The Marvel Cinematic Universe, which blasted its way onto the film scene back in 2008 with Iron Man and is adding its latest installment this weekend with Captain America: Civil War, has grown over the last eight years into a sprawling juggernaut of a franchise, with twelve films and four TV series already released and many more announced. A universe of this scale is unprecedented in film, and for many fans, it might be a little daunting. It’s a tall order to sit through a dozen movies and hours upon hours of TV before hitting the theaters. But how does one know which movies and shows are necessary to understand what’s going on in the broader story, and which ones are more peripheral? And — perhaps most importantly — which ones are simply the best?
Well, fear not, for we have watched them all (some of them many, many times) and are here today to give you our ranking of every movie and show in the MCU, along with our thoughts on why they’re worth watching (or not) and what they add (or don’t) to the greater continuity.
17. The Incredible Hulk
While The Incredible Hulk was miles and away an improvement over the very mediocre Hulk from just a few years earlier, the movie still falls short of every other entry in the MCU. The Hulk is a hard character to get right and on film he’s best when he’s working in tandem with other heroes, so any origin story tends to fall flat no matter how talented the actors are.
While Edward Norton was a perfectly adequate Bruce Banner, Mark Ruffalo’s take in The Avengers left us saying, “Ed who?”
16. Iron Man 2
Far from the strongest of the MCU movies, Iron Man 2’s largest contribution to the shared universe is inarguably the introduction of Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow and the rise of Pepper Potts as CEO of Stark Industries. The connection between Tony and Vanko feels weak and it relies more on their fathers’ feud than any personal vendettas or issues between the two men. The movie focuses too much on setting up other movies (in particular The Avengers) and forgot what made the first movie so damn likeable: Tony Stark being Tony Stark.
15. Avengers: Age of Ultron
Age of Ultron had the potential to be such a great movie, but fell short of living up to the high expectations set by the great films that preceded it in Phase 2 of the MCU. While it was fun to see that the team had managed to overcome their differences and actually work together, it wasn’t enough to make up for the hectic, chaotic clash of setup for future movies and the required action/adventure of an ensemble film. This movie ignored previously established storylines and character development, crammed in exposition to set up for Thor: Ragnarok and the Infinity Wars, and was so choppily edited that it rivals Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire for pacing problems. While we appreciate the introduction of Vision, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver to the MCU, and finally getting to see the real Clint Barton, Age of Ultron left us wanting more (at least a director’s cut).
While incredibly important for Thor himself in terms of character development, this movie is otherwise entirely skippable as far as the rest of the MCU is concerned. Nothing in the plot of the film informs the other movies, or carries over — unless you count Loki, who featured prominently in The Avengers. We’re happy Thor isn’t the egotistical, entitled jock he started out as in the beginning of this film, at least.
13. Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD
Agents of SHIELD had a very slow start and a bit of a rocky first season, and though it started to find the right footing after the events of The Winter Soldier finally unfolded, it wasn’t until season 2 that it really gained its sea legs. While the original cast is amazing (with the exception of Ward, with whom we’ve had issues for a long time), the addition of characters like Mack, Hunter, and of course Bobbi, added more depth to the show and they were able to experiment with more storylines. While heavily impacted by the events of the MCU, Agents of SHIELD has taken steps toward standing on its own and developing its own storylines to draw the viewer in. However, as its third season draws to a close, it’s started to feel a little penned-in by the boundaries set by the rest of the MCU, and could really use an infusion of fresh storytelling that doesn’t revolve around Hydra.
12. Thor: The Dark World
Thor: The Dark World introduced one of the Infinity Stones as the Aether, and featured Christopher Eccleston, who is always welcome in our viewing experiences. It was nice to see more of Jane Foster and Darcy Lewis’ friendship and also give Jane some actual screen time with her romantic interest. But overall, this movie was essentially a buddy comedy. The film is a light-hearted adventure involving multiple planets that showcases the comedy skills of the people of Asgard. While fun, it’s not very memorable nor does it have any lasting impact on other parts of the MCU.
