“There was an idea to bring together a group of remarkable people to see if we could become something more. So when they needed us, we could fight the battles that they never could.”
Marvel Studios have been the standard bearer for all superhero films for the past 10 years, presenting 17 movies to increasing audiences the world over and earning around $13.5billion at the worldwide box office. The studio has created 9 separate franchises since its debut film Iron Man in 2008, digging into the once exclusive comic book properties of the likes of “Ant-Man” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” to present fresh and always entertaining takes on a genre that they have come to master above even their most intimate of contemporaries. In this edition of Ranked, we have judged each of the 17 Marvel Studios Avengers-related movies from worst to best based on their quality and historical importance. As always, we encourage you to share your thoughts on social media and in the comments below, but for now it’s on with the list…
17. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Director: Louis Leterrier
Starring: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt, Ty Burrell, Tim Blake Nelson, Lou Ferigno
When The Incredible Hulk went into production, the characters of Bruce Banner and his gamma radiated alter ego were perhaps the biggest pop culture icons left at the behest of Marvel Studios after auctioning off their X-Men, Fantastic Four and Spider-Man to other companies. The duality of Banner’s character therefore seemed like the perfect choice for an audience-grabbing introductory film; one which would feature more fun and chaos than the Ang Lee presentation from 2003. If audiences didn’t see Iron Man earlier in the year, then they’d surely see this. History would have it that audiences did turn up to see Iron Man, and as such the lack of quality on offer in The Incredible Hulk was more obvious than it may have otherwise been. The movie was up and down, offering some half-decent fan service in amongst the rage and chaos but failing to deliver in terms of an interesting story or reason to care. In the aftermath of the release, it became clear that Leterrier was never entirely confident in directing the picture and had only taken the job after being rejected for his passion project Iron Man, and star Edward Norton threw the whole production under the bus by claiming he had ‘basically written the movie’. The Incredible Hulk now stands far afoot the bottom of the Avengers list in terms of quality, and can be considered as perhaps the only severe misstep of the studio’s entire universe. The film remains canon, with William Hurt’s continued presence being evidence of this, but having switched out Norton for Ruffalo it’s clear that this is the one film on this list Marvel are trying to forget about.
16. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Paul Bettany, Jon Favreau
Iron Man 2 felt like a big deal back in 2010. It was the third movie of the would-be Avengers universe and had cast the recently reconciled Mickey Rourke hot off the back of his triumphant return to prominence in The Wrestler. Underneath the hype there were grumblings of malcontent however, with Don Cheadle being substituted in for Terrence Howard following a pay dispute in which Marvel reportedly refused to offer Howard the same money for the 2nd movie as they had offered Downey Jr., and the story of Edward Norton’s future within the universe seemingly putting an end to early plans to have Iron Man and the rest of the Avengers team-up to take down a rebellious Hulk (as hinted towards in the post-credit scene in The Incredible Hulk). Ultimately, this landed Iron Man 2 in the zone of “safe sequel”; a film which delivers on all of the original movie’s promises but did little to exceed expectations. Still useful in how it was offering an appropriately colourful take on a superhero genre in the midst of Nolan’s darker Dark Knight trilogy, this Jon Favreau follow-up is perhaps less well remembered now than it was way back when, and we can all see Marvel’s biggest faults – presenting believable threats to their heroes – poking their ugly heads, but this is by no means a bad movie in the same sense that The Incredible Hulk was; just more of a forgettable one.
15. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Director: Alan Taylor
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Eccleston, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgård, Kat Dennings
Speaking of forgettable; is there a movie on this list that has as few special moments as Thor: The Dark World?
For the 2nd instalment of the Thor stand-alone franchise, and coming in the aftermath of The Avengers in 2012, The Dark World felt safe in many of the ways that Iron Man 2 did, though it also shared The Incredible Hulk’s unique trait of being a universe instalment that Marvel would look to move on from, resetting many of the lingering story threads in the first few minutes of its follow up Ragnarok in 2017. The Dark World did its job, presenting fans with more of the beloved relationship between Thor and Loki, and worked to introduce more of the unique planets and beings from the comic books, but it was lacking in anything beyond the typical faceless villain stereotype as a threat, and the film suffered significantly as a result of this. Thor 2 was very much the Iron Man 2 of the Thor franchise, only the relationship between Thor & Loki, as well as the presence of a few characters that have since been forgotten about – as played by Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgård and Kat Dennings – were just enough to pip the Iron Man sequel in this list.
