Hello dear readers, and welcome to our Marvel Cinematic Universe Power Rankings! Marvel Studios gifted us with a treat this year of 3 MCU movies (sorry Deadpool fans, but not sorry) between February and July. Two of those movies made a strong case for the contentious #1 spot, and it was the most difficult ranking for me to do yet. Where do Black Panther, Infinity War, and Ant-Man & The Wasp stack up in the ever-expanding Marvel catalog? Let’s take a look!
In order to facilitate these rankings, I want to share how I think about these movies in order to rank them. My rubric has four categories: Writing, Acting, Aesthetic, and Villain. Acting should be self-explanatory. The Writing category encompasses both the script dialogue and the plot of the movie; I could break these into two categories, but I want to keep it simple. Aesthetic is my catch-all category for the visual components of the movie: cinematography, lighting, costumes, hair/makeup, all that fun stuff. I reserve the right to lump music/sound design into Aesthetic if I so choose. Finally, the Villain category. Conventional wisdom states that a hero is only as good as the villain they face. Marvel’s been widely-criticized for the *ahem* quality of their villains, but we’re talking about superheroes here so the villains necessarily must factor into the quality of the film. The villains will be weighed, will be measured, and will be found wanting.
Our grading scale for each of the categories goes from 0 – 5, for a minimum score of 0 and a maximum score of 20.
0: Abysmal / 1: Garbage Fire / 2: Passable / 3: Good / 4: Great / 5: Exceptional
Disclaimer: this article is entirely spoilerific. If you haven’t seen Black Panther, Infinity War, or Ant-Man & The Wasp, you might want to come back later.
Writing: 1 / Acting: 1 / Aesthetic: 1 / Villain: 0 – Total: 3
This movie fails to fire on any cylinder. I don’t care how much you love Loki and his greasy hair or Thor and his washboard abs. They can’t save this movie from a generic plot with a generic villain and a generic MacGuffin. The boss fight was kinda cool but nowhere near enough to redeem this garbage fire of a movie.
Writing: 1 / Acting: 1 / Aesthetic: 1½ / Villain: ½ – Total: 4
Iron Man 2 edges out Thor: The Dark World based on two things: Robert Downey Jr’s +5 Charisma modifier, and the Mark V armor. That’s literally it. Even Mickey Rourke hates this movie. IM2 had to balance living up to the strength of Iron Man and set up for Marvel’s The Avengers. It failed spectacularly at both.
18. Iron Man 3
Writing: 2 / Acting: 2 / Aesthetic: 2 / Villain: 0 – Total: 6
When I rewatched this movie recently in my leadup to Infinity War I realized that it’s actually not as bad as people say it is. It’s still pretty bad, but not abysmal. The Mark XLII armor looks like hot garbage with its gold base and red accents and performs as such in the movie. I really like the idea of Tony Stark dealing with PTSD from the Battle of New York, but the subplot with the kid was just weird. Aesthetic gets pretty much all of its points for the Mark XLII remote equip, but the Extremis agents looked like trash. Don’t even get me started on The Mandarin.
Writing: 1 / Acting: 2 / Aesthetic: 1 / Villain: 4 – Total: 7
The original Thor is goofy as hell, but it’s still fun and enjoyable if you’re not really paying too much attention. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki enjoyed a long stay as king of the (admittedly small) hill of Marvel villains, and he alone is worth watching this movie for. Also, Chris Hemsworth is quite funny in several parts, giving us some humor and charm to go with his beautiful biceps.
Writing: 2 / Acting: 3 / Aesthetic: 2 / Villain: 2 – Total 9
The Incredible Hulk is criminally underrated. Is it the best movie? Not by a long shot. Was it the best that Hulk had ever been at that point? Without question. Liv Tyler was largely forgettable, but the combination of Edward Norton’s paranoid Banner, William Hurt’s relentless Thunderbolt Ross, and Tim Roth’s obsessive Emil Blonsky made The Incredible Hulk a legitimately watchable and enjoyable (if kinda dumb) movie.
