Just over 13 years ago in the spring of 2008, Iron Man was released into theaters. It would be the foundational work in a mega-media franchise that we now know today as the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” or MCU for short. This multi-movie project, under the calculated direction of producer Kevin Feige, would be unlike anything the world had ever seen before. It would tell the story of a fictional world across a multitude of films, intertwining the separate stories of several different characters, and how their own journeys would wind and weave together into one shared, epic saga.
Since the original Iron Man’s debut, there have been a total of 25 feature-length films in the MCU, and with the release of Eternals impending in just under a month, that’s an average of two multi-million-dollar-budgeted movies a year. Just before the shock of 2020, which saw the release of no MCU films, the only other time audiences had any other year of reprieve from Marvel heroics was all the way back in 2009. This is a release schedule that can only be compared to two other franchises in film history: James Bond and Godzilla–but even these series stack up modestly when compared to the MCU machine. They both have decades over Marvel movies, but come the end of this year the MCU will have matched Bond in number of total films, and its rate of release absolutely eclipses the tumbling, 46-year stomp it took for Godzilla to reach 25 of its own. And with more than $20 billion in box office returns, more than double the runner-up that is Star Wars, the MCU is the most profitable movie franchise in history. As a whole and on several metrics, it is undeniably a success.
But not all Marvel movies are created equally. While, yes, they’ve been put together under the guidance of Feige, several hands have had a part in making the MCU–some more competent than others. As an exercise, I’ve decided to share my own thoughts on each of these films, ranking them in a numerical order from worst to best. I love film, and though I may not love a certain Marvel movie as much as another, I still find value in describing what it is that that I think a film is lacking, or may hold over another. I want this to be an educational experience, to show any other aspiring, franchise-minded creatives out there what works and what doesn’t for a blockbuster adventure.
Two things before I begin: number one is that this is all my opinion. It’s as informed as I would like it to be, with an entire childhood of comic book-reading and movie-watching behind me, but in no way am I an authority on this matter. Again, this is all for fun. Number two is that though this is a “ranked” list, that sort of formatting is really just for convenience’s sake. Though I am factoring in all aspects of filmmaking when making my decisions (acting, cinematography, music and so on), there was no set rubric that these films would score and be compared on. This is not a codified and quantified list in actuality; on some days I may feel more strongly on some of these films than others, and where one film may succeed for me in my own taste may not mean the same to you. It’s important to remember that films, like any art, are emotional experiences and what I am describing to you is my emotions as reaction.
With all that in mind, let’s begin with the five worst films of the MCU:
#25: Captain Marvel
This film would have you believe that Carol has a problem controlling her emotions. It’s a line that comes up several times, but saying it does not make it so. Carol brazenly blasts her way through the plot, her impulses getting her into one tricky situation into the next, but never does she suffer for it. There is no opportunity for her to reflect on the consequences of her actions because rarely if ever do they have any serious outcomes. She never fails, and that’s not at all a good thing for a story like this. She has “nothing to prove,” to villains or audiences.
Carol’s supporting cast of characters prove themselves to be just as uninteresting. The alien Talos is just Ben Mendehlson in makeup. He’s a shape-shifting green-man from a part of the universe light-years away from Earth, and somehow he talks like any other quippy regular Joe in the Marvel world, his alienness a totally missed opportunity. Captain Marvel also features a young Nick Fury. Does the film show us how this pivotal moment in the character’s history changes him, how it makes him the cool-edged master of espionage that we see him as later on in the MCU’s chronological history? Not at all. Sans an eye, he is the same man from beginning to end and undergoes no character development–a total waste.
Then there’s the film’s confusing set-up, which establishes that Carol has been secretly abducted by the Kree after an accident radiates her with the source of a faster-than-light engine. Rather than dissect Carol for the power within her, the Kree instead adopt her and treat her as one of their own. In fact, they tell her to control and suppress her abilities, rather than just unleashing her powers as what would be the most powerful weapon in the the empire’s arsenal. Why they go this route is not at all explained and it frankly doesn’t make any lick of sense.
Captain Marvel has bad characters and a bad plot, which also needlessly complicated the MCU’s continuity (how did the Tesseract get away from SHIELD?). It is simply not good.
#24: The Incredible Hulk
The black sheep of the MCU, and in retrospect perhaps rightfully so. The film just never really amounts to anything special or distinct. Its plot is straightforward and its characters, save for maybe General Ross, are particularly undynamic.
Yes, that’s right: even Ed Norton’s Bruce Banner, a character whose entire conception is literally based on the fact that he undergoes grueling and anatomy-altering changes, is undynamic. Here, Banner knows what he wants from the beginning of film (a cure from the Hulk) and pursues that goal far into the third act–and hardly does he ever rest from that, save to rekindle his relationship with Betty which, while very convincingly loving, is entirely dependent on the outside knowledge of this story.
The wasted potential here is that we never get anything deeper than the basics of that story, basics which any audience member would have been familiar with by the time of this film’s release, given a previous Hulk film just five years earlier, and a whole ‘nother generation growing up with a fan-favorite TV show decades before. How has being the Hulk affected Banner? Yes, we can see how it has affected him geographically, dodging General Ross’ pursuits across the globe, but how has it affected Banner the man? He never takes any time to reflect or to explore his angst, to give some profound statement on his duality. In the end, he realizes that he can use the Hulk to save and not destroy, but I’m not entirely sure how we got to that point.
