Now that Thor: Ragnarok has been in theaters a few days, it’s time to answer that perpetual question: Which Marvel Studios movie is best?
Alex Abad-Santos and Todd VanDerWerff each assessed all 16 films in the studio’s roster, then tallied their results to arrive at this 100 percent definitive ranking. If you disagree, you obviously have a different definition of the word “definitive” than they do. But that’s okay. We can all share this planet together.
Here’s every Marvel movie, ranked from worst to best.
16) Iron Man 2 (2010)
Iron Man 2 suffers greatly from having to serve too many masters. It wants to be another fun-loving Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) tale, but it’s also working diligently to set up the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe.
This was Marvel’s first attempt at a film that would serve as a prelude to even bigger things to come farther down the road, and it was clear the studio hadn’t quite figured out what it was doing in that regard. It’s the only outright bad movie Marvel Studios has made. Mickey Rourke is weirdly fun as Whiplash, though.
Best moment: Whiplash attacks Tony Stark on a racetrack. There aren’t a lot of great sequences in this film, but this one has a savagery to it that’s worth seeing.
15) The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The Incredible Hulk is openly boring. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) spends most of its run time trying to make sure his heart rate doesn’t surpass a certain threshold. In many scenes, Norton simply looks blankly at a number that’s increasing or decreasing. It’s like Speed, but the opposite.
It doesn’t make for compelling cinema, and while the movie does feature lots of tanks and smashing, it isn’t even a good action film. It says a lot that Marvel hasn’t made another Hulk-centric movie since this one.
Best moment: In the chase scene through Brazil, Banner’s cover is blown, and government special ops pursue him through a winding, maze-like town where the laws of gravity seemingly don’t apply.
14) Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Marvel’s “phase two” started off shakily, as the studio tried to follow up The Avengers with new solo films for Iron Man and Thor. Between the two, Thor: The Dark World suffers most for feeling like a completely generic, fill-in-the-blank take on a Marvel movie. It’s largely devoid of personality, and its biggest moment is quickly undone by the end of the film.
Still, it’s a chance to watch Tom Hiddleston play the trickster Loki, which is always worth seeing. For that alone, it escapes the absolute lowest reaches of this list.
Best moment: Loki and Thor head into another world on a desperate suicide mission. It’s the one time the film feels like its characters actually want something.
13) Thor (2011)
Thor marked a change of pace for Marvel, which had found success (at the time) by leaning into the story of Tony Stark and his irreverent worldview. Thor is more staid, with director Kenneth Branagh loading up on majestic monologues and poetic storytelling.
The movie is also a departure from Iron Man in that it’s more about the villain, Loki. It’s Marvel’s first movie where the villain boasts the charisma that characters like Magneto and the Joker have. Sure, Thor’s redemption story is fun, and it’s cool to see his friends help him out. But, really, this movie lives because of Loki’s sinister spirit.
Best moment: Thor smashes the Bifröst to bits to save a planet full of frost giants. He’s doing an incredibly noble thing, but he’s also destroying the only way for him to return to the love of his life.
12) Iron Man 3 (2013)
This one prompted the most dissension in our rankings, with Todd placing it relatively high and Alex placing it near the bottom.
There are good reasons for both arguments. The middle section of this movie — which is basically a buddy comedy about Tony Stark and a little kid — is as loose and freewheeling as anything Marvel has made. But the actual story is horribly bland, with a third act that struggles to tie everything together. (Come to think of it, lots of Marvel movies are saddled with undistinguished endings.)
Still, there’s a lot of charm here, and Downey is as good as he’s been playing this character, his way with a wisecrack carrying even the dourest of scenes.
Best moment: This is cheating, but anytime Tony and the kid are onscreen together is absolute gold.
11) Ant-Man (2015)
Though Marvel fans’ enthusiasm has been muted for this one (and its opening-weekend box office earnings were a bit tepid), director Peyton Reed’s romp through worlds both human- and insect-size proves to be a heck of a lot of fun. It doesn’t hurt that funnyman Paul Rudd plays the lead, or that the film ends with its best sequence, a big superhero battle that takes place entirely inside a little girl’s bedroom.
Ant-Man underscores just how much Marvel has struggled with its women characters (with its female lead, played by Evangeline Lilly, desperately wanting to join the action and being stopped by men at every turn), and its villain is one of the worst in the Marvel canon, which is saying something. But at its best, Ant-Man is a rollicking good time.
Best moment: That final fight is everything you could hope for from a movie where big things get small and small things get big.
10) Doctor Strange (2016)
Doctor Strange nabs this spot for two reasons.
The first is that its opening fight scene is as inventive and as beautiful as anything Marvel has ever created. If Doctor Strange’s agile visual effects are the future of Marvel, then we can all kiss the idea of “superhero fatigue” goodbye.
The second is Tilda Swinton’s performance as the Ancient One. Her character is, no doubt, controversial. But Swinton didn’t cast herself, nor did she make any executive decisions about how writers reworked the original comic book character for the film. What she was responsible for — the joy and wonderment that pulsates through her portrayal — she overdelivered on, again and again.
Best moment: The gravity-defying, physics-breaking first fight, where you have no idea what you’ve signed up for but are sure glad you did.
9) Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
How much can mood carry a movie? The actual story of Captain America lurches a bit from set piece to set piece, and its third act — like so many of Marvel’s third acts — is a mess.
But that’s not why you watch Captain America. You watch it because the movie so perfectly captures its World War II milieu, because it’s so different from any other superhero movie out there. You watch it because Chris Evans is as good as any actor since Christopher Reeve at capturing simple goodness and purity of spirit. And finally, you watch it because Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter makes a very good case for being the best female character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far, and she and Evans have terrific chemistry.
Best moment: Steve Rogers goes on tour to promote war bonds as Captain America, in a sequence that’s everything this movie does well — particularly the ’40s period trappings — in a nutshell.
9) Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
The best of the Thor movies feels like about five different screenplays grafted together, complete with several narrative detours that ultimately don’t go anywhere all that interesting. But in the hands of director Taika Waititi, the jokes are stronger, the action beats are mostly enjoyable, and the character work is occasionally stellar.
Marvel has perhaps become too reliant on its loose, jokey tone in recent years, and it’s easy to criticize Ragnarok on similar grounds. But Waititi’s command of both visual gags and funny dialogue is stronger than a lot of other Marvel directors’ grasp of the same material, and he sneaks in some crafty, winking messaging about the legacies of colonialism around the edges of the film. The ending is also unexpectedly moving.
Best moment: It was spoiled in the trailers, but Thor shouting, “He’s a friend from work!” when he realizes he’s going to have to face off with the Hulk in gladiatorial combat is a joke that lands every time you see it.
8) Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Guardians was a cinematic heat check for Marvel. Could the studio take a group of relatively obscure, space-traveling superheroes and make a) an enjoyable movie, and b) a hugely successful one at that?
It could, and it did. Propped up by a winsome performance from Chris Pratt, the movie was a breath of fresh air in a sour summer blockbuster season. Marvel vaulted viewers into the cosmos, far away from the world of Tony Stark, the Avengers, and humankind, to a place where talking trees, humanoid raccoons, and master assassins are the norm.
Best moment: The Nova Corps try, in vain, to stop the Dark Aster and save the day.
7) Spider-Man: Homecoming
Homecoming’s placement on this list was a bit controversial. I (Alex) was ready to rank it as high as third — as good as the original Iron Man — but Todd had it pegged a bit lower, hovering somewhere around the level of Ant-Man (which came in 9th prior to this ranking).
Todd’s main gripe with Homecoming was its Iron Man storyline, which he felt was grafted on and detracted from the main story of Peter Parker’s superpowered coming-of-age tale.
