From Iron Man to Whatshisface

Ranking all the MCU Films

The Definitive List, Part 1

I've held off before now doing any kind of rating or ranking of the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. films and shows. Frankly reviews and opinions on films and shows are entirely subjective. I know there are people that really hated Thor: Love and Thunder, for example, but I liked that film for what it is. Movies I hate others might like. It's just the way of reviews, and that's before we even get into vocal fanbases that will defend any movie or show no matter how much the rest of the world hates it (see also: anything by Zack SnyderOften reviled for the bombastic and idiotic content of his films, there is no question that what Snyder's movies lack in substance they (at least try to) balance out with flash and style, making him one of Hollywood's top directors... sadly.). I tend to shy away from setting scores and choosing hard lines because my list won't be the same as someone elses.

With that said, with the release of The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special we cruised past 40 in-continuity works that viewers have to pay attention to and keep track of, and (so far) the MCU is just going to keep on trucking. As such, I felt some kind of ranking was useful just so viewers coming into the universe would know what they had to watch, what was essential, what was bad, good, or any other adjective you can think of.

The list is presented in order of worst to best for the MCU based on the totally subjective factors of "I liked this" and "this is what my gut said". Along with the ranking I'll also link to each review and provide a metric, 1 to 10, of just how essential the movie or show is to the universe. I'm still going to eschew a number score for how good the work may be, but with them ranked worst to best, I guess a score is at least implied. Oh, and we're just sticking to official works, so comic tie-ins of questionable continuity, as well as movies and shows from other studios are not included (sorry Agent Carter).

Oh, and if all you want is to see the rankings in order, here you go (with quick anchors so you can quick reference any of out write-ups below):

Secret Invasion (MCU 43)

There was a time when I would have said that everyone could agree The Incredible Hulk was the worst thing to ever come out from the MCU. It certainly got to hold that title for a solid 15 years, an impressive run in a franchise that had, up until its title was passed, forty-two works in its run. There were bad films, and there were awful shows, but none of them were as downright disappointing as The Incredible Hulk. But then along came Secret Invasion and that show illustrated just how bad the MCU truly could get. It’s a mini-series so terrible that even the “kind” reviews for the show are generally like, “yes, it’s not great, but there are moments that are pretty good.” Fans hated it, audiences largely tuned out, and Marvel was left with a $212 Mil boondoggle that absolutely no one wants to go back and watch again. Even in a series of failures that saw the poor releases of Ant-Man and Wasp: Quantumania, The Eternals, and The Marvels, Secret Invasion is the real egg on Marvel’s face.

How Marvel got to this point is the real question, and it’s a lot of factors that came into play. The studio wanted to do an adaptation of one of their biggest storylines, where the Skrulls came to Earth and pretended to be Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, sowing discord about who was real and who was an enemy. Except that to do that story right you kind of needed those heroes to show up in the show, and they didn’t. Marvel spent $212 Mil on this series, a tidy sum that matches what they spent on the first Avengers film, and they weren’t even able to hire in any of their B-list heroes to appear and act like Skrulls. We got one, Rodey / War Machine, but even with his appearance there was no mystery. “The one hero to show up in the show? He’s gotta be a Skrull.”

That, of course, ruins the whole vibe of the story. Secret Invasion is supposed to be a superhero thriller where you don’t know who is a good or bad guy and you’re left guessing. Instead we had barely any heroes, zero thrills, and absolutely no mystery. Couple those story issues with extensive reshoots due to the Ukraine War, which apparently drastically forced Marvel to change the story, and the seeming vibe that Marvel expected anything they put out to be a success, no matter how bad it might have been, and you have a recipe for an absolute turd of a show. Try as Samuel L. Jackson might in the lead role for this series, there was no way to save this mess.

How Essential Is It?

It’s not. Look, we’re going to have extensive discussions on this list about what elements of a movie or show are going to carry forward and we’ll see how Marvel’s extensive network of productions link together to create a rich, superhero tapestry. Secret Invasion is not going to be part of that. It’s already faded from most people’s memories, no one liked it then and no one is going to go back and enjoy it down the road. Even the next work to technically follow on from it, The Marvels, ignores the events of the show to just have Samuel L. Jackon’s Nick Fury in space. Marvel doesn’t need this show, and I’m positive they will never reference it again.

Essential Score: 0.0 - a Big, Fat, Goose Egg

The Incredible Hulk (MCU 2)

The year of 2008 was fantastic for the MCU as it saw the launch of the original Iron Man and without that film we don't have anything that follows. That's proven because, despite The Incredible Hulk, the film series is still going.

There is so much this film gets wrong -- it's boring, it's poorly shot, it has an absolutely messy story, it has villains you don't care about at all, it has a hero you don't care about at all -- but the biggest failing of this film is that, as bore out by everything that follows, it adds absolutely nothing to the film series to come. You could ignore this film entirely and who would really care?

