Ranked: Marvel Cinematic Universe films, from worst to best, now Black Widow is out

PHOTO: Marvel Studios

With this week’s release of Black Widow  marking the 24th film in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, we look back at the superhero mega-franchise and offer our ranking of every instalment that has been released so far. We kick things off with...

24. Thor: The Dark World (2013)

The second solo film of Chris Hemsworth’s God of Thunder is a diverting mess in which he isn’t even the most interesting part – that would be his wicked brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston).

From Natalie Portman’s astrophysicist conveniently becoming the host of a mighty energy source to the romantic subplot of Darcy the intern, this plays less like a superhero movie than an arbitrary piece of cosmic nonsense.

23. Iron Man 3 (2013)

The MCU’s early attempt to engage the zeitgeist also marks its first misstep, as it makes terrorism the stage of a silly pantomime – even if it stars a captivating Ben Kingsley as its villain.

Meanwhile, audiences in China were left to rue the four minutes of laughably pointless scenes added just for them, featuring Wang Xueqi and Fan Bingbing alongside giant plot holes and gratuitous product placement.

22. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark/Iron Man tempts fate by creating an AI army of fighter robots and everyone else is forced to clear up his mess in this frivolous beat ’em up, which exists as much to set up Civil War as it is to let the Avengers get some fun but inconsequential action.

The best scenes are, ironically, the small moments in which characters banter or contemplate their personal pasts.

21. Thor (2011)

The first outing for Chris Hemsworth’s hammer-wielding hero is a film of two extremes. As dull as the CGI baddies known as the Frost Giants are, the story does bring the series’ greatest anti-hero in Thor’s treacherous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston).

If those sub-par Lord of the Rings battles don’t put you to sleep, a playful surprise is in order when the exiled Thor becomes a fish out of water on Earth.

20. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

A more thrilling film than the fanboy’s opinions would have you believe, this stand-alone outing of Edward Norton’s gamma-afflicted beast is in a doubly awkward position: Being both a corrective reboot to Ang Lee’s soulful take on the green giant in 2003 and, subsequently, a discarded part of MCU, which has since wiped this story off the plate with Mark Ruffalo’s warmer impression.

19. Iron Man 2 (2010)

Robert Downey Jr’s second stab at billionaire inventor Tony Stark is a fun sequel that suffers for its ambition to establish the MCU. Apart from pitting the ailing hero against a pair of lacklustre villains (Sam Rockwell and Mickey Rourke), this uneven chapter looks more interested in setting up an Avengers film – hello, Black Widow and War Machine – than telling a coherent story.

18. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

While the first Guardians of the Galaxy left us in awe with its uber-stylish and uproarious tale about an oddball gang of aliens, this sequel offers more of the same – albeit less refreshingly.

The introduction of Kurt Russell as some sort of deity, who lives on his own planet and declares to be long-lost father of Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), never feels like it could sustain the space opera over its 137-minute runtime.

17. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

Offering much-needed comic relief following the epic tragedy that concluded Avengers: Infinity War , director Peyton Reed’s unapologetically goofy and nearly-as-enjoyable sequel to his 2015 hit marks the first time a female superhero has had her name in the title of an MCU movie.

Evangeline Lilly nails her part as the shrinking heroine in what is also undoubtedly one of the lightest Marvel movies yet.

16. Captain Marvel  (2019)

The first female-led MCU film and a prequel to the Avengers narrative, this is a fun but convoluted attempt to add intrigue to the origin tale of its eponymous intergalactic warrior.

While Oscar winner Brie Larson, playing confused in half the film, doesn’t have the best script to flesh out her personality, Samuel L. Jackson, as a younger Nick Fury, has a field day in the 1990s-set space adventure.

ALSO READ: Smaller in scope but bigger in impact, Black Widow is a great send-off to the Avenger we love

15. Black Panther (2018)

Think the royal intrigue in the Thor movies was epic? Think again after catching this triumphant turn by Chadwick Boseman’s warrior king.

Set in the futuristic African kingdom of Wakanda, the first black-superhero solo feature by Marvel inspires a revolutionary view on racial identity with its thoughtful screenplay, while also introducing a great villain in Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger.

14. Ant-Man (2015)

Who cares about a superhero that can shrink to the size of an ant – and talk to ants? Marvel provides an empathetic answer with this outlandishly delightful caper, which makes good use of Paul Rudd’s every man charm to guide us through a human world in miniature scale. While Evangeline Lilly is set up to become Wasp in the 2018 sequel, Michael Pena is the true MVP here with his hilarious skits.

13. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)

How do you put so many larger-than-life characters – many with their own respective series and all played by movie superstars, no less – into one film without causing a narrative fiasco? Credit writer-director Joss Whedon for finding the way with this surprisingly rousing superhero bash. It is a wonderful ensemble comedy – even if the heroes still end up fighting anonymous aliens from outer space.

12. Doctor Strange (2016)

Who better to call in to play the arrogant genius of the title than the star of Sherlock ?

