For better or worse, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed how blockbuster movies are constructed, planned, and made. Fifteen years of billion-dollar successes and lukewarm swing-and-misses have also changed how MCU movies themselves are planned and made: These days, it feels like there’s a particular tension between “Everything must be a saga” thinking and “Maybe these movies should stand alone better?” revisionism. As box-office-defining surefire hits have given way to rushed, muddled movies, and Marvel has expanded into a messy multiverse saga with near-infinite spin-off potential, the franchise’s future is both meticulously mapped out and constantly in flux.
The constant shifts may not matter to the core fans who turn up for every Marvel movie, but recent box office disappointments suggest that superhero burnout and unpredictable quality are moving these movies out of their core position in American culture. And yet, looking back on the saga to date, it’s still full of memorable moments and powerful collective experiences — blockbuster cinema as a participation sport. So it’s always a good time to reconsider the absolutely bonkers success of the MCU and consider what we look for in a Marvel movie, and what Marvel movies are best at giving us. (MCU TV gets its own separate ranked list.) The Polygon staff collectively ranked every MCU movie from worst to best.
33. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania
The hero take: Love or hate the rest of Quantumania, at least it does right by Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), the dorky, cheerful, just-a-bit-dim dude who only really qualifies for Avengers status when the big-leaguers are otherwise occupied or in direct conflict. His framing scenes, cheerfully narrating how awesome his D-list-celebrity life is these days (as long as he doesn’t think about it too hard) are the highlights of the movie, and just about the only part of Quantumania that capture the kind of sprightly humor that director Peyton Reed used to be known for.
The villain take: Scott’s alter ego Ant-Man, on the other hand, gets handed one dud of an idea after another in this soggy mess of a movie. As the big setup for Marvel’s Phase Five with its infinity of Kangs, the movie has to shoulder much too much exposition, which it throws out at random intervals during a trip into the Quantum Realm that in no way matches anything about that realm in any previous movie. Harried by ugly wall-to-wall CG, poorly written versions of familiar characters, and some exceptionally cheap family drama, this tee-up for the Multiverse Saga barely feels like a movie. It’s just a series of barely connected establishment scenes, draped in garish digital effects. —Tasha Robinson
32. Thor: Love and Thunder
The hero take: After multiple Marvel movies that made no significant use of Natalie Portman’s acting chops, Thor: Love and Thunder handed her Mjolnir and, more importantly, gave her some downright adorable dialogue. Also good: Tessa Thompson fighting as Valkyrie while wearing a Phantom of the Opera T-shirt.
The villain take: Director and writer Taika Waititi reprises his bit part as Korg, who becomes a talkative but not quite funny enough narrator of the film’s events. Then there’s Christian Bale’s heart-wrenching performance as Gorr, which belongs in a different movie — maybe one that doesn’t have Korg’s goofball fairy-tale narration. Last but not least, this movie has two Thors in it, and it only needs one — Natalie Portman, obviously. —Maddy Myers
31. Thor: The Dark World
The hero take: The movie that cemented Loki’s woobification for all time, and a cameo that’s quite possibly the most fun Chris Evans has ever had in the MCU.
The villain take: Woof. Marvel’s gonna have to make a lot of duds before Dark World — with its forgettable villain and even more forgettable plot — won’t wind up near the bottom of these kinds of rankings. —Susana Polo
30. Iron Man 2
The hero take: With the early pre-Avengers success of the nascent MCU, Iron Man 2 is where these movies start to have some fun — and this movie is absolutely stuffed to the brim with spectacle that made Iron Man look like an indie film in comparison. Iron Man 2 really brings out the toys: Whiplash! Suitcase armor! War Machine! An army of drones! And it’s the first film to truly lean into the connected nature of the MCU.
