Superhero showdown

TRL's Anna Stockton and Sophie Starnes rank all the Marvel movies in anticipation of Infinity War's release

April 25, 2018

TRL Audio Extra – “Ranking the Marvel movies”

Editor’s note: In anticipation of “Avengers: Infinity War,” which will release April 27, we thought it would be beneficial to rank all of the movies in the Marvel canon. In defining the criteria for this ranking, we felt that the most important factors to consider were compelling character development, worldbuilding, and the fluidity and cohesion of plot. This list is not the definitive ranking of Marvel movies, as the nature of such is subjective. We encourage debate and discussion and recognize that not everyone will agree with the positions we gave each individual movie. Disagree? Comment below and let us know your thoughts.

18. “Thor: The Dark World” (2013) – Oh, wow. There’s a lot to unpack in this movie, and almost none of it is good. Not only is the plot an incomprehensible conglomeration of events, but the parts that do make sense aren’t fun or interesting. There’s botched attempts at comedy, a confusing side plot with a useless character, and a story that does its hero no justice. The entire film feels half-made and overall disconnected from the rest of the Marvel Universe–one could skip out on watching it and feel no different diving into any of the Avengers films. “Thor: Dark World” is a movie that audiences should do their best to forget, as it does not show the true potential and heart that exists behind the Thor franchise.

Courtesy of Marvel
“Thor: The Dark World” was disappointing even with low expectations.

17. “The Incredible Hulk” (2008) – Don’t worry, we forgot this was a movie, too. What’s confusing about “The Incredible Hulk” is the fact that it was the movie Marvel Studios chose to put out as their second installment in the Avengers canon. The Hulk isn’t exactly everyone’s favorite superhero, and his story isn’t the most compelling out of all the superheroes in the line-up. Even stranger, actor Edward Norton is replaced by Mark Ruffalo after this movie with little to no explanation as to why. While the fight with Abomination at the end is pretty gnarly, it is entirely forgettable. The only reason this one is on the list is that technically it’s included in the Avengers canon.

16. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015) – Riding in the wake of the successful first movie, “Age of Ultron” just can’t seem to live up to the hype. From the weak explanation as to why Thor is missing to the lackluster plot build-up behind Ultron’s character, “Age of Ultron” feels like a movie going in dozens of different directions. While the introduction of Scarlet Witch and Vision certainly aid in making the film compelling, Marvel’s emphasis on chaos leaks into the entire movie and creates an experience that leaves the audience slightly confused and even more disappointed.

15. “Doctor Strange” (2016) – While this film featured a standout display of special effects, it wasn’t quite able to bring its characters to life in the dynamic way Marvel movies have in the past. Stephen Strange lacks the spark of humanity that makes other heroes like Tony Stark a crowd favorite, despite his whole “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” vibe. Redeeming factors of the movie include Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer, Benedict Wong as Wong, the Beyonce-loving relics guard, and the Levitating Cloak, which somehow manages to display more personality in five minutes than Benedict Cumberbatch does in the whole movie.

Courtesy of Marvel
With “Doctor Strange,” Marvel successfully explored the mystical side of their canon but was unable to follow through with a likeable main character.

14. “Iron Man 3” (2013) – When superheroes came to life in the early twentieth century, they never seemed to be affected by the constant barrage of attacks on their cities, families, and friends outside of their pure-hearted determination to establish justice in the world. “Iron Man 3” depicts a different kind of superhero. In the third installment of the Iron Man series, Tony Stark suffers from PTSD after the Battle of New York, having panic attacks and displaying a mounting sense of paranoia. While this movie introduces a new and interesting insight into the world of superheroes, the movie itself wasn’t Marvel’s best. The plot was vague at best, mediocre at worst. For example, Pepper Potts was exposed to Extremis, an experimental regenerative treatment at one point in the film. Though many people were shown to have deadly reactions to it, Pepper develops superpowers after seemingly falling to her death. It lacked the cohesion of plot and characterization evident in the higher ranked films.

13. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (2017) – After the shocking success of the first movie, this sequel had big shoes to fill. While it had several redeeming qualities, the movie as a whole felt jumbled and confused, mostly due to the poor development of Peter’s newly found father, Ego. We know Ego is a Celestial, an ancient being with god-like powers, but our understanding of him pretty much stops there. His motivations for killing Peter’s mother remain unclear, as well as why exactly he wants to be the entire universe. Though the plotline and antagonist are sketchy, there’s a lot to love in this movie, including its stunning visuals, the characterization of Yondu, and absolutely everything about Baby Groot.

