There’s a line in “Iron Man” that comes close to foreshadowing the magnitude of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: “You’ve become part of a bigger universe, you just don’t know it yet.” The post-credits declaration from secret agent Nick Fury — doubling as an invitation for Tony Stark to join the Avenger Initiative — was really Marvel’s confident hand laid out, ready to take fans on a multi-movie, narrative-interweaving journey. But despite the high aspirations of the New York comic book imprint, it’s hard to say even Marvel themselves could’ve predicted how successful the undertaking would become.
The idea of a cinematic universe comprised of interconnecting characters and stories seems unfathomable — a delusion of grandeur from comic-book fans aching to witness cinema mimic the medium they love so much. The primary crux stems from the way comic-book movies have followed the typical Hollywood template of developing movie one at a time (even with wishful thinking) before green lighting more. These blockbusters tended to exist in a vacuum — not referencing other spandex-and-cape adventures even if imprints and universes were shared. But Marvel, having immense faith in themselves, ignored the risks and proceeded with their ambitious plans.
With 20 movies released and more on the way, Marvel shows no sign of slowing down the pop-culture juggernaut. Apart from being the most lucrative movie franchise in box-office history, the entries have generally ranked well with critics — so highlighting the classics will be easier rather than picking duds. Almost every movie has been a game changer in some way, so rankings will be primarily determined by its overall impact to the MCU as well as technical execution.
20. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
A reboot of the underwhelming 2003 Ang Lee movie, “The Incredible Hulk” is an unusual rocky addition to the MCU. Comprised of a mostly one-and-done cast including Edward Norton as Dr. Bruce Banner, the second ever MCU movie has a distinction of hindering the new project. Director Louis Leterrier’s vision of an intelligent, humane Hulk failed to meet Marvel’s financial expectations after the monumental success of “Iron Man.” As a result of the green giant’s repeated troubles, Marvel permanently reframed him in a more animalistic, supporting role for subsequent movies. There was also behind-the-scenes drama with Norton’s difficulty — a trait he couldn’t shake. He was replaced by Mark Ruffalo and the rest is MCU history.
19. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Helmed by “Game of Thrones” director Alan Taylor, “Thor: The Dark World” maintains the HBO program’s rich mythology while melding science-fiction elements with Thor’s fantasy-based world. But with only two-hours, “Dark World” has little wiggle room to spread out the complicated history lessons on Dark Elves, the Convergence and the Aether. One such victim of the cramped exposition is Thor’s romance with astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) — their conversations drag compared to the exciting hate-love relationship between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his adopted half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). The chemistry between Hemsworth and Hiddleston — along with some stylistic sci-fi action scenes and typical Marvel humor — save the movie from utter darkness.
18. Iron Man 2 (2010)
At its core, “Iron Man” is a character study of a man who reversed his morally questionable life because of a traumatic experience. Naturally, the man’s next chapter would explore the consequences of his decision. “Iron Man 2” tries its best to tell that story, but the darker narrative never quite reaches the height of its predecessor. Facing deteriorating health from the palladium core in his chest, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a brooding, reckless version of the man we met before. Downey’s blockbuster-carrying charisma returns, even as he faces new villain Whiplash (Mickey Rourke) — a scorned man who utilizes advanced, Stark-based tech for a revenge mission against the former weapons dealer. But apart from being a quieter, Russian iteration of “Iron Man” baddie Obadiah Stane, Whiplash personifies the movie he vilifies in: entertaining, but not offering anything executed better.
17. Iron Man 3 (2013)
After almost 30 years of stylistic movies, It’s clear writer-turned-director Shane Black is an off-beat choice to follow the straightforward “Marvel’s Avengers.” Black is a director’s director, brimming with signature creative trademarks — like Christmas settings, kidnapping plots and protagonists befriending cute kids — that he must indulge in. Unsurprisingly, “Iron Man 3” makes little effort to diverge from those quirks. Downey remains comfortably charming and lovable as the billionaire, even with the story’s terrorist undertones and existential dread. But where “Iron Man 3” plunges into polarizing territory is its treatment of Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin. In the comics, the intelligent supervillain is an expert martial artist who wears ten magical rings to operate against Iron Man. The twist reveal of Black’s version was shockingly sly, but in retrospect, disappointing considering the vast potential of a foe that finally could toe-to-toe with the philanthropist.
