In May 2008, the recently formed Marvel Studios released its first movie—and changed the face of modern cinema. Iron Man wasn’t even the highest-grossing superhero film of the year (Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight took that crown), but it was a kernel that has exploded into an all-consuming entertainment juggernaut. Fifteen years later, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a sprawling, interconnected web of character-based movies and crossovers that has pulled in billions at the box office.
But which Marvel movies are the best, and worst, of the bunch? Is Iron Man 3 better than Iron Man 2? How bad was The Incredible Hulk? How does Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 hold up against its predecessors? We’ve spent hours arguing about the relative merits of Doctor Strange and Black Widow, and at the end of it, we’ve got some irreparably damaged working relationships and the definitive ranking of every movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Related note: It takes nearly three days to watch all 32 Marvel movies back to back. Most of them are now available on Disney+, and you can read our guide to the best films on Disney+ to see what else is worth watching when you’re done—until The Marvels arrives in theaters in November.
Eternals faced an uphill battle, as it was one of the first movies to get caught up in Covid-19 delays. While it originally completed shooting in February 2020, the bulk of its post-production was handled remotely and reshoots had to be done nearly 10 months later. Add several delays due to movie theater closures, and fans ended up waiting about three years to see it. But rather than an easy slide into this new world of the Eternals—an alien race of immortal superheroes who have been living in secrecy for thousands of years—audiences got a full-on, Avengers-style epic they weren’t quite ready for. While the film garnered praise for its sumptuous visuals and innovative direction by Chloé Zhao, and for bringing a whole new philosophical bent to the MCU, it ultimately felt like a futile exercise.
This largely forgotten Marvel movie followed closely on the heels of Iron Man’s success, but relative to the other films in the series, it was a critical and commercial flop. Edward Norton did a perfectly fine job as Bruce Banner, but the story goes that he wanted more creative control than a tightly related web of movies would allow and so was replaced by Mark Ruffalo before The Avengers (aka Avengers Assemble) four years later. (Ruffalo, it turns out, had actually been The Incredible Hulk director Louis Leterrier’s first choice for the smashing green superhero.) The film feels very dark and gloomy compared to the brightness of Marvel’s later efforts, and the CGI has not aged well. But most importantly, recasting with such a different actor meant that the events of this film have largely been ignored ever since—a number of seeds were planted that never bore fruit, and Banner’s emotional backstory and relationship with Betty Ross (played by Liv Tyler) were never mentioned again, which seemed to suit some fans just fine—until now. In March, it was announced that Tyler would reprise her role in the upcoming Captain America: New World Order.
It’s tough for any sequel to match—let alone surpass—the success of its cinematic predecessor, and Iron Man 2 was certainly not up to the task. Robert Downey Jr. reprises his role as the eponymous superhero, going head-to-head with the US government, which is worried about what could happen if Tony Stark’s tech falls into the wrong hands. Officials spend so much time pestering Stark that a new threat escapes their notice—in the form of Ivan Vanko, aka Whiplash, a Russian physicist who’s got a bone to pick with Stark. Mickey Rourke, fresh off his Oscar-nominated role in The Wrestler, has spent the past decade-plus trashing the movie and the MCU’s “crap acting,” which hasn’t helped the film’s legacy.
One of the things you realize when you sit down and actually rank all 32 MCU films is how few duds there are. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and his colleagues have done a remarkable job of turning out some pretty solid pictures, and there are few genuinely bad entries in the series. Unfortunately, this is one of them. The Dark World was beset by problems from the start, including extensive rewrites and even director changes. Despite all that work put into making the best picture possible, the plot—which features Dark Elves, frost monsters, and a malicious substance called the Aether—feels a bit distant. Fortunately, Thor managed to rebound with 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok.
If Downey’s final solo outing as Iron Man marked the end of an era, it would best be summed up as an era of mediocre movies starring a massive talent, making the end of them far less sad for filmgoers. The plot of the third film revolves around Tony Stark’s PTSD in the wake of the Battle of New York as he takes on The Mandarin, a mysterious figure who turns out to be a debauched actor in a television studio, played with all the respect that plot twist deserves by Oscar winner Ben Kingsley.
