Four years ago we ranked Marvel Studios' output up to that point as it ended its second 'phase' in preparation for Phase Three. In that time the number of movies has nearly doubled so, rather going through the entire list, we've whittled it down to ten as we near the completion of Phase Three with Avengers: Endgame.
The line-up for Phase Four hasn't been officially confirmed (although the Eternals and Shang-Chi appear to be in the mix) but we do know that Endgame will be the swansong for certain characters. We'll have an idea soon enough of what the future holds but until then here are the ten movies we feel are the very best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far (with links to our original reviews too!)...
Kenny J: In the words of Chad Kroeger “They say that a hero could save us” but not even he would have thought it would be a nineteen year-old from Kingston upon Thames. Tom Holland more than any actor before him manages to embody the essence of what has made Peter Parker the perpetual teen hero for almost six decades. Spider-Man is more than just his iconic red and blue suit and Holland treads that perfect line between wide-eyed youthful wonder and wise-cracking vigilante. The 2015 deal between Marvel Studios and Sony to bring the lovable wall-crawler into the MCU truly felt like a homecoming, and this movie sees him fitting into this family like he was there all along. Another defining attribute of the Spidey-Verse is his supporting cast and Homecoming gets this spot on, whether it's Zendaya as the initialised MJ, Marisa Tomei as Aunt May or best friend Ned played by the brilliant Jacob Batalon and, of course, Michael Keaton turns his inner villain up to maximum as the Vulture, having as much fun as we do. There are two things that prove Tony Stark has a heart: his adoration of Pepper Potts and his relationship with Peter in this film, and who can blame him? I think we all fell in love with this version of our Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.
Jo S: James Gunn flipped the Marvel movie disc with Guardians Of The Galaxy, and I can’t deny I was sceptical before the sequel that he'd be able to sustain the magic that he had woven; surely the novelty of the first could not carry through a second? Happily, of course, I was proved wrong, and the maestro had us all dancing along to Awesome Mix Vol. 2 from the opening sequnce to the final post-credits scene. Music again underpins much of the movie, and sets the tone: the nostalgia for a musical era which represents the viewer’s childhood (or - realisation dawns - their parents’ childhood) gives us a chance to feel Peter Quill’s tie to Earth, his founding experiences as a lost child, brought up by Ravager space bandits (so rock and roll), building on the idea of the rag tag crew as a family: Quill has shared his music with them all and it helps the team stay together through thick and thin. The story is all about family and what a parent really means to their child: Baby Groot is being brought up by Rocket, where Rocket was protected by Groot’s previous incarnation; Gamora and Nebula struggle over their shared history with Thanos but eventually bond as sisters; Quill’s errant father appears to have joyfully ‘found’ his son and welcomed him home but by the end of the movie the true significance of Yondu’s part in Quill’s life becomes the biggest heart in the story. A scattering of new characters expands the team, lovingly sourced from Marvel back issues: Drax’s ‘relationship’ with Mantis is perfectly pitched by both actors, the Sovereign make a mostly unremarkable enemy but introduce their new secret weapon, sure to be a key player in the third movie, and director Gunn’s younger brother Sean as Kraglin moves along an interesting arc, perhaps reflecting a greater theme in the MCU, of having to decide where one’s loyalties really lie, and sticking with that even if it’s the harder road to take. James Gunn’s humour and pace is the lifeblood of this movie: his initial removal from the third instalment looked like a done deal, and it was hard to imagine how it could work without him, and yet his very distinctive approach doesn’t break this franchise out of of the MCU family. Guardians is like a prodigal son; kind of a smart-arse with great taste in music, sometimes a little embarrassing, but always welcome back in the fold.
James R: This is the one where I really started to believe in the MCU. Iron Man had been an unexpected (though expertly judged) surprise, Thor wasn't perfect, but showed the ambition of the fledgling studio, but it was the first outing for the Sentinel of Liberty that truly captured the spirit of Marvel comics. It also showed that the source material could be moulded to make blockbusters with heart and humour - no mean feat in Hollywood. The reasons it works so well are myriad: first and foremost, director Joe Johnson was an inspired choice - a man with blockbuster pedigree, he found the perfect balance of action and character development. Marvel were also on the money with their choice of Cap - Chris Evans rose to the challenge beautifully, making me believe in him both as 'Skinny Steve' and as the 'First Avenger'. (It's also been brilliant to see the line between Steve Rogers and Chris Evans blur in reality - am I the only person who feels he actually IS Captain America now?) The film captures the spirit of Jack Kirby in places too: in the designs for the Hydra war machine, there's definitely the exaggerated and larger-than-life feel of the King of Comics' work. It doesn't miss a step as it adds in Howard Stark, the formation of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Howling Commandos - the rich tapestry gives us hardcore geeks plenty of fan service, never getting mired in explication nor at the expense of pacing. Kudos too for how the movie uses Peggy Carter; never a second fiddle or damsel in distress, she's every bit Steve's equal - and Marvel employing Hayley Atwell for more Peggy Carter adventures on the small screen is an endorsement of how well she's written and portrayed. Finally, this movie still has some of my favourite Marvel movie moments - the dying Dr Erskine tapping Steve's chest to remind him that it's who he is inside that matters, and the simply magnificent first montage with Cap as the face of war bonds. In rewatching the film for this article, it struck me how well it's ageing, and its place in our top ten is testament to that.
