Worst to Best
The Marvel
Cinematic Universe

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13 Guardians of
the Galaxy (2014)

The more "cosmic" side of Marvel is arguably an area where the comic book publisher is less successful... even wild, star-spanning creations like Galactus and the Silver Surfer only really work when they're in Earth's orbit. Consequently it's a sensible move to fully introduce this element of its world by encasing it in comedy, a move which enabled it to cross over to mainstream audiences and become a sizeable hit. Whereas heroes like Iron Man and Thor were not as well-known to the general public as Spider-Man, the Hulk, or many of the rival DC characters, Guardians of the Galaxy took this a stage further by taking characters almost completely obscure and elevating them into cinematic A-Listers.
      Yet while sufficiently engaging and containing enough charm to get by, there's no real element of humour in Guardians that doesn't appeal solely to the lowest common denominator. A rude Jackson Pollock joke aside, this is a film content to appeal to as many people as possible, with glib, "easy" humour that never threatens to tax its popcorn-chomping audience. It's a much-loved Marvel movie by many, and no one would ever expect Marvel to adopt Wildean wit as part of its arsenal, but it's not a favourite here.

12 Doctor Strange (2016)

Doctor Strange is a decent entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Benedict Cumberbatch, while not particularly imaginative casting, brings together one of the better performances of a Marvel hero. However, there's the constant signs of the character being slotted into the "product" framework, rather than the film being slotted around the core character. While Dr. Strange began as a very arrogant surgeon, he wasn't the quip-a-minute Tony Stark xerox that's sometimes presented here, as the wacky hi-jinks featuring a cloak with a mind of its own go against the surrealistic, darker and downright odd moments of the comic book.
      This is Dr. Strange by the way of Inception, not a true representation of the comicbook on screen, and the climax does strain towards green screen overload. The use of mild bad language in Marvel films is also always slightly troubling considering how many younger fans they attract, but if ever a Marvel character didn't need a couple of "assholes", "shits" and a "bullshit", it's Dr. Strange. While these films exist to make money more than they ever exist to make art, the somewhat cynical recreation of one of Marvel's more esoteric, aloof characters into standard Hollywood fare can't help but be troubling. A character like Dr. Strange should be an original, not following a carefully formulaic path laden by others. Dr. Strange is a okayish, maybe even good film, but it could, and should, have been a great one.
     The film also brings up the subject of race-swapping characters. Although there are instances of Marvel characters being changed to minorities onscreen (perhaps most famously with Johnny Storm in a 2015 Fox Fantastic Four movie, along with pretty much every single character in Spider-Man: Homecoming, but also here, with Baron Mordo played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) this is not generally regarded as being a bad thing as minorities are underrepresented onscreen. However, the opposite also occurs here, with the male Tibetan Ancient One of the comics being played by Tilda Swinton. Such matters are perhaps too complex to go into in any great detail in a short overview, though the oddest example of race swapping in a Marvel movie arguably occurs in Thor: The Dark World, which presents audiences with a black elf.

11 Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Thor: Ragnarok is a full out comedy, with one of the range's more sombre characters placed through a post-Guardians filter and coming out the other side almost completely unrecognisable from the character we'd seen before, more Kevin Beckman from Ghostbusters than Thor. Although this ranks higher than either of the previous Thor movies, they have to be more respected for their earnest attempt to stick to the core character. It's not that superhero movies can't have jokes, more that the quality of the jokes on display here are so easy and lowest common denominator. There'd be no point in opting for intellectual comedy in a PG-13, but here a variety of mugging, pratt falls, slapstick, dick jokes and "the Devil's Anus" make up the runtime.
      Director Taika Waititi claimed that around 80% of the dialogue was improvised, and it shows - but not necessarily in a good way. While actors in other Marvel movies have clearly gone off script (most notably Downey Jr.) here the entire film is punctuated by stifled grins and ad-libs. By turns funny and gratingly indulgent, what makes it all jar a little is that so many momentous events take place within it. That Loki's plans after ruling Asgard only amounted to having Matt Damon play him on stage can be forgiven in a film where everything is "just a laugh"... but far less forgivable is that the death of Odin, the destruction of Asgard and Thor being half blinded are more or less played for "yuks".
      Such a curmudgeonly review of a light-hearted, inconsequential film may seem to be taking comic book movies way too seriously, though an example of the level of wit can be gleaned by the fact that arguably the best line in the movie - "he's a friend from work!" - was suggested by a child who had visited the set. This is not to speak ill of the child (who was visiting as part of the Make-A-Wish foundation) but just to point out that the rest of the cast and crew couldn't come up with material as good as that suggested by an infant. This is a film where scatalogical humour is the order of the day, and the old "ass guard" joke actually finds its way into a Marvel movie.
      Cate Blanchett does well as Hela, the Goddess of Death, though while the movies must be allowed to plough their own path away from the source material, the truly anal may recall the Lee-Buscema story where the character is killed, but has to be brought back to life in order to restore the universal balance of death itself. Such logistical musings don't seem to matter here, and the film is, if nothing else, bright, pacey and watchable. Such slights are not to suggest that Marvel Comics must be taken as a sacred text, or that the only humour allowed in the films should be high brow, but more to acknowledge that there's more to the world of comedy than Thor talking about having seen the Hulk's penis.

