Ranking the MCU: The Top 5 Films

Hello and welcome back for the fifth and final article in my series “Ranking the MCU.

In retrospect, I realize I should have added the words “so far” to that title, because with the release of Eternals just this weekend, and several more MCU films coming round the way, this series will in no way prove comprehensive over time. Marvel is the machine that keeps on going. It’s been quite a ride so far folks, but this is where I’m stopping.

… For now.

If you haven’t already, please check out my other articles. Remember, I started with the worst five, on to the next five, then those that I found to be in the middle, and then those that made the back half of the top 10.

I’ll keep my usual disclaimer brief: these articles represent my opinion, which is in no way authoritative. Art is an emotional experience, and though I may be applying a technical eye to some of my critique of the films here, all of that’s related is just my emotion as reaction–my overall enjoyment of each film.

Thank you all for reading. I’m sure I’ll be back soon with more Marvel content soon. Without further ado, here are my top five movies of the MCU:

#5: Iron Man 3

Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark. Photo: Marvel Studios

Iron Man 3 dared to be different. For the most part, it succeeded. Subversion runs constantly through this Shane Black-directed cap-off to the MCU’s flagship series; it’s packed with double cross, reveals, and twists on classic tropes and expectations.

It is perhaps the most introspective superhero movie ever made, not so much a mirror reflecting back on society but exploring the character that is Tony Stark. That he still had so much to give us even during this third go-around shows the strength of the character.

Keying into those subversive instincts, the film sparsely has Tony suiting up to save the day, instead having him cross-country trekking to a variety of distinct set pieces. That’s the key word for Iron Man 3, and all these other top entries: distinction. What these movies have really sets them out from the rest.

Unfortunately, Iron Man 3 may be trying to juggle too much at once. There’s this line Tony has about “tying everything up in a neat little bow” at the end, and it feels a little undeserved. I’m not entirely sure of what was able to make Tony conquer his PTSD, or how it totally connected to his relationship with his work.

And then there’s the infamous Mandarin twist. I wasn’t so much offended by the fact that Stark’s comic book arch nemesis, whose on-screen debut fans had been pining for for years, turned out to be nothing more than a bumbling idiot with a substance problem, but more so because the reveal that Killian was the true bad guy didn’t really… shock me.

He’s so obviously bad, and even if the real point is that, no, Killian was actually the leader and not a crony, well… I’m still not that impressed. Bad is still bad.

Though, Killian does have a line about having no more need for subtlety. I think that’s a scriptwriter’s self-aware nod to the audience, and I can appreciate that kind of intelligence in a project. Plus the 70s action-spy vibe in Miami was wicked cool, too.

#4: Avengers: Infinity War

Thanos (motion-capture by Josh Brolin) as he appears in Avengers: Infinity War. Photo: Marvel Studios

Channeling that idea about uniqueness and distinction, Avengers: Infinity War asks the question: what if the bad guy actually won?

Redirecting attention from the namesake heroes, Infinity War is really a movie about a supervillain. It is Thanos’ journey that drives this story, from one engaging monologue to the next. As he appears in this film, the Mad Titan may very well be the deepest character to ever grace the MCU.

At the time of release, Infinity War was the longest MCU film ever produced, surpassing Civil War and only to be succeeded by its own sequel. Part of what makes this movies work so well in spite of concerns for boredom is the competent direction of the Russo brothers, who package tightly structured films such as these with a breezy pace. Infinity War’s nearly three hours just fly on by. You’re having that much fun.

Still, though, that’s not a lot of time to cram in so much into a story this big. Some corners were cut to speed things up, namely in some fairly egregious expository dialogue in the first act. And while Thanos’ cycle may have been completed, the same can’t be said for all the film’s characters. Criticisms over the cliffhanger ending (from an Avenger’s point of view) are valid.

However, Infinity War remains the most thematic of all the MCU movies. Observations on consequence and sacrifice run rampant throughout, and they connect this great film into one moral whole.