With Benedict Cumberbatch taking the lead in a cast that also includes art house mainstays Tilda Swinton and Mads Mikkelsen, this mind-bending origin story of the wounded neurosurgeon who goes on to become the sorcerer supreme is an engaging drama which also happens to be a psychedelic visual feat.

ALSO READ: Scarlett Johansson has no plans to play Black Widow again

11. Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019)

Spidey’s second stand-alone outing makes a delightful coda to the 23-film “Infinity Saga” story arc, and leads us into the next phase of the MCU.

Mixing breezy teen romance with globetrotting superhero action, the film sees Peter Parker’s plans to impress his crush on their school trip to Europe interrupted repeatedly by the latest world-saving assignments from Nick Fury. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio provides intrigue while he lasts.

10. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

How do you make a national hero as square as the first Avenger exciting? This origin story finds just the right chemistry by putting a no-nonsense Chris Evans in a second world war adventure which sees him undergo absurd physical transformation and fight Nazis single-handedly.

Any doubt that one might have of Cap’s moral fibre is dispelled by the early scene in which his mortal self jumps on a grenade.

9. Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Some will remember this film – essentially the third Avengers movie in the series – for that ridiculous airport fight between team Iron Man and team Captain America.

Look closer again, however, and you might find some urgent musing on clashing ideologies of global security, a last-act revenge saga pitting family trauma against friendship, and a nice teaser of Spidey and Black Panther’s parts in the franchise.

8. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Nobody was asking for a sixth Spider-Man movie in 15 years, but this young-adult reboot for the web-slinger from Queens does arrive with the added sheen of Iron Man’s hi-tech armour and stop-start mentorship.

Tom Holland proves an impeccable choice for the coming-of-age comedy, realising the deepest fear of every schoolboy when he finds out his high-school crush’s dad is … a supervillain.

ALSO READ: Spider-Man's Tom Holland and Zendaya spotted locking lips in car

7. Black Widow (2021)

How the times have changed since Scarlett Johansson first appeared in an unnecessarily sexualised role in 2010’s Iron Man 2.

Finally receiving the stand-alone movie she deserves, this belated but oh-so-satisfying sign-off for the reluctant assassin from Russia blends thrilling espionage action with a bittersweet story about sisterhood and family ties, as it takes an unexpectedly heartbreaking look into the character’s mysterious past.

6. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

After two disappointing stand-alone films, the God of Thunder is brought to side-splitting life by the brilliant direction of New Zealand comedy filmmaker Taika Waititi.

Paradoxically, the end of Thor’s home planet of Asgard also offers just the premise for this wacky gem, which sees Thor, Hulk and even Loki team up to defy Cate Blanchett and Jeff Goldblum’s glammed-up baddies. It’s a good laugh.

5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo earned their right to lead the next two Avengers extravaganzas with this engrossing contemporary action thriller.

Arguably The Dark Knight of the MCU, this first sequel about Chris Evans’ American hero – and gritty precursor to Civil War – sweeps the audiences off their feet with a labyrinthine espionage plot that surprises and exhilarates in equal measures.

4. Iron Man (2008)

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when neither Robert Downey Jr nor the Iron Man character inspired much confidence in a potential blockbuster series.

Yet from his lovable narcissist Tony Stark to the snappy dialogue and seamless visual effects, this endlessly enjoyable origin film somehow got everything spot on – and set the template for a superhero mega-franchise for the ages.

3. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

While it isn’t fronted by any of Marvel’s top-drawer stars, this riotous ensemble masterpiece by director James Gunn exceeded all expectations with its perfect blend of vibrant visual style, a groovy soundtrack and an enthralling story.

Chris Pratt’s half-human, half-alien hero might be the leader in this intergalactic heist comedy, but few would forget about the thieving raccoon and walking tree in his team, either.

2. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Every little detail that Marvel has planted in the preceding 18 films has come back to escalate this symphony of great laughs, deep emotions and stunning deaths.

Under the astute direction of Winter Soldier ’s Russo brothers, the first half of the series’ two-part climax somehow manages to make a coherent and utterly thrilling whole out of its obscene roster of movie stars. This is the comics nerds’ wildest dream come true.

1. Avengers: Endgame  (2019)

The iconic battle cry “Avengers assemble!” finally makes its entrance in this stunning conclusion to Marvel’s Infinity Saga.

While there was never any doubt that the damage done by Thanos in Infinity War would be reversed here – though the plot device with which to achieve that borders on cheating – this three-hour epic renders any cynical analysis redundant with its genuinely affectionate effort to reward viewers who have invested emotionally, and financially, in the preceding 21 films from the past 11 years.

Unlike the previous Avengers ensemble films, which require minimal series knowledge to enjoy, Endgame is the ultimate payoff for loyal fandom. At its delirious peak, this sci-fi masterpiece may even encourage you to return to 2008’s Iron Man and relive the sprawling series all over again.

ALSO READ: First teaser trailer: All you need to know about Marvel's Eternals

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.