11. Captain America: The First Avenger
Another origin story, but this one has a unique factor that makes it stand out from the rest of this list: it takes place almost entirely in the past. We first meet Steve Rogers as a scrawny little kid from Brooklyn whose best friend, Bucky Barnes, has to pull him out of numerous fights he can’t win. This movie is what really started us on the journey that will end tomorrow with Civil War as we see Steve standing up for what is right and good, and defending his friends no matter how high the cost. It also introduced us to Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter and a younger version of Howard Stark, both of whom would go on to charm us beyond measure in Agent Carter.
10. Daredevil (Season 2)
We went round and round on where on this list to put Daredevil, the first of four Netflix shows set in the MCU that will culminate in The Defenders sometime in 2017. Ultimately, we decided the best move was to list its two seasons separately, as the nature of Netflix lends itself to making each season far more self-contained than your typical prime time show (which is why we did not split up Agents of SHIELD or Agent Carter in the same manner).
Daredevil season 2 was so up and down. We loved (LOVED) Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle, but the second season of Marvel’s flagship Netflix series left us unimpressed with Matt Murdock, exhausted with the repetitive friendship issues between Foggy and Matt, and thoroughly bored by the phoned-in storylines revolving around Elektra and the Hand. Overall, the ups (Punisher, who was so good that Marvel/Netflix has since decided to give him his own series) weren’t enough to make up for the downs, dragging it further down the list than it may have sat otherwise.
9. Iron Man 3
The first of the Phase 2 movies, the third Iron Man focused on exploring more of Tony the person rather than Tony as Iron Man. Iron Man 3 tied directly into the storyline of The Avengers by showing how Tony was suffering from the effects of PTSD, and that he dealt with this by building an army of Iron Man suits in order to make himself feel safe. It was difficult to watch at times and it only got worse when he carried all of the guilt on his shoulders after Pepper was kidnapped and injected with Extremis. This conclusion to the Iron Man trilogy was well balanced, coupling its heavy emotional subject matter with the more lighthearted banter between Tony and the kid, as well as Tony and his best friend Rhodey. If this was the final solo Iron Man outing, it went out on a high note.
The only major downside to the movie was how wishy-washy Tony’s retirement from the game felt, especially when he reappeared alongside the team in Age of Ultron with no explanation.
When Marvel announced that Ant-Man was going to be part of its Phase 2 lineup, we were… underwhelmed. Not only was Ant-Man pretty far down our list of favorite superheroes, but the main character wasn’t even going to be Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man from the comics, but his protégé, Scott Lang. However, once we saw it, we were pleasantly surprised by Ant-Man’s humor-filled spin on a classic heist movie. Ant-Man never takes itself too seriously, which makes its somewhat ridiculous premise work, and is a delightful romp filled with fantastic characters. As far as its impact on the greater MCU, there isn’t much, other than the introduction of Scott Lang, who will be joining the Avengers in Civil War (and the setup for Hope van Dyne to later become Wasp), but when a movie is this much fun, we don’t really care.
7. Iron Man
The movie that started it all, Iron Man was a surprise hit thanks to the combined genius of Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. While Iron Man is a straight up origin story, it felt fresh and different as this was a character most movie audiences hadn’t been introduced to before. From the moment Tony busted out of the cave in the Iron Man prototype to the moment where he stood in front of a group of reporters and said, “I am Iron Man” the movie held your attention and forced you to acknowledge that this former B-Level superhero had finally hit the big time.
6. Agent Carter
Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter damn near ran away with the show in Captain America: The First Avenger, and giving her a TV show in which to really blossom and show her stuff was a great choice. The glimpse into the past not only let us enjoy Peggy for two seasons, but also introduced us to Edwin Jarvis, showed us more of Howard Stark, and gave us a good bit of SSR adventures to enjoy. We also got a glimpse of the Red Room, thanks to the introduction of Dottie. While the show’s viewing audience is small, it’s vocal and incredibly loyal — for good reason. The show is solid, well-acted, and incredibly entertaining.
