With his years of experience, Rotten Tomatoes-certified film critic and Film Critics Guild member Akhil Arora assesses and ranks every Marvel Studios superhero film ever.
A juggernaut, debates about “cinema”, and entire cottage industries associated with its rise. The Marvel Cinematic Universe—a shared world of superhero stories on the big screen, drawn off decades-old comic books—took over and dominated pop culture conversation during its heyday in the 2010s. The MCU, as it’s popularly known, boasts four entries in the top 10 highest-grossing films of all time. Collectively, the movies have made a combined $30 billion in box office receipts alone. Licensing, merchandising, theme parks, and everything else are separate. It’s easily the biggest franchise of all time—no question about it.
Sure, Marvel’s cultural relevance might have waned in recent years—each new chapter still generates hundreds of millions of dollars—primarily thanks to the dwindling creative quality and a string of failures. Not that there weren’t duds before. In 2012, The Avengers was a make-or-break moment for a sputtering franchise. But even when there were some big misses, successes elsewhere ensured it was nothing more than a bumpy ride. In the past few years, though, a narrative has slowly been established that Marvel is on a downturn. And for good reason, given the ratio of good to bad films now tilts in the wrong direction.
You can feel that in my list below. With 15 years of experience, multiple rewatches, and over 230 hours of research, here’s my ranking—from worst to best—of all 33 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, including this week’s release of The Marvels.
Jonathan Majors is great, but his Kang suffers in a film that looks fake and struggles to sketch an arc for its growing ensemble.
The Incredible Hulk
Leaving behind the thoughtful approach of Ang Lee, the Hulk reboot satisfied itself with mindless action and produced a forgettable entry that gets worse the longer it goes on.
Oscar-winning filmmaker Chloé Zhao bites off more than she can chew with this overlong visually spectacular epoch-spanning saga—and is ultimately crushed.
Taika Waititi throws everything at the wall—it inelegantly switches from being a self-aware comedy to a poignant romance, from grim tragedy to a boisterous adventure—in this madcap rush that underuses everyone.
Florence Pugh is the only victory for this vanilla movie that acts as Scarlett Johansson’s MCU farewell, as it’s too afraid to ever be more and wastes the opportunity provided by Olga Kurylenko’s Taskmaster.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
A quiet middle can’t save this mess from running helter-skelter, with the characters regressing rather than growing, primarily Tony Stark, who gave birth to two characters so dour—Ultron and Vision—that they put you to sleep immediately.
Its climactic emotional punch is drowned in what is otherwise a loud, distracted, and obnoxious sequel. In trying to be a bigger version of its previous self, it fell into standard Marvel trappings: over-stuffed and busy setting up the third chapter.
It’s like the director Kenneth Branagh enjoyed bringing over his Shakespearean days to a superhero movie, making it awkwardly hilarious. Add to it an uninteresting female lead, Lord of the Rings costume knockoffs, and a villain puppet with a hollowed-out face.
Iron Man 2
Doing away with what made the first film work, the sequel got bigger and worse. Unbelievable that it was made by the same guy behind the original (Jon Favreau), as the film was busier introducing new characters (Black Widow and War Machine) than it was in its own tale.
Thor: The Dark World
The inventive climactic sequence idea and the scene-stealing Tom Hiddleston, who brought such spark to Loki just a year ago in The Avengers, couldn’t save what was a perpetually muddy-grey yawnfest about Thor saving the universe, involving a soulless villain and the start of Thor’s obsession with glowing rocks.
Doomed to mediocrity thanks to writing that never quite develops its themes and by keeping the protagonist’s personality away from her. The quick-firing banter between Nick Fury and Carol Danvers can only take you so far.
A bunch of inventive action set-pieces can’t save this sequel that doesn’t give itself enough time to properly examine the emotional fallout of the abrupt end of Peter Parker and Tony Stark’s pseudo-father-son relationship.
Morbid, maudlin, and flippant at the same time—but also infectious and full of spirit. James Gunn is hooked on a feeling and high on believing, but his overstuffed movie occasionally gets out of hand.
