Following the release of Ant-Man earlier this month, Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has come to a close. It’s been a wild ride since the release of Iron Man in May 2008 and, 12 movies later, we’re in the midst of seeing a game-changing, multi-faceted franchise on the big screen that many old school Marvel fans had previously believed to be an impossible pipe dream. Under the stewardship of Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, we’ve witnessed a succession of films that treated the characters both respectfully and faithfully, utilizing the best elements of their printed-page counterparts to produce some genuinely exciting movie magic that broadened the appeal of creations (some over half a century old) to build a monumental worldwide audience that awaits each release with fervent anticipation.
As we at the PCG know a few things about comics, and have been onboard with the MCU since Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury first appeared after the credits of Iron Man, we figured we should collate our favourites in readiness for the opening chapter of Phase Three, Captain America: Civil War, released next year.
And so here it is, ranked in order, the best of the MCU so far (and click the titles for our original reviews!)…
Matt C: The Incredible Hulk is generally regarded as the weakest entry in the MCU cannon, and there are a few reasons for this. Firstly (and this is an issue that becomes greater in hindsight), it only feels loosely connected to the shared universe it operates in, although this is understandable given that said shared universe hadn't been properly established back in 2008. Secondly, it's the only movie in the franchise that's seen the lead character recast, and although Ed Norton is good value for money, he's inevitably been overshadowed by Mark Ruffalo's more nuanced performance. Sure, it has the Tony Stark stinger at the end, but in many respects it’s the least essential MCU movie. While it's referenced in later entries, not much happens that affects the overall narrative direction of what comes after. Saying that, it's still an enjoyable flick with many pleasures. Although a little rough in spots (and not quite hitting the photorealism of the two Avengers movies) the CGI is mostly very effective and there are some terrific action sequences with the Green Goliath on the rampage. Tim Roth clearly has an enormous amount of fun as Emil Blonsky (aka the Abomination) and William Hurt is great value as General 'Thunderbolt' Ross (soon to reprise the role in Captain America: Civil War). It's superior to Ang Lee's bold but misguided Hulk and while it probably doesn't quite tap the true potential nor the inherent pathos of the character, it possess enough Marvel magic to get by.
Tom P: Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish had been developing Ant-Man for several years, with Wright attached to direct, before he left the project several weeks before filming due to ‘creative differences’, replaced by Peyton Reed. He wasn't the first director to leave a Marvel picture but it caused a big stir online. Surely it wouldn’t be any good? You lose the beloved director of Shaun Of The Dead and Scott Pilgrim and hire the man behind The Break Up?! Oh Marvel - this won't work! First a film with a talking raccoon and a tree, and now this? Has that Avengers money gone to your head?!! No, is the simple answer. Ant-Man may not rank among the top MCU movies but it's certainly the funniest and lightest of them. It also adopts the structure of a heist movie that helps make a refreshing change from those epic battles where large things fall onto cities from the sky. Paul Rudd has a lot fun in the lead role of Scott Lang and it helps that he has great chemistry with Evangeline Lilly. His best friend Luis (Michael Pena) is a real highlight, stealing nearly every scene he's in, and it’s a treat to see a bit more of the history of the MCU in the 1980s with Michael Douglas as the haunted ex Ant-Man, Hank Pym. It may not be the massive surprise hit that Guardians Of The Galaxy proved to be but if these two films go to show anything, it's that Marvel has the confidence and clout to bring nearly any character to the screen. Ant-Man safely counts as another win for the unstoppable studio.
