My Hierarchy of MCU films (to date)

Watched Doctor Strange this weekend. It was very enjoyable, and if you’re a fan of superhero movies, I’d recommend it. If you aren’t, well, you’ve seen it before (more or less) and shouldn’t trouble yourself.

Multiple stories, same basic arc

Multiple stories, same basic arc

Superhero movies, and most notably the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), tend to be repeated retellings of the same basic stories. There is a reluctant hero of some kind, he (or, much more rarely, she) is granted the mantle of power, sent forth by will or necessity to battle evil, receives wisdom at the foot of a wise elder (who often dies), and at last vanquishes evil and assumes their responsibility as champion of the defenseless. There you go – just about every superhero movie in history, boiled down to a few plot points. If that structure looks familiar, that shouldn’t surprise you – it’s all classic Joseph Campbell, the ancient monomyth reborn and retold in the guise in the modern world.

Now, this often gets held up as a point of criticism: comic book movies, they say, are all the same. Well, first of all, you have to admit that they’re right – they totally are the same. If you’ve seen Iron Man, you’ve also seen Doctor Strange and Thor. The movies – in terms of theme, plot, pacing, and character – just aren’t all that different. There is, however, something that the critics also have to admit: different doesn’t automatically mean “better.” Consider this: how many pizzas have you eaten throughout your lifetime? Probably tons of them, if you’re anything like me, but even if not you don’t need to use pizza – try “bottles of wine” or “blue jeans” or “shoes.” There are lots and lots of things we value and enjoy and crave that are, basically, broadly the same every time we consume or use them. Of course, nobody would ever say that all pizzas are created equal (or all wines, or all jeans, etc.) but also the fact that we’ve experienced “pizza” before does not invalidate future interactions with “pizza.” It’s still pizza; I still like it.

Just so with comic book movies. They all operate in the same basic sphere and run according to the same basic forumla. Even across sequels, a kind of pattern tends to play out. First there’s the “Origin Story” (frequently featuring a Macguffin), then there’s the “Coping with Hero Life” story, then we’ve got the “Everything Falls Apart” sequel, and so on and so forth. We all know the steps. We still like the dance, though.

Now, I’ve lamented the fact that superhero movies rarely break conventions, and I do stand by that – there is substantial room for innovation in the cinematic realm, at least. That said, there is some appreciation to be gleaned from watching talented people polish the old standard to a healthy gleam. Telling a story well is every bit as important as telling a new story. In recent years, this story has been mastered by the folks behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe, without rival. Yeah, they all tell the same basic story, but discussing how well each of them does the same task is still worthwhile. We watch sports, remember, and those feature the same exact game with the same basic rules over and over again and yet nothing diminishes our enthusiasm.

Anyway, after getting out of Doctor Strange, my friends and I had a discussion of where the movie ranks in the hierarchy of MCU films. We generally considered it to be in the “top half.”  We then had to discuss what was the median – which MCU movie ranks in the exact middle? My friends said Ant-Man, which is actually the only MCU film I haven’t seen. Given that, and given that Ant-Man may just be the exact center of the MCU, I’ve decided to rank all the other existing MCU movies, from best to worst (in my opinion). Here we go:

13: The Incredible Hulk

12: Iron Man 3

11: Iron Man 2

10: Avengers: Age of Ultron

9: Thor

8: Captain America: The First Avenger

7: Thor: The Dark World

6: Marvel’s The Avengers

5: Doctor Strange

4: Iron Man

3: Guardians of the Galaxy

2: Captain America: Winter Soldier

1: Captain America: Civil War


Now, a few of these I’m open to moving around a little. You could swap the Iron Man sequels, if you like. GoTG could be below Iron Man 1, but generally I’m satisfied, here. Notably, few of these movies are actively bad (well, some come close), but clearly some serve up the same dish with a bit more flair. I’ve no idea where Ant Man fits, but currently the median film is Thor: The Dark World, which seems mostly fair.

Well, what do you think?

About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on November 7, 2016, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I generally agree with the list but there are some key differences for me. I’ll have to work up my own ranking, but in brief Thor:
    The Dark World I always kinda forget about, and GotG I don’t like. I know, I’m the only one, other than my husband, but while I didn’t hate it, I just didn’t really like it. So those two would move down and 4,5, and 6 would move up in my list.

  2. My rankings:

    13: Doctor Strange (heavy use of yellowface, Benedict Cumberbatch)
    12: The Incredible Hulk (ew Ed Norton)
    11: Ant-Man (willing to let it move higher thanks to excellent use of Hope van Dyne, still committed cardinal sin of quasi-fridging Janet van Dyne THE ONE WHO NAMED THE AVENGERS)
    10: Avengers: Age of Ultron (it was a mess and screw you, Tony Stark)
    9: Thor (Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhh, I can’t remember the plot)
    8: Captain America: Civil War (aka Iron Man 4)
    7: Iron Man 3 (Clever and fun)
    7: Iron Man (It’s only ranked this high because of nostalgia and Gwyneth Paltrow)
    6: Thor: The Dark World (A fun heist brought this movie up considerably from the first effort)
    5: Guardians of the Galaxy (I’m 100% sure that in the first draft, the main character was Gamora, as she was more emotionally connected to the villain and all of the arcs than Peter is, but whatevs, a great soundtrack saves this)
    4: Iron Man 2 (this movie is 2 minutes long and it’s all Natasha Romanoff kicking ass down the hallway and it introduced me to my bae Natalie Rushman and I won’t hear a bad word spoken against it)
    3: Captain America: The First Avenger (if I cannot have the love of Natasha Romanoff, I will settle for Peggy Carter)
    2: Captain America: Winter Soldier (Liked the tone of the movie, it had my bae, and it had my third bae Sam Wilson)
    1: Marvel’s The Avengers (Natasha. Natasha Natasha Natasha)

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