In recent years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and, to a lesser extent, the D.C. Extended Universe (DCEU), have dominated the box office. Since the release of “Iron Man” in 2008, a steady stream of superhero movies has flooded the market yearly—some good, many bad.
As a fan of the films myself, I have seen nearly every single one, but I find it hard, at times, to keep a sense of perspective about how they stack up to each other; to be fair, we are talking about nearly a decade’s worth of cape-clad cinema. To help myself and anyone else struggling with this embarrassment of comic book riches, I’ve created a list, starting with the worst and working down to the best, of all the superhero movies released in the last nine years.
For the sake of brevity, and because of the MCU and DCEU’s dominance in the last ten years, these rankings will include only movies within each universe, which means Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the Amazing Spider-Man franchise, X-Men, Deadpool and the Fantastic Four will be omitted. Feel free to argue with me in the comment section below.
20. “Suicide Squad” (2016)
Net Box Office: $570.6 million
In response to the surprising success of “Guardians of the Galaxy” in the MCU two years previous, D.C. tried to replicate their formula with another non-traditional, goofy superhero movie. Director David Ayer was tasked with creating a film filled with hilarity, intriguing characters and lots of action. Most importantly, “Suicide Squad” was meant to be another superhero movie that didn’t take itself too seriously.
Instead, the mess that was hastily thrown together was unfunny, full of forgettable characters and took itself way too seriously. While “Guardians of the Galaxy” brought audiences a perfect blend of comedy and action, “Suicide Squad” was an awful blend of racist/sexist tropes and cheesy one-liners.
When the movie was first promoted, the most intriguing aspect by far was Jared Leto’s Joker. Leto was never going to replicate Heath Ledger’s classic interpretation of the villain, but his gangly, kingpin edition could have given his predecessor a run for his money. The only problem? The Joker was almost cut completely out of the movie. The character became an odd side-plot, while the horrendous interpretation of Enchantress took over the main stage.
In terms of the movie’s “heroes,” even Will Smith and Margot Robbie couldn’t pump life into these flat characters. The film somehow managed to morph some of D.C.’s most dynamic characters into an agonizingly bleak bag of misfit toys.
19. “Thor: The Dark World” (2013)
Net Box Office: $474.6 million
The sequel to the rare phenomenon that is a mediocre Marvel movie, “The Dark World” somehow seems more forgettable than its predecessor. It is the only movie on this list that left absolutely no impression on me; even “Suicide Squad,” with its potent failures, was memorable.
Unlike the original “Thor,” the second installment feels directionless. In the first film, everyone fits a purpose. Thor, the powerful yet arrogant hero, Odin, the harsh yet well-intentioned father, Loki, the conniving villain—everyone had a niche. In “The Dark World,” characters seem aimless.
Loki, arguably the most compelling character in the first “Thor,” is used in contradictory ways in the second. First, he’s remembered as the terrorist from “The Avengers,” then the misunderstood brother, then the sympathetic ally who’s tragically killed off (but not really) and finally the mischievous trickster posing as Odin.
Thor, a character who had many redemptive qualities in the first film, was just a dick who never called his girlfriend—how is it that he swooped down to Earth for “The Avengers,” but when it comes to the ol’ ball and chain, the Bifrost is still conveniently destroyed? Which leaves us with Jane Foster, who, for whatever reason, received much more screen-time in this chapter, despite being one of the most universally hated characters in the series.
Still, possibly the most disappointing aspect of the movie was Malekith and his group of dark elves, a group of “bad guys” who represented nothing more than another group of throw-away villains with thinly veiled intentions and stale personalities.
“The Dark World” just seemed like a way to turn an explanation of the Aether, one of the integral infinity stones, into a two-hour moneymaker.
Sadly, I will never get those two hours or $8 back.
18. “Iron Man 2” (2010)
Net Box Office: $423.9 million
Whereas the original “Iron Man” had charisma and personality, the sequel seemed bland and forced.
In “Iron Man 2,” the brash, vain Tony Stark, who seemed fresh and interesting in the first movie, begins to feel like an annoying trope in the second. His immaturity feels particularly repugnant in the scene in which Stark is getting hammered in his Iron Man suit and blowing shit up in his decadent mansion, which forces his buddy Colonel Rhodes (who wasn’t the same Colonel Rhodes from the original, but who’s keeping track?) to break up the party in his new War Machine suit. Rhodes, the “responsible one,” implores Stark to grow up, which of course turns into an all-out superhero brawl that ends up blowing up even more of his shit—we get it, Tony, you have limitless money and can’t be tamed.