The villain take: Boy howdy, what a mess. Every idea is underserved, the character work is shallow — Tony Stark has basically regressed between films — and the MCU world-building is a little too involved. An early cautionary tale for what the MCU could become without a modicum of care. —Joshua Rivera
29. Avengers: Age of Ultron
The hero take: It’s a Marvel movie about making Marvel movies. Writer-director Joss Whedon returns to look upon his work of making the impossible crossover of The Avengers a reality, and despairs via the homicidal robot Ultron. There’s a valiant effort to will this big sequel into a quieter, more dramatic film that almost succeeds.
The villain take: Bombast wins out, and Whedon’s fun edge from the previous film is buffed away, leaving something a little more sour behind. The machines have the best material here, as Ultron and Vision are able to shoulder the metafictional and existential themes of the film while the Avengers proper are fumbling through some of their worst arcs. The less said about Hulk and Black Widow, the better. —JR
The hero take: For all its flaws (and there are many), Eternals is one of the few Marvel movies that actually dives into the relationships between its heroes. This is the movie for everyone who ever wanted the Avengers to be a found family and not just a group of heroes who happen to work together. It’s a poignant and moving story about the pains of immortality and the beauty of humanity. It also features one of the most diverse casts in the entire MCU — as well as one of the most female-fronted teams!
The villain take: It pokes way more holes into the Marvel Cinematic Universe than is worth the two-hour-and-37-minute run time. It asks the audience to care a lot about characters and dynamics they barely know, and in order for that to happen, the movie jam-packs all the backstory into some clunky transitions. It should’ve been a TV show.
Then there’s the continuity issue, as the subsequent movies and television shows completely fail to mention the giant stone Celestial poking out of the planet. (She-Hulk at least threw in one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, but still.) It barely feels like it’s part of the MCU, which is either a good or bad thing, depending on what you’re here for. —Petrana Radulovic
27. The Incredible Hulk
The hero take: The Hulk’s only MCU solo outing is a lean thriller that blends the jolly green giant with a bit of The Fugitive, as Bruce Banner treks across the globe to stay ahead of a U.S. military that wants him in custody. A paranoid, twitchy film that really gains a lot from Ed Norton’s starring performance, still memorable even though his successor in the role, Mark Ruffalo, has been well-received across the various team-up films that followed.
The villain take: None of the other characters have much to work with here, and when the film does go into superhero mode, the moody color palette means it’s a struggle to actually see what’s happening. —JR
26. Avengers: Infinity War
The hero take: It’s more or less the Empire Strikes Back of the MCU — a dark, heavy setup movie where the heroes suffer tremendous defeats and losses in order to make their triumphs in the next movie stronger. Along the way, fans get to see characters interact who have never met before, highlighting all of them in new and exciting ways. And then there’s that ending, still possibly the most breathless piece of pure horror in the entire franchise.
The villain take: It’s too busy, with so many characters that virtually none of the fan favorites get significant screen time, and too many repetitive fights over Infinity Stones where the outcomes are foreordained. Various characters have to make disappointingly stupid choices to keep the plot rolling. Also, Loki gets punked, Hulk gets punked, and Thor acts like he hasn’t seen Loki “die” like eight times already. —TR
The hero take: Technically more of a fish-out-of-water comedy than a superhero movie. Hemsworth’s goofiness plays great with Natalie Portman as the straight man, and Stellan Skarsgård rules in this movie.
The villain take: The action is pretty bad, the story isn’t particularly interesting, and it’s meant as a comedy, but it’s only intermittently funny. —Austen Goslin
24. The Marvels
The hero take: Every single time The Marvels steps away from the plot for a second, it’s a blast. The group fight choreography has Ms. Marvel’s Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), Captain Marvel’s Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), and WandaVision’s Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) rapidly swapping places mid-attack due to space-time shenanigans, which puts a lively, visually breathless spin on the usual punch-’em-ups. Kamala, with her starry-eyed Captain Marvel fandom and fractious family, remains a Marvel bright spot. The hangout sesh on the sing-along planet of Aladna is lovely nonsense. Whenever The Marvels lets go of the need for world-smashing stakes, it’s a goofy, giddy trip.