12. “Iron Man 2” (2010) – The second installment of the Iron Man series isn’t anything to write home about. It doesn’t build on Tony’s character, it does not provide any significant growth–it only sustains his character before jumping into the coming movies. Despite this, “Iron Man 2” isn’t a bad movie. While it doesn’t live up to the hype its predecessor created, it is still a fairly fun experience. Tony Stark is as arrogant, sarcastic, and secretly soft-hearted as ever, which creates a somewhat compelling storyline (and come on, an electric-whip wielding villain is kind of rad). Overall, Iron Man 2 is good, but not great.

11. “Thor” (2011) – The first look into the God of Thunder’s story as well as a world outside of Earth, “Thor” provides a fun experience that gets the job done. The beauty of this movie is the fact that they don’t try to make Thor clever. He is, at his very core, a brute with a good heart. He doesn’t come up with cunning plans–those are left to his brother, Loki, who opposes him in this movie. Instead, Thor’s courage, personal growth, and his incessant belief in his own perseverance help lead the God of Thunder to victory. The movie drags at some points, but Thor marks the beginnings of Marvel’s movies, and they were still working out the kinks that come with a superhero star. Overall, the first Thor movie is a good middle-of-the-pack installment to the Marvel franchise.

Courtesy of Marvel
Ranked 10th, “Ant-Man” is a fun and silly movie that explores a character unknown to most.

10. “Ant-Man” (2015) – Though it was ridiculed upon the announcement of its release, “Ant-Man” turned out to be fun, fresh, and surprisingly heartfelt. The characters are memorable and funny, and the plot was attention-grabbing throughout the film. References to the Avengers throughout the film, as well as an awesome cameo by Falcon, brought Scott Lang into the build-up for “Captain America: Civil War.” Despite these references, “Ant-Man” felt more like a heist film than a superhero movie, which contributed to its rank toward the middle. Though it was fun to watch and easy to get invested in, this movie lacked the heroic gusto that is highlighted in other Marvel works.

9. “Iron Man” (2008) – Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark is quite possibly the best casting decision made in the history of Marvel movies. Right off the bat, the character was extraordinarily dynamic, in great part due to Downey’s ability to connect with Tony Stark. This movie was a great hook for the entirety of the Marvel franchise. While it easily kept viewers engaged and invested in the present, it also built anticipation for the release of further movies with Nick Fury’s reference to the creation of the Avengers.

8. “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011) – Captain America is the type of hero that you just can’t help but love. His unfailing faith in the goodness of people and his dedication to fighting for freedom are heartwarming, to say the least, even more so when these traits are portrayed by actor Chris Evans. Evans brings a certain charm to Captain America that left an impact on both comic lovers and everyday movie-goers alike. There wasn’t a necessity to know about any lore beforehand, and that was what allowed it to be such a success. Getting the origin story behind the Captain is essential to understanding his character, and “Captain America: The First Avenger” knocks it out of the park. Who doesn’t love watching Nazis get owned by a good and honest (and very attractive) man in tights? The world gets its first look into the resilience behind the Captain and is able to get a sense of why he feels so out of place in the later movies. “The First Avenger” is an excellent set-up that launches and immerses viewers into a world of chaos and introduces them to the hero that fights to maintain order.

Courtesy of Marvel
This monumental, smash-hit movie set the stage for future Marvel movie success.


7. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017) – With two different takes on the superhero standing before him (Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield), Tom Holland is the first Spider-Man to ever feel wholly like the character. His performance as the awkward teenager turned hero is like watching the metaphorical superhero glass slipper finally find its perfect fit. Few movies are able to so richly build up a world that fits perfectly with its character, and its safe to say that this film hits home in that respect–the depiction of high school alone is more spot on than countless other attempts in the past. With goofy charm and silly jokes, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” feels juvenile because that’s what its star is: a kid trying to cope with the weight of having immense powers. Though some lines fall flat and the movie drags on a bit, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a good start to a compelling character’s story and leaves the audience with just enough to get them excited for future installments.

6. “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014) – This is Marvel’s first real attempt at a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and they could not have succeeded more. The completely immersive “spaceship and laser gun” genre of sci-fi is unbelievably hilarious and fun to watch, not to mention it comes with an incredible soundtrack full of recognizable 70s hits. No one really expected this franchise to be successful–in fact, no one had really heard of it outside of avid comic fans. Marvel took a risk in choosing “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and the world really ought to thank them for taking that chance. With lovable characters like Peter Quill, Rocket Raccoon, and Groot and a goofy plot that leaves viewers with stomachs aching from laughter, it’s really no wonder “Guardians of the Galaxy” was such a smash hit.