The Iron Man bits weren’t necessarily my favorites, but I didn’t dislike them as much as Todd did. I also think the high school/teen movie aspect of Homecoming, as well as Tom Holland’s performance as Peter Parker, were fantastic enough to overlook some of the film’s weaker moments.
We ended up splitting the difference.
Best moment: The absolute best moment of the film is a giant spoiler, but the scene of Spidey buried under the rubble is as good a superhero moment as you’ll find in the Marvel universe.
6) Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Avengers: Age of Ultron was never going to have the same crackle as its predecessor. The original just set expectations too high.
What Age of Ultron does better than its older sibling is confidently stick to and distill a worldview. Humans are beautiful, damaged, and ultimately temporary creatures, the film makes known. And the film’s focus on the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) conveys this message beautifully.
Best moment: The final battle scene featuring the Avengers working in unison to protect the country of Sokovia.
5) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 crackles with so much vibrant color, wild energy, and fizzy humor that there’s no mistaking it for one of its grimmer Marvel cousins. At times the space opera sequel gets a little too big, a little too complicated for its own good — some of the plots are somewhat overextended and extraneous. But when Guardians 2 hits its highs, it taps into a certain smile-inducing joy that no other Marvel movie can touch.
Best moment: Any time Yondu and Star-Lord share a scene.
4) Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Does every aspect of Captain America: Civil War make sense? If you poke at it long enough, not really. The film’s central storyline doesn’t entirely hang together, and its political metaphor isn’t as potent as that of its predecessor, Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
But it’s also an exciting new direction for Marvel, a film where the climax isn’t some gigantic battle against aliens but, instead, an interpersonal conflict between two superheroes who’ve come to be very, very angry with each other. It packs in tons of characters yet somehow never feels overstuffed, and in its finest moments, it expertly captures the joy and sheer exhilaration of superhero comics.
Best moment: Cap versus Iron Man turns into an all-out brawl at an airport, complete with a visit from Spider-Man.
3) Iron Man (2008)
In some ways, Iron Man earns lots of points for just how different it was when it came out in 2008. It wasn’t centered on a character everybody already knew — as was the case with movies about Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man. It was an opening gambit in building a massive franchise, centered on more than just this one character. And it brimmed with snarky brilliance, all thanks to Downey’s sarcastic performance as the man in the metal suit.
But Iron Man also possesses a surprising amount of storytelling ingenuity. It’s about a man with a literal broken heart who must figure out how to make it whole again, and who is tricked into becoming a better person in the process. This is smart, wickedly fun popcorn filmmaking.
Best moment: This movie is full of them, but there may be none as great as Tony’s closing press conference.
2) Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
The Winter Soldier is a strange creature in Marvel’s lineup. It’s both a deeply personal film and one built around a huge tectonic shift for the Marvel universe. And the film does both so well.
The chemistry between Steve Rogers and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) carries the story. Steve, a good company man, realizes the men he’s been saying “yes” to are Hydra double agents. For Black Widow, who was taught to never let anyone get close to her, the one thing she trusted is sullied and corrupted.
The two have to find a place where they can start over. Throw in the return of Rogers’s childhood friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) as an unstoppable killing machine, and you’ve got yourself arguably the best movie Marvel has ever made.
Best moment: Captain America gets stuck in a stopped elevator full of double agents, resulting in a thrilling close-quarters action sequence.
1) The Avengers (2012)
In terms of thematic ambition, both the sequel to this film and The Winter Soldier top it. In terms of importance to Marvel’s business strategy, Iron Man stands above it as well. But there is perhaps no movie that perfectly captures everything Marvel does well (when it’s doing things well) as The Avengers.
Just the idea of sandwiching all of Marvel’s biggest heroes (plus newly introduced Hawkeye) into one film should have been improbable madness, but in the hands of director and writer Joss Whedon, it somehow paid off. Big, pulpy, and fun, this is the movie all comic book films aspire to be now — for better or worse.
Best moment: This is the rare Marvel movie in which the final fight sequence is really worth it. The whole third act is terrific fun.
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