The 20 Best Marvel Movies of the Last 20 Years

In recent years, the sheer wealth of Marvel movies being released — including but not limited to entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — has made ranking Marvel superhero films an annual tradition. The /Film staff most recently came together in May 2017 to compile a vote-based list that reflected the tastes of the site’s contributors as a collective. Since then, a number of films that would qualify as top-tier Marvel have hit theaters.

The 1998 superhero vampire flick Blade starring Wesley Snipes doesn’t inhabit the same upper echelon as any of those, but historically, it’s significant as a forerunner of the modern superhero film and the first decent Marvel movie we ever got. Prior to Blade, the superhero film genre was still in its nascent form and Marvel could only watch from the sidelines as its “Distinguished Competition,” DC Comics, enjoyed an early run of success with Superman and Batman on the big screen.

This week marks Blade’s 20th anniversary and that’s as good an excuse as any to offer an updated ranking of both the best MCU and non-MCU films. This ranking isn’t the Word of God but rather a subjective list from one friendly neighborhood Marvel librarian who grew up frequenting the comic book store on new-release Wednesdays and who now turns up as early as possible at the theater to see the latest Marvel movie releases.

20. X2: X-MEN UNITED

Two years after Blade, the first X-Men movie ushered in the 2000s with an uneven mix of Matrix-like black leather and wire work. Director Bryan Singer, who never professed any great love for the original X-Men comics, infamously banned them from the set, leading cast members like Hugh Jackman to hand them around and hide them like contraband. The result was a movie that strove toward legitimacy and was critically embraced but whose overall aesthetic has not aged well by today’s genre standards. Like Blade, X-Men is historically significant in that it helped open the door to superhero films.

Its sequel holds more rewatch value. Ditching the goons of Sabretooth and Toad as well as Storm’s bad accent and bad jokes, X2: X-Men United clears the plastic, non-magnetic chessboard of elements that didn’t work in the first movie. It starts off with a thrilling sequence where a brainwashed Nightcrawler is teleporting through the White House, trying to assassinate the President. Every “Bamf!” is a palate cleanser.

The raid on the X-Mansion throws fans a Colossus bone and allows Wolverine to fly into one of his classic berserker rages. The scene where Iceman comes out to his parents as a mutant remains the most overt depiction of X-Men as an LGBT metaphor. Storm conjuring copious tornado tendrils to counteract fighter jets in pursuit of the Blackbird is a neat trick. The film’s closing narration over the stillness of a flooded lake holds a promise of things to come. Here’s hoping Simon Kinberg does right by the belated chance to deliver with Dark Phoenix.

19. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER

It’s funny to think that there was a time when the decision to cast Chris Evans as Captain America rang questionable, if only because he had already played the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four movies and seemed to fit the comic relief type more. With The First Avenger, the perception of Evans transformed about as much as the character of Steve Rogers did when he emerged from that Vita-Ray Chamber, newly injected with a Super Soldier Serum that had turned him from pencil-necked and scrawny into brawny. Evans’ Cap is the perfect picture of dignified stoicism and his relationship with the whip-smart Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) has enough chemistry and wistful resonance to qualify it as an exception to the MCU’s romance problem.

Brought to life with practical make-up and prosthetics, the Red Skull makes for a visually interesting comic book movie villain. The First Avenger may feel like a glorified montage at times, but like his previous high-flying World War II caper, The Rocketeer, director Joe Johnston evokes the film’s period setting with nostalgia, fusing retro costumes with heightened technology in a pulpy vision of alternate history.

18. IRON MAN 3

Iron Man 3’s treatment of the Mandarin may be a sore point among some fans, but it’s not without good reason that it jettisons the Fu Manchu stereotype of the character’s comic book origins. When I saw the Chinese cut of the film in Shanghai, this potential insensitivity was hammered home by an added subplot with Chinese characters. Reimagining the Mandarin also freed the film up to make a statement, peeling back the layer of artifice on a world where a long-bearded terrorist leader glimpsed only through video communiqués has been manufactured as a fear-mongering tool.

With the stated aim of getting Tony Stark “back to the cave,” where “he’s stripped of everything, he’s backed up against a wall, and he’s gotta use his intelligence to get out of it,” Iron Man 3 marked a return to form for its hero. Reconfiguring Stark’s classic “demon in a bottle,” alcoholism, as PTSD from a wormhole made him vulnerable again in a way that could come back into play in Avengers 4.

The Iron Patriot cuts a fine figure but it’s when Don Cheadle’s Rhodey is out of his armor and he and Stark are storming a compound with handguns that this starts to really feel like one of Shane Black’s buddy movies. Rebecca Hall is underserved in her reduced role but whether it’s surface-level feminism or not, at least Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts gets briefly empowered with Extremis. Baby steps toward Captain Marvel.

17. ANT-MAN

Considering the loss of Edgar Wright from the director’s chair, Ant-Man turned out pretty well. The character, as he existed before this in the comics, certainly wasn’t begging to carry his own movie, but Paul Rudd acquits himself, well, marvelously. Now that we’ve gotten to know Scott Lang, it’s hard to imagine an MCU without him. His ex-cellmate, the smiley, jabbering raconteur, Luis, played by Michael Pena, is such a bright spot in the movie that he really deserves to have that “Ant-Man and the Wasp and Luis” title he’s been teasing in trailers come true for the inevitable third installment in the trilogy.

Not every joke in Ant-Man works but the refreshingly low stakes in this movie were a nice break from the usual run of end-of-the-world scenarios. Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lily both provide good straight-faced foils to Rudd. Anthony Mackie plays off him well, too. Showing divorced adults in a scene of domestic bliss with their daughter and a new fiancee offers a progressive view of modern families.

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