June 25, 2024

Taken as a whole, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is an undeniable achievement in cinema. It began with a simple idea, thrown in after the credits of the first, risky movie: “You’ve become part of a bigger universe. You just don’t know it yet.” That idea blossomed into movies that crossed over with each other, sometimes with incredible results and other times with diminishing returns.


We decided to look back at the films in the universe and rank them from worst to best. You will likely disagree with our rankings.

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31. Iron Man 2

Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark in Iron Man 2

If Nick Fury’s words to Tony Stark at the end of Iron Man were a confident declaration about the intentions to create the “Avengers Initiative”, then Iron Man 2 is tripping over your shoelaces and faceplanting.

Iron Man 2 suffers from trying to do too much in the span of one movie, and no one seems to agree on what needs to take priority. Yes, there needs to be some time given to setting up The Avengers, but Iron Man 2 does it awkwardly by introducing Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) but forgetting to give her a character. It tacks on the Coulson stuff, which is still a little stiff, but Clark Gregg does his best to make it work even though his dialogue may as well read: “Thor: Coming Next Summer!”

The Avengers stuff could be forgiven if the A-plot worked a little better, but like just about every Marvel movie, it suffers from a weak villain with lousy motivation. While Mickey Rourke definitely had some clout coming off The Wrestler, director Jon Favreau just got a campy performance out of the actor, who clearly thinks the material is beneath him, as opposed to Darren Aronofsky, who got the best performance of Rourke’s career.

This is to say nothing about Tony’s palladium poisoning and how it just so happens that his dad invented the one thing that could save his son’s life, built it decades before his son miniaturized it, and then hid the plans in a table. It makes you wonder if Howard Stark put any other revolutionary ideas in furniture.

The one consistently great aspect of Iron Man 2 is Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer, and it makes sense considering he’s pretty much freed from the sinking ship of everything else going around him. He’s not caught up in Avengers business, he’s pretty much making fun of Rourke’s lackadaisical performance, and he gets to look good doing everything. But when an actor who doesn’t even get top billing is the one who steals the movie, something has gone amiss. — Matt Goldberg

30. Thor: The Dark World

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Image via Marvel Studios

You can pinpoint the exact moment when Thor: The Dark World goes from being a slog to being a good movie. The entire movie picks up at Freya’s funeral (killing off a female character to give your male heroes motivation is a tired trope, but it’s a deeply flawed film), but it takes a while for the film to get there. First, you have to go through Sad Thor cleaning up the Nine Realms, unceremoniously ditching Hogun for some reason, Jane meandering around Earth, Loki trapped in a cell, and yet another dull Marvel villain who suffers from a dearth of personality.

But after Freya’s funeral and Loki getting sprung from captivity, the film takes off and finds its energy. Between Thor and Thor: The Dark World, it’s not enough to have just Thor or even Thor and Jane. You have to have the relationship between Thor and Loki because that’s where these movies get their power. Even after Loki “dies”, his presence is still felt as a driving force for Thor and the movie keeps up the energy it found in their relationship.

It’s also clear that what Thor movies need more than anything is a sense of humor. The first half is pretty remote and dour, but the second half finds a pulse and throws in plenty of jokes and memorable little moments that give the movie a personality. Yes, it can be a little slapstick in some regards, but Thor shouldn’t take itself so seriously. When the stakes are interdimensional, that’s about all the seriousness these movies can handle, and it’s better to let the God of Thunder just have some fun. — Matt Goldberg

29. The Incredible Hulk

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It’s almost unfair to include The Incredible Hulk on a list of MCU movies since it was clearly added to the Universe after the fact. There are a few second unit shots and additions to make it feel like it’s part of something bigger (like a quick glimpse of the “Stark Industries” logo), but it’s so clearly meant to stand on its own, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. I’m not of the opinion that just because these movies are part of a shared universe they’re somehow lesser because they’re not actively sharing all the time.

