Avengers: Endgame is the conclusion to an unprecedented, 22-movie, in-continuity run from Marvel Studios. There were ups and downs along the way. There were story arcs kicked off, wrapped up, and tabled for use down the road. Characters were born in comic book, origin-story fashion, and killed off in all their glory. The Marvel movies, to date, ran the gamut of genre and flavor: but which ones ranked the best in the end?
There was an idea. The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people, the Polygon staff, to see if it could produce … a list. See if it could work together when the Marvel-loving audience needed them, to fight the battles of ranking each individual Marvel movie. So we did that.
Below, you’ll find the 22 MCU canon films ranked from worst to best. Go forth, and at the end, consider grabbing shawarma.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for every Marvel movie, including Avengers: Endgame]
22. Iron Man 2 (2010)
The first MCU sequel became notorious for rolling through production without a finished script. Even after the heavily improvised Iron Man left Jeff Bridges fuming, director Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr., and writer Justin Theroux (yes, the star of The Leftovers) took the mapped out most of Iron Man 2 on the fly. Unfortunately, whatever happened the first time didn’t happen again: Tony Stark’s second outing is a glue-and-popsicle-sticks creation with inert action and flirtatious relationship with the Demon in a Bottle arc. It’s almost shocking how one-note the movie is, when compared to the precision storytelling that’s defined the MCU over the years.
Let’s just say a lot has changed in the nine years since Iron Man 2 maxed out Tony Stark’s worst quirks. HIs hyper-smooth dialogue and womanizing ways are cringey, and Favreau’s direction fails Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff when stacked up to her continued work in the franchise. Though Mickey Rourke grunts and whips his way through a fun scene at the Monaco Historic Grand Prix, the set pieces mostly stop there. There’s no scene-setting for Rhodey and Tony’s drunken fight in the Stark compound. The MCU world-building with Nick Fury is forced and endless. The finale with War Machine is a blur. Iron Man 2 is like watching some goofballs steal your action figures for two hours and throw them in the mud. For better or worse, Kevin Feige never let this type of ragtag blockbuster style happen on his watch ever again. —Matt Patches
21. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
So, OK, Louis Leterrier’s parkour-laden Hulk movie isn’t a total slam dunk, but it’s the kind of movie where, the more I think about it, the more I’m like, “Well, maybe it was good?” Here’s what it’s got going for it: Ed Norton makes a pretty good Hulk, Tim Blake Nelson is terrific as a proto-Leader, the Hulk sequences are kinda scary, and Tim Roth’s whole bit as a villain is basically “I’m afraid of growing old.” The finale devolves into CGI soup and the movie is less than the sum of its parts, but those parts are commendable. And it’s still embraced as part of the official Marvel Cinematic Universe, unlike Eric Bana’s Hulk, which serves as a foundation for this not-quite-a-sequel. —Karen Han
20. Thor (2011)
The first Thor movie isn’t quite Masters of the Universe-level committed to trapping fantasy characters on Earth for budgetary reasons, but hesitation is there. The origin story quickly kicks Thor to Earth to deal with SHIELD politics, become enchanted by Jane Foster, and protect the people of New Mexico from the Destroyer. Director Kenneth Branagh was an obvious choice to give the Asgardian tale some Shakespearean heft, but instead of challenging the material, his canted angles and epic sensibilities flatten it out. The movie has saviors: Chris Hemsworth (hilarious, even here, throwing coffee mugs on the ground), Natalie Portman (every bit as alive and romantic as Margot Kidder in Superman), and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki (just menacing). The trifecta wouldn’t last, but their chemistry here is worthy. —MP
19. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
WIth the grand finale of the Infinity Saga, the MCU followed a Hollywood trend. Just like Harry Potter, Twilight, the Hunger Games, and The Hobbit, which squeezed three movies out of a 300-page children’s book, Infinity War opted to be part one of two. Those films all suffer from pacing issues, drawing out scenes that don’t move the plot forward, inserting unnecessary set pieces, and/or leaving entire plotlines unresolved, and as much new ground as Thanos’ story demanded, Infinity War still suffers from those issues.
