It’s all been leading to this. 18 films, 10 years, one monumental cinematic universe. Later this month, Avengers: Infinity War will finally be released in cinemas. Thanos will arrive. Some would say that mega-producer Kevin Feige has had this all planned out from the start, that the Mad Titan’s coming was inevitable from the moment Nick Fury turned up in Iron Man way back in 2008 to tell Tony Stark about the Avengers Initiative. For the Marvel Cinematic Universe – or MCU to those fond of initialism – it’s been as much about the journey as the destination. With only a few real duds, Marvel Studios has established a pedigree for genuine crowd-pleasers and created a vibrant world that audiences can’t help but come back to again and again. In advance of Infinity War’s release, it seemed fit to take a look back through the cinematic canon and form a ranking of the best that the MCU has to offer.
Iron Man, dir. by Jon Favreau (2008)
“I am Iron Man.” – Tony Stark
This is where it all began, yet Iron Man remains one of the sharpest entries in the series. It provided the perfect framework for how to construct a cinematic universe: start slow, lay the groundwork, and focus on the characters. The remarkable success of the MCU today rests on the shoulders of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. His charisma seeps off the screen. With a safe pair of hands in the director’s chair, Jon Favreau’s film is a fairly conventional superhero origin story but Downey Jr. elevates the material with aplomb. Iron Man benefits from a restraint that other studios, hoping to kick-start their own shared universes, have neglected to show – the central conflict is essentially a business dispute between two feuding narcissists. Tony Stark is placed in danger, not the entire planet. It was Marvel Studios’ humble beginnings, best represented by the plucky charm of Iron Man, that in time allowed them to conquer the universe.
Spider-Man: Homecoming, dir. by Jon Watts (2017)
“So to become an Avenger, are there like trials…or an interview?” – Peter Parker
When it was announced that Spider-Man was going to be rebooted yet again, there was an understandable collective groan. Yes, this time he would be web-slinging within the realm of the MCU, interacting with the likes of Iron Man and Captain America, but surely the creative possibilities of Spidey had been all but exhausted? Tom Holland and co. proved us wrong. Where did Marvel Studios go right where The Amazing Spider-Man had gone so wrong? Casting Holland, partly, but the decision to root Peter Parker firmly within a high-school setting was the real game changer. Previous incarnations had never been convincing in this regard, but Holland and a supporting cast of youthful talent, most notably Jacob Batalon and Zendaya, sell it completely. Downey Jr. is used in just the right amounts in a mentor role, whilst Michael Keaton’s Vulture is a genuinely compelling villain (something Marvel Studios have struggled to produce on many an occasion). By introducing him into the MCU, Spider-Man has been reinvigorated for the better.
Black Panther, dir. by Ryan Coogler (2018)
“Don’t scare me like that, coloniser!” – Shuri
The argument that MCU films lack social significance can be unequivocally rejected in a post-Black Panther world. A film about an African superhero, thoroughly steeped within African tradition, heritage and culture on a visual and narrative level, with a predominantly black cast and black director. It’s simply unprecedented as a production, and Black Panther’s ingenuity has seen it become the most critically-acclaimed Marvel Studios film as well as their most commercially successful on American soil (the third most successful worldwide). It deserves all the praise it has received. With a lush visual design, the action is thrilling and impactful. The ensemble cast is terrific. T’Challa and Killmonger as adversaries present a complex, nuanced antagonism, whilst the main trio of female characters (Okoye, Shuri and Nakia) prove the film’s secret weapon, providing much of the heart and humour. A breath of fresh air for the MCU and the film industry on a grander scale, Black Panther is more than just a movie. It’s a phenomenon.
The top 5:
5) Guardians of the Galaxy, dir. by James Gunn (2014)
“I’m going to die surrounded by the biggest idiots in the galaxy.” – Gamora
Star-Lord. Gamora. Rocket. Drax. Groot. This roguish “bunch of a-holes” were practically unknown before 2014; now, every member of the Guardians of the Galaxy holds iconic status. The space-set adventure broadened the horizons of what the MCU could be. It was the first Marvel Studios film to show a distinct sense of an auteur at work, with James Gunn’s irreverent verve and varied colour palette paving the way for the more surreal elements of Doctor Strange and Thor: Ragnarok. Ultimately, it is the chemistry of the cast that makes Guardians of the Galaxy shine. Chris Pratt announced himself as a Hollywood superstar, his interactions with Zoe Saldana and WWE veteran Dave Bautista perfectly mined for comedic purposes. You wouldn’t know that A-listers Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel were present from their CG appearances, but through the unlikely duo of talking raccoon and laconic tree they really make themselves known. With a killer soundtrack composed of classic 70s and 80s hits, Guardians of the Galaxy had us all hooked on a feeling.
