You know you have waited for this: for me to rank and wax poetic about the cinematic offerings of the “comic book movies.”
I divided them into three tiers: The top tier are movies that I consider to be good and enjoyable, the middle tier are good Marvel Comic Book Movies, and the bottom tier, which is just movies that exist.
#1: Thor: Ragnarok
Thor: Ragnarok, even moreso than the other top tier offerings on this list, achieves a unique headspace: It is a Comic Book Movie, and like the namesake medium, it uses color and spectacle to create a confidently outrageous story.
It recalls artists like Simonson and Kirby, who, to become fully engaged in a medium where color and splash took precedence, turned to cosmic scenes and themes, pages of gods, aliens, and apocalypse.
Thor: Ragnarok also has a top-notch soundtrack, takes a moment to show the characters out of their elements, and even gives a little time to dabble in some side themes of colonialism, or, perhaps, the ownership of art and stories. That aside is perfect for the third movie in a series based on a fifty-year run comic book based on an ancient aliens version of a Nordic myth.
Above all, Ragnarok is absurdly confident, and more than any other movie on this list, it uses the Big Comic Book Movie budget to serve up memorable visual images from the pages of a Simonson-era psychedelic splash page, with colors that any inker and colorist would kill for. It also has a good soundtrack!
#2: Black Panther
More than most of the other films on this list, Black Panther is interesting and probably the most “serious” of all. That doesn’t stop it from being fun, and the supporting characters are top-notch, better than any of the other films - even ensemble offerings like Avengers.
Black Panther is bright, colorful, and kinetic. Wakanda is beautiful, a well-realized and rich setting, and the mid-film action sequences are a notch above the usual smash-cut and CGI blur offerings from the MCU. Like all the top-tier MCU films, it’s confident, well-designed, and artistic.
The storyline is human and compelling. The costumes are gorgeous. Killmonger simultaneously comes across as a sympathetic figure and as a brutal villain. There’s the best soundtrack of anything in the MCU. It was a cultural phenomenon leading up to the release, and honestly, watching people thrill over a real Black Panther movie was worth the line on opening day.
#3: TIE: Guardians of the Galaxy 1 & 2
Yes, I decided these can tie. If we’re talking about the confidence from the previous films, GotG 2 has it far more than the first - but maybe it doesn’t entirely earn it, either. Both have muddled messes of endings that would be sore spots if the rest of the flick wasn’t consistently comically and cosmically enjoyable.
The soundtracks make good use of Quill’s “Awesome Mix,” but when we’re not getting pop hits the bland orchestrals really stand out. Seriously, the MCU needs some help on that “blur-of-horns and strings” thing they’ve got going on.
#4: Spiderman: Homecoming
Spiderman would be firmly mid-tier if not for the outstanding villain, and the “reveal” of who that villain is was definitely the best “oh shit” moment in the entire MCU. Like the films before, though - it’s confident, colorful, and witty.
Plus - there’s no origin story. You’ll notice that none of the top-tier films are origin stories. There’s never a need for an origin story.
#5: Captain America: Winter Soldier
Winter Soldier is at the bottom of this tier because it is not particularly confident. Muddled stories are par for the MCU course, but the usually scintillating colors come through a bit drab, and the action scenes are more blurry than not. This is still a top-tier Marvel flick, however, because of the story. A massive spy organization turns out to be evil! It’s more serious than most, and lets a good bit of spy-thriller accoutrements come through, to save it from being boring. While still a comic book movie (and crashing a SHIELD helicarrier, which is required), it’s clear, well-paced, and never gets bogged down. Plus, there’s Batroc, the Leaper.
His whole thing is that he can jump, but he’s not that great at it. Plus, evil Sitwell!
#6: Ant Man
Ant Man is amusing, and on a different scale (in a lot of ways) than the other MCU films. It’s humorous, and tightly done, with a lot of really creative uses of Ant-Man’s powers. It’s only kept out of the top tier of films by the fact that it’s an origin story - which means that it’s a not-particularly-interesting story, and it has forgettable antagonists. I mean that. I forgot who the bad guys are.
#7: Iron Man
Iron Man deserves some props for letting Marvel know they could make billions of dollars doing this, and also for one of the all-time best portrayals of Tony Stark. Thankfully, they decided to shed the whole “Iron Man is Tony Stark’s bodyguard,” one of the most ridiculous and stifling artifices of classic comics, but it would not be enough to save the subsequent films. Also it’s an origin story, which is hard to do right.
#8: Captain America: The First Avenger
I really only ranked this higher than Civil War due to the song and dance numbers. It’s a good, stock-standard superhero movie, a bit of a comic book flick, and a touch of WWII movie. In other words, it’s perfect Captain America.
#9: Captain America: Civil War
Maybe it’s an artifact of the times we live in, but it seems a waste to constantly run with the darkest MCU storylines in the Captain America flicks. Those big bright reds, whites, and blues just don’t seem to work in stories like this - though the great core conflict and the perfect badguy - keep Civil War in the middle of the pack.
I do mean “perfect badguy.” The superheroes of the world almost annihilate each other due to a scheming dork, Helmut Zemo, who has an incredibly dorky name.
Also, let us not kid ourselves, Captain America: Civil War is really just a prequel to Black Panther, which is what moves it up the list.
#10: Avengers: Infinity War
I’m just going to say that it had a strong finish, and it was manipulative. It gets points for a supreme act of confidence of an ending, and Thanos is cooler than any dumb rationalization he has for his nihilistic urges. Also, a major bonus for the throwback to “Farmer Thanos” which I begged Marvel to include in the film, on twitter, for years. I can only assume they read my bizarre tweets and followed through.
#11: Doctor Strange
Doctor Strange is one of my favorite Marvel heroes, due to his weird spells, cosmic adventures, and amazingly colorful art. His origin story is not worth repeating, but this film does it anyway, instead of making it 30 seconds in the intro credits. The ending sequence COULD have been a confusing blurry mess of CGI and half-baked ideas, but it wasn’t - it was a faithful rendition of the kind of weird things that the comics were known for, and that keeps this film out of the bottom tier just on the final act alone.
#12: Iron Man 2
Iron Man 2 contains a great movie about Tony Stark being an asshole. It’s got a manipulative, fun villain we can empathize with, but then it tacks on a movie that’s entirely unnecessary, the “Tony gets his mojo back” subplot, diluting what could have been a #6-9 spot down to the bottom of this tier.
Look man. It’s Thor. We GET Thor. He’s got a certain cultural cache that you could have just GONE WITH. But no, we did the “Thor gets his powers back” route. That was useless. Thor demands a certain confidence and over-the-top ridiculousness this film could not commit to.
#14: Marvel’s The Avengers
The Avengers is a pretty good movie, but then there’s a pretty boring movie wedged in the middle of it.
#15: Avengers: Age of Ultron
Age of Ultron is a pretty good movie, then a boring movie, then a confusing movie. It got it’s name from the fact that it feels like it takes an actual Ultimate Age.
#16: The Incredible Hulk
They really did make this movie. It does exist. There really is some good footage of the Hulk beating the shit out of stuff. The ending makes little sense, but at least it’s contrived. No, wait...
#17: TIE: Iron Man 3/Thor: Dark World
I swear I’ve seen these movies, but I may not have. I may have just recalled trailers. I may have just wished I only saw the trailers.