The entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, ranked
Even the studio’s missteps are eminently watchable. But some are more watchable than others.
10 Films. 5 One-Shots. 2 TV Shows. 1 List.
With its brand new TV series, Daredevil, hitting Netflix in April and Avengers: Age Of Ultron premiering in May, this is the perfect time to take stock of the expansive Marvel Cinematic Universe, which so far has included 10 superhero films, two spy TV shows, and five character-based short films called “one shots,” which were released as DVD extras. The best thing about the MCU is that all this stuff takes place in a “shared universe,” meaning characters from one series can pop up in another (and they often do), and events from one film can affect the whole continuity.
Really the hardest thing about ranking the MCU is that Marvel doesn’t really make bad stuff—even the studio’s missteps are eminently watchable. And the flipside is that, with one or two exceptions, almost all of these films have some pretty big flaws as well, particularly with villains and third acts. So yes, I struggled quite a bit to compare the apples and oranges of a film with a weak climax but a great protagonist to a film with a lot of personality but a lame villain. But after hours of debate (and a whole lot of rewatching), I managed to rank all 17 MCU properties. Feel free to let me know why I’m wrong in the comments.
1.Captain America: The Winter Soldier 
While it never quite reaches the heights of The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the strongest overall film in the MCU. The action sequences are fantastic, Chris Evans is wonderfully charismatic as Steve Rogers, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow gets a satisfying arc (which I wrote about here), and the film even raise some interesting thematic questions about security in the modern age (it's basically a 1970s political thriller in a post-Patriot Act world). Captain America could’ve easily felt like an awkward relic in the present day, but by leaning into the idea of Steve as a man out of time, Marvel managed to craft a smart, fun, tense blockbuster that blew me out of the water.
2.The Avengers 
If I’m being totally honest, the first half of The Avengers is a little bit of a mess (albeit a fun one), but once the team is reluctantly brought together on a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier, the film kicks into high gear. Writer/director Joss Whedon balances kickass action sequences with witty banter and strong character beats, plus he single-handedly turned Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Black Widow into two of the most fascinating players in the MCU. The climactic battle of New York is easily the best thing Marvel has ever done and had the first half of the film been just a little tighter, Avengers probably would have topped my list.
3.Iron Man 3 
This film proved remarkably divisive, particularly because of the way it took liberties with the source material, but it’s easily the strongest of the Iron Man trilogy. Struggling with PTSD after the events of The Avengers, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has to relearn how to be a hero—often without the help of his Iron Man suits. Iron Man 3 is far from a flawless film, but it’s got enough plot twists and character beats (Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts really comes into her own) to patch over the weaker elements And even if none of the villains make much sense, it’s still a satisfying, high-stakes conclusion to Tony’s solo arc.
4. Captain America: The First Avenger 
The first hour of this film is literally perfect. To give some context for Cap’s patriotism, the film goes retro and explores his World War II origins. The first Captain America film proved the MCU could handle earnest heroism as well as it handles Iron Man-flavored cynicism. (Steve jumping on a dummy grenade to save those around him remains one of the studio’s iconic images.) Steve is an underdog with the heart of a hero who becomes a hero with a heart of an underdog, and the film is strongest when it explores that throughline. Sadly, the whole thing falls apart in a final act full of boring montages and ill-defined villains. That said, the very last scene—in which Steve wakes up in present day—is so heartbreaking and exhilarating it almost saves the whole film.
5. All Hail The King [2014 One-Shot]
The first one-shot on my list is also the perfect example of why these short films should exist. The 14-minute short is basically just an excuse for Sir Ben Kingsley to show off the masterful acting skills he put on display in Iron Man 3. It’s funny, tense, and totally bizarre. Plus there’s a bonus reveal that’s as delightful as any cinematic post-credits sting.
6. Guardians Of The Galaxy 
Most consider this one of the strongest in the MCU pantheon, if not the studio’s best film. Personally, however, I think it’s vastly overrated (and for a while it was even lower on my list). Guardians is enjoyable and snappy, but I’m not sure it’s nearly as funny as it should be. It shares the usual MCU problems of a lame villain and a weak third act, but my biggest issue is that while Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is a charming presence, he makes a rather weak protagonist (he has very little in the way of a character arc). Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) are both infinitely more interesting and a braver film would have centered on one of them. I’ll admit Guardians has a lot of style, but it could have used a tad more substance underneath. (The trailer, however, is flawless.)
7. Thor 
I imagine listing Thor this high will also be somewhat controversial, but I have a soft spot in my heart for this strange little film. I appreciate that it feels decidedly different than the rest of the MCU in terms of scale. It starts out as a massive space opera set in the ridiculous-looking Asgard and then transitions into a tiny fish-out-of-water comedy in small town New Mexico. But moreso than perhaps any other MCU film, Thor has a crystal clear arc for its central hero (played by Chris Hemsworth). The bold, brash warrior prince must learn humility to earn his place in Asgard. Banished to Earth, he finally begins to understand compassion thanks to the humans he once considered inferior (particularly Natalie Portman's Jane Foster), and it’s both satisfying and moving to watch Thor grow up. Yes, the third act is weak, the endless Dutch angles make no sense, and Loki doesn’t quite work as a character yet, but I appreciate how funny, weird, and sweet this one is. (And hey, just be glad I didn’t rank it above Guardians.)