5. “Captain America: Civil War” (2016) – “Civil War” was one of Marvel’s most highly anticipated movies. Casual fans excitedly picked sides between Captain America and Iron Man, and more avid fans wondered whether or not the movie would follow the plot of the comic, in which Captain America is killed. The movie itself was phenomenal, flawlessly weaving together the stories of a large pool of characters. Each scene felt relevant to the movie, as they either gave viewers more insight into the characters themselves or furthered the plot in interesting ways. However, despite the quality and title of the movie, it was not the final installment of the Captain America series. It was, at heart, an Avengers movie. It spent a lot of time developing Tony Stark’s story and not enough on Steve Rogers’ and Bucky Barnes’, who should have been the stars.

4. “The Avengers” (2012) – This movie is critical to the development of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It establishes the dynamic between all the key protagonists while still giving them room to grow. Equal parts story and action, “The Avengers” is a classic superhero movie that deserves a place in the top. From the iconic slapstick of Hulk beating up Loki to the shocking moment Tony Stark flies a missile into a wormhole to save the world, this movie features compelling characters and a gripping story, and it’s the ultimate depiction of this superhero team so far. Though it doesn’t necessarily provoke the same amount of investment in the audience as the top three movies do, “The Avengers” is a movie to appreciate.


3. “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017) – As the third movie in a series that was mostly lacking, “Thor: Ragnarok” is a diamond in the rough. In some ways, it mirrors the first movie: Thor is stripped of his powers, banished to an unfamiliar land, and forced to fend for himself until he finds friends in unlikely places. However, where the first Thor movie lacks personality, “Ragnarok” is chock full of it. Thor truly emerges as a character– he is strong, determined, and has the disposition of a golden retriever. A really, really buff golden retriever. While the cinematography of the movie is gorgeous and its plot is engrossing, its strength lies in the dynamic relationships between the characters. Throughout the movie, the characters are constantly exasperated by one another but ultimately band together in order to fight the greatest evil Thor has had to face yet, which is his older sister, Hela. Another strength is the silly humor sprinkled throughout the movie, especially the mild-mannered alien Korg. The humor adds a more authentic dimension to the movie and only enhances its already excellent qualities.

Courtesy of Marvel
With “Thor: Ragnarok,” the god of thunder finally grows into his full potential supported by a hilariously entertaining plot, lovable characters, and a clean new makeover.

2. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014) – The first Captain America movie established Bucky Barnes as a standout guy. He takes cares of his sickly and grieving friend after the death of his mother, and after that friend pops out of Howard Stark’s superhero microwave with biceps bigger than boulders and abs shaped by the gods, Bucky follows him across enemy lines all over Europe. When he dies, the audience grieves with Steve. When Bucky returns as a Soviet assassin called the Winter Soldier in the sequel, the audience is almost as shaken as Steve. This gripping movie features a fast-paced, action-heavy plot that keeps the audience on its toes and reaffirms that there is always more to authority than meets the eye. However, in the breathing moments between action, the plot shows the devastating effects of war. Sam Wilson, a newly introduced character, shares in Steve’s grief of losing a best friend in battle. The final, heart-wrenching battle scene between Steve and Bucky features an excellent performance by Sebastian Stan that makes the anger, grief, and confusion felt by the Winter Soldier all the more palpable. Ultimately, it’s the exceptional blend of action and emotion that makes “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” the second best film in the MCU.

1. “Black Panther” (2018) – With incredible performances and characters that believably exist outside the boundaries of the movie, “Black Panther” is a nearly flawless film that leaves the audience itching to learn more about the Wakandan hero. T’Challa’s story is one that is compelling, exciting, and just plain fun to watch, yet it doesn’t sacrifice a powerful message for the sake of silliness. The audience is pulled into the struggle between Killmonger and T’Challa and are forced to recognize that some villains aren’t undeniably evil–that some might even have a root cause that is worth fighting for. Audiences were blown away by the highly anticipated film, and there is no movie that could have possibly taken its place on this list. Those who have not yet watched the exciting first installment in T’Challa’s story should make it a priority before they go to watch “Infinity War.”

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    Andrew GodipellyApr 30, 2018 at 11:42 am

    Dr. Strange was so much better than you are giving it credit for. The very fact that the hero outsmarted the villain rather than yet another fist fight at least puts it above Iron Man 3.