How Essential Is It?

This is easily not only the worst film in the series but also the least essential (it would be least essential production period if not for the extensively awful work of Secret Invasion). Sure, a couple of elements have come back from this movie in later works -- Tim Roth as Emil Blonsky / Abomination in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, a few key sequences in this film that were reworked for What If...?: Season 1 -- but just about everything important was done better in Hulk's next appearance: The Avengers. It’s nice to have some minor elements come back later so that this film doesn’t feel entirely left out in the cold, but you could likely skip this film and feel just fine about your decision.

Essential Score: 0.8

The Eternals (MCU 30)

Were it not for the existence of The Incredible Hulk (the first cinematic expansion of the whole franchise, and also its first misfire), then The Eternals would take the prize for worst film in the series. In fact, if you wanted to rate this even lower I wouldn't blame you. The difference for me is that this film is unmemorable while The Incredible Hulk has had 15 years to somehow improve with time and it still remains unmemorable. Both are bad, but the legacy of Hulk's first adventure is much worse.

Again we have a movie that fails so hard at so many things. It has a diverse cast of characters but hardly puts in the energy to develop any of them. It has a history spanning story that feels rushed and unfocused. It has villains so big and cosmic that you can't really get your head around them. But the biggest issue is that this film was clearly meant to touch off some kind of cosmic threat, but that threat was then ignored in every work to come since (at least through all of Phase IV). Sure Marvel has promised (threatened?) that the Eternals will return at som point, but does anyone really want that to happen? And with Marvel shutting down the idea of an Eternals sequel, I think we’re all safe from having to watch them again.

How Essential Is It?

Arguably this film is even less essential than The Incredible Hulk, but that's only because it hasn't had a lot of time yet for elements of the film to show up elsewhere. If the Celestials (or whatever they were called) make themselves a threat again, or if some of these heroes show up in other films, then maybe this movie will work its way more properly into canon. For now, though, this is probably the easiest film to skip because, currently, nothing in the movie matters at all.

Essential Score: 0.2

Moon Knight: Season 1 (MCU 33)

Phase IV of the MCU is marked by a great many projects that sounded good on paper, maybe even started well, but still managed to fizzle out by the time the credits rolled. This coincides with Marvel also trying to figure out just the right way to launch and carry out TV shows and mini-series. There were a few TV projects that really worked in Phase IV, but there were plenty of poorly executed products as well, and nowhere was that more clear than with the first season of Moon Knight.

The concept of Moon Knight is interesting: he's a hero who, by day, is a completely different person that doesn't even know his superheroic side exists. Then, when one side learns about the other, and realizes what's going on, chaos (and hilarity) ensues. I'm sure that alone could have made for an interesting series, comedy and action combined. But then the film just kept layering on more and more and more ideas. He's powered by Egyptian Gods, but they don't work the same way as the Norse Gods (and other Gods for that matter) in the Thor series. There's also an afterlife just for Egyptians. Oh, and maybe it's all a dream?

As interesting as I found many of the ideas, and as much as I thought Oscar Issac was great in the dual-role, there was just so much going on that the series ended up fatigued by its last couple of episodes. The sizzle began to fizzle and then it just petered out. I think there's probably still potential for this hero, and his friends, and his world, but this first season didn't do justice to all the creative potential of the character.

How Essential Is It?

One big issue with this first season is that it didn't tie into the greater MCU in any meaningful way. You mean to tell me there's this hero, charge by a God to protect humanity, and he's been operating for years (from everything we can tell) and yet he doesn't help out in the fight against Thanos, or any one of a number of other world-ending threats we've seen over the years. Really? How is that even possible?

That, plus it's confusing mythology, and the way this series feels like it's purposefully been siloed away from the rest of the universe, makes it an odd fit for casual fans. This is one only for those that have to see everything and can be skipped by everyone else.

Essential Score: 1.2

Black Widow (MCU 27)

There was a vocal contingent of fans that, ever since she was fully introduced in The Avengers (the less said about Iron Man 2 the better), wanted Black Widow to get her own movie. I was one of them. She proved her worth there, and then again in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. She could have led a series of James BondThe world's most famous secret agent, James Bond has starred not only in dozens of books but also one of the most famous, and certainly the longest running, film franchises of all time.-meets-Jason BourneLost without his memory, but bearing a particular set of skills, Jason Bourne has to figure out who he is and just why everyone seems to want him dead. films. But some of hte higher ups in Marvel at the time felt that female heroes shouldn't lead their own projects, so any possibility of Black Widow having her own solo adventures was nipped in the bud.