The problem with Incredible Hulk is that it’s tonally so dissonant from the other movies, and it’s actually a bit of a downer. It’s a film that, when paired with Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk, makes you wonder if the character can carry his own movie or if he needs to be paired with other superheroes to work to his full extent. Left to his own devices, you have a character who rejects his own superpower and feels ambivalent about it at best. You need other characters to draw it out as a force for good and to give the loner Bruce Banner a sense of belonging.

The Incredible Hulk is too early in the MCU to take advantage of this kind of dynamic, so it’s adrift, and as a result lacks the proper tone, voice, and attitude to quality as a proper Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. Until William Hurt pops up in Civil War, it’s the only movie where its actors don’t appear in other Marvel movies. Edward Norton is acceptable as Banner, but Mark Ruffalo is so much better in a well-rounded version of the character. It seems like Marvel didn’t know what they had yet with Hulk, so everything is just slightly off-center.

That doesn’t make The Incredible Hulk a “bad” movie as much as it’s a painfully mediocre one that’s constantly trying to reconcile its tone and its lead character, and while it has yet to figure out the former, we’ve at least come to a good place with the latter. — Matt Goldberg

28. Doctor Strange

Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One going up against Kaecilius in the film Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange is a weird beast. It feels cobbled together in a way that it goes by the familiar beats of previous Marvel movies–notably Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy–but it also feels rote and uninteresting despite the trappings of putting its protagonist into a magical world. It seems like Marvel stuck close to a familiar playbook because they knew they were making a bit of a leap with “magic”, but when it came time to make that magic, it was fairly uninteresting.

I understand the difficulty Strange presents with magic because magic needs rules or else everything falls apart. That being said, the film leans far too heavily on the “cocky guy becomes a nicer guy” story Marvel has done before, and does so in a largely uninteresting way. Benedict Cumberbatch is fine in the title role, but there’s always a feeling of “been there, done that” with the movie even its eye-popping action scenes that feel either ripped from Jack Kirby or Inception on steroids.

The film’s greatest strength is in its thematic subtext where Strange’s arc is learning that he has to be okay with being broken. Although I think the film could have leaned a little more heavily into this, I still like that the climax of the movie is Strange–a man who has spent his life fighting death–embracing death in order to save mankind. Yes, the willingness to sacrifice one’s life is a standard part of MCU heroics, but Strange does it on overdrive, and it actually means something to the character’s arc.

But overall, Doctor Strange is largely disappointing. It wastes a terrific cast, features mostly uninteresting characters, and struggles to find the sense of whimsy of humor found in most other Marvel movies. Walking out of Doctor Strange was the first time I felt with a Marvel movie, “Yeah, I’m okay if we don’t get a sequel to this.” — Matt Goldberg

27. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

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Image Via Disney

As far as visuals go, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is exciting and spooky, employing the skills of Sam Raimi and leaning into the horror of the premise did a lot for this movie. Adding to that Danny Elfman‘s strong soundtrack, and a great performance from Elisabeth Olsen as Wanda/Scarlet Witch, it seems like Multiverse of Madness was poised to be another hit following up No Way Home. Unfortunately the problem with this sequel to Doctor Strange is that it feels very much like a vehicle toward the future of the MCU, rather than something that is embracing the moment that it is in. Jammed full of cameos, one of the scenes that they teased early on was the presence of an alternate universe Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), but the scene involving Professor X also brings with it the most cameo-heavy scene of the film. But instead of using these characters in any meaningful capacity, they are shown for the applause and excitement of the audience and then quickly and brutally killed off. Was that the one and only time we’ll see John Krasinski as Reed Richards? Probably.

Cameos aside the show narratively picks up after the events of both No Way Home but also of Wandavision. As one of the most thoughtful shows from Disney+, Wandavision was a deep exploration of grief and love and overcoming grief without losing that love. It gave us an incredibly nuanced performance not only from Olsen but also from Paul Bettany as Vision. The conclusion of the season was sad but felt like closure. Unfortunately, everything gets walked back in Multiverse of Madness. With her hands on the Darkhold, Wanda has fully become corrupted by it. She is willing to kill anyone, even children, in order to find a universe where her sons are alive and she can take them (even if it means taking them from another version of herself). It takes a fully dimensional character and flattens her into a villain. Given how well Marvel has treated villains who lean more into being an anti-hero, like Loki (Tom Hiddleston), it’s puzzling why Wanda lost that opportunity. There is no real redemption for her at the end of all of this. She dies, the ultimate penalty for her crimes, even if it is freed from the darkhold’s possession.

