It's been nearly 15 years since Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury emerged from the credits of the first Iron Man movie to name drop 'the Avengers Initiative', thereby informing us all that what we had watched wasn't just a new cinematic adaptation of a comic book character, or the start of a cinematic franchise of Iron Man movies, but rather, the start of something brand new, a cinematic universe of films. Since then, there have been an additional 30 films in the MCU released across five self-branded 'phases' (here's how to watch them all!). With Phase Four now complete and the MCU going headlong into Phase Five with the release of Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantumania, we present our rankings of every MCU movie to date!
When rankings the films, a few criteria are taken into consideration. First and foremost is the quality of the film itself — how well does it hold up as a movie? Second is its relevance to the overall, ongoing narrative of the MCU — how well does it work as one chapter in a 30 chapter (and counting) story? And how rewatchable is it — we all love returning to our favorite stories to experience them again and spot new things or gain a new understanding of how the movie works, and an MCU film which supports this kind of rewatchability gets some extra credit over ones that don't (which does, admittedly, instill a bit of anti-recency bias into the rankings which causes newer films to need to work harder in the other two criteria to overcome). On to the rankings!
31. Incredible Hulk (2008)
One of the many remarkable things about the MCU as a collective entity is its consistency. For as much as the franchise may get grief for sanding down the artistic edges of more distinctive filmmakers and only rarely hitting a mark higher than 'well-made popcorn films', it also doesn't turn out very many stinkers. Even the worst film of the bunch — 2008's Incredible Hulk — isn't a bad movie. It is a bog standard mid '00s action film with some early trappings of what we'd later recognize as the MCU style grafted onto it. It suffers in these rankings a bit because those trappings are so minor and/or atypical. Given its protagonist is recast (and redesigned) later in the MCU and its female lead has yet to reappear, its biggest contributions to the MCU are William Hurt's Thunderbolt Ross and Tim Roth's Abomination; both have their moments, but neither are key players in the MCU. Again, Incredible Hulk isn't necessarily a bad movie, but it feels much more of a piece with the films of the pre-MCU superhero burst than its later counterparts, and that lands it in the bottom of the rankings.
30. Iron Man 2 (2010)
The direct follow-up to the first MCU movie is, as a film, a mess. Like many of the more problematic MCU films, it is overstuffed; it tries to do too much, and as a result, its tone swings wildly as it struggles to decide what kind of story it's telling (a story about the complicated legacies of fathers, a half-hearted 'Demon in a Bottle' adaption, an early examination of the role of government oversight in superhero activity). It also features one of the more embarrassing sequences in the entire MCU, as Tony Stark drunkenly DJs his birthday party wearing the Iron Man armor. Iron Man 2 ultimately rises slightly above Incredible Hulk in this ranking thanks to some notable contributions it makes to the larger MCU narrative, including the introduction of Don Cheadle as the new Jim Rhodes/War Machine and Scarlet Johansson's Black Widow (and even then, Widow is used for awkward titillation here way more than in later appearances, another knock on the film).
29. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Featuring problems that would plague even some of the best MCU films (including a noisy CGI-heavy climax and an underwhelming central villain), Thor: The Dark World has received something of a critical re-evaluation thanks to the role it played in Avengers: Endgame, which helped add some retroactive emotional weight to the movie. But even before that, Tom Hiddelston's nuanced and layered performance as Loki at least helps the movie overcome an underwhelming antagonist in Christopher Eccleston's Malekith and an underserved reversal of the first film's 'fish out of water' narrative to elevate this out of the lowest ranks. Without The Dark World's presentation of Loki, it's doubtful we'd have gotten the stellar Loki streaming series, and that alone kicks the movie up a couple spots.
28. Black Widow (2021)
Black Widow unfortunately gets bogged down by the weight of expectations and the circumstances surrounding its release. Despite being introduced early in the MCU and becoming one of its foundational characters, it took eleven years for Black Widow to receive a solo film. And then, the release of the movie was consistently delayed by the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The end result is a film positioned to be something bigger — the first Black Widow solo movie, finally!, the first MCU film since the pandemic! — than the film itself can support (which is a perfectly fine but largely routine action-adventure film with some MCU-touches). Release circumstances aside, it is ultimately the way Black Widow uses one of its villains (co-opting a unique comic book villain in Taskmaster and doing something not-uninteresting but far removed from the comic book origins with it) and the way, despite the long wait, the movie ultimately feels less concerned with celebrating a foundational MCU character and more concerned with setting up a new Black Widow that overpowers some of its stronger moments.