The villain take: But oh, that plot. Saddled with one of the MCU’s least developed villains (which is really saying something), full of surprisingly huge story gaps that feels like crucial scenes were cut out or never shot at all, and rushed as hell even in its better efforts at character building, The Marvels is ridiculously messy, from its “your powers are intertwined, for, I dunno, reasons” plot device to a climax that doesn’t even try to make sense. It’s surprisingly fun as a viewing experience, but it sure isn’t a coherent, consistent, or well-assembled movie. —TR
23. Spider-Man: No Way Home
The hero take: The end of the first trilogy featuring Tom Holland’s Spider-Man goes out with an absolute bang, bringing the villains — and Spider-Mans! — from the two previous live-action iterations into one tangled web. With this escalated threat, there are escalated stakes, giving us the first film where the newest Peter Parker must struggle against an evil that wishes to hurt him personally and make him face the darkness that lies within himself.
The villain take: No Way Home can be read as an outrageously cynical film, a movie that’s essentially getting by on stolen valor — borrowing the menace and character work done outside of the MCU to raise the stock of its own take on Peter Parker/Spider-Man. It’s also yet another film that refuses to just let Peter face a threat on his own, without an Avenger babysitting him. —JR
22. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
The hero take: Once writer-director James Gunn established his merry band of A-holes as a bona fide MCU success, he used his second go-round as a chance to get weird. Vol. 2 is one of the few MCU projects to feel acutely personal, both thematically and aesthetically, as Gunn’s gross-out schlock roots collide with a heartfelt and mildly vulgar story about fathers and sons, family lost and found, and pushing through the pain and anger that comes with feeling like you deserved more than you got.
The villain take: Guardians Vol. 2 overindulges in comic book group therapy. In some ways, this is a remarkable thing about it. In others, it shortchanges the characters and the actors that play them, giving them much to discuss and not much to do. —JR
21. Captain Marvel
The hero take: It’s rare for a Marvel movie to have a twist, and Captain Marvel’s isn’t that complicated, but it’s refreshing nonetheless. It just makes sense for the Skrulls — a shapeshifting alien race, always on the run and hiding out — to be the more sympathetic side in the Kree-Skrull war. (The comics aren’t quite so neat and tidy when it comes to that.) Then there’s the more obvious reveal that Carol Danvers’ slimy male mentor was just trying to keep her down — again, not a surprise, but still satisfying. The movie even manages to introduce a young Monica Rambeau, one of the original heroes to use the “Captain Marvel” moniker in the comics, and although her cameo is little more than a lead-in to WandaVision, Akira and Azari Akbar’s performances are too cute to deny.
The villain take: It’s really just an Air Force recruitment ad. A lot of Marvel movies work with the U.S. military and make it look good, but in this movie, it somehow seems even more disgusting, given the feminist themes and diverse cast. Uncle Sam will point his finger at anyone these days! And that’s progress, folks. —MM
20. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
The hero take: The Sorcerer Supreme gets the Tales From the Crypt treatment, thanks to the stylings of Sam Raimi, who turns what would otherwise be a nonsensical chase through the Marvel multiverse into a slightly spooky romp with wonderfully imagined magical battles.
The villain take: For a premise that implies so much for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Multiverse of Madness is pretty gun-shy about showing us the sheer possibility suggested in its title. Its biggest swing — a second-act set-piece chock-full of cameos — drags down an exciting moment with dull exposition. —JR
19. Black Widow
The hero take: The main cast is excellent, and almost all of them know how fun the movie they’re in should be. Some of the action is pretty good. And Florence Pugh is in it. (She’s enough fun that she gets her own special mention.)
The villain take: It has one of the worst third-act fights in MCU history, and a completely perfunctory story that serves almost no larger purpose in the universe. — AG
18. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
The hero take: If everything in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 was as emotionally vivid as the flashbacks to Rocket Raccoon’s tragic backstory or James Gunn’s big feel-good dance party at the end, this one would be much higher on the MCU mega-list. There are a lot of sentimental gut punches in Gunn’s farewell to the MCU, and a lot of the kind of gleeful nonsense that’s characterized this series in the past, from big hit needle-drops to sharp character banter and an intense full-group hallway fight that pulls out all the co-op combat stops. It’s a Guardians-fans-only movie for sure, but it knows its audience and aims right for their squirrelly little hearts.