14. Iron Man 3 (2013)
Director: Shane Black
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Jon Favreau, Rebecca Hall
Iron Man 3 is one of the more controversial entries into Marvel’s Avengers universe of films, and the entirety of the reason as to why is the film’s twist. Warning, there are spoilers ahead…
Screenwriter-director Shane Black had previously worked with Downey Jr. on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in 2005 and therefore seemed like an easy, creative alternative to the exiting Jon Favreau. The issue was that Black was noteworthy for tackling genre conventions and therefore sought to deviate from the typical ‘rise of an ultimate villain’ character arc, seeing it as too much of an obvious path for Iron Man 3 to walk down. As such, the movie developed a believable, identifiable threat in the form of Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin, only for Tony Stark/Iron Man to discover that the character was simply an actor relaying lines on behalf of another villain, a villain who turned out to be much less identifiable or interesting and much more like the lacklustre villains that had populated the universe to this point. In 2013 audiences had grown tired of under-developed villains with little to identify with, so Iron Man 3’s tease of a great villain proved too much for many. It was a moment which overshadowed the film and became the topic of discussion regarding the movie itself, which other than this moment was actually quite fun if not forgettable.
13. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Director: Joe Johnston
Starring: Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Dominic Cooper, Richard Armitage, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Samuel L. Jackson
Captain America: The First Avenger wasn’t met with levels of excitement even comparable to that of Iron Man a few years earlier and seemed to uncomfortably seat itself in the shadow of the upcoming Avengers (2012) movie, an unfortunate circumstance which had a somewhat negative effect on its reception. The movie itself wasn’t actually all that bad, and was inclusive of some of the better and more creative aspects of superhero filmmaking, including one of the more identifiable superhero origin stories in the MCU and the beginning of a decades long bond between Cap and the would-be Winter Soldier. Credit must be given to the creative minds at the centre of the film for also being brave enough to take the genre to new ground, the past – World War II – as it was a decision that has gifted this particular Marvel entry a lasting, if not growing, appeal. However, the reality of just how interesting the film went on to be is debatable at best. The First Avenger is largely forgettable, mostly due to its archetypal villains and generic calls to action, making the film much more interesting as a concept than it probably was when put into action. That’s not to claim that Captain America is by any means a bad movie, just that it’s not quite up to scratch with some of the better films that would follow it, both within its own franchise and that of the overarching Avengers timeline.
12. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Director: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie
Age of Ultron is probably best remembered for being the only disappointing superhero team-up movie Marvel have produced, and with good reason. The picture was problematic for one, facing a backlash from fans who disliked the handling of the universe’s second female superhero Scarlet Witch (Olsen) whom they perceived to be a weak character, and the film could never really get over some of its more unimaginative aspects including yet another villain who seemed all too unconvincing to truly offer a threat to the heroes of what were 4 separate franchises by this point. The film felt like a constant battle for screen time between existing characters, new characters and fight scenes or explosions, disappointing eager audiences in terms of its delivery of its villain (particularly how the “age of Ultron” only lasted around 4 days). Even so, there were positives to be had, many of which were overlooked in the midst of the movie’s controversy and indifferent reception, with the introduction of Mutants (or “inhumans”) being a particular positive that seemed to unlock the door to a future X-Men crossover, as well as a few perfect fan service moments including hints towards the coming introduction of Black Panther, some excellent dream sequences in which characters from individual franchises were afforded cameos, and Hulk versus the Hulkbuster. Looking back, Age of Ultron was more of a special movie than most seem to remember, but its bad moments really were poor, knocking it out of the top 10 in this particular list.
