The fact that I’m doing non-Marvel Cinematic Universe Marvel rankings —and not the other way around— would have been worth quite the laugh not even two decades ago. (MCU rank here.)
When Marvel Comics was going bankrupt in the 90s, they started auctioning off movie rights to their flagship characters. Sony went in for Spider-Man —fatefully rejecting an expanded deal to have rights to the whole Marvel roster— also obtaining Ghost Rider and Luke Cage.
Fox acquired Marvel’s teams, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, as well as Daredevil. Universal received the Hulk, Lionsgate got the Punisher and New Line Cinema obtained Blade. The vampire hunter actually got the first big-budget Marvel movie, released in 1998.
Nobody wanted Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Black Panther, Black Widow, Doctor Strange, Wasp, Ant-Man or Captain Marvel. The Guardians of the Galaxy were surely not even discussed, save for whatever the smug studio big shot version of a joke.
Their foray into movies hasn’t been very amazing. Or incredible. Or spectacular. Or fantastic. Or superior or uncanny or astonishing or invincible.
By all accounts, there has been more bad than good. Outside of the MCU, the various studios have produced far more duds than winners. It’s always unfortunate to see a group of folks paid to make movies make something terrible.
But here we are. TV shows and animated movies included.
43. The Punisher (1989)
Terrible. Even for the 80s.
42. Fantastic Four (2015)
The movie inexplicably skips a large chunk of time at one point. If only that actually happened.
41. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
The first Ghost Rider is sufficiently average, at best. The sequel uses some unorthodox camera work which adds nausea to nausea. I guess Idris Elba wasn’t hand-picking roles yet.
40. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
Another sequel that flopped after a flop. Marvel’s original team deserves better, clocking in at an unusually short 92-minute superhero run time to simply get this thing over with.
39. Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.
That it’s made for made-for-TV excuses its blatant mediocrity. HOWEVER, David Hasselhoff flexes his charm to give the film something to desire.
38. The Punisher (2004)
Another pretty bad Punisher film (they would even go for three) that is saved from the depths of despair, at least in my eyes, by a strong Frank Castle portrayal from Thomas Jane.
37. X-Men: Apocalypse
The X-Men cinematic universe is obviously a huge mess. But First Class and Days of Future Past had done wonders to right Fox’s narrative wrongs. With Apocalypse, they destroyed any such progress.
36. Blade II
The Blade movies are gory, aggressive and violent. A unique, no holds barred Marvel character, it’s like Deadpool without the jokes.
35. Ghost Rider
There’s a weird sadness in Nicolas Cage’s eyes. He’s solid as the Rider himself, but any attempt to humanize Johnny Blaze is pretty corny.
34. Ultimate Spider-Man (TV series, 2012)
The jumping off point in Spider-Man television for yours truly. Drake Bell as the titular hero isn’t the problem, as bizarre as that sounds, and the full Marvel roster at the show’s disposal is a big plus. The content, though, is frustratingly juvenile.
33. Iron Man and Captain America: Heroes United
Marvel’s animated collection isn’t super strong, and has pretty much been abandoned with the meteoric rise of the MCU. This animated movie is decent, but weirdly reuses a lot of score from Captain America: The First Avenger. Amazing music, but feels recycled.
32. X-Men: The Last Stand
Bryan Singer ditched the franchise once he had the chance to direct Superman Returns, taking Cyclops actor James Marsden with him. Marsden’s character, one of the most popular X-Men, is therefore abruptly killed off in the movie’s opening minutes. It’s chaotic and weird, but fun.
Once Venom finally shows up, the 2018 film packs a punch despite possessing the writing and competence of the previous generation’s superhero flicks. (Many of which are on this list!)
30. Spider-Man (TV series, 1967)
Corny but with the times. Not unlike Adam West’s Batman, there was a time for this kind of show and that time has passed.
