I am very proudly a geek. I like my sci fi, comic books, role playing games (both computer and the ol’ dice and paper character sheet, thank you), and books. One of the things geeks are known for are discussing their fandoms, comparing, arguing the merits of different things, and all sorts of ranking systems.
I’ve been reading comics since the late 80’s, and watching movies longer than that. These are two things I really enjoy. I’ve read you need to put in 10,000 hours at something to be considered an expert. If I’m not there on movies, I’d be surprised. If I’m not at that number on comics, I’d be astounded, especially if you count writing about, discussing, and critiquing.
So, believing that I qualify for at least notional expert status, I’m going to go through the various Marvel Studios projects and rank them, worst to best. Now yes, there’s a lot of opinion here, but that’s how these lists work. For that matter, it’s how a lot of critique works. So, I don’t expect anyone will agree with all my calls.
Disclaimers: I am not speculating about projects yet to come, or non-Marvel Studios work. So no X-Men, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, or Hulk. I know they included the second Hulk movie in the Avengers Marathon, and reference it in the Avengers movie, but it wasn’t done by Marvel Studios, so I’m not including it.
My picks, from worst to best (with a general warning for spoilers below):
Iron Man 2 (2010, 72 % on Rotten Tomatoes)
Ok, let’s start by saying that even a low-ranking Marvel movie is still pretty good. I didn’t hate Iron Man 2 or anything. But I thought it had a lot of problems. Justin Hammer was supposed to be a comic relief bad guy, but I found him more annoying than funny. I get that Tony Stark is a genius (philanthropist playboy), but Hammer is head of a large arms company and can’t make anything work? Hammer gets bested by Vanko/Whiplash, Tony, and Pepper. He just doesn’t seem like a threat. I also didn’t really enjoy the Senate hearings, the corporate politics, and Rhodey turning on Tony or the drunken dance party.
Also, two things that annoyed me that weren’t necessarily the movie’s fault: 1) This was the movie they replaced Terrance Howard with Don Cheadle, and it was done in a really not-cool way. As Stark says later, “Dick move.” 2) I think the scene of Tony jumping out of the plane after Pepper kisses the helmet and tosses it, with him saying “You complete me,” was in every damn trailer I saw… but not the movie. Or at least not the version I saw in the theater, I don’t know if anyone else saw a different one. On the plus side, this was Scarlett Johansson’s debut as Black Widow, so there’s that at least. And some nice scenes with Nick Fury.
Agents of SHIELD (2013-present, Rotten Tomatoes 86% for Season 1 and 94 % for Season 2)
Let me get a few things out of the way. Clark Gregg and Ming-Na Wen are awesome. I don’t disagree with that. I also like any excuse to see more of Jamie Alexander as Sif. But the series has been very uneven. There have been some brilliant episodes, but some really didn’t work. The episode “TAHITI” with Lorelei, another Asgardian, was particularly bad. I also don’t know of anyone who liked the two SHIELDs subplot during the later half of the second season. Yes, it’s likely harder to keep up quality on a tv show than a movie. But they tie themselves to the larger, cinematic universe, so they’re part of the list.
I like the cast overall. It’s a good ensemble. But they had a lot of problems, especially early on. The series got a LOT better after Winter Solider (the movie was so good it made everything better by association). For example, while they mention the different specialties of Fitz and Simmons, for example, they seem to fall into the “they are a scientist so they can do all this” trope far too often. They did a good job building up to Deathlok, but then he vanished for most of season 2 for no good reason. Like I said, very uneven. Great concept, mediocre execution. That said, I’m still watching it.
Thor: The Dark World (2013, 66% on Rotten Tomatoes)
I think Hemsworth does a great Thor, and Hiddleston is undeniably brilliant as Loki. So why is this one down so low? Well, it’s one of those the more you look at it, the less sense it makes kind of movies. By the end of it, I’m still not sure what the “aether” is. At the end of the movie, they pretty much say it’s one of the Infinity Stones (in liquid form?). The Stones are supposed to correspond to specific things, and I couldn’t get a read on what this one was. Space? Not time, not mind, not power… I also find that, as I watch this one more (yes, I’ve seen all of these more than once, some a lot more), I just don’t like really like Natalie Portman as Jane Foster.
This had a great cast, including Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Jamie Alexander, and Idris Elba. I just don’t think it came together as well as it could have. I also really don’t like my sci fi and fantasy stories blurring, and there was a lot of that here. The scene with Loki and Thor escaping from Asgard could have been any sci fi flick, with the flying boats and laser (that’s what they looked like) batteries trying to bring them down. They also pretty much benched my favorite of the Warriors Three, Hogun (who gets about two minutes of screen time and what, three lines if that?). It was a fun movie, it just had some holes in it, and it’s up against some stiff competition higher up on the list.