Tom P: A spaceship slowly lands on the desolate planet of Morag and a masked figure emerges. He strides across the stormy surface to search for a relic in an ancient temple. The scanner seems to show him a once prosperous civilisation now nothing more than ruins and projections. He enters the tomb-like structure and removes his mask. He reaches for something. A Sony Walkman, he presses play and dances across the cavern to 'Come And Get Your Love' by Redbone. It’s an impressive opening credits sequence that tells you this science fiction movie is going to be something fresh and full of funk. Welcome to Guardians Of The Galaxy. The charisma of Guardians is undeniable: it made new stars of its cast, particularly Chris Pratt and Dave Bautista, and presented the world with a killer Pulp Fiction-style soundtrack. A movie with genuine appeal across generations, a little romance, some buddy comedy, and some giant space battles to boot. Introducing an animate tree and a genetically-enhanced definitely-not-a-raccoon, with their unbreakable bond and wise-cracking humour was a masterstroke. In many ways this was a real gamble for Marvel Studios but it paid off and James Gunn gave us a film with style, wit, humour and a real groove. You can still see its influence on Marvel movies today. It’s the template for its cosmic universe. We are all Groot.
Matt C: The moment that Marvel Studios not only captured the zeitgeist again but helped define it too. By positioning a black superhero as the lead with an isolationist African nation as its setting, Black Panther was - by design - the franchise entry with the most obvious political edge; in amongst the requisite action and adventuring there were pertinent, relevant things being said about society that were astute reflections of the real world. Director/writer Ryan Coogler balanced it all perfectly, never allowing the social commentary to descend into soapboxing or the action to swamp the characters, all brought to life by a wonderful ensemble cast. Chadwick Boseman headlines as the reluctant king, but the key to this film’s success is the prominence of the supporting cast, and how well-defined their relationships are, whether it’s Danai Gurira’s fierce but passionate Okoye, Andy Serkis’ unhinged villain Ulysses Klaue, Letitia Wright's precocious brainbox Shuri, or fish-out-of-water Martin Freeman as Everett Ross (who, in most other movies, would have been our POV character). Then there’s Michael B. Jordan’s wounded, angry Killmonger, someone with genuine grievances who takes an extreme, murderous path to resolve them, but still manages to generate sympathy as we get to understand how he came to be. He also gets the most startling sign-off line of any villain in the entire MCU franchise. Now in receipt of three Oscars – a first for the studio – and an astonishing performance at the box office, it’s shown that some of Hollywood’s previous assumptions of what an audience will throw their weight behind are no longer relevant, and that Marvel can and will still take risks when it honours the source material.
Kenny J: I think it's fair to say that, out of all Avengers, Thor is the one who has travelled the greatest movie journey, not necessarily in terms of events but tonally, as Chris Hemsworth found exactly how he wanted to play the Thunder God. Who would have thought it would be as half of a buddy comedy alongside the Hulk? For that's what Thor: Ragnarok is: a knockabout fish-out-of-water farce with intergalactic stakes, infused with '80s metal album imagery. Some of the best MCU movies are the ones where the director brings something of themselves and I'm not sure that this film would work so well without Taika Waititi at the helm (and in a cameo that became one of the movie's memorable moments) - though how could you go wrong with Tessa Thompson, Cate Blanchett, Karl Urban and of course, the unique, unmistakable, unmissable and irrepressible Jeff Goldblum (who must have had to be reined almost continually in to stop him entirely stealing the show)? This is the third Thor film and, as other members of the OG Avengers seem to be taking their bow in Avengers: Endgame, I hope we get at least one more of these; we are only just getting to know the real Odinson.
Tom P: You could make the argument that the Captain America movies are the heart of the MCU. When Chris Evans first played Steve Rogers he gave the character real pathos, eventually almost blurring the line between the real Evans and his screen persona. That continued into The Avengers with a man out of time trying to find his place in the world, a thread that was picked up again in his second solo outing. What is he without the war that defines him? The world is less clear now, the threat now lies in the shadows rather than marching under a banner. Most importantly, this film is a game-changer: as S.H.I.E.L.D. is revealed to be deeply compromised, Cap finds he can no longer trust many of the people around him. The writing borrows heavily from Ed Brubaker's comics work and this is best reflected in the character of the Winter Soldier himself. Bucky has been twisted from a loyal friend into an aggressive force to reckoned with. The movie's message about challenging the agglomeration of power - as such a collection of strength in one place inevitably becomes susceptible to corruption - is matched with a moral theme about staying strong and true to your beliefs on a personal scale. The film's supporting cast also really elevates the movie: this is the best Black Widow performance from Scarlett Johansson, and Anthony Mackie adds real warmth, while Frank Grillo plays a truly villainous Hydra devotee without ever slipping into melodrama. It also proved the Russo brothers to be the finest superhero movie makers since Christopher Nolan, becoming Marvel Studios' most trusted and valuable directors.
