The Modern Marvel Universe’s Avenger’s Project has produced a unique space in filmography by telling a large story over the span of 10+ films. As this universe continues growing, bloggers and critics alike increasingly attempt to produce definitive rankings of all its works. So, to follow this trend, I thought I’d join the conversation and offer a ranking with my own twist. Since these films tend to be subjective, I thought it would interesting to arrange some rankings alongside my friend Anya for counterpoint, as she has joined us for Marvel discussions in the past. To do this, we first made our own list, then brought them together and rearranged each title based on its average number between our two respective placements. Each entry will feature a back and forth commentary based on our takeaways and how much we agree or disagree.
First, let’s preface with the titles that either one or both of us haven’t seen (we’re not ranking these for obvious reasons):
Quentin: Luke Cage is fantastic, do yourself a favor and watch it, Anya.
Anya: I know, I know! Among all the other movies and TV shows and Netflix series I need to see. Listen, this “peak TV” thing is really not working out for my free time. But it’s on my list, I promise.
A: This series is worth it for Hayley Atwell alone, but in all honesty, it’s not a great show. Its pacing is awful and the script is just okay and I have already forgotten both seasons’ plots. But again: Hayley Atwell.
Q: Interesting. I always enjoyed her story arc with Cap, though it does seem like a stretch to give every minor character their own storyline — Avengers is spread thinly enough as it is.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Q&A: … We never got into it.
17. Iron Man 2 (2010)
A: While this is lowest on our list, it’s not my least favorite Marvel film by any means (though it is down there) on the mere fact that it introduces Don Cheadle as Rhodey (who’s great) and Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer (who’s amazing, I mean those fake tanned hands alone).
Q: Ehh, I don’t know. I liked Robert Downey Jr.’s chemistry with Terrence Howard a little more, and in spite of getting Mickey Rourke, the plot didn’t really hold much weight. Not to mention, that finale was one of the biggest letdowns ever.
A: But the fake tanned hands!
16. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Q: Yeah, I was disappointed because Norton is known for really pushing the envelope with studios, so he clearly lost that battle. Ang Lee’s Hulk was all over the place, but it at least produced a few genuine scares and some iconic action sequences. This Hulk story could be summed up as “Bruce Banner tries not to get mad, but they make him mad.”
15. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Q: I agree 100%. I respect films with great ideas that miss the mark more than ones that settle for less. That being said, I found this one more watchable than Thor. It may have been bland, but the narrative was less erratic and we got to see more of the Thor-Loki dynamic play out.
14. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
A: Fine by me! This movie, for whatever reason, is praised over and over again for what? Being flashy? Being funny? It doesn’t really explore anything interesting, and while it may pass Bechdel Test, it also has so much casual misogyny. Also, Gamora should have been the protagonist. The sheen on this film faded fast for me.
Q: That’s an interesting point, I definitely remember wondering when we were going to hear more about Gamora. To me, it’s just a whirlwind of jokes and minor twists in an otherwise cliched plotline. I saw it twice and I can’t remember anything about the villain other than him being big and blue. I’m also shocked at how much people love the soundtrack. It’s just a mixtape, people — have you never seen a Tarantino film?
A: Gamora had so much more of an investment in the overall plot of the film and an actual relationship with the villain. I get maybe Peter Quill was meant as an audience surrogate, but eh. Also now Chris Pratt is playing the same character over and over, which is a shame.
13. The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Q: Hey! Ultron is clunky for sure, but it has the party sequence, which is a high point in the saga! And I never said it was great. The plot hinges on Tony Stark being unstable and the climax just falls flat on its face. Not to mention, this has to be the tipping point in the series where there are simply too many characters to stay focused… BUT, James Spader’s portrayal of Ultron was genuinely creepy and I felt a touch of dread, which I can’t say about any other Avengers movies. Marvel villains should take notes.
A: Spader is great and so is the party scene, but here’s my ultimate issue which will come up again: I do not like Joss Whedon’s handling of these characters and he never wants to play ball with the other movies. Tony suffered PTSD in Iron Man 3 and it’s as though Whedon didn’t even watch that film. Also the Bruce and Natasha stuff was terrible. Here’s what I’ll give this film, though: It has a better Quicksilver than the X-Men films. There. I said it. Listen, I get this is an unpopular opinion, but Quicksilver in the X-Men films is a one-trick pony. And once you see the cool slow-motion and hear the needle drop, there’s not much more to him. Whereas Avengers’ Quicksilver, while it’s a shame he can’t be a mutant, has an actual personality, and layers, and feels so much more like the Pietro Maximoff I know and love from the comics. Also we get to see his relationship with Wanda, which is crucial.
12. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
A: On the whole, a good script and good characterization is most important to me. And Steve is my favorite Avenger (and Bucky is a favorite character of mine in general), so this movie’s excellent script and characterization is crucial for me and makes up for its very average directing. Also, the Red Skull is one of the worst Marvel villains (and they have a lot of those).
Q: Yeah, I respect it more in concept than execution. I like the whole aesthetic and the message, but it was really lackluster to me. The whole propaganda element was more interesting than the actual conflict.
11. Ant-Man (2015)
A: And bless him for doing so! I love Paul Rudd. This movie’s pretty alright. I do wish we had gotten to see Edgar Wright’s vision, but Paul Rudd and Michael Peña make this film. Although it’s another case of the qualified female character having to step aside for the unqualified male hero (which is seen time and time again in these films).
Q: Oh yeah, there’s another example of how you can’t square off against the Marvel studios and win. I do like that this is more of a heist film than another cookie cutter superhero flick, but a film with Edgar Wright at the helm would have simply been better. Can you imagine a superhero in the Cornetto universe?? I don’t think we’re worthy.
A: … Maybe it’s best we didn’t get it.
10. Dr. Strange (2016)
Q: Put Mads Mikkelson in all the movies! Doctor Strange was solid. Its audiovisual presentation alone has put it into the awards season discussion. The acting is great all around, but I think that’s pretty much to be expected from Marvel films. Conceptually it is great, but I felt the storytelling leaves much to be desired. Pardon the unfortunate comparison to Man of Steel, but you eventually get numb to the stakes because the scale becomes too much to absorb.
9. Thor (2011)
A: All right, the gloves are coming off. This is one of my absolute favorite Marvel movies (seriously, it’s in my top three), so I’m gutted that it’s so low. Thor is one of the most underrated Marvel heroes, and the character work in this film is beautiful. His relationship with Loki is like a Shakespearean tragedy (thanks, Kenneth Branagh!) and this film, simply put, makes me happy. Once you get past all the Dutch angles, I think it’s one of the best-crafted of all the Marvel films. And it introduced us to the best villain in the MCU.
Q: How dare you bring Shakespeare into this — his hands were CLEAN! Thor is a thoroughly average film and its greatest strength was the comic relief. To me, it’s a masterclass in misusing A-List talent. This film featured Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman, and Idris Elba, but I left feeling that their parts could have been played by anyone else. I don’t think it’s necessarily Branagh’s fault, but the stark difference in tone throughout the locations doesn’t pay off for me. And couldn’t they have done better than the Destroyer? Loki is an evil genius; anyone could have thought of turning one weapon against its owners.
A: I will grant you that Idris Elba definitely deserves more screen time in all Marvel films, but most everything else in this film works for me, various tones included. This movie is a fantasy film in a sci-fi/action/superhero cinematic universe and I think sometimes the Thor movies struggle finding their place because of that. But the reason I love Thor so much is its character work, which I think is great across the board, especially Thor and Loki’s relationship. Loki is an evil genius and I can write you an essay on why Branagh’s Loki respects and reveals that in this film. We will never agree on this film, though, I fear.
8. Daredevil: Season 2
Q: Easily. I’ll expand on him later, but how interesting that he steals the show when he’s only in like two episodes. Now that I have fresher eyes, I will say that season one is objectively better, but season two is still excellent. Elektra is fascinating. I could never make up my mind on whether I trusted her or not, which is hard to pull off. She’s a great catalyst for some great character development with Matt, as she brings out a side of him he’s tried to repress. I also liked The Punisher, who was a captivating anti-villain. Season two gets my respect for not trying to simply recycle the highlights from season one- it plays out like a proper second act. I have to say that the whole Hand organization missed the mark for me, though.
A: Yeah, I think the Hand stuff fumbles here as well. In fact, I agree across the board here. I think Daredevil wowed people so much as the first Marvel Netflix series and through what it accomplished, but I don’t think it’s Marvel’s best work on Netflix by any stretch.
7. The Avengers (2012)
A: Oops? This movie is fun, yes, but as I mentioned before, Whedon in the MCU does not work for me. At all. And I especially find his characterization of Steve grating and awful and like a shallow cut-out of the deeply complex and layered character Steve is in his own films. And truly, this film is a masterpiece in the sense that it exists at all: it’s incredible that this whole endeavor by Marvel worked as well as it did to be able to get to this point. But whenever I revisit this film, its glaring problems stand out more and more (especially now that I have so many other MCU movies to hold it up against and after realizing the Russo Brothers are much better at the helm).
Q: I mean, with so much going on, the Avengers characters are only going to get so much dialogue. It is the most purely plot-driven entry in the series, and it pulls it off in almost every way. Besides, Whedon gets in the standoff between Cap and Stark:
Cap: Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off and what are you?