The Avengers’ second group outing is a joyous jumble of a movie in which the superheroes start to really click as a team. Stark’s mad-scientist-playing-God routine spirals out of control (in a good way) when he blends Asgardian heirlooms with AI and advanced robotics. The Avengers end up having to battle Ultron, a Terminator-esque abomination with some unsurprising designs on the future of humankind (read: extinction). That Ultron has a couple of rogue superheroes doing his bidding provides extra fun. After the monster bot is obliterated and the rogues are won over to the other side, a glimpse of Thanos’ purple mug reminds us that this was likely all part of a wider plot. Then again, isn’t everything in the MCU part of a wider plot?
Not even Taika Waititi could live up to the incredibly high standard he set with the universally beloved Thor: Ragnarok. While Waititi’s comic tendencies are on full display, Love and Thunder—much like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 before it—feels a little too familiar to its predecessor to fully stand out on its own. Still, Chris Hemsworth is utterly charming as the flawed and vulnerable God of Thunder, who is forced out of retirement in order to stop a new enemy, Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale), from doing exactly what his name implies. Together with his King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Korg (Waititi), and his newly superhero-empowered ex Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Thor sets about stopping Gorr, and uncovering the reason behind his hatred of the gods in the first place.
Twenty years after first bringing Spider-Man to the big screen in a pre-MCU world, Sam Raimi officially crashed the Marvel party with this Doctor Strange sequel starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Elizabeth Olsen and Benedict Cumberbatch and Elizabeth Olsen and Benedict Cumberbatch and Elizabeth Olsen. Basically, there are a lot of versions of their characters, Dr. Stephen Strange and Wanda Maximoff, some of whom are up to no good. Like the first Strange film, this one feels like it exists just outside of the MCU—or more to provide connective tissue between other segments of the superhero universe than as a full-fledged solo effort. The movie does, however, feature some of the franchise’s most notable talents (count the Oscar nominations) and the sequel brings Raimi back to his Evil Dead roots, making this a movie for superhero aficionados and horror movie fans alike.
As one of Hollywood’s most likable actors, Paul Rudd was a stellar choice for the petty criminal-turned-tiny superhero Scott Lang/Ant-Man. He’s also a worthy successor to serve as the face of the MCU’s Phase Five (this is the film that’s kicking it all off), much in the same way that Robert Downey Jr. did for Phase One. While Rudd is as charming as ever, this newest solo outing is decidedly darker than its predecessors, as Ant-Man and the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) are swept up into the Quantum Realm, where they’re forced to face off against baddie Kang the Conqueror, a scientist from the 31st century who has stumbled upon the Multiverse.
Chris Hemsworth’s Thor serves as a valuable source of comic relief in many of the more recent MCU movies, but his first outing—in this Kenneth Branagh–helmed film—had a much more serious vibe. At the start of the film, Thor is exiled on Earth and deemed unworthy to wield his hammer, which has crashed into the desert in New Mexico. He strikes up a romance with astrophysicist Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who has come to investigate the matter. As usual, it’s Tom Hiddleston as Loki—Thor’s brother—who steals the show, but it’s all a little too serious to find itself in the top half of this list.
Preeminent New York City neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange is as pompous as he is talented, which makes it impossible for him to accept that his career is over when a car crash leaves him unable to use his hands. In an attempt to reclaim his professional standing, Strange travels to a monastery in Kathmandu, where resident mystics are rumored to have mastered sorcery. After meeting the monastery’s chief warlock, the Ancient One, Strange forgets all about his injured hands as he becomes absorbed in ancient books, exploring the astral plane, and shooting green beams from his fingers. The appearance of a transcendental baddie hell-bent on destroying the magical shields protecting Earth from inter-dimensional villains triggers wizardry battles galore. The visually ingenious film gets points for introducing Cumberbatch to the MCU; unfortunately, that’s not enough to save it from a low ranking.
