*Warning contains mild spoilers and copious anorakiness*
As I have now seen Spider-Man: Homecoming, now seems like an apt time to update my ranking of the films and TV shows in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
I fear that this will be the last time I am able to do something like this and have it still be comprehensive. The number of TV projects is escalating and I doubt I will be able to keep up.
So, for possibly the final time, let’s take this from worst to best:
#27 Iron Fist (2017)
Although the superhero genre is often criticised as homogenous and unimaginative, virtually all the films and shows on this list bring at least something distinctive to the table. Iron Fist is a sorry exception. It shows you nothing new. It could still have been ok if it was executed well, but it isn’t. The lead is miscast, the plot is diffuse and aimless, and for a series supposedly about martial arts it seems weirdly uninterested in them.
[Check out: Is Iron Fist as Bad as Everyone says?]
#26 The Incredible Hulk (2008)
About as dull as Iron Fist but since it is a film rather than a TV series, it mercifully feels far less interminable.
#25 Iron Man II (2010)
It’s all set up and no pay off. The filmmakers seem to have purposefully avoided anything too interesting lest that prevent them being able to use it later. Perhaps because of this, the story and script are a mess. It wastes Sam Rockwell (a serious crime) but gives us plenty of Gwyneth Paltrow (an even worse crime).
That said, it is the first time that the ambition of what Marvel was doing began to seem real, and the energy of Downey Jnr’s performance pushes along even this misjudged entry in the saga.
#24 Thor: The Dark World (2013)
This exemplifies a lot of the weakness of the MCU: generic villains, theoretically high-stakes that never feel real, a plot driven by MacGuffins, and CGI heavy battles that look like nothing. That said it does have the substantial redeeming feature of lots of scenes that involve Tom Hiddleston delivering dialogue written by Joss Whedon, which is a combination that really works!
#23 Thor (2011)
It has more plot and character development than the Dark World. Otherwise, the problems are similar.
#22 Agents of Shield [series 1] (2013)
For a long time, this series fell very flat: too much TV budget CGI, characters lacking in depth, an arc that seemed to go nowhere, and a tone that was too childish for the material. Sometimes it worked as dumb fun. More often it was just dumb.
Then two-thirds into its run, a development in the films forced the show to reconfigure itself for the better. It gained focus, became darker and ditched most of its dafter habits.
Still that poor two-thirds of a series ways it down a lot.
#21 Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
This was the first film to hint that Marvel could do smarter things with the MCU. The by no means straightforward evolution of Steve Rodgers into Captain America is well played with nice twists, like how the military’s first instinct is to use him for propaganda. The best part, however, is Hayley Atwell managing to elevate Peggy Carter from a generic supporting role to the core of the film. However it gets the basics wrong and largely falls flat as a result. The actions scenes are bland beyond words. As a result, the film actually tails off as it reaches its climax.
#20 Iron Man (2008)
Ignoring what it started, this is an efficiently done but mostly generic sci-fi action film. While Downey Jnr is very good as an anti-hero morphing into a hero – and Bridges is a decent villain – it is apparent with hindsight that the Iron Man films have the weakest supporting characters of any strand of the MCU.
#19 Jessica Jones [season 1] (2015)
This should have been way higher than it is. So many individual elements are superlative. Ritter is an engaging lead. Tennant is an even better villain, arguably the best Marvel has ever produced. The show is also thematically ambitious and insightful. Yet it doesn’t work. There are too many duff supporting characters, and the structure is a mess. A fairly simple story did not really stretch to the length of its run, so the screenwriters kept having to derail the plot’s progression.
[Check out: The Tragic Failure of Jessica Jones]
#18 Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
This had exactly the opposite problem to Jessica Jones. It tries to pack too much material into too little time. The result is still entertaining but also rather frustrating.
[Check out: Avengers: Age of Ultron (review)]
#17 Luke Cage [season 1] (2016)
I went with this series more than with Jessica Jones even though it has a lot of the same structural issues (and a pants big bad). The (often slapstick) action scenes are superior, the selection of supporting characters is better, and its stylistic choices are very apt. A lot of fun even though the final episodes are Iron Fist level bad.
[Check out: Magic and Mean Streets]
#16 Agents of Shield [season 2] (2014)
As we’ve already mentioned, this show’s first season varied wildly in quality. Fortunately, the second retained the quality of the superior latter episodes. It also added some genuinely entertaining supporting characters to its ensemble.
#15 Daredevil [season 2] (2016)
It begins with Matt Murdoch taking on the Punisher – perfectly played by Jon Bernthal – and it’s brutal and compelling. But six episodes in, he’s taken into custody, and the season moves onto some far less compelling nonsense about magical ninjas. If those early episodes had been on their own, then it would have been near the very top. As it is they are still quite enough to carry this series to a place above almost all the Marvel/Netflix collaborations.
#14 Doctor Strange (2016)
The plot, jokes and acting provide plenty to enjoy. However, it’s the strange – geddit! – and spectacular visuals that win this film a place high up the pecking order.
#13 Agent Carter [season 2] (2016)
It doesn’t really do much to develop its titular character, nor does it have its focus, clarity or thematic depth of the first season. It does, however, retain its appealing ensemble, period style and effervescent lead. The plot also remains compelling, just not quite as compelling.
#12 Iron Man 3 (2013)
Not only the best of the Iron Man films but also the first demonstration that the Avengers was not a fluke. A lot of people dislike both the twist and separating Tony Stark from the suits for a substantial portion of the runtime. However, I found both of them to be pleasant surprises that kept this instalment from feeling like a re-tread.