11. Ant-Man (2015)
Director: Peyton Reed
Starring: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Anthony Mackie, Michael Peña, T.I.
Ant-Man went through a lot of production issues to get to the screen, the most noteworthy of which was the late departure of original director, and the man behind the vision of the film, Edgar Wright. The would-be Baby Driver director was so influential that even Marvel couldn’t wipe his name from their credits, with the Cornetto Trilogy filmmaker receiving screenplay and producer credits for his role. The remnants of Wright’s style remain in Ant-Man, and most likely to its benefit, as the Paul Rudd starring film was the first outright comedy of the universe; the presentation of a character Marvel could utilise as a test subject for finding out if audiences would buy into their new, more genre-ised direction. It was far from the most financially successful of all of the Avengers movies (fourth bottom of the list in terms of worldwide grosses – $519million – out-grossing only Captain America 1, Thor and The Incredible Hulk), but it was popular enough for executive producer Kevin Feige to pull the trigger on the heavy comedy that would come in Spider-Man: Homecoming and particularly Thor: Ragnarok. Perhaps slightly more forgettable visually than some of the other late Marvel films – including the next movie on this list – but generally a sensational save by all involved, as this could’ve crumbled under its own production troubles. Luckily for Marvel, and us, Ant-Man turned out to be a pleasant, fun film that set the groundwork for some of what was to come.
10. Doctor Strange (2016)
Director: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Michael Stuhlbarg
Creeping into the top 10 is Scott Derrickson’s visually stunning and creatively imagined entry Doctor Strange, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as a super-surgeon turned magic-wielding superhero. The movie wasn’t without its controversy, including claims of white-washing through the casting of Tilda Swinton in a role that would have been better suited to an actor of East Asian heritage, yet its reception was generally positive. Its world-bending visuals, likened favourably to Christopher Nolan’s Inception, were given the most attention and praise, working to distinguish this particular Marvel property from the rest. White-washing aside, the cast was probably one of the most credible in Marvel’s history, and was largely made up of actors more often associated with high-art, award-winning movies than your typical superhero outing, from lead (and stage actor) Benedict Cumberbatch, to BAFTA winner Chiwetel Ejiofor, through to Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong and Mads Mikkelsen. Doctor Strange is certainly not perfect, but its fresh visual take remains of importance to the Avengers universe Marvel have assembled, and it remains a memorable release.
9. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Director: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Kurt Russell, Sylvester Stallone
Capitalising on his incredible surprise success (if there is such a thing regarding Marvel movies) was easy for James Gunn. All he had to do was put more of what he loves on the screen, and that he did. Introducing some of his idols, notably Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone, Gunn once again orchestrated a must-watch entry into the MCU. Visually, the film was all-but flawless, putting many of the universe’s films to shame in terms of colour and the use of CG. As was the case with the original, the dialogue was also some of the best around, again tapping into the quick-witted nature of its stars and playing them off some of the best deadpan characters around – notably Drax (Bautista). It is, however, rated lower than its predecessor because of an easy to predict story arc and the way it embraced more Marvelisms than its rebellious sibling. Even so, Guardians 2 remains a fantastic superhero film; one worthy of many a top 10 on its day. Today is one of those days.
8. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Director: Jon Watts
Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Gwyneth Paltrow, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Jacob Batalon, Tony Revolori
Who could have seen this coming?
A third reboot for the Spider-Man franchise was met with yawns, even with the anticipation that Marvel would do a much better job than Sony had done in the character’s 2 previous silver screen iterations. Cleverly, Marvel Studios introduced the character as a part of Captain America: Civil War the previous year, allowing audiences a taste of a new version of the beloved, interesting and funny character before their first Spidey film (co-produced with Sony) would be released. It quickly squashed the negative anticipation and instead created a huge wave of momentum that the film would ultimately ride to staggering reviews. Make no mistakes about it, Homecoming was a superhero-filled high-school comedy, not your typical action fare; it even came complete with believable characters and good performances, most notably from Holland as Parker/Spidey and Michael Keaton as his nemesis. Like Guardians 2, the film suffered a little from its predictable story arc, but remained a very good Marvel release. We’ve placed Spidey a spot higher than Guardians 2 because of how important it was for the character to receive such a positively reviewed reboot, not to mention how huge it is for the MCU to gain the addition of a young, charismatic Spider-Man moving forward.