None of the heroes in Infinity War complete any sort of character arc, and the big snap moment — a gut punch — dissipates in the memory. Infinity War is flashy and fun because Marvel movies are flashy and fun, but it exists to conjure splash pages and set up Avengers: Endgame. As time passes, the film plays like a three-hour inciting incident that cross cuts between characters we want to spend an entire movie with. We respect Infinity War more than we enjoy it. —Emily Heller
18. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
The thing to understand is that Thor has always been good. He’s always been a big sweetie with a good sense of humor, it’s just that it’s been a little hard to see past the faux-Shakespearean quality of Asgard. I’ve read the arguments against Thor: The Dark World, I’ve carefully reconsidered my stance, and all I have to say is that the annals of history will vindicate me when I say that, even while a lesser MCU movie that chases Game of Thrones hype, The Dark World is not boring or bad. The science is zany, the high fantasy is goofy, the family dynamics are genuinely touching, and Chris Hemsworth is making early plays at his rightful title as The Best Chris. —KH
17. Doctor Strange (2016)
The Sorcerer Supreme’s debut is the epitome of middle-of-the-road-at-worst quality that Marvel Studios has consistently been able to produce. But despite some truly unique visual design and a few strong performances, the creative forces behind this origin story fail their most fundamental test: Making Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange likeable or interesting. We know it’s possible — just look at his extended cameo in Thor: Ragnarok — but ultimately the MCU’s Doctor Strange is like his comic book counterpart in one too many respects, for now. He’s historically been much better in guest appearances than his solo ones. —Susana Polo
16. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
After basking in the glow of the Avengers first combined fight, Joss Whedon delivered the grungiest of the team-up movies. The opening splash shot is aggressive and jarring, a Saving Private Ryan D-Day sequence for superpowered combos. The adventure whisks the heroes around the map to fight terrorism, robotic clones of the Hal 9000-esque Ultron, and in the case of a brainwashed Hulk, themselves. The only breath of air is also one of the finest moments in the series: the Avengers lounging at Stark’s pad, drinking, palling around, and trying to pick up Thor’s hammer. Bliss.
Whedon pushes every visual and narrative idea to a breaking point, then soaks the remains in a brownish hue that, after the Phase 3 run, looks like the anti-Marvel. Everything wrong that gets smashed together in Age of Ultron — down to the corny-yet-sinister timbre of James Spader’s robot voice — is also why the movie’s better-than-expected in retrospect. Age of Ultron would have made a great mini-series. —MP
15. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is bigger and messier than its predecessor, but that’s not an entirely bad thing. The entire MCU is built on the idea of found family even more than it is everyday heroism, and the Guardians movies are the most explicit — and most effective — in this regard. Vol. 2 reveals Peter Quill’s lineage as the son of Ego, a Celestial played by none other than Kurt Russell. But it’s Yondu, the blue buccaneer who actually raised him, and who truly cares for him, while the motley crew of so-called guardians are his real family. It’s a sweet movie, and cameos from Michelle Yeoh and Sylvester Stallone as space pirates don’t hurt. —KH
14. Ant-Man (2015)
After a creative squabble between Edgar Wright, announced in 2008 as the director of this movie, and Marvel, Peyton Reed (Bring It On) took the reins and wound up delivering the quirkiest standalone in the franchise. There are some prickly issues people have with this movie — why anyone would sideline Wasp, one of the original Avengers, when you have Evangeline Lilly, built to tear through bad guys, is beyond comprehension — but as a high-flying heist movie with a sense of humor, Ant-Man more than carries its weight. Paul Rudd is perfect casting: he’s a schmuck with a heart, and the right scream to make shrinking down and almost being hit by a Thomas the Tank Engine model sound like true life or death. A breezy time, sure, but a plucky score (one of the few memorable soundtracks in the MCU) and character actors galore makes this installment the full package. —MP
13. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
The movie, perhaps accurately described as Avengers: Disassembled, is a necessary step in the larger Infinity Saga and, in retrospect, mostly serves to lay the groundwork for the big pieces delivered in Infinity War. Civil War gives us the first look at both Black Panther and Spider-Man, and one of the best — certainly the most fan-service-y — action sequences to date. The airport battle stages brilliant choreography, giving every character a moment to shine, be fierce, and show off personality. But in retrospect, the movie feels more like moving chess pieces to set up something bigger. Zemo, the villain, is clever in that his defining characteristic is having no special powers whatsoever, but his master plan is helped by some surprisingly accelerated tears in the Stark-Rogers relationship (with credit to Age of Ultron for laying that track). Civil War had the sisyphean task of breaking up a mostly cohesive team within a two-and-a-half-hour runtime. It was a rocky journey, but at least it was great eye candy. —Ross Miller
12. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
In a feat of shrinking and enlarging, Ant-Man and the Wasp did more of everything that was good about its predecessor and less of everything that was bad. The movie is more tonally consistent than Ant-Man, more inventive, and even makes you more interested in its characters, heroes and villains.