The villain take: If only this wasn’t such an overstuffed movie in so many other ways. Trying to give every single character a meaningful farewell arc is a daunting enough task, but GOTG3 also tees up Adam Warlock for possible future movies, introduces and dispenses with the villain The High Evolutionary, and (groan) wastes a whole lot of screen time on the go-nowhere romance between Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldaña). It’s a particularly crowded and cramped movie with no time to deepen any of the relationships, which doesn’t stop Gunn from pretending they’re deeper than they’ve ever been before. (Quill proclaiming Rocket is his best friend is a mighty odd moment, given that Rocket already canonically has a much better best friend.) —TR
17. Ant-Man and the Wasp
The hero take: The small-stakes fun of Ant-Man, times two. There’s a world where every Marvel movie is like the Ant-Man films, and that world isn’t a bad one: The stakes are small (ha) and personal, superpowers are used for gags as much as they are for action, and the focus is much more on the actors being people than they are soldiers or gods.
The villain take: Ant-Man and the Wasp, kind of like its predecessor, still feels a bit too small. (Hee hee.) The movie fails to make a strong impression, even with an expanded supporting cast that includes the likes of Walton Goggins and Randall Park joining the the ant farm. —JR
The hero take: Ant-Man knows exactly what it is: an action blockbuster helmed by a maybe B-tier superhero who was mostly known to the wider public in a specific, goofy way. Would that all movies could take that equation and multiply it by Paul Rudd’s innate charisma!
The villain take: This was one of those MCU projects that seemed like it was going to be big and interesting, back when it was initially given to Edgar Wright. There’s a sense that something got lost in the handoff to Peyton Reed: The end product is a mishmash of tones that briefly provides a window into the wacky (or wackier) world that could’ve been. —Zosha Millman
15. Captain America: Civil War
The hero take: Civil War has a lot to do. And yet its defining sequence, the airport battle, works because it manages to deliver on the characters’ actual groundwork from their own movies, letting them ping-pong off each other in battle much better than they have in their signature Marvel Quips™.
The villain take: Perhaps more so than most movies, Civil War suffers because its core problem could’ve been solved with a single conversation, making the fire-and-brimstone concept of its subhead a bit overblown. Plus, the MCU hasn’t really done enough to build up any of the Avengers as friends to the point where the “betrayal” of this movie would hold together the way it does in the comic arc. —ZM
14. Doctor Strange
The hero take: The rare MCU movie that actually requires all the CG it uses (and uses it well), Doctor Strange is one of the better-looking entries in the franchise. It eschews the typical third-act formula, and it also does Tony Stark’s three-movie Iron Man arc in one movie. Besides, Scott Adkins is in it!
The villain take: “Redoing Tony Stark’s three-movie Iron Man arc in one movie” can be read as a bad thing. The romance in the movie is also super underserved. And while I’m a Scott Adkins superfan, the movie really has no idea what to do with his considerable martial arts prowess and screen presence, which is a shame! —Pete Volk
13. Spider-Man: Far From Home
The hero take: The Marvel Cinematic Universe has an overabundance of weirdo Silicon Valley assholes. When I learned the MCU’s Quentin Beck (aka Mysterio) would have his awesome backstory (bitter magician and illusionist) swapped with something much more familiar (he’s yet another Tony Stark knockoff) I was, in a word, pissed. The only magic I expected to see was my interest in the MCU disappearing into thin air.
How did I ever doubt mid-career Jake Gyllenhaal? Fresh off bizarre-ass roles in Okja, Velvet Buzzsaw, Nightcrawler, and Enemy, Gyllenhaal delivers one of the most gleeful villain performances in a series known for dull baddies who exist to make some world-threatening speech before getting punched through a skyscraper.