Iron Man 3 (2013, 79% on Rotten Tomatoes)
There was a lot of good in this movie. I think the idea of a superhero with PTSD was brilliant. Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin (both versions) was amazing. It was great to see Rhodey in action more in his own armor. Pepper got some great scenes, and it was interesting seeing Tony’s past catching up with him. And c’mon, the scene near the end with the Iron Legion was just amazing. Tony improvising tools and acting without his armor was a nice idea. And I liked that Tony finally had that operation to fix his damaged heart.
On the other hand, the suits all got destroyed ridiculously easily in that end massive fight. And the “Clean Slate” protocol made no sense to me. Tony has helped save the world and done a lot of good, so he’ll wipe out his armor? It also bumped into the shared universe problem– Tony was in a desperate situation, the President was in danger, and he didn’t even try to contact the Avengers? I know, it’s his movie, but still.
Agent Carter (2015, 97% on Rotten Tomatoes)
This had a lot of cool things going for it. It’s a period piece, so they got to play with sets and wardrobe to create the post-World War II world. Haley Atwell was fantastic as Peggy Carter. There were some nice ties to the larger Marvel Universe, but they largely got to keep to themselves, since this is unexplored territory in the cinematic Marvel U. It was kinda cool seeing the SSR and Stark’s toys lay the groundwork for what would become SHIELD. It flowed better than Agents of SHIELD, but it had a shorter season. The guest shot by the Howling Commandos, who I’d like to see get more screen time, was nicely done.
On the negative side, the recurring theme of Peggy being sexually discriminated against got heavy handed. Howard Stark ended up as cheap comic relief a lot of the time, as did Jarvis. It seemed like they made Peggy great (which is good) by making everyone else appear incompetent (not so good). And the entire subplot in the women-only hotel seemed like it was out of a bad sitcom.
Ant-Man (2015, 80% on Rotten Tomatoes)
Marvel took a few gambles with this one. Ant-Man isn’t exactly a well-known name, and it’s one that lends itself to being mocked. This also the movie they went the furthest from the source material on, making a lot of changes from the characters in the comics. And all of it worked. Hank Pym and Scott Lang were both Ant-Man in the comics, and both have decent roles in the movie. There’s action, and more humor than most of the Marvel movies. They also used the shrinking and growing powers creatively.
I’m not sure I saw the need to create “Hope Van Dyne,” a stand in for Janet Van Dyne, the Wasp in the comics. I guess they wanted to give Scott a love interest, and Janet was Hank’s wife. They also overdid the comic sidekicks a bit in my opinion. They could have cut the group down to just one of them. Still, it was a fun movie.
Thor (2011, 77% on Rotten Tomatoes)
Thor was a founding member of the Avengers, and different from most of Marvel’s early characters. The vast majority of them had scientifically based powers (cosmic rays, radioactive spiders, high tech armor). Thor was a character from myth come to life. The movie did a good job of combining the myths of Thor and Asgard with the modern world. They also took the storyline from the comics about Thor being stripped of his power for his own arrogance and used it to introduce Thor to present day Earth.
Thor meets SHIELD, Jane Foster (his love interest in the early comics), and there’s even a Hawkeye cameo. It was a pretty good movie, although the “unstoppable” Destroyer went down a little easier than I would have expected. It was a good action movie and showed Thor’s heroism and nobility.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, 91% on Rotten Tomatoes)
This was Marvel’s biggest departure from their other movies, and their biggest risk: a property no one outside comic readers had ever heard of, and even many of them don’t know the team. It had no real ties to any of the other movies. And two of the main characters are a tree and a raccoon. You’ve got to give Marvel credit, this had the makings of an epic fail. Instead, it did amazingly well. It got great box office and everyone I know of that saw it liked it.
I could quibble about how the various characters differ from the comic book versions, but I’m more than willing to let that all go. This was a fun ride. It was silly, more comedy than superhero a lot of the time, but it worked. And really, who didn’t like that soundtrack? Overall, a great movie.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011, 79% on Rotten Tomatoes)
Sometimes with the superhero movies, the hero can get lost in the super. Steve Rogers was a hero before he became Captain America. The movie does a great job of staying true to Cap’s origin in the comics. They even manage to be patriotic without being cloying. Tommy Lee Jones and Hayley Atwell do great in their scenes. And they lay groundwork for some important things later with Sebastian Stan as Bucky.
The movie did a fantastic job of focusing on who Steve Rogers is– all the enhancements later as Captain America just let him do more. Cap gets great action sequences, inspires his fellow soldiers, and then ends up in the infamous crash and suspended animation for decades, letting him rejoin the Marvel Universe later. It’s easy to be cynical about heroes today. Captain America does a pretty good job of showing that some heroes deserve the name.