Writing: 2 / Acting: 3½ / Aesthetic: 4 / Villain: 0 – Total: 9½
What Doctor Strange lacks in a villain it makes up for in visual spectacle as the MCU explores magic for the first time. The plot itself is mostly color-by-numbers origin story that seeks to answer the question “What would Tony Stark be like if he was a surgeon instead of an inventor?” While it was fairly insensitive to whitewash The Ancient One, I still think that Tilda Swinton did a great job. Benedict Cumberbatch’s attempt at an American accent got a bit of flack, but I never found it terribly distracting. Cumberbatch, Swinton, and perennially underrated “Oh that guy!” Chiwetel Ejiofor are all way too good to be yelling made-up magic words on camera, but they pull it off.
Writing: 2 / Acting: 3 / Aesthetic: 2-½ / Villain: 2½ – Total: 10½
Again, this plot is a color-by-numbers sci-fi story we’ve all read before. “Robots have to kill the human race to save it.” However, that’s kind of been Ultron’s MO since the 60s, so I can’t give the screenwriters too much side-eye for this one. James Spader did wonderfully with what he was given, but the aesthetic still suffers for the sin of robot lips. Also, I loved that after 11 movies Jeremy Renner finally got something interesting to do with Hawkeye. The Olson twins were fine in this movie (if a little one-dimensional), but were bolstered by the rest of the cast.
Writing: 2 / Acting: 3 / Aesthetic: 3 / Villain: 3 – Total: 11
GOTG2 is such a mixed bag. The loveable band of misfits is intact, and Kurt Russell is so Kurt Russell that it hurts in a good way. I wanted this movie to be better than it was, but that’s not to say it’s bad. The reconciliation of Gamora and Nebula and the dissolution of Ego & Star-Lord’s relationship both felt weird, rushed, and forced for no reason. The movie doesn’t exactly rest on the original’s laurels, but it doesn’t really build on it in a meaningful way either. GOTG2 is quite pretty, funny, and overall enjoyable. It just doesn’t do enough to quite break into the top 10. I still haven’t forgiven Marvel for Yondu and the feelings that I felt really hard at the end.
Writing: 3 / Acting: 4 / Aesthetic: 3 / Villain: 3 – Total: 13
Ant-Man & The Wasp is our first of the 2018 MCU movies, and it did not fail to disappoint. Unlike the mixed “meh” bag of GOTG2, Ant-Man & The Wasp feels like it builds on the successes of its predecessor. I like that the writers built on the repercussions of Civil War in believable ways, even if they had to do some unfortunate backtracking in Lang’s relationship to the Pym family. The comedy is fresh without being too different, and the cast still works well together, especially with the additions of Michelle Pfeiffer and Laurence Fishburne. Evangeline Lilly’s Hope van Dyne was great in Ant-Man, and continues to shine in the sequel. I also praise the script for treating Hope, Janet van Dyne, Cassie Lang, and the villain Ghost (played by Hannah John-Kamen) all with respect, agency, and resolve. Speaking of the villain, Ghost wasn’t bad. A little one-note, but I loved the motivation and I felt that John-Kamen sold it well. This movie is subject to change upon subsequent viewings, but I feel that it won’t tumble too far down the list.
Plot: 4 / Acting: 4 / Aesthetic: 3 / Villain: 2 – Total: 13
This was the movie that no one knew they wanted. Despite Edgar Wright leaving mid-production, this movie exceeded everyone’s expectations. Marvel’s movies have always been at their best when they succeed at inserting superheroes into different film genres, and Ant-Man succeeded at being a fun heist movie. Paul Rudd and Michael Pena’s brand of comedy help us fall in love with characters who take themselves less seriously than we do. Evangeline Lilly took a character that could have easily blended into the scenery and made Hope van Dyne a memorable, important, and engaging character that not only rose above being “just the love interest,” but also proved tenfold to any doubters that Hope deserved a spot in the sequel. Michael Douglas as Hank Pym gives us better acting than a Marvel movie deserves, and there’s really not much more that I can say about it. Can we also talk about how adorable Abby Ryder Fortson is and how I can’t wait for a Stature movie starring her in 2028?