5. Jessica Jones (Season 1)
The Netflix follow-up to Daredevil was Jessica Jones, about a woman with superpowers who decided to hang up her spandex and become a private eye. If Daredevil opened the door for darkness in the MCU, Jessica Jones leaped through it and sprinted headlong down its twisty, disturbing path. Not only did it have the MCU’s most frightening villain to date in Kilgrave, a psychopathic killer with mind-control powers, but it also had its most reluctant hero in Jessica. The first season of Jessica Jones was a bizarre labyrinth of twisted mind games and shocking turns, and we loved every minute of it. Much like Daredevil, Jessica Jones doesn’t have a huge impact on the larger MCU, but within the smaller Netflix sphere, it was pretty significant, not only setting up Jessica just a few blocks away from where Matt Murdock is defending Hell’s Kitchen, but also introducing us to the character of Luke Cage, who will soon be getting his own show leading into The Defenders. The series format also allowed Marvel to explore in-depth the psychological side of a universe full of superpowered people, something movies don’t have the time to truly dig into, making Jessica Jones a unique addition to the MCU.
4. Daredevil (Season 1)
Daredevil’s phenomenal first season established the MCU’s Netflix presence as something entirely different from anything we’d seen so far on the big screen. Matt Murdock’s Hell’s Kitchen was a darker, grittier, and far more violent picture of superheroes in New York than Tony Stark’s Manhattan or Steve Rogers’s Brooklyn, and Kingpin’s quiet-yet-explosive menace made every other Marvel villain to-date seem almost cartoonish. The 13 episodes of Daredevil’s inaugural season were a tense, tightly-plotted, and thoroughly compelling contribution to the MCU canon that we couldn’t help but binge-watch, full of brilliant acting and breathtaking fight choreography. This first season worked not only to illustrate the aftermath of the events of The Avengers and lay some groundwork for the other shows leading into Defenders, but showed us that the MCU was capable of balancing both its lighter and darker properties admirably.
3. Marvel’s The Avengers
The Avengers completed Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which had been building since the release of Iron Man in 2008, and it did so in such a satisfying way. It was hard to contain the excitement we felt at seeing all of these heroes come together on the big screen to form a team we’d been reading about in comics for years. A team that should not have worked together due to a myriad of differences, personality clashes, and super egos, came together over a shared goal and managed to kick some serious ass.
2. Guardians of the Galaxy
For pure entertainment value, Guardians of the Galaxy wins hands-down. Many superhero fans weren’t sure what to think when Marvel announced they were adapting Guardians, one of their weirder, lesser-known properties, for the big screen. After all, how compelling could a movie starring a talking racoon and a walking tree with a three-word vocabulary actually be? Turns out, very. While Guardians hasn’t really had much of an effect on the larger MCU so far — its one and only contribution seems to be fleshing out Thanos’ story, and explaining what he wants with the Infinity stones — what it lacks in overarching significance, it more than makes up for in charisma. Packed with zany characters and more humor than any other Marvel movie, Guardians may be off in its own strange little world for now, but it paves the way for the MCU to ultimately expand far beyond our little corner of the galaxy.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
While there was a lot of debate between whether The Winter Solider or Guardians of the Galaxy deserved the top spot, Cap eventually won out based on sheer impact to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. The Winter Soldier moved away from the traditional “superhero genre” to instead give us a spy movie/political thriller that just happened to star superheros. Steve was far more developed in this movie, and partnering him with Natasha gave him an interesting foil and gave her a chance to really shine on her own. Furthermore, the addition of Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/Falcon added some much needed lightheartedness.
To date, this movie has had the largest impact on the MCU, with Hydra coming to light and the subsequent fall of SHIELD. This revelation upended Agents of SHIELD, sending their world into a tailspin, and lead neatly into Age of Ultron. While all of the MCU movies have felt connected, with common threads weaving between them, you can draw a straight line from Captain America: The First Avenger through The Avengers, The Winter Soldier, and Age of Ultron, right up to Civil War.