The second outing of Star-Lord, Gamora, Groot, and company is a perfectly enjoyable film. It just feels like a fairly by-the-numbers retread of the first one, which connected with audiences through its unexpected comedy and the chemistry between its quirky characters, including a wisecracking raccoon and a talking tree. While the sequel attempted to recapture some of that magic, it just couldn’t stick the landing. Or the middle bit, really. The Vol. 2 mixtape has been credited as one of the forces behind the cassette tape’s comeback, which is something to be thankful for.
While the idea of adapting Marvel’s Shang-Chi comic for the big screen was first broached in the early 2000s, it took nearly two decades for the film to get there. Simu Liu made history in the role of Shang-Chi, the MCU’s first Asian superhero, who led a predominantly Asian cast. In the present day, Shang-Chi works as a parking valet—an occupation that helps him mask his past as a highly trained martial arts expert who carried out an assassination when he was just 14 years old. But as Shang-Chi is dragged back into the world of a mysterious group known as the Ten Rings, his past comes bubbling back up to the surface, which proves to be both a blessing and a curse. A sequel is currently in development.
The First Avenger is a sepia-toned love story that follows Steve Rogers’ (Chris Evans) transformation from scrawny patriot to super soldier with the help of a special serum. The film’s historical setting means it’s different in tone from many of the other entries in the series, but that may be a good thing; critics praised its depiction of the 1940s. Of all the films in the series, Captain America perhaps feels the most coherent as a stand-alone flick.
If this were a ranking of Most Depressing Marvel Movies, this one would definitely rank within the top five. That isn’t a knock on the movie—just a fact, as well as a surprising turn of events from James Gunn, who brought some much-needed playfulness to the MCU with the original Guardians of the Galaxy (which helped to wipe away the stink of Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World). Nearly a decade later, the Guardians are still delivering that same quippy energy that makes the movies seem like a Western one moment and a screwball comedy the next, yet there’s an underlying sadness here. Plot-wise, that’s because it tackles Rocket Raccoon’s backstory, which should come with an #AdoptDontShop hashtag. It’s also one of the first movies to truly examine the emotional toll “The Snap” took on our favorite superheroes. But it’s also hard to imagine that knowing this would be Gunn’s Marvel swan song, and the last time this ragtag team of filmmakers would be working together to create a story about this ragtag team of superheroes, wouldn't bleed into the script. Sure, there are some mawkish moments. But overall, it’s a fittingly moving sendoff for Gunn and the forgotten comic book characters he turned into cinematic icons.
The success of 2015’s Ant-Man sparked an unexpected sequel that takes the series even deeper into the quantum realm. The title character’s ability to shrink and grow on demand makes for some visually arresting fight scenes, and it brings the same humor and levity that made the first film a hit along with it. But the actual plot, if you really think about it, is deeply silly. Then again, maybe that’s what we all needed after the Snap. Although Ant-Man and the Wasp came out after Infinity War, most of the action takes place beforehand, with the exception of a stunning post-credits scene.
It’s possible no Marvel movie will ever top Black Panther—that’s why it’s Number 1 on this list. But if you think of Wakanda Forever as a movie that both honors the legacy of Chadwick Boseman, who played T’Challa in several Marvel films and tragically died in 2020, and continues the story of the nation of Wakanda, then this is a worthy sequel. Director Ryan Coogler not only introduced the world to a new Black Panther, he also brought along Riri Williams (aka Ironheart) and Namor, too. It’s as gut-wrenching as it is action-packed.
Although Civil War is officially a solo Captain America outing, it plays out more like an ensemble Avengers story, with a huge cast of characters split into rival factions by the Sokovia Accords—a legal agreement that puts tighter controls on superheroes and was introduced after Tony Stark’s rogue AI dropped an entire city in Age of Ultron. Stark, cowed by his role in creating Ultron, is allied with the government and has Black Widow, Black Panther, Vision, and Spider-Man on his side. Meanwhile, Steve Rogers and his team—which includes Ant-Man, Hawkeye, and Wanda Maximoff, who are probably not the favorites on paper—go rogue to track down Hydra’s Helmut Zemo and bring in Bucky Barnes.
