The MCU started eight years ago and, despite being a bit too formulaic at times, it’s still going strong, and it reinvents itself with each new release. If franchises like Iron Man and Thor were the ones to successfully introduce the fans to this shared universe, the later franchises were the ones to cement the MCU as one of the most successful of all time.
Guardians of the Galaxy is obviously worthy of being mentioned here. It surprised everybody, as did Ant-Man - these were unknown Marvel properties among the general audience, but they killed it with the critics and at the box office (one more than the other, of course).
And the future is brighter than ever, with acclaimed actors and directors being added each year, titles scheduled until 2020, and the promise that the shared universe will never end.
This being said, let's take a step back and see which of the movies released until now have been the most successful. For this list, I won't check the just the box office success, but also the response of the fans when the movie was released.
And, as always, here is the necessary spoiler warning!
Iron Man 2
While The Incredible Hulk has received worse reviews than Iron Man 2, I'm going to say that this is the worst of the lot - even if that is too harsh a word to describe it. Its biggest fault is that it exists as the third movie of the MCU, and takes on the responsibility of setting up future franchises. And since the Incredible Hulk felt (until recently) like he didn't belong in the MCU at all, it's a pretty big fall for the Robert Downey Jr. vehicle (the first movie was and is AWESOME).
And it can be said that Iron Man 2 started the trend of underdeveloped and lame villains. Having Whiplash (Mickey Rourke, at the height of his short-lived comeback) may have seemed like an excellent idea. However, the villain was just about the same as in the first movie.
Sam Rockwell would have rocked, but he got lost along the way. And that’s a shame, since I believe that he alone could have made Iron Man 2 a top MCU movie.
To be noted, Iron Man 2 did introduce Black Widow (who soon became a fan-favorite), as well as the new Rhodey (Don Cheadle), after Terrence Howard left due to monetary issues.
The Incredible Hulk
As said, The Incredible Hulk has received the poorest reviews and we don't see that changing in the near future. And, for the better part of it, it doesn't seem at all like an MCU movie. If it weren't for this year's Civil War, there would have been even less of a connection to the larger shared universe.
The Incredible Hulk feels very generic, even if some (including myself) believe that Edward Norton shouldn't have been replaced by Mark Ruffalo. Even if it aimed to be the most emotional of the lot, it has also failed, because of the lack of chemistry between the leads.
That being said, the Incredible Hulk did let the Abomination live in the end, so we might see some showdown between the Jade Giant and his enemy sometime in the future. I wouldn't bet on it, though, since Hulk isn't bankable at all, and he works better (for the box office results) when co-starring with other Avengers.
Thor: The Dark World
The Thor franchise is the weakest in the MCU - and nobody can say otherwise, even if it arguably gives the fans the best villain of them all. As a matter of fact, Loki is still the best thing to happen to Thor: The Dark World, a movie that relies too much on accidents propelling the plot (for example, Jane Foster accidentally discovering the Ether).
But not even Loki can save it. And, as far as I am concerned, I do believe that Tom Hiddleston didn't show the same enthusiasm as in the first Thor and the first Avengers movies.
Do you remember the Dark Elves and their leader? Do you remember how penetrable the impenetrable Asgard was? Or how blind the all-seeing Heimdall was? Thor: The Dark World doesn't lack the action - what it lacks is the good action. Even the final showdown seems to be plagued (in my opinion) by the whole Portals thing.
For someone powered by an Infinity Stone, Malekith falls pretty easily.
All in all, Thor: The Dark World is the most uneven movie in the MCU. And it’s a shame, since it had the potential of expanding the universe further and further, both in time and space.
Iron Man 3
This could have been such a good movie, with the trailers hinting that the MCU will be forever changed by the arrival of the Mandarin. It was all just a tease - better yet, it was a lie, with the character being wasted. Obviously, the one-shot All Hail the King proved that the real Mandarin does exist - but, as we all know it, the short was just the way Marvel apologized to the fans (I doubt the Mandarin will emerge in the near future).
This being said, there was another fault in the movie - making Tony Stark seem once again as a deeply insecure character. It didn't work for me in Iron Man 2, it didn't work in Iron Man 3.
But the action was solid, even if the superpowers were inconsistent. For once, Marvel went away from pairing a superhero with a villain sharing the same superpowers. And it worked. There wasn't too much Iron Man in the flick, but it does have its appeal.
Maybe if that Mandarin twist didn't exist the movie would have ranked higher.
Captain America: The First Avenger
Some would say that Captain America: The First Avenger is better than some of the movies to follow. I'd say otherwise, simply because Captain America was a hero needed for the Avengers to assemble. In other words, for me at least, the entire movie felt like one big commercial for the first MCU ensemble movie.
Basically, The First Avenger plants the idea that the Infinity Stones exist and that they will play an important part in the future of the shared universe. And while this could be considered a trump card, it isn't. The action is not substantial and this is a fault in my book, since I go to see superhero movies specifically for the action. The villain is underused, even if it is always a treat to see Hugo Weaving on the big screen. Lastly, am I the one who wasn't convinced by the skinny Chris Evans special (d)effects?
However, The First Avenger also introduced Bucky Barnes, who has now become the most interesting (and I am not kidding) hero/anti-hero of the MCU. Even if the movie didn't spend too much time with him, this is one of the biggest reasons why The First Avenger is better than the previously mentioned flicks.
The same goes for Thor, who introduced Loki, the villain who has catapulted Tom Hiddleston to superstardom. Yes, the plot is a bit muddled, but still - Thor pulls no punches, with an epic introduction of the greater universe and an equally epic (and heart-breaking, for that matter, since Loki's motivation was pretty relatable) final battle.
Of course, it counts even more that the battle was undone by the post-credits scene, which revealed that Loki recovered sooner than expected. It is as if a completely obliterated Professor X is shown in the end in a hospital bed, as if it were all just a scratch.
The romance between Thor and Jane also didn't work for me. It seemed too by-the-numbers. But, as said previously, the future is bright, even from this point of view.
I'm still hoping that Thor: Ragnarok will blow the first two installments out of the water. And that is especially because Hulk will be there, but also because the action won't take place on Earth, but where the gods actually reside (yes, the confrontation between Thor, his cronies, and the Ice Giants was that epic).
I still want to see that Edgar Wright Ant-Man flick - and I say that based on the few scenes that reminded me of the director's previous works (scenes such as the bedroom fight). I would have gladly cast away the micro universe and the Falcon cameo (introduced by Peyton Reed, to better establish Ant-Man in the MCU) for the chance to see why Edgar Wright's script didn't work.
This being said, Ant-Man is yet another case of superhero flick in which the hero faces an enemy with (almost) identical powers. But it does work - and it works perfectly - because of Paul Rudd's charisma and because of his sidekicks (unlike in other movies, the comedy works here).
But then again I wouldn't throw away the Michael PeÃ±a tip montages, which were written by Peyton Reed and Paul Rudd. So there is this balance"¦
Ant-Man did surprise, but it didn't prove to be such a big hit as other previous franchises from the MCU. Seeing where Scott Lang is now (a fugitive), knowing that The Wasp shares the title with Ant-Man for the sequel, and knowing that this sequel will be the first movie after the Infinity War begins, Ant-Man and the Wasp is the most anticipated solo flick of Phase III for me, right at the top with Thor: Ragnarok.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Boy, how muddled Avengers: Age of Ultron was! Ultron had a typical James Bond villain plan, there were way too many characters to juggle, the action was all over the place (and without any focus), and so on.
But the biggest mistake was that it tried too hard to set up ALMOST THE ENTIRE PHASE 3 on its own - Civil War, Black Panther, and Infinity War are all connected to this one. And this is a shame, since it could have been great - sooo great!
But, unlike many others, I don't blame Joss Whedon, who did his best and who also had to listen to all the advice the powers that be gave him. I wonder what the point of the romantic subplot for Hulk and Black Widow was, just as I wonder about the purpose behind the introduction of Hawkeye's family. I also wonder what the hell happened with that Thor vision. And I wonder plenty of other things, too!
But now I have Vision and Scarlet Witch, as well as a fight between Hulk and Hulkbuster (yes, it ended disappointingly, but it was still off the charts).
Maybe the Avengers should have faced a fully upgraded Ultron, completely uploaded in what would become Vision's body. Maybe we should have seen how the Earth's mightiest heroes can battle a being powered by an Infinity Stone.
Marvel's The Avengers
Yes - I do believe that there are better movies in the MCU than the first Avengers flick. For that matter, I believe that the movie is a bit overrated and that the enthusiasm of the fans isn't there not because it is such a good flick, but because it represents the first time an entire superhero team is united on the big screen.
There are too many things that work perfectly in the movie to mention. From Loki's re-introduction to the ragdoll scene, and from the Avengers fighting each other and then fighting together against an army, it’s very well done.
Of course, the movie would have been served better if the heroes faced something other than cannon fodder - but, then again, who would have done it better?
