With Avengers: Infinity War practically knocking at the door, I thought it would be a great time to share my CinemAce rankings of the, so far, 18 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
As you know, Marvel Studios, using what they had left after selling rights to their famous characters to get out of bankruptcy in the 90's, debuted their grand plan for a shared universe with Iron Man back in 2008.
10 years later, we have the endgame with Infinity War. Well, the endgame to the first epic chapter. Because the end of these movies is not near.
What is truly marveling about these 18 films, is that they have all been A+ movies in my mind. From number one --which is my third-favorite movie of all-time (behind Revenge of the Sith and Spider-Man 2)-- to number 18, every single one of these films, even if it wasn't one for the record books, was unprecedented cinema in my eyes. At least to me, which is what made ranking these movies so hard.
But I'm going to do it. Because that's what heroes do.
20. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Following the unexpected success of Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014, the sequel following the unlikely team-up took center stage as Marvel's summer opener in 2017. Dubbed "Vol. 2," James Gunn's sequel stays to the whimsical, out-of-this-world tone that made the first one such a hit.
Which is fine. That's not why the sequel fell flat to me. I'm more invested in emotional weight and characters than I am to jokes, and the first GOTG balanced them perfectly. And when it joked, it was funny. Very funny. Volume two tried waaaaaaay too hard to be funny.
Whether it was Rocket winking with the wrong eye, or Drax joking about turds or his irritated nipples in between savage verbal beatings to new Guardian Mantis, there were more eye-rolls than smiles when it came to the movie's dialogue. And there was quite a bit of dialogue, as the movie was heavy on exposition and character moments over telling a story.
This sounds like a negative review of Guardians 2, but I want to stress that I really enjoyed the film. The soundtrack, just like the first, is absolutely fantastic. Tyler Bates' triumphant Guardians score is back and just as good, to accompany more Awesome Mix additions like "My Sweet Lord," "Lake Shore Drive," and the narratively woven "Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)."
Baby Groot is insanely adorable. Star-Lord and Gamora are still great, embodied beautifully by Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana. Ego is meh and Kurt Russell does a lot of explaining, but Guardians Inferno makes up for that.
19. The Incredible Hulk
When Marvel sold off character rights, Universal got the big green guy. When Marvel Studios wanted to relaunch the Hulk in 2008, they did it in conjunction with Universal, who still controlled distributing rights.
With that said, you can tell that Marvel didn't completely create this product. Not that it isn't good, because I think the movie is very good and under-appreciated. But it lacks the emotion and connection to the characters, mainly the main character, that the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have become known for.
Edward Norton plays Bruce Banner/Hulk and Liv Tyler is Betty Ross. There's nothing wrong at all with their performance, if that some of their scenes might drag a wee bit. William Hurt as General Ross and Tim Roth as the villainous Emil Blonsky/Abomination are arguably the best things about the movie and thankfully Ross was brought back in Captain America: Civil War while we can only hope for the return of Blonsky and the Thunderbolts.
With the Hulk, you need epic action, personified by the smashing power of the man himself. The movie delivers that, especially in the climactic showdown between our similarly talented hero and villain.
18. Ant-Man and the Wasp
Going in, I knew there was absolutely no way in the world that the Ant-Man sequel could possibly hold a candle to the unprecedented Infinity War. But it didn’t need to. However, I would have liked to see more of Ant-Man and the Wasp kicking ass together. We get some of them side-by-side, early in the movie and then late, and it really is insanely cool.
The main plot thread involved retrieving 1992 Catwoman from Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, and while it’s interesting, it almost feels like a checklist item rather than an important main plot thread of a superhero sequel.
Ant-Man & the Wasp aims kind of low. It’s visually astonishing (get it?) just like its predecessor. Ghost’s action scenes are super cool, but Ghost is not very cool. One of the MCU’s best themes is back and we now have a Wasp theme, which sounds extremely similar to the awesome Iron Man 3 score.
17. Thor: The Dark World
Most like to dog and forget the Thor sequel. There's a great Thor movie here, but it gets jumbled up in the rare love interest narrative exploration in the MCU. Not that we're opposed to a good, complimenting narrative following the hero's better half.