Kenny J: If the first Thor movie set up Tom Hiddleston’s Loki as a malevolent manipulator, then The Avengers solidified the Norse God's credentials as a worldwide, if not a cosmic-wide, threat. In our second visit to the realm of Asgard, we got even more fleshing out of the franchise’s primary villain, arguably the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe’s only fully realised one, and the strained brotherly relationship that has set him on his mischievous path. Although the same can’t be said about the film’s other antagonist, Malekith the Accursed, ruler of the Dark Elves, a primal force of hatred and anger played expertly by Christopher Eccleston, a force that ups the ante on and off world as the epic finale reaches the legendary London of Midgard and the eponymous 'Dark World'. It isn’t all gloom though, with Kat Dennings increasing her comedic turn as Jane Foster’s intern, Darcy. She doesn’t hog all the jokes though, with the always stellar Stellan Skarsgårdand and even Thor himself getting many of the gags. In fact, like his avenging co-star Chris Evans, after three films Chris Hemsworth now fully inhabiteed his role as the Thunder God. Apart from those films based on actual teams, Thor: The Dark World has the largest ensemble cast with Thor and Loki having to team with each other and an ever growing number of mythic beings, this time including their mother, Frigga, portrayed wonderfully by Rene Russo. Of course, as a Phase Two instalment of the larger MCU tapestry, the second Thor film pushes the story of the Infinity Stones further. More so than any other movie, I would say.
James R: Or, escalation. Iron Man 2 appears to be the unloved, forgotten middle child of the MCU. The general consensus seems to be “It's not bad, but it's not as good as the first one” or “There's too much going on”. Jon Favreau had a pretty thankless task. Having shown the world in Iron Man that some of Marvel’s most iconic characters could possibly exist in a shared celluloid universe with - just as they do in print - he was then asked to get a lot of different plates spinning. First, Tony Stark's adventures now had to be bigger and louder than they were in the first outing, and secondly, the history of the MCU had to start being established, as did S.H.I.E.L.D. Add to that, he had to introduce one of the future Avengers in the shape of Natasha Romanov. Oh, and make it an entertaining film too! Given this massive remit, I think Favreau did a great job, and there's some memorable stuff in this sequel. It's not a perfect film by any means and it does feel a little clunky in places. The biggest problem with it lies in not having enough faith in its antagonists; because the movie plumps for both Justin Hammer and Whiplash, neither are developed fully enough. Ultimately, it's no Winter Soldier, and it's not the bells and whistles of the The Avengers, but it's still a better movie than many would have you believe. It's the chapter in the MCU where things truly went up a notch, and I'll always love it for the inspired casting of Mad Men's John Slattery as the older Howard Stark.
Stewart R: We’d ridden the ten-storey high crest of the magnificent Phase One wave that was The Avengers and had left the cinema screens breathless. That was the pinnacle surely? Decades of imagination realised on screen. So, how on Earth would Phase Two follow up with that? By showing us that each part of the Avengers machine is an important, evolving cog in its own right, able to entertain, excite and enthral. Iron Man 3 represents both the lowest point of Tony Stark’s journey - the blast that is his post-traumatic stress disorder and the wider, subtler ripples of the Stark legacy - and arguably the highest and freest as he realises that the armour is nothing without the man, and casts away his personal crutches. Shane Black drew on his work with Downey Jr in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, injected more humour into the mix with some buddy-cop sentimentality in the final act, and, along with screenwriter Drew Pearce, twisted Iron Man’s greatest foe into a workable, 21st century version which, in doing so, irked some die-hard fans but arguably provided a suitable mirror for the suave cinematic hero to be held up against. Iron Man 3 stands as the undeniable instant proof that post-Avengers, these heroes could still stand strong in their own corners of the MCU.
Simon M: When Thor was released back in May 2011, we’d only had the first two Iron Man films and the Incredible Hulk offering, so at that stage it was far too early MCU to assume every film was going to be highly enjoyable and worth all the hopes and dreams of seeing our hobby accurately portrayed on the big screen. Thor has always been one of my favourite Marvel characters and I was desperate to see what I felt made his stories great portrayed on film. The first bit of hope came when Kenneth Branagh was selected as the director. Then hearing leaks that the story would take place on Asgard as well as on Earth solidified the positive vibes. After seeing Thor, I was absolutely blown away. Visually it was spectacular, from the initial battles with the Frost Giants to the appearance of the Destroyer; there was nothing that didn’t deliver as intended. Chris Hemsworth as Thor was very good, but the casting of Tom Hiddleston as Loki was truly inspired. I simply cannot picture anyone else in the role. The use of the Warriors Three and Sif was a nice touch and well done - it felt as though they were integral to the story as opposed to just being thrown in for nostalgias sake. At the time of release, this became my favourite of the MCU films to that point. Four years and eight releases later, it still is.
