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Ranking the entire Marvel Cinematic (and Television) Universe
As we enter Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and with it the promise of new, even stranger superheroes (in the literal form of Doctor Strange) we thought we’d look back at all the previous entries of the MCU, including its TV cousins, and rank them in order.
At the moment we have no idea what Captain America: Civil War will be like (although we’ve had a pretty good guess), but we’ll be watching it alongside you next weekend and afterwards we’ll update this list to see exactly how it stacks up against the rest.
In fact, we’ll keep this list regularly updated, so later in the year we’ll add Doctor Strange and the Luke Cage TV series, and then next year there’ll be Spider-Man: Homecoming, Black Panther and all the other various sequels that we’ll continue adding until the whole MCU collapses under the weight of its own gargantuan ambition. Until then, let’s just enjoy the ride.
We’ll begin with…
16) THOR: THE DARK WORLD
Takes itself far too seriously, stripping away all the fun of the first film leaving a cinematic equivalent of the serious expression on somebody’s face as they forcefully expel a 10-incher into the bowl. [The Ape]
(Editor: Anything you want to add to that one The Ape? Hmm? No, he’s already gone.)
15) AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. (every season)
For anyone who collects things there are always the ‘essentials’; the ones that should be part of any collection. And then there are the ‘nice to haves’; things that don’t really add too much extra value. That’s basically how I feel about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Don’t get me wrong, I quite like it, but is my life made any richer for having seen it? No.
There are some good bits that add depth to the MCU, but that’s it. No more, no less. In essence it is an interesting take on the shared universe: letting us see how the normos deal with the guys with powers, and there have been a few decent crossovers with its ‘big screen’ cousins, notably Thor: The Dark World, The Avengers and, most dramatically, Captain America: The Winter Soldier where season one’s big reveal merged with scenes that were showing in cinemas at the same time.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has also managed to lay some groundwork for 2019’s Inhumans, in a similar way that the Avengers Assemble cartoon introduced kids to Falcon, Guardians of the Galaxy and even elements of Civil War. Overall there have been moments of strength but far too many moments of weakness and it would definitely benefit from being cut to the more succinct 13 episode structure of the Netflix shows. Like I said, not essential but a ‘nice to have’. [Rich Watkin]
14) IRON MAN 2
Not nearly as bad as you remember, in fact Iron Man 2 has a whole lot going for it. Yes, Mickey Rourke’s accent is fucking ridiculous (fun fact – the character of Whiplash was an Amazonian lesbian terrorist in the original comic books), but there’s So. Much. Cool. The briefcase armour is badass, Whiplash’s electro-whips are amazing and seem genuinely dangerous, and don’t forget this is the first time we see Scarlett Johansson squeezing into leather and busting heads.
Plus Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark hasn’t started to grate yet so it’s still a pretty fun ride. There are also TONS of comic-geek easter eggs: Justin Hammer, War Machine, The Iron Legion, the consequences of getting pissed and then taking the suit out… Yeah, alright, there’s too much going on, but it’s not actually a bad movie, just over-stuffed and difficult to follow, which makes it drag even when it’s showing us jet-boots and Formula 1 cars. Great ideas, poor execution. But hey, Scarjo! [Matt Owen]
13) THE INCREDIBLE HULK
Although The Incredible Hulk has some great action sequences and a decent turn from Edward Norton, it just doesn’t seem to capture the true fun of the Hulk, the one we finally got to see in The Avengers. He’s a bit lacklustre in this. Boring even. And Tim Roth certainly does nothing to help matters. It seems in this incarnation, literally no one liked him when he was angry. Well, maybe we liked him a bit more than Eric Bana, but that’s not saying much. [John Hayward]
12) AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
A big over-stuffed, overly-grey mess that struggles to be as remotely entertaining as the first Avengers film. In fact, maybe that’s the whole problem with AoU: it pales in comparison with its much stronger and less pressurised contemporaries. Nothing lands the way it should. Its humour oddly misses the mark (especially odd as that’s one of The Avengers’ and indeed Joss Whedon’s strengths). Its pathos is unearned and tortuous. Its Ultron, although brilliantly voiced by James Spader, is too quirky to be a real threat.
It has a Quicksilver who isn’t nearly as cool or interesting as his rival incarnation from X-Men: Days of Future Past. It also suffers from following in the wake of Guardians of the Galaxy, a film that was as confidently constructed as it was charged with anarchy. Where GotG was a firecracker, Age of Ultron is a lumpen weight of forgettable MacGuffin.
