In November I ranked the Marvel Cinematic Universe films from worst to best, adding Thor: The Dark World to the list. I used advanced mathematics and paid - out of my own pocket! - for computer time at JPL so I could crunch the numbers correctly. The results were etched in stone truth, the kind of thing that Moses could have brought down from the mountain.
But times have changed. Variables have been altered. And now Captain America: The Winter Soldier has placed all the previous rankings in disarray. Using some of the latest thinking from the brains at MIT, I have recalculated the entire list, using our modern understandings of cosmology and recent theories about the prevalence of dark matter and graviton displacement and present to you the latest official, indisputable rankings of the Marvel movies. You can leave your comments below, but why bother? This shit is science, man.
Iron Man 2
When there is a movie that ranks below Iron Man 2 on this list Marvel Studios will have hit a truly rough patch. Iron Man 2 isn't just a bad Marvel movie, it's a bad movie, one of the worst of its year. The film is a mess from top to bottom, with too much crap crammed in and totally undercooked, so this turkey is dripping with blood and stuffing and cold to the touch. It's the only Marvel movie that feels cynical and rushed - while others have been not good you can at least see what they were going for. WIth Iron Man 2 the mandate seemed to be 'Make Robert Downey Jr happy and also start a march to The Avengers.' I think Jon Favreau buckled under too many thumbs - Downey, Marvel's Kevin Feige and the weird demands and eccentricities of Mickey Rourke.
Blech. I know this one has supporters, but my maths have proven them wrong. Even in the wake of the much-improved Thor: The Dark World this movie comes up very, very short. There are good parts to it - the casting is spot-on, and the character interactions are often wonderful - but as a whole this movie is a stinker, a film more in line with the bad Agents of SHIELD TV series than the better Phase Two films.
The Incredible Hulk
I keep wanting to like this movie. They did their best, and out of the pre-Avengers Phase One films this has the most comic book-y action - Hulk uses a car as boxing gloves! - but it just never comes together. It has a lot of heart, though, and I respect it for the attempt. It's the first movie on this list so far I could imagine myself rewatching.
And now we come to the first upset. In the previous rankings Iron Man scored way, way higher. But something has happened: the variables have changed. While Iron Man is still very, very good, the Phase Two films have shown that Marvel can do spectacle as well as character without sacrificing one or the other. Iron Man, the venerable start to all of this, is a movie so low on action it's almost a straight drama. Compare that to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which packs multiple big action scenes into a movie that's also almost a drama. Our current calculations now place almost all of the Phase One films below the Phase Two movies. This doesn't mean Iron Man is bad... just that the rest are better.
Thor: The Dark World
A rewatch confirms this position; while Malekith is a crummy villain, everything else in Thor: The Dark World is fun and well-done. Those same good characters and interactions from the first film are now set against a more expansive and exciting backdrop, with bigger and more thrilling stakes. And Loki gets to do lots of interesting stuff; it's hard to deny that these films are, at their heart, buddy pictures with Thor and Loki as the main duo. This film gets that. Do we want more of that when the film is over? Yes, but that's how you should always walk away from a movie - wanting more, not feeling overindulged.
Captain America: The First Avenger
The first Cap hopped a spot! In November this ranked below Thor: The Dark World, but a rewatch shows that it's simply the best Phase One film. This movie gets Captain America - a difficult character in this post-Iraq world - so effortlessly right it's easy to forget that this looked to be the least sure bet out of the whole MCU. And while The First Avenger definitely has its problems - the third act doesn't really work - its successes are extraordinary. Chris Evans is the living emodiment of this 70 year old character, and the film's tone is absolutely pitch-perfect. This film defines what a Marvel movie should be, and the range of emotions - from chin-up optimism to giddy hopefulness to melancholic loss - is impressive for any mainstream film, letalone a superhero movie.
Iron Man Three
Marvel couldn't have planned a better opener to Phase Two if they had tried. While the Iron Man films had been the spine of the universe, Marvel knew they wanted to transfer that position to the Avengers movies, and so they drew Iron Man's story to (more or less) a close. But along the way they pulled out the rug from what audiences had come to expect, and Iron Man Three is a movie that very much has its own identity, its own rhythms and its own peculiar personality. This was the opening salvo of Phase Two, where Marvel announced these movies were going to feel different, and where they let us know the only sacred thing for them is strong character work.
I don't even know that I have to explain this. It's kind of the opposite of Captain America: The FIrst Avenger in that the first act is sort of weak, but once it gets roaring The Avengers is a popcorn masterpiece. It's crammed with delight, and the careful sketching of each character gives us the same sort of thrill at their team-up comic fans once had before constant crossovers were the order of the day. The team-up here feels special, and the threat feels legitimately tough. As for the math on this film: I watch it all the time. I'm not a big movie rewatcher, but the glorious, delirious character spectacle (and it's the character stuff that tickles me more than the action stuff) makes The Avengers an almost constant Blu in my player. It would take one helluva movie to knock this down from the top spot...
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Oh no he didn't. Oh yes he did! Sure, I've only seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier the once, but that one viewing gave me all the variables I need to place this film at the top of the Marvel heap. It has the best action, the best story, the best character work. But what makes it the top ranked movie is the fact that there are other movies behind it - and I don't mean that in some sort of meta way. The Winter Soldier works this well because it's the latest entry in the continuing Marvel Saga; it's the third main appearance by Cap and it takes place in a world we've been visiting regularly for years. The twists and turns and betrayals in The Winter Soldier carry more weight because there's history there. This is a rare film that shows why sequels can be better than standalones - at least when they're approached not as individual cash-ins but as longterm storytelling.
And The Winter Soldier stands above the other films (especially the Phase One films) in terms of production value; directorial team Joe and Anthony Russo tease so much quality out of the extra pennies Marvel is no longer pinching. While the story is temporally short and personal in nature, it's sweeping in scale and power. Many of the Marvel movies have had the feeling of scrappy down-home productions, but Phase Two has left that behind, and The Winter Soldier in particular feels like it deserves to stand alongside any other big budget action picture from the last thirty years.