Marvel Doesn’t Make Mistakes, Right?

Ranking all the MCU Films

The Definitive List, Part 2

This next chunk of films covers the movies and shows from Marvel that are at least watchable. I don’t think anyone is going to go out of their way to go back and watch these again, but they weren’t so bad that they’re actively hated by the viewing public (unlike many of the works we covered in the first part of this five-part list). These films suck, but not in a completely abysmal way.

As with the first part of this list, I know there will be some that disagree with my ranking, and some that think many of these works should be higher (or lower). I get that. I mean, you’re wrong. I put “definitive” in the title so clearly I must be right. But I get what you’re saying. You might like some of these more or less than I did, and that’s fair. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Mine is just branded “definitive” so clearly it’s correct.

With that out of the way, let’s get back to the list:

Thor (MCU 4)

When it started, it was clear that the MCU had a purpose: take the main heroes that would eventually appear in The Avengers and first set them up in their own movies. That way, fans know them, but the promise of crossovers and an eventual event film is already seeded. Do it right, do it subtly, and the audiences will come running. Iron Man did it right. Thor did not.

Now, okay, maybe that's not entirely fair. Thor is in no way as bad or as meaningless to the entire franchise to come as The Incredible Hulk. But as far as an adventure to get audiences interested in the Asgardian God, Kenneth Branagh's directorial effort left audiences feeling a might bit cold. Pulling in a modest $449 Mil at the Box Office when released, it made bank that far outshined Hulk's effort and was comparable to the other films in the first Phase. But as far as actually making you care about Thor... woof, this film is a dog.

I know Kenneth Branagh has his supporters, but I tend to find his films to be utter bores. Thor is likely his most engaging film, but that's despite the best efforts of the director. The story is decent enough, pitting Thor (Chris Hemsworth) against his deceitful brother, Loki (Tom Hiddlestone), while Thor (as a mortal at the time) has to defend a small New Mexico town. It works in the broad strokes, and the cast is uniformly game. It just moves at a leaden pace and feels weirdly heightened in ways that don't work on screen. All of that is the fault of the director.

In fairness it would take time for Thor to get a solo movie that truly suited him, but in the hands of other directors (especially when he featured in crossover films), Thor comes alive. This first film simply illustrates everything not to do with a Thor film.

How Essential Is It?

While the film isn't the best, it's absolutely essential for the franchise as a whole. It sets up not just Thor and Loki but so many other characters that were recur throughout the franchise. It's also the first cosmic adventure for the burgeoning series, and it showed that space was a viable place to tell stories about superheroes (which was then picked up by the Guardians of the Galaxy and those heroes ran with it). So much of this movies setup up groundwork for down the road that you can't skip it. You'll just wish it was better.

Essential Score: 7.1

Thor: The Dark World (MCU 8)

Sadly, the lessons taught by the first Thor weren't really picked up by its sequel. Directed by Alan Taylor and written by the trio of Christopher L. Yost, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, this film does manage to course correct some bad decisions from the first film (it's lighter, zippier, and has more fun with its characters), but it then drops into the middle of everything a villain so underbaked that it practically causes the whole production to crumble. One big step forward, and another big step back.

The number one thing that this film gets right is that it lets Thor have some fun. He was so dour in the first film, a pretty boy without much personality, but he's much better here. Once he gets together with his lady love, Jane Foster, not only do sparks fly but a little goofy bit of personality for the characters (that was teased over in The Avengers) comes out. There are a number of amusing moments, from Thor and Loki escaping from the castle, to when Thor enters an apartment and hangs his hammer on the hat rack by the door. Big and little touches show that this film could bring some levity to Thor.

And yet, there's the biggest issue: the Dark Elves. Having not read the comics I don't know if these guys should be bigger villains, but they're certainly small time here. Aliens looking to destroy the universe so they can wipe and restart it, these guys are as generic as they come, talking a lot of game but rarely doing anything interesting to back it up. This, despite a lead performance from one-time Doctor Who lead Christopher Eccleston. There's probably a way to make the Dark Elves work (maybe seeding them in earlier films so they could pay off here) but this film doesn't manage to do anything with them.