Researching the production of The Incredible Hulk for this article, I can see that all creatives involved (including Norton himself) were juggling a lot of ideas around. So much is jam-packed in, though, that none of it is given enough room to grow into the pants its sown for itself. It all feels totally underdeveloped, and the only thing incredible about the film is just how boring it all is.
#23: Ant-Man and the Wasp
Every little problem there was with the original Ant-Man has been blown up here to gargantuan proportions. This sequel is a too-often unfunny mess with no real sense for its characters or interpersonal drama, all the while its colors are captured through an ugly filter of greys, browns, and yellows. It only saves itself from being lower on this list thanks to a fun-filled, action-packed second half.
Brevity is the soul of wit, and Ant-Man and the Wasp runs a little short on this sort of soul. Its jokes belabor their punchlines; the characters are prolix, delivering set-ups that are far too elaborate for what the zany pace of the movie calls for, making all the humor starkly off-beat.
But the writing isn’t just a problem for the jokes, either; it’s in all the dialogue, which forms in a cinematic sin trifecta of expository, unnecessary, or just plain boring. The key to writing good lines is making sure that each word spoken by a character is entirely their own, that only that character could say it the way it was said. Alas, that’s not often the case here, where every other character is dropping a generic filler line that is wholly devoid of any of their unique spark.
And about those characters: just what exactly is their arc? Yes, Scott mentions several times that he hopes to fall back into the favor of Hank and Hope, but the only problem is… he never really left it. Sure, yes, it’s an awkward reunion, but Scott is taken back into their good graces quite quickly, he’s depended on and never doubted again once he’s up to the old hijinks. Hank, revealed to having quite callously rejected a former colleague in a darker moment of his character, is forgiven immediately. There is no actual conflict here, and that’s not something I personally find to be a sign of a great movie, or even a good one.
#22: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
I know, I know: I didn’t expect this one to be so low on this list either. Released in 2014, a year in the wake of Edward Snowden’s shocking NSA leaks, the themes and story of The Winter Soldier seemed exceptionally relevant and hard-hitting at the time. But on rewatches, any statements the film makes on its complicated subject matter are reduced to unnuanced observations of good against evil, delivered as platitudes and punches.
Running parallel to Steve Rogers’ struggle against deep state authoritarianism are his violent reunions with his once-believed-dead friend Bucky Barnes, now brainwashed by a HYDRA-infiltrated SHIELD. Something that I take quite seriously in films is theme: how is each character, each scene and each plot point arc connected by the same basic idea? The threads are loose here in Winter Soldier, if here at all.
Another key element to any good story is transformation. How do the characters involved change, for better or worse, based on their experiences throughout said story? Looking at Steve Rogers as depicted here, we would find the answer to be… they don’t. They don’t change at all. Steve begins this story as a righteous paragon and ends that way. His worldview is framed for the entirety of the film as the morally superior one, and any challenge or question against it is proven to be nothing more than needless 21st century cynicism. While it’s at least somewhat interesting to see a man stick so stubbornly to his guns, it’s not exactly compelling.
The film’s also a mess in the edit. There’s too much going on, too much the Russo brothers feel they have to convey, and visual information is chopped up into quick one-second cuts that leave you with the eyeball equivalent of whiplash. They’re great directors working with great performers, but this one got away from them.
Thor’s biggest shortcomings are found in its characters, a majority of which are either confused, underdeveloped or even totally unnecessary. The titular protagonist undergoes an ostensible and archetypal hero’s journey, overcoming the flaws that he possessed at the film’s beginning and becoming a better man by its end. However, how this conclusion is reached does not exactly align with the journey Thor explores. Though he acknowledges that the bystanders caught in the conflict between him and Loki are innocent, Thor is much too busy spending the quieter, reflective moments of the film flirting with Jane Foster. How he comes to realize the preciousness of innocent life is not actually depicted in the story, and is rushed to out of functional necessity.
Speaking of Jane: she’s not a great character, at least not here. Her motivations are selfish, her curious drive and need for discovery are not at all established to be in the service of some more sympathetic cause. And what with Thor being the sexually aggressive buffoon that he is for most of the movie’s runtime, Jane’s attraction to him is only based in the physical and in the intrigue of his origins, not at all coming from her acknowledging that he is a good man. She is an insult to female romantic leads, and is the film’s most egregious flaw.
Then there is Loki, whose reasons for treachery are unsatisfyingly mysterious–if only because it seems they weren’t really worked out before the script was finished. Why does Loki betray his brother and usurp his father? Is it because he is the outcast adopted son, a revelation so shocking to him that it rocks his faith in Asgard? If it were, then wouldn’t this plot point have been developed sooner in the film, and not after Loki had already schemed to ruin Thor? It just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and I can’t see how (beyond Tom Hiddleston’s charm and charisma) Loki got to be so popular a character right after the release of this film.
Sif and the Warriors Three are uninteresting (with Fandril and Hogun especially unexciting), and all four of these characters are really only reduced to a functional purpose in the plot, not at all bringing to the surface the story’s themes, which are few to begin with. And Darcy Jennings seems to serve no purpose at all other than to give comic relief that can be found plenty elsewhere in the film. She is cinematic window dressing.
Still though, there’s lots to like about Thor’s production, namely in its costuming. The film is also rife with Dutch angles which, while jarring at times and no doubt meant to compensate for the uninspiring New Mexican location, do give Thor quite a dynamic look. It at least understands the basics of adventure films, but its not much worthy of a higher spot on this list than this.
‘Nuff Said… For Now
That’s all for now. How do you feel about this list so far? How much do you agree or disagree? Feel free to let me know, and come back soon for the next five films in the list. Excelsior!