Matt C: To say the weight of expectation was resting heavily on Joss Whedon’s shoulders would be something of an understatement. There had been four additions to the MCU movies since the first movie teaming-up Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye and Hulk had become a runaway, blockbusting success, and while all of them benefited from the cementing of the Marvel brand in the public consciousness, only Iron Man 3 had come anywhere close to matching the box office tally (thanks in no small part to Downey Jr’s star power). The second Avengers film had to deliver, and had to deliver big – nothing else would suffice. So where did Whedon go for his inspiration? Back to the source material of course. Although not quite the charismatic powerhouse that is Loki, Ultron – with his long personal ties to the four-colour version of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes – was the right choice to pit against the now established team. With the additions of Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch and – brilliantly – The Vision, Age Of Ultron saw the core team facing their demons and an uncertain future. While it doesn’t feature any of the fist-pumping euphoria elicited by the first film, this darker chapter is still full of wit, intelligence and heart, one that sees Whedon upping the stakes (both physical and emotional) to dazzling effect. Turns out that he was more than capable of lifting that weight of expectation high over his head.
Matt C: Now it all seems so obvious, but back in 2008? A superhero that was far from a household name. An actor at one point a rising star but after a series of setbacks (drugs, jail) considered a has been. A director more well known as an actor who’d made one enjoyable Christmas flick (Elf) and a not-particularly successful kids adventure movie (Zathura: A Space Adventure). A fledgling studio banking everything on the aforementioned. Oh, how they sneered! Well, some did at least. Others saw a canny combination of seemingly disparate elements and took an optimistic approach to what could be the start of something great. Only it turned out to be more than something great: it was a superhero origin story with a thrillingly wired performance from Robert Downey Jr, some deft direction from Jon Favreau, and an adherence to the source material that opened many more eyes to why it had been so enduring in the first place. The tone was set, the world (or universe) was established, and although some things were still being worked out (they only decided to call themselves S.H.I.E.L.D. at the end of the movie?) this was a grand, convincing opening statement from Marvel Studios. And Downey Jr? Well, you could argue that, without the witty precision of his turn and as Tony Stark, we wouldn’t be in a position to be talking about all these other movies. But that’s a discussion for another day…
Kenny J: When the Marvel Studios big wigs sat down to decide on the best way to introduce audiences to the company’s wider cosmic universe they settled on a rag tag band of space bandits. They couldn’t have been more right. To be honest, what was more surprising was handing the reins to James Gunn, a writer-director whose previous credits dealt with an alien parasite and a murderous vigilante respectively. Two titles, I guess, that showed Marvel he understood genre, pathos and comic timing. The last of which is particularly important when the actor playing your wise cracking pirate is a, if not the, rising action star. Chris Pratt doesn’t have to carry this science fiction opus alone though, surrounded as he is by a fantastic cast. Zoe Saldana breathes life into the green skin of Gamora, Dave Batista flexes his comical muscles as Drax, and who would have thought the breakout star would be a monosyllabic tree? Not to mention Bradley Cooper’s voice work for Rocket, the gun toting raccoon-like creature. Guardians Of The Galaxy is by far my favourite of the Phase One and Two Marvel films, which is not to take anything away from the other eleven movies, but it ticked all the boxes I mentioned above and more. Even without the framework of the MCU, Guardians would still work, standing alone in its own universe, building its own worlds, writing it’s own rules. My familiarity with the characters didn’t hurt any though.