While the first “Iron Man” didn’t have an iconic villain per se, having Stark’s only living father figure, Obadiah Stone, turn into his greatest enemy, emotionally resonated with many audiences. Mickey Rourke seemed to be a wonderful grab to portray Ivan Vanko in the second film, though the villain never really gets the blood pumping, mainly because he’s rarely in his Whiplash suit. Most of the movie he’s just tinkering or being the world’s worst independent contractor. Still, all of its other disappointments pale in comparison to the nauseating snooze of Justin Hammer’s character, whose petty rivalry with Stark adds absolutely nothing to the franchise as a whole.
Another thing—where’s the action? This is a superhero movie, right? Most of the time, the audience is stuck waiting, waiting for something, anything to happen. Unfortunately, “Iron Man 2” leaves its best (and only significant) bit of action for the very end, by which point I guess only the true fans were still watching.
Even that awesome battle scene has its problems. For a majority of the battle, Iron Man and his new sidekick War Machine are battling Hammer’s military drones, which have been secretly constructed by Vanko. It isn’t until the very end of the battle that Vanko, armed with his new suit, joins the battle, where he’s soundly defeated by our two heroes within about thirty seconds.
“Iron Man 2” seems, at best, a placeholder for the upcoming “Avengers” and an introduction to Black Widow and War Machine, and, at worst, a distortion of what made “Iron Man” great in the first place.
17. “The Incredible Hulk” (2008)
Net Box Office: $113.4 million
This one comes mainly comes down to continuity. What seemed to be a promising tease at the end, with Edward Norton’s Hulk inclusion into the greater MCU, never came to fruition. Due to Norton’s feud with Marvel Studios, his semi-successful Hulk movie failed to land him a spot on “The Avengers.” Soon after, Norton was replaced by Mark Ruffalo, whose portrayal of Bruce Banner was forgettable at best.
Let’s not forget that “The Incredible Hulk” was the first movie made after “Iron Man” kicked off the MCU, so it was critical, for continuity purposes, that the Hulk and Iron Man eventually link up. While Norton’s replacement ended up being a slight hiccup in the grand scheme of things, it could have tripped up the rapidly expanding universe. Ruffalo’s Hulk became the only major Avenger—sorry, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Vision and Falcon—without a backstory and standalone movie, as the studios tried to wipe their hands clean of “The Incredible Hulk.”
Plus, the movie isn’t without its fair share of problems.
For instance, Abomination, a terrifying character in the comics, felt like a roided-up jock in the movie, with an origin story that left a lot to be desired. While Norton did a superb job in the role of Banner, the numbers speak for themselves. The box office returns are modest, even when accounting for inflation; critics didn’t love it, neither did audiences, and Norton’s performance clearly failed to make up for his antics.
Let’s just treat this one like Marvel did back in 2010 and pretend it never happened.
16. “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016)
Net Box Office: $622.7 million
I know what you’re thinking: Shouldn’t “Batman V. Superman” be at the very bottom? How did it make it this high? Is this guy insane?
“Batman V. Superman” is by no means a great movie—it’s not even a good one—but there are certainly a few redeemable aspects to Zack Snyder’s controversial movie. Ben Affleck’s Batman, while not universally loved, is definitely a reason to watch. Snyder’s fascination with gritty superheros works perfectly for the Dark Knight. His mechanized suit gives Batman more versatility than ever before (even to challenge Superman), whereas his intriguing background full of teasing Easter eggs (i.e. Robin’s suit) set the stage for future stand-alone movies
The most interesting aspect of Affleck’s character is the fact that Batman isn’t some young vigilante, ready to bring down the hammer on a corrupt city, like Christian Bale’s first Batman in “Batman Begins.” Rather, Affleck’s Batman is middle aged and has already been through the battles. His years of hardship and turmoil have transformed him into a cynical man who’s lost faith in the world, similar to Bale’s last Batman in “The Dark Knight Rises.”
The cameo of Wonder Women is also extremely strong, as Gal Gadot’s take on the classic character creates epic fights, while providing a perfect set up for her own stand-alone movie.
That’s where the compliments end.
