THE FINAL COUNTDOWN
Where Does ‘Avengers: Endgame’ Rank in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
There have been 22 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here are our rankings—including ‘Avengers: Endgame,’ in theaters Friday.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe was born in 2008, when Jon Favreau’s Iron Man not only introduced the world to Robert Downey Jr.’s billionaire-genius Tony Stark, but also set in motion a plan to unite various stand-alone adventures into a unified tapestry. It was a daring gambit at the time, but one that, eleven years later, has proven successful beyond all expectations, shattering box-office records and establishing new standards for serialized big-screen storytelling and CGI-enhanced action-adventure—not to mention quality control, as the studio has rarely made a calamitous creative misstep (much less suffered a deflating financial failure) in its groundbreaking efforts. In the history of cinema, there’s simply never been a run like it.
All good things must come to an end, however, and that they most certainly do—in spectacular fashion—in Avengers: Endgame, directors Joe and Anthony Russo’s gargantuan finale to both last year’s Avengers: Infinity War and the initial phase of the franchise.
While there’s no doubt that there’ll be more Marvel films to come in the ensuing years, the Russos’ latest extravaganza serves as a definitive culmination and conclusion, bidding farewell to beloved characters and setting its remaining marquee faces on new courses. As such, now’s the perfect time to look back at the first decade-plus of the MCU, from its relatively humble origin-story beginnings to its legitimately epic finish.
22. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is the sole reason to sit through Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) second solo outing. With the warring siblings forced to team up to defeat a Dark Elf, it plays like a pointless exercise in brand extension, and—unsurprisingly—is the least popular, and vital, installment in the entire MCU.
21. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Largely ignored by the MCU (save for William Hurt’s General Ross), this second attempt at a stand-alone Hulk saga is heavy on the smash-heavy action. Edward Norton’s ho-hum Bruce Banner, as well as a general dearth of interesting style, relegates it to also-ran status, especially in light of Mark Ruffalo’s subsequent, superior take on the gamma-infused character.
20. Thor (2011)
Having not yet been reinvented as the Avengers’ funniest member, Chris Hemsworth’s long-locked hero comes across as a stoic snooze in his first solo film, which only gets interesting when situating its story in the colorful heavenly realm of Asgard. The stuff on Earth, including a finale in a cardboard cutout small-town set, is a chore.
19. Ant-Man (2015)
Amidst so much world-hangs-in-the-balance MCU weightiness, Ant-Man’s frivolity is refreshing. Unfortunately, despite appealing headlining work from Paul Rudd as thief-turned-hero Scott Lang, Peyton Reed’s film never comes close to being as funny as it wants to be—even with the participation of the amusing Michael Peña.
18. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Reports that Jon Favreau’s sequel was being written (and re-written) during production are hardly unbelievable, given the choppiness of its story involving Iron Man (Downey Jr.) taking on both electric whip-wielding Russian baddie Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) and business rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). Its messiness is at once its strength and its undoing.
17. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) meets his dad (Kurt Russell), who happens to be a living planet, in this uneven follow-up, which suffers from a static narrative that never goes anywhere interesting, and pairs off its characters for unnecessarily long stretches. James Gunn’s amusing writing helps alleviate some of those shortcomings—but not enough of them.
16. Captain Marvel (2019)
Brie Larson’s Air Force pilot Carol Danvers becomes the all-powerful Captain Marvel in a perfectly average origin story that leans heavily on ‘90s nostalgia and complicates its otherwise-straightforward tale with a memory-loss twist. It’s fine as far as it goes, which often isn’t far enough.
15. Doctor Strange (2016)
Magic gets its proper MCU due with Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange, in which a physician (Benedict Cumberbatch) becomes heir to the Sorcerer Supreme throne courtesy of Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One. An A-list cast and some truly psychedelic visuals help compensate for the fact that Strange remains better suited for supporting-player responsibilities.
14. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
More tonally assured than its predecessor, Peyton Reed’s sequel makes Evangeline Lilly’s Wasp a clear co-lead alongside Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man, giving the proceedings a playful romantic jolt. Their fight against Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) is forgettable, which can’t be said about strong supporting turns from Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Douglas, Walton Goggins and Michael Peña.
13. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Joss Whedon’s highly-anticipated sequel is stellar in the intersquad-banter department (in particular, the running bit about Thor’s hammer), and Ultron (James Spader) turns out to be a thematically foundational figure for the series. Too bad, then, that quite a bit of its bigger-is-better action is underwhelming.
12. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
It doesn’t achieve the heights reached by Sam Raimi’s non-MCU Spider-Man trilogy. Still, Jon Watts’ webslinging adventure has its charms—a script that sidesteps origin-story obligations for wise-cracking teen comedy; Tom Holland’s energetically adolescent Peter Parker; Michael Keaton’s villainous Vulture; and Downey Jr. as Parker’s sarcastic father figure/mentor.
11. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
No matter its title, the Russos’ 2016 adventure is basically Avengers 2.5, featuring most of the series’ characters to date (minus Thor, Hulk and Hawkeye) in a team-dividing saga about a superhero registration act that Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) supports and Captain America (Chris Evans) opposes. Even if some of its tale is muddled, it ably brings Spider-Man and Black Panther into the MCU fold.
10. Iron Man (2008)
The one that started it all, Jon Favreau’s maiden Iron Man handles its origin-story duties far better than it manages the tacked-on conflict between Tony Stark and corporate bedfellow Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). Downey Jr.’s magnetic Stark is the high watermark against which all other MCU performances are judged, and it holds up superbly.
9. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Director Joe Johnston taps into the noble national values that define Captain America in this rah-rah origin story, about a feisty weakling named Steve Rogers who gets the chance to fight the Nazis—and Red Skull (Hugo Weaving)—thanks to a super-serum that transforms him into a WWII Avenger. It’s a cheeky, nostalgic creation myth.
8. Iron Man 3 (2013)
Reeling from the events of The Avengers, a traumatized Tony Stark faces off against a not-what-he-seems adversary known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) in Shane Black’s amusing Christmas-set threequel. By placing a premium on character and comedy, it allows Downey Jr. to deliver his best performance as the MCU’s signature hero, and outshines both of its series predecessors.
7. Black Panther (2018)
Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther takes a novel approach to the origin-story format, allowing us to learn about its hero (Chadwick Boseman) through a present-day adventure with deep roots in the past. That, plus its unique visual imagination and a sturdy supporting turn from Michael B. Jordan as evil revolutionary Killmonger, makes it one of the MCU’s most distinctive entries.
6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Captain America’s sophomore outing places him in the present, where his wholesome American beliefs are challenged by a modern military-industrial complex that’s not to be trusted. It’s Marvel’s take on Three Days of the Condor, with Chris Evans leading the way in perhaps his finest go-round as the Stars-and-Stripes-decorated do-gooder.
5. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
The Avengers find themselves in apocalyptic trouble when the Mad Titan, Thanos (Josh Brolin), comes knocking in search of the remaining Infinity Stones, which he plans to use to wipe out half of all life in the universe. The ensuing mash-up of heroes and conflicts is routinely exhilarating, and it concludes with an all-time great dust-in-the-wind cliffhanger.
4. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Hands-down the funniest entry in the MCU, Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok may also be its most important, given that it reinvents the God of Thunder as an arrogant-doofus laugh-riot, even as it further develops him as a three-dimensional character. Also featuring Hulk, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), this outer-space adventure has the series’ highest replay value.
3. The Avengers (2012)
Joss Whedon’s 2012 film gets off to a bumpy start, but once it starts pitting its lead heroes against each other—all before uniting them as a team against the forces of Loki—it delivers on its years-in-the-making promise. Best of all, it does so with consistent comedic repartee, while simultaneously, and finally, figuring out how to bring the Hulk (via Mark Ruffalo) to thrilling life.
2. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
James Gunn’s 2014 adventure introduced the world to Star Lord, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), a ragtag interstellar squad thrust into unlikely hero duty. Balancing absurdity and mayhem with aplomb, all of it set to a throwback soundtrack, it’s just about as good as Marvel gets.
1. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
The Russos’ three-hour epic is the closer the franchise deserves, sending its heroes—led by Iron Man and Captain America—on a sprawling, fan service-y mission through time and space to reverse Thanos’ “Snapture” and recover “the vanished.” Hitting its every note with expert precision, it’s a triumph of humorous, action-packed, poignant blockbuster filmmaking.