29. Ultimate Avengers 2: Rise of the Panther
The Ultimate comic-verse is a different take on the Marvel universe, reimagined to reignite comic book sales in the early 2000s. A pair of okay movies were made about them.
Ben Affleck is not the problem here. But he’s not really the solution. Bullseye and Kingpin are worthy adversaries and it’s a faithful Daredevil tale. Shoutout to Jon Favreau for playing both Foggy Nelson and Happy Hogan.
27. The Invincible Iron Man
Released a year before the real Iron Man changed everything. Marvel’s animated partnership with Lionsgate was never really explored.
26. Thor: Tales of Asgard
Animated movie about Thor and Loki’s complicated brotherhood.
Ang Lee’s highly anticipated Hulk movie gets a little nutty in the second half, but Eric Bana is solid as the main protagonist and the action is impressive.
24. Ultimate Avengers
The predecessor to Rise of the Panther, it’s fondly remembered to me as being heavily focused on Captain America’s de-frosty arrival to the new world.
The first big Marvel movie is bonkers. Wesley Snipes is fantastic as the conflicted vampire hunter and Kris Kristofferson is a lovable grizzly tough guy mentor.
22. Fantastic Four
I liked it enough and it certainly stands out amongst the two other terrible Fantastic Four movies. Questionable casting aside, I thought the comic book aspirations were admirable.
21. Hulk Versus
A two-part animated blood fest that pits the Hulk against Thor (and Loki) on their planet Asgard and Wolverine in his homeland Canada.
20. Daredevil (Netflix series, 2015)
The one Netflix series I’ve seen all the way through, I think the character’s meaningful dual identity as both hero and lawyer was well-served over the course of a TV series. Stardust alum Charlie Cox is strong.
19. Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme
The animated movies mostly retell stories that have been frequented on paper, but this Doctor Strange picture brings up a whole new character, Stephen Strange’s younger sister April.
18. X-Men Origins: Wolverine
My love for Hugh Jackman certainly elevates this movie. I think it’s actually pretty good, telling a worthwhile Wolverine origin story that turns Sabretooth into a sort of Loki-esque rival. Not honorably mentioned: “Deadpool.”
17. The Spectacular Spider-Man (TV series, 2008)
The short-lived show (just like the next) that was meant to be a long-term animated series for Sony and Marvel but before the scheduled third season took place, the show was canceled after Disney bought Marvel and their animation umbrella. It’s good, but foreshadows some of the more kiddy and thinly written elements of its successor, Ultimate Spider-Man.
My biggest problem with the X-Men movies isn’t the timeline —though that’s a colossal (pun!) mess — but rather the casting. Outside of some home runs like Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen and Hugh Jackman, Fox has long struggled to cast the extensive X-Men roster. (Jennifer Lawrence taking this particular cake.)
15. Planet Hulk
Perhaps the greatest Hulk comic, later serving as the DNA to Thor: Ragnarok because Marvel can’t make a Hulk film without Universal Studios, the animated compatriot is one of the better animated Marvel films.
14. The Wolverine
The second Wolverine picture, unsure about its relationship to the previous X-Men movies. Logan has substantial comic heritage in Japan, and the samurai sword combat mixed with those Adamantium claws is worth the trip across the Pacific. Jackman is on top of his game, outshining pretty much everything else. Things start out great but gradually turn to just good enough by the conclusion.
13. X-Men: First Class
After The Last Stand disaster and a tepid response to Wolverine’s first solo outing, a reboot was in store. Kick-Ass and Stardust director (couldn’t help a second shoutout) Matthew Vaughn came in and successfully put the franchise back on track before departing to helm Kingsman. Casting the deep X-Men roster was still an issue and pretty much everyone outside of James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Kevin Bacon are not worth the time.