For one, Henry Cavill’s Superman seems flat and lethargic compared to the “Man of Steel” version. And while Jesse Eisenberg is a great actor and Lex Luthor is one of the most diabolical characters in either superhero universe, the casting seemed wrong from the get-go. Luthor’s jarring personality was probably intended to make the tycoon seem mentally imbalanced, but instead it made his scenes almost impossible to sit through.
The use of Doomsday was predictable and rushed. As usual, the character served just one purpose—killing Superman. You’re not fooling anyone anyway, Snyder; Superman will be back–you couldn’t even end the movie before teasing his eventual return.
But by far the worst part of this movie, or any single movie on this list (or maybe history) is the “Martha” scene. Right as Batman is about to pierce Superman through the heart with a kryptonite blade, the two enemies are instantly changed into best friends when they find out their mothers are both named Martha.
Who in their right mind would look at that abomination of a scene and think that could be an epic turning point?
Please, someone, anyone, find the person who wrote that god-awful line and banish them forever from screenwriting.
For the sake of humanity.
15. “Thor” (2011)
Net Box Office: $299.3 million
The Nordic god’s reveal was solid, but unspectacular.
In “Thor,” audiences get their first exposure to the Asgardian crew. The casting for the most part is terrific. Chris Hemsworth as the mighty Thor is a match made in heaven; Anthony Hopkins, while not his best role, brings a level of authority to Odin; the real game-changer, though, is Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. Thor’s disgruntled brother brings so much charisma to the stage that he later got the gig as the main villain in “The Avengers.” For the first time in the MCU, a movie had created a villain worth hanging onto.
The best parts of the movie are centered in Asgard, as fans get their first trip in the MCU to another world. The problem is most of the plot is centered back on boring Earth, a setting without Loki and with an armor-less, hammer-less Thor. After spoiling us with action across time and space in the beginning, audiences are stuck with the dull Jane Foster, her annoying assistant Darcy and the brilliant, yet wacky Erik Selvig.
That being said, Thor’s visit to Earth isn’t without its strong points. Thor, without his hammer and armor, becomes a more relatable character. Instead of the immortal god, he becomes a man coming to terms with his own limitations. Thor on Asgard seemed like a pretentious douche, whereas Thor on Earth brings a sense of perspective.
While Earth allowed Thor’s character to develop, it sacrificed epic battle scenes. For almost the entire middle portion of the movie, as Loki’s treacherous plot takes forever to develop, any semblance of action is hard to come by.
“Thor” wasn’t a home run, but it did allow the MCU to introduce vital characters for the Avengers, while adding another ultra-successful franchise to the mix.
14. “Iron Man 3” (2013)
Net Box Office: $1.015 billion
The third installment of the Iron Man franchise made over a billion dollars, got decent reviews and kicked off MCU Phase Two on a strong note. Then why is it so low on these rankings?
Mainly due to the fact that the movie doesn’t do a lick of justice to one of Iron Man’s greatest foes—the Mandarin. The Mandarin in the comics is a terrifying terrorist, and “Iron Man 3” suggested that the menace would translate to the big screen. All of the trailers heavily featured Iron Man’s archenemy, but it was all a ruse.
There turned out to be no Mandarin, just a pothead actor named Trevor Slattery, deflecting attention from the real villain, Aldrich Killian. No, it was not a twist, it was a deception, and one that left a bad taste in the mouths of comic book lovers everywhere.
Despite this, “Iron Man 3” was still a good movie, and a return for the franchise to its former glory. Tony Stark, battling with PTSD from the New York attack in “The Avengers,” brings a lost sense of humanity to the superhero movie, while also furthering the ties the Iron Man franchise has with the Avengers. Unlike “Iron Man 2,” the third chapter packs a punch with raw action throughout. Iron Man is beat down to his core, to the point where he wonders if he should retire the suit. This type of grittiness is reminiscent of the incredible “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”
All of which makes the Mandarin debacle that much more disappointing. If the Mandarin had been a real character, and not just a smokescreen, this movie could have soared up the rankings.
Hindsight is 20/20 though.
13. “Ant-Man” (2015)
Net Box Office: $389.3 million
Now, on to the good stuff.
By 2015, Marvel was just toying with us. They already had produced four billion-dollar blockbusters, with “The Avengers,” “Iron Man 3,” “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Civil War,” and made another $600 million movie from a comic that no one had ever heard of with “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
Ant-Man is a key Avenger, but few believed he would make it to the MCU. He seemed outdated and too small for the grand universe of superheroes. But Marvel did what they do best and knocked it out of the park.