Perhaps the least “superheroic” of the MCU, the movie bounces from mundane locations (offices, a house in the woods, a marina), has a subplot about running a small business, and no one is asked to save the world, much less the local metro area. Still, all the Quantum Realm talk is sci-fi catnip and the heist-style action creates a whirlwind; director Peyton Reed’s bigger-small-bigger car chase through the streets of San Francisco matches laughs and thrills. If we were ranking the MCU movies on how funny they are, it’d be in the top three. —SP
11. Captain Marvel (2019)
The MCU formally introduced Carol Danvers on the heels of half a dozen origin stories about the central (male) cast of the Avengers. Captain Marvel doesn’t do much to disrupt the typical superhero formula, but instead shows that yes, this formula works for the most power person in the galaxy, a woman, too. Aside from a few nods to the Tesseract, this one stands on its own without much prior MCU knowledge, a beaming portrait of trauma, recovery, and understanding wound around an intergalactic conflict. The exploration goes down easy with Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson in the cockpit, their easy banter throwing back to buddy cop movies of a bygone era. Captain Marvel also subverts the typical arc of a female hero by having Carol find her strength through ugly, unladylike emotions of rage, anger, and pettiness. —Petrana Radulovic
10. Iron Man 3 (2013)
Following up 2012’s The Avengers was going to be tough for any film but Downey Jr. and writer-director Shane Black — who previously worked together Kiss Kiss Bang Bang — leaned into the challenge by both pulling back on the cosmic and leaning into the emotional aftermath. The Tony Stark in Iron Man 3 is a textbook example of someone with post traumatic stress disorder. It is the movie with the most Iron Man suits in one action scene, and yet Stark spends the least amount of time in the suit. Nor can he rely on his then-iconic lab, showing how resourceful he can be using a standard-stock home garage in rural Tennessee (and also showing, pre-Peter Parker, his fatherly instincts with Ty Simpkins’ Harley). While the Extremis-enhanced finale is explosive, the most memorable scene has to be the entire mansion action sequence, from beginning to end. —RM
9. The Avengers (2012)
Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor all worked separately, but smashing them together for one well-balanced mission still seemed out of reach for Earth’s mightiest heroes. But Joss Whedon delivered a masterclass in action geography, power levels, and character payoff, using the friction of the first half of the movie (which, admittedly, is wobbly pace-wise) to ignite the Battle of New York in the end.
The Avengers mainstreamed an unprecedented level of geekery. We got quippy one-liners, epic character introductions (THOR SMASHLANDS ON A PLANE!!!!), and the tight, tense, action-packed finale found room for all the heroes — even Hawkeye and his bow-and-arrow — a chance to shine. For comic fans, watching the core Avengers team up for the first time was a dream come true. For many others, it was the first moment they fell in love with and invested in the crew. —PR, MP
8. Iron Man (2008)
TONY STARK WAS ABLE TO BUILD THIS IN A CAVE WITH A BOX OF SCRAPS!
Obadiah Stane’s iconic outburst aside, the movie that started it all remains one of the most solid entries in the canon. As an introduction to the character of Iron Man, and a tease of the expanded universe to come, it’s unsurprisingly a terrific standalone of man’s violent awakening. Tony Stark’s is a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, but in his early days, he was an arms manufacturer. The explosive revelations that cause him to completely alter the direction of his family company — let alone take up the mantle of a superhero — are surprisingly heavy stuff, particularly as it turns out his surrogate father figure is the one angling to betray him. —KH
7. Captain America The Winter Soldier (2014)
In The Winter Soldier, Steve Rogers’ story shifts from World War II pulp adventure to gritty ’00s spy thriller action. The MCU debut of fraternal director duo Anthony and Joe Russo is slickly written, beautifully filmed, and engagingly (fight) choreographed. It’s even funny! “On your left,” anyone?
Though the positioning of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War on this list attests to the fact that the Russos’ post-Winter Soldier record has not been spotless, you can see exactly why the film was enough for Marvel to promote them into Joss Whedon’s vacated Avengers role. A critical darling (or relatively so, for an action flick) it was also one of the earliest indications that Marvel could make more than just popcorn movies.
That said, it’s not quite as cerebral as its biggest fans would have it — no matter how you slice it, the idea of Hydra lying hidden in SHIELD for seven whole decades is Comic Book Logic — but still a solid movie with a huge impact on the MCU. For example, it put the Stucky ship on the map, a bucket-load of subtext that the MCU has been trying to walk back ever since. —SP
6. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Many of the best, recent Marvel movies were removed from the events of the larger MCU. Guardians of the Galaxy could not be further from the action, telling a story that doesn’t have to be overly concerned with tying into a larger arc, and seizing the freedom (while still finding room for an Infinity Stones explainer). Yes, the movie revolves around the Power Stone, but it’s mostly a MacGuffin; the important thing is that a bunch of misfits learn to get along and work together to save the world — and each other. Plus, the soundtrack rules. The final cue, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” on a tape Quill’s mother made for him before she died, never fails to make me cry. —KH
5. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
With few exceptions — notably, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy movies, whose then-disconnection with the rest of the MCU had mostly allowed his weirdness to shine — Marvel’s films have been defined by their narrative and stylistic cohesion, allowing just a few hints of a director’s personal style to come through. Then Taika Waititi happened. The What We Do in the Shadows director took one of the MCU’s most staid franchises and managed to make it the most adventurous, the most colorful, and certainly the weirdest. He also showed that Chris Hemsworth (and every actor involved, for that matter) could blend action star aesthetic with hilarious character work. Thor: Ragnarok is earnestly funny, immensely quotable (especially anything Korg), and looking back, expanded the definition of what an MCU film can be. —RM
4. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
For all the action, the callbacks, and the conclusions, Endgame soars because there are reasons to love and care about the characters of the MCU once again. Endgame rewards fans for sticking with the franchise for 10 years, even while reinventing them with new dramatic pulse. In the final scenes, longtime saga screenwriters Chris Markus and Stephen McFeely satisfyingly wrapping up its core characters’ arcs and make room for the next chapter. The MCU in a nutshell.