#3: Avengers: Endgame

Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner (motion-capture) and Chris Hemsworth as Thor. Photo: Marvel Studios

Clocking in at three hours, Endgame was the longest superhero movie ever made at the time of its release. But it never feels that way. It never tires you nor ever does it tire of itself, its epic plot proceeding confidently to the finish, never in any hurry to get there and expending nothing for it.

What’s working here is that directors Joe and Anthony Russo allow the film’s scenes to breathe. This more methodical, more naturalistic framing to each sequence provides for a more authentic (and more gripping) viewing experience. Couple this with the brothers’ deep respect to the history of each of the film’s many characters, audiences are left with an adventure unlike any other.

Endgame does away with its predecessor’s attention to theme, story, and even an intriguing villain. Arcs and their resolutions come and go sporadically through the film, and never at its end do we come to understand what, if anything, the movie was really trying to teach us. In context, really, the movie should offend more than it pleases, its basic premise fantastically rendering null all that made Infinity War so special.

But as I’ve kept saying, and will continue to say to the end of my days: art is an emotional experience. What do flaws matter if what you appreciate about something is just so overpowering? In the case of Endgame, all credit here again goes to the Russos and scriptwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who have their characters carry with them so much mythos it’s as though we are seeing done some totally faithful adaptation of some great tale of yore–like an Arthurian legend or the Mahabharata.

#2: Iron Man

Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark. Photo: Paramount

The film that kickstarted the Marvel engine, entry after entry into the MCU has tried (so many with such little success) to top all the things that Iron Man did so well. From the growth of a clearly flawed protagonist, to a rocking soundtrack and kick-ass set pieces, this 2008 progenitor still warrants all the praise it got more than 13 years ago.

The MCU has a fine track record of casting reliable performers, and that precedent was set here with Iron Man. Enough could never be said for Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark, but there’s so much to love about the others–from Paltrow’s overworked Pepper and Howard’s anxious boy scout Rhodey. Then, of course, there is the deliciously evil Obadiah Stane from Jeff Bridges. One can see Stane’s treachery coming from a mile away, but unlike Killian’s reveal in 3, nothing here was built on subversion. What, should critics complain that the Sheriff of Nottingham is uninspired too?

If I had one complaint for the film it would be that Tony really seems to stop growing by the end of the third act. Yes, after he returns home from his capture there are some interpersonal problems that he must deal with, and they are for the most part resolved by the movie’s end. However, there is nothing in the story that should inform Tony on how to reconcile his issues with others. He is imparted with no greater wisdom than what he learned from his time with Yinsen. He becomes a better man because he has to, for the sake of the story, not because he really wants to.

This is but a small chink in the armor, though, and this otherwise solidly put-together film remains one of the genre’s best ever.

#1: Guardians of the Galaxy

Dave Bautista as Drax, Zoe Saldaña as Gamora, and Chris Pratt as Peter Quill. Photo: Marvel Studios

I must confess: when this movie first came out in 2014 I absolutely hated it. I was 17, and what I thought then was that a superhero movie must strive to be like The Dark Knight. Comic books and superhero stories deserved to be taken seriously, and any attempt at them following The Dark Knight must try to replicate that same success–must demand to be taken seriously.

So, when Guardians of the Galaxy released six years later, I was obstinately unenthused. “It’s trying too hard to be fun,” I thought. “It’s dumb and it’s silly.” I just have this to say to my past self:

Yeah–so what?

As I mentioned when writing about its sequel, the Guardians of the Galaxy movies remain vibrational stand-outs from the rest of the MCU, so many of which bank on reliable but indistinct filmmaking technique. Carried by a jammin’ oldies soundtrack and James Gunn’s trademark directing, this silly little space romp features five dysfunctional misfits coming together to stop a cosmic genocide–and learning something along the way!

The action scenes are legible, something I really appreciated this time around, having just finished a watch of its incomprehensible MCU predecessor, The Winter Soldier, and yes, the movie is constantly (effortlessly) hilarious.

Guardians of the Galaxy is in so many way’s the best the MCU’s ever done.

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