“Ant-Man,” as a spin-off, acted as a refrain from the main universe, and, like “Guardians,” offered a refreshing angle to the MCU. Paul Ruud brought the same sarcastic, anti-hero charm that Pratt brought to “Guardians.” Plus, it should be said that nothing about “Ant-Man” seemed small at all; Director Peyton Reed masterfully concocts action scenes blending through different scales.
The only critique I have of the movie is that it might have come too late in the MCU. Even with “Ant-Man” being a successful stand-alone film, I don’t foresee the character having either a major impact with the Avengers or another stand-alone movie.
Sure, “Civil War” threw Ant-Man a bone, but it remains to be seen whether the character will ever be anything more than a cameo.
12. “Doctor Strange” (2016)
Net Box Office: $512.7 million
With “Doctor Strange,” Marvel delved into magic for the first time. It was different; it pushed Marvel to its limits, but make no mistake about it: “Doctor Strange” is a superhero movie, and a damn good one. The film brought viewers a visual spectacle unlike anything they’d seen before seen, and the inter-dimensional battles took fans past the point of disbelief.
The strongest point of the film was the character of Stephen Strange himself. Strange followed the prototypical hero arch: An ambitious, yet arrogant character has his most precious gift taken away—it happened with Iron Man when he was stripped of his freedom, and it happened with Thor when he was stripped of Mjolnir. As a result of the trial, the hero gains a new perspective, which invariably leads to an unbelievable gift. At the same time, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Strange is more dynamic than your cookie-cutter superhero. He brings a level of humor, intellect and charisma that fans hadn’t seen since Robert Downey Jr. entered the universe as Iron Man.
Unlike “Ant-Man,” this spin-off has the potential to have enormous implications in the MCU. Not only will the Eye of Agamotto, a.k.a. the Time Stone, have a large impact in the upcoming “Infinity War,” but “Doctor Strange” opened fans up to an entirely new world under the naked eye.
Doctor Strange and the mystery of Kamar-Taj are sure to heavily be featured in Marvel’s future.
11. “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011)
Net Box Office: $230.6 million
The first Captain America was the tipping point for the MCU.
“The First Avenger” didn’t break box-office records and it wasn’t critically acclaimed, but it made the dominance of the Avengers and the MCU a surety. Because of that, “The First Avenger” is one of the most underrated films of all-time.
There’s nothing more American than Captain America. Who wouldn’t root for a scrawny kid from Brooklyn who only wants to serve his country in times of crisis, who then is chosen to become a super-soldier and helps lead his country to defeat the Nazis? What’s more American than killing Nazis? Especially super-Nazis.
Plus, who would have thought that Chris Evans would be the man to suit up in the stars and stripes? You mean the guy who starred in three comic book flops (“Fantastic 4,” “The Losers” and Scott Pilgrim V. the World”) would become the most iconic superhero of all time?
Looking back at it, there’s no one who serves the role better. Evans, along with Downey Jr., are the faces of the future of the MCU, just as Iron Man and Captain America are the faces of the Avengers. The origin story of “The First Avenger” would result in the MCU’s most critically acclaimed, and arguably most popular, franchise.
In other words, it all started here.
The film takes place in a familiar setting—the European theater of the second world war—which, in its grittiness, helped set the stage for the bleak tone of the series’ future films. In addition to setting the mood for its sequels, “The First Avenger” also provided a clear trajectory for the MCU leading up to “Civil War,” and you just can’t quantify that type of value.
10. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015)
Net Box Office: $1.2 billion
“The Avengers: Age of Ultron” falls short of the original in a number of ways, though the most incriminating is that Ultron’s army just seems less exciting than Loki and his band of Chitauri. Plus, where the Avengers’ inter-personal dynamic felt unique in the first film, it seems played out in the second. The characters seem to have settled boringly into their niches: Cap is the fearless leader, Iron Man is the rebellious instigator and Hulk is the dangerous wildcard.
That being said, it would be criminal for the second “Avengers” to fall out of the top ten. Even though the second iteration breaks less ground, by adding three more heroes in Vision, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver (before he becomes the only superhero to actually die in the MCU), the film still progresses the series in an important way. Plus, the movie offers a glimpse into the characters’ lives that it had yet to reveal, specifically in showing Bruce Banner and Black Widow’s fling and Hawkeye’s role as a family man.
