The good, the bad and the ugly, from the very first one to the most recent, here’s the what and the why of Marvel’s web-spinning, hammer-throwing, shield-tossing, Groot-uttering heroes and superheroes in one handy chunk
Who’d have thought, when Iron Man gave birth to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in 2008, that more than two decades on it would still be flying and still pulling in enthusiastic audiences? Even Kevin Feige, who has produced every single one of them, cannot have expected a run of so many successful films – pushing $30 billion at the box office and counting. As I write, in September 2022, Marvel are planning releases as far as ten years into the future. The logistics of booking the directors and all those big-name stars must be daunting.
It could go flat at any minute, of course, and at some point audiences will get bored with a package that to outsiders is mystifying. How can an adventure feature a god (like Thor) fighting alongside a mere mortal who’s put in the training hours (like Hawkeye or Black Widow)? In what sense is someone whose body has been altered at a cellular level (like Spider-Man or The Hulk) comparable to someone who’s literally bought his way into superhero-hood (like Tony Stark/Iron Man)? And where does an astral voyager like Dr Strange fit into all this?
But work it does, Feige and Marvel deftly pivoting after realising that the Fast and Furious franchise’s much more diverse cast signalled that there really was an audience out there for the non-white hero figure. And pivoting again, towards directors who were less mainstream (like the Russo brothers) or more arthouse (Cate Shortland) in an attempt to keep the offering fresh.
By now there are so many films in the MCU that they have to be grouped. And then the groups have to be grouped. Phases one, two and three are collectively known as The Infinity Saga (2008’s Iron Man to 2019’s Spider-Man: Far from Home). Phases four, five and six are The Multiverse Saga (starting with 2021’s Black Widow and ending who knows where?)
I’ve seen them all, and taken notes, which is handy, because some of the Captain Americas are hard to tease apart, and the various Avengers movies can also bleed together a bit, with Thor also having a tendency to do the same.
Based mostly on what I thought of the movie at the time, with a bit of hindsight (and the occasional rewatch to refresh the memory), without further ado, here’s my list of worst to best. It’s just for fun and your mileage may vary. It would be a strange world if it didn’t.
The MCU Worst to Best
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
Marvel plus martial arts sounds like the action movie motherlode and the kung fu fighting is fantastic, as it should be in a film whose main character, Shang-Chi, was originally modelled on Bruce Lee. But how terribly self-important it all is, with little in the way of compensatory Marvel-issue quippery for comic turns Awkwafina and Ben Kingsley to sink their teeth into. Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung are a casting coup but the backstory problem that plagues many a Marvel movie really drags this one to a standstill. As for the big dragon-fight finale in the Game of Thrones style, surely Marvel aren’t looking around for ideas?
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Enter, from the 1980s, Shane Black, writer of all those Lethal Weapon movies. And whaddya know, he delivers a Lethal Weapon-style adventure with Robert Downey Jr giving it the full mad-dog Mel Gibson routine as an Iron Man with anxiety attacks. The question it poses: can Tony Stark exist without the Iron Man suit and all that brings to his onanistic party for one? But the bigger question is: can Shane Black direct without recourse to 1980s pastiche? Answer: no.
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
You could argue that Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk is the original MCU movie. It was even exec-produced by Kevin Feige. But the company seems to have disavowed it. If you didn’t like Eric Bana’s turn as a very comic-book hulk, you only had to wait five years for this go by Edward Norton, in a lush James Bond-style location-heavy glamathon with a decidedly anti-military sweep. Tim Roth builds his villainous anti-hero from the sneer out, and William Hurt makes a good standby bad guy. All in all it’s more Bulk than Hulk – it drags, lacks a throughline and is only ever really convincing as a love story (hello, Liv Tyler).
After the Avengers and the Guardians, another gaggle of Marvel superheroes, brought into being to restore order when supervillains the Deviants get the upper hand. With its diverse cast, the Marvel debut by director Chloé Zhao (who hadn’t yet won her Oscar for Nomadland when she was hired) looks designed to infuriate people who waking hours are spent armchair fighting culture wars. It also has to deal with a lorralorra lore, introduce a whole raft of new characters and then set up the action for a sequel. Leaving barely time for any sort of adventure. The presence of Richard Madden and Kit Harington doesn’t help, two of the dullest actors currently taking home big paycheques. All this plus an “I’m not really here” Angelina Jolie!
Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)
Another Trump-inspired “return of the overlooked” plot featuring Jake Gyllenhaal as Mysterio, a baddie posing as a goodie following Peter Parker on his gap year round Europe and laying waste to cities as he goes. Jon Favreau gets to utter the line, “I bought us some time. But not much,” in a movie that is itself a placeholder, in spite of good support work by himself, Samuel L Jackson, Marisa Tomei and Zendaya, who has so much charisma she could power a small town. The romance between Zendaya’s MJ and Tom Holland’s PP is the best thing about the whole thing.
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
The second of the Jon Watts “home” trilogy of Spider-Man movies is breathlessly urgent and has a real comic-book bounce to it. Michael Keaton gets right into his role as a supervillain blue-collar guy hissing at global elites and building a super-suit out of discarded rust-belt tech – a baddie for the Trump era. After Captain America: Civil War, this is Tom Holland’s second go as Spider-Man and he’s now made it his own. Zendaya, Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr and Jacob Batalon all impressive, and Jennifer Connelly provides the breathy voice for Spider-Man’s talking suit. Plot? Not so much.
Avengers: Endgame (2019)
The Russo brothers’ fourth MCU movie, a massive undertaking with a very extended “getting the band back together” preamble, before a re-assembled Avengers travel through time to undo the death and destruction to their own number caused by Avengers: Infinity War the year before. There are good jokes, including how everything the superheroes know about time travel they have gleaned from movies like Hot Tub Time Machine and Back to the Future. But in among all the flash and crash no one seems to have noticed that if you build a time machine and are then capable of undoing things that have already been done, all sense of jeopardy is destroyed.
Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)
Chris Hemsworth is standard-issue Thor and Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster becomes the Mighty Thor in metaverse-inflected outing that goes in hard on the humour at the expense of the thrills – Taika Waititie wrote as well as directed. Russell Crowe turns up as Zeus and provides the film’s biggest laughs and Christian Bale cuts through the frippery with a scowl as a supervillain trying to kill all the gods, one after another.
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
The Marvel equivalent of foot-stamping and slamming the door, the third outing for Chris Evans’s flag-waving superhero sees the Avengers falling out over whether to submit to United Nations jurisdiction or not. The Captain’s name may be on it, but Marvel are clearly nervous about his pulling power – this is an Iron Man movie first, an Avengers movie second, with CA coming in a poor third. All those caveats to one side, it has neat, complex interlocking plotlines and some the writing excels when the superheroes laying into each other verbally.
Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
Amiable Ant-Man Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly’s the Wasp head into the nanoverse to rescue her mother, hoping to get there ahead of Ghost (a standout Hannah John-Kamen) and mentor Dr Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne). Walton Goggins again steals the show as a loquacious villain. Michael Douglas gets his own subplot, so he looks like less of a spare part than he did in the first movie. And Michael Peña, Tip Harris and David Dastmalchian also get stuff to do in a movie full of incident and also full of big names (like Michelle Pfeiffer as the imperilled mother). Even so, a slight sense of same old same old.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Returning writer/director Joss Whedon’s sense of the absurd (“You know I totally support your avenging,” Hawkeye’s wife tells him at one point) is a bright point in a muddy film with a lot of plot and even more characters fighting for space. The battles are fun, particularly fights between Hulk and Iron Man mixing quippage and carnage, and the romance between Bruce Banner aka The Hulk aka Mark Ruffalo and Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow aka Scarlett Johansson is touching. But what the hell is going on?
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
When this debuted, the question was: will the public buy another team of derring-doers, an Avengers-adjacent team of space voyagers headed by Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill? It turns out they will if Quill is a Han Solo-adjacent hero, and has a crack team of sidekicks to keep the interest up. Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper voice Groot and Rocket, the R2D2/C3PO equivalents. Zoe Saldana makes her presence felt in green face paint, Karen Gillan struggles as bald-pated thugess Nebula and Dave Bautista is effective as Drax and funnier than the average former WWE wrestler.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
The effete villains, brisk storytelling and 1940s period flavour stand out in Cap’s origin story – or how CG turned Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) first into a wee, slight thing before he tussled with a Vita-Ray and became a musclebound Captain America. Though not quite as camp, it’s the best Flash Gordon movie since 1980’s Flash Gordon (if only Queen had done the soundtrack), though the lack of a decent plot is a problem that really starts to become noticeable in the dull final hour, in spite of action sequences, romance, a showdown with an evil genius, gadgetry galore, big music and a rehashing of the opening sequence of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death.