A mournful mood (brought about by T-Challa and Chadwick Boseman’s death) and a rip-roaring antagonist (Tenoch Huerta Mejía’s Namor) can’t paper over the cracks elsewhere. Feels as though it was made because the legacy of Black Panther needed to be continued, not because those making it were sparking with ideas.
Spurts of enjoyable banter between the trio can‘t hide the fact this there’s alarmingly little dramatic material here to make it a substantial sequel.
Super lightweight and frivolous at times, this is a short film-length plot stretched into a feature film by throwing obstructions into the protagonists’ path. Not much new depth to any of the characters.
Iron Man 3
Turning the Mandarin into a puppet is one of the boldest things Marvel has allowed, and it helps the film rise above Marvel’s normally useless villains. But the rest of the bloat drags it down, with two well-designed action set-pieces—the first involving the president’s aeroplane, and the second with all the different Iron Man suits—unable to lift it higher.
The tragedy of being Peter Parker fails to shine amidst a ludicrous setup and the diminishing returns of mining past Spider-Man movies. The universe isn’t expanding; it’s merely collapsing in on itself.
Lost in its multiverse shenanigans and forgets that great stories are ultimately about people and their relationships. Sam Raimi delivers what is, in some ways, Marvel’s wackiest movie in years—but he can’t hide its flaws.
Captain America: The First Avenger
Earnest and formulaic, there was a simplicity in its viewpoint of good and evil as white and black with no shades of grey. Still, more or less a solid start for the most self-righteous of the Avengers.
Inventive visually dazzling action sequences, powered by its magical conceit, help elevate this at-times cookie-cutter experience that feels very new but is let down by its underdeveloped supporting characters.
Tony Leung’s raw charisma, Michelle Yeoh’s magnetism, and commitment to authenticity lift a tad-vanilla origin story with a strong emotional core.
Captain America: Civil War
Falls apart quite quickly if you think about its premise, but in the moment, it’s pretty gripping and new political territory for a franchise that is essentially about escapism and wish fulfilment.
Its small scale works in its favour, with the shrinking-driven humour unlike anything in the Marvel universe then. It helps that it never takes itself seriously, though it doesn’t give Michael Douglas enough to do.
Guardians of the Galaxy
The fact the Guardians don’t like each other powers the film’s humour engine, and that they are forced to work together to save the world just makes it better. Bolstered by a snappy soundtrack and oddball characters, Marvel’s first all-cosmic risk pays off.
Exuberant and meaningful coming-of-age tale in which the supposed hero creates all his own problems. Instead of saying it as a fancy dialogue, this Spidey reboot shows how great power brings great responsibility.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Possibly the most political Marvel film yet, in which a soldier who always follows orders discovers his employers are the new villains. Add to that a relatable emotional core and a bunch of smartly directed action scenes.
Taika Waititi breathed new life into the most beleaguered of Marvel heroes with a ridiculously self-aware film that’s a joy from start to finish.
A mighty gamble—to bring everyone together after half a dozen movies, most of which were so-so, seemed like a foolish idea—that worked like a marvel. Joss Whedon’s writing added banter between the heroes, making for the perfect first group outing.
The film that started it all is up there with Marvel’s best efforts. Lean, mean, and not busy in setting up future entries, it helps that Tony Stark has bucketloads of fun in becoming Iron Man.
Thanks to Michael B. Jordan’s scene-stealing villain, a nuanced plot that carried weight, and an audio-visual landscape hitherto unseen in the MCU, the introduction to the Afrofuturistic Wakanda is a sheer delight.
With real gravitas and a script that ensures every character’s idiosyncrasies, mannerisms, and behaviours get a glimpse, this mega team-up plays like a greatest-hits record. Sombre and thoughtful at times, it has plenty of laughs and epic action moments, and neatly brings together its large ensemble while telling a cohesive story.
Akin to three movies in one—a meditative reflection on grief and loss, a zinger-filled middle, and a final third with bucket-loads of fan service—the cap to Marvel’s Infinity Saga needs three hours to honour everything it packs in and earns its supersized runtime.