The second “Avengers” also seemed more connected to the overall MCU than the original. When the first film ended, the Phase One storyline ended with it. Phase Two kicked off with “Iron Man 3,” a movie only connected to “The Avengers” through Stark’s PTSD following the incident.
On the other hand, the second “Avengers” movie directly set up movies in Phase Three. Thor and Iron Man’s dark premonitions foreshadow not only “Thor: Ragnarok,” but more importantly the Avengers’ potential fate in the “Infinity War.” In addition, the degrading relationship with the Avengers, particularly between Cap and Iron Man, after Iron Man created the enemy Ultron, certainly sets up the events of “Civil War.”
It isn’t the best, but balancing the many superhero personalities, constructing wonderful action scenes and molding a bridge into the future of the MCU makes the second Avengers worth every penny.
9. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (2017-Still in Theaters)
Net Box Office: $658.5 million
No way in hell could the second “Guardians” match its flawless predecessor. As a result, “Guardians 2” could only be called the victim of a sequel curse, as most sophomore films, no matter how bad ass, will never be as good as the first.
By itself though, “Guardians 2” should be one of the best movies on the list. It is chalk-full of ridiculous space battles, dynamic characters and moments of comedic relief. It’s exactly what makes the modern superhero movie great.
The only problem is it’s been done before.
If you are as obsessed with the first “Guardians” as I am, you’ve probably seen it a million times, so the blueprint of the sequel won’t be unique to you, which is not to say that the sequel is the same as the original–the plot points and narrative structure take the viewer on a new journey–but a few things feel familiar. The goofiness, the bickering between Peter Quill and Rocket, the will they/won’t they sexual tension between Gamora and Quill, the classic rock soundtrack, Drax not understanding basic English, Groot being the greatest character ever to say so little–it’s all just a rehashing. That’s how sequels usually work, though; they mimic the blueprint that created the success in the first place.
That being said, “Guardians 2” is a great movie. Ego doesn’t provide the same kind of impact that Ronan did, only because Ronan provided another link to the “Infinity War” with his ties to Thanos and the orb, but learning about Quill’s past adds a lot of depth to his character. The fact that Quill’s long-lost father, Ego, killed his mother and wants to wipe out the entire universe, while Yondu, Quill’s surrogate father, dies sacrificing himself for Quill, is heart-wrenching.
The dynamic characters, which were really what made the first movie click, bring it again in the sequel. Drax continues to be a reckless badass, Rocket is still an asshole, Gamora still has family problems, Quill is still kind of an asshole and Groot is still the best, but now fun-sized! “Guardians 2” is another masterful ride down memory lane, but the brilliance of the original will always be its biggest detractor.
8. “Man of Steel” (2013)
Net Box Office: $443 million
When it comes to Zach Snyder’s Superman reboot, no one is apathetic; while some people can’t stand it, others love it.
I happen to stand with the latter contingent.
What’s not to love about “Man of Steel”?
The two-hour epic, which kicks off the entire DCEU, gives viewers an in-depth look at Superman’s past, both as Kal-El back on Krypton and as Clark Kent on Earth. The brilliant performances from Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent, Diane Lane as Martha Kent and Russell Crowe as Jor-El slowly mold the man Superman becomes. This is how an origin story should be—little bits and pieces of the past mixed with present action. More importantly, Henry Cavill gives fans a performance worthy of the red and blue. His struggle to find himself and his search for a sense of belonging make this Superman one of the most accessible yet.
General Zod is equally brilliant. Not only does Michael Shannon give audiences a terrifying enemy, but he provides one of the most accessible villains on this list. Zod isn’t some mindless villain who just wants to wipe out humanity because he’s such a bad dude; quite the contrary, in fact, as his desire to try and bring back his dead planet of Krypton is admirable—laudable, even, if he didn’t have to have to wipe out humanity to do so.
Critics of “Man of Steel” have little problem with the characters though; their critiques deal mostly with the grittiness of the movie, mainly at its end. Their complaint lies in the fact that the film breaks a cardinal rule of Superman movies: He is never supposed to kill anyone. Taking life, in fact, is almost antithetical to his character.
I, on the other hand, think the moral complexity makes the movie better. If I had wanted to watch a boy-scout superhero just do good all day in his cape, I would have rented one of the original Christopher Reeve films.
