With the release of Captain America: Civil War just around the corner, it’s quite fitting that we look back on the twelve films that have kick-started the Marvel Cinematic Universe in style. Having launched the universe with Iron Man back in 2008, Creator Kevin Feige wanted to create a universe that appealed to both mainstream audiences and longtime fans of these beloved characters. Nobody knew how big it was going to become back then, but ever since, the series has become a worldwide phenomenon, rivalling the successes of both Star Wars and Harry Potter, as well as spawning a TV universe set within the MCU, featuring the likes of Agents of SHEILD, Agent Carter, and of course the Netflix shows, Daredevil and Jessica Jones. So, with all that said, it’s time to commence my top 12 MCU films (so far).
- Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, 2010) – Fans and critics lauded the first Iron Man film, Favreau felt the need to go all out for the sequel, but all Iron Man 2 did was just kill time before The Avengers. This was a forgettable sequel that spent way too much time with setting up characters and plotlines for future instalments that it forgets about being an actual movie that stands in its own right. There were moments when this film tried to be a great and worthy sequel to the first, but it got bogged down by having to shoehorn in these puzzle pieces as a means of getting to The Avengers. Oh, and don’t get me started on Mickey Rourke’s terrible Whiplash and his bird. Stop going on about the damn bird!!! Despite the strong comedic chemistry between Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow, Iron Man 2 just ends up being a disappointing mess.
- Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor, 2013) – Whilst not repeating the same mistakes Iron Man 2 made, Thor: The Dark World was still a disappointingly weak film. This feels like a film that went thorough many re-edits and re-shoots, and consequently, the end result feels somewhat rushed. Whether there was some kind of feud between Taylor and Marvel remains to be seen, but it feels as though this film wasn’t thought through properly, and tonally, it’s all over the place; it feels as though it wants to be a dark film, but what stands out the most are the light and comedic sequences (e.g. Thor hanging up his hammer on the coat-hangers). It’s plot is heavily convoluted, Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith the Accursed is just as bad and underused as Rourke’s Whiplash, and it commits the unforgivable crime of having Tom Hiddleston’s Loki in it but not utilising him very much. In the future, we should expect fewer elves and more Loki.
- The Incredible Hulk (Louis Leterrier, 2008) – After failing to hit with audiences with Ang Lee’s Hulk in 2003, Louis Leterrier reinvented the green goliath for a new audience with The Incredible Hulk, wanting to add the right mixture of action, humour and drama. Edward Norton proved a solid portrayal of the tortured and conflicted Bruce Banner, and the romantic storyline between him and Liv Tyler’s Betty Ross added real weight and emotion to the overall drama. In fact, the film is at its best when Hulk himself is nowhere to be found on-screen; when he turns up, everything just decides into a by-the-numbers, CGI-extravaganza with cascading fireballs, massive explosions and final showdown with a CGI’D Tim Roth. Plus, none its loose plot threads get resolved in future movies: what happened to both Samuel Sterns and Emil Blonsky? Will Bruce be reunited with Betty once again? Still, at least William Hurt’s General “Thunderbolt” Ross will be turning up in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War. It is the best solo Hulk movie to date, but that’s not saying much.
- Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011) – Audiences perceived Guardians of the Galaxy to be Marvel’s riskiest movie, but Thor was far more dicier as it had to introduce, in a bold way, both a mythology aspect to the Marvel universe and one of Marvel’s main Avengers. Everyone wondered if Kenneth Branagh could pull off such a big feat, but what he created was a film that was full of style and panache, a world that was full of vibrancy and rich detail, and even managed to be self-aware of its own brand of silliness. Chris Hemsworth does the hammer-wielding thunder god justice by bringing real wit and charisma to the part and the comedic romantic storyline between him and Natlie Portman’s astrophysicist, Jane Foster, was a joy to watch. However, the scene-stealer is undeniably Tom Hiddleston, who made his debut here as the vengeful, manipulative, yet tragic, Loki, and has since become arguably the most memorable villain in the MCU.
- Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011) – Like Thor, Captain America was another was going to be tricky to adapt for the big screen. It could’ve all descended into patriotic flag-waving, but the most old-fashioned hero is given justice by capturing the character’s sense of heroism and the courage to do what’s right. Chris Evans perfectly embodied that, and manages to ground the character of Steve Rodgers in a way that us as an audience connect with him in a way that’s both fresh and heartfelt. Like with his previous film, The Rocketeer, Joe Johnston brings a classic retro feel that’s both visually exciting and pulpy, plus Hayley Atwell was brilliantly feisty as Agent Peggy Carter, so no surprise that she was granted her own spin-off TV series. This film embraced its knowing sense of humour and wit, and maintaining a feeling of nostalgia in terms of its style and tone, almost like Thor did, but more than anything, this brought the Star-Spangled Avenger into the MCU with aplomb.
- Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015) – After building up strong in the previous movies, expectations were extremely high for Joss Whedon’s sequel to the original phenomenon, yet it somehow managed to fall under its own weight. It became too bloated for its own good, cramming in so much set-up for future movies to answer, having horrendous pacing that was far too quick (almost like movie-making for the ADD generation), and shoehorning in a weak interpretation of Quicksilver and an incredibly-forced romance between Hulk and Black Widow, which was a shame as Whedon is so much better. However, it still managed to be a worthy sequel to first Avengers movie, tying up all the loose threads, having well-choreographed action as well as great iconic moments peppered throughout (Vision handing in the hammer), and for the first time, making the MCU feel like a shared universe. Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye got some much-needed development, Ultron proved to be a compelling antagonist, and both Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch and Paul Bettany’s Vision proved to be excellent new additions to the MCU roster. While Avengers: Age of Ultron proved to be the death of Joss Whedon, this still managed to be an entertaining movie in its own right.
- Ant-Man (Peyton Reed, 2015) – Before the film’s release, a lot of people thought that this was going to be Marvel’s first bomb, especially after original director, Edgar Wright, left the project. Even though a new team led by Peyton Reed had to brought in quickly, this ended up being a surprisingly entertaining movie that was actually superior to Avengers: Age of Ultron. It had a really tight cohesive story, being refreshingly small-scale (no pun-intended), and just focusing on a small roster of characters with each one complementing more to the film’s charm. It was really funny, smartly directed, had a great pace to it, and having interesting action sequences that we’ve never seen before in any MCU movie, especially since our hero fight his nemesis inside a briefcase and in a child’s bedroom. It was also a film that was about fathers and daughters, it had a giant ant being like a dog, and a giant Thomas the Tank Engine is seen crashing through a window, so what’s not to love? The performances were great as well with Paul Rudd being a likeable and charming hero, Michael Douglas being wonderfully grouchy, Evangelline Lilly superb as the future-Wasp, and Michael Pena stealing the show as the comic relief. It was an amazing thrillride that proved to be a refreshing palette-cleanser after Age of Ultron, and it’ll no doubt be a joy to see Rudd’s Ant-Man, not just in the upcoming sequel, but also interacting with the other Avengers in Captain America: Civil War.
- Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008) – This is where it all began for the MCU, and at the time, the studio was taking a big gamble as their entire future rested on the shoulders of this film, and it all paid off big time. Back then, Iron Man was a lesser-known superhero in the public’s eyes, now he’s become the face of the MCU and that was all down to Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man made him into one of Hollywood’s biggest A-listers, and it’s because of him that the character of Tony Stark/Iron Man works so well and is beloved by audiences worldwide. Plus, his comedic chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow was pure delight, instantly sparking back and forth, and never once became annoying. While it is true that the last 30 minutes becomes pur Transformers, the first Iron Man movie succeeds on so many levels and it’s all thanks to this film that the MCU exists and thrives to this day.
- Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, 2013) – Every bit the sequel that Iron Man 2 could never be, Iron Man 3 became the most successful Iron Man movie to date, and actually and perhaps most surprisingly, the most divisive of all the MCU films, causing a real split reaction from fans. I, however, thinks that this is shellhead’s finest solo outing yet, but only by a slight margin. New director Shane Black had some big shoes to fill coming in after Jon Favreau, but he succeeds at making a smart and sharp movie that was really good fun, being a bit different to what had gone on before, made up massively for Iron Man 2‘s mistakes and problems, and delivering a creative and unique interpretation of The Mandarin (which has been the most divisive topic amongst hardcore fans). Plus, more than anything, this is pretty much Marvel’s buddy-cop-drama with Tony Stark interacting and having great rapport with numerous partner/sidekick characters like Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle and even the young kid he becomes acquainted with. Yet, it’s also the perfect Marvel Christmas movie that everyone can enjoy during the festive period. While it is true that this movie hasn’t been universally received by everyone, this is still, in my opinion, the best Iron Man to date.3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony & Joe Russo, 2014) – Arguably one of the best entries in the MCU, Captain America: The Winter Soldier proved to be a real surprise seeing as no anyone had anticipated the amounts of praise it has received since release. It was a true ensemble film, being much a team-up movie with Black Widow and Falcon as much as it was a Captain America movie, and it aimed at being a grounded movie with an espionage vibe, and did it successfully. But, it also proved to be a real and important game-changer for the whole universe that was set up, shaking things up, not just for the movies, but also for the TV shows as well with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seeing a HUGE improvement following the events of this film. As filmmaker and uber comic-nerd Kevin Smith said, this was the film that demonstrated how fans have inherited the world, especially with having Robert Redford as the main antagonist and saying “Hail HYDRA!”. Perhaps most importantly and significantly, it introduced the Russo Brothers to the MCU with both in charge of, not just the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, but also taking over the baton from Joss Whedon and helm the mammoth that is Avengers: Infinity War Parts 1 and 2, so this film showed what a force that filmmaking duo are. Whilst the titular steel-armed antagonist was criminally underused, this proved to be an intriguing and exhilarating entry in the MCU canon.
- Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014) – The other MCU surprise of 2014, this was the real wild card of the whole pack because for a very long time before its release, everyone was very uncertain about how this fits in with everything else that’s going on in the MCU, and having an array of cartoonish characters (including both a talking tree and racoon) that nobody’s familiar, this should’ve been a disaster. However, the film came out, and became Marvel’s biggest surprise to date, having become beloved by both fans and critics alike, having real charm and wit, plus great quirky, offbeat humour throughout with a fantastic retro soundtrack. Even though Captain America: The Winter Soldier was important for the wider cinematic universe due to what happens with HYDRA in that film, but with this, it introduced the cosmic side of the MCU by exploring various alien planets and introducing a plethora of alien creatures. Audiences bought into the cosmic realm of Marvel, and in the Phase 3 slate going forward, that will collide in a possibly big way, all thanks to this film. Guardians of the Galaxy was one hell of a ride, and God bless James Gunn for it.
- The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012) – Of course it is! What else were you expecting? Of all the hurdles Marvel Studios had to tackle, this was their biggest one to date: taking all the big heavyweight superheroes that were set up in the previous instalments and uniting them together for one massive event that would change everything. This was the culmination of Marvel’s first phase and was almost the reason why the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe existed in the first place, so a lot was riding on it. Yet, not only has it become Marvel’s biggest success worldwide, but it’s also the highest-grossing superhero movie to date, and this is all thanks to writer/director Joss Whedon. Before Marvel broke him with the bloated sequel, this was him at his prime, being a filmmaker with huge amounts of respect for the source material and completely engages with his fans. He manages to combine spectacular action and mesmerising special effects with powerful character development, as well as plenty of genuine iconic moments that stay with you (“Puny God”). Sure, Hawkeye was underused here, but that’s only a minor complaint as the rest of the superhero ensemble gets their moments to shine: Robert Downey Jr. at his sharp-tongued, wisecracking best, Scarlett Johansson kicks-ass in spectacular fashion superbly and Mark Ruffalo is without a doubt the best Bruce Banner/Hulk to date. However, it’s still Tom Hiddleston that steals the show as Loki, giving a bravura performance that’s laced with serpentine menace and sardonic glee. For Marvel, The Avengers was a huge challenge, but Joss Whedon succeeded; living up to its insane amounts of hype, laying the foundation for future movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and is, without a shadow of doubt, a testament to how deep and rich the superhero/comic book movie genre can be.
That’s my top 12, but what are favourite films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Which one has stood out for you? Are you excited about Captain America: Civil War as much as I am? And what are most looking forward to for the rest of the MCU after that? Let me know via the comments below.