Well, this just sucks. COVID and the year 2020 continues to deliver one blow after another. Black Widow, the long-awaited solo film for Scarlett Johansson’s character, is being pushed yet again, this time to May of next year – one year from its original date. As a result, other movies like The Eternals are being pushed as well. With that bit of news, I decided to re-look all of the Infinity Saga films and take a shot at what so many have already done – ranking the 23 movies.
Ranking works of art is even less objective than ranking the best quarterbacks of all-time (because come on, that’s an easy one) but it certainly is fun! Before we get to the rankings, let me just say that I don’t think any of these movies is a clunker – even the ones at the bottom of the list – and that speaks to the vision of Kevin Feige and the talent of the movie makers he brought in to realize that vision. To do it over 23 films is truly remarkable. It goes without saying, there will be spoilers…So without further ado…
23. The Incredible Hulk
Remember that time when Edward Norton played Bruce Banner? A lot of people have no idea that there was a solo Hulk movie that is, in fact, MCU canon. It is believed that creative differences was the driving force behind the change in actors for the iconic “big guy” as Norton wanted more say in the creative process. That’s not how Kevin Feige works at all, which I think was especially true in the early stages as Marvel Entertainment was establishing what this expanded universe would be. Norton’s Banner/Hulk would have been quite different than the one we got with Mark Ruffalo, which is/was truly fantastic in my opinion. The lone MCU Hulk film lands at the bottom of my list for a few reasons – clunky dialogue, a lame antagonist (despite the acting capabilities of Tim Roth – two day’s beard growth in a dress uniform? Really?) But ultimately, it is Hulk’s inability to carry a feature film on his own (in my opinion) and the fact that there is very little carryover to the other films (besides Ross).
22. Iron Man 2
So much potential coming off of the success of Iron Man. War Machine, Pepper Potts, and of course the introduction of Johansson’s amazing Black Widow all help this film but…Maybe it’s my bias against Mickey Rourke – every performance of his seems cartoonish to me. Sorry. Maybe it’s the incredibly lame final battle (how long was it? 45 seconds), or perhaps the convoluted plot lines; whatever it is, it just doesn’t work for me.
21. Thor: The Dark World
This is, in my opinion, the low point for Thor as a character. But how about that movie poster? Killer. First, the good (besides the poster): The interplay between Hemsworth’s Thor and Hiddleston’s Loki continues to pop on screen, and the final battle is really interesting and a cool use of the “science” at play with the convergence. But, the dark elves suck as an antagonist, the plot is lackluster, and a lot of the performances lack the spark one would expect from such talented actors. The death of Frigga – already emotional – takes on greater weight now that we know she was able to connect with her future son moments before her murder. But, we can see why Taika Waititi was needed.
20. Avengers: Age of Ultron
I truly love the original Avengers so it pains me to have its sequel so far down the list. But it is what it is. There’s actually a lot to like here, and that’s what makes its ranking so strange. James Spader’s Ultron should have been one of the best villains…and sometimes he is and sometimes he’s too quick with a quip, lacking the gravitas of someone like Thanos. I also think they spent so much time laying the foundation for future films, they didn’t spend enough time developing this one and the characters in it. The seeds of philosophical conflict between Tony and Steve are planted here as is foreshadowing to Ragnarok. The introduction of Scarlet Witch is cool but the weird romance plot line with Bruce and Natasha is…well…weird. It just distracts. Dropping a city out of the sky is the master plan? Really? There are some cool sequences and moments so, again it’s still a good action film; it’s just the 20th best MCU film, in my opinion.
19. Doctor Strange
Overall, I really like this movie. I thought the introduction of magic into the MCU was done really well with a visual style that was interesting and beautiful to watch on screen. The “evolution” of Cumberbatch’s character is interesting, if not similar to Tony Stark – a guy who is arrogant to a fault and humbled only enough to realize there’s a world out there beyond him, but not enough to lose the air of superiority that makes him successful. I also like that he outsmarted the “bad guy” rather than beat him up, which is consistent with the character and the rest of the movie.
