creates more problems than he solves. It was also the best Hawkeye movie, a sorely misunderstood character. He came to be the dad of the group who keeps these superpowered hotheads in check.
Finally, Age Of Ultron also gave us one of the most underrated villains. Ultron was driven and ruthless but also vulnerable and human.
‘Before we get started, does anyone want to get out?’ With lines like these, Captain America: The Winter Soldier proved that outside of comic book merriment and superhero showdowns, the MCU could also offer intricate storytelling and drama.
The introduction of the Russo brothers catapulted Cap to one of the franchise’s most complex characters. It was also the best Black Widow movie, the best Nick Fury movie, and had some of the most electric action sequences of any film on this list. That first ship assault, Nick Fury’s car ambush and that elevator scene. Damn, that elevator scene.
Cap has always had the best villains and Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce was no exception. As the calculating Hydra mastermind, Redford brought a further dose of credibility. With no aliens, cosmic villains or intergalactic anything, The Winter Soldier was a small movie with seismic impact.
Joss Whedon’s glorious team-up story still brings with it a rousing feeling of watching one of the biggest movies ever made. Whedon’s film was well conceived with each and every character getting their due. It was in many ways the perfect comic book movie – the ideal mix of campy, cool and comedic. We get a good old-fashioned hero-villain story with grand, world-ending stakes, and a dysfunctional set of fish-out-of-water characters who initially flounder before coming together for the greater good. It all builds up to the Battle Of New York which remains one of the greatest set pieces seen on screen. Not to mention one of the MCU’s most effective villains in Tom Hiddleston’s Loki.
It’s not easy bringing one of the most ambitious movie sagas of all time to a close. But the Russo brothers triumphed in doing right by countless characters, their journeys and the MCU itself, all while delivering a massive wallop of spectacle.
Initially playing out like a tragic drama, Endgame was remarkably brave in its willingness to go to dark places as it examined the consequences of the Avengers greatest failure, which left them crippled and broken. Endgame was equally an ode to the MCU itself, allowing us to relive its greatest hits and getting beloved characters over its 10-years to reprise their roles.
Then of course, there’s that final battle, bursting with now-iconic moments and images that will be forever be embedded in our subconscious – that final rousing Yibambe! reverberating across movie theatres and audiences around the world to the sound of composer Alan Silvestri’s unforgettable Portals. Cap being worthy with hammer and shield finally coming together. Tony proving that ultimately, he was the guy to make the sacrifice play.
Endgame gave us a fitting end to our journey with these figures and did what the MCU does at its finest – balance the big with the small, the spectacular with the minuscule, the fantastical with the human. Above all, it gave us what we deserved – an opportunity to say goodbye. And for that, we will forever love you 3000.
Civil War was so intricate and complex that it actually harmed the MCU, making all the films that followed look lesser in comparison. It took us to dizzying new heights of storytelling, conflict, politics and ideology. Every scene, every moment, every frame was so well-executed and served a larger purpose.
Civil War explored one of the most fascinating implications of a world of superheroes – the politics. The Sokovia Accords asked pressing questions about where they fit in the world, how to keep them accountable, whether to keep them controlled and above all, whether they are a threat.
The film also gave us a massive spectacle with mature storytelling that made you think. It’s a perfect counterpart to Infinity War, succeeding so triumphantly where that movie failed, giving you a deep sense of each character and motivations in mere moments.
Aside from cementing Cap as the best thing the MCU ever produced, Civil War is also the best Tony Stark movie. We see him as a problematic, easily manipulated man at the end of his rope. Zemo and his psychological crusade to end the Avengers was one of the most formidable antagonists they’d ever face. Here, the climax isn’t some gigantic battle against aliens and the conflict can’t be captured by one specific villain to defeat.
Civil War raised the bar by giving us a superhero film that was far more than we thought it could be.