Daredevil (2015, 98% on Rotten Tomatoes)
Daredevil was a very different take on masked heroes. This one was all about the people involved in the series. Daredevil doesn’t even get his signature costume until the final episode of the first season. The series featured some amazing fight choreography with some very impressive writing, casting, and acting. Even the supporting characters are nicely fleshed out, and everyone has a story that makes sense. Matt Murdock, Foggy Nelson, and Karen Page are the good guys, and they are struggling to do the right thing, although they’re not always sure that is. There are subtle references to the rest of the Marvel Universe that are slipped in to make a lot of sense but not detract from the plot.
But Wilson Fisk and his right hand man Wesley are fully realized characters as well. Fisk does some horrible things, but he honestly believes he’s doing them for the right reasons. Nobu, Owlsley, and Gao are higher ups in Fisk’s organization, and they have their own stories as well. My only complaint was I didn’t really understand how Vanessa fell for Fisk, seeing what he did. Daredevil is supposed to link to other series, also coming from Netflix and Marvel. If this was any indication, I can’t wait to see them.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015, 74% on Rotten Tomatoes)
The Avengers had been well established by the time this movie came around. Both in the first Avengers movie and the various individual character films, the characters were all well known. Not only the big heroes, but the supporting characters all get some nice scenes and good screen time. The opening sequence is the whole group in action, and not only are they a well- oiled machine, you just get the feeling they’ve been spending time together and that they’re friends.
They adapt a classic story from the comics, Ultron’s creation. A good idea gone horribly bad, Ultron pushes the heroes hard. The movie also sows the seeds for many upcoming events, including a new team of Avengers and the Black Panther movie. There was great teamwork, amazing action scenes, some fantastic new ideas (love this version of the Hulkbuster armor) and a lot of surprises. The only reason this movie isn’t higher on my list is that there are some really amazing ones ahead.
Iron Man (2008, 94% on Rotten Tomatoes)
This is the one that started it all. Marvel Studios took several risks for their first project. Not a lot of people outside comic book readers knew who Iron Man was, and Robert Downey, Jr. did not have the best reputation at that point. It all paid off beautifully. Downey was perfect as Tony Stark, genius playboy, and then as the heroic Iron Man after he sees what his weapons do to the world.
Action, humor, great supporting cast, and a story that managed to both stay very close to the comics and still get updated for modern times– this had it all. One of the things that really made the movie for me was the sense of fun. Not just that the movie was enjoyable, which it certainly was. As Stark improves and test his armor, there is an amazing joy on his face which is missing from so many hero movies. This was one of the most perfect superhero films ever made, and I loved every minute of it. Then, in an after credit scene, the wider Marvel Universe is hinted at in a cameo that I’ve read was originally an in-joke for comic fans. Instead, it launched an amazing juggernaut of fantastic movies that, all together, are probably the most successful franchise ever, and are still going strong.
Avengers (2012, 92% on Rotten Tomatoes)
This was an amazing idea for a movie. Take characters from several successful franchises, and put them all together in a new one. And no one was the star. It was an ensemble movie of characters that had mostly carried their own stories already. This is what the first round of films was leading up to, and it was worth the wait.
A team of amazing heroes, forced to work together to save the world. It sounds like a simple, cliched idea, and in some ways it is. But it’s done so amazingly well here. They don’t all like each other near the beginning, but everyone brings something to the table, and by the end, they’re unstoppable. And really, who didn’t sit there and go “Wow,” the first time they saw that scene of the camera slowly panning around, showing the entire team? This was an astounding movie, and the first one I ever actually went out and bought the day it became available.
Captain America: The Winter Solider (2014, 89% on Rotten Tomatoes)
I’m a hero geek. I read about heroes, write about them, watch the movies and tv shows, eagerly go to the comic shop every week. I’ve studied them, and seen some incredible things done with the idea of heroes. Marvel had been impressing with their movies, and I eagerly awaited each one. And then Winter Soldier came out and was better than I’d thought.
From a lighthearted opening that introduces a new character, through a lot of loss and doubt, Captain America remains a hero. He’s patriotic, but he’s devoted to what’s right, not any one country or institution. In dark times and through murky circumstances, Cap is an old fashioned hero, a good man who does the right thing no matter how hard. The Winter Soldier was a great story in the comics, and they improved it here. I believe this is the best hero movie I’ve ever seen, and I’m stunned it’s not rated higher on Rotten Tomatoes.
In my opinion, Winter Soldier was everything Man of Steel failed to be- a great man as a hero defending people. Cap was inspiring and compassionate, and showed there is room for heroes in the modern world- the very things DC essentially claims it can’t do anymore. I’m not trying to tear down Man of Steel here, although I did not like it. I’m saying that “old fashioned” heroes still work just fine, if you do them right.
So, this was my list. I’m sure there will be people that disagree, and that’s fine. Enjoying a movie or tv show, what makes one great, is very subjective. But I’ve tried to give reasons for my rankings here. Hopefully you’ve at least found a few things you can agree with, or that made you consider a few new things.