Writing: 3½ / Acting: 4 / Aesthetic: 2 / Villain: 4 – Total: 13½
The MCU’s first major crossover was over 6 years ago and it changed how Hollywood does superhero movies. People bash Avengers for its quippy dialogue, but the movie still has plenty of real, gut-wrenching moments; I’m still not emotionally capable of handling Coulson’s death scene. Tom Hiddleston’s second turn as Loki was arguably even better than his first, and gave The Avengers a great threat to overcome. Aesthetic takes a hit here because Thor’s armor, Cap’s uniform, and the Chitauri all kinda look terrible. However, The Avengers understands and acknowledges that getting all of these huge personalities under one roof to fight for a common goal is unlikely, difficult, and laden with conflict. By the end of the movie (and especially during the shawarma scene), you’re still not sure if they all like each other. However, Avengers shows us that respect and trust are the real nuts & bolts of a team. If the MCU ended here we’d be fine, but it provided a wonderful jumping off point for the next half-decade.
Writing: 3 / Acting: 4 / Aesthetic: 5 / Villain: 2 – Total: 14
It physically pains me to have Cap this low, because he’s one of my favorite Marvel characters and all of his movies are in my personal top 5. However, let it not be said that I fail to be objective. I was among the doubters that thought the guy who played Human Torch would utterly fail at being the Star-Spangled Man with a Plan. Boy, I was wrong. Evans proves in his first outing that not only does he truly understand both Captain America and Steve Rogers, but he’s got the acting chops to pull it off. The only reason that the acting isn’t a 5 is that Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull spends the entire movie chewing on scenery like it’s bubblegum. Let’s not forget the real hero of this movie: Hayley Atwell’s master class with Peggy Carter. Strong, fierce, independent, capable, takes zero shit from anyone (least of all, Cap), and earned her own (tragically short-lived) spinoff series. Kudos on the writing team for making Peggy Carter a fully fleshed out character first and a romantic interest second, and bravo to Hayley Atwell for pulling it off. Finally, goodness gracious did they pull out all the stops to make this look like a war movie featuring a superhero; it’s Marvel’s winning formula. Costume and design were spectacular, and the USO montage remains one of my favorite bits among all of the MCU movies. The First Avenger is just a wonderful movie.
Writing: 4 / Acting: 5 / Aesthetic: 4 / Villain: 3 – Total: 16
This is where things get really difficult to grade and the margins between movies get really thin. Homecoming is a fairly fantastic movie all-around. Michael Keaton is a national treasure and gave us a surprisingly nuanced take on the classic (but fairly goofy) Spider-Man villain Vulture in a way that only Michael Keaton can. However, Michael Keaton is easily overshadowed by Tom Holland’s pitch-perfect Peter Parker. Holland’s stage presence is astounding, his Peter Parker is a-dork-ably endearing, and his Spider-Man truly feels like a teenager trying to grow up but not really knowing how. He’s a kid that modern kids can relate to and brings the Spider-Man mythos to the millennial generation. If you needed any more reasons that this movie is great, the chemistry between Holland and RDJ is potent and gives weight to their enthusiastic student/reluctant mentor relationship that started in Civil War. Every aspect of this movie is enjoyable from beginning to end, and it’s the Spider-Man movie I’ve wanted since 2002. Sorry not sorry, Tobey Maguire.
Writing: 5 / Acting: 4 / Aesthetic: 5 / Villain: 2½ – Total: 16½
Han Solo in a red trenchcoat, Green Neytiri from Avatar, a professional wrestler, a walking tree, and a raccoon with a machine gun walk into a bar. I mean, tell me I’m wrong. Despite everything about the premise and characters sounding positively ludicrous on paper, this movie surpassed everyone’s expectations by being not just watchable, but a legitimately good space opera. Like Ant-Man and The First Avenger, GOTG succeeded because it successfully built a movie of a different genre and then added superheroes to it. We’ve got cool ships, lasers, spacesuits, strange new worlds, aliens, and everything we want from a space epic along with one of the best movie soundtracks of all time. Chris Pratt has enough charisma to rival RDJ, but Bradley Cooper’s Rocket, Vin Diesel’s Groot, and Dave Bautista’s Drax all have more than their fair share of great moments on screen. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora is a great calm & collected foil for Pratt’s bombastic Star-Lord. Unfortunately, Ronan the Accuser was quite bland, but Karen Gillan’s Nebula helps bump up the Villain score just a touch. This movie made me stop doubting Marvel’s choices for adaptations because clearly, I was hella mistaken.