There's no point in mentioning the movie’s box office take and critical success. But I can bet that a long time will pass before this success is matched by another superhero ensemble movie - in the MCU or anywhere else.
Captain America: Civil War
When a movie is as anticipated as the Civil War was, there are very few chances for it to satisfy all of the audiences.
There are plenty of things that work for Civil War, even if we don't take into account what happens in the MCU before it. Thus, there is the conflict between the Avengers (but, basically, between Iron Man and Captain America), which is the highlight of the show - and I am not talking about the fight scenes, but about the ideology.
It is superbly done - to this day, I haven't decided whether I am Team Iron Man or Team Captain America!
Then there is the mysterious Zemo. Even if he relies on quite a few accidents to happen for his plan to work, he is still one of the best villains of the MCU. And his final line from the movie makes me believe that he is more than it was revealed until now.
Lastly, there are the fight scenes - and I love the final showdown, even if many others believe that the airport encounter is better. The emotion expressed when Iron Man fights Captain America cannot be matched by anything else in the entire MCU.
But it isn't perfect, because it doesn't reinvent the shared universe. It is way better than other ensemble movies (this was ensemble), but it still cannot beat any of the top three flicks.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Hooked on a feeling - the first trailer prepared the fans for what is to happen. But Guardians of the Galaxy exceeded all expectations. Yes, it does borrow from the first Avengers - heroes united against a bigger threat, even if nobody would have assumed they'd collaborate with each other.
But it builds on the idea, and it doesn't use the same kind of pep-talk to bring the heroes together on common ground.
Thus, this is a space-opera, as it was marketed to be. And while its villain is pretty forgettable, the heroes of the story more than make up for it. Obviously, Chris Pratt as Star Lord was a genius touch on the part of Marvel. But Groot and Rocket Raccoon were even better.
My only other disappointment (outside of the villain) is also the most innovative scene in the entire flick: distracting Ronan. It was a great move, made even greater by Chris Pratt - but, at the same time, it left me wanting for more. Maybe I am used to seeing big clashes in superhero movies, instead of dance-offs.
Anyway, Vol. II will be out next year! In James Gunn I trust!
Iron Man is the spine of the MCU. And the first Iron Man flick is still one of the best movies of the entire MCU. And if it is not the best, it is way better than most of the rest.
Iron Man didn't just open the MCU. It also revolutionized the entire comic book movie genre, showing everybody that action and comedy can co-exist in a superhero movie, without yielding results such as Batman and Robin or some other failures. It also showed that this type of superhero movie (combining comedy and action) can also add a bit of gravitas, effectively turning an immoral industrialist into an actual superhero.
It is pointless to say that the casting is perfect. In retrospect, even Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts is excellent.
And while the villain is featured – yet again, but for the first time back then, having the same powers as the hero – it works splendidly. And that is thanks to the great Jeff Bridges. I cannot find faults in this movie, except for the subjective ones.
Iron Man rocks. The first Iron Man, to be more specific.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Captain America: The Winter Soldier changed everything in the MCU - from the tone of the movies, to the themes, to the action. For that matter, it is a political thriller that, accidentally, features superheroes. If you didn't know who Captain America was and that he has superpowers (meaning that he can kick major ass and he has the ultimate Frisbee), you wouldn't say that it is a superhero flick.
And it is clearly set in the MCU - and not just because of the Easter-Eggs and the returning characters. It is set in the MCU because it is clearly a Captain America story, which continues the arc of the superhero described during his first two appearances in the shared universe.
And none of the actions are taken lightly - there is a reason, obvious or not, for everything that is happening. Furthermore, it is the most up to date of all of the MCU flicks, with the themes it approaches.
Of course, it has its WTF moments, such as when Black Widow reveals that she can physically imitate everybody (or when Steve Rogers hides the memory stick where, basically, everybody can find it). But these are minor mistakes.
And for that, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is, for me, the best movie in the MCU. Do you agree?
Check out the next page for the honorable mentions!
The small MCU
There is the big MCU, and there is the small one. And in the small category, I'd mention Daredevil and Jessica Jones, which are basically 13 hour-long movies. And this Netflix corner of the shared universe brings the viewer a different perspective on everything.
The biggest fault of all superhero movies (Marvel-related or not) is that they don't actually show the point of view of the little guy (some of them do, but not enough). Well, the Netflix shows are all about the little guy, and how the actions of the big superheroes influence everything on the street level.
As far as I am concerned, these two shows (with Luke Cage and Iron Fist following) are also essential to the MCU, even if only for this new perspective.
Of course, I watch them also for the kick-ass, mature action.