After ten years of build-up and eighteen film installments, tonight is the premiere of Avengers: Infinity War. As part one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s crowning jewel, Infinity War represents a unique event in cinema and the closing of a chapter in the most successful movie franchise in history. The MCU will undoubtedly be remembered by future generations for shaping the industry of its era and—if it’s lucky—for some of the well-crafted movies it managed to produce. With superheroes on everyone’s mind, let’s take a moment to rank the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe:
18. Thor: The Dark World – None of these movies are bad. This one’s just generic and bordering on boring.
17. Iron Man 2 – This sequel captures little of its predecessor’s magic but does include a couple notable performances.
16. Incredible Hulk – It’s better than you remember.
15. Avengers: Age of Ultron – The second Avengers movie marks a demarcation between movies that are entertaining and good and movies that are excellent. Though Whedon’s directorial vision was surely compromised by the studio, his flair and care for the characters is clear. It’s only real vice is not living up to the hype.
14. Thor – Thor, like most of the movies in Marvel’s first phase, comes loaded with humor and heart but lacks some of the special features of its peers.
13. Ant-Man – A nice chaser after Age of Ultron, Ant-Man provided a new genre for Marvel to explore (the heist film) and some glimmers of dismissed writer and director Edgar Wright still shine through.
12. Doctor Strange – Doctor Strange is weird for me. It played with a lot of fun ideas and some really interesting visuals while maintaining the same style as the rest of the MCU. While I may have wanted it to go further, I liked what it did. I liked Strange’s initial psychedelic trip into the world of magic, and I liked the ending a lot. But Doctor Strange had the same problem a lot of Marvel movies have: no real growth. Blah, blah, I’m sure you disagree, but we’ll talk about it more with Spider-Man.
11. Iron Man 3 – Paralleled by only a few other movies on this list, Iron Man 3 demonstrates what it means to understand your own characters. While it took some time to get over my fanboy rage regarding the Mandarin, I came around to appreciated Shane Black’s handling of Tony Stark and tangental structuring of the narrative.
10. Spider-Man: Homecoming – So Spider-Man: Homecoming is a great film; that’s how it got in the top ten. The three best things it had going for it were (1) the jokes—which Marvel always excels at, (2) Peter feeling like a real high schooler, and (3) everything about Michael Keaton’s character. However, as mentioned, Spider-Man has one major issue: Peter doesn’t really learn anything. Just as with The Amazing Spider-Man series, Peter Parker is great and coasts on being right all the time. He is never wrong, never punished for the mistakes he makes. He is a natural at everything he does and saves the day for everyone, never learning to truly rely on anyone else. And that really limits how much you can care about a character.
9. Captain America: The First Avenger – Like Avengers: Age of Ultron, the first Captain movie is a divider, entering us into the greatest of the MCU, the ones that each accomplish something special. And Captain America: The First Avenger is special for delivering a romanticized hero, something audiences hadn’t seen since The Rocketeer or 1978’s Superman.
8. Black Panther – Black Panther offers a creative new setting and a couple well-choreographed fight scenes. However, its greatest asset is its social slant joined with its commercial success, proving that audiences desire intelligent, worthwhile movies even during the summer.
7. Guardians of the Galaxy – The first and second Guardians movies are intelligent, funny, and—like Doctor Strange—visually interesting. They even have a level of depth to them as seen in the first movie by its emotional crux, Rocket Raccoon. (Yes, Rocket is the emotional center of the movie, even more than Quill and his mom.)
6. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 – Though I stand in the minority here, I’ll contend that Guardians 2 is the most clever and stylistically unique of all the MCU movies. This exceptionality is most evident in its visual gags, something unseen in Marvel movies at that point. Moreover, Volume 2 needs to be praised for the emotional and thematic line of fatherhood that gets pulled through the entire narrative and actually results in the main characters’ growth.
5. Thor: Ragnarok – I could see this movie dropping in the rankings when the pure joy of watching it wears off. But for now, Thor: Ragnarok demonstrates a movie with growing characters, some visual humor, and possibly the funniest Marvel script to-date.
4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Like Ant-Man, The Winter Soldier explored a new genre for the Marvel franchise. As an action-oriented spy-thriller, this movie works as a fast-paced genre-blending blockbuster. Its choreographed fight scenes stand out as some of the best in the business.
3. Iron Man – It can be no surprise that the original Marvel movie cracks our top three. Iron Man is significantly more tame than the most recent franchise installments, and by its smaller scope, it delivers one of the most personal stories in the universe. The movie is also noteworthy purely for its cinematic influence, not only for establishing the summer tentpole genre for the next decade but also for demonstrating the power of casting.
2. Captain America: Civil War – Civil War is Marvel’s Empire Strikes Back. It is the low point of the series (emotionally; quality-wise its the highpoint) with dramatic events that shape the franchise. While maintaining the MCU’s signature snark, it manages a darker tone with intimate interactions for its main protagonists. The Russo brothers bring the well-structured narrative and choreographed fights of their first endeavor, The Winter Soldier, to Civil War as well as an openness to the entire Marvel Universe. Perhaps, Civil War’s one weakness is that the stakes are watered down in the last five minutes of the movie to make it more palpable for audiences.
1. The Avengers – Surely you didn’t expect anything else to be number one? Some have said The Avengers doesn’t hold up well. I say: Nonsense. The wit is perfect, the story streamlined. Each character is given their motivation and their story understands that motivation; all threads come together and everything is paid off. In addition to these fundamental virtues, though, The Avengers is a huge movie with huge importance. More than Iron Man, The Avengers showed what the MCU could be and continues to be. It is, in many regards, a perfect movie.
If it’s not already clear, I’m a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The number one reason I study film is to understand summer tentpoles and blockbuster movies, and the installments of the MCU qualify as the definitive summer blockbusters. Beyond that, I grew enchanted by the world of superheroes, so the privilege to be a young adult during the golden age of superhero cinema can’t be overstated. Since 2008’s Iron Man, I’ve gotten excited for each new movie, anxious to see what gold Marvel comes out with each year.
Yet, I think it’s time to quit.
As much as I love the MCU, I want it to stop. I want it to stop because I want it to die with dignity. There’s no way its future movies, or Infinity War for that matter, can live up to the continual hype. Marvel won’t be able to keep it up, and fatigue is already starting to set in with its audiences (and I think that fatigue will multiply dramatically in the audience’s subconscious after Infinity War).
We already mentioned that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the most successful movie franchise of all time. Let’s consider the runners-up. The two top-grossing movie franchises after the MCU are Star Wars and Harry Potter, both excellent series. However, the quality of both of these is primarily concentrated in their original runs. Whenever these series went beyond their central content (Fantastic Beasts for Harry Potter, and for Star Wars this can be seen in the Prequels and even more so in the “Star Wars Story” movies), they began to falter. Two other series near the top are James Bond and The Pirates of the Caribbean—again, both of these became weaker with later editions. I think all of these could have learned from the greatest television series of all time, Seinfeld. In 1998, when Seinfeld aired its ninth and last season, it was by far the most popular show on the air. Yet, it chose to end the show then. It had accomplished what it set out to do. And instead of petering out, it decided to pack up and call it quits.
Will Marvel do this? No. They already have plenty of movies slated to be released after Infinity War, Pt. 2. But does that mean they can’t slow down? Surely they can. I understand that Disney is a business and they’re going to keep cranking out movies as long as they’re making money, but I think and I hope that by the combination of diminishing interest (and thus ticket sales) and by artistic pride, we’ll see the Marvel Universe curtail its cinematic endeavors to a quiet roar. Still, I won’t hold my breath.