Its serving of multiple masters also may ultimately reveal the inherent problems with building a gigantic shared universe. Also, I fucking love The Vision and I spent the entire movie frustratedly waiting for him to appear. But when he did though… oh boy, it was genuinely exhiliarting stuff. And now I can’t wait for him and Scarlett Witch to get on with some serious synthezoid smooching. Christ I’m such a nerd. [Christopher Ratcliff]
11) JESSICA JONES: Season one
In a welcome deviation from the usually polished world of the MCU, Jessica Jones is almost as dirty and gritty as the run-down version of Hell’s Kitchen it’s based in. A woman wrestling with her own demons, both real and imagined, Jessica is a perma-grumpy, streetwise broad who permanently lives in jeans and a leather jacket and has a more than healthy whisky addiction. You should probably hate her, she’s all legs and pout. But actually, I didn’t.
She’s not the beautifully coiffed, well-spoken Peggy of Agent Carter. Nor is she the deadly, sexy assassin of Black Widow or the Agents of Shield gang squeezed into a PVC unitard. She’s just a chick, who has a few superhero powers, trying to get by doing her Private Investigator thing. She drinks, she swears and she fucks up sometimes, but she always means well. Kinda.
The story follows Jessica facing off against Kilgrave, a bad guy with a psychic ability to control people’s minds. I guess that’s the only way you’re ever going to make a skinny Scottish lad like David Tennant come across as convincingly scary? While the plot stretches credulity sometimes it was enough to keep me binge-watching, and ever the romantic, I enjoyed watching the relationship between Jessica and Luke Cage bloom into some fairly rampant sex scenes.
Even more surprisingly in places was the shocking levels of gore. Only Daredevil beats Jessica Jones in terms of blood spilled in the MCU. And that’s the thing: while Daredevil is all darkness, pain and brooding, Jessica Jones manages to be a bit more light hearted. If this were a movie I would give it a 15 certificate: adult themes, hard drugs, regular use of foul language, strong violence and strong sex references. You could still watch it with your mum though. [Toni Ratcliff]
This should’ve been bollocks. An Asgardian guard wandering about modern society is a ridiculous conceit that surely couldn’t amount to anything more than 90 minutes of tedious po-faced posturing. But, the ribald camaraderie between Thor and his mates is often entertaining and while you laughed at them, Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings were busy doing the strong female lead thing way before we gave Mad Max and The Force Awakens their medals for it, so y’know big ticks all round for Thor. Plus there’s a massive fuck off metal thing that shoots fire out of his face and sometimes that’s enough. [The Ape]
9) IRON MAN 3
Despite being a comic book fan I’ve never read the Iron Man: Extremis storyline upon which this film is based or know much about big bad The Mandarin, so for me this was a really interesting take on the Tony Stark/Iron Man character. It follows Tony’s emotional fallout from the events of the first Avengers movie and how he nearly died saving the Earth. You always think of superheroes as being just that, rather than fragile people who are susceptible to anxiety attacks, and the best thing about Iron Man 3 are the instances of Stark breaking down when the pressure starts to get too much for him.
It showed a vulnerability never really seen before on the big screen for a character of this type and provided depth to counteract the ‘billionaire, playboy philanthropist’. The twist near the end of Iron Man 3 really upset a lot of people but I thought it was a nice touch, confounding expectations and pulling the rug on the viewer, it was brave move and by the end of 2013 it was the fifth highest grossing movie of all time – so it couldn’t have upset people that much.
I’d be doing a disservice not to mention War Machine kitted out in the Iron Patriot colours, which if nothing else looks pretty awesome or the moment when Tony gives the call for the ‘House Party Protocol’ which brings all 42 existing suits to the final battle – yeah, the end of the film essentially looks like a ridiculous fireworks display but it’s fucking cool. [Rich Watkin]
This is the third time I’ve written about Ant-Man for this site and by that fact alone it should tell you how much I love this belter. On the grand scale of Marvel movies this is virtually an indie with a modest budget of only £135m. Alright, Clerks or El Mariachi it certainly ain’t but it’s money very well spent on a great cast and some incredible effects. What made the first Iron Man so great was that Tony Stark was a loveable rogue and Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang is similar in this respect but he’s the poor version with terrible luck and good intentions.