Before cameras even starting rolling, there were problems with Thor 2. They couldn't find a director (and almost had Wonder Woman helmer Patty Jenkins on board), they replaced the composer, Natalie Portman was upset and other noise persisted. What we ended up with is a movie divided narratively and emotionally by Earth and space.
There is the cosmic Thor-Loki tale, which is a winner in my eyes. After the events of The Avengers, you knew there was some 'splainin to do by Loki, and Thor had officially become a card-carrying, certified hero.
Then there is the Jane-Darcy-Selvig Earth plot. That one falls pretty flat. MCU movies are what they are for focusing on their heroes. That often comes at the sacrifice of fleshing out the villain (a very popular MCU complaint) or secondary characters.
While I enjoyed The Dark World, and Brian Tyler's score is one of the very best in the franchise, the movie proved to be a more of a cautionary tale due to its drawbacks than a film to remember for Marvel going forward.
16. Thor: Ragnarok
So far, I haven't distanced myself too far from the norm. Guardians Vol. 2 was certainly better received by many than me, but it still ranks outside of what the masses consider an "elite" MCU film. However, people do consider Thor: Ragnarok one of Marvel Studios' best.
I do not. The same "problem" for me with Ragnarok is similar to Guardians 2. The latter disappointed me because it seemed intent on forcing jokes and letting the movie go from there. The former, the third Thor movie and the first in four long years, is based around laughs, too. But to its credit, it is genuinely hilarious.
I get why they completely changed the Thor character. Despite four appearances across two solo and two Avengers films, the God of Thunder was arguably the least popular MCU character. Even less popular than the Hulk, who wasn't getting a solo film after 2008 for a long time. Because Marvel can use the Hulk in movies that aren't his by name, they went ahead and made Thor 3 a shared Hulk experience.
The storyline pretty much everyone wanted from a Hulk sequel, especially after he was jettisoned off to space at the end of Age of Ultron, is Planet Hulk, and the events of the popular Hulk comic, as well as the planet Sakaar, are incorporated into Thor: Ragnarok, with the just as popular comic event of Ragnarok put on the backburner.
While I recognize Thor isn't as popular as Iron Man or Spider-Man or now Captain America, I think that has had more to do with the other players in his movies --like Darcy and Jane and hugely underdeveloped Asgardian characters-- than Thor himself. Because Chris Hemsworth plays him as well as anyone in the massive Marvel universe.
Alas, it wasn't registering with fans, who were ready to laugh. In the place of any possible stakes to the story or continuation from the epic Loki cliffhanger at the end of Thor: The Dark World, instead we get one big gag. That sounds worse than I mean it, because Ragnarok is arguably the MCU's funniest movie (it's this, Ant-Man or Guardians 1) and Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo are natural comics.
But the obvious change of plan (why did they even keep the Ragnarok story?) is evident and even though it works, it comes at the expense of the previous Thor films, and I prefer a meaningful narrative.
Ant-Man is positively remembered, but largely forgotten. If Paul Rudd's hero didn't return for a gargantuan cameo in Captain America: Civil War, I fret to think how little this movie would be appreciated.
Marvel had been discussing Ant-Man for many years, with Edgar Wright set to direct, but those darn "creative differences" sent him packing and Peyton Reed stepped in. This actually happened very late in the game, and the fact that it pretty much went unnoticed is a testament to the creative team at Marvel Studios. They truly are a machine to constantly produce these blockbuster, post-production reliant movies.
Rudd starred and also contributed to the script of Ant-Man, which was released in between the Avengers sequel and the third Captain America, which ended up becoming another Avengers sequel. It gets lost in the fold a bit, fitting for the hero that Ant-Man is.
A focused origin story with a universe already developed around him, most moviegoers at this point really just want to see sequels or at the very least, multiple heroes in each movie. I am a big fan of origin stories and think they are vital to building characters. Marvel did that with Ant-Man and put together an extremely funny movie, with big ups to Michael Peña and Scott Lang's crew, that also offers tantalizing action sequences that utilize the titular hero's abilities.