7. Thor (2011)
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgård, Kat Dennings, Clark Gregg, Idris Elba
When Thor was initially released, it was the first real off-planet adventure for the MCU. Previously, the universe had visited Iron Man, the story of a very human billionaire using his money for good in much the same way as the popular Dark Knight Trilogy was in the midst of presenting Batman as doing, and it had given us a taste of Hulk, the most recognisable of all Marvel characters and the tale of an ordinary man who became subject to a scientific accident that caused him to have extraordinary powers. Contrast this with the off-planet home of an alien being we’ve historically referenced as a God and it becomes clear as to why Thor was one of the lowest grossing of all of Marvel’s films. All of this was likely compounded when the cast was announced, leaving many a mainstream box office audience scratching their heads as to who any of the actors were besides Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins. In a way, this freed director Kenneth Branagh from the pressures of expectation however, and the experienced filmmaker used this to develop a unique perspective on the Avengers universe from a planet far away, through a character naive to the troubles of our world. As such, the relatively unknown cast were able to truly personify their characters, with Tom Hiddleston’s Loki becoming one of the more beloved in the entire MCU despite being a villain, and the film was able to present the idea of superherodom in a more tongue-in-cheek way than we had previously seen. Thor is perhaps best remembered for its funny moments, but the efficiency through which the film introduced Thor’s planet Asgard was certainly commendable and the story’s building of anticipation regarding Loki possibly turning good or evil depending on which part of the plot the movie was presenting, as well as the presence of other Avengers – notably Hawkeye for the first time – having an effect on Thor’s Earth-bound journey, made for a less predictable outing for Marvel; one with quite a lot of heart, too.
6. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Director: Taika Waititi
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins, Benedict Cumberbatch, Taika Waititi
Thor: Ragnarok is the most out-and-out comedy of the Marvel bunch, and what a comedy it is. Introducing New Zealand born filmmaker Taika Waititi to a wider audience was something that brought a lot of excitement from those in the know, mostly due to his presentation of innocent comedy and the genuine heartfelt touch that the likes of Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows each had. With Ragnarok, the MCU took a turn in a slightly different direction, reclaiming the story from the ill-received 2nd Thor movie and partnering the Asgardian God with Hulk, in what seems to be the closest thing to a Hulk movie we’re going to see. Notably, new planets and species were introduced to build the lore of the Marvel universe, and some of the secondary character interactions are amongst the best Marvel has yet put to film. Sitting on the cusp of a red-hot top 5 is indicative of this film’s power to create joy and make people laugh. The reality is that sometimes such positives can overcome slight irks about the plot or some of the CG.
5. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Tom Holland, Daniel Brühl
There comes a point when the idea of teaming heroes together to save the world from a faceless force of evil that just so happens to have appeared from out of nowhere gets stale, and that’s part of the genius of the timing of Captain America: Civil War. This 2016 movie marked the first time our beloved heroes had fought one another in such numbers, and the way in which the movie reflected society’s growing divisiveness as regards ideologies was fitting, timely, and altogether engaging. A film-stealing sequence involving revelations about Tony Stark’s parents was one of the biggest moments of character and story coming together to enact a pay off that we have ever seen from the MCU, so when this was coupled with some of the most realistic and brutal looking fight sequences in the cinematic universe and a clear objective to ensure that each character was treated in conjunction with their already established personalities, Civil War became an undeniable comic book movie classic.
