Our Staff Selects Their Marvel Cinematic Universe Top 5 (So Far)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 marks the fifteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With nine years removed from its start with Iron Man and five years after the earth-shattering The Avengers, the MCU is still going strong. In anticipation of Guardians Vol. 2, we asked our writers to make their own personal MCU Top 5 list. The lists are ranked when numbered.
There’s a general consensus among fans of these movies that the two Thor entries are on the bottom tier, but for my money, Kenneth Branagh’s introduction to the ‘God of Thunder’ is head-and-shoulders above the rest. Branagh’s Shakespearean skills are perfectly suited to unfurling Loki’s octuple-cross, Bo Welch’s production design is a love letter to Jack Kirby, and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos captures the American Southwest in striking visuals that stand out from the rest of the MCU. But what really makes Thor special is that it’s a story about the power of humility and sensitivity, and there can never be too many of those. To paraphrase the original Superman marketing, ‘You Will Believe a Man Can Cry.’
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are the secret weapons of the Captain America movies. They proved themselves on The First Avenger, but it’s in the sequel that their understanding of Steve Rogers really shines. Balancing the internal conflict between Steve’s principles and emotions with ‘70s-pulp ideas, like a room-sized computer that is a Nazi’s brain, Winter Soldier rearranges the familiar Marvel elements into a refreshingly grounded thriller.
Captain America: The First Avenger
When I first heard that the director of The Rocketeer had been tapped to helm a Captain America film, I knew Marvel was on the right track with a movie that would be a tough sell. Cap only works as someone who fought in World War II and is driven not by patriotism, but by the ideals of freedom and equality. It would be very easy for an action blockbuster to get that wrong, but Joe Johnston’s sepia-tinged adventure brings us a nuanced and aspirational take on the star-spangled hero.
In 2008, Marvel Studios faced a huge challenge in launching their film production arm without the screen rights to some of their most iconic characters. It would take a rousing crowd-pleaser to get a mainstream audience to care about Tony Stark, and Iron Man was just the romp required. Powered by the then-forgotten charm of Robert Downey Jr., it’s got a slick breeziness other origin stories often struggle with.
Maybe the most pleasant surprise in the MCU, Ant-Man seemed doomed to failure when Edgar Wright left the project and trailers largely fell flat. But the unstoppable likeability of Paul Rudd and the fun of injecting superheroics into a heist film add up to one of Marvel’s best. Its small scale (both literally and figuratively) make it a refreshing reprieve from the overblown noise of comic movies like Age of Ultron.
- Andrew Ihla
1. Avengers: Age of Ultron
A controversial pick, I know, but the way this film juggles so many character arcs while still managing to retain a well-paced, engaging story is incredible. The idea that the Avengers must eventually deal with the hard reality that their actions have real consequences makes this Marvel movie operate in another playing field compared to 75% of other franchise installments because this one’s properly about something. Tony’s character is particularly well realized here, portraying him as a fundamentally broken man who tries to save everybody but doesn’t know how.
2. Iron Man 3
The best solo outing in all of the MCU because it gives Tony’s post-New York attack angst the attention to detail it deserves, leading to a beautiful, cathartic finale wherein Tony’s overcoming of his anxieties is represented by him destroying the suits that caused them.
3. Doctor Strange
Tilda Swinton gives the best performance in MCU history, and the way that the movie’s stakes are never based on whether or not the world will be saved but if Strange will realize that he’s the right one to save it makes for a genuinely engaging blockbuster.
4. Captain America: The First Avenger
As comic book-y as the MCU has ever gotten, this charming serial quality in The First Avenger seems like the logical place a lot of the movies in this franchise should go but don’t. Chris Evans is cartoonishly endearing as the titular immortal virgin, and feels more in-tune with the heart of Captain America than most other MCU hero portrayals.
5. The Avengers
I’ve never been as hot on The Avengers as everybody else, but I’ve always really dug how it’s as much a team-up movie as it is a hangout one. It’s clunky, but Whedon’s charisma and ability to infuse inspired character moments into larger action set-pieces is stunning.
- Ryan Barnett
1. Iron Man 3
This is great superhero cinema with a compelling lead and darkness to spare. Leave it to Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr. to explore the horrors of PTSD in a comic book movie and have it be so effective. This Tony Stark is a much different man than when we last saw him, fighting aliens in NYC during The Avengers. A changed Tony, susceptible to panic attacks, night terrors, and complete mental shutdowns. Just more proof that Downey Jr. isn't just a movie star, he's an actor with real chops.