On top of all of this, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is all snark and sarcasm, and while this might have played well early in the MCU, after meeting so many snarky characters, Strange comes off more as an asshole than anything else. He doesn’t inspire heroics and instead it’s more up to his supporting characters like Wong (Benedict Wong) and America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) to pick up the slack. For what it’s worth, both Wong and Gomez are enjoyable and we appreciate the introduction of Bruce Campbell as Pizza Poppa. — Therese Lacson

26. Ant-Man

Ant-Man running underground with a group of ants

When you consider that it had a rough pre-production, Ant-Man turned out far better than it could have. That being said, it still feels like a film that’s caught between two visions, and the vision it settled on is the less exciting of the two. That’s not trying to show favoritism towards Edgar Wright, and I’m eager to see what director Peyton Reed will do when he has full run of the show on Ant-Man and the Wasp, but his version of Ant-Man feels like it’s been stripped down to My First Heist Film.

It meets the genre requirements, but it meets them in such a simplistic way that it feels like the greatest achievement is so that Kevin Feige can point to Ant-Man as an example of saying “We don’t make superhero movies; we make heist movies,” and then compares Captain America: The Winter Soldier to a 70s political thriller even though it’s only like those movies in the loosest sense of the genre possible. It’s fairer to say that Ant-Man is a superhero movie through the lens of the heist genre, and once you’ve checked your expectations, it’s fairly enjoyable.

And yet (no pun intended), there’s a feeling that Ant-Man should go bigger. It has terrific stakes—a father wanting to earn his way back into his daughter’s life—and it’s a nice palette cleanser after the “Something big is going to drop from the sky” climaxes of the previous four MCU movies. And yet it doesn’t give us a particularly complex character with Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is a nothing villain, and the Quantum Realm could have been a really exciting, psychedelic place, but instead it’s just a pretty kaleidoscope.

Thankfully, the movie ultimately hints at something grander just around the bend, and while the first Ant-Man may not achieve everything it wanted to, it succeeds as a minor Marvel film that still manages to charm despite some glaring shortcomings. — Matt Goldberg

25. Ant-Man and the Wasp

Evangeline Lily and Paul Rudd in Ant-Man and the Wasp
Image via Marvel Studios

Ant-Man and the Wasp is pretty much like the first Ant-Man in that it’s perfect for background viewing. It doesn’t really demand your full attention because it’s just a silly, goofy romp, and sometimes that’s more than okay. We don’t always need the world-ending stakes of an Avengers movie, and for its part, Ant-Man and the Wasp doesn’t even really have antagonists for the most part. It’s a caper movie where the Macguffin is a building, and then you have Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly bouncing off each other.

The flip side is that there’s nothing particularly memorable about the movie. Peyton Reed does a good job playing with the relative size of the characters and objects, and it’s a nice story about a family trying to reunite after 30 years apart. And yet for all the emotional stakes, it’s a film that also takes nothing, including itself, seriously. It’s like Thor: Ragnarok minus the impressive visuals–always going for the gag at the expense of everything else. There’s nothing really bad about the movie, and goofball comedies have their place, so this is one I won’t mind revisiting even if it will start disappearing from my memory the moment the credits roll. — Matt Goldberg

24. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania

Paul Rudd as Ant-Man and Jonathan Majors as Kang in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania
Image via Marvel

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is only slightly better than the other Ant-Man films on this list because of how it improves on concepts that the first two films only occasionally played around with. Director Peyton Reed’s third adventure with Scott Lang focuses far more on the relationship between Scott and his daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton) than the previous films, and plays more with the size-changing craziness than we’ve ever seen before. For quite a bit of Quantumania, it seems like this might be the realization of this concept’s true insanity, especially when the entire cast shrinks down and becomes trapped in the Quantum Realm. Previous Ant-Man films doled out the weirdness, but Quantumania looked like it might be the first film to completely give in to it.