16. Guardian of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Like any returning MCU director, James Gunn was tasked with capturing lightning-in-a-bottle again — not an easy feat considering the complete package the original is. There isn’t any wonder why the talented cast, sci-fi set-pieces, raunchy humor and classic rock tunes return; these creative pieces highlighted “Guardians of the Galaxy” as a joyful MCU standout. But amongst the familiar fanfare is less of the magic that touched the first installment. In his heightened confidence, Gunn is a bit indulgent with the CGI; and the resolution’s solemn eulogy to Yondu (Michael Rooker), while touching, overstays its welcome. But hey, at least we got to swoon over baby Groot.
15. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
With an acclaimed inaugural team-up under his belt, Whedon returns to the “Avengers” directing chair with experience and a stronger specific take. Centering on the team itself, Whedon’s sophomore story examines the members through a pathos-centric lens — with their fears a significant theme in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” This observation isn’t to imply the character focus diverges the movie from past tentpole template — the explosive action, witty banter, and a fascinating villain in James Spader’s Ultron are all there. But like many MCU sequels before it, “Age of Ultron” suffers from an underlying feeling of been there, done that — so the familiar treats from “Avengers” hit, but seldom as hard.
14. Thor (2011)
Like his DC counterpart Aquaman, “Thor” was difficult to adapt for the big screen due to his limited appeal. Director Kenneth Branagh tasked Australian actor Chris Hemsworth to bring the Norse deity to life, painting him as an arrogant Asgardian prince before being banished from home. Hemsworth brilliantly bounces from Thor’s fiery brashness to a clumsy, fish-out-of-water as he stumbles around New Mexico. The God of Thunder’s stoic personality and unfamiliarity with Earth is utilized for great comedic effect, but the real heart of his story lies in Asgard with his half-brother, Loki. The sibling’s back-and-forth is a unique hero-villain dynamic that falls in line with the movie’s Shakespearean themes of betrayal, family conflict and romantic tragedy.
13. Doctor Strange (2016)
Filling the mysticism and spirituality void in the MCU, “Doctor Strange” features spellcasting sorcerers, astral planes and Tilda Sweden as a spiritual mentor to Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). Playing another vastly intelligent man with humility issues, Cumberbatch’s Strange goes on a journey of self-discovery to repair his injuries stemming from a car accident. Following the traditional naive-trainee-turns-to-master arc, “Doctor Strange” takes place in a mystical East Asian setting — a refreshing break from the skyscrapers and technocentric landscapes of the MCU. And even though they inhabit polar opposite worlds, Strange’s trajectory is similar to Tony Stark’s — flawed men who undergo traumatic events that morph their outlook on life. And like the first chapter of the Marvel franchise, “Doctor Strange” is an exceptionally crafted origin that other stories — superhero or not — can learn from.
12. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
The superhero genre is fundamentally about the rise to greatness. Many characters fall into the category reluctantly, but Captain America was always different because he chose his path. Chronicling Steve Roger’s transformation to the Captain, the 1940s story captures the retro feel of the era with authentic costumes, a strong whiff of patriotism, and of course, the looming presence of World War II. In retrospect, “Captain America: The First Avenger” has an unfortunate place in the MCU because its two sequels vastly overshadow it, but that doesn’t mean the origin story is worth any less. Remember, it gave Chris Evans another chance to save the world as a Marvel hero, along with introducing “Bucky” Barnes and Peggy Carter to the MCU. Without “First Avenger,” the beginnings of one of Marvel’s greatest heroes wouldn’t be known.
11. Ant-Man (2015)
In 2015, the unlikely happened: a 100 million dollar movie based around “Ant-Man” was being released. Its star, comedic actor Paul Rudd, was equally as improbable to front a Marvel blockbuster. But after all the world-ending stakes, “Ant-Man” serves a critical role of palette cleanser in the MCU. Following well-intentioned thief Scott Lang and his attempt to stop the release the Yellowjacket military suit, the small-scaled story is funny, light-hearted and touching — a reminder wanton destruction and death aren’t necessary to tell an engaging tale. There are many action sequences — including Rudd and Yellowjacket (Darren Cross) tangling in sizes spanning grown adults to minuscule ants — that are distinct to “Ant-Man” and help carve out its wonderfully tiny identity. Also: Anthony Pena’s storytelling recap can’t be missed.
10. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Considering he is the only Avenger with a god status, it’s interesting Thor is the most restricted member. Known for his long golden locks and Conan-esque personality, the Son of Odin has been put in a specific mold after four appearances of the stagnant character. Recognizing the rut, Taika Waititi and his wacky comedic vision broke down the Norseman and started over. First on the chopping block was the Asgardian’s luscious hair, sheared off in favor of a spikey cut that complemented his goofy, sometimes manic, temperament. Stranded on the alien planet Sakaar in a “Gladiator”-style tournament, this new Thor is funnier, energized, but most importantly, free from the shackles he indirectly placed on himself. “Thor: Ragnarok” stands as an exercise in self-criticism: it’s acceptable to change what’s worked for something bolder, and arguably, better.
9. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
If there is one chink in the MCU’s armor, it’s the tendency for sequels to fare worse than their predecessors. “Ant-Man and the Wasp” joins the exclusive club that takes what worked before — like the original’s size-changing frenetic action and light-hearted humor — and improving it in every way. Placed after a destructive “Avengers” movie again, the plot centers on Scott Lang, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) as they try to rescue Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the Quantum Realm. Despite Ant-Man’s prime position in the title, “Wasp” is really around Hope: she leads the creative fight scenes, her relationships form the foundation of the trio and the narrative is experienced from her point of view. “Wasp” is a lesson in storytelling: shifting focus from the protagonist can work if there is a more engaging story to be told.
8. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Spider-Man easily has one of the most known superhero origins in comics. So, after two Sony movies dedicated towards it, what does Marvel do when they’re finally allowed the reins of their biggest character? According to director-writer Jon Watts and his approach: skip the spider-bite and stick close to the source material. While the previous five Spidey live-action installments varied in quality, they’ve all starred a brooding grown man trying pass as a Midtown High student. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” replaces the angst and adult issues with Tom Holland, a tender 21-year-old who actually feels like a teenager — juggling field trips, school dances and crime fighting. Behind the camera, Watts’ and the screenwriters deliver a script that is one of the funniest Spider-Man stories yet, giving plenty of material for Holland to flesh out the wise-cracking charm of the wallcrawler with the awkward adolescence of Peter Parker. And amongst this, who can forget the relatable antagonist in Michael Keaton’s Vulture? Marvel proves, without a doubt, sometimes the best place is home.
7. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Before 2014, the Guardians lived in obscurity outside of comic-book circles. It took director James Gunn — with his retro vision and background in comedic writing (“Super”) — to push them to the mainstream. Carrying out his take was an unlikely team-up: “Parks and Recreation” star Chris Pratt, former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista, sci-fi vet Zoe Saldana and the unlikely partnership of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, who voice a crass raccoon and a vocabulary-limited tree. “Guardians,” for what it’s worth, never breaks any tropes — instead embraces them with its charming male lead (Pratt) dealing with a family of pick-em archetypes. In hindsight, paving a new way in the comic-book genre wasn’t Gunn’s objective; his job was to get an unfamiliar audience to love the Guardians and he accomplished that. The blistering deep classic rock selections by Gunn provide a memorable soundtrack to the many quippy lines and entertaining set-pieces. And amidst the joyful commotion is the beating heart of the movie: the characters’ dysfunctional family dynamic — a raunchy but endearing sight.
6. Black Panther (2018)
Female empowerment. African representation. Superhero blockbuster. There has never been a comic-book movie with the political, historical and cultural significance as “Black Panther.” For the monumental project, Marvel chose Ryan Coogler, the director of two acclaimed Michael B. Jordan led movies that tackled issues of race and family. Coogler treads familiar waters with his “Creed” lead again, but with a small difference: Jordan plays antagonist Erik Killmonger, the American-raised Wakandan with a grudge against T’Challa (Chad Boswick), the newly-crowned king of the technological African nation. Even with an African-American lead, the quasi-sequel to “Captain America: Civil War” is adamant on further diverging from the superhero template: T’Challa may don the Black Panther armor, but he is accompanied by women who not only outshine him in combat but are fully-realized in their own right. Most importantly though, “Black Panther” stands out through self-awareness of its identity and the responsibly that comes with it. African beats and tongues, along with historical traditions, are backed by a dominantly black cast including heavyweights Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker. The movie also coined the now iconic “Wakanda Forever,” a symbolic term for so many.
