Ten years ago, the comic book movie world was much different than it is now. It was still in an infancy phase, as these movies would only be set in their own little worlds and show a real tentativeness to building a world that was capable of holding more than one hero at a time.
There was also a sense that only movies made about popular comic characters were the only ones that were profitable and worth making. But then in 2008, Marvel dropped their first movie as their own independent studio about a B-list hero played by a washed up actor looking for some PR rehab.
Suffice it to say, that little movie that could changed the game and set up the world we live in now. Comic book movies are more capable of embracing the wild and broader aspects of their source materials.
Gone is the tentativeness of going after big stars to share the limelight in one movie, or to sign them on to multiple picture deals to make sure the world they are building feels real. The movie have stopped feeling like each other, willing to take trips down weirder and more niche roads.
Ten years ago, Nick Fury walked out of the shadows and his mention of the Avengers Initiative was a promise to comic book fans that they were going to get movies that felt like those stories they read, writ large on the big screen. Six years ago, Joss Whedon helped Marvel deliver on that promise, setting up an even bigger promise. A cinematic crossover event with the hint that Thanos was coming for the Infinity Stones.
In those six years, they built the world and broadened the playing field and perfected their execution. Thanos sent a warning shot six years ago. Now he’s here. And to honor the arrival of the Mad Titan, let’s look back at the films that got us here and how they stack up against one another. Spoilers ahead.
19. Iron Man (2008)
The movie that started it all. A movie who’s pure innovation and Robert Downey Jr. fueled charm gave Marvel Studios the go-ahead to enact a plan to launch a Cinematic Universe. Thank god it did, because we’ve got some great stuff in its wake. And thank God that Downey Jr. did this movie, because not only is he immense in “Iron Man,” but his arc throughout the entire MCU is one of the best things in it.
Thankfully the movies got better in its wake because hindsight does not do this movie any favors. Once the charm wears off, you are left with a movie that starts off perfectly and drops like a rock in its second half. It’s a snoozer. Unbelievably so. A villain that only exists because the movie remembered it was an action movie and needed something to fuel a third act throwdown. And it’s such a limp, uninteresting throwdown.
The first half is “Superman: The Movie” levels of perfect in adapting a hero to the big screen. It’s just a shame it can’t hold it together, with all of the choices unable to tie it all together in any interesting way. Downey is so good, though, that he keeps it watchable.
What else hurts this movie is how it kind of doesn’t make sense within the world it helped build. There’s some choices within it that don’t make sense in the world we know now, such as making SHIELD a relatively new agency that doesn’t realize the full name of its group can be turned into the acronym we all know.
Nor does it make sense that the world is blown away by the robot man, but it’s supposed to be a world where Captain America very openly fought sci-fi Nazis. The movie stands out now and in tandem with the supreme structural flaws at hand, it really makes it feel like the odd duck out.
18. Thor (2011)
This was a big movie for Marvel, as it was the first movie that would go ofF-world and into a supremely fantastical realm. Thor and his friends on Asgard are a much bigger ask of the audience to buy into. It’s also a lot harder to execute on screen without delving into camp. One false note and the movie would have failed.
And despite a very messy end product, the overall impression was good. They nailed the fantastical elements, so the rest of the movie that’s set on Earth not being that great doesn’t hinder its impact on the greater MCU. But boy, is the Earth stuff just grating.
Kat Dennings is maybe the worst character in the MCU, a nonsense character built for the sole purpose of lulz but just rips the movie off the rails every time she’s on screen. Natalie Portman is fine in the role, but is given nothing to do but give Hemsworth the most convincingly lustful eyes. Hemsworth and Hiddleston as Thor and Loki give the movie its charge, becoming two of the best elements in the whole shebang.
What kind of kills the movie, though, is that it lacks any energy. There’s not much action at all, maybe even less so than “Iron Man,” and it’s not that interesting. But the craziest thing about the movie is that you realize that not much actually happens.
It’s a fairly limp narrative, one that hinges on Thor learning a lesson that is only kind of learned. It’s not the most perfectly executed sell, but you just roll with it because we want to see Hemsworth back in full Thor mode.
There’s some solid fish out of water stuff here and the Loki aspects of the narrative are great, but this really feels like a movie that was so laser-focused on aspect and the fantastical that it loses the thread on the rest. Sadly, the immediate sequel would not improve on things too much.
17. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
This is the first movie in the MCU that palpably feels like it was completed with too many cooks in the kitchen. A movie that just barely feels enough like a movie if you don’t think too hard about how incomplete it feels.
How lacking in stakes it is because it forgets to develop its villain and his plot enough to make us care. How everything in the movie is just convenience. It just barely adds up and leaves us really wanting. They set up Thor is a good way in his first outing and they did even better work on his portrayal in “The Avengers.”