It was nice that once Kevin Feige was in control of Marvel Studios he got a Black Widow film on the docket. Only issue was that he slotted it in, during Phase IV, when her death was one of the catalysts for the heroes winning in Avengers: Endgame at the end of Phase III. It's a prequel that occurs after the character has had a full and (arguably) healthy character arc. There were ways they could have done a film like this, but this was not one of them.

Even if one could ignore all that, of course, there's also the problem that on its own, Black Widow isn't very good. It's a sloppily plotted film with a villain that is supposed to loom huge in her life and yet we've never heard of him before. You could count all the issues with the movie (and we did in our review), but suffice it to say this wasn't the adventure our heroine deserved, not in any Phase of the series.

How Essential Is It?

As a launch pad for other characters from this film (Yelena Belova / Black Widow II, Alexei Shostakov / Red Guardian, potentially Antonia Dreykov / Taskmaster), this film does get all those balls rolling, so if you have to know where everyone comes from and what their connection is to the larger universe, this film is necessary watching. But as far as a film you want to watch on its own, this falls far short of the mark.

Essential Score: 3.2

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: Season 1 (MCU 25)

The Captain America films have been some of the most consistent films in the series. Although each has their own style all three do a good job of investing the audience in the story and the characters. Of course, it helps that the films have a solidly charismatic lead with Chris Evans's turn as the Star Spangled Man. But with Steve Rogers heading off into the sunset at the end of Avengers: Endgame, a new character was needed to pick up the mantle. That's cool, gotta have a Captain America. I'm on board with that. And I'm on board with his "sidekick" Sam Wilson / Falcon picking up the mantle. Sam's actor, Anthony Mackie, is equal to the task of being Cap, and after following Steve around for two main films, plus a couple of Avengers flicks, it felt like Sam had earned the role. That's why, when Steve passes his shield to Sam, making him his successor, it works.

Apparently the higher-ups in Marvel didn't feel the same way. Instead they ruled that Sam had to put in his dues to earn the shield again. From a comics perspective, there is a lot of material that would get skipped over if Sam picked up the shield, and that includes Captain America II / John Walker, that character's eventual heel turn, and him taking on the mantle of U.S Agent later (like an off brand Captain America you get at the dollar store). Reworking things to introduce that character and give him development makes sense from a pure, by-the-numbers, "we need every character in the comics in this cinematic universe" perspective, but it doesn't work for Sam's character. Think of it this way: at the end of Endgame, Sam is Captain America. Then, by the end of The Falcon and the Winter Soldiers, Sam is Captain America. We spend six episodes to get Sam right back where he was at the end of his previous film. That's a huge waste of time for not very much character progression.

It certainly doesn't help that the series around Sam (and Bucky, who is also in this movie as Sam's effective sidekick) isn't all that great. It's long and drawn out, despite only being six episodes, and it really doesn't have much to say. It tries to tackle terrorism in Eastern Europe, looping that into "the Blip" via the pressure countries are feeling now that half their populace has suddenly reappeared after five years. Unfortunately the writers on the show either didn't know how, or couldn't due to executive mandates, really tackle the political themes with any real nuance or gusto. That leads to a drawn out series without anything to say except, "man, Sam really should be Captain America." Sorry, guys, but we were all already on board with that before this series even happened.

How Essential Is It?

This series introduces a couple of characters that will come up later: John Walker / U.S. Agent, and his eventual handler, Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Of the two, the Contessa has a bigger part to play in the phases that come after, looming large over the eventual super-team of questionable morals she puts together, the Thunderbolts. She's popped up in a couple of other shows and flicks, and she will continue to make her presence known, but it's arguable if you have to see this show in particular, for her first appearance, to get who she is or what purpose she serves. And as for U.S. Agent, well, we have yet to see him again (and may not until the Thunderbolts film). That hardly makes either of them essential in this appearance.

And, again, the rest of the show is about Sam becoming Cap while Bucky hangs out. This could have been covered in the eventual Captain America: New World Order without needing to cram any of it into a series. This show, simply put, doesn't need to exist.

Essential Score: 0.5

Ant-man and the Wasp: Quantumania (MCU 41)

I hate being the guy that kicks a film when it's down, but the longer I've thought on the third Ant-Man outing, the more I've come to realize it just wasn't a good film. Oh, sure, there are amusing parts in the movie but, on the whole, this was a disposable piece of entertainment that needed at least another full year of development to be anywhere near good. Marvel rushed this one out of the production pipe, there is no doubt about that.

The struggles of this film have been well documented online. COVID made production difficult, constraining how many people could be on set (and, more specifically, in front of the cameras) at any time. That led to a very "stage show" quality for a film that was meant to feel cinematic. The budget for the special effects was cut drastically back so that money could be applied to Thor: Love and Thunder. Because of the film's extensive fictional landscapes, the decision was made to film Quantumania in front of The Volume, the massive screen setup used in The Mandalorian, a TV show. In the end, all of this contributed to the film that didn't feel massive and cinematic; it just felt cheap.

