I have a long relationship with Marvel. I grew up on the shows, the action figures, and the reference books. Yes, you read that last part correctly. I was never super interested in comics, but I loved the encyclopedias that detailed every character from the universe and their history. (Obviously, I understand now that this was an early sign I was destined for academia.) So, since the first MCU entry, I’ve been an unapologetic Marvel Cinematic Universe apologist. If you’re thinking, “What are you apologizing for? It’s literally the most popular thing,” you’re not wrong. But also, it may not surprise you to learn that appreciating Marvel is absolutely an abnormality in the “serious film studies” world.
To date, there have been 36 official entries in the MCU. Fun fact, that is not exactly true. If you count the shorts and the non-Disney+ shows Marvel has gently removed from the canon, there are probably way more. However, for the purposes of this ranking, I am only including the feature-length films and Disney+ series Marvel Studios counts as part of its official phases. You know, the ones that actually determine the overarching narrative. With the exception of the entries released this year, I rewatched each film and show to prepare for this list.
Without further ado, let’s count down the movies and series of the MCU! Spoiler alert: this post contains both spoilers and hot takes—get ready to disagree!
36. What If…?: Season 1 (2021)
What If…? is quite the oddity when compared against its cinematic cousins. As the MCU’s first animated series, the show takes some getting used to. The animation itself is quite gorgeous, but each episode is essentially the MCU’s fan-fictionalization of itself. When the series suddenly veers into an overarching story in the final two episodes, the results are quite riveting. However, no one would blame you if you don’t make it that far. If you only watch one episode of the show, check out “What If…Zombies?!”
Most marvelous: The non-genocidal Thanos is episode two.
Least marvelous: There are a couple of episodes I would really have to think about to remember their plots.
35. Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)
Love and Thunder is, without question, Marvel’s most disappointing entry. After the unbelievably high bar set by Taika Waititi’s third Thor adventure, it is a shame to see Thor fall so far. The film jumps from scene to scene so quickly, it feels more like a TikTok video than a movie. Each scene is so littered with jokes, the film really does feel like it’s making fun of its own existence. That would be far less of a problem if the jokes landed, but so many fall flat. Remember that internet video of a goat screaming? Well, Waititi does, and he’s going to use it as a running gag at least ten times. What seems to have been forgotten this time around is who Thor is as a character. Love and Thunder’s Thor is an unstoppable oaf even though we’ve spent many movies establishing he isn’t. But it isn’t all bad! Natalie Portman is having a lot of fun as Mighty Thor, the film’s handling of cancer is touching and nuanced, and the visuals pop on the big screen, especially the battle on the Shadow Realm.
Most marvelous: Christian Bale eats the scenery up like its Thanksgiving dinner as Gorr.
Least marvelous: The floating head of Heimdall’s surprise son.
Further reading: https://collider.com/thor-love-and-thunder-jane-cancer/
34. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
There was a time when I would have ranked this film quite a bit higher. But, that was before I rewatched it. The only solo Hulk film is, well, fine. The film does an excellent job of condensing the character’s origin story into the title credits, but that is where the innovation stops. The effects have not aged well, but they’re fine. Edward Norton doesn’t pop as Bruce Banner, but he’s fine. The whole shebang is fine. The MCU was definitely finding its footing in the early years, and The Incredible Hulk is proof.
Most marvelous: The final moment where RDJ pops up.
Least marvelous: The visual effects in the climactic fight scene.
33. Captain Marvel (2019)
I want to love Captain Marvel more than I do. The MCU’s first woman-centric film tries to refresh the origin story structure, but it still feels relatively routine. Luckily, weaker Marvel is still pretty solid. Brie Larson is great as Carol Danvers and Samuel L. Jackson (in the franchise’s best de-ageing CGI) finally gets his due in his meatiest role yet. The only disappointing performance comes from screen legend Annette Benning, who clearly is here for the paycheck. I cannot for the life of me remember her character’s name, which a) points to the film’s general lack of memorability, and b) is hilarious because Google tells me her name in the film is literally Mar-Vell.
Most marvelous: Nick Fury finally getting a chance to kick some ass in the field.
Least marvelous: Fury losing his eye to an alien cat.
32. Dr. Strange (2016)
Dr. Strange is excellent in every MCU film…except his own. In his origin story, Dr. Strange is really Tony Stark-ified, but in a bad way. Strange’s characterization makes it a bit of a challenge to root for the film’s hero. The villain, Kaecilius, is also underdeveloped, though Mads Mikkelsen is always exciting to watch. The lack of solid characters makes the film a spectacle above all else. Luckily, Dr. Strange is up the challenge. The sorcery effects are dazzling, as are the manipulated environments.
Most marvelous: Acknowledging Beyoncé exists in the Marvelverse.
Least marvelous: Casting Tilda Swinton as an Asian man.