12. Spider-Man: The New Animated Series (TV series, 2003)
All but forgotten among the animated superhero collection, this show was on MTV and Neil Patrick Harris voiced Spider-Man. The show lasted just a season thanks to ratings, but was a surprisingly mature take on a character that even more surprisingly appealed to me at 10 years old. Guess I was just a super mature kid. Ends with a cliffhanger that promised some seriously cool storytelling…
11. X2: X-Men United
After Marvel’s first cinematic blockbuster with X-Men, the sequel got to graduate from multiple introductions. The story focuses heavily on Wolverine and William Stryker’s Weapon X Project. Wolverine is certainly one of the most popular mutants, and just like the first film he shares the spotlight with Professor X and Magneto. It comes at the expense of other characters like Cyclops, Jean Grey and Storm. Thankfully Wolverine is my favorite X-Man.
After righting the course of their flagship X-Men movies, Fox decided to make up for including Wade Wilson and Deadpool in the 2009 Wolverine movie. That wasn’t Deadpool. It was more like a very pissed off Pokemon Ditto. With Ryan Reynolds not allowing the project to fail, it passed with sparkling, bright colors.
9. Deadpool 2
The first Deadpool sufficiently shocked the world. An unknown property with a penchant for poop jokes is perfect for today’s world. The sequel is definitely helped by the presence of Josh Brolin’s Cable and a colorful collection of other supporting characters like Domino, Brad Pitt and Ricky Baker.
The X-Men films have struggled to keep up with the evolution of comic book movies, failing to capitalize on a gigantic roster of heroes and villains. They’ve given Wolverine three tries, the third no doubt the best of them and benefiting greatly by existing in near oblivion to the rest of the franchise’s convoluted canon and taking inspiration from Mark Millar’s iconic Old Man Logan comic.
7. X-Men: Days of Future Past
Quite the ambitious step after First Class to not only bring back the original X-Men players, but do it alongside the new players. It sounds foolhardy on paper, but damn it they made it work. The 2014 X-Men movie stands among the rest in terms of not only entertainment, but welcome competency.
6. Spider-Man (TV series, 1994)
Growing up with this series, I remember watching it in my parents’ bedroom on weeknights, being extra careful not to ruffle mom and dad’s sheets during my 30-minute allowance. The times, as they say, have changed. Now I can watch reruns of the animated series on my refrigerator.
5. The Amazing Spider-Man
Had it not been shrouded by a cloud questioning its own rebooted existence, the movie would have been far more popular. It deserves/d better.
4. The Amazing Spider-Man 2
The Amazing sequel overextends itself in trying to set up sequels and spinoffs all at once, but remains one of my all-time favorites in terms of action, score, pacing and heart.
3. Spider-Man 3
A dance number marred the memory of the third and final Sam Raimi movie, but despite Sony’s castration of the director, he turns in another winner. Unfortunately, we will never have a proper resolution to one of the most impactful superhero-or-not trilogies of all time.
After X-Men got the ball rolling, all eyes were on Spider-Man. Raimi came from the horror genre and his Evil Dead roots with a treasure chest of Spidey intelligence. I guess you could say his pivotal comic book film is…scary good. (I’d be less proud of that if it weren’t so true.)
1. Spider-Man 2
“Sequels are never as good as the original” is one of those statements that people only say when it momentarily applies to the current discussion. It’s simply not the case. For example, Superman II, The Empire Strikes Back, Batman Returns, The Dark Knight, The Winter Soldier and then there’s The Godfather Part II.
Spider-Man 2 is my favorite super hero movie of all time and my all-time favorite movie behind just Revenge of the Sith. That’s how you get three paragraphs in an article where I kept things short and nobody else even got two.
The 2004 sequel breaks ground in so many ways for the superhero genre. Namely in storytelling, tone, action and the all-important visual effects factor. Doc Ock’s mechanical arms —which were a mix of practical and CGI effects— and the high-flying web-slinging action (like the train sequence) took everything that was possible about comic book movies and threw it off the George Washington Bridge like Gwen Stacey.
(Ok, that, I’m not proud of. But we’re at the end of the arti—)