The Entire Marvel Cinematic Universe Ranked From Worst To Best

In less than a decade, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has gone from an ambitious pipe dream to an inescapable box-office juggernaut. Now, as Doctor Strange kicks off the first major new sub-franchise of Phase Three, we wanted to take a look back at the fourteen films released so far. Which soared? Which fell flat on their faces? After the jump, get our rundown of all fourteen films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe ranked.

Note: This piece was originally published in 2015 in conjunction with the end of Marvel's Phase Two. Now that we're well into Phase Three, however, we felt it worth revisiting our ranking of all the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. This story has been updated throughout.

Marvel Studios logo

In this piece, we'll run down the fourteen films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That's all the films within the shared canon, not every film ever based on a Marvel comic. Here's a chronological list of the movies discussed here.

Phase One:

  • Iron Man (2008)
  • The Incredible Hulk (2008)
  • Iron Man 2 (2010)
  • Thor (2011)
  • Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
  • The Avengers (2012)

Phase Two:

  • Iron Man 3 (2013)
  • Thor: The Dark World (2013)
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
  • Ant-Man (2015)

Phase Three: 

  • Captain America: Civil War (2016)
  • Doctor Strange (2016)

Oh, and also before we begin: Header art created by Simon Delart for the Poster Posse Age of Ultron show.

Iron Man 2

14. Iron Man 2

Perhaps it's a blessing that the Marvel Cinematic Universe got its biggest misfire out of the way early on. Just two years after Iron Man 1 established the Marvel formula, Iron Man 2 exposed the perils of it. The storylines got more convoluted without getting more interesting, the CG battles got shinier but lost their emotional resonance, and the movie at hand seemed to take second priority under the movies to come (specifically, the Avengers). Iron Man 2 had its moments, to be sure — Robert Downey Jr.'s innate charm guarantees that much — but there's a reason it's no one's favorite Marvel movie.

Thor The Dark World

13. Thor: The Dark World

Nothing less than the fate of the universe was at stake in Thor: The Dark World. So why did it all feel so inconsequential? The film sidelined its most compelling throughline — the thorny relationship between Thor and Loki – in favor of an exhausting battle against a forgettable nemesis. Making matters worse, it's awfully difficult to get worked up about the possibility of total annihilation when we know damn well the MCU's gotta survive long enough to sustain several more years of Marvel movies. In the end, Thor's valiant efforts felt less like real drama and more like busywork.

Edward Norton in The Incredible Hulk

12. The Incredible Hulk

It took three tries to get the Hulk right on the big screen. The Incredible Hulk was attempt #2. Though entertaining enough, with plenty of Hulk Smash action interspersed between more contemplative character work, the film fell short of Marvel's best work. Despite Edward Norton's considerable chops as an actor, he never made a strong impression as Bruce Banner a.k.a. the Hulk. The same could be said of Louis Leterrier's direction, which was competent but generic. It wasn't until until Mark Ruffalo showed up in The Avengers that the Hulk started to feel like a crucial component of the MCU.

Doctor Strange - Benedict Cumberbatch

11. Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange almost inched up another spot or two on this list solely on the strength of its psychedelic action sequences, which truly are like nothing we've ever seen before from the MCU. They're downright weird, breathtaking in scope and bursting with odd shapes and unexpected colors. Alas, the rest of the film isn't quite so magical. Benedict Cumberbatch seems miscast as Stephen Strange, who really just feels like a carbon copy of Tony Stark, and Kamar-Taj and the rest of the mystical realm feel like an awkward fit within the MCU. With several more appearances already lined up for the Sorcerer Supreme, though, Marvel should have plenty more chances to iron out the kinks.

Thor

10. Thor

Poor Thor. His medieval-knight-by-way-of-Point-Break schtick is undeniably appealing, but the MCU has historically struggled to build films around it. (See #13, above.) His first solo outing wasn't bad, exactly, but it felt like less than the sum of its parts. Thor's irreproachable cast (including Tom Hiddleston's Loki, still the MCU's best villain), playful comedic sensibility, and exotic setting were continually buried under dull exposition, and the straight-faced action sequences was never as fun as its recurring fish-out-of-water gags. And while Kenneth Branagh's distracting Dutch angles weren't really the problem with the movie, they surely didn't help.

Avengers Age of Ultron

9. Avengers: Age of Ultron

There was plenty to enjoy about Avengers: Age of Ultron, from the clever one-liners (a Joss Whedon signature) to those extravagant battle sequences. But the film as a whole was a bloated mess. Worse, it was a bloated mess precisely because it had to answer to the rest of the MCU. The film sagged under the weight of a dozen major characters, half a dozen story arcs, and approximately eight thousand Easter eggs, leaving little time for organic character growth or thematic exploration. Ultimately, it felt less like an actual Avengers movie than a big-budget adaptation of the notes from a Marvel exec planning meeting.