Doctor Strange (2016)
A cosmic, gravity-defying kung-fu movie from director Scott Derrickson and an origin story for Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr Strange, an arrogant p-o-s surgeon who wrecks his body in a car crash and heads off to Nepal to get fixed. Fun if a touch formulaic in a Marvel baddies’n’jeopardy kind of way, with high points delivered by Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, Strange’s guru teacher, and Mads Mikkelsen’s villain Kaecilius giving the special effects teams the opportunity to go large. Turning back time, putting fallen skyscrapers back where they were? No problem.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Director Taika Waititi’s Marvel debut is a typically bantering, borderline satirical adventure that sees Thor busted down to non-godlike status and winding up sold, Spartacus style, into a gladiator reality show. Lots to like here – Jeff Goldblum as the cheesy dude running the show, Cate Blanchett as an unhinged murderous politician trying to run Asgard her way, Tessa Thompson scoring big as badass Valkyrie, not your typical Marvel female doormat, Tom Hiddleston hissably enjoyable as ever as Loki. Does not take itself too seriously, exactly as Stan Lee dictated.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (2017)
Exactly what it says on the tin, a continuation of the first GotG movie, with Kurt Russell arriving to play Ego, the father of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) trying to lure his son to the dark side. Shocked, shocked that a guy called Ego would turn out like that. James Gunn returns as director and co-writer and aims for a Tarantino/Whedon cocktail with a screenplay that’s digressive, full of smart repartee and packed with pop culture references. Dave Bautista continues to be great value – he laughs like a truck backfiring – and Karen Gillan gets a bit more to do this time around. Hello the suddenly-hot Elizabeth Debicki and, very very briefly, Sylvester Stallone. Hang on while Gunn gets all his ducks in a row – they do eventually quack.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
This is the fourth outing for Chris Evans as the MCU’s most boring character (Hawkeye is actually even more boring but he’s not meant to be interesting) in a surprisingly lively adventure that sees S.H.I.E.L.D. on Captain America’s case because they believe he killed Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson). Along to talk smart and look good is Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, with Robert Redford as the S.H.I.E.L.D. boss and Toby Jones as a Nazi whose brain has been uploaded onto a 1960s tape-driven computer. Comic-book plot complexity (and hang the plausibility) is one of its great strengths, and the fact that it’s overlong with a flabby last section can almost be overlooked.
Paul Rudd perfectly cast as a guileless safecracker who puts on an Ant suit he comes across while on a housebreaking job and finds himself zapped to a shrunken size. Behold, Ant-Man! Edgar Wright was fired halfway through and Peyton Reed (best known for comedies) took over as director. Still, some of Wright and co-writer Joe Cornish’s inventiveness remains, and turns by Michael Douglas, as the suit’s incredibly guileful inventor, and Evangeline Lilly as his resourceful daughter, helps this witty, driving film to power along in Spielbergian fashion.
Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Thor and Loki have to put aside their differences to save Asgard and the Earth from Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), a Star Trek-style baddie whose henchmen have tusks, in case you were wondering whether they were good guys or not. Game of Thrones man Alan Taylor directs with a light touch, a good sense of geography and makes the detailed plot(s) easy to follow. The tone remains Whedon-esque, though the man himself is nowhere to be seen, and Christopher Hemsworth’s Thor comes in at third place in the charisma stakes behind Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Odin (Anthony Hopkins miraculously managing this with very little screen time).
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)
There are intimate MCU movies but not DSitMoM, which has a big title to match its massive ambition. Benedict Cumberbatch makes an excellently pompous, sarcastic and cosmic Dr S, and director Sam Raimi keeps us on course as he steers us through the possibilities opened up by squintillions of alternate realities and a lot of Marvel characters, some as we’ve never seen them before. No Avengers, though, they’re still on a break. An exercise in imaginative storytelling, with a big SFX budget, a bigger Danny Elfman score and a finale that dips into the horror genre, as you might expect from the director of The Evil Dead.
Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
The third of Jon Watts-directed Spider-Man movies (they all have “home” in the title) is set in a Fake News kind of world, where the media has turned against Spider-Man and the mob have fallen in meekly alongside. Doc Ock, Green Goblin and Electro all return from previous movies. And so do Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire as Spider-Men from alternate universes. It’s cute, it’s fun, it’s busy and it’s imaginative, but tellingly it’s (again) the emotional stuff between Peter Parker and MJ (Zendaya) that really works best.