Given that Scarlett Johansson has been an integral part of the MCU since 2010’s Iron Man 2, her 2021 debut solo feature seemed long overdue. But the wait may have been worth it, as Black Widow feels much more like a stand-alone movie than probably any other solo outing in the MCU and introduces a solid new cast of characters, including Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova, a fellow Black Widow and sister-like figure to Johansson. It largely follows the Marvel formula of action, action, and more action and plays out more like a Bond film in that way—which isn’t a bad thing—but it also contends with the very specific issues of female independence and the effects of surviving trauma. While it allowed longtime fans to dive deeper into the past of Johansson’s notoriously mysterious Natasha Romanoff (aka Black Widow), it also—finally!—gave audiences the chance to see a slightly different and more vulnerable side of the Avenger. It’s just too bad it took Marvel more than a decade to finally give fans that moment.
Thanks to the MCU, crossovers have become such a common occurrence at the theater that it’s easy to forget the impact of first seeing Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, and more combine forces. The Avengers—or Avengers Assemble, as it’s known in the UK—delivers some great moments during the Battle of New York, which becomes a key plot point in the next phase of the story, and in many of the spin-off television series. The film wouldn’t work without the strength of the supporting characters, but it’s Mark Ruffalo’s quieter, more measured take on the Hulk that stands out.
The Winter Soldier felt vital when it was released in 2014, but it tends to merge into a general blur of close-quarters combat and severed limbs. It follows Captain America’s attempts to track down the Winter Soldier, a mysterious and powerful assassin who turns out to be his close personal friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). Like Cap, the Winter Soldier was also kept on ice for most of the 70 years after World War II; unlike Cap, he was brainwashed by the evil Hydra. A rehabilitated Winter Soldier appears in both Infinity War and Endgame, and Stan has a few films left in his contract, so it might be worth rewatching this one for future reference.
The first film of Marvel’s Phase Four follows Peter Parker (Tom Holland) as he attempts to live some semblance of a normal teenage life after the traumatic events of Avengers: Endgame. But a class trip to Europe and a chance to share his true feelings with MJ (Zendaya) go awry when Earth is besieged by Elementals—beings of pure fire, earth, air, and water—and Spider-Man is forced to team up with the enigmatic Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) to protect his classmates, not to mention various European landmarks.
Marvel’s biggest mistake in the entire MCU canon (so far) was not commissioning Captain Marvel sooner. The film, which is set in the past, sees the rise of Marvel (Brie Larson) as she discovers her origin story and develops her powers. The only real flaw in the movie is that it doesn’t convincingly explain what happened to Marvel between the end of the title and what comes years later in Endgame.
A decade of careful breadcrumbs planted across dozens of movies culminated in a jaw-dropping finale that was remarkable in terms of its ambition and execution. Infinity War brought together pretty much every major character that had been seen on screen in the previous 10 years to take on Thanos and stop his plan to wipe out half of all life in the universe. The pitched battle between the forces of Earth and an alien army was stunning cinema, and the shocking cliffhanger ending was one of the biggest cultural moments of the year, if not the decade. Snap!
Who doesn’t love a heist movie? Rudd’s MCU debut acted as something of a palate cleanser after the heavy and (literally) Earth-shattering events of Age of Ultron. Rudd plays Scott Lang, a reformed criminal who teams up with Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter (Evangeline Lily) to keep Pym’s shrinking technology from falling into the wrong hands. The film’s depiction of quantum physics wouldn’t hold much water at CERN, but it’s terrific fun—thanks in large part to Michael Peña’s star turn as Lang’s former cellmate Luis.