5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Exaggeration is a key staple in the superhero genre. However, on occasion, a story will reinvigorate the medium by focusing on something foreign to it: realism. Anthony and Joe Russo, known for their comedic television directing work (“Community,” “Arrested Development”), dared to thrust the Captain in a contemporary spy-espionage plot that oozes more “Casino Royale” than “Spider-Man 2.” Echoing reality, “Captain America: Winter Soldier” explores themes of national security versus liberty in post 9/11 world where the villain isn’t always a nefarious organization, but sometimes within. Despite their comedic backgrounds, the Russos’ immaculately choreographed bouts and grounded direction made it evident they didn’t take “Winter Soldier” lightly. There’s also the movie’s climax — featuring the destruction of SHIELD and the escape of “Bucky” Barnes — that set up the brothers’ MCU trademark of groundbreaking endings with permanent consequences.
4. Iron Man (2008)
With AC/DC’s magnum opus “Back In Black” blaring across the war-torn Afghanistan backdrop, the MCU was born. In retrospect, it’s perfect – the biggest movie franchise ever had an opening that wrote the template for future MCU entries. Director Jon Favreau and Marvel gambled greatly by casting Robert Downey Jr. as the first lead in a massive undertaking. But Downey, in a role that jump-started his troubled career, was clearly destined to play the arrogant but charming billionaire — walking the audience through his tremulous life of mortality issues, family legacy and Jeff Bridge’s nefarious Obadiah Stane. The story smartly follows classic origin narratives by developing the man behind the mask before his metallic alter ego. As a result, viewers not only understand who the longtime B-lister is — but more importantly — they care about him.
3. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
If “Avengers” assembled the world’s greatest heroes in triumphant fashion, then “Civil War” separated them in an equally devastating manner. Acting as an unofficial “Avengers” movie, the story reunites most of the team to debate the Sokovia Accords, an agreement to be overseen by a UN panel. The following debate amongst the team is an interesting plot device as it allows for an uncommon examination of superheroes — usually mighty in ability and status — as they are held accountable for the very actions that made them so bold. Alliances are made and broken, the action-and-humor expectations are met, but the core of the movie is the dissolution of Steve Rogers and Tony Stark’s relationship — sad but significant because it forces a deeper exploration of these characters. Also: the climatic twist is a rare surprise in a medium so intent on repeating itself.
2. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Just seeing the numerous franchises under one roof speaks testaments to the vast success the MCU has had in 10 years. In a MacGuffin plot surrounding the super-powered Infinity Stones, Thanos gives the vast Avengers roster a challenge they’ve never faced at this level — from combat prowess to ruthlessness — he is everything fans have wished for since his tease in “Avengers.” The Russo brothers have said in interviews “Avengers: Infinity War” is about the Titan, yet it’s also about introducing overwhelming loss to a genre dominated by heroes. Luckily, before the doom-and-gloom ending are crowd-pleasing moments ranging from Thor’s glorious return to Earth to Captain America’s first appearance that are easily the highlights of the movie. But the real de force of “Infinity War” remains the brothers, who have cranked out their third acclaimed Marvel movie in four years — solidifying themselves as the most consistent MCU directors.
1. The Avengers (2012)
For only his second movie, Joss Whedon had all the pressure in the world. And if directing a large ensemble of talented leading actors wasn’t daunting enough, there was the ambitious problem of combining five separate franchises into one cohesive package. But Marvel, with their ever careful eye, chose Whedon — a man who has handled pressure as the creator of three TV hits (“Buffy,” “Angel,” “Firefly”). The writer-director is generous in his wisely plot-light adventure: each Avenger shines through quippy dialogue or blockbuster-scale action set-pieces — whether with each other or antagonist Loki and his massive Chitauri army. Marvel fans might have their personal favorites, but “Avengers” will always be a genre pioneer because it showcased the infinite possibilities of the MCU if the right amount of patience and talent are involved.