As Spider-Man swings back into cinemas, Far From Home becomes the 23rd instalment in the frighteningly huge Marvel Cinematic Universe. The MCU is now the biggest franchise in the history of cinema, dwarfing Harry Potter, James Bond and even Star Wars on its journey to world domination. It's not all about the box office, however. Marvel Studios are now so good at making superhero movies that very few of their releases are anything less than fun and enjoyable – and many have turned out to be classics of the genre.
They don't adhere to a rigid template, either. Sure, most Marvel movies mix state-of-the-art action with the quippy brand of dialogue established by Tony Stark in the original Iron Man back in 2007, but some also play around within the superhero genre. Want to watch a space opera? Try Guardians of the Galaxy. A World War 2 adventure? Hunt down Captain America: The First Avenger. A high school movie? Check out Spider-Man: Homecoming. A classic heist tale? Then it’s Ant-Man you're after. And if you simply want to watch one of the funniest movies recent years? Thor: Ragnarok is a comedy in superhero clothing.
But the true genius of the MCU is probably the way the movies hang together in a coherent shared universe, with the events of each movie having an impact on the others – a massive 22-movie arc came to a spectacular end in the record-breaking Avengers: Endgame.
So as Far From Home wraps up the so-called Phase 3 of the MCU – the new Marvel movies of Phase 4 and beyond remain shrouded in mystery – we embark on a quest more challenging than tracking down the Infinity Stones. Yes, we’ve performed the near-impossible task of ranking the MCU movies (so far) from 23 to 1.
You may well disagree – everyone has their own opinion on the best Marvel movies, right? – but you can tell us your favourites in the comments section below.
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23. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
A cape-wearing, long-haired god who talks like Shakespeare was always going to be a bit of a hard sell for modern-day cinema goers. While Thor: Ragnarok knows how to have fun with the ridiculousness that is the God of Thunder, Thor: The Dark World (much like its predecessor) suffers from being a bit too superhero-y. In a cinematic universe where we have intergalactic space opera shenanigans, WW2-era war films, and size-altering heist movies, a handsome man in a cape fighting a villain who comes across as Generic Evil Guy (Christopher Eccleston, wasted as Dark Elf Malekith) doesn't stand much chance. Then there's the painfully unbelievable romance – Natalie Portman really didn't want to be there after only signing on to work with future Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins, who dropped out due to "creative differences". And let's not forget that vague Aether stuff, which actually turned out to be pretty important in the grand saga of the Infinity Stones, but at the time was just weird and confusing. Something has to be lowest on this list and most would agree it's The Dark World.
22. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The Incredible Hulk briefly appeared at number two in the list of the best Marvel movies – but that's only because it was the second one released, after Iron Man. A decade on, it's hard to remember Louis Letterier's film – itself a reboot of Ang Lee's inventive-but-flawed 2003 take on the Hulk – with much fondness. It's not helped by the fact it sees Edward Norton making his one-and-only appearance in the title role. He’s decent enough as the troubled, perpetually tense Bruce Banner, but he's nowhere near as much fun as the jokier Mark Ruffalo, who made the role his own from The Avengers onwards. The Incredible Hulk is a sort-of origin tale that skips past Banner's gamma-ray-induced accident – that well-known story plays out as part of the opening credits sequence – and picks up with him months later in hiding, trying to find a cure. It’s reasonably fun and hits all the key points for a successful superhero movie, but it still suffers from an uninspiring love interest and a forgettable baddie in Tim Roth's Emil “The Abomination” Blonsky (as with Iron Man and many other MCU movies, the final act simply features two seemingly equal and opposite forces pummelling the crap out of each other). The Hulk himself is a suitably dynamic wrecking ball of a presence, but he lacks the gleeful fun of the Avengers version.
21. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
The Avengers was the movie that propelled the MCU into the stratosphere, and the franchise's second official crossover movie nearly matched its predecessor at the box office. Unfortunately, Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn't come close in terms of storytelling – and that's despite the return of most of the cast and Joss Whedon behind the camera. Despite a performance-captured James Spader's best efforts, the malevolent AI Ultron is yet another generic villain from the Marvel movie stable. Meanwhile the banter between the leading superheroes is nowhere near as much fun this time around – that may have something to do with the movie being as concerned with setting up Phase 3 of the MCU as it is with saving the world. That said, there's lots to like about a movie that's arguably better than its reputation. That opening sequence ("Language!")? Hawkeye's secret backstory? The new Avengers? Black Widow and the Hulk's budding romance? That action-packed and emotional finale? All great. Okay, the villain is only mildly threatening and the Maximoff twins’ accents are... interesting, but by most standards Age of Ultron is a decent movie. It’s just below average for Marvel, which really says a lot about the overall quality of the MCU.
20. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Iron Man 2 lacks the fun and freshness of the first movie and it's certainly the weakest of all the Shellhead films after Shane Black's Iron Man 3 knocked it out of the park (more on that later). It's nothing more than an acceptable follow-up whose main claim to fame is that it features Mickey Rourke wielding electric whips. This is where we see Tony Stark’s fall from grace, as he faces personal demons relating to his love life and alcohol – Iron Man 2 riffs heavily on the classic “Demon in a Bottle" storyline from the comics. It’s also the film where we first meet Black Widow, and Rhodey (Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard) makes good on his “Next time, baby” promise from the first movie by donning the War Machine armour, expanding on a friendship that will become a mainstay of the MCU. The main conflict storyline is pretty forgettable – does anyone remember anything about principal antagonist Justin Hammer? – and ultimately everything feels subservient to setting up The Avengers. It's a prequel in all but name... There are plenty of movie sequels which are actually better than the originals. Sadly, Iron Man 2 isn't one of them.
19. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Some see Captain America: The First Avenger as the beginning of everything we love about the heroic Cap – the bedrock on which one of the MCU's major characters is built. Others, however, remember, well... how dull the storyline is. While Chris Evans is superb as the young skinny kid from Brooklyn who becomes a beefcake overnight thanks to experimental Super Soldier serum and fights the Nazis, having classic baddie the Red Skull (a man so unashamedly evil he needs a moustache to twirl) removes any opportunity to tell a particularly nuanced story. Plus it takes far too long to get to the action – there's only so many scenes of Cap on his promo tour you can take. Of course, Hayley Atwell as Agent Peggy Carter is so unmissable she bagged herself a spin-off TV show, and is one of the few MCU love interests who’s actually interesting. But even that isn't enough to place the first Captain America movie higher on this list. While it's definitely got some great moments and it kickstarts a cinematic journey for Cap that proved well worth sticking with, it's just not memorable enough to stand out next to the best MCU movies that followed.
18. Thor (2011)
While Chris Hemsworth does a decent job of playing the ridiculously good-looking god of a hero, the character is tricky to make work with his old time-y speech and pantomime-like clothes. Remember, this is some years before Hemsworth revealed an uncanny knack for comedy and Thor became one of the MCU’s MVPs. Thor does enough to set up the character for his future appearances, though, as well as establishing the family relationships that become important later on. In fact, Tom Hiddleston's Loki is one of the highlights of the film and makes his older brother much more interesting, which is probably why Loki has appeared alongside Thor in pretty much every Marvel movie he's in. The fish-out-of-water scenario Thor finds himself in when he's banished to Earth leads to some genuinely laugh out loud moments, and while it suffers from the same difficulties as Thor 2, the first God of Thunder movie has more heart than its sequel. Funny, sweet, and with plenty of ridiculous action sequences, Thor is fun. Unfortunately, that's all it is.
17. Doctor Strange (2016)
Marvel's first foray into the mystical world could have been better. While doing away with the wands and spells that riff off ancient Egyptian finger-tutting was an act of genius, it isn't enough to magic Doctor Strange to the top of this list of the best Marvel movies. Benedict Cumberbatch's Stephen Strange is a Tony Stark clone but has none of the charm to overcome the arrogance. And that accent... this film could have been saved by simply making the character, like the actor playing him, English. Doctor Strange is a classic origin tale, but that’s all it really is. And while at times it looks amazing thanks to it's Inception-style city-bending antics, it lacks the action and interest of other MCU movies. It may have an all-star cast, but many of them are given little to do (Rachel McAdams in particular is criminally wasted) and the final fight, while definitely unique, is rather flat. Doctor Strange is obviously just meant to introduce the character and set him up for future appearances in the MCU and it does just that – it’s good, just not that good.
Read more: 12 Doctor Strange Easter eggs every Marvel fan needs to know about
16. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
The very first Marvel movie to give a female superhero billing in the title, Ant-Man sequel Ant-Man and the Wasp marks a significant moment in MCU history, but it's so much more than that too. Picking up after the events of Captain America: Civil War and set parallel to Avengers: Infinity War (but released a few months after it), Ant-Man and the Wasp is the perfect palate cleanser following Thanos's snap. Like its predecessor, the Ant-Man sequel has a simple and effective storyline that allows the characters to shine, and it's very much about Scott Lang and Hope Van Dyne's partnership, totally justifying that all-important double billing. Focusing on familial relationships in more ways than one (that Ant-Man and the Wasp title is cleverly inter-generational, thanks to the Quantum Realm-based hunt for Michell Pfeiffer's original Wasp), it's full of heart and emotion without forgetting the laughs. And while it's not concerned with bigger events happening elsewhere in the MCU, it still manages to tease some intriguing possibilities for Avengers: Endgame. So why is it only number 15 on our list of the best Marvel movies? Ant-Man and the Wasp lacks the freshness of the original, with much of the fun of changing size being diminished by the seen-it-all-before factor – especially when even Captain America: Civil War had stolen Lang's Giant Man thunder.