The theme of Ant-Man is second chances and redemption: Lang happens upon the ant suit with its incredible shrinking ability by taking part in a robbery which would provide him with the financial stability to spend time with his estranged daughter. But he’s caught by the suit’s creator Hank Pym, who offers a chance of redemption (something they both desire) and sparks a chain of satisfying second chances that make you want to punch the air and shout “fuck yeah.”
For the MCU, this one slipped relatively under the radar but it’s one of the gems of Phase Two. It’s visually stunning with awesome fight scenes and it’s definitely the best comedy in the list. If you haven’t seen it, go and watch it, then watch it again and then tell your friends to watch it too. [Rich Watkin]
7) CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER
Of all the Phase One Marvel films – aside from the first Iron Man – Captain America’s first outing comes out as a strong contender for the top spot. Steve Rogers is not everyone’s cup of tea and his overt patriotism can leave a poor taste in the mouth, especially in this part of the world.
However, I loved the movie because it felt like a proper superhero comic book movie. Brightly lit in primary colours and with an origin story featuring a young, weak, but courageous outcast who just wants to be a hero. From start to finish he feels like a fully developed character and Chris Evans is surprisingly charming (especially post Fantastic Four) as his bantamweight former self and retains that charm even when the fully-serumed Captain America is flexing his muscles and learning what it means to be strong.
There are no other baddies on film quite like the Nazis, and Captain America uses them in a similarly brilliant way as Raiders of the Lost Ark; Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull is a wonderfully silly and thoroughly ‘comic-booky’ creation. The film also benefits from the wonderful Hayley Atwell as our curvy, pin-up looking, yet thoroughly badass and self assured Peggy Carter – so good she gets her own spin off show. Overall the film falters a bit once they move into ‘big explosion and set-piece’ territory but it’s thoroughly enjoyable, ridiculous fun with superb CGI and a great big heart. [Catherine Thompson]
6) Daredevil: seasons one & two
Daredevil doesn’t necessarily mark a turning point for the MCU as so far the films have shied away anything too adult-orientated (Iron Man gets a clip round the ear for a mere S-Bomb), but it does escort you down a particularly dangerous alley, where if by some miracle you don’t get murdered you’ll certainly come out the other side in need of a good scrub-down and counselling.
When Netflix announced a deal with Marvel to produce limited seasons of some of its more tertiary characters who could possibly predict that the first entry out of the gate, the previously cinematically tested and failed Daredevil, would make for some of the darkest, most vicious and gruelling telly since The Sopranos?
In fact the favourable comparisons to The Sopranos don’t just end there, in Daredevil there are similar levels of moral questionability, complex characters operating at a wide-berth of the law, violence that makes you question your own voyeurism and in Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk, a deeply terrifying yet sympathetic anti-hero to rival Tony Soprano.
Season one of Daredevil was damn near perfect television and season two of Daredevil may have ended with a disappointing trio of episodes, but before that point it delivered a portrayal of The Punisher that was somehow believable and compelling. Frankly a miracle after three botched filmic attempts, and it goes to show that right now Marvel can make any hero work in the right-sized sandbox. [Christopher Ratcliff]
5) IRON MAN
In many ways – one being literal – Iron Man should be ranked as the number one entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Whilst we fawn over the r-rated bravery of Deadpool, the riskiness of GotG or the irreverent humour of Ant-Man, praising all of them for their novelty and risk, we forget that Iron Man was undoubtedly the biggest risk of all. Looking back, it’s astounding that the biggest and most ambitious franchise in cinematic history was kick-started by one of Monica Geller’s ex-boyfriends, an actor who was still rebuilding his reputation after several stints in rehab and jail, and a comic book character so obscure that apparently 30 different writers passed on the script.
But that is precisely why people were drawn to the film – it felt off-beat and Robert Downey Jr’s Stark felt human and not weighed down by huge audience expectations. He was the perfect blend of arrogance and wit, and in hindsight, no other entry in this list would have been as successful at convincing people to stick around for a further 11 (so far) films.
Also let’s not forget that Iron Man has one of the most significant endings of any superhero film ever. And, let’s not forget that the film had the balls to cast The Dude as a bald villain. Fuck it, I’ve just convinced myself that Iron Man should be number one of this list. Iron Man! Iron Man! Iron Man! [Benjamin Rabinovich]
4) Guardians of the Galaxy
In the summer of 2014, Marvel officially announced they were the biggest bullies in the playground and they can do whatever the fuck they want and release Guardians of the Galaxy. They were on a roll following The Avengers, Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, so it seemed the least obvious move to release a film about a team barely anyone outside of die-hard comic book fandom had heard of: The Thief, The Green Female Warrior, The Angry Dude, The Walking Tree and The Wise-cracking Raccoon.