The villain take: Do I remember much about the story of Peter Parker and friends on a class trip around western Europe? Of course not. But I can’t forget Jake G. repeatedly trapping Spider-Man in holographic houses of mirrors. If the multiverse is just, Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio will return. Though this time, let’s just make him a magician, please. —Chris Plante
12. Avengers: Endgame
The hero take: The grand finale to a decade of storytelling, Avengers: Endgame both manages to conclude the Infinity Saga and celebrate it via a “time heist” revisiting pivotal moments in the canon. It’s the kind of thing that only the MCU can do, and it does it spectacularly.
The villain take: It’s a little too good of an ending, as there’s never been a clearer jumping-off point for the MCU than this. And while it does an admirable job of being a complete film of its own, it can be very hard to be invested in the movie’s cosmic business without at least a passing familiarity of what came before. —JR
11. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
The hero take: Want to watch a decent little martial arts action movie with charming leads? Shang-Chi has got you.
The villain take: Tony Leung is the most charming actor in this movie. Unfortunately, he’s the villain. Also, everything winds up in a predictable Marvel CGI mush climax and a vague gesture in the direction of the future of the MCU. —SP
10. The Avengers
The hero take: This is the film that proved Marvel’s grand storytelling experiment was going to work, and then some. Assembling heroes and storylines from the whole first phase for an almighty team-up, writer-director Joss Whedon wore this difficult task lightly, punching up the banter and the stakes for an apocalyptic scrap in New York. The Avengers still has some of the funniest lines and best action sequences of the entire MCU — and some of the best Hulk content, too.
The villain take: Pretty much the same as the case for. The Avengers irretrievably made smarmy Whedonisms a core pillar of the whole series, but 10 years and more than two dozen movies later, the quips are starting to grate, while the man himself has fallen precipitously — and justly — out of fashion. The film’s profoundly influential mix of inert soap opera, air-punching fan service, and overburdened, kitchen-sink structure is now our whole reality. Hope he’s proud. —Oli Welsh
9. Guardians of the Galaxy
The hero take: It takes a bit of buy-in to James Gunn’s whole thing to get on board with Guardians of the Galaxy. But as the first MCU movie made to potentially lift right out of the whole continuity if it needed to, Guardians is funnier, tighter, and more individual than the rapidly homogenizing MCU would become.
The villain take: Guardians tends to work better when you focus on the jokes, not the larger McGuffin-y plot of the whole thing. And if those jokes don’t land — well, it’s not gonna be the best MCU entry for you. —ZM
8. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
The hero take: A cinematic wake that mourns what could have been, as director and co-writer Ryan Coogler bids farewell to the late Chadwick Boseman and T’Challa, the hero-king Boseman fully embodied from the moment he appeared on screen. Boseman’s death makes Wakanda Forever the most painfully human film in the MCU canon, a project that works through grief and the many ways it’s processed, including in the conflict between Wakanda and the subaquatic nation of Talokan.
The villain take: The film simply takes on too much. Its conflict between Talokan king Namor (Tenoch Huerta) and Wakanda is forced, as Huerta’s easy charisma crafts a character more sympathetic than the script intends. Diversions outside Wakanda — like a subplot involving the return of Martin Freeman as CIA agent Everett Ross — just dilute the film’s efforts, and highlight how inadequate the MCU can be when it comes to grappling with anything this raw. —JR
7. Iron Man 3
The hero take: If the MCU did one thing right in its first couple of phases, it was tracking Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, and his arc toward figuring out the right way to protect the world. He never quite does. But Iron Man 3 marks an important chapter for him — addressing his central trauma, character, and reliance on superherodom — and manages to be one of the most distinctive (and complete) parts of the MCU because of it.