18. Iron Man 3
The final movie of the Iron Man trilogy is a fitting end to this chapter of Tony’s story (though threads from this – like his unhealthy feeling of responsibility for the world’s protection – will continue all the way to Endgame). I thought the film did a great job of portraying the PTSD Tony is suffering from in the wake of the Battle of New York (from The Avengers) while displaying his unmatched creativity and ingenuity when stripped of all his toys. The scene where his home is destroyed is something else and Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of the Mandarin is outstanding. And, while the twist with that character is original, it was also disappointing to me, which helped keep this movie from being higher on the list despite its many virtues.
17. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
It’s starting to get tough now. I would say most people think the sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy is superior to the original. There’s a lot of great stuff in it, that’s for sure. The opening sequence is fantastic and a lot of fun; Baby Groot is hilarious – that scene with the bomb during the final battle? So funny. The introduction of Mantis; the growing connection between Peter and Gamora; the realization that Yondu was so much more, with an emotional ending to his story arc. While Kurt Russell’s Ego is a worthy antagonist, there’s something about that scene where he’s explaining his master plan that just doesn’t work for me. Despite all the good and a lot of laughs, I prefer the original, and it’s not even close.
16. Captain Marvel
One of the most divisive films in the MCU also happens to be one of the most re-watchable to me. I liked it the first time I saw it. I’ve liked it more with subsequent viewings. The twist with this origin story works, though the movie certainly is clunky in its pacing – a fault of the director team that won’t be coming back to direct the second installment. The chemistry between Fury and Danvers is evident, and Ben Mendelson’s Talos steals the show with his comedic timing and delivery. I enjoyed Larson’s nuanced performance, the film’s 90’s nostalgia, and of course Goose. Ronan and Yon-Rogg were wasted; again, I mainly blame the directors for this. Otherwise, a very enjoyable film that fills in some key gaps in the MCU timeline.
The re-watchability of this movie and its sequel is off the charts for me. They are fun, quick-witted, and full of funny moments. Paul Rudd’s delivery is pitch perfect scene after scene, Michael Douglas is Michael Douglas, and the three (other) ex-cons led by Michael Peña are so enjoyable; they play their roles perfectly. The main issues with this film lie with the two-dimensional villain, poor use of Evangeline Lilly, and tone shifts that make the flow inconsistent. Still, this movie is a fun watch every time.
14. Ant-Man and the Wasp
Ant-Man and the Wasp is just as enjoyable as the first one, just a little better in most respects – better villain, better fight scenes, better use of the Pym Particle technology, better handling of Hope Van Dyne as a character, and a consistency in tone that we see in films like Guardians or Ragnarok – it knows it’s silly fun and embraces it. The car chase scene is fantastic and inventive film-making, and the movie’s small stakes focus was a welcome breather in the wake of Infinity War.
13. Spider-Man: Homecoming
Tom Holland’s Spider-Man stole the show every time he was on-screen during his MCU debut in Civil War (more on that later). But, going from the high stakes of that movie back to high school was jarring, especially for him. Much of the film takes place at that level, which is appropriate for his first solo foray (though with a substantial appearance by RDJ’s Tony Stark). The movie shows the heart that this character must display to be at his best, while having one of the best MCU villains in Michael Keaton’s Vulture. The scene where he figures out who Spider-Man is as he’s driving Peter and his daughter to the homecoming dance is truly outstanding – great acting, pacing, and camera work.
12. Captain America: The First Avenger
There’s just so much to like about this period piece. The script, acting, cinematography, and tone are all spot-on for a WWII-era film. Hayley Atwell’s Agent Carter kicks butt (why couldn’t we have more of her show!) and Tommie Lee Jones hits all the right notes. While Steve Rogers and his Captain America persona could easily become corny, I believe it stops short of that to remain patriotic, heroic, and genuine. The movie also does a great job of establishing one of the “Trilogy” and the moral compass of the future Avengers. Rogers will always do what he thinks is right – no matter what anyone thinks – and that’s what makes him so iconic.
