This is part two of our efforts to rank every film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Check back the rest of the week for all of our rankings leading up to our review of Avengers: Endgame on Friday.
Part 1 of our Definitive MCU Ranking, covering #17 – #21, can be found here, along with a breakdown of how we created this ranking of the MCU. This post will cover #12 – #16. Each movie has a blurb accompanying it from whichever one of us ranked it the highest on our individual list.
16 | Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2017)
Average Rank: 15.5 | Highest Rank: 4
Deepak: In retrospect, the first Guardians of the Galaxy feels like a draft for what James Gunn would ultimately unleash in its sequel. It’s rough around the edges, heavy with exposition, and teeters dangerously close at times to buckling under the weight of its own world-building. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie — it’s still very good. But it’s another reminder of why “first” doesn’t automatically mean “best.”
Freed from having to introduce a whole roster of new characters and setting up the cosmic world they inhabit, Vol. 2 hits the ground running and is all the better for it. James Gunn’s filmmaking is more assured this time around, with stronger cinematography, smoother editing, and incisive writing that digs deeper into the characters. It breaks up the team to bring them back together even stronger than before. Similar to Avengers: Age of Ultron, it ups the ante in term of both character development and spectacle, something that’s much easier said than done.
It’s easy to brush off Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 as yet another case of sequelitis. It lacks the freshness of the original, has the MCU’s trademark facetiousness in spades, and is one of the more standalone entries in the franchise. But it exhibits a remarkable amount of heart, creating a story about fathers and sons (Quill and Ego, Quill and Yondu, Groot and Rocket), siblings with hard pasts (Gamora and Nebula, Yondu and Stakar/The Ravagers), and more than anything, what it really means to be a family.
Guardians of the Galaxy was about a family coming together. Vol. 2 is about a family learning what it takes to stay together. It’s brilliant tentpole filmmaking the likes of which we rarely see nowadays, and deserves far better than its reputation suggests.
For more thoughts on Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, check out our original review from 2017.
15 | Iron Man 3 (2013)
Average Rank: 13.25 | Highest Rank: 8
Ryley: Over the last ten years, critics have praised and derided the MCU for its uniformity. But in a sea of sameness, Iron Man 3 stands out for how unique it is. By 2018, audiences appreciated that films like Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther were products of their directors. But in 2013, Shane Black left a mark on the MCU by making Iron Man 3 a Shane Black film. From the tone of the film to the nature of his collaboration with longtime friend Robert Downey, Jr., this movie is unmistakably a product of its director.
One of Captain America’s most memorable lines in The Avengers was when he called Tony a “Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?” Iron Man 3 distinguishes itself from the rest of the MCU by how it defines Tony Stark as his own character. Up until that point, Tony had only ever been that big man in the armor. Iron Man 3 takes Tony out of the costume to finally see how he measures up against the other heroes. And it turns out that, with or without the armor, Tony is Iron Man.
Iron Man 3 is also the movie that forces Tony to get investigate who he is at his core. At the start of the movie, Tony is obsessed with building enough armor to keep everyone around him safe. This idea would eventually go on to become the narrative underpinning of Avengers: Age of Ultron. From there, Tony goes on to look at who he is and if there were more wrong with him than just the fact that he used to sell weapons. Iron Man 3 is a movie about trust, relationships, and dependency.
14 | Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
Average Rank: 13 | Highest Rank: 11
Ryley: After Joss Whedon reinvented Black Widow in The Avengers, audiences were desperate for a Black Widow standalone movie. This enthusiasm eventually drew questions about why Marvel had never put out a female-fronted movie. And while the Marvel and Disney PR teams put all their chips on Captain Marvel as the answer to that particular question, they low-key delivered a female-fronted movie featuring two women in some of the most badass roles we’ve seen in the MCU.
The follow up to Ant-Man was always saddled with a difficult spot. The only movie fans were interested in after Avengers: Infinity War was Endgame, which Ant-Man and the Wasp is a far cry from. But while it wasn’t Endgame, it also wasn’t exactly Ant-Man, which had a tortured pre-production that led to a divisive final product. But director Sean Payton had control of the sequel from the beginning. Or at least, as much control as any director ever has in the MCU.
Ant-Man and the Wasp saw Paul Rudd bringing the humor that characterized the first Ant-Man movie. But it quickly became obvious that some of the comedy in Ant-Man was held over from Edgar Wright’s version of the film. With Payton taking over, he shifted the focus to hone in on the potential of Evangeline Lilly as an action hero. And in an even more exciting move, he cast Michelle Pfeiffer as the first Wasp, Janet Van Dyne. Her role as a nomadic warrior in the Quantum Realm, along with the excellent use of Ghost and Project P.E.G.A.S.U.S., made Ant-Man and the Wasp a genuinely fun highlight in the MCU.
For more thoughts on Ant-Man and the Wasp, check out our breakdown of the movie’s post-credit scene and what it might mean for Avengers: Endgame.
13 | Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Average Rank: 12.5 | Highest Rank: 9
Fred: Avengers: Age of Ultron has arguably the best intro of any MCU movie. The first Avengers movie ended with the team finally working together; Age of Ultron starts at that high note and takes us through a roller coaster of team dynamics. The “Hulkbuster vs. Hulk” scene was an outstanding fight to watch, but also, it was done in a way that let us see two characters fight each other and stop fighting each other in a way that never breaks the flow of the story. This doesn’t sound like a huge deal but if they’d gotten it wrong, it would’ve been.
It’s not a perfect movie, but Age of Ultron does introduce us to Vision and Scarlet Witch. In addition, Age of Ultron does more to set up other movies than most team-up films in the MCU. Thor is out on the trail of the Infinity Stones and we start to see the cracks in Tony and Steve’s relationship. Though it could be argued that the film spent more time than it should’ve as a stepping stone for the rest of the MCU, there is no denying that it had an effect on the other films and is still a joy to watch.
12 | Iron Man (2008)
Average Rank: 10 | Highest Rank: 6
Deepak: Of course, Iron Man is the one that started it all. What began as a fun popcorn entertainer to open the 2008 summer movie season ended with a stinger that, had things not worked out, would only be remembered as a cute reference for the comic nerds. Instead, it was a rallying cry, announcing Marvel’s cinematic ambitions and leading the way for what would become arguably the most groundbreaking cinematic event of the decade a mere four years later.
But taken on its own terms, apart from its place in cinema history, Iron Man works first and foremost because it’s about character. Aside from the a brief flash-forward to open the picture, it’s a remarkably straightforward, boilerplate origin story. It checks off the standard boxes we’ve now come to expect from these kinds of movies. What elevates Iron Man is its characters, who jump off the screen and feel as real as you or I, despite the inherent ridiculousness of the story they’re in.
Much of this, obviously, comes down to casting. The masterstroke was getting Robert Downey, Jr., whose portrayal of Tony Stark can now safely be called iconic. Surrounding him is a cast of heavyweights who all bring their charms and chemistry to the equation, most of all Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts. Jeff Bridges is clearly having a blast, hamming it up as Obadiah Stane/Iron Monger. I do wish Terrence Howard had remained as Rhodey (contract disputes forced him to be replaced by Don Cheadle).
There’s not much that needs to be said about Iron Man. It remains one of the best superhero origin stories ever made, MCU or otherwise, and its strengths are evident even over a decade later. Its accomplishments are even more noteworthy when one considers just how big a risk the movie was considered at the time it was made. That it seems so quaint in the wake of movies like Avengers: Infinity War is a sobering reminder of just how humble some beginnings truly are.
For more thoughts on Iron Man, check out our retrospective from last year.