2. Iron Man
The first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and still one of the best in the series, Jon Favreau’s ripping adventure is also the best pure comic book film of 2008 (sorry, The Dark Knight). Featuring terrific character actors, like Jeff Bridges chewing the scenery and Robert Downey Jr. making a successful debut as the billionaire playboy Tony Stark, Iron Man has everything a summer blockbuster needs. Great action set-pieces, humor, memorable performances, and effects that hold up, Iron Man was and still is an excellent starting point for the now nine-year-old MCU.
Once a long gestating Edgar Wright project, Ant-Man finally came to light and impressed the heck out of me with it's terrific cast and inventive visual effects. Possibly the funniest MCU picture thanks to the comedic timing of Paul Rudd, as well as a few gags that were surely left over from Wright's time on the project (that Cure gag gets me every time). Tons of fun is to be had here with a fight atop a child's train set and the scene-stealing Michael Peña, making for one of the better standalone entries in the MCU.
4. Doctor Strange
The film that finally made me a believer in Benedict Cumberbatch, Scott Derrickson’s magical entry is definitely the trippiest MCU film. Sure, the world bending visuals are straight out of Inception, but here with the advent of magic in the Marvel Universe, there's an added quality of wonder that few others in the series have employed. Some of the imagery even pulls from the realm of horror which makes sense given the filmmaker's past work on Sinister, all adding up to a crazy multi-dimensional ride with The Sorcerer Supreme.
5. The Avengers
Joss Whedon worked an absolute miracle with 2012’s The Avengers, pulling off Marvel’s big crossover event with great success. His ear for team dialogue is present here, as Whedon is able to put his own unique spin on the characters while still keeping their own personalities established in their previous films. It may climax in a big CGI riddled fight like so many other comic book movies but when you have Mark Ruffalo wrecking house in the best on-screen Hulk we've ever seen? That's fine by me.
- Matt Curione
Guardians of the Galaxy
Simply put, GOTG is the movie in the MCU (so far) that’s least afraid to make things weird, and that works strongly to its benefit as the “cosmic” Marvel series. It’s also my favorite Bradley Cooper movie.
Iron Man 3
It’s Shane Black, doing Shane Black-y things with RDJ; I’ve wanted this since Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. And I’m the guy who loved the rug-pull on the Mandarin, because no way in hell would a comic-accurate portrayal of that character fly on film today.
Captain America: The First Avenger
This movie uses nostalgia and “good ol’ days” thinking to build up Steve Rogers and make his implacable nature entirely believable, and surrounds him with characters who staunchly are inspired by him. Also, director Joe Johnston’s eye for WWII-era visuals used a lot of real prototype designs for weaponry and vehicles, including the flying wing at the finale, and this war-era design geek cannot thank him enough for it.
It’s a heist film with sci-fi elements, with Michael Peña and Paul Rudd both bringing their comedy A-game—I wanted it the moment I knew about it. The character arc is familiar, but more believable here because of the father-daughter dynamic and its reflection in Scott’s support team, the Pym-Van Dyne family.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
More paranoid spy thriller than out-and-out superhero story (until the last 20 minutes or so), the system in which Steve Rogers has set his trust, turns in on itself and him, sending him on the run for answers with only two friends as backup, including Scarlett Johansson’s most layered performance as Black Widow, until Age of Ultron. And this is the first movie in the MCU where the aftermath is further-reaching beyond the title character’s own life.
- Sean Beattie
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The 2014 movie is my favorite MCU movie because it balances its political undertones with superhero action quite well. The film offers solid performances from Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, and the entire cast.
2. The Avengers
If there’s ever a once-in-a-lifetime miracle movie within the MCU, it’s The Avengers. There is no way to replicate the adrenaline, the hype, and the pure affection so effortlessly captured in this film.
3. Iron Man 3
I know this movie is pretty divisive (though I don’t know enough about the comics to understand why) but for my money it’s a beautiful, surprising, and thrilling superhero movie. Iron Man 3 features Robert Downey Jr.’s best performance as Tony Stark.
4. Captain America: Civil War
It’s upsetting when your two dads fight, and Civil War is emotionally wrenching while still being engaging and entertaining. Also, the film is notable for its stacked and well-served ensemble.