Spider-Man: Homecoming marked the third attempt in just 15 years to bring a new take on Spider-Man to screens. While the resulting effort could easily have felt a bit been there, done that, director Jon Watts and lead actor Tom Holland managed to breathe new life into the superhero, making Spidey feel modern, fresh, and really quite charming. The introduction of Downey’s Iron Man as a key character in the plot situates the film nicely in the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe without feeling heavy-handed. And the balance of Spider-Man’s action-packed adventuring with Parker’s everyday high school drama makes for a character that is more relatable than previous iterations. There’s plenty of cool web-slinging and day-saving, but it’s the humanity of the film that propels it to a top spot on our list.
There’s a moment in Endgame—the event movie to end all event movies—when you realize that what writers Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus have done is to go full Harry Potter and the Cursed Child all over the MCU. If your mind could throw up a little bit in its mouth, it would. Once you learn to accept this, you can settle in. And once you get past the glum first 45 minutes, you can open your heart for the good stuff: wise Stark, Professor Hulk, the (controversial) Lebowski Thor, Doctor Strange holding up one finger, Black Widow and Captain Marvel kicking ass (both emotionally and physically), and almost every character you’ve ever met having a moment. It’s a messy but epic baton pass in the form of an angsty, portal-powered mega-battle. And we’re not going to lie: We’ve watched those audience reaction videos and they, too, are a thing of joy.
From its opening sequence, where Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord dances through an abandoned alien vault on a distant planet to “Come and Get Your Love,” it was clear that Guardians of the Galaxy would bring something truly otherworldly to the MCU. It was not a well-known comic storyline, but the film provided a much-needed shot of humor for a series in danger of becoming a little too serious after the events of The Winter Soldier. With a soundtrack of ’70 and ’80s hits, and Pratt at the helm of a band of entertaining misfits, it became an instant fan favorite.
In Spider-Man: No Way Home, the unthinkable happens: Spider-Man’s identity is revealed to the world, putting both the superhero and the people he loves in danger of being targeted by his enemies. So Spidey does the only thing he can think to do: call in Dr. Strange to help the world forget what they’ve learned about him. While the film maintains the sense of wonderment and fun we’ve seen in previous Spider-Man tales, it also plays with the fact that we have seen a lot of web-slingers come and go, and it goes so far as to bring Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield back into the fold as Strange tries to help Peter Parker with his identity crisis.
The first MCU title is still one of the best. Released way back in 2008, Iron Man debuted just a year after the first iPhone was introduced. At the time, Thanos was just a tiny thought in the bigger MCU world. Still, Iron Man has aged well. Stark’s trademark stubbornness and arrogance are peppered throughout the film and only increase when he breaks free from his kidnappers and creates the first metallic suit. From there, Stark’s legacy is assured—and the MCU’s first official superhero is born.
Taika Waititi’s Thor—as it shall forever be known in cinephile circles—came close to the top spot because it is, quite simply, a masterpiece. A spacey, Day-Glo masterpiece. Switching up the sometimes-grating Marvel sass and the not-quite-working Thor formula for something much more awkward and genuinely odd, Ragnarok is postmodern (but not in a pretentious way) and by far the funniest Marvel movie to date. Cate Blanchett’s villain Hela doesn’t get the zingers, sure, but Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie is a drunken delight, and then there’s Jeff Goldblum. Every detail of the story of Thor and Hulk’s side mission and the defense of Asgard has been meticulously put together in the manner of a trippy indie film—which is all the more impressive when you consider this is a huge Disney flick.
With Black Panther, director Ryan Coogler broke the superhero film mold in many respects, elevating the genre in such a way that it managed to please both fans and critics—to the extent that, in 2019, it became the first superhero film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Basically, everything about this film is fantastic: the casting, the costumes, the plot, the performances. The setting of the secretly technologically advanced nation of Wakanda is a true cinematic treat, and Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa is matched by an unusually three-dimensional villain in the form of Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, whose backstory gives pause for thought beyond a simple good-versus-evil narrative. Add in multiple female characters who each have more substance than most superhero films’ entire casts put together, and Black Panther is the perfect example of how good a Marvel film can be. While its sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, will arrive later this year, it’s hard to imagine what that will look like without the late Boseman leading the way.