But this time out they just stuck with a level of base competence. Nothing really memorable or classic to really make it stand out. Even the good things in it aren’t fully capitalized on. Hemsworth is good as always, but doesn’t really get much to really stretch his legs. Hiddleston is good, but again barely feels like he’s in the movie, getting a few scenes and then bouncing.
Even the action is kind of disappointing because they could have really upped the ante from the first one. And while the portal jumping action in the end is cool, as is the raid on Asgard, they just don’t go far enough to really distinguish itself.
There’s only two reasons why this is above the first Thor. It at least feels like some midrange “Star Trek” episode and there’s less Kat Dennings. You end the movie decently entertained, but left feeling like the movie should have been all about Thor fighting a big old war in the realms.
16. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Is there some controversy ahead? Probably. But it doesn’t matter because this movie is a mess. The narrative just doesn’t add up. It makes a big mistake by trying to do both the superhero registration narrative and a silly Baron Zemo narrative.
The superhero registration act is never given the proper time to really feel like a real issue, just something they mention a few times with an attempt at gravity despite the actual contents of the registration not sounding too bad. They spend more time on the Baron Zemo plotline, which is just pure nonsense. It’s wannabe supergenius plotting despite the entirety of Zemo’s plan being one based on pure luck and happenstance. Every element of his plan happens because the script needs it to happen. If the Registry didn’t happen, his whole plan would have not happened.
The movie takes place over a four-day period, and Zemo’s whole plan is set into motion in that period. Then there’s the whole thing with Bucky being framed with the bombing of the UN and Bucky just so coincidentally being found 25 minutes after the bombing not too far away from the bomb site.
Then there’s the whole thing with Zemo’s entire plot being based on finding the insultingly conveniently placed video of the Bucky-enacted assassination on Howard Stark and showing it to Tony in a vault of dead super soldiers. Which gets to the big issue of the movie. It wants to set up an issue that feels equally weighted on both sides, but it doesn’t do that.
The cinematic language of the movie within is clearly siding with Cap. But the actual contents of the movie should be on the side of Tony, the only character of the main two with an arc that is compelling. Stark has always been the MVP of the entire MCU, his arc being remarkably well drawn over this entire experiment, and this time out is no different.
The movie shows it’s hand by siding with Cap, despite Cap causing all the problems. For a movie that basically is saying that oversight on superpowered policemen is bad, it really screws up its point. Because Cap is doing what he feels is right by trying to prove Bucky’s innocence and go after Zemo with no plan or no real idea of what he’s getting into, with no help from the government or some of his old friends like Stark.
But if Cap just took his time and didn’t run into the situation half-cocked, Zemo’s plan would not have succeeded. His whole plan to break up the Avengers was to show a video to Tony with Bucky in the room filled with other Buckys, his own little red herring. Cap allowed Zemo’s plot to succeed. There’s such a messy thematic throughline in the movie, it’s insane.
Plus, the movie is just too damn long. It’s so long but it doesn’t give either plot line enough time to work. Bucky sucks, has always sucked, and his suckage reaches peak suck in this movie. He’s never been a character and he’s still not one, but they want us to care about him and his nonexistent and chemistry-free relationship with Cap.
The airport sequences is rightfully hailed as one of the best moments in the entire MCU, and it’s fair praise. The sequence is masterful. But a sad moment is when you rewatch the movie and you realize the sequence doesn’t need to be in the movie. You could take it out and nothing is affected. It’s put in just to excite for no plot reasons.
The movie also gets praised for introducing Spider-Man and Black Panther, and rightfully so. Black Panther is perfect and his arc is great. Going for vengeance and having to learn that the whole movie was showing him that this hissy fit-bred idea of justice does more harm than good. So he basically learns that doing whatever you want is a bad idea. Basically the opposite of Cap’s arc. But the movie then ends with him and Cap as friends. It’s weird. Spidey is great because of Tom Holland and his actions in the airport sequence.
The introduction, though, is absolutely graceless and completely inane. It’s an overlong and sloppy sequence, but it gets us what we all wanted, so I guess it’s fine. It continues this annoying trend that the Russos started in their first Cap movie, which is to make Cap this self-righteous super cop that is completely against oversight.
The first Cap movie and the Whedon-backed Avengers movies did Cap well. But I don’t think the Russos really have the best handle on Cap and have gone too far into making him what they think America is and not what Cap should be, which is the ideal of America. Cap is no longer a character – he’s a right-winger’s bumper sticker.