4) Captain America: The Winter Soldier, dir. by Joe & Anthony Russo (2014)
“Before we get started, does anyone want to get out?” – Steve Rogers
Let’s be honest, on the basis of origin story The First Avenger and team-up movie The Avengers, Captain America seemed the weak link of the Marvel Studios protagonists. He had the Superman problem of being a thoroughly good egg – the morally unambiguous usually don’t make for captivating screen presences. Then The Winter Soldier came along and everything changed. As Civil War further attests to, Chris Evans’ Cap flourishes in the role of fugitive. He’s still the same principled individual, just made much more compelling fighting against forces of authority rather than for them. The film itself, the first of the MCU to be directed by the Russo brothers, is a tight, smart political thriller which packs a real punch, with the best action sequences of the series to date: the attempted assassination of Nick Fury, elevator brawl and highway fight are all stellar. The dynamic relationship between Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes is heart-wrenchingly engaging. A minor miracle, The Winter Soldier transformed Captain America from the lamest Avenger to the one we care about the most.
3) Thor: Ragnarok, dir. by Taika Waititi (2017)
“Oh my god. The hammer pulled you off?” – Korg
Who would have thought Taika Waititi, the wacky New Zealander behind the brilliant What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, would ever direct a Marvel Studios film? Thank God he did, as Chris Hemsworth’s Thor was much in need of a new lease of life. His first two solo outings were fine, but little more than competent entertainment, and the Aussie actor was reportedly tiring of playing the Asgardian god of thunder. Thor: Ragnarok completely rejuvenates Hemsworth, utilising his comic abilities to full effect. The Waititian humour is a perfect match for the vivid landscape of Sakaar, a junkyard planet ruled over by Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster – Ragnarok is all the better for almost entirely ditching the Earth setting that held the previous films back. Whilst the character’s arc is essentially tied up, Hemsworth appears to be having more fun in the role than ever before. If Taika is at the helm, we want more Thor. And Korg. Please, more Korg.
2) The Avengers, dir. by Joss Whedon (2012)
“There was an idea…” – Nick Fury
Bringing these superhuman characters together on-screen has always been the ultimate intention of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s something that had never been done before, not in this way, and even though the stakes have been continually raised in the years after, The Avengers still excites. Seeing Iron Man, Cap, Hulk and Thor (among others) interact for the very first time, and eventually fight alongside one another, is a joy. Though I’m not the biggest fan of Joss Whedon, he nails the zippy group banter and comic relief here – the “Puny God” moment will never get old. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki chews on the scenery with a delightful glee, and it’s no surprise that he’s become a firm fan favourite. The Battle of New York is a masterclass in sustained action, giving everyone (even Hawkeye) their big moment. With The Avengers, the world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe got a whole lot bigger. It hasn’t let up since.
1) Captain America: Civil War, dir. by Joe & Anthony Russo (2016)
“I retire for, what? Like five minutes and it all goes to shit.” – Clint Barton
Where The Avengers brought the superheroes together, Captain America: Civil War tore them apart. By this point, Marvel Studios had sincerely earned the close engagement of audiences into their cinematic universe. Placing Captain America and Iron Man in direct opposition, the conflict is one we are immediately invested in. Thus, the emotional beats all land and land hard. Again, the interplay between characters is the real strength – made even more rewarding by the additions of Black Panther and Spider-Man, who appear more than capable of carrying the MCU for years to come. As The Winter Soldier displayed, the Russo Brothers have a real eye for epic action set-pieces. They escalated proceedings in Civil War, with an airport fight sequence that is shot and staged with mind-blowing precision. The Russos are on directing duty for Avengers: Infinity War and its untitled sequel. If they can top Civil War, then we’re in for something truly extraordinary.
Avengers: Infinity War (2018), directed by Joe & Anthony Russo, will be released in the UK on April 26th 2018. Watch the trailer below: