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Marvel Mondays: heroes ranked

A&E definitively ranks Marvel’s best, worst films from beginning to end

The release of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” provides a great opportunity to take stock of the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far, despite the fact Phase Two technically concludes with July’s release of “Ant-Man.”

Almost all of Marvel’s Phase Two films have one thing in common: they are a blast to experience. Here are my rankings for the best movies — produced exclusively by Marvel Studios — so far.

11. “The Incredible Hulk” (2008) — Marvel’s second outing is the black sheep of the MCU. This status is not because Mark Ruffalo replaced Edward Norton in “The Avengers,” but because the movie for the most part lacks the light fun of every other Marvel movie, instead attempting a more grounded character drama with a generic action finale. While it can be entertaining, the whole movie feels inconsequential, both as a stand-alone feature and within the larger Marvel Universe.

10. “Iron Man 2” (2010) — This follow-up to the movie that kicked off the MCU suffers from a simple but compressive problem: it focused too much on world-building at the expense of delivering a great stand-alone story. Apart from the first film’s focus on Stark’s issues with his father, his story in this second installment feels like a weaker retread of his journey in the original. On the other hand, Don Cheadle makes a great War Machine and Tony Stark’s conflict with the U.S. government foreshadows how his character would grow as the MCU evolved.

9. “Thor: The Dark World” (2013) — While a decent adventure, “The Dark World” comes in behind its predecessor mostly due to its villain’s lacking personality and Loki’s false death, which felt like filmmakers cheating and put a cloud over what was otherwise a great role for Loki. Overall, “The Dark World” is an alright stand-alone romp, but it feels like an inconsequential cog in the Marvel machine.

8. “Thor” (2011) — The introduction to the God of Thunder is a fun adventure that successfully introduced some of the crazier elements of the MCU. Thor’s story of learning humility provided a great arc, and this movie also gave the MCU its best villain in Loki. However, the comedy of pairing Thor’s “Shakespeare in the Park” style with modern society plays much better when foiled with “The Avengers,” and the whole thing ends up coming across like an “Avengers” set-up in the end.

7. “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011) — What “The First Avenger” does best is introduce Steve Rogers, the scrawny wannabe soldier with a heart of gold and raw patriotism who becomes Captain America. The World War II period provides a great change-up from the sci-fi material of every other Marvel movie, and the supporting cast works well together. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t quite overcome its subtitle and, again, ends up feeling a bit too much like an “Avengers” set-up.

6. “Iron Man 3” (2013) — First of all, that twist (you know the one) awesomely flipped the idea of a comic book supervillian on its head. While this movie seems to exist in some alternate universe from the rest of the MCU, it is a blast of a stand-alone adventure (one of the closest you could get with Iron Man) that delivers action and wisecracks in spades. Unfortunately, it is hurt by its attempt to wrap up the Iron Man trilogy conclusively when we all knew Iron Man would be back in “Age of Ultron” (which also made it seem like Tony’s whole character arc in this movie never happened).

5. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015) — It’s impossible not to compare “Age of Ultron” to its predecessor. While it has some spectacular action moments and some great character beats, an overstuffed narrative and other stumbles keep this sequel from reaching its full potential. See my full review of this film here.

4. “The Avengers” (2012) — This trend-setter led to the development of movie universes for franchises ranging from “Justice League” to “Ghostbusters” (really). The highest-grossing superhero movie of all time is a blast all around, from its great sense of humor (“That man is playing Galaga!”) to its exciting action and wonderful characters. The only real downsides are a slow start and a climax that could have benefited from adversaries with more personality — Loki is awesome, but the alien army is too much of a generic CGI-fest enemy. Fortunately, “Age of Ultron” improves on this front.

3. “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014) – This one is without a doubt the weirdest Marvel movie by a mile. The weirdness fortunately didn’t overshadow how wonderful Marvel’s answer to “Star Wars” was, neither for me nor for audiences worldwide who made it one of 2014’s highest grossers. Two things put this one over the top: a superb cast led by Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord (“Who?”) and a hilarious tone which results in not only the funniest, but also one of Marvel’s most heartwarming movies.

2. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014) — Just when the stakes seemed too low and Marvel seemed to be approaching franchise autopilot, “The Winter Soldier” came along and combined comic book action with a chilling, thrilling storyline about the modern surveillance state. “Winter Soldier” shook up the MCU and really brought the edge back into Marvel’s movies when Cap was forced to face the idea that the government he selflessly served may have been the enemy. Other highlights include Robert Redford’s sinister villain, making this film a really the perfect example of an awesome stand-alone story that pushes the larger universe forward.

1. “Iron Man” (2008) — Ultimately, Marvel’s best is still its first. Marvel got the fun attitude right on the first go ‘round, but most of the credit goes to Robert Downey Jr.’s now-iconic Tony Stark. Stark’s journey from arrogant industrialist to awakened peace pioneer is exhilarating and heartfelt and is the best stand-alone Marvel story to date. The wisecracks, stellar supporting cast and great action scenes are also standout. Ultimately, the best story pairs with Marvel’s best character make for the best movie.