Of course, there's also the questionable decision to have the Ant-Man franchise, a set of films purposefully about "the little guy" go big and cinematic. This film was the launching point for Johnathan Major's villain, Kang, and he shows up in a film about a dopey little hero and his found family. So many questionable decisions went into the plotting for this film that you really have to wonder what all the higher-ups at Marvel were thinking. This is a massively mismanaged film that simply couldn't work as designed.

In fairness, the film is fun, in a dopey kind of way. It is watchable, once, but all the issues with the film are clearly evident in every single frame. This is a film that, really, should have been done as a TV mini-series so that it's budgetary issues wouldn't have been as noticeable and so it's threadbare plot could have been built out into longer episodes. This film, in short, needed a massive rethink for its scope, production, and conception. Instead, the film w as pushed out into theaters as the start of Marvel's "Phase V", and it tumbled quickly. It's not bad, but it didn't need or deserve all the pressure put on it. This should have been a dopey little story that just existed to make a few million and then fade away. It has faded away, with people rarely mentioning it except to note "how the might Marvel has fallen," but no one wants to go back and watch this film again. For good reason.

How Essential Is It?

It's barely essential at all, really. Kang was already introduced back in Loki: Season 1, so his intro here wasn't needed or required (and with Kang likely getting ditched for a different villain, which we’ll touch upon when we discuss Loki, that feels even less essential now). The Quantum Realm, the weird sub-dimension with its own cast of denizens, can only be reached by miniaturization tech, something the Ant-family has and no one else can access. And if the Ants don't come back it's doubtful we'll ever see the Quantum Realm again (and with how bad this film did, I doubt we'll ever see them again). And, well, that's all this film really brought to the table.

Look, we love Paul Rudd here on this site and we will watch anything he's in. He's the best part of this films, playing its titular hero, and we'll take all the Rudd we can get. But even he couldn't save this movie and make it a necessary part of the Marvel franchise. This film is massively skipable on every level, especially now that Marvel, as reported, is done pursuing Ant-Man films.

Essential Score: 1.2

Avengers: Age of Ultron (MCU 11)

Joss Whedon is credited with making the ambitious plans of Marvel's universe come together with The Avengers. In fairness to the director (who, considering how big of a creep he is in real life, doesn't deserve much due consideration) he does write and direct a slickly produced, action packed adventure that gives all the heroes on offer their fare share to do. It's a solid enjoyable action romp that proved the true power of the MCU by raking in $1.5 Bil at the Box Office. Those numbers made every other studio stand up and take notice, saying they could all do their own cinematic universes.

Naturally, then, Marvel brought the director back to oversee the sequel, and while the results made another large chunk of cash ($1.4 Bil at the Box Office), the critical (and audience) opinion on the film was far more mixed. The movie does a lot, without much really amounting to anything. Without getting deep in the details (as I summarize the flaws, and how to fix them, much better in my review of the movie), the movie introduces its main villain. Ultron, and has him go even all in the span of the first act. It then sends the Avengers on a sloppy, poorly paced series of side quests, all before they all come together, for an action climax that's heavy on CGI but light on heart. If you wanted to sit down and write a film that ignored every lesson from the first Avengers film, then this first sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron, would be the movie you'd eventually create.

Now, Whedon has said that his movie was hobbled by executive meddling from Marvel, with demands to seed a lot of the upcoming arcs in his film. Maybe that's true, but it doesn't change the fact that he was the lead on this movie and, well, it sucked. Audiences turned out because this was the crossover to tie together the second phase. They would have come out for anything with the name "Avengers" on it. Long run, though, this film failed to make a good mark on the franchise. The only thing we can really take away from it is that Marvel learned enough to make the next two Avengers films more cohesive and more interesting. This one, though, fails on so many levels.

How Essential Is It?

When it comes to the grand continuity, this film does do a few things that are hard to ignore. It's the first introduction we get to Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who would eventually go on to overdrive her powers and become the Scarlet Witch. It also gives us Ultron who, while defeated here, does have multiversal versions that recur in What If...?. Plus, Ultron is voiced by James Spader and Spader is always essential. And the events of this film do lead to the creation of Sokovia Accords, which is a huge motivating factor in hero decisions down the road for the series (motivating the whole plot of Captain America: Civil War, for example).

Thus, while this film is largely forgettable on its own, it does have a number of factors you can't ignore. Fans of any interest level will have to watch this movie once, but they may never go back to it again.

Essential Score: 4.5

Next up we move into the films that were at least passable. They aren't the films you go out of your way to watch, but if you're doing a marathon you'll at least sit through them to get to other, better films. These are the Merely Mediocre...