Hello True Believers. This isn’t Stan Lee, but this is someone who can make a Stan Lee Soapbox reference. That and a parents-embarrassing career in film criticism qualifies me to do things like rank all of the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You know, that grand 13-movie strong cinematic experiment where Kevin Feige changed Hollywood and made billions of dollars. If you joined me yesterday, you’ll know that I’ve already ranked seven of the MCU’s finest creations. That means that the list has been whittled down to the top six and these are undoubtedly the best of the best of the Marvel movies to arrive to date. The list even includes the latest chapter in the ever-growing MCU, proof positive that this studio not only hasn’t lost a step over the last eight years, but might just be getting started. These movies are the reason why it’s still socially acceptable for adults to buy superhero underoos and why children of the iPhone era might actually consider picking up a comic book one day. Tomorrow, I’ll be back with a full review of Captain America: Civil War. For now, here’s the grand finale to CGM’s definitive ranking of the MCU. All other rankings and opinions on the matter are incorrect. Trust me.
You’ve got to give Kevin Feige and co. credit for their willingness to deliver a completely sincere, old-timey Captain America tale. The character was created as wartime propaganda and represents a type of icky nationalism that’s tricky to pull off for contemporary audiences. Yet, thanks to the sincere wonderment of director Joe Johnston (and an uncredited script polish from Joss Whedon), Captain America: The First Avenger worked miraculously well. The tone was that of a swashbuckling, matinee, serial adventure that felt closer to Indiana Jones than any other film in the last 20 years. Plus the team snuck in enough self-conscious propaganda parody to get away with their Captain America purity. This movie shouldn’t have worked, but when it did, Marvel Studios officially became a blockbuster factory that could do no wrong.
Speaking of movies that shouldn’t have worked, Guardians Of The Galaxy was a real head scratcher when Marvel announced it on their slate years ago. This was a property that no one ever really cared about that much and ultimately that’s why the movie worked so well. Writer/director James Gunn (Slither, Super) was given free reign to create a completely insane space opera with the Marvel characters, delivering probably the funniest, most colourful, and downright strangest franchise in the entire MCU. No one expected Guardians Of The Galaxy to become a ginormous hit, but the mixture of slacker comedy (thanks Chris Pratt), psychedelic sci-fi surrealism (thanks James Gunn and all the drugs you took in your twenties), a classic rock soundtrack (see previous “thank you”), and just plain ol’ blockbuster fun, brought audiences out in massive numbers. Guardians Of The Galaxy is the one Marvel movie that even those few sad souls who hate superheroes should be able to enjoy and it will be absolutely thrilling to see where Gunn and the gang take this series next. It has arguably the widest range of possibilities of any of these marquee Marvel franchises.
Yep, that’s right. The new movie cracked the top five achievements of the entire MCU. That’s not just a result of the hype machine either. Captain America: Civil War is really that good. Anthony and Joe Russo were given the keys to the Marvel kingdom after their fantastic Winter Soldier (more on that later) and deliver a crowd-pleasing blockbuster that wraps up all the plot threads they left dangling, introduce pitch-perfect versions of Black Panther and Spider-man (JOY!), and give audiences an astounding superhero battle royale that makes the dreams of generations of action-figure-clutching youngsters come true. It’s a movie that can only exist after 8 years of groundwork and plays off audience participation perfectly. Almost every character in the MCU gets a satisfying through line and the new editions prove that Phase 3 of Marvel’s master plan shouldn’t disappoint. Not since The Avengers has a Marvel movie felt supported by it’s place in a larger universe, rather than seeming obligated to include it. Immensely entertaining and emotionally satisfying, this is an event comic-splash-paneled across IMAX screens in ways that comic nerds could never have even dreamed possible in the 90s. It’s a special flick that will earn every record-breaking dollar that it earns for Disney this summer.
Ah yes, the one that started it all. Back when Robert Downey Jr. was a risky choice to headline a blockbuster and Jon Favreau was still primarily known as an actor, the pair of unlikely heroes teamed up to define the tone for the Marvel Cinematic Universe that continues to this day. Looking back on Iron Man now, it’s amazing how small it feels. The movie is essentially a character study with its greatest sequences of spectacle essentially being test drives of Iron Man suits. Yet, that’s all the movie needs. Together, Favreau and Downey created a special tone pitched somewhere between snarky movie reality and comic book absurdity that changed the way most viewers looked at an entire genre. Sure, the climactic battle is a let down, but everything else in Iron Man is pure joy that holds up well, even all these years and sequels later. There’s a reason this movie launched an entire cinematic universe: it’s the greatest superhero origin movie ever made and one of the most important films of the 2000s, full stop.
Back when the MCU was going head-to-head with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, the colourful Marvel folks would often distinguish themselves as the fun antidote to Nolan’s socially conscious, brooding superhero tale. Then once Nolan was done, Marvel went ahead and released The Winter Soldier, a movie that took the most two-dimensional character in their universe and transformed it into their most serious blockbuster, that actually had some prescient things to say about government surveillance, the same summer that Edward Snowden blew his whistle. It’s a surprisingly resonant and intelligent superhero flick, yet also filled with all of the snappy dialogue and revenant humour that defined the MCU as a special land. Chris Evans has never been better as the impossibly earnest Cap, while Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson finally got meaty Marvel roles worthy of their talents. Joe And Anthony Russo came out of television to unexpectedly become the finest MCU directors around (earning control of the 2-part Infinity Wars epic in the process), delivering an effective homages to 70s paranoid thrillers with a superhero, and also serving up the finest physical action scenes in the MCU (Do you like stunts and explosions? Then buckle the F up for this one). There will likely be bigger and better Marvel movies in the future, but it’s unlikely there will ever be a smarter or more cine-literate one. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the closest thing we’ll ever see to a Marvel movie for grown ups. Whether or not that’s a good thing is debatable, but whether or not it’s a fact, is not.
Finally, what other movie could possibly top this list? Sure, The Avengers isn’t perfect. It’s a little overstuffed and narratively lumpy; that’s undeniable. However, if you can transport yourself back to those innocent days of 2012 (Sigh…were we ever so young?), then you’ll remember The Avengers delivering a blockbuster experience that satisfies like no other. For the first time, superheroes from separate movies crossed over after careful groundwork and a unifying comedic tone. Lord of the nerds, Joss Whedon, stepped up to deliver definitive takes on the entire Avengers clan, teased the audience with the joys on inter-superhero battles, scored some huge laughs, and let Tom Hiddleston giggle his way into movie stardom in the finest, villainous performance in the MCU. Few blockbuster experiences have ever been so satisfying and for that reason alone, few blockbusters have ever been so successful. More than anything else, The Avengers felt like the perfect cinematic distillation of the Marvel universe that Stan Lee dreamed up so many moons ago. The Avengers experience was one of pure joy four years ago and remains that today, for all but the most bitterly cynical of souls (especially Ninja-Jordan, whose questionable tastes are matched only by his irrational love of Amiibos). Kevin Feige and co. may never top this one, but they’ve already come damn close several times, and it’s going to be a blast to continue to watch them try for the next decade or so.