Well, that is until Jonathan Majors comes along and completely steals the film, introducing the MCU to Kang the Conquerer, the next big bad for the foreseeable future of the MCU. Majors is excellent in Quantumania, and it’s hard to not get excited about what his involvement in this universe could mean for the next few phases. Yet Scott Lang’s adventure and Kang the Conquerer’s introduction both feel like they’re from two different films, crammed together for the sake of setting up future films. There’s a lovely story about a father and daughter finally ending up on common ground, it’s just a shame it comes in a film that has to do a ton of other set up as well. — Ross Bonaime

23. Black Widow

Black Widow Action Shot

I really wish this one was better. We waited so long for Black Widow to get her own movie, and it was too little, too late. The central problem is that because the movie arrived so late in the MCU that Natasha had already died in Avengers: Endgame, so a prequel story was already drained of stakes. To revisit Natasha’s family life felt like ceding ground rather than illuminating anything new about the character. If anything, it felt like Black Widow was kind of a backdoor pilot of sorts to introduce Yelena (Florence Pugh) rather than do justice to Natasha.

The saving grace here is that Pugh is so good as Yelena. The plot of Black Widow is whatever (the concept of liberating other women should feel more immediate, but within Black Widow it almost plays like an afterthought to everything else going on with the clumsy family dynamic the film is trying to manage), but when you’ve got Yelena bouncing off other character or kind of poking fun at the very concept of superheroes and the Avengers, you’ve got a strong new character to play in the MCU, and you’re excited to see where she goes from here.

But while Black Widow may be a good launchpad for Yelena, it’s sadly an off-key swan song for Natasha. It’s also confusing why Marvel, if they were so intent on doing a Black Widow prequel, didn’t make the movie about her defection to S.H.I.E.L.D. and friendship with Barton rather than this weird bridge chapter between Civil War and Infinity War. Of course, the answer is that this story needs to be told for Yelena’s sake, not Natasha’s, and it leaves a bitter taste to see a longtime character, particularly a woman, discarded so casually. — Matt Goldberg

22. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Shang-Chi readying for battle aboard a bus in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Image via Marvel Studios

There’s a lot that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings does right. It’s a huge step forward for Asian representation in films. It’s awesome that the film’s prologue is basically all subtitled. The action is easily among the best in the MCU. On a basic level, Shang-Chi accomplishes what most Marvel movies accomplish: it’s fun, funny, and pretty entertaining. However, the biggest hurdle for an origin story like Shang-Chi is making you care about its title character, and that’s where this film struggles. Its plot is fairly uninteresting, and constantly jumping between the present and the backstories of Shang-Chi, his sister, and his father saps the film of momentum.

My biggest qualm with Shang-Chi is a similar one I had to Doctor Strange: I didn’t feel compelled to see more stories about this character. That’s not to say that future movies won’t make him more interesting (just look at how much more fun Strange was in his supporting turn in Avengers: Infinity War), but in his first movie, it’s tough to discern what Shang-Chi’s character arc even is beyond reconciling the legacy of a perfect mother and deeply imperfect father. There’s also a nice story about not being held prisoner by the past and grief, but that falls a little flat when the film constantly throws you flashbacks.

Shang-Chi has an edge over other lower-tier MCU movies simply because of the strides it makes in representation, and the action is masterful, but storytelling and character need to be the core virtues of these movies, especially as the MCU begins in a new chapter in Phase 4. We obviously haven’t seen the last of Shang-Chi, but hopefully, we’ll see him in a stronger story for his next outing. — Matt Goldberg

21. Eternals

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Image via Marvel Studios

As of March 2022, Eternals has the lowest Rotten Tomatoes rating of any Marvel movie, which feels undeserved. I suppose the question you have to consider is whether you want bland competency that delivers a modest success or would you rather have something more audacious that simply bites off more than it can chew. Eternals may not have the light charm of the Ant-Man movies or the basic origin story structure of Shang-Chi and Doctor Strange, but at least director Chloé Zhao was trying to break the Marvel formula a bit. The problem is that the Marvel formula fought back.

