As much as we love Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man (and can even roll with Ang Lee’s psychodrama of a Hulk movie), the Marvel Cinematic Universe technically begins with 2008’s game-changing Iron Man, the film that kicked off a franchise with hugeness in mind. The MCU is cresting right now, with Avengers: Endgame breaking box-office records and dominating the conversations of critics and spoiler-sensitive fans alike. But it hasn’t been an easy road. Tempting the wrath of passionate viewers, we’ve ranked the 22 films to date—all of them blockbusters, but some more blockbustery than others. (There are at least a handful more "Phase Four" Marvel action movies on the horizon, so we retain the right to revise.)
All Marvel movies ranked
A stultifying hodgepodge of Mythology 101 midterm answers, generically LOTR-ish battle scenes and Anthony Hopkins bellowing in his best Shakespearean baritone, this is a superhero movie that feels like it might have been made by anyone and no one. It’s simply space-filler before the next big team-up.
Robert Downey Jr. achieves full obnoxiousness. His first turn as Tony Stark, a weapons manufacturer with guilt, was the smartest of a series of smart comeback choices. But with this depressingly bland sequel (scripted by snark specialist Justin Theroux), he’s stranded in lightweight arrogance.
Fare thee well, Edward Norton—we hardly knew ye. He only appeared once in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, before stepping out of the big green guy’s shadow (Mark Ruffalo took over). Nothing about this tentative franchise builder suggests there was any love lost; the movie has little on Ang Lee’s inspired 2003 take.
The first Ant-Man movie succeeded largely because of its less-is-more approach: a livewire heist caper stuffed with Honey-I-Shrunk-the-Avenger-style visual gags. Diminishing returns bite, though, in a sequel that strains hard to be effortlessly fun but lacks the same helter-skelter irreverence.
Dutifully, with a hint of fatigue, Thor accomplishes its essential goal and little else, which is to introduce the mighty warrior to the Marvel onscreen universe, in addition to the hunk who'll be playing him: Australian actor Chris Hemsworth. He definitely looks the part, not so much a slab of beefcake as an entire herd of cattle.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first female-led installment meant a lot symbolically, especially to young girls who resonated with Gal Gadot’s confident portrayal of Wonder Woman. But you can’t help but wish the watershed moment arrived with a more richly imagined central character. While Room's Brie Larson is certainly capable, she’s a bit stranded in the rubber suit, playing a role that gives her scant opportunity to be human.
While there’s a definite mid-season feel to this, it’s still a Joss Whedon film, packed with all the snappy action sequences and pomposity-puncturing one-liners we expect (a running gag about Thor’s hammer is almost worth the ticket price alone). But with Marvel’s eyes on Infinity War, viewers got shortchanged.
Given that Captain America may be one of the least tortured Marvel heroes around, the fact that Chris Evans plays him primarily as a walking, talking glass of skim milk doesn't seem out of character. But call upon him to, say, mourn fallen comrades or actually emote, and the movie hits a pothole. His series gets better.
Just when it seemed like the MCU was getting so big that the whole superhero-movie bubble might burst, along comes an adventure with an action sequence set in a bathtub. Ant-Man is ultimately too flat to leave much of an impression, but it's a much-needed reminder that there are real people underneath all that armor.
After the sugar rush of the first film, recapturing the magic was always going to be an uphill battle. But for all its wit, speed and Kurt Russell playing a swaggering dad with secrets, this second instalment feels like a disappointment. Until well past halfway through, it doesn’t even have a plot, just a bunch of amusing scenes.
An overstuffed sausage of summer entertainment, this is the Ocean’s Thirteen of spandexed heroism—if you can imagine a version of that movie with two times as many Brad Pitts and no poker dealers. The result is endless in-fighting for alpha-dog dominance, everyone trying to make what amounts to a cameo stick.
The Iron Man sub-saga undergoes the kind of freshening up it needed after a brief flirtation with Mickey Rourke. Take Stark to an unlikely place (rural Tennessee), have the magical suit totally fail him, have him attract a curious wiseass of a preteen sidekick—all of these things happen in a snappy course correction.
Homecoming isn’t strictly an origin story: There’s no radioactive spider bite, no wow-I-can-lift-a-car-now moment. This is about a young man figuring out what to do with the power he’s already acquired, while also navigating the pitfalls of everyday teenagerhood. It’s light and breezy and a little throwaway.
A war over tactics and goals is waged between Chris Evans’s squarely patriotic Captain and Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, but the unexpected emotional heft left pretenders like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in the dust. This is a film about the violent end of a friendship and the moral questions that come with free will.
Arriving with the momentum that only 21 previous global blockbusters can provide, here's the multiplex-rattling and curiously emotional culmination of the MCU—at least until the next chapter. Endgame often pays tribute to itself, which makes it as fascinating as it is self-serious. It taps into a live wire of doomy tragedy and phoenix-like rebirth that comics do so well.
The Marvel-verse has never shied away from a bit of groovy psychedelia, from the prog-rock cityscapes of Thor to Ant-Man’s voyage into cosmic inner space. But they’ve never gone full down-the-rabbit-hole acid freak-out—until now. There are sequences here that could burn the top layer off your eyeballs.
This installment delivers a heavy and welcome dose of political paranoia (courtesy of Robert Redford, playing against lefty type as an ominous high-ranking government official). Chris Evans’s superhero remains an enjoyable square peg in the round hole of the sleek Marvel universe.
Some may find the film’s comic self-satisfaction a little grating (these lesser-known heroes date all the way back to 1969) and there are moments when the sheer brain-melting relentlessness becomes wearying. But overall, this is giddy, ridiculous fun: a wonderfully generous gift of a film.
Paced swiftly by Swingers star-turned-director Jon Favreau, the film that started it all is blessed by motormouthed Robert Downey Jr. as billionaire tech genius Tony Stark, an apolitical man with stripper poles on his private plane. Much was made of this “risky” casting, but it pays off beautifully.
If the irreverent Ragnarok is the funniest Marvel movie to date—topping even Guardians of the Galaxy—it’s not without frustrations. The standard third act CGI-fest feels leaden and there’s one too many superpowered MacGuffins (we’d have quickly misplaced the Flame of Thingamajig). But in a world of portentous blockbusters, it’s a joy to see one throwing on the disco lights.
At long last, the Marvel Comics Universe comes together in the common purpose of defeating evil alien snake monsters. In humanspeak, that means you’ve got a bunch of superheroes in a single movie. The cape-wearing savior here is director Joss Whedon, who remembers to keep things fun, flip and broadly entertaining.
Handsomely mounted by Creed’s Ryan Coogler and starring an enviable slate of black actors that makes cameoing comics godhead Stan Lee almost seem lost, Marvel’s best movie, pound for pound, is provocative and satisfying in ways that are long overdue—like its ornate, culturally dense production design and the deeper subtexts of honor, compassion and destiny.