Yes, Superman snapping Zod’s neck was out of character, but it gave the ending more emotional resonance and immediately set the DCEU apart from the MCU, with the latter’s inability to kill any major character.
Snyder’s Superman will never receive the love it deserves. It came out after Marvel had already saturated the superhero market and thus created a version of what a superhero should be. “Man of Steel” bends that mold, which puts a lot of viewers off, but to me, that’s what makes it Snyder’s best movie yet.
7. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014)
Net Box Office: $544.3 million
Who said a sequel can never be greater than the original? Me? Well, let’s just forget that for a moment.
Captain America is the rare series that seems to get better with each installment. Case in point: “Winter Soldier” brings the series to all new heights. It puts Cap in a conflicted space—taking down the organization that created the Avengers. When S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infiltrated by the dormant super-Nazis, Hydra, and Nick Fury is killed off (but again, not really), Cap, besides the help from Black Widow, Sam Wilson and Peggy Carter, is all on his own.
It is a seminal moment in the MCU. Not only does it begin to feed Cap’s distrust for government, building up to “Civil War,” but it serves as the shift from “The Avengers” and Phase One. With the cynical tone of corruption and mistrust, “Winter Soldier” is the grittiest movie Marvel has ever done. In an age in which distrust for government is at an all-time high, particularly as a result of intelligence agencies like the NSA and FBI, the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. is extremely relevant. Chris Evans’ performance is his best to date, as he faces his toughest test yet in battling his own government and best friend.
If all of that wasn’t enough, “Winter Soldier” adds more key pieces to the MCU. The film provides one of the most complex villains in either Marvel or D.C. In one light, he’s a dangerous brainwashed assassin; in the other, he’s Bucky Barnes, Cap’s best friend and only living tie to his past. As a result of his importance, Barnes later becomes an integral piece in the MCU during the “Civil War.”
The movie also introduced another Avenger in Sam Wilson (Falcon). Either Barnes or Wilson could step in to replace Steve Rogers as Captain America if, and when, Chris Evans decides to step down from the MCU.
The movie by itself is one of the most dynamic superhero movies in history, but its importance lies in its role as a catalyst of change for the MCU. With “Winter Solider,” the Russo brothers constructed a masterpiece that initiates the eventual collapse of the Avengers.
6. “Iron Man” (2008)
Net Box Office: $445.2 million
“Iron Man” made pennies in the box office compared to the top Marvel movies, even when accounting for inflation, but it is the most important movie on this list. If it wasn’t a rousing success, neither of the cinematic universes would have existed, at least not in the way fans know them today.
“Iron Man” wasn’t the first superhero movie, nor was it the first critically acclaimed superhero movie, but it launched the MCU, and boy did it kick it off with a bang. The first movie started with the risky move of putting all of its eggs in the Robert Downey Jr. basket. Most know RDJ now as one of the most popular celebrities in Hollywood, but it wasn’t always like that.
Before 2001, Downey was out of acting for five years after bouncing between rehab and jail after numerous drug charges. In the ’90s, RDJ was the star that couldn’t stay out of trouble, but the MCU had faith that Downey Jr. had put that part of his life behind him. They were right.
RDJ became invaluable within the “Iron Man” franchise and would quickly become the face of a rapidly growing empire. Not only did he put Marvel back on top, he repaid their trust in spades.
“Iron Man” was well received in part because it didn’t pull punches. It tackled real-world issues, such as terrorism and international arms proliferation; it embraced the humanity of superheroes, as the arch reactor that powers Stark’s suit is also the only thing keeping him alive; it created a hero that was unimaginably wealthy, yet still relatable. The movie became less about how much was blown up, or who the “bad guys” were, and more about knowing the protagonist.
By getting to know Tony Stark, viewers realized what a Marvel superhero would be. Despite being ridiculous characters—a super-soldier frozen in ice for seventy years, an indelible mind that morphs into a raging green monster, a gazillionaire who fights crime in a metal suit—Marvel superheroes were accessible. No, not many of us can relate to running a weapons empire or inheriting our father’s business at twenty-one, but everyone can relate to the identity struggle of trying to create a name for yourself in the shadow of someone else’s greatness.
After “Iron Man” proved that this superhero arch could work by grossing over $500 million at the box office, an empire was created that has continued to this day.