Tom P: It begins in a cold, snow-coved landscape. A large structure has been discovered, frozen in ice. The military guys on the scene enter this almost alien environment, slowly begin to explore, until one of the men notices something on the floor. He wipes the ice to reveal a round shield with a star. "Base. Get me a line to the Colonel! I don't care what time it is! This one's waited long enough." Who better than the director of the underrated The Rocketeer, Joe Johnston, to bring us a ‘Golden Age’ Captain America movie (and let’s not forget, Johnston worked on Raiders Of The Lost Ark too!). Like a good old fashioned, pulpy matinée serial, this 1940s set movie has it all: Nazis, ray guns, an ancient occult MacGuffin, a sassy female lead (played brilliantly by Haley Atwell), and, at the centre, the courageous, uncompromising titular hero (Chris Evans). Oh, and let's not forget Hugo Weaving as the evil Red Skull and Toby Jones as Armin Zola! The mix of over-the-top pantomime baddie and shy henchman is played brilliantly - it's pure comic book villainy and a joy to watch. One of the main reasons the whole thing works so well is due to the performance of Evans (the artist formerly known as the Human Torch!). He’s proven to be an inspired casting choice for Steve Rogers, and it’s been a pleasure to watch him make the role of this ‘man out of time’ his own. With a charisma and gravitas that allows him to easily go toe to toe with Robert Downey Jr, he has the underdog nobility needed to convey the essence of the Sentinel of Liberty. Or, as Stanley Tucci’s Dr Abraham Erskine put it: "Because a weak man knows the value of strength."
James R: On your left. The follow up to Captain America: The First Avenger was that rarest of things - a sequel that actually builds on and improves the original outing. Joe Johnston's introduction to Steve Rogers is a fine superhero movie, and certainly one of Marvel's better efforts, but Winter Soldier surpassed it in every way. Listening to the Russo Brothers' commentary for this movie, it's evident that, along with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, they had a definite love for comics and a distinctive idea as to the themes for the Cap's second outing. The movie looks back to 1970s conspiracy thrillers for inspiration, most notably 3 Days Of The Condor, but there's also the healthy influence of All The President's Men and The Parallax View in there too. The Avengers movies may remain the high watermark for blockbuster thrills, but for my money, Captain America: The Winter Soldier has been the greatest MCU outing… so far. It's very pleasing to know that the Russo Brothers will be back for Captain America: Civil War, and it's clear that Marvel and Kevin Feige trust them enough to hand them the keys for the grand-slam that is Avengers: Infinity War Parts I &II. For now, it's amazing to think we live in a world where there's a movie this good that incorporates Batroc the Leaper...
Stewart R: Ever since Samuel L. Jackson turned up in that post-credits scene in Iron Man back in 2008, we’d known what was likely brewing, what was growing, what was tantalisingly being crafted by Marvel. Once the rest of the party members had been introduced, Hulk, Thor and Captain America would join Tony Stark’s Iron Man in forming the Avengers and we would see an actual, huge, blockbuster superhero team movie that transcended the individual, introductory parts on the big screen. It was the stuff of childhood dreams for many and a thrilling escalation of a cinematic universe for others. The concern of course was whether all of the puzzle pieces would fit together comfortably. Would the ensemble cast have the required chemistry? Would the script do them all justice? Would the action set pieces be suitably grand and convince us of the level of threat required to bring this group together in the first place? All of these questions were answered with a single, undoubtable ‘YES’ thanks to the curator and grand visionary of the project, Joss Whedon. It was he who took the best of the preceding films and brought those elements to play in a bubbling pot of personality, ideology and physical clashes. Utilising a repeat antagonist in Loki worked brilliantly as it cast aside the stagnant idea of killing off throwaway movie villains whilst staying true to the comic book origins, Hiddleston’s trickster perfectly plucking away at the strings of tension already evident between these relative strangers. The story also added a (not so mysterious) hierarchy to the threat that hinted at far greater danger to come. Importantly, rather than "When would the Avengers assemble?", Whedon had us asking through the 143 minute runtime "How long will they stay together?", and that is the hook with which The Avengers hauls your giddy ass through glorious repeat viewings of the greatest MCU movie to date, again and again and again.