Since 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has cemented its place as a pop culture juggernaut,
but while some of those movies are great, a few of them are just a good excuse to get
some more popcorn during your 40-hour movie marathon.
Here’s every entry in the MCU, from the superheroes to skip, down to the best must-see
movies of the bunch.
Thor: The Dark World
In theory, 2013's The Dark World has everything you could want - except fun.
Chris Hemsworth is as charming as ever, and it’s based on one of the greatest comic
book runs of all time.
It’s got a Star Wars-style attack on Asgard by spaceships flown by dark elves!
The rock monsters from Thor's very first comics appearance! Thor and Loki teaming up for revenge
against the villain that killed their mom, climaxing in a fistfight in which Thor and
Malekith are literally punching each other so hard that they land in other dimensions!
Unfortunately, while all of that sounds good on paper, it's actually both super boring,
and confusing to boot.
Traits it shares with...
The Incredible Hulk
When Nick Fury showed up at the end of Iron Man and hinted at the idea of a full-on shared
universe of superhero movies, fans were thrilled.
And then The Incredible Hulk hit theaters a month later and proved you should really
be careful what you wish for.
It's not that the film is terrible.
But it's something almost worse: forgettable.
Which is a real shame when you consider that it does so much right.
For one thing, if you're going to make a movie about a nerdy scientist with anger issues
so powerful they could level a whole town, getting the guy who starred in Fight Club
to play Bruce Banner is a pretty solid move.
For another, the filmmakers realized audiences didn't need a full-blown origin story to get
up to speed.
Tying the Hulk’s origin into Captain America and the Super Soldier program was the first
stumbling step towards building the full-on shared universe.
In the end, though, it just didn't quite land.
Iron Man 2
Sam Rockwell literally dancing across the stage to present his army of Iron Man drones
is endlessly delightful, but there's a lot in this movie that doesn't involve Justin
Hammer busting a move, too, and that's where it fails to measure up to its predecessor.
Hammer and Whiplash both serve as evil versions of Tony Stark, bringing unnecessary complications
to the story.
Even worse, the scene when Stark goes down into his basement with a particle accelerator
to somehow build a new element might be the goofiest thing in the entire MCU, and those
movies have a talking raccoon from space.
At the same time, Iron Man 2 was a confident stride towards the full MCU, introducing the
Black Widow and War Machine, and even teasing Thor's arrival in the next film.
There's a lot there to like, and even if it's outweighed by the bad stuff, we'll always
have Justin Hammer's dance moves.
Iron Man 2 might've been the first big step towards fleshing out the Marvel Universe,
but Thor was the first time we actually got to see its scope in action.
With Thor we got Asgard in all its glory, complete with a rainbow laser bridge, epic
battles against frost giants, and—perhaps most importantly—those big ol' Jack Kirby
hats that Norse gods apparently love to wear.
It even gave us a viking god robot with a face made of death lasers.
And it introduced us to arguably the best villain in the whole MCU, Loki.
Like Thor: The Dark World, though, the original Thor film somehow ended up feeling like less
than the sum of its parts.
It should have been great, but it ended up merely... okay.
Iron Man 3
Iron Man 3 tried to do something different, and it succeeded brilliantly.
Unfortunately, what it was trying to do was defy expectations by completely undermining
everything fans loved about Iron Man and the MCU.
Iron Man 3 explores how the smartest guy in the room deals with living in a world that's
becoming something he can't predict.
It's a movie about a superhero with an anxiety disorder, which results in Iron Man spending
the entire movie not wanting to be Iron Man, and thus being Iron Man as little as possible.
Plus, there was the whole fake Mandarin thing, which some people loved... but most fans were
either confused or disappointed by.
Director Shane Black deserves credit for his bold vision, which made for a good movie - just
not a good Marvel movie.
When 2016's Doctor Strange was announced, the big question for comics fans was how the
mind-bending psychedelic sorcerer of the mystical Marvel Universe was going to fit into the
As comic fans know, things get pretty weird.
And from a visual standpoint, the filmmakers absolutely nailed it.
The splitting realities in the movie's fight scenes were beautifully weird, and the ghostly
ethereal plane where life-and-death battles for the fate of the Earth could rage unseen
was great for showing how different Stephen Strange's world was.