27. Eternals (2021)
Eternals is fundamentally flawed in some key ways. It's meandering and overly-long, with another dud of a villain in Kro and the Deviants, and suffers under the weight of obligatory CGI action, (though the big fight at the end which basically reads like a 'Superman vs. the Justice League' battle, is fun). But it deserves some credit for being one of the few MCU films to represent some measure of vision on the part of its director (Oscar winner Chloe Zhao). Too often in the MCU the particular style of a given film's director is sanded down in service of the broader needs of the larger narrative whole, but Zhao manages to turn in a film which, for all its flaws, seems like it's trying to say something distinct and do so in a visually unique and specific way. It is at its best when it gets to set aside its comic book movie trappings and be somewhat lyrical and ruminative for a spell. Unfortunately, those moments are too few to lift it out of the bottom tier of MCU films.
26. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
The second Avengers film is in many ways a harbinger of things to come in ways both good and bad. It contains some terrific individual sequences, including the Hulk/Iron Man fight, the South Korea train rescue, and the whole business with Vision casually lifting Thor's hammer, a delightfully elegant way to prove to audiences the newly-introduced Vision is a Good Guy that was seeded earlier in the film. It also avoids the MCU villain trap, with James Spader's Ultron striking the right balance between hammy and menacing. Yet like many films to follow it, Age of Ultron suffers from trying to serve too many masters. It has good parts but the whole is marred by the film spending too much time looking ahead and around itself, tying in to the Agents of SHIELD TV show, introducing a plethora of new characters, and seeding future MCU plotlines, something best captured by the somewhat infamous scene in which the movie grinds to a halt so Thor can take a mystical bath and have cryptic visions of things to come. There's plenty to like here, but the parts don't quite add up to a satisfying whole.
25. Ant-Man (2015)
Like Black Widow, Ant-Man is somewhat unfairly judged for events outside its control, as it's hard not to wonder what director Edgar Wright's take on the film would have been. What we got is still plenty enjoyable, anchored by a strong turn from the effortlessly charismatic Paul Rudd in the title role. Like many films in this middle stretch of MCU offerings, it suffers a weak villain (with Darren Cross' Yellowjacket doing little more than twirling his mustache through the course of the movie), and it fails to offer much of a valid explanation for sidelining Evangeline Lily's Hope Van Dyne until the sequel. Still, this is far more entertaining than most comic book fans ever could have expected an Ant-Man movie to be.
24. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
⅔ of a good movie, with the first two strong acts featuring some magnificent displays of martial arts, a star-making turn from Simu Liu as the begrudging and conflicted Shang-Chi, and a legitimately surprising and funny reprisal of Ben Kingsley's Iron Man 3 character. Unfortunately, all of that gets undercut by a third act which pushes all the interesting things in the movie aside for a standard CGI slugfest finale featuring mystical dragons and weird dark energy bat creatures. One of the more recently-released MCU films, this may well rise in the rankings as Shang-Chi makes feature appearances and carves out a role for himself in the post-Avengers universe, but for now, it stands as a middling entry.
23. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
This is perhaps the hardest film on this list to rank. The central plot running through the film is terrible: Zemo's scheme is overly-complicated and reliant on factors outside his control to succeed (with the later Falcon and the Winter Soldier streaming series' portrayal of Zemo more or less retconning out this Zemo, which isn't this film's fault, but makes rewatching it a little more awkward), the conflict between Iron Man and Captain America is forced, and like Age of Ultron, it takes periodic detours to setup new characters or tease future plotlines out of the blue. Yet for all that, some of the individual sequences represent some of the best comic book action ever to be put on film, from the spectacular Cap/Bucky escape/chase sequence in the first act to the rightly-celebrated hero-on-hero battle at the airport to the brutal Cap-Tony-Bucky showdown at the end (getting them all into that tube and ready to fight may have been ham-fisted, but the resulting action sequence is top-notch). The main arc of the movie is such a jumbled mess I can't move this out of the bottom third, but if anyone loves, in a vacuum, the various action sequences enough to rank it higher, I wouldn't begrudge them that.
22. Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)
On the one hand, this second solo outing from Tom Holland as Spider-Man drops Peter Parker into Europe for most of the film, and Spidey stories outside the confines of his friendly neighborhood in any medium are always a bit tricky to pull off. Far From Home also furthers the Tony Stark-ification of the MCU's Spider-Man, literally anointing Peter Tony's heir apparent and giving him access to some wild Stark Tech that moves the character far afield of his hardscrabble roots. On the other hand, it's a genuinely funny movie despite the grief hanging over it, and features perhaps the best adaptation of a comic book villain to film in Mysterio. By recasting the disgruntled special effects man of the comics as a disgruntled Tony Stark wannabe running a deeply elaborate con on the world, it updates the character for its setting while staying true to the spirit of the original, with some of the resultant illusions used to torment Spider-Man in the movie being ripped from the pages of old comic books, a delightful thing to see.
21. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)
Like many of the films in the MCU's beleaguered Phase Four, this Doctor Strange sequel is a mixed bag, with things both good and bad. It is at its best when fan favorite director Sam Raimi gets to cut loose and bring his twisted horror sensibilities to bear (outside of Chloe Zhao's Eternals, this is perhaps the most director-driven film in the MCU, and it is the better for it), with the some visual sequences that put the first Doctor Strange film's to shame (the trip through the multiverse and the music fight in particular are visual standouts). The much-ballyhooed sequence in the middle of the film involving the alternate reality Illuminati is ultimately superfluous to the movie, but nevertheless fun in a geeky, comic book way (and really, isn't that what a lot of us are at this movie for?). But Multiverse of Madness is ultimately let down by an ill-advised heel turn for Wanda Maximoff, turning her from a troubled, grieving mother into the movie's cliché Big Bad. It's a plot turn lifted directly from an equally ill-advised comic book story, and like that story, hopefully the cinematic Scarlet Witch will return to redeem herself. But for now, her turn mars an otherwise stylistically fun film.
20. Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)
Comedy is a funny thing, and a hard thing to do in a way that is universally appreciated. While director Taika Waititi seemed to crack the code with the dark yet funny Thor: Ragnarok, his follow-up to that film was met with more mixed reviews. There's certainly plenty to like here, including the return of Natalie Portman as Jane Foster, given more to do as the Mighty Thor, and a creepy-ass turn from Christian Bale as the demented villain Gor the God Butcher. But much of the outsized comedy in Love and Thunder is more hit-or-miss than its predecessor (especially the divisive Omnipotent City sequence), and the film manages to feel both too long and not long enough at the same time. Like Shang-Chi though, this is a recent entry into the MCU canon, and may well age better as it settles in.
Read our full thoughts on this film with our Thor: Love and Thunder review.
19. Doctor Strange (2016)
It's somewhat glib to say that Doctor Strange is simply a rehashing of 2008's Iron Man, but there's some truth to that. Both feature an arrogant, quippy protagonist who is forced to learn humility in the first act and spends the second act working to temper that newfound humility into heroism via new intellectual pursuits before fighting a "dark mirror" antagonist in the final act. What sets Doctor Strange apart from its thematic predecessor are some stunning visual sequences depicting the scale and scope of the mystical side of the MCU, getting its proper introduction in the movie, as well as a stronger climax that features the newly empowered and (somewhat) humbled Strange defeating the Big Bad with his smarts more so than big splashy effects (though there's still plenty of those).
18. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023)
On first watch, the edges of the plot are a little shaggy and there's some questions about character movements and their geographic locations in space relative to one another which get obscured by the trippy visuals and whacky supporting characters. The strength and the weakness of the Quantum Realm as a setting is that it doesn't make much sense. But the movie definitely gets a charge out of the juxtaposition between the coolly efficient, born-to-conquer Kang and the everyman 'just talks to ants' Ant-Man. Like most latter period MCU movies, it is both elevated by its connections to the now-sprawling MCU narrative and also somewhat let down by its need to set up the next thing, create a feeling of incompleteness. But thanks to the centering of the extended Lang/Pym/Van Dyne family as the emotional core of the story, this still feel like the next installment in the Ant-Man series as much as the kickoff to the latest MCU phase.
17. Iron Man (2008)
Not surprisingly, the film which kicked off the MCU 15 years ago is a product of its time. An origin story — as many filmmakers did and still do believe all first films in an intended superhero saga must be — it has more in common with Batman Begins than many of the sequels its success spawned. It is also, in hindsight, a surprisingly low-key affair, with just a couple of standout action sequences (including a lackluster final battle which set a standard for MCU villains who go out with more of a whimper than a bang). But where it really shines is its presentation of Tony Stark, and Robert Downey Jr.'s defining performance thereof. While not a direct lift of any one particular comic book presentation of Tony Stark, the movie Tony nevertheless feels right, almost from the moment he first appears on screen, and the film smartly keeps him at the center of the story as he works to mold his arrogance into a force for good. Far more than any of the spectacle, Iron Man is at its best in its middle sequences, as a boy spends time playing with his toys, inventing a new technology, learning how to be a hero.
16. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
Generally speaking, I tend to enjoy second films more than first films, as with the origin story out of the way, the second film in a series lets us spend more time with the characters in full superhero bloom. That's especially true of this movie, which widens the world of the first Ant-Man, most notably by giving Evangeline Lily's Wasp a title role and a chance to be more active in the plot. The tendency in sequels to go bigger (in at least one case, literally) pays off here as well, with a variety of different villains of different scales (from Randall Parks' nagging FBI agent to Walter Goggins' gangster to Laurence Fishburne's well-meaning but flawed scientist) leading to different levels of conflict and culminating in a madcap climax as all the various threads come together.
15. Thor (2011)
Often overshadowed by both its kludgy direct sequel and the more overtly comedic third and fourth films, Thor is better than its reputation. Its biggest problem is the decision to distractingly dye Chris Hemsworth's eyebrows blond. Get past that, and what remains is a film both epic and personal, baroque and down-to-Earth, one which effectively bridges the gap between the otherworldly Asgard and Earth. The first MCU film to broaden the scope of the narrative beyond Earth (and relatively mundane conflicts), Thor also effectively sets the stage for things like Guardians of the Galaxy and Infinity War by presenting its more outlandish, comic book-y elements in a way that both takes them seriously but not too seriously, which accepts them for what they are but also isn't afraid to laugh with them at the same time. Supported by a foundational performance from Tom Hiddleston as Loki, arguably the most successful villain of the MCU, and a booming score from Patrick Doyle filled with grandeur, Thor is perhaps the most underrated MCU film.
14. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)
At the core of this follow-up to the smash hit Black Panther is a searing examination of grief and how the grieving respond to it, triggered by the real world death of Chadwick Boseman and the corresponding in-universe death of T'Challa, as his remaining family members and his nation attempt to honor his memory and chart a new course for Wakanda (while the real-world filmmakers attempt to do the same). It also continues the first film's ongoing conversation about the legacy of imperialism and the responsibilities of the governors to the governed. The movie's themes are occasionally overwhelmed by the needs of the larger MCU, as the film also serves as a vehicle to introduce new characters and set up future storylines that too often bog it down (Ironheart didn't really need to be in this movie, as intriguing a character as she is, nor did Julie Louis Dreyfus' Val, as routinely delightful as she is). But the emotional core, along with a star-making turn from Tenoch Huerta as Namor and a powerful award-winning supporting performance from Angela Bassett, are ultimately enough to carry the film.
Read our full thoughts on the film with our Black Panther: Wakanda Forever review.
13. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
The first solo outing for the Marvel/Sony Tom Holland Spider-Man (after making his debut in Captain America: Civil War), Spider-Man: Homecoming is the quietest and most locally-focused of the Holland movies, the closest that iteration of the character ever gets to being a "friendly-neighborhood Spider-Man" on film, something which is baked into the movie's themes and Peter Parker's character arc. It results in a fun, relatively self-contained movie with refreshingly moderate stakes — there's an action-packed climax, of course, but it's less "shut down the beam of energy while fighting back an alien horde to save the planet" and more "stop the villain's scheme and not endanger a bunch of people in the process". The decision to eschew retelling Spider-Man's origin (after doing so twice already with the previous two Spider-Men) is smart, as it leaves more room to get to know the new Spider-Man as Spider-Man, and Michael Keaton turns in a subtly menacing performance as the Vulture, showing just how scary a villain who "just" flies can be.
12. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Director James Gunn's first Guardians film is a proof of concept for the wilder, more outlandish MCU. After widening the world of the MCU beyond Earth in the first Thor film, Guardians of the Galaxy takes place almost entirely offworld, and tested whether audiences would accept the more cosmic side of Marvel comics in the films. The resounding success of the film opened the door for things like Avengers: Infinity War and Captain Marvel (to say nothing of two more Guardians films and a holiday special). Overcoming perhaps the blandest of the MCU's bland villains in the wasted Lee Pace's Ronan the Accuser thanks to the crackling chemistry of the titular Guardians as they come together for the first time, and buoyed by vocal performances from Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel which made a talking raccoon and a talking tree fan favorites, Guardians of the Galaxy proves that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is capable of truly telling a universe of stories.
11. Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
In much the same way Guardians of the Galaxy opened the door to cosmic storytelling in the MCU, the third film in the Tom Holland Spider-Man series lays the groundwork for the next phase of storytelling expansion, alternate realities. Between the large presence of Doctor Strange and the onslaught of alternate reality characters, it is perhaps the least traditionally Spider-Man-y movie of the trilogy, but the film is careful to keep Tom Holland's Spider-Man grounded at the center of the story amidst all the multiversal sturm-und-drang, as Peter is forced to deal with some of his most potent losses yet over the course of the story (losing even when he wins is very Spider-Man). I won't begrudge anyone who complains that the onslaught of villains culled from the previous Spider-Man film franchises along with the return of Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield as their own versions of Peter Parker is just shallow fan service, but the fact remains that I am a fan, and I can't deny the charge that comes from seeing Alfred Molina's tragically-noble Doc Ock or Willem Dafore's cackling, menacing Green Goblin once again, or in seeing the trio of Spider-Man grappling with the great responsibilities that come with their great power.
10. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Perhaps no MCU director is better matched to their material than The Rocketeer director Joe Johnston helming Captain America's inaugural film, near-total period piece set during World War II. While the film's insistence on making a very clear distinction between Hydra and the Nazi remains maddening unnecessary and Hugo Weaving's Red Skull is underserved, the rest of the film is a fantastic showcase for the MCU's depiction of Captain America via a zippy adventure film that feels at times like it could have played as a serial in the '40s. It also features a scene which, across the entire MCU, best encapsulates a single character's characterization in one moment, as the pre-transformation Steve Rogers throws himself on what he believes is a live grenade to save everyone around him, even as the theoretically superior candidates for the super-soldier process dive away to save themselves. In one moment, it tells you everything you need to know about Steve Rogers; that the rest of the film is so much fun is just icing on the cake.
9. Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 (2017)
With the band assembled in the first film, Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 lets the ensemble cook from the outset, as the question of Star-Lord's parentage, raised in the first film, becomes the driving force of the second one, as Kurt Russell, in a winking performance as a former 70s era cosmic heartthrob who literally spread his speed throughout the galaxy, emerges as both Star-Lord's father and the ultimate villain of the movie. Further broadening the cosmic tableau of the MCU while shifting Nebula from antagonist to reluctant ally, Guardians 2 features one of the best climaxes in the MCU involving 70s pop music and Mary Poppins references as Star-Lord literally punches his daddy issues while wearing Pac-Man armor. All in all, Guardians 2 takes the sense of scale and fun of the first film and dials it all up several notches to entertaining effect.