Writing: 4 / Acting: 5 / Aesthetic: 4 / Villain: 4 – Total: 17
Avengers 3 Civil War was easily the best Avengers ensemble movie. It segues perfectly from Age of Ultron and I jokingly refer to it as “Age of Ultron, pt. 2: The Good One.” One of the criticisms I usually hear about superhero fiction, in general, is “What about the collateral damage?” The Russo brothers attempt to answer this question and do so in stunning fashion. The stakes are real, and the issues that these characters tackle are a logical boiling point that’s been slowly coming to fruition since Avengers. Chadwick Boseman introduced us to the silent tempest that is Prince T’Challa of Wakanda, the character we’d all be hyped for come February 2018. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man stole every scene he was in, and the airport fight scene is one of the most memorable action sequences of the whole MCU. I rated this movie’s villain at 4, but not because of Helmut Zemo. The Avengers themselves are the villains of this story, and it was wonderfully done. Zemo was fine and gets a lot of credit for orchestration, but watching the end of the Avengers as we know it by their own hands…that was the real coup-de-grace that made Civil War work.
Writing: 5 / Acting: 5 / Aesthetic: 5 / Villain: 3 – Total: 18
At long last, Thor finally got his due. Director Taika Waititi took over the floundering Thor franchise from Kenneth Branagh and figured out how to make it work. We all knew that Chris Hemsworth was funny, and Waititi doubled down on making Ragnarok an action/comedy. It worked for Ant-Man, and it worked here. Everyone in the cast is just brilliant from Chris Hemsworth to Jeff Goldblum
as himself in space The Grandmaster to Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie. Even Waititi got a chance to shine as fan favorite Korg. We even got to see a comedic side of Mark Ruffalo in his triumphant return as Bruce Banner. The Planet Hulk subplot was the fanservice we all wanted, and though some of us would have liked to see more (maybe even a full movie’s worth) I think the vast majority of us agree that it was well done. Speaking of well done, I’m happy that the costumes don’t look like cheap, out of place ren faire garb anymore; the costume and set design all complement each other quite nicely and work with how delightfully corny Thor is. But let’s not forget the majesty and tour-de-force that Cate Blanchett is. Sure, Hela is fairly straightforward and all about the whole “take over the cosmos” thing, but Blanchett, like Michael Douglas, gave us FAR better acting than a Marvel movie deserves. Watch Ragnarok for Thor, stay for Cate Blanchett.
Writing: 5 / Acting: 5 / Aesthetic: 5 / Villain: 3½ – Total: 18½
The film that started it all needed to come out with a bang. It’s been 10 years since the world at large was introduced to Tony Stark and it still holds up. Iron Man might not have redefined how to tell a superhero origin story, but it brought us a new brand of superhero movie: something that takes itself seriously as a storytelling vehicle but also embraces its roots as a comic book film. The armors all looked great (especially the Mark I), and seamlessly blended CGI plus practical effects. Obadiah Stane was better as a villain than a lot of people give him credit for, and Gwyneth Paltrow opened the (long and fraught) pathway for women in comics films; she is criminally underrated as Pepper Potts. What else can be said about RDJ’s instantly iconic Tony Stark? He’s in the conversation with Chris Evans, Hugh Jackman, and Christopher Reeve as one of the undisputed best to ever bring a hero from page to screen. This movie is a must watch.
Writing: 4 / Acting: 5 / Aesthetic: 5 / Villain: 5 – Total: 19
Marvel Studios’ 19th movie was also its most ambitious: a galaxy-spanning epic that touched almost every single hero in the MCU. And precisely none of these heroes were the protagonist of the film. That honor goes to Josh Brolin’s haunting portrayal of Thanos, the Mad Titan, on his archetypal hero’s journey to acquire all six Infinity Stones and bring balance to the universe. On the surface level, the CGI rendering of Brolin’s face on Thanos’ body clearly spared no expense. Hell, his crying even looked real; it was a real treat for anyone even remotely interested in the uncanny valley. Everything about Brolin’s performance was perfect: diction, intonation, cadence, facial expressions, you name it, he nailed it. And we haven’t even touched on the emotional weight carried by everyone else in this movie. Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Gamora, Star-Lord, Thor, Cap, Scarlet Witch, Vision, Banner…practically everyone had a moment in the sun. The movie only suffers a little bit from having to jump back and forth from planet to planet, but most everyone’s story feels complete, with notable snubs of Pepper Potts, Black Widow, and Black Panther. The action was tight, and the script was as trim and sharp as it could be with over 30 characters to track. Some people like to neg on Infinity War for not being a standalone movie and for having to watch 18 other movies in order to really understand the goings on of Infinity War. While that’s an accurate statement, you could also say the same thing about the fifth season of Game of Thrones. Infinity War is about as perfect of a crescendo as you could hope for.