#11 Ant Man (2015)
Many of us will mourn the Edgar Wright version of this film that might have existed. Nonetheless, what we got is still a joy. It’s Marvel’s funniest project this side of Guardians. That a lot of that humour depends on visual flair suggests that the film retains at least some of Wright’s spirit.
#10 Agents of Shield [season 3] (2015)
AKA the point that fans of the show got to stop feeling a little embarrassed for liking it. It kicked the quality up a gear for a second time largely because of the acting. Up to this point the central cast had seemed only competent (and sometimes not even that). For much of the second season, they were outshone by supporting characters. However, at this point they really showed they could deliver stellar performances. The best showcase for this is 4722 hours, which sees Elizabeth Henstridge (AKA Simmons) carry a fantastic genre shifting episode almost single-handedly.
#9 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
It’s still funny, it’s still charming, and it still makes you care deeply about a racoon and a tree. It actually improves on its predecessor in several ways. It makes fuller use of Michael Rooker and gives Dave Bautista more chances at scene stealing. Most importantly however, is that in Kurt Russel it gets a substantial villain upgrade. But inevitably it cannot recreate the surprise of the first one.
#8 Spider Man: Homecoming (2017)
Homecoming has been out in the world for barely a week, yet it already seems like the natural way to tell a Spiderman story. The relationship between it and the Raimi and Webb directed outings, now looks like that between Sherlock Holmes and Murders in the Rue Morgue, you can see what they were going for, but it gets there. It will henceforth seem wholly obvious that Peter Parker should seem like an actual high schooler, that quipping should be a key part of his repertoire, that his adventures should connect up to the rest of Marvel’s heroes, and that the Vulture will now be in the starting lineup of Spiderman villains and that he should be depicted like Michael Keaton plays him in Homecoming.
The only thing that keeps it out of the very top tier of the MCU is that the action sequences are a bit ho-hum. Other than that, everything else is nit picking.
#7 The Avengers (2012)
It is big yet it is also clever. It required staggering craftmanship to have this many moving parts click into place and create an elaborate tapestry of superhero awesomeness. Also made Bruce Banner/the Hulk work on screen for the first time.
#6 Daredevil [season 1] (2015)
Marvel could reasonably be accused – from time to time – of cheesiness. That’s not a danger for Daredevil however. It is a bracing blast of bleakness and brutality. Zack Snyder has given gloominess a bad name, but here it is serving a purpose. We get rich themes from Catholicism to the nature of violence via gentrification. That and spectacularly choreographed fight scenes and Vincent D’Onofrio bringing us the MCU’s best villain.
[Check out: The Lord said run to the devil]
#5 Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
The strange thing about Guardians is that it presents itself as the most cynical of the films in the MCU, yet at the same time, it is – apart from its own sequel – also the most sentimental. That contradiction would undermine most films, but it is the making of Guardians. It has so much humour and brio that it manages to sell you on the idea its core characters are at once both heroes and anti-heroes, who have the most likable qualities of both.
[Check out: Hooked on a feeling]
[Please don’t check out my initial reaction to the first trailer which is rather embarrassing in hindsight.]
#4 Agents of Shield [season 4] (2016)
I’m not kidding. It really is better than the Avengers! It is far more ambitious than it has any right to be. It starts out delivering its own version of Ghost Rider into the MCU and then riffs on Age of Ultron, Blade Runner, Westworld, the Matrix, and the Man in the High Castle. Even more remarkably all of them are executed with aplomb.
#3 Captain America: Civil War (2016)
The Avengers series – of which this is an instalment in all but name – has always been in danger of being crushed by the weight of characters and plots it carries. The scaffolding that holds it up is the dynamic between Evans, Downey jr and Johansson; foregrounding that makes for an excellent story.
#2 Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
The most tightly structured and plotted of the films. It benefits from keeping the scale relatively contained. At least for its first two acts, the Winter Soldier is admirably earthbound, light on CGI and relatively naturalistic in its tone. That is perhaps best embodied in the emphasis on hand-to-hand fights that feel much more real than ones with spaceships, robots and lasers.
#1 Agent Carter [season 1] (2015)
It is a shame that the best part of the MCU is also probably the least viewed.
The most obvious reason for this is Hayley Atwell as the titular hero. She manages to make a character with one foot in the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood and another in Whedonesque TV dramas, seem very natural and completely real.
However, the show as a whole is equally excellent. The 1940s spy story is an entertaining genre to play with, and Agent Carter uses it conventions to full effect: it is full of fedoras, poorly lit alleyways, sinister contraptions, and even more sinister Eastern Europeans. However, it also manages to transcend those same conventions. Most obviously by putting a woman at its heart, and rather starkly depicting the injustice of the sexism she faces. It also subtly and effectively depicts a society living in the shadow of a devastating war, as virtually every character is wrestling with some kind of trauma arising from WWII.
Lest that make it sound like a gloomy affair, I should also point out how funny it is. A particular comic treat is the double act of Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark and James D’Arcy as the original human Jarvis, who between them deliver an impressive Jeeves and Wooster pastiche.
If you have not seen it – and given the low viewership figures that led to its untimely cancellation you probably haven’t – then I would urge you to seek it out. It is only a short season – just eight episodes – so it is not a big commitment but it is one that will be repaid many times over.
[Check out: Agent Carter (review)]