Marvel comic book movies technically took a hit when The Amazing Spider-Man 2 wasn’t deemed amazing by critics, or by audiences after its first week. However, Marvel Studios didn’t have to worry, since Spider-Man is owned by Sony just like the X-Men are owned by Fox. As such, the actual Marvel Cinematic Universe won’t get a 10th installment until Guardians of the Galaxy comes out on August 1.
In the aftermath of Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘s success, and with 12 months still to go before The Avengers 2, this is an up to date ranking of the Marvel movies thus far from worst to best.
No. 9: The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The second Marvel Studios movie was in a no-win scenario from the start, as it had to follow the breakout success of Iron Man, precede the staggering Dark Knight and erase the stumbles of Ang Lee’s Hulk. Although The Incredible Hulk was an improvement over that standard, it still fell by the wayside in the bigger picture.
Saddled with unremarkable director Louis Leterrier, cardboard villainy from William Hurt and Tim Roth, and an inability to keep Edward Norton onboard, The Incredible Hulk only did enough to avoid full blown ire.
No. 8: Iron Man 2 (2010)
After Iron Man exceeded all expectations and launched the Marvel movie universe, Iron Man 2 came in with much higher hype – but much less success in matching it. It was clear that Iron Man 2 was more like The Avengers prequel about halfway through, with Iron Man/Tony Stark in a drunken haze for much of it as Mickey Rourke garbled in Russian.
This was the first real disappointment for Marvel Studios, in spite of the pieces it set up. It only put more pressure on The Avengers to make it all worth it.
No. 7: Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Thor got his second solo movie, although The Avengers had launched his brother Loki as the star of this universe. Such is the case in a sequel which also boasts two of the best set pieces in Marvel movie history, involving an escape out of Asgard and a final battle spanning multiple realms. Nevertheless, there isn’t much else to light up this dark world.
No. 6: Iron Man 3 (2013)
The second Iron Man solo sequel was an improvement on the first, if only for shock value. After building up an epic showdown between Iron Man and The Mandarin, director Shane Black instead orchestrates a twist that no one ever saw coming – although that didn’t necessarily make it all good.
Despite Black’s action panache that he perfected while writing the likes of Lethal Weapon, Iron Man 3 ‘s value depends on how well viewers can handle the big twist – and how seriously they can take the final resolution.
No. 5: Thor (2011)
The Marvel movie universe finally expands into another universe, with Shakespearian veteran Kenneth Branagh the ideal choice for this quasi-Shakespearian myth. Despite Branagh’s spectacle and the introduction of Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston as Thor and Loki, the greater success for these characters was still to come.
No. 4: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
The final prequel to The Avengers is easy to dismiss — just as Captain America himself might be – as an old fashioned World War II yarn with superheroics. Yet this is one of the best examples of a Marvel film that gets better with each viewing.
Chris Evans had already been a superhero in the poorly received Fantastic Four films, but CGI scrawniness and real earnestness helped him take a step up here. With added support from Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving and Hayley Atwell, The First Avenger took the ideal last step for Marvel’s Phase 1 – albeit a step that took 70 years for Cap to finish.
No. 3: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Cap’s second solo film took a decidedly more modern approach, as the murky grey areas of the present – and old faces and enemies from the past – pushed the captain and S.H.I.E.L.D. to the limit. But with the Russo brothers staging the best Marvel action since The Avengers, with the best team of superheroes since The Avengers, The Winter Soldier did no less than blow Marvel’s whole cinematic universe out into the open.
The aftermath in The Avengers 2 and Captain America 3 will likely determine if The Winter Soldier’s gambles truly paid off. Yet at the moment, there’s every reason to expect this is a key stepping stone to something even better in Avengers 2, like The First Avenger was for Avengers 1.
No. 2: Iron Man (2008)
The movie that started it all for the Marvel movie world was a gamble, since Iron Man wasn’t a big name hero for most audiences yet, and Robert Downey Jr. wasn’t officially back on top yet. If this didn’t work, Marvel Studios would be in a hole before the hard part of its grand cinematic plan had even started.
Instead, Iron Man set the bar as the biggest thrill ride of the summer, at least until The Dark Knight towered over it two months later. But while DC won that summer, Marvel is winning the long game these days – and it all started by gambling on the biggest gambler on its team. Nevertheless, the bar set by Downey and Jon Favreau hasn’t been topped by future solo Iron Man films.
No. 1: The Avengers (2012)
It took the long built-up team-up of The Avengers to put Tony Stark, Iron Man and Marvel in general into another stratosphere. Although Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Black Widow, Thor and Loki have all had their share of screen time apart, it was only together – and only under the eye of Joss Whedon – that they turned into a cinematic force.
This was the billion dollar payoff to end all payoffs, as Whedon brought his signature wit, banter and unlikely teamwork from TV to Marvel — with a bigger budget to kill monster invaders along the way. Yet with Whedon back for Avengers 2 and with Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Thor, Black Widow and S.H.I.E.L.D. all back to square one after their own sequels, the bulls-eye will be even bigger next May.
Is the Marvel Cinematic Universe about to truly get bigger and better, or will it settle for mere consistency? Will Avengers 2 be as big a leap forward as the original, or will it merely add to Hollywood’s superheroic overkill? By this time next year, these questions and the overall Marvel legacy will have more definitive answers.