14. Iron Man 2
The risk when putting together a shared universe is that sometimes a single movie struggles to stand on its own. Marvel has pretty much avoided what critics like to call "sequel-itis," making every movie stand on its own while also pushing forward the overall narrative. If any film has been bogged down by world-building, it is Iron Man 2.
Though the franchise has mostly dodged the studio interference plague, in its infancy there was drama behind Iron Man 2. Obviously, it's common in Hollywood for many voices to form a regrettable product. Especially in the superhero business. That is what makes the MCU so extraordinary, in that it has triumphed past the usual studio interference curse.
For the sequel to the golden goose Iron Man, Jon Favreau returned to direct, but his creative freedom from the first, despite the unprecedented success, ran into trouble. Mickey Rourke was brought in to play the main antagonist, and he is a solid addition, but was problematic off camera. He is also thinly developed in lieu of another antagonist, Justin Hammer. Played by Sam Rockwell, Hammer is the yin to Tony Stark's yang, a snobby weapons manufacturer out for himself.
Kind of like Spider-Man 3, I think ditching Venom and saving him for later, same with Rourke's Ivan Vanko and saving the Anton Vanko-Howard Stark plot for later here, would have been a good call.
But in the end, there is still just so much great stuff to take away from Robert Downey Jr.'s remarkable portrayable of Stark and Iron Man. Also, we get a lot more of Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury, Clark Gregg's Phillip J. "Agent" Coulson, and are introduced to Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow.
This is way, way, way too high for most people, but the first Thor is my favorite Thor film. Again, I love a good origin story and I really appreciate my lord and savior Kevin Feige and the studio's brainpower for not skipping over, or rushing the introduction and creation of the heroes. I wish DC took that approach, but I am absolutely not here to pick on DC. That comes later.
The first Thor is the truest Thor to Asgard, which the MCU has sadly failed to take advantage of. They took huge advantage of Wakanda in Black Panther, but have yet to properly realize the Planet of the Gods. That befuddles me.
The first Thor at least gives us some of it, although still devotes a little too much time to Earth, but luckily Chris Hemsworth's baby-faced, bright-eyed, sandy blonde mug is in those scenes. Two other earthlings, Stellan Skarsgård's Erik Selvig and Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson, also get a lot to do in anticipation of their pivotal roles in The Avengers.
The moment when Thor finally becomes Thor is one of the best moments in the MCU, enhanced with Patrick Doyle's score. The other massive strength of this movie is Tom Hiddleston's Loki. This movie is just as much his origin story as it is Thor's, and sets the stage for one of the best, most relatable supervillains.
12. Spider-Man: Homecoming
Like I said at the top, every MCU film to me has been a huge success. Obviously they are box office gold, but I mean that they have also been personal successes. I have loved each and every single one. However, from here on out, the top 11 are on a little different playing field, with one more tier to come down the line. Perhaps...at the end of line.
Spider-Man as part of the MCU seemed like a blatant unreality. Sony wasn't going to give away their prized possession. I mean, it would take an inexplicable reboot, a divisive sequel, disgruntled crew and backstage turmoil. It may take even more than that. There would have to be some sort of scandal bigger than the movie, at the production company itself. Perhaps an embarrassing and implicating massive document leak.
Thankfully, we got that! And in 2015, Marvel and Sony cut a deal to get Spider-Man involved in the industry-dominating MCU. After his spectacular re-debut in Captain America: Civil War, it was time for the solo vehicle.
Steering way clear of Uncle Ben and the Green Goblin, we meet more of the endless Spider-Man universe with a new villain, the Vulture; a new BFF, Ned Leeds; a new babe, Liz Allen; and a new interpretation of Aunt May. WHICH IS OKAY!
Beyond all what is different and all that might be the same, Marvel once again rears its casting brilliance (shoutout to Sarah Finn) and found Tom Holland to play the teenage Peter Parker. My god, is he brilliant. Holland is just as good a Spider-Man as Tobey Maguire and easily the truest interpretation of his human alter ego to date.