From a story standpoint, though, it seemed a little too familiar, as the story beats
were basically Iron Man with magic.
Still, you can do worse than copying one of the most popular superhero films ever, and
the fantastic climax, with Strange's time-bending bargain with Dormammu, is one of the best
finales in the MCU to date.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Juggling a massive cast of superheroes is a difficult task, and while Avengers: Age
of Ultron doesn't manage it quite as well as the other two Avengers films - or Captain
America: Civil War - it does a pretty good job of balancing character bits with all-out
Sure, some parts seem half baked, like Tony Stark apparently forgetting every lesson he
learned in Iron Man 3, and Thor's weird spirit quest.
But it boasts a great final battle…
"Is that the best you can do!?"
...not to mention the introduction of fan favorite characters Vision and Scarlet Witch.
Avengers: Age of Ultron isn't perfect, but it still packs in a lot of fun.
Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2
The first Guardians of the Galaxy movie proved that the MCU could get weird and cosmic and
still be incredibly entertaining.
The second one proved that wasn't a fluke.
If anything, it went even bigger.
The first movie brought us stuff like the Nova Corps and Ronan the Accuser, but Vol.
2 has about a half hour of superheroes battling Ego the Living Planet.
It's got waves of space drones swarming into starship battles, a warp drive sequence that
knows exactly how silly it is, and it features the best Stan Lee cameo in cinema history
and the single best use of a Zune in anything, ever.
It's tempting to say Ant-Man shouldn't have worked as well as it did, and that a second-tier
superhero with the ability to get really tiny and talk to ants was a big surprise when he
started to rake in billions.
Really, though, it's not that unexpected.
After all, Marvel's first big movie success came from a pretty obscure D-Lister from the
pages of Tomb of Dracula.
Audiences have always been interested in stories that twist the expected superhero plot points
around into something new, and that's where Ant-Man really delivers.
As easy as it would've been to portray Scott Lang as a microscopic version of Iron Man,
his story felt different.
"Hey, are we the good guys?"
"We're the good guys, right?"
"Yeah, we're the good guys."
"Feels kinda weird, you know?"
The movie has its missteps, like going out of its way to justify not having the Wasp
show up until the sequel, but on the other hand, this is a movie in which the hero loses
a fight with a toy train, and Chekhov's Gun is actually Chekhov's 60-Ton Tank.
That The Avengers works at all is pretty impressive, but that it works as well as it did?
That's basically a miracle.
Even less than a decade later, it's difficult to remember that this was the first time that
anything like this had been attempted: a movie that combined characters who had been established
in their own films, each with their own tone and style.
In bringing them together, Joss Whedon had to balance the fantasy of Thor, the snarky
sci-fi of Iron Man, and the sincere superheroics of Captain America, combining them all—along
with Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow—with stakes that were high enough to bring everyone
together for a single adventure.
And this movie does it.
Those big stakes mostly result from an army of faceless aliens, but even that paid off
years later in Avengers: Infinity War.
And, Loki getting Hulk-Smashed like a Looney Tunes character was the most fun superhero
movies had ever been.
It's safe to say Iron Man surprised us all.
It's not that we expected it to be bad.
Tony Stark's origin story is a pretty good fit for a Hollywood action movie, it had a
great cast, and while director Jon Favreau might've been best known for Elf, that wasn't
really a bad thing.
But still, none of us expected it to be so good that it would become the foundation of
the entire MCU.
To say that it was an exceptionally powerful launch would be an understatement.
[crash and grunting]
There are times when this feels less like a "superhero" movie and more like a popcorn
revenge flick where the hero just happens to have a flying suit of armor, but it did
its job so well that those shortcomings are easy to forgive.
Captain America: The First Avenger
The First Avenger does origin stories better than most, and a lot of that has to do with
In a franchise that's full of amazing casting choices, Evans pulls off the incredible feat
of embodying a square-jawed, relentlessly earnest product of the military-industrial
complex in a way that makes him impossible not to like.
For all the super-strength, that's a character whose real super-power is making you believe
in him, and that’s exactly what this movie does.
“I can do this all day.”
As good as it was on its own, it also serves as the proof-of-concept for the superhero
movie as a period piece, and gave the MCU a history that went further back than 2008
and Tony Stark’s cave.