Eternals‘ biggest problem is that there’s simply too much of it. The cast is huge for an origin story (ten characters), the story spans millennia, and it has cosmic ramifications about whether these characters can turn their backs on their faith to protect humanity. It’s a movie where the superheroes literally oppose the will of their god to save the world, and that’s super interesting, but Marvel reduces it down to standard superhero fare. The film can’t go anywhere truly interesting because it has to adhere to the superhero genre. Marvel producers and filmmakers can talk a big game about how the studio can play in different genres, but they’re always superhero movies first, and Eternals shows the limitations of that thinking.

And yet I’m glad that Eternals at least tried to do something more than your typical Marvel fare. It doesn’t always work and the story desperately needs more time to breathe, but it’s a Marvel film that at least stayed in my mind after watching it rather than quickly evaporating. If Marvel is going to be the biggest kid on the blockbuster block, then it should take chances like this one even if the end result is deeply flawed. — Matt Goldberg

20. Thor

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Image via Marvel Studios

Thor seems fairly counterintuitive: Here’s a Norse god. He has awesome powers. Now let’s strip him of those powers for the majority of this movie and stick him in New Mexico.

Thor’s lesson of humility in the Land of Enchantment is at least tempered by the fact that director Kenneth Branagh, despite having the incredibly poor idea to constantly use canted angles when filming, was dead on when it came to casting, especially Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston. So much of the MCU’s greater success rests on these two actors that if you messed up this part, other films would suffer. The same could be said of casting on other movies, but Branagh basically found two unknowns and trusted that they could serve as bridges between the lofty realm of Asgard to the most mundane places on Earth. He absolutely succeeded, and when Hemsworth grins, you don’t care that the film has taken away his superpowers. When Hiddleston seethes, you love being wrapped up in the grandiose family dispute in Asgard.

Sadly, the rest of the film isn’t as strong as its two lead characters (I consider Loki as much of a lead as Thor, which is one of the reasons the character succeeds as a villain; Marvel should really take note of how they did this character right and apply it to their other antagonists). While Branagh succeeds at bringing Asgard to life, which is an impressive task, everything on Earth feels fairly limp.

Additionally, as time has gone on, we’ve seen that Thor’s willingness to sacrifice himself isn’t a unique trait as much as it’s something that Marvel superheroes are just willing to do at the climax of every movie. If that’s all it takes to wield Mjolnir, then more than just Thor, Vision, and Captain America should be able to pick up the hammer. — Matt Goldberg

19. Captain Marvel

Brie Larson as Captain Marvel (Captain Marvel)

Captain Marvel is pretty much on par with Thor with maybe a slight edge because it’s got a good buddy comedy thing going between Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). But overall, you have a character who’s much better than her debut movie. Nothing surrounding her, from the direction to the script, is really on par with what Larson brings to the character and how she makes Carol Danvers come to life. And that’s important! Imagine not getting Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man or Chris Evans as Captain America or Chris Hemsworth as Thor. Sure, there might have been another actor out there who could do the job, but these guys were perfect for their respective roles and so is Larson.

I just wish that the film she was in was better. Directors Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck don’t bring the flair and imagination the movie needs, especially given its cosmic settings. Directors like James Gunn and Taika Waititi were able to make the cosmic side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe feel weird and trippy, but there’s none of that boldness here and the world, whether it’s 1995 Earth or the cosmos feels depressingly mundane. You also have the issue that despite Captain Marvel’s dazzling powers, most of the set pieces are pretty bland and fail to make her skills all that impressive.

