The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is one of the most popular franchises in history, as proven by its position as the 8th highest-grossing media franchise in any medium ever. Since its relatively recent inception in 2008, this juggernaut of the film industry has amassed an estimated $35billion from box office receipts, merchandise deals, home video sales and so on, with an astonishing $23billion of that coming from the box office alone. The twenty-plus strong series of films has grossed more across the board in 13 years than Batman has in 81, than Barbie has in 33, than The Simpsons, than James Bond, than Dragon Ball, than Call of Duty. It truly is a phenomenon.
On the screen, Marvel Studios’ trusted output has been received positively by critics and audiences alike, the majority of its twenty-six feature releases being well received and worthy of their hype, even their so-called “calculated risks” being more often refreshing to their already established formula than detrimental to their overall output, not to mention at times being fantastic in their own right.
Cinema has been forever changed by the dawn of Marvel’s big screen dominance and old-school serial approach to storytelling, Disney’s newly ordained crown jewel inspiring every rival studio and aspirational production company to gobble up trusted IPs and set forth plans for so-called Movie Universes based around everything from fellow superheroes to famous board games, reinvented children’s cartoons to horror characters.
In this edition of Ranked, we at The Film Magazine are putting the world’s most influential film franchise under the microscope to compare every feature length Marvel release with one another to determine which MCU films are the best and which are the worst, judging each on artistic merit and cultural impact.
26. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
To this day, Louis Leterrier’s 2008 MCU contribution The Incredible Hulk is the forgotten member of the family. And, while this isn’t necessarily this distinctly average film’s fault and is actually more to do with Edward Norton refusing to return to his role as the Hulk following strained relationships with both director and studio, as well as how the rights to the Hulk character are locked in a contract that limits Marvel Studios from telling a standalone story with Mark Ruffalo, a lot can still be said for how dated this film is – The Incredible Hulk playing a lot more like Spider-Man 3, Fantastic Four and X-Men: Origins – Wolverine than the later and much more tasteful Marvel Studios offerings to come in this list.
25. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
The worst of a bad bunch of uninspired sequels, Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World not only seemed absent of the comedy and much of the mythology of the original Thor film but it also hit at precisely the wrong time – that being between the much more highly anticipated Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the year after the original The Avengers.
Thor 2 was generic in a Suicide Squad “angry swirl of evil descending from the sky for no reason” kind of way; a movie so uninspired Chris Hemsworth has openly spoken about how he almost quit the role because of it; a perfectly serviceable sequel (especially at the time), but one of little consequence or imagination that few get excited to rewatch – an MCU entry that time hasn’t been very kind to.
24. Iron Man 2 (2010)
The first Iron Man was such a huge success creatively, artistically, critically and financially for Marvel Studios that a quick-turnaround 2nd movie was demanded to bolster Phase One’s launch – a period in the history of the MCU that was a lot more rocky than many are willing to admit.
Iron Man 2 was a failure in all of the ways Iron Man was a success, apart from financially, offering bland and sometimes barely comprehensible moments of action, dialogue and character. As a result, Iron Man 2 fits right in alongside the likes of The Amazing Spider-Man as a very particular brand of cheesy and uninspired comic book movie that was made more to earn a quick buck than it was to fulfil any creative or artistic need. It has its moments – which movie starring Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man doesn’t? – but thankfully the MCU has proven itself to be better than this in its other phases since.
23. Ant-Man and The Wasp (2018)
Coming between Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame – ie, post-snap – Ant-Man and The Wasp was put in an awful position to succeed, the creative minds behind the film having to choose between embracing the actions of Infinity War or ignoring them altogether. They chose the latter (at least until the film’s final moments), but what fans wanted was something of an indicator as to what was to come in Endgame, or at least a taste of post-Infinity War’s MCU landscape, and the comedy-centred light-heartedness of an Ant-Man movie was an example of Marvel Studios not taking a minute to read the room.
More than that, Ant-Man and The Wasp felt scaled down from the original, its outlandish creative ideas brought into line with the wider MCU look and feel of things, making what seemed like a promising sequel to a moving and hilarious comedy one of the studio’s most formulaic and typically “superhero movie” releases to date – the “formula” not being necessarily bad, but certainly overplayed.
22. Eternals (2021)
Eternals came with a lot of hope and expectation given the nature of the original material it was being adapted from and how it was the first MCU entry to be directed by an Oscar-winning director (Chloé Zhao). Ultimately, it proved too much of a mix of the trusted Marvel formula and director Zhao’s trademark directorial style, the clashes between action and existentialism forcing a disjointed rhythm in the filmmaking that made Eternals feel way longer than it was (which was one of the longest MCU films in history) and hit home way less effectively than anyone would have hoped.
As a product of the world’s largest production arm, Eternals was hopefully diverse from cast to crew, but ultimately this release had two authorial presences that seemed to clash on screen, this already troubling combination being amplified by its position in the MCU as a part of the studio’s fourth phase and thus responsible for a number of story elements and character introductions barely relevant to its standalone narrative.
21. Iron Man 3 (2013)
Adored by some and maligned by others, Iron Man 3 simply came about much too early, screenwriter-director Shane Black’s offerings of genre and trope deconstructions – most notably the choice to twist a genuinely fascinating villain into a trope-ridden stereotypical bad guy as a form of commentary – being things usually reserved for the dying days of a genre, not for one of its peaks.
This film was the follow up to The Avengers where Tony Stark had almost died, so Black’s smarts didn’t hit as they could have much later in the studio’s line-up – people wanted emotion and stakes, as well as suitable conclusions to character arcs, and Black’s work was seen to undermine that, the very strong work in several aspects of this film ultimately shunned to the background of a film dominated by a creator’s singular intention seemingly forced into the canon at the wrong time.