10 Spider-Man:
Homecoming (2017)

Since his first appearance in Civil War, Tom Holland's solo outing as Spider-Man was much antipicated. As a final film, it's one that fulfills all its promise... yet somehow still manages to disappoint all the same. While Holland is endlessly likeable and his chemistry with Robert Downey Jr. (reportedly the reason why he got the job) is immense, it's once more a unique character pushed in an unnatural direction to fit a "formula" in Marvel's cookie cutter production line.
      It perhaps doesn't matter that Peter gives up a lot of his independence in this film to pander to the box office appeal of a guest-starring Iron Man... what's more important is that Peter's academic intellect and neuroses are shaved off to make a crowdpleasing event with little in the way of depth. The superhero genre is a much-maligned one in films, and, while it's perhaps never quite produced its own caped Citizen Kane, there are some worthwhile entries making up its number. For Spider-Man particularly, then, while perhaps not high art, the Sam Raimi movies (even the much-slated third entry) and the underrated Andrew Garfield films had more to them than this effort.
      Presenting a Peter Parker without a neurotic side is not the complaint of a comic book purist; it's a fundamental part of the character. Superhero films make necessary changes to appeal to certain demographics. While readers of the Lee-Ditko era may get distracted by all the race-swapped characters and a Vulture who appears much younger and hirstute than on the page (though Michael Keaton's 65 years would be about right, he remains impossibly youthful), such things are mere decorative deviations from the four colour page. There's even a case to be had that the Vulture is improved by getting extra background and motivation.
      Peter's characterisation, however, is not just a trivial decorative element... while having the powers of Spider-Man in real life would be tremendous fun, Spider-Man was never about celebrating his own lot, but being ravaged by guilt; the retooling of the character even appears to have omitted Peter being responsible for his Uncle's death, something that underpins the entire character. Here Peter learns that "with great power comes great responsibility" only by being a slapstick klutz and having Tony Stark treat him like he's spent the entire film's duration forgetting the safe word. It's a fun, watchable movie, high up in this list, but at its centre is something really quite hollow.

9 Guardians of
the Galaxy
Vol. 2 (2017)

The original Guardians of the Galaxy was a watchable but overrated movie, and consequently this likeable sequel saw over-hyped audiences largely disappointed. It was still popular, but not to the tune of the original, although the box office take was even greater. It perhaps doesn't help that the narrative is so unfocussed, though it pleasingly goes even further into "cosmic", with Watchers, Celestials and Ego the Living Planet (the latter sadly not fully realised as he is in the comics, which would have worked in the Guardians' more comicbookish world.)
      With a less focused, more esoteric plotline, it lacks the simplistic appeal of the original, even if baby Groot is undeniably cute. Yet the film is also bloated, an extra 15 minutes on top of the original's already-overlong runtime causing it to drag in spots. Some of the humour - particularly with Drax - tries a little too hard, and the Stan Lee cameo shows that less is definitely more. But it's a more worthwhile picture at heart, even if the pruning of at least half an hour would have made it, if nothing else, more clear in intent. The final dissolution into pure sentimentality might seem an odd move, though it typifies the broad, very Americanised culture at the heart of these films.


8 The Avengers (2012)

No matter what the opinion of The Avengers is as a movie, as a product it must be regarded as an unqualified success. Although the first five films had done reasonable business (raking in $2.2 billion dollars from a $780 million budget) none of them were enormous hits, with only the Iron Man films reaching the top ten of their respective years. The Avengers transformed the franchise into a genuine money-making concern, raking in over 1.5 billion dollars... in its wake, nine of the eleven Marvel movie were top ten hits in the year they were released, with this year's Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War almost guaranteed to repeat the feat.
      Even as a viable work Josh Whedon's project is perfectly executed: although the generic alien race aren't a viable threat, the interactions between several superheroes is ultimately well established when it could so easily have failed. This said, the movie is the first to introduce overt humour into the Marvel Universe, and, while crowd-pleasing, the humour used in most Marvel movies unwittingly patronises the audience in its simplicity: glib, mock-ironic witticisms and instant reverses are the order of the day. And while the film does well to please most members of the family, down to the very young, older viewers may grow weary of all the extended quip-soaked battles taking up the extended 143 minute runtime.
      No one ever watched a Marvel movie for a discussion of the works of Nietzsche, but there is an unfortunate shallow feeling at the core of this one, a film cynically targeted purely to make cash; its various plot elements as mercenary contrived as the exploitation of Scarlett Johannsson's sexuality. Yet while built on a bedrock of bombast and platitudes, the film holds up surprisingly well six years on.

7 Avengers:
Infinity War (2018)

Something of a mess, albeit a sufficiently entertaining one, as sixteen major superhero characters (and seven minor ones) are crammed together in a non-stop action piece that lasts less than two-and-a-half hours. With 2019's Endgame there to conclude its hanging plotlines, this is very much one long, bloated middle act - the previous decade of the MCU acting as the first part.
     Full of bombast, variable CGI and somewhat corny lines, there's very little genuine emotional attachment, with the most heartfelt moment coming between Thor and an animated raccoon. Although the Marvel movies are fun to watch, they do lack serious depth, particularly when all the characters are submerged beneath the franchise's trademark glib, obvious humour.
     Despite such detractions - and a rewatch has seen this entry drop three places - it's passable fluff, and Thanos, as questionably animated as he may be, does have a little more philosophical motivation than the usual Marvel villains. Despite the fact that most of the events will certainly be undone in 2019, the off-beat ending remains one of the genuinely original moments in a Marvel movie.