The villain take: It’s such a complete look at Tony that it almost seems silly we had to make him keep going after that ending! Plus, the less said about the handling of the Mandarin in this film (Shang-Chi revisionism or no), the better. —ZM
6. Iron Man
The hero take: The movie that started it all, Iron Man was the breakout success that launched the rest of the franchise, in large part due to Robert Downey Jr.’s charismatic performance, which turned the arc of his career around.
The villain take: It’s a boring movie visually, set largely in vast, open deserts without making much use of that space. It also asks you to sympathize with an arms dealer without really digging into what that means. And while I support Jeff Bridges being in things, his character is one of the most straightforward examples of the classic Marvel problem of “the villain is just the hero, but bad.” —PV
5. Captain America: The First Avenger
The hero take: Director Joe Johnston made a comic book adaptation 20 years prior to this: Disney’s The Rocketeer. Presumably, that film’s mix of pulpy melodrama, special-effects-heavy action, and 1930s period sets helped land him the Marvel gig. Captain America: The First Avenger has that 1990s action-comedy energy, less self-aware and more earnest than the Marvel films to follow.
The First Avenger launched young talents like Chris Evans, Sebastian Stan, and Hayley Atwell, but the small army of established actors in the support roles are what elevate this movie to the top of the list. Tommy Lee Jones! Hugo Weaving! Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones! A decade ago, I remember leaving the theater saying, “They don’t make them like this anymore.” And Marvel hasn’t since.
The villain take: The extended title The First Avenger announces the future of Marvel movies. This isn’t just a Captain America flick; it’s the story of an Avenger! One problem: The world had yet to see an Avengers film, and the pop culture earthquakes that went with them. So the subtitle served more as a promise of the future, rather than a statement about the film folks would actually see in theaters. —CP
4. Spider-Man: Homecoming
The hero take: As the third modern Marvel live-action feature introduction to the life and times of Peter Parker, Homecoming could’ve easily returned to familiar ground. Instead, it made space for Tom Holland’s Spider-Man to once again reintroduce himself, in all his weird, sometimes awkward, often charming way.
The villain take: Look, at the end of the day, it’s still another Spider-Man, and now he’s a little bit tricked out like Iron Man. They do all right with the relationship between them, but there’s still a dizzying sense of the MCU’s grander machinations at play here. —ZM
3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The hero take: Of all the Marvel Cinematic Universe offerings, The Winter Soldier probably sustains the seriousness of its tone the best. As taut as MCU spy sequences come, Winter Soldier understands the dynamics of its relationships enough to actually make them compelling, even when penned in by the MCU blueprint.
The villain take: An actual spy thriller this is not. Again, we’re still playing with Marvel’s rulebook here, and there’s only so much you can do there. It’s also the first Marvel flick from the Russo brothers, and yeah, that shows on screen a bit. —ZM
2. Thor: Ragnarok
The hero take: It’s a technicolor wonderland that puts the previously stodgy Thor into a buddy comedy (and briefly, emotional indie drama about feelings) with the Hulk, a movie that shows just how elastic MCU heroes can be without breaking.
The villain take: It is completely uninterested in building out Asgard’s story from previous movies, quickly dismissing the last movie’s cliffhanger and effectively wiping the place out of the MCU cosmos at the end — just before giving it a compelling dark origin to reckon with. —JR
1. Black Panther
The hero take: Take the triumph of The Avengers and imagine it applied to a single hero: That’s Black Panther. What makes this film stand head and shoulders above the rest lies in intent: The MCU, for all its wild successes, is an insular project, an exercise in careful, canny brand management. Director Ryan Coogler manages to transcend this with Black Panther, a film that’s not only a rousing solo effort for Marvel’s first Black superhero, but a work of celebration, the rare instance where a work of corporate representation does its best to love its fans back.
The villain take: The care and energy Coogler and the assembled cast bring to Black Panther isn’t always matched by its superheroics — most notably in the final, largely CG battle between T’Challa and the usurper Killmonger, a brawl that is perhaps the most forgettable moment in the film. Thankfully, it’s redeemed by one of the most memorable villain sendoffs in the MCU. —JR