It isn't the most dramatic of movies, with rather predictable plot elements and pretty much everything stuffed in its 11 trailers, 22 sponsor partnerships and 51 TV spots (that falls under distributing and is Sony's fault), but you can't dispute the fun this movie is and the heart Holland plays Spidey with. Michael Giacchino returns to score another MCU movie, and gives us one its most dynamic scores to date...
11. Doctor Strange
...just like this one. Giacchino is one of the greatest composers going today, having worked on a ton of huge films in barely the past several months. (Like Rogue One, Dawn and War for the Planet of the Apes and the sadly underappreciated modern Star Trek trilogy.)
Anyway, it's not just Giacchino's trippy tunes that make Doctor Strange a bonafide hit. Casting, once again, is paramount to the success of any film. Production actually delayed altogether to ensure Benedict Cumberbatch could play the good doctor, and beyond him are acting titans like Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius, and Benedict Wong as...well...Wong.
Rachel McAdams doesn't have a whole lot to do as a prototypical MCU love interest (despite the implications behind her character's name), but you get the idea here. Marvel can cast anyone they want and they sure take advantage of the fact on a comparatively lesser-known product like Doctor Strange.
Before there was ever Inception, there were Jack Kirby's Doctor Strange comic book illustrations. With modern technology being at the unprecedented place it is, we can actually put these things to film. That, and one the MCU's fastest-paced and hardest-hitting stories, turns this smaller hero's story into a spellbinding movie experience.
10. Avengers: Age of Ultron
Where Iron Man 3 seems to have been forgotten due to its divisive nature, Age of Ultron has similarly fallen by the wayside, and has pretty much been outright replaced by Civil War as the official sequel to 2012's The Avengers. I don't like believing that, even though Civil War absolutely deserves its place in the hierarchy.
Age of Ultron, kind of like Iron Man 2, seemed to inflict its own wounds. It put way too much on its own plate, much to the (public) dismay of director Joss Whedon, who returned for the sequel.
Considering what Marvel accomplished with Civil War a year later, it's almost hard to believe the difficulties they had juggling screen time for their heroes. While I will concede the Thor subplot with the all-important Infinity Stones needed more air, and characters like War Machine and Falcon were inexplicably left off the table for much of the plot, the movie still resides as an incredible accomplishment.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is truly a remarkable film for me. I am not numb to Ultron's plan being rather generic, when his capabilities and powers could have been far better utilized. With Infinity War hours away, and Thanos expected to wreak serious havoc, that should have also been Ultron.
But like I said, nothing about my opinion on this movie makes sense. Ultron should have been stronger, but he's still an amazing villain. I would say he's arguably the best of any MCU movie, which I'm sure you think is an outrageous claim, especially with my own evidence!
However, Ultron, voiced brilliantly by James Spader, is all you want to see on screen at any given moment. He's witty, he's entertaining, he's beautifully rendered, and you just want more of him. Isn't that how you define cinema? I want more!
On top of that, we get more Hawkeye development (yay!), further proof of the genuine friendship and tension between Cap and Tony, and I'm here to say I didn't hate the Black Widow-Hulk relationship. Maria Hill gets more to do, Nick Fury is back and even Thor looks like he's having fun. Also, the introductions to Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch and Vision are highlights of the film.
I know I've said a ton about this movie, which isn't even in my top five, but it really baffles even my own capable mind how much I love this movie, for all its flaws.
9. Black Panther
Glory to Bast! And the highest-grossing superhero movie of all time! Black Panther was expected to be a huge hit, but becoming the number one superhero movie ever (if not for just a few months) was a surprise.
If Doctor Strange had an all-star cast, Black Panther had the Hollywood kitchen sink. There's also the political and topical relevance, the relentless hype surrounding Marvel movies nowadays, and the fact that Black Panther's introduction in Captain America: Civil War was not just fantastic, but a critical element to that movie.
As I said about the Thor films never really embracing and developing Asgard, Black Panther goes all-out developing Wakanda. Subtly introduced in Avengers: Age of Ultron via Andy Serkis' charming Ulysses Klaue and the existence of Vibranium, we get the full course now.
Which means we get to meet Wakanda's citizens. And that was a big opportunity for Marvel, to flex their casting muscles. Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright among so, so many others depict the fictional African nation in all its glory.
I mean, how great is Winston Duke? He makes up for WHAT ARE THOOOOOOOSOSOEOEOOEEOOOSOEOEOSOEOE.
Chadwick Boseman plays T'Challa with the heart and passion that all of Marvel's franchise heroes bring, and it makes for a compelling lead that you fall in love with. Then there's Michael B. Jordan's Erik Killmonger, who becomes an instant classic villain due to his pure motivations and hauntingly relevant personal story. Perhaps too relevant, and depicts former King T'Chaka as quite the ruthless king. But monarchs, and the history of our world, is indeed brutal.
Killmonger's means to the end are obviously drastic and make him the bad guy here, but his past presents the movie with an incredible contrasting story to the privileged upbringing of Prince-turned-King T'Challa.
8. Captain America: The First Avenger
Ah, Captain America. I've always liked Captain America in the comics. But it wasn't until the early 2000's when Ed Brubaker reinvented the character as a gritty, modern, not blindly patriotic character that he became as well-rounded and deep as he could be. At the same time, Brubaker reinvented his former sidekick and best friend James Buchanan Barnes. More on that in a little bit.
Brubaker's new take on the character took advantage of the real-world scenario Steve Rogers had found himself planted in after the defrosting, as Sam Wilson eloquently puts it in the Cap sequel.
That wasn't available to the story that was The First Avenger. Cap's origin story obviously had to be set in the war-driven, star spangled days of the 40's.
When casting Captain America, Marvel made arguably their best choice across any department and anything they have ever done. As I've said over and over, they hit it out of the park every time they put a real-life face to a beloved fictional hero. Making Chris Evans Captain America has been nothing short of historical, and one wonders where the franchise would be without Evans and the skyrocketed popularity of the Captain America character.
Especially since he didn't want to do it. Thankfully, Downey Jr. convinced him the experience would be nothing like Fantastic Four and that they were indeed onto something special.
For The First Avenger, we see one of the most iconic comic book origin stories ever become be put to screen. The seeds are planted for superheroes to exist in the contemporary, actual universe that became the MCU's playground, and the introduction to the first Avenger, though released theatrically after Iron Man, Hulk and Thor, truly lays the groundwork for what superhero movies can be, and have become.
7. Iron Man 3
The next three movies on my list are undoubtedly lower on most everyone else's. It seems that the newer Marvel movies are far fresher on everyone's minds --and the all-powerful Rotten Tomatoes meter-- that some of the older ones, before the superhero craze was irrefutably mainstream, have been forgotten.
One of those is Iron Man 3, which was polarizing upon arrival. It takes a twist with the villainous Mandarin that tentpole films just do not do. For that, I applaud Shane Black's story, and I think it is a twist not just taken for face shock value, but a prudent and meaningful narrative twist. That and Guy Pearce's legitimate villain make it all work together.
RDJ is back at it with the delightfully arrogant antics of Tony Stark. The movie is mostly Tony Stark and not Iron Man, which I liked. I'm a big fan of simply watching a great actor do their work --a la Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech or Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina-- and that is what we get here from Downey Jr.
This movie is his, as is the entire cinematic universe. Iron Man's closest counterparts, Pepper Potts, Happy Hogan and James Rhodes, are also some of my favorites and I'm particularly glad to see Don Cheadle get to play a big role in Iron Man 3 before being largely cast aside in Age of Ultron.
Overall, fans weren't crazy about the villain twist, trading rock music for some late 90's pop, or the somewhat repetitive nature of a self-discovery arc Tony goes through from Iron Man 2. But with stellar acting, a good story, a triumphant and exquisitely choreographed final act and a fantastic Brian Tyler theme, the third and final Iron Man movie stands as one of my favorites MCU films.
6. The Avengers
The cinematic event of a lifetime! Volume one. The movie that truly changed the game. Who could have ever though enough rich people in Hollywood could get together and make a superhero team-up movie that was actually great? It's hard enough to make a Spider-Man movie great, or an X-Men movie good, or a Fantastic Four movie at all.
Alas, they done did it. The Avengers beautifully strings together our existing heroes and weaves in new players, while having a villain we've already met with a sympathetic eye, meanwhile serving a bigger player still to come. And he's coming very, very soon.
It's not just enough to throw cool CGI action scenes on screen. It was in the 80's and it was lightly tolerable in the 90's. Incredible visual, audio and special effects aren't a novelty anymore, and you actually need a good story, good characters and a good movie to go along with your product.
The Avengers is that, anchored by Downey Jr.'s Stark, Chris Evans' Captain America and Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury. It's so true and so faithful to the Avengers comic books and the creations from the legendary minds like Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and of course the man himself, Stan Lee.
I still can't believe this movie exists. And really can't believe we are where we are now. And am glad they changed Cap's suit.
5. Guardians of the Galaxy
It's rather surprising that the sequel is nearly at the bottom of my MCU list, while its predecessor passes even the first Avengers. Especially considering the movies are cut from the same cloth, with the same cast and director.
But the big difference between the two, at least for me, is that the first Guardians of the Galaxy was full of heart, laughs and emotion. The second tried to force those three crucial components on you, rather than letting it come naturally and organically from the script, the characters and the story.
In that sense, the first GOTG is an absolute home run. I'll always remember seeing this movie in theaters, being blown away by the visual effects, the dynamite lead performance of Chris Pratt, the introduction to Dave Bautista as an actor and human being, and obviously the incredible Awesome Mix soundtrack.
Music is such a key part of a movie. George Lucas jokes that after he finished cutting together a Star Wars film, he then instructed legendary composer John Williams to "save" the film with his music. Guardians of the Galaxy --both of them-- have had incredible music, both from existing hits to the score from composer Tyler Bates.
At the heart of any film is its music, and the heart of Guardians of the Galaxy is undeniable.
4. Iron Man
I mentioned there was a final third tier, and it really could start as early as number seven with The First Avenger. But it's hard to dismiss the hallowed ground that my top three MCU films, and three of my favorite movies ever even made, stand on.
So let's go back to where it all began. The summer shadow to The Dark Knight when released in 2008, the Marvel underdog that Sony didn't want with Spider-Man, Fox didn't need with the X-Men or Fantastic Four, and whose rights were of little consideration to any big studio.
Everything about this movie was a risk. Its very existence was thought unnecessary and inconsequential to the movie industry. With that said, why not cast someone like Robert Downey Jr.? To think it was almost Tom Cruise.
After the dust settled and Downey Jr. was Iron Man, Jon Favreau named director and Kevin Feige implanted as President of Marvel Studios (not even called that yet), they had a movie to make. Oh boy, did they.
With computer technology now caught up to the genre's potential, Iron Man looked like a million bucks. A C-list comic character was brought to life on the big screen with care and detail that showed how precious this character was to the comic book filmmakers attempting to boldly launch a new wave of comic book films, and thus a universe.
The solo outing that started it all, let's not forget the great villain Obadiah Stane, played with snarling precision by a very bald Jeff Bridges. Cue the ACDC, because Robert Downey Jr. is Iron Man.
3. Captain America: Civil War
If Iron Man started the train, and The Avengers put it on the tracks, then Captain America: Civil War is the engine to the comic book movie craze. Coupled with DC's trial universe and the return of Star Wars, "nerd" films (used endearingly, as I am one) were exploding.
The way these movies usually worked was there were some good, some less good solo films that lead up to an event picture: a team-up or showdown or finale. For the MCU, that was the two Avengers films. But what happened when you properly developed a cinematic universe with fleshed out characters at your disposal and a production team willing to spend money?
You can literally do anything. And thus, with Marvel boss Kevin Feige dancing around fickle superiors and going right to the heart of Disney's executives, the third Captain America movie instead became "Avengers 2.5," and turned the MCU from the industry's frontrunner to the movie world's indisputable powerhouse.