Ant-Man dirt

8. Ant-Man

As the MCU continues to expand, Ant-Man showcased the merits of staying small. And we're not just talking about its incredible shrinking hero. The endearingly low-key Ant-Man kept its scope narrow and its stakes personal, and felt all the more compelling for it. That willingness to go tiny and weird paid off gorgeously with what might be the best MCU third act of all time. Director Peyton Reed took full advantage of the character's unusual powers and background to deliver an inventive spin on the usual superhero showdown shenanigans.

Captain America: The First Avenger

7. Captain America: The First Avenger

Consummate do-gooder Captain America could have been the dreadful drag of the MCU. Thanks to The First Avenger, he shot out of the gate as one of its most richly defined heroes. The retro setting and Chris Evans' straight (but never boring) performance allowed for an old-fashioned tale of heroism — which, ironically, felt like a refreshing change of pace in this cynical modern age.

Besides Captain America, The First Avenger also gave us one of the MCU's best female characters in the form of Peggy Carter. Not only is she a badass hero in her own right, she and Steve feel well matched in a way that superhero love interests rarely do. Their tragic separation only makes their story seem all the more epic.

Iron Man 3

6. Iron Man 3

At various points, the MCU has struggled to balance its filmmakers' individual personalities with its overarching house style. (Just ask Edgar Wright or Ava DuVernay.) With Iron Man 3, they just about nailed it. The film had the same sarcastic zing as Robert Downey Jr. and Shane Black's last movie together, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but it also deepened our understanding of this seemingly unflappable superhero, all while delivering big, shiny action and one genuinely jaw-dropping twist.

Captain America Civil War

5. Captain America: Civil War

With Captain America: Civil War, Marvel cashed in on twelve films' worth of patient character development and meticulous world-building for a gigantic gut-puncher of a conflict. This is MCU franchise-building at its very best, bringing together established superheroes in unexpected ways and introducing still more characters to love. It's heartbreaking and awe-inspiring and even kind of touching, and it's all the more satisfying because we've been living in this universe for the better part of a decade. Plus, credit to Marvel for finally introducing a conflict that's not as simple as good versus evil — months later, I'm still hearing people arguing Team Iron Man vs. Team Camp.

Guardians of the Galaxy

4. Guardians of the Galaxy

Any movie franchise could be forgiven for growing stale by its tenth installment. Instead, the MCU upended all our expectations by delivering its quirkiest, funniest movie yet. Guardians of the Galaxy was a fantastic demonstration of how far the Marvel formula could stretch. It cranked up the '70s tunes, brought in the laughs, did away with any semblance of "realism," and washed the screen over with shades of pink and purple. Yet it still felt distinctly like a Marvel film, with its playful sensibility, witty banter, and lovable characters.

The Avengers

3. The Avengers

It's a testament to Joss Whedon's talents that six films later, it's almost difficult to remember how insanely ambitious The Avengers sounded when it was first announced. He had the impossible task of balancing three marquee superheroes, another several supporting players, one fan-favorite villain, and an entire army of world-destroying aliens, and he made it look almost easy. The requisite CG explosions are as entertaining as ever, but the real joy of The Avengers is watching these massive personalities collide. The film simultaneously solidified the Marvel Cinematic Universe and opened it up to crazy new possibilities.

Iron Man

2. Iron Man

At the time Iron Man came out, it was a blast of fresh air after a decades' worth of angsty superhero sagas (e.g., the X-Men movies, the Spider-Man movies, Batman Begins). Here, finally, was a superhero who loved being a superhero, and didn't mind who knew it. That anything-goes ballsiness has mellowed somewhat as the MCU has expanded, but even now Iron Man remains an exemplary execution of the Marvel formula: take a charismatic star who might as well be the character, give him some quotable quips and a dose of tragedy, top it all off with some expensive explosions, and then sit back and watch the money pour in.

Captain America The Winter Soldier

1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier thrust the series' most purely heroic leading man into a world where there are no pure heroes. For much of its running time, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a paranoid thriller that raised disturbing questions not just about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but about our actual universe. Combine that with Cap's struggle to adjust to his post-ice reality, and we wound up with one of the more thoughtful, bittersweet mainstream superhero sagas in recent memory.

Which isn't to say The Winter Soldier was too busy moping to have fun. The action sequences were among the MCU's finest, and all that angst is balanced out by plenty of humor (most of it coming out of Cap's endearing friendships with Natasha and Sam). Simultaneously smart, sweet, funny, and dark, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is as good as Marvel gets.