The script also suffers from trying to obscure the origin story, and while it’s understandable that they wanted to mix things up a bit in terms of structure, the screenwriters’ decisions ultimately deprive Captain Marvel of an arc. She goes from someone who doesn’t really remember her past and doesn’t have full use of her powers to someone who remembers her past and has full use of her powers. That’s not particularly satisfying, and the only reason it even remotely works is because we’re rooting for Captain Marvel as a character even if the story kind of lets her down. — Matt Goldberg

18. Spider-Man: Far From Home

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Image via Sony

While not quite as strong as Spider-Man: Homecoming, Spider-Man: Far From Home does what these MCU Spider-Man movies do best, which is provide a look at the world of the MCU from the eyes of non-superheroes. While Spider-Man (Tom Holland) may be at the center of the action, he’s surrounded by normal people who are reacting to massive events surrounding them whether it’s something the audience forgot like the BARF technology from Captain America: Civil War, or something vital like the Thanos’ snap. Giving these characters time makes the MCU feel real and inclusive, not just a world belonging to superheroes that happens to have normal people in it.

Far From Home also shines by making sure that the villainy, like the villain in Homecoming, has a real relation to our world. It does need to be overtly political, but it comes as close as it can with the observation that people will believe anything, and that a “post-truth” world serves powerful bad guys far more than it serves regular people. While some Marvel movies are about themes like family or responsibility, Far From Home doesn’t shy away from an inherently political subtext.

Where the film struggles is in its pacing and giving him killer drones. By taking Peter and his pals on a European vacation that then becomes a spy thriller of sorts, it loses the tightness and focus of Homecoming, a movie that knew its touchstones (John Hughes movies) and had a true North in showing Peter Parker as a high schooler. That’s been lost somewhat here, and while it still takes Spider-Man to some interesting places, the film occasionally loses sight of the personal stakes that makes this such a rich adaptation of the character. — Matt Goldberg

17. Avengers: Infinity War

Josh Brolin as Thanos in Infinity War

On the one hand, Avengers: Infinity War is loads of fun, and it’s staggering in its ambition to bring together almost every Marvel superhero into a single film. There’s also a delightful payoff to mixing and matching characters, so you get to see Thor hanging out with Rocket and Groot or Hulk and War Machine coming to Wakanda. The vastness of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is on display here, and it’s easy to get swept up into it.

But the film’s greatest strength—putting most of its characters into one movie—also ends up being its greatest weakness. Because it’s trying to get around to everyone, it ends up getting around to no one. Everyone is pretty much the same character they were at the start of the movie. There’s been no catharsis, no realization, no growth. It’s fun to watch the characters bounce off each other, but unlike other Marvel movies, Infinity War isn’t really about anything. There’s no character arc or even a thematic arc beyond questioning how we value life.

Thankfully, there’s a strong villain with Thanos, whose motives may be weak (his solution to overpopulation is to just cut the population in half), but who gets a sympathetic, weary performance from Josh Brolin. The film wisely decides to move away from the character’s sadism and instead opts for someone who believes he has the will to do what must be done even if he’s not enthusiastic about doing it. The Avengers may have the title, but the film really belongs to Thanos. — Matt Goldberg

16. Thor: Love and Thunder

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Image via Disney/Marvel

While it’s not perfect, Thor: Love and Thunder proves that the god of thunder and his stories are the most sustainable and entertaining stories in the MCU. It’s clear that Taika Waititi had a mammoth task ahead of him when creating Love and Thunder. He had to offer something new while also trying to recapture the lightning in the bottle success of Thor: Ragnarok. The very complaints that Matt mentions in his section about Ragnarok are addressed here in Love and Thunder but if you try to satisfy everyone you end up satisfying no one. Waititi brings back Natalie Portman as Jane Foster, this time giving her a hammer and turning her into the Mighty Thor. Her romance with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is on full display, complete with flashbacks to simpler times and a bittersweet farewell as Jane dies but goes to Valhalla. The film similarly leans farther into mythology, into fantasy. We have soaring Viking ships through space, we meet a whole pantheon of gods, we suffer/enjoy the presence of mythologically-accurate goats!

But the problem when you have so many boxes you want to check is that sometimes things that warrant more exploration fall to the wayside. While the humor for me was perfect, it’s understandable that that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (especially those who do not like Waititi’s brand of brash humor). The film underutilizes Christian Bale‘s Gorr, who is aptly terrifying but deserves more to work with. Both Bale and Portman offer amazing performances, able to achieve the dramatic highs of playing villain and hero, respectively, while also able to achieve subtlety in presenting their characters. The parallels between the two characters is not explored as fully as it should be.

However, criticisms aside, after slogging through Multiverse of Madness and being bombarded with cameos in both that and No Way Home, it was fun to finally get back to just the heroes that we have now. Investing in Thor, a character we’ve known for so long and seen through so many phases of his life, feels like a worthy choice for the MCU. He’s good as the prince of Asgard, as a visitor on Earth, as the defender of his people, as a space adventurer, and yes, also as a dad god to the adorable Love. It doesn’t hurt at all that the aesthetics for the movie are top notch — lightning effects always look amazing — and that the needle drops are catnip for anyone who loves Guns N’ Roses. — Therese Lacson

15. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is probably going to be a divisive film among MCU fans because, like Iron Man 3, it seems largely unconcerned with the plots of the other movies or even with its own plot. If you’re someone who thinks that the MCU’s greatest strength is in how it’s basically a gigantic TV show, and that to eschew universe building is to avoid what makes the MCU unique, then GOTG 2 will probably be a letdown. But if you believe that it’s great when Marvel lets filmmakers tell their own story without worrying about setting up the pieces to future movies, then Guardians 2 is a rousing success. I fall into the later camp.

It’s not that I mind movies that build connections to sequels, and the first Guardians does a nice job of balancing its own personality with links to future Marvel movies. But given the choice between leaning heavily on plot or heavily on character, I like that James Gunn’s sequel choose the latter. Vol. 2 isn’t in a hurry to get anywhere. It splits up the team and focuses largely on the characters. There’s no MacGuffin to obtain and the movie’s true villain isn’t even revealed until about halfway through the picture.

Instead, Vol. 2 is focused on characters and tone, and it works wonderfully. While some have leveled the criticism that the movie is “bloated”, I think that’s an unfair accusation. If anything, its plot is shockingly thin because it’s mostly interested in just meandering with its characters. It knows that you like these people, so it just hangs out with them. It’s Everybody Wants Some!! but in space and with Kurt Russell instead of Wyatt Russell.

And despite being a largely plot-free picture, it never loses sight of its thematic core, which is to further the theme of family, specifically how we’re raised, which was introduced in the first movie. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is really the full package; the question comes down to whether or not this is a package MCU fans want. — Matt Goldberg

14. Iron Man 3

Tony Stark sitting on couch with malfunctioned suit

Iron Man 3 is a fascinating and incredibly divisive film in the MCU. It’s a film that should carry the entire burden of The Avengers on its back, and instead just shrugs it off, and shrugs off the responsibility of being part of a shared universe to just go off and do its own thing. It’s kind of a “Fuck you” to people who have expectations, not just in terms of the MCU, but also with the Mandarin Twist, and yet that irreverence is also part of the film’s charm.

Shane Black is a filmmaker who likes messing with conventions, so in that sense, perhaps he wasn’t the best choice to tackle the first post-Avengers film. And yet if you support filmmaker-driven cinema, he’s one of Marvel’s most inspired choices, and he gives Iron Man 3 a personality that’s completely unique to the MCU rather than having a film that could have just as easily blended in and faded away. Iron Man 3 is a terrific litmus test even if its plot is a bit scattershot and overstuffed.

That’s the complication of Iron Man 3: Do you view it as a standalone feature, as a sequel to two Iron Man movies, a sequel to The Avengers, or a continuation of the MCU? It doesn’t seem like Marvel was entirely sure how to approach a post-Avengers world, and yet given the choice between a movie that can work on its own merits and one that’s constantly trying to do housekeeping for the larger franchise, I’m going to side with the former, warts and all. Iron Man 3 is a bold film that doesn’t always work, but I love its enthusiasm and attitude. — Matt Goldberg

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