James R: Hey, I would have been happy if it really had been 'The Serpent Society'! Back in October 2014, Kevin Feige announced Captain America's third outing would be one of his most famous comic storylines... before revealing it as a fake-out for the real title: Civil War. The dynamite team of directing siblings Anthony and Joe Russo and scriptwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely really pushed the envelope with this one. Before it came out, I was worried that this would be the film that saw Marvel Studios' ambitious reach going beyond their grasp: following the inventive and focused success of The Winter Soldier, this felt like it might be 'Avengers 2.5' rather than a third Captain America story. How wrong I was! Civil War is breathtakingly ambitious in scope: on one hand, it's the final evolution of Steve Rogers as a character; no longer a soldier, but a man of moral principle ready to defy the orders of his commanding officers (and that arc standing in counterpoint to Tony Stark's journey from irresponsible maverick to an agent of order). On the other, it's the evolution of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, bringing Black Panther and Spider-Man on board. Rewatching it now, the thing that stands out for me is the confidence and ambition of the film's finale. After engineering a mighty showdown with the Soviet super soldiers, we're given a far more personal ending with Black Panther refusing to let himself be destroyed by anger and revenge at Zemo, thus breaking the cycle of violence that makes the central theme of this film. Both this and the equally impressive The Last Jedi have shown in the last five years that blockbusters don't have to follow a predictable formula: this is a film that entertains and stands up to reflection. Beyond the mainstays of Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr, the film is enhanced by two brilliant debuts; Tom Holland stakes his claim to being the definitive cinematic Spidey, and Chadwick Boseman hits the ground running as T'Challa, the Black Panther. Finally, this movie allows both Bucky and Sam Wilson the opportunity to be more than cameo players, and that gives the film a sense of real continuation and development from both The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier. I rate this higher than Infinity War, which is undoubtedly a great roller-coaster ride and a crowning achievement; Civil War is perfect universe building, and an action movie that is greater than the sum of its numerous, brilliant parts.
Matt C: 'And there came a day unlike any other...' In hindsight, considering Marvel Studios' unprecedented success, it now seems like it was always a sure thing, but at the time it was anything but. The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger had performed modestly in comparison to the first two Iron Man movies at the box office, Robert Downey Jr's irreverent smartass soulfulness successfully setting the tone for the franchise in its early days. Pulling all these characters together - who at that point were hardly household names - into a single movie was something that had never been done before, and it was an enormous risk for the fledgling studio which could have easily been a disaster if it had all gone wrong. But it went right. All of it. Box office records tumbled in its wake, vindicating all those who'd grown up reading the comics, always convinced of the universal appeal of these characters. Why did it work so well? Hiring Joss Whedon as writer/director was a masterstroke, taking someone who had a deep understanding and love of the source material and the talent to bring the concepts into the live-action environment, budget and technology allowing for a full scale alien invasion and much, much more. But then there's the core characters themselves, and the actors who inhabit them, each with a distinctive personality honouring the work of comic creators across the years, not attempting to try and present us with several iterations on the proven Tony Stark persona. Finally, there's that shot, arguably the most iconic in the entire series, where the camera arcs around the team, finally assembled; the euphoria of it elicited sheer, overwhelming excitement at the realisation that they'd actually pulled it off! Gods, monsters, heroes, all with the recognisable humanity and emotional dynamics to keep us on the edge of our seats and coming back for more, again and again.
Jo S: ...or 'Thanos: The Movie', as it should have been titled. For the craggy-chinned Big Purple is the centre of this film, driving the story, acting as super villain and superhero, adoring father and murderous mad scientist, the saviour and the destroyer, architect of violence and passionate advocate for a final peace. Thanos’ Malthusian drive to save the universe by destroying half of it is the foundation of the story, and the greatest efforts of all who seek to stop him seem lightweight in comparison to his might. As if he wasn’t already a strength to be reckoned with, each additional Infinity Stone added to the mighty gauntlet gives him further advantage; as the Avengers tire and weaken, he simply becomes stronger, even when his dedication to his cause requires him to make a sacrifice beyond anything he has endured previously - as the tear rolled down his enormous face, I too began weeping, and didn’t stop until well after wandering, still shaking, out into the cinema foyer. The Russo brothers, along with writers Markus and McFeely, created a masterpiece with this movie, lacing together strands built throughout previous MCU entries and systematically shredding any hope of a happy ending. One of the movie’s great triumphs is its ability to give every one of its enormous ensemble cast a chance to shine, to be related to, to be a part of the bigger picture and still, with this huge constellation of characters, it doesn’t feel rushed; the pace is perfect, accelerating as danger reaches the Earth, escalating emotionally and yet never missing the chance to bring us all along with it. The music in the trailers for Avengers: Endgame is setting off a Pavlovian reaction in me: a raised heart-rate, a shift to the edge of my seat (where I spent most of the second half of Infinity War) and a growing fear that the follow-up simply cannot be as good as its predecessor: Infinity War is Number 1 on our list; let’s hope there’s a greater than 1 in 14,000,605 chance that Endgame replaces it.