Read more: What does the Ant-Man and the Wasp ending mean? And 7 other questions we have
15. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Oh look, another sequel! Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a hell of a good time. It takes the formula laid out by the original, straps boosters to it, cranks up the stereo to full, and thrills for over two hours. There are bigger stars (Kurt Russell as Chris Pratt's dad), a grander narrative, and ever huger set-pieces. Even the Stan Lee cameo is beefier. So why isn’t it higher on this list? The original Guardians of the Galaxy was a surprise hit – a Marvel movie so different and refreshing that it set the bar impossibly high for the sequel. Sadly, jokes aren't quite as fresh second time around. You also feel like you've seen the new worlds before, and the individual character arcs feel repetitive. While it isn’t as good as the original, Guardians 2 is still a cracking movie – the Yondu storyline is genuinely heartbreaking and the cast is undoubtedly the best ensemble in the MCU – but you can't just churn out a repeat of the first film and expect it to work.
Read more: Guardians of the Galaxy 2 ending – 9 questions we need answered
14. Captain Marvel (2019)
Over the last decade the Marvel Cinematic Universe has generally had the upper hand over its rivals at DC. One battle the Distinguished Competition undeniably won, however, was the race to get a female-fronted superhero movie into cinemas. Arriving nearly two years after Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel was somewhat overdue when it landed. Luckily, Carol Danvers made an impact straight away, soaring past the billion-dollar mark at the box office, and taking her place as the most powerful hero the MCU has ever seen – even Thor would think twice about a scrap with Captain Marvel. Oscar-winner Brie Larson instantly makes the role her own, bringing a perfect blend of humanity and detachment fighter pilot recruited by the Kree after gaining her powers in mysterious circumstances. But despite an impressive supporting cast (Jude Law, Annette Bening, Ben Mendelsohn), the debut of classic shapeshifting villains the Skrulls, some clever twists, and action beats that make you punch the air in triumph, this is run-of-the-mill origin fare. Not one of the best Marvel movies, perhaps, but it’s certainly one of the most important – especially if you like cats.
13. Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)
Just to prove the versatility of the MCU, the follow-up to the epic Avengers: Endgame is its polar opposite. Where the superhero team-up to end all superhero team-ups was a film of vast, universe-shattering consequences, Far From Home is simply a fun romp around Europe with your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. The shadow of Thanos’s finger snap (known as “the blip”) still lingers, of course, as half the world comes to terms with returning after five years away, and Peter Parker struggles to live up to the legend of his mentor, Tony Stark. But despite taking in numerous European capitals, this is a story told on a smaller canvas, primarily focused on a bunch of teens dealing with relationship stuff – and an increasingly farcical road trip. In his fifth movie as Spidey, Tom Holland secures his position as the best-ever screen Wallcrawler, equally adept at comedy as he is handling giant monsters with a penchant for destroying famous landmarks. While the threat ultimately proves a tad convoluted and ridiculous (even for a Marvel movie), returning Spider-Man: Homecoming director Jon Watts has a light enough touch to let the chemistry between his young stars do the heavy-lifting – and all before one of the MCU’s best mid-credits stings flips Peter’s world on its head.
12. Ant-Man (2015)
Phase 2 was the era Marvel really started to play around with the idea of what you could do with a superhero movie, and Ant-Man is their take on the crime caper. Everything about Ant-Man is classic heist; the slow-burn, ‘getting the team together’ characterisation; the single, focused goal; the planning and practice montages. Ant-Man knows all of the genre’s clichés, and it makes every one of them absolutely sing. Fundamental to that success is its drastically smaller scale – literally and figuratively. There’s no incoming apocalypse here. No grand, villainous plan to change life as we know it. Barely anything that anyone outside the story would ever become aware of, in fact. Just an old grudge, a corporate asshole, and a strong focus on the character comedy pushing the whole story forward. And that's why it works! Paul Rudd – an actor previously known more for his comedy chops more than his action attributes – is perfect in the title role and much like the first Guardians movie, Ant-Man is a breath of fresh air among Marvel's other movies.