4. Iron Man (2008)
Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Leslie Bibb, Clark Gregg, Paul Bettany, Jon Favreau
After 15 years of sitting on the shelves in various big-money studio office blocks, Marvel risked it all in 2006 when they bought back their Iron Man character and went about making their first ever fully self-financed movie, a decision that would have bankrupted the famous comic book company were it not a success. The rest, as they say, is history…
Iron Man was a fantastic film, and truly the birthplace of the modern superhero movie. Favreau, whose previous success had come at the helm of smaller, independent movies and Christmas breakout hit Elf (2003), used the platform – under the guidance of executive producer Kevin Feige – to display his fantastic appreciation of solid characterisations and his talented manipulation of developing CG (a tool that was able to so convincingly bring the Iron Man to the screen in a way that would never have been possible previously). But Iron Man wasn’t so much Favreau’s movie as it was Robert Downey, Jr’s. The actor, whose personal life had spiralled in the 2000s following substance abuse issues, had been labelled tough to work with, so his dedication to the role came as somewhat of a surprise, even to some of those responsible for hiring him. It was as if Downey Jr saw Tony Stark as himself in many ways – leading to the close distinctions between the actor and character that exist to this day – and as such he led the Stark character through the movie with such a convincing narcissistic charm that the story’s redemption arc became entirely fitting of the performer; a true case of art imitating life. Alongside the Iron Man crew, Downey Jr was able to create one of the best, most true, and most honest superhero portrayals in history and as such became the spearhead to an entire generation’s worth of superhero films and an empire worth close to $14billion. What’s more is that this entire movie still holds up.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Director: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro
2014 was a very good year for Marvel Studios, not least because of the fresh and original take on the universe from James Gunn and his talented, previously un-mined cast. Introducing Chris Pratt as the next mega-star Chris of the cinematic landscape was a masterstroke of casting that aided an already abundantly funny script, creating a comedy unlike anything we had seen before in the MCU and beginning a trend of releases aimed towards more specific genres (Ragnarok – comedy, etc.). Visually, the movie was something completely different too, bringing a more rich and vibrant colour pallet to a generic, digitally produced look that had grown stale across a list of 9 previously released films. The surprisingly moving nature of the finished product when partnered with the genuinely hilarious moments it regularly churned out and its likeable cast of misfit characters, made Guardians of the Galaxy a surprisingly rich film worthy of investment, and certainly more than the placeholder many had seen it as becoming.
2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring: Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Hayley Atwell
When the Russo brothers took on the Captain America sub-franchise, they inherited perhaps the most underwhelming of Marvel’s Phase 1 movies (Hulk not included), and yet the quality of their Winter Soldier movie was almost unrivalled. The brothers, whose filmmaking career had only seen them previously helm episodes of ‘Arrested Development’ and forge their action chops as directors of ‘Community’ (of all things), were far from a safe choice, but the levels of originality, flair, and much-welcomed realistic fight choreography, made for a film that had everything. The Winter Soldier was so good in fact, that the Russo brothers were invited back to not only conclude the Captain America trilogy with Civil War, but also to end the run of many phase one story arcs in Infinity War (2018). Who could forget that shocking plot twist or the elevator fight sequence? The Winter Soldier was a superhero film to remember, and perhaps the most perfectly superhero of them all, except one…
1. The Avengers (2012)
Director: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Samuel L. Jackson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany, Stellan Skarsgård
Even five years removed from its release, there remains no movie more important and significant to Marvel Studios than The Avengers, the first major team-up of Marvel’s first phase of Avenging superheroes, the culmination of 4 years of build-up, the realising of dreams for many a Marvel fan. Joss Whedon’s epic fantasy-action movie remains the highest grossing of any Marvel picture ever released, earning $1.5billion at the worldwide box office and stamping itself as the 5th highest grossing movie of all time (not adjusted for inflation). It must also be considered the most perfect iteration of the original Marvel Studios formula ever released, and though time may have distorted the public consensus regarding its quality – especially in the aftermath of some of its more recent contemporaries – and while trends have changed and our tastes altered, this 2012 fantasy team up remains the strongest Marvel movie in almost every sense that it can be. Though we may not so often think “Avengers” when thinking “Marvel” these days, there is a continued sense of appreciation for this film and all that it brought from the Marvel Studio lot, so let’s remember this film for all that it gave us: a spectacle of fantasy-action, dream-fulfilling, goodness that has not yet been matched.