Going into Civil War, I wasn't quite sure how they could possibly pull it off in 150 minutes. Even after the ridiculous achievement that the previous Captain America film was, could directors Joe and Anthony Russo and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely manage to:
a. round out the Captain America trilogy
b. while also telling a story with more characters in any Marvel movie to date
c. that included the introductions of Spider-Man and Black Panther
d. and fleshed out Vision, Scarlet Witch and others
e. while properly focusing on Iron Man's part in the Civil War arc
Well, they did.
a. the trilogy rounds out with a heavy emphasis on Bucky Barnes and Steve's internal and external battles, continuing the story from the previous Captain America movie, while
b. seamlessly meshing the events of Age of Ultron and introducing the Sokovia Accords
c. with Spider-Man and Black Panther flawlessly entering the narrative and playing key parts in the story
d. while Falcon and War Machine get more screen time, Vision and Wanda spark their romance and Black Widow becomes a crucial middle ground voice of the Avengers, also
e. the story impeccably balances and intertwines the Bucky Barnes conflict with Tony Stark's arc, the Sokovia Accords and its consequences, and the impactful effect on the relationship between the two titans of the MCU, Captain America and Iron Man.
Wow. If there is a complaint here, there was an opportunity to kill off War Machine and have a meaningful death to a previously developed character, giving stakes to an MCU movie that these films can sometime lack. My theory? I think they wanted every single face on the board for Infinity War, so they could drop any as they please like flies. We will see... (2019 edit: we saw.)
2. Avengers: Infinity War
Where Age of Ultron limped to meet otherworldly expectations, I feel like there was a more confident approach for Infinity War. First, Marvel Studios has really hit their stride in the past few years, and the third (and fourth) Avengers movie have the Winter Soldier/Civil War quartet of directors Anthony and Joe Russo, and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.
For all the team-ups that have come before, it was all truly leading to this. Teasing a character (Thanos) six years prior is a bold move. Well, the wait was worth it.
Infinity War isn’t just an absolutely, insanely spectacular film. Its accomplishment makes the first Avengers feat look like small potatoes.
Over 20 heroes are brought together —and Thanos meets the hype and then some— once again setting the bar to another level and showing that nobody is even close to achieving what Marvel is doing.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Before Captain America: The Winter Soldier hit theaters on April 4th of 2014 (ironically Robert Downey Jr.'s birthday), the Marvel Cinematic Universe was popular, but wasn't quite treated with the reverence in the film community or pop culture environment that it is today.
Iron Man was treasured, as was The Avengers, and the studio's other five films were treated with respect, but not outright admiration. Then The Winter Soldier came along and absolutely shattered that notion.
Because the second Captain America movie isn't just a great comic book movie, cream of the crop filmmaking. The previously mentioned Russo brothers pitched their desire to tackle the comparatively new Winter Soldier comic book story, and Marvel got onboard.
From there, the story incorporated the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D, the organization that tied the movies together in the first place, and set ablaze an entirely new path for not just Captain America, but everything about the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
James Buchanan "Bucky" Barnes, formerly Cap's best friend, became the enemy, brainwashed by those dicks at Hydra to be a masterclass assassin. The movie was so good, and so popular, that Barnes and his superhero identity, The Winter Soldier, became the main plot point for Captain America: Civil War, which put the whole MCU on new footing and laid expanded groundwork for the monumental Infinity War.
After The Winter Soldier made Captain America a modern badass with a sexy stealth suit and a hand-to-hand combat fighting style even Keanu Reeves would love to learn, the Russo brothers directed Civil War and then earned the nod to direct both Avengers: Infinity War and the untitled Avengers 4 arriving a summer from now.
This movie seriously changed the game, and it deserves the praise. It's my favorite MCU movie with my favorite MCU character, favorite MCU antagonist, favorite Black Widow performance, favorite Robert Redford, favorite tonal balance in the universe, favorite score in any Marvel movie from Henry Jackman, and my favorite ending to an MCU movie.
Which is why it ends this list, at the top.