8. Iron Man 
This film gets major props for launching the MCU back when the idea of a shared cinematic universe was as ridiculous as the idea of more Star Wars films. Robert Downey Jr. is pitch perfect as Tony Stark, and he and director Jon Favreau deserve endless credit for crafting a funny, snarky, energetic blockbuster that feels like nothing that came before it. But now that the MCU has moved on to bigger and better things, Iron Man looks a bit boring in retrospect. It deserves major kudos for laying the foundation, but the stuff built on top of it is just a little stronger.
9. Agent Carter [2015 TV Show]
I’ve written before about some of my frustrations with ABC’s Captain America spin-off, but overall there is just so much to love about this sleek, retro miniseries that (along with the one-shot that inspired it) remains the only female-driven project in the entire MCU. Hayley Atwell is fantastic reprising her role as S.S.R. Agent Peggy Carter, and the show’s choice to examine sexism in the 1940s is a brilliant one (even if I have quibbles about its execution). I sincerely hope the series is renewed for a second season, and if you haven’t already checked it out this is my enthusiastic recommendation that you do so.
10. Agent Carter [2013 One-Shot]
Everything I said above applies to this short film too, which first created the idea of Peggy battling workplace sexism in the less progressive post-war years. Interestingly, it’s the only piece of the MCU that may or may not be considered canon, depending on whether the TV show was designed to supplement or replace it. Either way, watching Peggy take on a secret mission and earn a job at S.H.I.E.L.D. is pretty great. Plus Bradley Whitford plays her sexist boss!
11. Thor: The Dark World
There’s a lot to like about Thor: The Dark World: Hemsworth is totally in his element, Thor’s relationship with Loki is appropriately complex, and the final battle is tons of Portal-inspired fun. The problem is that while individual moments are great, they don’t add up to anything bigger. The film just never really gels. It doesn’t help that Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) remains the dullest villain in the MCU (although Guardians’ Ronan the Accuser gives him a run for his money), and the film somehow has even less interest in Jane Foster than the first one did. It’s still well worth watching—and surprisingly funny—but I maintain Thor: The Dark World isn't quite as good as it could have been.
12. Iron Man 2 
Many Marvel fans hate this movie, but it’s actually far better than that reputation would suggest. Yes Mickey Rourke makes a lame villain, the stuff with Tony’s dad is weird, Black Widow is kind of boring, and the whole thing feels weirdly low-stakes, but the action looks great, Downey remains as charming as ever, and Don Cheadle is a great addition to the MCU. It’s arguably more tightly plotted than the first Iron Man, and I actually think it has a pretty exhilarating finale that uses almost all of its characters well. But ultimately, it’s just missing a certain special something to make it feel like essential viewing.
13. Item 47 [2012 One-Shot]
This one-shot stars Lizzy Caplain and Jesse Bradford as a couple who discover some alien tech following the battle of New York in The Avengers. The less you know going in the better, but I like the way this one-shot gives us a little more insight into the inner workings of S.H.I.E.L.D.
14. The Incredible Hulk 
It feels like the MCU mostly wants to pretend this film never happened—particularly because swapping Edward Norton for Mark Ruffalo in The Avengers is the one big casting change in the franchise. But there’s actually a lot to like about The Incredible Hulk, which makes the wise choice to skip the origin story and focus on the reality of Bruce Banner’s life following the lab accident that causes him to occasionally turn into the Hulk. Like Thor, I appreciate how sweet and character-driven this one is, and Norton and Liv Tyler have a surprising amount of chemistry. But between the weird pacing, generic action, and that casting switch, it's the least essential MCU film.
15. A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Thor’s Hammer [2011 One-Shot]
Pre-Avengers Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) gets some much-needed personality in this funny four-minute short. But the MCU hadn’t quite figured out how to use these one-shots to their full potential yet.
16. The Consultant [2011 One-Shot]
The lack of confidence in the one-shot formula is also a problem in The Consultant, the very first one Marvel released. It mostly exists to tie up a plot thread left dangling by The Incredible Hulk, but, like Iron Man, it deserves credit for laying the foundation for bigger and better things.
17. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D [2013-present TV Show]
I actually like Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which is currently airing its second season on ABC), but even I have to admit it’s the weakest part of the MCU. While the films and one-shots often patch over weaker points with endless personality, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is totally lackluster. The characters are undeveloped, the action is generic, and the plot is meandering. The show was at its best in the final third of the first season, when the game-changing events of Winter Soldier proved equally revolutionary on the small screen (#HailHydra). Still, outside of Agent Carter, it’s introduced the most interesting female characters to the MCU. Here’s hoping Skye (Chloe Bennet), Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), and Mockingbird (Adrianne Palicki) get a better platform soon.
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