Thus we have a really solid half a film with a terrible other side that can't carry the weight. Frankly, it's debatable whether this film is slightly better or worse than the first Thor, but I rank it just slightly higher because when it's good it's really good while the previous effort was uniformly "just okay". Make of that as you will.

How Essential Is It?

This film is frankly less essential to the overall construction of the franchise than the previous. We get back with Thor, and Loki, and Jane, and it's good to have them back, but since they were already introduced and used well in previous movies a check in with them doesn't do much for the overall franchise. And nothing they do, for the most part, really matters here. Not in the long run.

The only detail that's really key is with the Infinity Stone that's introduced here: the Aether, aka the Reality Stone. The Infinity Stones go on to be a major factor in the whole of "The Infinity Saga", as you'd expect, so having one here introduces this MacGuffin. And yet, this one easily could have been brought in at any time (hell, one of the stones doesn't even get introduced until the final Avengers films of the saga) with any explanation tied to it. The fact that the Dark Elves want it, and the Dark Elves are boring, doesn't help matters at all. That renders this stone's introduction slightly less necessary here than it could have been.

Essential Score: 4.5

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (MCU 39)

Obviously lead actor Chadwick Boseman dying of cancer is very sad. Any film that followed up his death, and acknowledged it, would naturally feel like a remembrance and celebration of the actor, and this Black Panther sequel does just that. I actually appreciate that they're not going to recast his role and will just leave him dead. That's fitting and respectful. With that being said...

Man, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a mess of a movie. It's long, it's slow, and it really doesn't know what story it really wants to tell. It has a lot of elements going on all at once -- the creation of Ironheart, the synthetic development of the Black Panther flowers, the oncoming scourage of Namor and his sea people, and so much more. It all combines together to give off the wrong kind of vibes (in retrospect it reminds me of Avatar: The Way of Water, and that wasn't a masterwork either).

But, really, the worst aspect of it all is that the lead character is Shuri and, man, was she ever thrust into a role she was not designed for. Lead actress Letitia Wright is solid as comic relief but she's an utter bore when she has to play the stoic, super-heroic lead. Just about any other character in the film would have been a better choice to take up the mantle of the Black Panther after the (off-screen) death of T'Challa. Shuri was not it. She drags an already wavering film down with her. It's just bad.

I wouldn't call this film unwatchable as there were moments that were cool. But now, having seen it, I doubt I'll ever go back.

How Essential Is It?

That's a question that has yet to be answered. There's not a lot on the agenda for the Black Panther crew (so far as we can tell) in Phase V of the MCU. And with Namor's rights still technically tied up with Universal, we won't see a solo outing from him any time soon. Maybe Namor pops his head above water at some point, or maybe the new Black Panther shows up to aid her friends. For now, though, this film feels like a narrative end point that the MCU won't touch again for some time.

Essential Score: 3.2

Iron Man 2 (MCU 3)

To say the original Iron Man blew away expectations would be an understatement. While there was some precedent for superhero films making solid bank, with each of the Raimi Spider-man films pulling in around $800 Mil, Iron man is no Spider-man. Before his film's release he was considered a C-tier at best. And yet, his film was a solid success and essentially launched, all on its own, the MCU. And then came along Iron Man 2.

Let's be clear, this sequel made more money than the first film, $624 Mil versus $585 Mil, which is still far better than the film that came between them, The Incredible Hulk (with its poor haul of only $264 Mil). And it's not that this film is unwatchable by any stretch. It's just that, long run, it all feels so inconsequential. What happens in this film that really matters?

Well, not much. There's a lot of noise in this film, and there's a lot of talk about how irresponsible and pig-headed Tony Stark may be. All of this is true, but that doesn't really change for him in any films going forward. Arguably the fact that he's the messiest, least professional superhero of the MCU bunch is a feature, not a bug. Arguably any character development he has here carries over from the previous film, with him just going through the same motions again. Anything else is either reset or dropped because no one really cared.

All that can truly be said is that Iron Man 2 gave us more time to hang out with Robert Downey, Jr. in the lead role and, you know what, that is great! I happily paid money to watch him in theaters as Iron Man, and would continue to do so. He makes this film watchable, him and the other great character actors in here, and the film has a lot of fun. But as far as actually accomplishing anything, or feeling like a worthy adventure for our be-metalled hero, this film rather misses the mark.

How Essential Is It?

There are a few things that happen in this film that do matter. First and foremost we get the introduction of Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson). She'll go on to be quite important through the various Avengers (and Captain America) films.

We also get the first major recasting of a character in the MCU with James Rhodes now being played by Don Cheadle. His character eventually takes one of the Iron Man suits, after a fight with Tony Stark, and has it converted into a U.S. military weapon, the "War Machine". He gets to keep that armor for the rest of the franchise, which is pretty cool.

The other factors in this film, though, don't matter nearly as much. Tony hands the reins for his company over to Pepper, but does he really stop pulling strings at Stark Enterprises? That's debatable. Does he stop being Tony Stark in any meaningful way? Not at all. And as far as the villains of the film, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) and Ivan Vanko / Whiplash (Mickey Rourke), we have yet to see them come back at all. As such, it's a mixed bag when it comes to just how much this film matters to the story of the franchise.

The money this film helped continue toe MCU, continuing to build the franchise solidly (and especially around Iron Man). But it's otherwise an uneven affair that likely could be skipped on repeat viewings of the MCU.

Essential Score: 4.3

Ms. Marvel: Season 1 (MCU 35)

The mandate from Ike Perlmutter stated "no female-led MCU movies", but that ended when Perlmutter was cashiered by Marvel and Kevin Feige took over Marvel Studios entirely. With Phase III and Phase IV he launched a number of female-led works, Ms. Marvel included. Conceptually I'm on board with this series as it presents a friendly neighborhood heroine learning the ropes with her newfound powers. Ms. Marvel understands its heroine well and, through her, it finds a fun and funny vibe that works.

I also appreciate that the series focuses on a group not normally represented in superhero media: Muslims. Our heroine, Kamala Khan, has to balance the needs of her culture against her own personal needs as a girl and a superheroine, and through all that, the series is able to shine light on this cultural group. It treats its characters with respect and never makes light of their lives. Most importantly it shows them all as humans, not just stereotypes. We need more of this, not just in the MCU but in general.

The first couple of episodes of Ms. Marvel's first season are great. It's her, with powers, rocking her teenage heroine shtick in New York. I would watch a whole series of that. Where the show falters is when it brings in the villains, the Clandestines, an alien group from another dimension. Once these characters are introduced, the series loses its pacing and its fun. There are still flashes of the great show underneath, but the series gets lost in its own mythology, trying to build to something that just isn't really earned. By the end of the first season I was bored with the show even as I still enjoyed the heroine, which isn't a great place to be at what should be a climactic finale.

How Essential Is It?

Kamala shows up in the Captain Marvel sequel, The Marvels, and she’s seemingly set up to do more in some kind of Young Avengers storyline. Assuming that’s still in the cards (what with Marvel announcing no further plans for the Captain Marvel line of films), we might see Kamala again. I certainly hope her place in the MCU is cemented, but at this point, with the franchise struggling, who knows?

Essential Score: 4.2

Captain Marvel (MCU 21)

Speaking of Captain Marvel, there were high hopes for her solo film. The trailers certainly sold it as a time hopping adventure about a woman who had super powers but was struggling to remember who she was. It promised action, adventure, and rich character development. It delivered on the action, but maybe not much else. This is absolutely a case of the trailers over-selling and under-delivering.

There's no bigger flaw with the film than Carol Danvers herself. The titular Captain Marvel, Carol is something of a void for a good two-thirds of the film. She acts cocky, like Tom Cruise in Top Gun, but without nearly as much charisma and spark. You go in wanting to like her as she's been through some shit (as we quickly learn), but damn does the character make it hard to actually care about her. That's a problem.

But also, making the film into a 1990s prequel does rob it of some of its tension. Any character that appears in this film and anything that comes "after", such as Nick Fury and Phil Coulson, is never in any danger (no matter how much the film tries to say otherwise) because we know they survive. And the film never really has a good explanation for why Carol would just fly off for twenty years while shit was going down on Earth. "Oh, I'm a space cop." Sure, but was an invasion of aliens in the first Avengers, or Ultron taking over in the sequel, really not worth your time? That seems suspect.