8. Captain Marvel (2019)
It took the MCU entirely too long to put a female character at the center of a film, and when it finally did so, the filmmakers leaned into its status as such, telling a fist-pumping tale of female empowerment overcoming the restraints put on it by male figures. Captain Marvel's retro 90s setting also helps expand the historical backstory of the MCU, giving a pre-eyepatch Nick Fury his largest role in a MCU film yet (and a few appreciative chuckles of recognition from those of us watching who grew up in the '90s), while it smartly adapts some of the onerous Captain Marvel comic book backstory involving the alien Kree and the Skrulls in a way that both makes sense to a wider audience while also staying true to the spirit of the original stories.
7. Iron Man 3 (2013)
Though Tony Stark's presence continued to loom large in the MCU well after this film, it's kind of wild to realize that it's been ten years since the Iron Man trilogy concluded. It's also wild how good this movie is, considering how rarely the third film in a trilogy ends up being the best of the lot. Spinning out of the events of the first Avengers movie, Iron Man 3 is about post-traumatic stress in the same way Wakanda Forever is about grief. It is a film which succeeds by zagging when you expect it to zig: Tony spends the majority of the movie without a fully functioning Iron Man suit, and its Big Bad, the Mandarin, is ultimately revealed to be a fraud, a straw man in service to the real villain of the piece. That zagging can be off-putting at first for fans expecting the final film in the series to feature a more traditional showdown between Iron Man and his #1 comic book nemesis, but this is an immensely rewatchable film, anchored by Robert Downey Jr.'s performance as Tony learns to overcome his fear and anxiety by shedding his armor instead of embracing it. The story of Tony Stark doesn't end here, but if it had, it would have been an eminently satisfying conclusion.
6. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Avengers: Endgame is a stunning achievement, a celebration of a decade plus of interconnected filmmaking that manages to both showcase the original Avengers cast and feature nearly every hero who's ever appeared in a MCU film to date. Granted, it's clunky in places: that 'A-Force' sequence in the climax is embarrassingly-pandering, especially coming in the wake of Captain Marvel (which did female empowerment better), the final fate of Steve Rogers is less triumphant and more blatantly out-of-character, and it establishes a new status quo in 'the Blip' with ramifications for the future of the MCU that it doesn't seem to fully grasp. But the mid-movie time heist is both a celebration of the MCU's past and a ton of fun, and it leads to a climax that is a stunning achievement of superhero cinema, packed with several movies worth of fist-pumping, 'eff yeah!' moments galore, from Cap lifting Thor's hammer to "Avengers Assemble" to the ad-libbed "I am Iron Man" that brings the whole MCU at that time full circle. If, in the end, it leaves the MCU in a questionable place, well, that's a problem for future stories. The story Avengers Endgame is telling is, in many ways, a dream come true for fans.
5. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
While I will happily extoll the overlooked virtues of the first Thor film, the best thing to happen to the character is the realization that Chris Hemsworth's Thor works better when he gets to be funny and/or have funny things happening around him. Thor: Ragnarok isn't exactly a comedy — there's still plenty of dark happenings in it, from the death of Odin to, you know, the complete obliteration of the physical realm of Asgard as suggested by its title — but it's the first Thor film to firmly plant its tongue in its cheek, and take a bit of the piss out of the occasionally-stuffy Thor. Ragnarok sags a bit in the middle; the desire to give Idris Elba's Heimdall more to do is commendable give Elba's talent, but the film still seems to grind to a halt whenever it cuts back to Heimdall's cat-and-mouse chase with Hela and the Executioner. That aside, the movie is still tremendously fun and rewatchable, giving Thor an actual character arc (something The Dark World wasn't able to accomplish) and recontextualizing him in a way that enables him to remain a dominant player in the future of the MCU.
4. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Avengers: Infinity War is, for all intents and purposes, a comic book crossover story come to life. Jam-packed with characters from across all facets of the MCU, from the earthbound Avengers to the mystical Doctor Strange to the cosmic Guardians of the Galaxy, that it manages to tell a cohesive story at all given the plethora of characters it has to service is an achievement. That it manages to tell a cohesive story that is also this entertaining is astounding. It does so by smartly centering its villain as the protagonist of the film: Infinity War is ultimately Thanos' story. He is the character on a journey, driving the action, who emerges on the other side of it a changed person. That journey gives the movie a solid spine that keeps all the wild action and mix of characters from spinning out of control, resulting in a stunning achievement of large scale action and ensemble storytelling, culminating in one of the most jaw-dropping cliffhanger endings in film history. We all knew the dusted characters would come back somehow, but it was still genuinely surprising to see the MCU go there.