5. Captain America: The First Avenger
Clearly I have a lot of love for Captain America; this Boy Scout in a morally grey world works really well for me. The First Avenger is touching and exciting, and provides a stable foundation upon which to build the future leader of the Avengers.
- Manish Mathur
1. Captain America: The First Avenger
I very easily could've put the three Captain America movies as numbers one, two, and three on this list. While I think what the Russo brothers have done with the character is phenomenal, I decided to go with the first Cap film because it's the first movie that made me a legitimate fan of the MCU. Chris Evans is simply perfectly cast.
2. The Avengers
The MCU movie I've watched the most, because it's just so much damn fun. Watching all of our favorite heroes finally band together to take down an (admittedly bland) villainous force elicits a strong feeling I can't quite describe.
Thor is one of the characters I have the least knowledge about, that's why I was so surprised at how much I loved both Thor movies. They have a light, carefree tone thanks to fun, supporting performances from Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgård.
4. Guardians of the Galaxy
If you couldn't tell from my previous choices, I've emphasized fun above all else, and Guardians is perhaps the most fun of them all. A daring and exciting journey reminiscent to Indiana Jones and an incredible collection of compelling characters.
5. Iron Man
I haven't seen the movie that really kicked off the multi-billion-dollar empire since seeing it in theatres as a kid, but it left quite the impression on me. A character has rarely been more built for an actor.
- Marcus Irving
1. Guardians of the Galaxy
2014 was simply the peak year for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though 2017 might be giving the original Guardians and Winter Solider a run for its money, Awesome Mix Vol. 1 was the soundtrack of its summer. I’ve always said that Guardians was more so a perfect song than a perfect film, but after a few years its clear influence on blockbusters remains.
2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Captain America’s 1940s, boy scout attitude is repeatedly poked with a stick throughout the MCU, but The Winter Soldier is when Cap fights back. As long as there is evil in the world, Steve Rogers’ inspiring integrity makes Winter Soldier a game-changing, ultimately tight thriller.
3. Captain America: Civil War
This film truly earns its “Avengers 2.5” nickname with last-minute additions Spider-Man and Black Panther straight-up, not only steal the show, but seamlessly supporting the core characters’ development. It ends dour, but the airport scene is landmark superhero filmmaking and is never-not-fun. Go ahead, rewatch it.
4. The Avengers
Like it or not, Joss Whedon’s blockbuster redefined blockbusters. The Avengers is essentially “The Star Wars Moment” for millennials and just because it was copied countless times since, that doesn’t make it any less monumental.
“It’s A Small World” reference aside, Ant-Man felt refreshing to me because it felt a goofy sci-fi Disney movie (my favorite genre) in an even more unique way we had seen before. It’s a fun, funny, family film that has more in common with Honey I Shrunk the Kids than Iron Man.
- Tyler Scruggs
1. Captain America: The First Avenger
For as grand as the casting of Robert Downey Jr. was for Tony Stark, I have to put all my money on Chris Evans as Steve Rogers. Slap the Joe Johnston Rocketeer aesthetic on top with a shit ton of heart and you have a legendary comic book film.
2. Guardians of the Galaxy
James Gunn was trusted with the keys to the Marvel Kingdom and he made us fall in love with C-List characters delivering the funniest film in the run yet. The needle drops work and the fantastic theme makes Guardians the soul of the MCU. I get chills during the finale, once Gamora screams “Peter, take my hand!” every single time I revisit this blissful film.
3. The Avengers
All your heroes in one film kicking ass. Who could ask for more? Loki brings an alien army down on New York and it’s up to the Avengers to save the day. Action beats that I’ll take to the grave is what Whedon delivered, as well as his snappy dialogue that nails the iconic characters. If the MCU is just TV-on-the-big-screen as some claim then this was a killer season finale.
4. Iron Man 3
‘Shane Black made a Marvel film’ is the only sentence I really need to type. I always felt the Mandarin thing worked and will not spend any time defending it. Iron Man 3 pops and has some amazing ideas throughout. MVP as usual in all the films he costars is James Badge Dale, who chews up the scenery quite nicely by, well, constantly chewing on food of some kind. He’s like a shark who can’t stop swimming in that sense.
Yeah, it’s a shame Edgar Wright didn't get to make his film, but he’s a super talent who will always be moving on to bigger and greater things. So, like most people, I was shocked at how great this film turned out. One of the best action comedies of that year, Ant-Man proved that a weird sale totally paid off despite the major setbacks. Creative and hilarious (Pena, man), Ant-Man is a total gem.