There's a solid cap between a good Marvel film and a bad one and this certainly veers on the bad side. It's an over-produced film that assumes we'll care about a character just because she exists. I need just a little more: more story, more charisma, more something. Captain Marvel could be there, eventually, but this film doesn't deliver on that promise, no matter what the trailers might have said.

How Essential Is It?

With the change over from the old guard to the new, as we shifted from Phase III into Phase IV and beyond, it was assumed that Captain Marvel would rise up and take on a lead role as an Avenger. But, curiously, Marvel hasn't made much noise about her. She only had a couple of small cameos in all of Phase IV, and there was nary a squeak about the Avengers that whole time. Her sequel, The Marvels, is a favorite of the site’s editors, so we’d be happy to have more with the Captain at this point, but Marvel seems reluctant to follow her any further. That makes her introduction rocky at best, and only worthy of seeing what she was up to before she became an Avenger (and then promptly was ignored again).

Essential Score: 6.2

Doctor Strange (MCU 14)

Stop us if you've heard this one: a rich and egotistical guy finds himself confronting hardships he never expected. This forces him to not only rebuild himself, finding a new lease on life, but it also turns him into someone worthy of being called "hero". Not that he loses his ego, not one bit. If that sounds like anyone you'd probably guys Iron Man and that, right there, is the issue with Doctor Strange. In a cinematic universe that already features Iron Man it's hard to get excited for another character cut from the same cloth.

Now, sure, there are factors that make this film watchable. It is visually spectacular, with stunning magic rendered in cool and interesting ways. Strange's portal powers are also neat and add new twists to the action we hadn't seen in the MCU before. This, along with a solid, game cast, makes for a very watchable film. There's just a pang of "been there, done that" that hangs over the film. Maybe if the character had gotten his start after Iron Man exited the MCU, stage left, then it could have worked. But here, in this one adventure, the movie doesn't do quite enough to make you excited for Doctor Strange.

How Essential Is It?

Speaking of Iron Man exiting the stage, making room for Doctor Strange, that's exactly what's happened with Phase IV. The good Doctor has taken on mentor roles with some of the younger heroes, and in the process become an elder statements others look to. He slots nicely into the void left by Iron Man and, in fact, now feels much more essential to the universe. We don't get there without this film and that alone makes it far more essential than it otherwise could have been.

And it is an amusing little watch on its own. That's not nothing.

Essential Score: 8.0

Captain America: Civil War (MCU 13)

If I were to pick out any one character from the MCU who had the most consistent and interesting solo movies, I'd probably say Captain America. Iron Man is one of the greatest films in the series, but its two follow ups are uneven (each in their own ways). Cap, however, had two solid back-to-back adventures, both of which helped to define the actual universe all the other films resided within. And it did all that while being fantastic adventures. That's hard to argue against.

With that being said, the third film in his series, Captain America: Civil War is the weakest of the set. It feels more like Avengers 2.5 and, frankly, had it been released as the end of, say, Phase II (with all the films building towards it), that might have worked better. Instead it's, for some reason, a Captain American flick, one that doesn't really devote enough time to the lead character. You can tell the whole point of the movie was to get all the Avengers action figures together for a big set-piece (the airport tarmac fight) and the rest of it was just set dressing.

Look, the action in the film is solid, and it really does have some fantastic sequences. There is just too much time spent setting up other characters (Black Panther, Spider-man), other plotlines (the Sokovia Accords, Iron Man's emotional struggles), and too little spent on Cap, Bucky, and the relationship that should be the core of the film. It fails because it can't find its focus.

How Essential Is It?

From a storytelling perspective, Civil War does a lot of heavy lifting. For one, it introduces Black Panther and Spider-man into the fold, each of which would soon after get their own solo films. It also brings Bucky back, and he'd grow to be a larger part of the universe after this movie. It even gives Ant-Man more to do, and gives us our first taste of his "Giant Man" powers.

Beyond that, it shakes up the status quo for the heroes. After this film, the teams functionally split in two, with Iron Man leading the Avengers while Cap takes some of the heroes and goes off the grid, becoming unsanctioned vigilantes. This would all lead into the big events of the two Avengers films that capped Phase III. Thus, it's essential, but also a giant mess.

Essential Score: 7.5

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...