Although appearing totally from leftfield, it had all the ingredients for a classic summer hit: great action, great story, great quips, great characters… and a dance-off as part of the final battle. Guardians of the Galaxy totally deserved its status as highest grossing movie of the year in the US and its the best Star Wars movie since Return of the Jedi. [Rich Watkin]
3) CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
How do you deal with the fact that your character is designed, drawn and written for a different time? A time that by comparison is morally black and white – filled with evil Nazis and good-guys socking Hitler and saving the day. Well, you make a story of it. The Cap finds himself thrust into the future where his friends and (would be) lovers are long gone and old fashioned ideals about ‘good versus bad’ are far too simple in the new world he belongs to now.
To my surprise and delight the plot is played out like an old-school espionage thriller and manages to insert an outdated hero right into the here and now. Disillusioned with the operation he works for, he becomes rebellious and questioning, not just a running, jumping, punching machine. The script is neat and the action (the running, punching jumping bit) is taught and it’s a sweet move to bring in Robert Redford with his history of spy movies. On top of this, The Winter Soldier is easily Black Widow’s best movie (how I long for a Russian spy movie with Black Widow as the lead) and the playful, friendly (with a touch of flirty) chemistry between Evans and Johansson is wonderful.
Just like Captain America: The First Avenger it slips towards the end as Marvel can’t resist a big expensive blow out to ‘Cap’ it all off. Otherwise, full of fun, a healthy dollop of emotion and packed to the gills with action and smart dialogue. It’s easily the best film in Phase Two. [Catherine Thompson]
2) THE AVENGERS
The Avengers was a hefty undertaking for any mere mortal. Balancing the culmination of Phase One MCU films, bringing together the collective weight of six established superheroes, managing to tell meaningful stories for each character while setting up for Phase two and all the while creating an enjoyable film that stands on its own right. It’s a big ask. Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) manages a perfect balancing act with all of the above and achieves one of the best stand alone movies of the entire MCU in the process.
Whedon’s always been an expert in crafting wonderful group dynamics; the feel of family (which of course means love, but also fights too) and a sense of home. From the Buffy gang working in the school library to the crew aboard Serenity he has always judged group relationships beautifully – making him an excellent choice for The Avengers (plus he’s a huge nerd).
Whedon tiptoes from light and gentle humour to gut-wrenching heartache at the blink of an eye and doles out scenes between the huge range of characters with supreme grace to give each one a voice while maintaining the overall story. Elegant, gorgeous to look at and just plain loads of fun – he was able to please both the fanboys and the average cinema-goer simultaneously. Snyder and Batman V Superman should have taken a real lesson from this, if only they hadn’t been too arrogant to listen. [Catherine Thompson]
1) AGENT CARTER: season one
Only eight episodes in the first season, since then perennially on the bubble in terms of cancellation due to ever-declining ratings and yet it’s everyone’s favourite MCU creation. Why? Because Peggy Carter is fucking awesome. In Captain America: The First Avenger, she was primarily limited to being the romantic interest of the male lead, utilised to bring out the best and most heroic qualities of Steve Rogers. However in Agent Carter, we see none of that stereotypical bullshit.
This is why the show is of the very highest quality and worthy of being viewed as MCU’s best creation: Peggy is not a romantic interest; her eponymous nature is never undermined or tokenistic, nor does she allow herself to be defined by a man. Peggy is a fully-formed character, one who makes mistakes and questions her decisions. She’s recovering from the loss of what could’ve been the love of her life and the only person who treated her as an equal, but that’s just one layer.
Peggy is also a war vet, angered by the sexism of her colleagues and frustrated by the patriarchy that refuses to recognise her indisputable worth and instead tries to prevent her from doing what she does best: save everyone’s ass. In an age where we still see undeniable proof that the industry has a long way to go before the representation of women on and off-screen can be considered acceptable, protagonists like Peggy and shows like Agent Carter set the standard. [Benjamin Rabinovich]
For more slightly wayward film analysis, check out our movie features section including the greatest comedies made in the 21st century.