11. Spider-Man: Far From Home
So much good in this film. In the aftermath of Endgame, Peter is still grieving the loss of his mentor while trying to solidify his place as a full-fledged hero…while still in high school with all the drama that entails. Holland continues to display his considerable acting talents during both the heavy scenes where he’s grappling with loss, and the more light-hearted scenes with his friends and MJ. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio has a great backstory and connection to Peter while his illusion scenes are inventive…and how about that ending!
I know some people rank this film much lower, but I’ve re-watched Thor more than any other MCU film. While Thor’s character has become more like a lot of the comics with Taika Waititi at the helm (embracing the strange and comedic elements of the comics), the first installment, I think, was the right tone for the first film for the God of Thunder. Kenneth Branagh may have taken a Shakespearean route (of course, that’s what they hired him to do), but there are elements of the Thor we’ve come to know and love due to Hemsworth’s comedic timing and script doctoring by future Avengers writer and director Joss Whedon. The film establishes a gravitas through Branagh’s direction while giving us great interplay between Thor and Loki, as well as the Thor and his friends. Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo are fantastic in their portrayals and I love the Lady Sif and the Warrior’s Three (come back, Jaime Alexander!). There are a lot of fun moments in this film. Is it high art? No. But there are few films that give me the joy that this one does.
9. Thor: Ragnarok
While I really like the original Thor, I also understand that the character never really went anywhere after the first movie, and I think that’s one of the things that has reflected poorly on the original film in hindsight. Through the second movie and the first two Avengers films, Thor had minimal growth and had become stale as a character. I think we can all – including Hemsworth himself – attest to that. So, when you see this completely fresh (in the MCU) take on the Thor character, which allowed Hemsworth to further demonstrate his acting and comedic chops, it is both jarring and fantastic…and it may have opened the door to years of more Chris Hemsworth play the Mighty Thor. Thanks, Taika.
8. Captain America: Civil War
Civil War, like many of the movies, is inspired by famous storylines from the comics. This Russo Brothers film takes place in the aftermath of Age of Ultron, with our heroes dealing with the repercussions in different ways. Freedom, security, self-determination, public safety – who decides on these important issues? Rogers and Stark side with the philosophy you think they would as battle lines are drawn. There’s some fantastic dramatic acting, two outstanding fight sequences (airport scene and the fight between Rogers, Stark, and Barnes), and the triumphant introduction of two great characters – Spider-Man and Black Panther. A fantastic movie.
7. Black Panther
Black Panther lands here because it has so much going for it: a great lead actor and performance by the late Chadwick Boseman, an equally compelling antagonist in Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, a wonderful supporting cast that each brings something to their respective roles, and a cultural significance that cannot be overstated. While some of the special effects are suspect (especially in the final battle), the relationships portrayed between T’Challa and Shuri, the King and his people, and the complicated and compelling motivations of Killmoger make for an excellent entry into the MCU. It is tragic that we will not follow the career of Chadwick Boseman or have more T’Challa. Truly tragic. I highly recommend seeing some of Boseman’s other movies. He chose roles with purpose.
6. The Avengers
The Avengers was, in my opinion, one of the biggest movies in cinema history. It was an historic achievement in comic book / superhero movies. Nothing like this had been attempted and Feige and Whedon nailed it. Each beloved character had their moments to shine but never at the expense of the team-up plot. What held Ultron back – too many subplots – is not evident here, with its clear plot that doesn’t dilute the message (a key with so many major characters to deal with). There’s nothing like that first, iconic gathering in the middle of New York as they prepare for battle, the main theme music at full volume.
5. Iron Man
If Avengers set the stage for the next seven years of ever-bigger MCU movies, Iron Man was the one that started it all. Its success was critical for the 23 movie odyssey; without it, there is no MCU. No Avengers. Robert Downey Jr. is perfectly cast as the arrogant and brilliant Tony Stark. Iron Man laid the foundation for the MCU with an origin story unlike any we’d seen before and a superhero unlike any seen recently, including the very well-received The Dark Knight. The character growth of Stark in this film is also unique for a superhero film: he isn’t a hero who inherits or is imbued with powers that he has to learn how to control; his power lies in his intelligence and ingenuity, while his character growth truly is character growth, as he realizes the errors of his past. While the villain is a little 2-D, there are so many positives. The movie stands as one of the best in the MCU, even after all these years.
4. Avengers: Infinity War
It took 10 years and 18 movies to get to this point. Unprecedented. We had been waiting for the full-fledged Thanos since the post-credit scene after The Avengers. The promise of the Infinity Saga and the “big bad” looming over the Avengers all this time created almost unreal expectations. Well, the Russo Brothers, Kevin Feige, and Josh Brolin delivered. We experience some great moments spotlighting the Avengers – Thor, Rocket, and Groot on their adventure to get a new weapon for Thor (and we see just how powerful the God of Thunder is); Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and Iron Man on the ship (the Aliens reference!); and so many more as different heroes we’ve come to love meet each other for the first time. But, this is Thanos’s movie. From the beginning, we know this is his story. He beats Hulk like he’s a nobody and kills the God of Mischief without a second thought. With that, the stakes have been raised. We also learn of his motivations. He is a sociopath who believes he is doing this all for the greater good – the most dangerous kind of sociopath. His scenes with Gamora are inspired. The action is so fast-paced you find yourself unprepared for the disintegration of half of our heroes with the snap of Thanos’s fingers. The gut punch was truly something. “Thanos will return.” Brilliant.
3. Avengers: Endgame
The culminating event of the Infinity Saga is one of the great movie-going experiences of my life. It’s dark and filled with so many emotionally-charged moments. The original Avengers all have their moments to bring their arc to culmination. Hawkeye and Black Widow’s unique friendship takes center stage as they try to retrieve the soul stone. Seeing the mighty Thor as a broken man is tough to watch. There are consequences, even for a god. Peter’s anguish when he learns of Gamora’s death. Steve Rogers reclaims his mantle as Captain America and gives us a couple of the most memorable moments in 11 years of movies. How about the final battle? “Avengers, assemble.” Then there’s Tony. He can finally rest as he’s done what he had set out to do all those years ago – protect the world.
2. Guardians of the Galaxy
There is nothing about this film I don’t love. How is it possible that this obscure collection of comic book characters could be so much more compelling and interesting than DC/WB’s Justice League? Well, it is. (Though I have hope for the upcoming HBO Max mini-series.) From the opening credits with Peter dancing and singing his way to the prize, to the introduction of Rocket and Groot (that voice over by Rocket is hilarious), to the prison escape (“…I need that guy’s prosthetic leg.”), to Drax’s literalism (“Nothing goes over my head…”), it’s all pitch perfect. The Guardians are beyond reluctant heroes; they’re misfits and outcasts that find family and purpose for the first time with each other. They are relatable and likable despite being jackasses. It’s so enjoyable, quotable, and fun. It knows what it is and does it practically perfectly. Only the next film could keep it from being number one.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
This is a great film. This is Captain America at the height of his powers. His combat skills are both more refined and aggressive at the same time. The same can also be said of his supporting cast – Black Widow and Falcon. The Russo Brothers nailed it. This spy thriller has all the intrigue, drama, and action you could want. The twists and turns are fantastic – Bucky being the boogie man known as the Winter Soldier, the return of Dr. Zola, and the surprising re-emergence of Hydra – all unfold perfectly. Above all, Captain America’s moral strength and willingness to fight for freedom, no matter who stands in the way, is truly inspiring. “The price of freedom is high, and it’s a price I’m willing to pay.”