22. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Of all the central Avengers films, Age of Ultron is by far the most forgettable and easily the worst.
As with any major team-up movie, Age of Ultron had its moments – some of which were genuinely inspired, awesome bits of fan-service – but it felt like Avengers 2 was striving to be more of the same instead of something more exciting or more profound, and at a time in which we’d already seen the genre-shaping Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, that just wasn’t enough, this film feeling like a throwback to an earlier phase rather than a look forward to a more exciting time. Avengers 2 was simply too low-stakes, its introductions of characters and locations being too transparent to hold any weight or emotional impact, the film being more of an important lesson to Marvel Studios than a monumentally enjoyable watch for any of us.
21. Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019)
Spider-Man: Far from Home has some of the most visually remarkable sequences in all of the MCU, the scenes in which Peter Parker is forced into dream-scapes of avant-garde nightmare imagery and spectacular visual effects being truly astonishing, but it suffered from the playful coming-of-age tropes of the original being stripped of their playfulness – MJ simply being MJ rather than a character with agency or even her typically dysfunctional charisma, Peter’s plethora of interesting classmates relegated to machines through which the film delivered expository dialogue or aligned viewers with what the “morally correct” point of view was, Peter no longer seeming like a fish out of water because of how the newness of superherodom and its related technologies was no longer new to him. And worse, the narrative itself felt very much like a coming of age film for a character who had already come of age in other movies.
As Spidey grew away from his own franchise, his own franchise was made to lose out on its key selling point of seeing Peter Parker as a child in high school struggling with growing into his new body while dealing with the emotional rollercoasters of school romances, social pressures and so on – something that not even additional central MCU characters, exceptional CG and powerhouse new cast members could help to fix.
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20. Captain Marvel (2019)
Captain Marvel was stripped of its opportunity for visual independence and warped into the same bland colour palette and CG-machinations as the likes of Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World and Ant-Man and the Wasp, and was even placed in the most unfortunate position on the release calendar – between Infinity War and Endgame, despite not being related to either. It didn’t have the musical advantages of fellow debuts Guardians of the Galaxy or Black Panther, and barely leaned into its 1990s nostalgia that gave it one of its unique selling points, but it was a film that borrowed from the same narrative and dialogue tropes that tanked Age of Ultron (at least in terms of critical reception), a movie that ultimately illustrated the studio’s intent on making something safe rather than challenging.
What Captain Marvel did signify was a film release that by its very existence spoke of advancements in the mainstream blockbuster sphere, a new world in which women could lead movies that cost hundreds of millions of dollars and earn all that money back and then some. This concept, and the superhero formula circling a woman lead, made for some of the MCU’s most memorable moments of empowerment and set the groundwork for one of Marvel’s leading Avengers moving forward, leaving many to question why it took the Disney-Marvel machine 11 years and a one billion dollar DC woman-fronted movie (Wonder Woman) to finally pull the trigger on a woman-fronted standalone.
19. Black Widow (2021)
A better representation of forming relatable, interesting and empowering characters than all of the Marvel movies listed thus far, and the better of Marvel’s limited woman-fronted output, Black Widow may have been handicapped by its positioning as a film of the MCU’s 3rd phase released after the conclusive Avengers: Endgame, and stunted further by release delays caused by the worldwide closures of cinemas, but when it was at its best it was an example of the heights Marvel Studios is capable of scaling.
Cate Shortland’s directorial input imbued Black Widow with an intimacy in cinematographic style barely present throughout the rest of Marvel’s output, and the impact this had on forming believable relationships between characters (as well as a genuine sense of personal stakes and historical trauma), was a gift to a leading member of The Avengers long-awaiting expansion to her brief but clearly grief-ridden past.
It being a Marvel movie, any true sense of blurring lines between heroism and antagonism were skirted over and the third act was largely the same MCU sky-falling action sequence we’ve seen in just about every other film, and a lot was assumed of its audience regarding their knowledge of the characters’ history beyond this standalone entry into their saga, but so many of these negatives were balanced by genuinely interesting cinema from a filmmaker who excelled in spite of the limitations imposed upon her, the cast excelling in turn.
18. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Upon its release, The First Avenger was seen as one of a number of less than stellar offerings from the burgeoning Marvel Studios as they struggled to find their feet in the fantasy-action realm. But, with more franchise entries referencing the lore of this film as the years pass, Captain America 1 seems to be increasing in importance and rewatchability with each new MCU entry.
Offering more jarring fantastical elements than the many MCU movies since, The First Avenger seemed to struggle tonally with the gravitas of being a war movie and the levity of being a comic book fantasy-action hybrid, creating a combination of shifting dynamics that lend the picture to criticisms across the board.
While very much a key part of the central MCU canon (something that can’t be said of every movie we’ve listed so far), The First Avenger remains a film best remembered in moments than in its entirety – a film with strong ideas and a brave perspective that ultimately didn’t resonate like those we have left to come.
17. Ant-Man (2015)
A much welcomed break from the serious and action-heavy catalog of MCU films released until this point, Ant-Man proved that sometimes fantastic ideas with bags of potential for visual and conceptual gags can make for films as entertaining and enjoyable as the most finance-intensive, star-powered content, and can do so while helping to navigate a brand from a very narrow fantasy-action spectrum into something slightly different.
Ant-Man was by no means the MCU’s first comedy, but it was certainly its first human comedy, the likes of Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy leaning into their comedic elements in an attempt to remove logic from fantastical landscapes of magic and far-reaching science fiction. Ant-Man starred everyone’s favourite not-superhero-looking comedy actor Paul Rudd, was based on a Marvel character even Marvel fans didn’t really care about, and seemed to have few expectations placed onto it by the studio, allowing it to fly relatively free of the usual confines of MCU films of the time, thus creating something distinct and interesting, not to mention hugely (and surprisingly) entertaining.
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