Guardians of the Galaxy
The first Guardians of the Galaxy movie manages to balance so much stuff going on that you
almost don't notice how complicated it is for all the fun you're having.
It’s got a team of lovable misfits dealing with their own issues while fighting against
a massive threat, expansive interstellar empires, and a retro feel supported by a classic rock
soundtrack that doesn't feel like it's wallowing in the past.
All that, and still tells a story so fun that it made Rocket Raccoon a household name.
It breaks the formula in every way it can, to the point where it's a superhero team movie
that ends with a dance-off and the heroes literally saving the universe with the power
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Everything about The Winter Soldier reinforces the idea that Captain America is exactly the
guy you want to have the power to save the world.
The notebook full of pop culture references that he needs to look up to understand the
world around him.
The friendship with Sam Wilson that starts with bonding over their wartime experience.
The loyalty to his friends that leads him to risk his own life to save Bucky.
He even gives his opponents one last chance to back out before he beats up an elevator
full of traitors.
All of these pieces did add up to a whole that's incredible, even before you get to
how much of the movie is based around Steve Rogers just kicking the living hell out of
That stuff's pretty fun, too.
Captain America: Civil War
Even though Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes are unquestionably the focus of Civil War,
there's a pretty convincing argument to be made that this movie should've been called
Avengers: Civil War instead.
It has everyone in it, and they aren't just cameos, either.
Ant-Man, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch and War Machine all get huge, character-developing moments
in the middle of a superheroic Royal Rumble, while the Avengers are split by a villain
who wound up getting exactly what he wanted.
And if that wasn't enough, it's also the movie that introduced movie audiences to Black Panther
The characters are never flattened out to fit, and the three-way fight at the end has
not only some of the best action in the MCU, but some of the most emotional moments, too.
After a his debut in Civil War, T’Challa’s first solo movie came with some pretty high
Not only did it live up to them, it blew right past them for one of the MCU’s best movies.
Maybe it's because Chadwick Boseman's T'Challa is a character struggling with the weight
of expectations himself.
The Black Panther is more than up for the challenge, but the journey he takes to get
there is full of compelling complications, from the reveal that his father wasn’t the
flawlessly honorable man that he thought, to a an enemy with some very justifiable anger
at the world around him.
It’s a superhero struggle that goes far beyond the punch-out battle in the climax.
Black Panther never shies away from its high-tech comic book roots, but tells a story that's
very much rooted in the real world, and it does it beautifully.
Avengers: Infinity War
More than any other superhero movie, Infinity War captures the feeling of an epic comic
There are multiple interconnected stories going on at the same time, each with its own
flavor, bridging different story arcs and making sure every single character gets a
moment in the spotlight.
When it comes together at the end, it’s a fight across multiple planets where the
unbelievably high stakes become very real for both the characters and the fans who have
been invested in these movies for a full ten years.
That’s a tough enough bit of storytelling to pull off well even in comic books, and
they’ve had decades of practice.
Seeing it done here, in a single movie that still has that feeling of encompassing a whole
No other movie has ever done that, and it’s hard to imagine another one doing it this
To say that Ragnarok lifts heavily from Walt Simonson's mid-'80s epic run on The Mighty
Thor is putting it mildly.
The only things in this movie that weren't directly inspired by Simonson are the pieces
it pulls directly from Marvel's more recent Planet Hulk storyline, right down to the Hulk's
The thing is, Taika Waititi's film chops up all those pieces and rearranges them into
something that’s both different and genuinely hilarious.
"That's exactly what Doug used to say.
See you later, new Doug."
That part isn't surprising, considering that before Ragnarok, Waititi was probably best
known for co-directing the vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, but it takes advantage
of Chris Hemsworth's infuriatingly good comedic timing.
"Just had to be sure."
As good as it is on its own, the fact that Peter Parker swings into action after 15 other
movies means we don't have to waste time with an origin story.
Thematically, Homecoming builds on everything that came before in a truly incredible way,
with direct callbacks to Tony Stark's character arc that show how different Peter Parker is
from the hero he's trying to impress.
The idea of a superhero universe erupting around otherwise normal people is the conflict
that drives everything about the movie.
Take that away and you've still got great characters, great action, and one of the best
scenes in the franchise.
With it, though, you've got pure magic.
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