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.

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