31. Iron Man 3 (2013)
The third Iron Man film has some diehard fans who consider this one the franchise’s best. I am not one of those people. IM3 gets a lot of credit for feeling different from earlier entries, but I’m still not sure what people are referring to with this compliment. The movie definitely gets big props for its big Mandarin twist, but the real villains are incredibly dull and forgettable. Hollywood’s eternally underappreciated star Rebecca Hall is underused and then sidelined. I am certainly in the minority here, but the third Iron Man is the weakest entry in the trilogy to me.
Most marvelous: Tony’s PTSD storyline that adds depth to what it means to be a superhero.
Least marvelous: The Tony + latchkey kid team-up.
30. Black Widow (2021)
This is the film that shifted down the most in my rewatch. As a long-time Black Widow fan, it is super exciting to see her get her own film. That being said, the movie just isn’t as grounded as it needs to be for a movie about a non-superpowered hero. Many of the action scenes are exciting (Taskmaster is initially an imposing villain), but veer beyond the suspension of disbelief even for a Marvel movie. Also, let’s be honest, this isn’t really a Black Widow movie, it’s a White Widow movie, structured to introduce Florence Pugh’s Yelena to the MCU. On that level, it is extremely effective because I don’t know anyone who left this movie not falling in love with Yelena.
Most marvelous: Yelena geeking out over pockets.
Least marvelous: The inexcusable “Smells Like Teen Spirit” cover in the credits (and I don’t even care about Nirvana).
29. Thor (2011)
Thor gets a lot of criticism for having a lot of canted angle shots. I’m not sure why the fans hate this so much, but they do. For me, the film’s biggest weakness is that so much of it takes place on Earth. The film shines brightest on Asgard where all the top-tier talent gets to prance around in exaggerated costumes. Also, Anthony Hopkins’s Odin is on Asgard, and as weird as this may sound, Hopkins is severely underrated for his MCU work. Chris Hemsworth has spent a lot of time telling us all he didn’t enjoy playing Thor in the first two films, but nonetheless he really captures the magic of this character.
Most marvelous: Director Kenneth Branagh refrains from putting his favorite subject on screen: Kenneth Branagh.
Least marvelous: Laufey, the Mr. Snow knock-off villain.
28. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: Series (2021)
Just like the series’ title, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier just has too much going on. Within the series there is an excellent examination of the tension between heroism and Blackness in America, but it’s so crammed in-between endless callbacks and callforwards that it doesn’t get as much precedence as it deserves. Instead, the focus is on an endless parade of character introductions from the Flag-Smashers to US Agent, and reintroductions from Ayo (yay, she has more lines!) to Sharon Carter (who is now a mega villain for no reason). Also, Zemo is a meme now, so goodbye any sense of intimidation. Falcon features some of the most mature content featured in the MCU to date, but nothing has enough time to really breathe. Overall, the series is good, but doesn’t live up to its potential.
Most marvelous: Anthony Mackie proves how much of a leading man he is with his best performance as Falcon yet.
Least marvelous: The Sharon Carter storyline may be my least favorite line of action in the MCU of all time.
27. Ant-Man (2015)
I love when the MCU takes a detour into smaller stakes. Not every episode needs to be the end of the world, people! Marvel’s first heist comedy is snappy, witty, and a lot of fun, mostly courtesy of Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas. The one thing really holding Ant-Man back from the upper ranks of the MCU is the film’s lack of distinctness. The film feels very “by the numbers” in terms of construction. The film is a fun but doesn’t leave much of a lasting impression.
Most marvelous: The tiny-big fight scene with Yellow Jacket at the end.
Least marvelous: The underutilization of Judy Greer.
26. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
The second Ant-Man gets a bit of a leg-up for being so consistent with its predecessor. The film is just as fun and well-paced as part one. Ant-Man, the Wasp, and Hank Pym continue to make an excellent cinematic trio. The introduction of Ghost and an expanded role for the Quantum Realm help give the film and extra sprinkle of visual flair when compared to the first episode, too. Thematically, the movie doesn’t bring a lot to the table, but it’s another fun, smaller-scale adventure.
Most marvelous: It pains me to write this in 2022, but Evangeline Lilly is really the star of this film—I just wish she knew how science worked in real life!
Least marvelous: The ill-fitting Walton Goggins plot, even though Goggins is great as always.
25. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Guardians gets a lot of credit for being the film that established James Gunn as an auteur. While I’m still not sold on that take, I do think Guardians deserves more credit for being one of the weirdest Marvel movies. These are, after all, the movies that introduced a raccoon and a tree as leading characters. As a full-on space comedy, the movie revels in the strange visuals found throughout the universe. The humor is irreverent and even if it doesn’t always land, it’s knowingly more adult-oriented than previous outings. Though most favor this film over the sequel, I find the characters to be less defined in episode one. The movie also loses points for not giving the legendary Glenn Close more to do.
Most marvelous: Benicio del Toro really understood the assignment when he was told to show up and be odd.
Least marvelous: Nebula may develop into a fascinating character later on, but in her first appearance she is more of a sour note.
Tune in next week for Episode 2 – The Mighty [featuring 24-13]!