Stark: A genius billionaire playboy philanthropist … you’re a lab rat, Rogers, everything special about you came out of a bottle.
In your words, Anya, it’s a “masterpiece.” A *ahem* Modern Marvel, if you will.
A: I am rolling my eyes so hard right now. Steve is so wildly out of character in this film and most of the humor doesn’t work for me (but that’s a problem I have with Whedon at large). The “I’m always angry” line falls apart immediately, Coulson’s “death” makes no sense as a narrative piece, and this movie is more spectacle than anything else. And as I’ve said, spectacle ranks low for me compared to a good script, which this film doesn’t have.
6. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
A: Yes, and I still have issues with Spider-Man’s entire presence in this movie. I am still also slightly bothered by a Captain America film being co-opted as an Avengers film. While I think the shine of this film has definitely worn off, I also think it’s still very solid throughout most of it. And there’s good character work for the main characters (because as you said, definitely too many characters). I also disagree with people who don’t like Steve’s phone call at the end.
5. Iron Man 3 (2013)
A: And one of my absolute favorites — definitely in my top three. As solid as the first Iron Man is, I think this one is far cleverer, more mature, and more interesting. Tony (and RDJ) is at his absolute best in this film (hence why it’s so frustrating that Whedon totally ignored him in Ultron), and Shane Black’s direction and script is wonderful. Also, the Mandarin twist is FANTASTIC, and Ben Kingsley is hilarious.
Q: Oh yeah, I think it’s great! We had a few examples of talent losing the creative battle with the Marvel executives, so it’s frankly amazing to me that Shane Black got to adapt Iron Man to his vision. I think he gets away with it because Tony has been through so much that they needed someone to bring a new slant to things. It will be hard to top this level of deconstruction in a mainstream superhero film… it’s also the only one I can think set on Christmas other than maybe Batman Returns.
A: Yes, although it is a shame that Black didn’t get to go with his original plan of Rebecca Hall’s character being the main villain because of merchandising (of which Marvel then had like none of!). But I will always love this film.
4. Daredevil: Season 1
A: Bravo, D’Onofrio indeed! As someone who is 99% of the time on Team Good Guys, when it comes to Daredevil, I am with Wilson Fisk all the way. Frankly, this first season does suffer slightly if only because D’Onofrio and the writing for Fisk so overshadow Charlie Cox and Matt Murdock. Don’t get me wrong, the whole cast is great, but D’Onofrio stole this season ten times over and he’s still the most compelling part. Partly because of his acting, but also because the writing did such an excellent job of showcasing that in a villain’s story, they’re not the villain, they’re the hero. … And yup, I’m pretty much only going to talk about Fisk because he’s the best. (Although props to some really great female characters as well.)
3. Jessica Jones: Season 1
Q: What I love about Jessica Jones is that it feels less like a superhero universe and more like a detective series with superheroes in it. I agree with you about the poignancy of this series, I think it has more gravitas than something like NCIS because it doesn’t resort to exploitative scenes to capture an emotional core. It started off a bit slow for me, but the culmination of the plot was a lot more rewarding than your typical superhero story because everything builds on each other. You’re right that that D’Onofrio soars higher, but Tennant’s character is worthwhile, particularly when you realize his powers have made him feel tormented and victimized for losing his humanity. A high point for me is the sequence where Jessica gets Kilgrave to do something heroic, the level of cognitive dissonance is hilarious! There are certainly examples of supervillains doing heroic things, but usually it’s played as redemption or tragedy, not comedy.
2. Iron Man (2008)
A: Yes, I am still amazed by this film, even if it’s not my favorite of the trilogy. I remember seeing it the weekend it came out, having very little knowledge about it or Tony Stark going into it, and being completely floored. And it still holds up quite well — it’s still plenty of fun and seeing Robert Downey, Jr.’s first outing as Tony is as great as ever. He really inhabits the role well.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Q: No question! It hits the mark on almost every front for me — the characters are strong and the screen time is divided appropriately, the writing is tight, and the action sequences are phenomenal. I mean, Nick Fury’s car sequence is on par with something you’d see in a 007 or Jason Bourne film. Not to mention, the central debate surrounding Winter Soldier is very strong. How important is the balance of liberty vs security and what would it take to compromise? Bringing on Robert Redford paid off more than I could have ever imagined.
A: I agree completely about the themes and questions of the film as well. You can really see it in their handling of Bucky and the idea of victim vs. weapon and who bears the responsibility.
Q: ALSO, fun fact: Nick Fury’s “tombstone” cites Ezekiel 25:17- the same verse Samuel L. Jackson’s character Jules Winnfield quotes in Pulp Fiction. One of the great Easter Eggs in any film.