Black Widow (2021)
Indie director Cate Shortland makes the big moments emotional rather than physical in this origin story taking Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow back to her roots. We meet the family – sister Yelena (Florence Pugh), Mum (Rachel Weisz) and Dad (David Harbour) for a feast of phoney Russian accents before the very James Bond-like story moves towards the showdown with Freudian super-villain Dreykov (Ray Winstone). Pugh and Johansson bang the bantz back and forth while Shortland does veiled critiques of the megarich and even has a pop at the patriarchy. About as auteurishly indie as MCU movies come.
Captain Marvel (2019)
Brie Larson shifts from indie darling to the big time in a Captain Marvel origin story that also gives us the background to the whole S.H.I.E.L.D. organisation. It’s a female-centric superhero outing, with Annette Bening as the bad guy, a soundtrack full of Garbage and Elastica, Salt N Pepa, TLC and Des’ree, and writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck pulling off a thunderbolts-at-dawn stand-and-fight showdown between Bening’s Supreme Intelligence and Captain Marvel that’s been brilliantly borrowed from Roger Corman’s 1963 festival of kitsch, The Raven.
The Avengers (2012)
Aka Marvel’s The Avengers, aka Avengers Assemble, it goes by various titles but Joss Whedon’s The Avengers might have been most apt. He arrives as writer and director and makes his mark with a smart and funny screenplay high on its own supply of pop culture references. Whedon is particularly good at writing for Robert Downey Jr’s laconic style of delivery but also puts zingers in the mouths of Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk. It’s an Iron Man movie in all but name, though Whedon is also leaning into the Flash Gordon of the 1930s. It’s theatrical, it’s busy and it’s a bit overlong, but then it does have a lot of ground to cover. All those Avengers to assemble!
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Can Jon Favreau do it again with Iron Man 2? No is the short answer, but Favreau’s first film is hard to top. Here there’s a story that’s more in keeping with indie drama – the superhero as addict, hooked on the suit, the glamour, the image, the benefits (women throwing themselves at him, for instance) – with Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko showing what happens when you really let this stuff go to your head. Vanko’s arrival during the Monaco Grand Prix is one of the great entrances. Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell and Samuel L Jackson try to make themselves useful, and Johansson manages it when she gets into the Black Widow outfit. Or is that just for the rubber fetishists among us?
An MCU character’s first appearance often makes for a strong movie and that’s the case with Thor. The perfect casting of Chris Hemsworth as the god of thunder really helps. He’s a good, beefy farm-boy Asgardian rather than Ryan Reynolds-ripped, with a sense of humour, useful when Thor arrives on earth from Asgard and has what might be called a Crocodile Dundee adventure. It’s funny, it’s thrilling, Hemsworth is perfect and Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo deliver the goods as his parents over the Bifrost. Let’s also not forget Tom Hiddleston as Loki, threatening to steal the show with every swish.
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
One of the most spectacularly huge casts ever assembled is expertly shepherded in a Lord of the Rings-style plot that ties together the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy and the world of the Black Panther. As an exercise in crowd control alone it’s impressive, with everyone getting something to do and the more human superheroes only being sidelined when the big finish comes over the horizon. It’s a big, big movie, with great special effects in the battle scenes and bold and dramatic though it is, it’s never too grand that it can’t take a moment to make fun of itself.
Black Panther (2018)
Opening up whole new realms for Marvel to explore, the Afro-futurist Black Panther gave the T’Challa/Black Panther character a standalone, elevated him to pivotal MCU status and made a global star of Chadwick Boseman, who didn’t have long to enjoy the benefits (if there are any). Letitia Wright also did herself a lot of favours as T’Challa’s smart science-nerd sister in a movie that’s sat down, worked out what’s wrong with other superhero films (race, the focus on the US, bad roles for women) and then sorted them all out one by one.
Iron Man (2008)
The first of the MCU and the best, thanks in large part to Jon Favreau’s direction, which captures the visceral thrill of new capabilities as Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) first tries on the Iron Man suit and realises – wow, I can fly. The Bond/Moneypenny relationship of Tony Stark to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts adds a frisson and Downey’s droll delivery lays down what’s going to be one of the MCU’s defining features – its irreverent tone. No one does it better.
Marvel Studios: The Infinity Saga – Collector’s Edition Complete Box Set 4k Ultra-HD – Buy it at Amazon
The Multiverse Saga not yet available (watch this space)
I am an Amazon affiliate
© Steve Morrissey 2022