Writing: 5 / Acting: 5 / Aesthetic: 5 / Villain: 5 – Total: 20
It’s rare to get a movie that truly fires on all cylinders. As discussed before in this article, Marvel has yet to fail by making a different genre of movie and then adding superheroes later; Winter Soldier is no different. Every Tom Clancy novel you’ve read or Mission: Impossible movie you’ve watched inspired the cornerstones of Winter Soldier, and they are executed flawlessly. To boot, the movie came during a time when we as a society were hyper-aware of security concerns and government control. Winter Soldier tackles these issues through the lens of a superhero turned special operative, and manages to sprinkle in some great social commentary about the nature of freedom. After having been in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers without much in the way of character development, Scarlett Johansson finally capitalized on her (now much lengthier) screen time to explore Black Widow as a hero. Anthony Mackie’s Falcon probably would have been the fan favorite of the movie if it weren’t for the mesmeric performance of Sebastian Stan, surprising audiences everywhere with his secret return as The Winter Soldier. Don’t get me wrong, Robert Redford was incredible in his own right, and Hydra makes for a complex, compelling, sinister organization with a great brute in Frank Grillo’s Crossbones. However, the silent relentlessness and inner torment of Bucky Barnes easily makes him the best villain in this spy-vs-spy political thriller. Not many superhero movies can even juggle two villains, and Winter Soldier deftly handles three. It was the perfect MCU film.
Writing: 6 / Acting: 5 / Aesthetic: 4 / Villain: 6 – Total: 21
Hey, it’s my article; I can break the rules if I want. Winter Soldier was the perfect MCU film. Was. Past tense. Black Panther rewrote the book on superhero movies. Do you want a movie that’s unapologetically feminist? Check. Respectful of the history and cultures of non-white people? Check. A movie that treats women as real people instead of just accessories to male hero? Check. An important villain who touches on generations of social injustice over the course of two hours? Check, check, check. We all came into this film expecting T’Challa to wow us, and he did. However, none of us expected for our title character to be the 5th most interesting character (at best) behind Killmonger, Shuri, Okoye, & Nakia. Also, speaking of Killmonger, can someone just give Michael B. Jordan an Oscar already? Killmonger is easily the best villain that the MCU has ever produced, hands down, no questions asked. We have not had a villain with this compelling of a motivation since Magneto in the original X-Men from nearly 20 years ago. If I’m going to criticize this movie for anything, it’s the relatively substandard quality of its CGI animals, obvious green screens, and poorly rendered panther armor. However, the quality of the costumes, scenery, and music more than make up for a weird-looking CG rhino.
If you watched this movie and thought that director Ryan Coogler just gave us a color-by-numbers origin story, then you didn’t really watch the movie. It is SO MUCH MORE than just another superhero film. It is about the weight of heritage, the nature of power, pride, history, the bonds of race, the dark side of legacy, and an imagining of a world where white people never came to power. It’s not just another hero-punches-villain story. Black Panther changed the game forever and raised the bar on what superhero storytelling can and should be.
Whew, that exhausting. What about you? Am I right? Am I wrong? Do I have no idea what I’m talking about? Let me know what you think about my list! Tweet me or find me on The Geek Embassy Facebook! I’d love to see how you arrange your lists!
Dante Buccieri is the resident comic book savant of The Geek Embassy. He’s been reading comics for as long as he can remember, and now that he’s a librarian he gets to advocate for comics in libraries and get paid for it. He’s also a tabletop gaming fan, especially those that involve cards, with favorites including Sentinels of the Multiverse, Magic: The Gathering, Bang!, Smash Up, Star Realms, and 7 Wonders. Dante is a library professional at Portland Community College in Hillsboro, OR.