3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
While this movie is often lauded for the way it tells a MCU story filtered through the style and tropes of 70s conspiracy thrillers, it works as much for that as for, like the first film, being a character study of Captain America. Cap's "I can do this all day" mantra became so repeated that by Avengers Endgame, the MCU itself was poking fun at it. But this movie underscores the fundamental truth of it, that Cap's determination extends beyond taking punches and winning fights to believing in the people around him, as the relationship between Cap and Bucky — specifically, Cap's refusal to give up on his best friend, returned from seeming death in the first Captain America movie as a brainwashed cyborg assassin — is what makes this movie really sing. Couple that with some of the most visceral and technically intense action sequences in the MCU, from the elevator fight to Winter Soldier's highway attack to Falcon's high-flying aerial assaults, and there's more to what makes this film one of the best entries in the MCU beyond its aping of a specific cinematic style.
2. Black Panther (2018)
The only MCU film to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture to date, Black Panther is a sublime synthesis of superhero action and racial politics, fully introducing the hidden African nation of Wakanda to the MCU and then immediately beginning to question the price of its success for the rest of the world. It features a star-making turn in Chadwick Boseman's presentation of the title character, and in Michael B. Jordan's Erik Killmonger, it presents arguably the most compelling villain in all of the MCU, one who is the best kind of antagonist, someone whose goals are well-meaning even as their methods of achieving them are not. Shortly after release, Black Panther became a global phenomenon, electrifying and engaging audiences with good reason. It remains one of the most captivating, thematically rich, and thought-provoking films in the MCU.
1. The Avengers (2012)
Certainly, the MCU — and the Avengers films specifically — would go much bigger after this. In hindsight, the first Avengers' movie's core cast of six heroes fighting a climactic battle to save New York City is almost quaint compared to the franchise's later dalliances with all-star casts and galaxy and reality-spanning conflicts. But it's difficult to undersell just how uncertain the whole MCU endeavor was prior to The Avengers. This is what those early films were leading to, the thing we'd all been excited for since Nick Fury first broached the concept of a Marvel cinematic universe. If Avengers didn't work…that may well have been the end, the MCU going down as an ultimately failed experiment.
But The Avengers works exceedingly well. Director Joss Whedon is a problematic figure (and even just in the context of the MCU, he never matches what he achieves here), but he absolutely nails this film. Using Loki as the villain is both a nod to the Avengers comic book origins but also a smart move, given Tom Hiddleston's status as the MCU's best villain at that point (and arguably at any point until Erik Killmonger sauntered into our lives). Whedon assembles the team gradually over the film's first act in a way that clearly defines each character for the audience before smashing them all against each other in the second act. Then, in the film's final act, he pulls off a remarkable achievement of superhero action filmmaking, one which sets the standard for all subsequent MCU films. The "beam of light firing into the sky" and massive devastation would eventually be re-used (in the MCU and elsewhere) to the point of parody, but Whedon is careful to make the newly-formed Avengers' mission about saving bystanders as much as stopping the villain, and in the course of shutting down that skybound beam of light, he stages the action in a way that both showcases the individual characters while also showing them working together as a team in a way no superhero film prior had been able to accomplish.
The Avengers was successful enough to ensure the MCU would continue. And as it did so, it got bigger, louder, its characters and its action more diverse, more intense, more grand. But for all that, The Avengers remains a near-perfect superhero film, the realization of an idea that seems obvious in hindsight but whose success was never assured.
The Avengers made the MCU happen, and it stands as its greatest achievement.
Read Popverse Deputy Editor Tiffany Babb's detailed thoughts on The Avengers, 10 years later.
Want to watch them all? Make sure you use our how to watch MCU movies in order guide.