There’s a lot of good stuff in this movie, but there’s also so much messy and half-heartedly thought-out thematic ideas in the movie that it just adds up to a movie at war with itself. It’s a shame that Avengers 2.5 barely justifies its own existence. We needed to get the Avengers broken up, so here ya go.
15. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
This one took the biggest hit upon a rewatch in the lead-up to “Infinity War.” It’s always been given a lot of praise since its release as being a grown-up movie in Captain America’s clothes, a modern day blockbuster with a 70’s political thriller backbone. But rewatching it shows how little the movie actually resembles those thrillers that usually starred Robert Redford, and how powerful it actually is as a grown-up movie.
It sets up kind of like a political thriller, but there’s not much under the hood to really work out. By the halfway point, the entire plot is spelled out for us by Arnim Zola and then it is back in blockbuster mode. But maybe the biggest issue here is that Hydra makes everything too easy for Cap. There’s no real reckoning to be had here, just the knowledge that Hydra is bad and humanity was given a real easy go of it.
Much has been made about the real-world comparisons and how Nazis have risen up again in reality, but that is a bit simplistic. In the real world, it’s not as neat as Nazis doing everything bad. Nazis share ideas with a lot of the men in charge these days simply because the rich make money off the pain of the poor and minorities.
The real world has been ravaged by capitalism and this movie takes the boot off the neck of the corporations that have been poisoning politics. It’s also a bit tasteless when you think that 9/11 truthers are probably right in the MCU, as it would make sense that the Hydra-infested political machine probably knew and allowed it to happen, as well as other such tragedies.
A weird element here is that for a movie named “The Winter Soldier,” the movie doesn’t justify the existence of Bucky being in the movie. He’s barely in it to begin with and Cap never finds out Bucky is alive until about the end of the second act. And when he does, it doesn’t affect the end game.
The plan stays the same and his sadness about the reveal only affects his final fight, giving it a little bit of phony drama to stretch out the moment where Cap finally pulls the last lever. Also, it’s very hard to take a villainous plot seriously when they say they’re going to kill all people that can pose a threat to them, one of whom is Bruce Banner. Which is basically them saying that they’re going to kill the Hulk with a few anti-aircraft weapons, which is beyond idiotic.
There’s a lot of good in here and the action is pretty decent all around, with the big climax on the three helicarriers being big and loud and fun. Upon this rewatch, it became clear in these Cap movies that the Russos were very good on the micro-level, getting some good character moments and interactions that hit the pleasure centers of fanboys’ brains, but the macro was a bit hard for them.
It’s a movie filled with big grand gestures that don’t actually add up, a movie that acts like it’s very profound but is incapable of going for the jugular in an insightful way. The Cap movies could have been something special, and some people think they are. But Cap has been shifted into a character that barely resembles the hero we met back in World War II. If they reckoned with that and tackled the ideas of his PTSD and addiction to war, that would be something. But they don’t. So we have this series of diminishing returns.
14. Iron Man 2 (2010)
The most unjustly hated on entry in the MCU, it’s a movie that isn’t some hidden masterpiece of anything but one that is criticized too harshly. Does the movie spend way too much time trying to build up the world of the MCU? Yeah. But it’s that world building that helps broaden the scope of the MCU in a way that the original movie couldn’t really do because there were no real plans yet.
The Nick Fury post-credits scene was just a fun idea. So with this one, the plan was in place. It had to do a lot, since “Thor” and “The First Avenger” were on the way. So in that way, it’s a more pure MCU entry than the first Iron Man.
Also working to its benefit was having a villain from the jump and not a bad guy that was a mere afterthought. Mickey Rourke is a bit silly with his character, which he clearly thought was his “Eastern Promises” moment. But there’s a bit of an equanimity to his character, a thematic mirroring to Stark that makes some sense.
The movie may be a mess structurally and on a script level, with that weirdly diverting middle section, but there’s at least an aim to say something about Stark and his place in the world now that he’s Iron Man and that the thing that is saving him is killing him. A movie about fathers and the weight of their legacies hanging over their sons.
What makes this movie worthwhile is that Downey is just so watchable and so attuned to Stark and his arc that you can’t turn away. He makes even messiest scripts watchable thanks to sheer strength of will (hello “Civil War”). It’s something that the Captain America movies didn’t have. Not crap talking Evans here, as he’s an amazing actor, but he doesn’t have the same strength of will and connection to the character that Downey Jr. does.
And what this movie has that the first movie doesn’t is good action. It’s energetic and dynamic and gets the Iron Man power set out on to screen in a more interesting way. Bringing Don Cheadle in as Rhoads this time and getting Terrence Howard out was a smart decision.
We’re still in the part of this list where the movies are messy and filled with almost as many bad elements as good, but it goes to show you that Marvel is doing something right if a movie as messy as this can be this watchable.