Despite the fervor over spoilers, nothing happens in Endgame that fans didn’t predict, but the movie still earns those big, dramatic moments with an expertly crafted story and meaty character work. Defeating Thanos is almost an afterthought; I was legitimately surprised when he was killed in the first act. Instead, Endgame makes up for Infinity War’s lack of emotional weight by giving the heroes room to breathe, mourn, and piece their lives back together after the snap.
Avengers: Endgame has flaws: The MCU has always underutilized Black Widow and her death didn’t feel earned. The “empowerment” moments feel forced. We could have done without the fat jokes. But at its best it seamlessly blends bombastic comic book storytelling, self-aware humor, and earnest character moments, a formula that Marvel has never quite gotten right. We don’t tear up over Tony Stark’s death because we’re told to — we feel it. —EH
3. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Spider-Man: Homecoming stars the most iconic superhero in the Marvel Universe, and treats him like the runt of the litter. The MCU’s Spidey is younger and clumsier than previous iterations, not particularly great at saving the day without causing some trouble in the process.
Sure, we know that Peter Parker’s pals with Iron Man, but Homecoming doesn’t show him respect simply because of his flashy connections. Director Jon Watts frames him as an also-ran. Wider — sometimes very wide — shots make Spider-man appear itty bitty, a bug in a big city. He gets punched and crunched, his attacks miss and his acrobats sometimes land with a splat. And because the camera pulls back, we actually get to see all of this. Neither the action nor the humor get lost in close-ups and rapid fire edits.
When filmmakers shot the classic MGM musicals they’d film dance numbers from a distance, understanding clarity trumped fancy framing. They trusted the performance could do the heavy lifting. Watts and his Spider-Man: Homecoming collaborators do something similar. They use the camera to show us being a superhero is super hard, that it’s more fun to watch Spider-Man try (and often fail) to carve out his place in the universe. —Chris Plante
2. Black Panther (2018)
Black Panther is the only MCU movie to win an Oscar — three of them, to be exact. Why Ryan Coogler’s movie deserved them is the reason we’ll be talking about the movie long after the dust settles on Endgame.
Serving as an anthem to Afrofuturism for a global audience, the film is one of the most fiercely and eloquently political movies in the MCU canon, featuring career highlight performances from actors like Michael B. Jordan, Letitia Wright, Sterling K. Brown, Winston Duke, and Danai Gurira. It’s the first Marvel movie to have a truly great villain since Loki in Avengers. It’s funny in its familial dynamic, a visual feast, and the perfect introduction to an ensemble cast of characters ripe with potential for future installments. And the soundtrack, if you’ll pardon my french, totally slaps.
It may not have been voted to the top spot in our list, but the Black Panther isn’t an elected position. He is our king. —SP
1. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
In tallying the votes, the Polygon staff found itself in near-universal agreement that Steve Rogers transformative moment was an early pinnacle for the MCU. The events of Endgame serve as a perfect reminder: Steve, whether he’s a lanky kid watching the world go to war or a bulked-up super-soldier blocking laser blasts with a vibranium shield, will do the right thing, establishment be damned.
The First Avenger buck(y)s the trend of a traditional hero’s journey; Cap dreams of joining the fight, and when the moment comes, he enlists with little hesitation (no one can resist Stanley Tucci). Instead, the MCU becomes Steve’s Twilight Zone, rattling him out of his government-endorsed, “Star-Spangled Man” disillusionment to become something greater than he could have ever imagined. Captain America: The First Avenger is romantic, but rebellious, even as director Joe Johnston imbues the action and drama with 1940 serial-adventure flair.
Period films have an advantage of being familiar, but not. The First Avenger is up there with the Indiana Jones movies in how wrings the throwback opportunity. The WWII setting opens the floodgates for design. There will never be an MCU duo as dreamy as Steve and Peggy. There will never be a villain scooped up from as far down in hell as Red Skull. Then there’s Chris Evans, whose compassion and physical force convinces us to love the most earnest human on the planet. Endgame wraps up his arc in a profound way, but every second of The First Avenger pushes him in that momentous direction. —MP