5. “Wonder Woman” (2017- Still in Theaters)
Global Opening Weekend Box Office: $223 million
Despite Marvel’s nearly flawless record since “Iron Man’s” release in 2008, one of the greatest errors they have made is refusing to make a feature length film with a female lead. It’s not like they haven’t had any opportunities– how cool would a Scarlett Johansson’ Black Widow movie be? D.C. took advantage of the glaring omission in the MCU docket, and presented the world with one of its most iconic heroes.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that “Wonder Woman” represents a breaking of the glass ceiling in certain ways. While the modern superhero film has tackled many societal issues, from terrorism to corruption, the role of women in the films was always just complementary. Women in superhero films have been shrunk to ancillary roles (Black Widow, Agent Carter, Scarlet Witch) who almost feel like token characters, or concerned girlfriends (Jane Foster, Lois Lane, Rachel Dawes, Christine Palmer, Pepper Potts), which serves to reinforce the sexist trope of including women in a film only to better humanize their significant other. As a result, “Wonder Woman” is an unprecedented success for female empowerment in the superhero blockbuster.
Yet, its triumph isn’t just due to its strong feminist message.
Wonder Women’s cameo in “Batman V. Superman” introduced the comic world to one of the most forceful characters to ever hit the big screen. Other than Superman, the Amazon warrior’s power is unrivaled in either universe. This iconic power allows Wonder Woman to lead troops in another iconic war, WWI. Following Captain America’s template, Wonder Woman becomes an iconic hero that people can look up to in a horrific war.
Despite being predictable at points and having a surprising amount of cheesy moments, “Wonder Woman” saved the DCEU. Even though “Batman V. Superman” grossed almost $1 billion and “Man of Steel” was successful in a thematic sense, “Wonder Woman” has given the MCU its first real competition and has helped the upcoming “Justice League” gain momentum.
“Wonder Women” is no feminist ploy, it’s an overpowering blockbuster that has quickly become a must-watch.
4. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017- Still in Theaters)
Global Opening Weekend Box Office: $257 million
For years Marvel has tried to get access to one of its most beloved heroes, but to no avail; Sony kept tight watch on its prized Spider-Man.
Instead of linking up with the MCU, the “boy wonder” has operated within an independent Marvel universe, parallel, but never coinciding with, the MCU, much like the Fox-owned X-Men and Deadpool.
While the MCU was launching a superhero empire, Sony made several attempts with their own Spider-Man franchise. First, the Tobey Maguire “Spider-Man” hit markets in the early 2000s. The trilogy was immensely successful, with two good movies (“Spider-Man” and “Spider-Man 2”) and one forgettable one (“Spider-Man 3”), but the films were lucky that they never had to compete with the MCU.
It wasn’t until “The Amazing Spider-Man” reboot flamed out after just two movies that the MCU seemed destined to reclaim their young hero. A few weeks ago, that dream came to fruition when “Homecoming” hit theaters. In the MCU, Spider-Man is finally true to the real Peter Parker. Tom Holland’s Parker is not too nerdy like the Maguire version, nor too suave like Andrew Garfield’s version; Holland looks like someone who is actually in high school.
For once, Spider-Man spares us the same ol’ backstory—we get it, Uncle Ben dies—and for once, Spider-Man doesn’t take itself too seriously—aren’t these movies supposed to be funny? But, most importantly, Spider-Man finally doesn’t use school as some shabby backstory. Rather, “Homecoming” focuses on the teenage angst, awkward dances and inferiority complex that makes high school so great/terrible. It focuses on the fact that Parker is just a kid in grown-up clothes, the trait that makes Spider-Man so unique.
Spider-Man’s role within the MCU is key to his development. He doesn’t have to be the one who tackles all the problems, a coming-of-age quality that MCU forefather Tony Stark underscores as he puts the young hero “on training wheels.” In the MCU, Spider-Man becomes a small, yet invaluable cog in a universe packed with heroes.
Stark’s involvement impacts “Homecoming” in numerous ways. It provides a solid link between Spider-Man and rest of the MCU, adds star-power to a burgeoning franchise and, most importantly, it represents a passing of the torch, not only from Iron Man to Spider-Man in the Avengers, but from RDJ to Holland. RDJ will last with the MCU for only so long, and Marvel is already planning his exit. With Iron Man and Cap’s days limited, Spider-Man represents the future of the MCU.
In other words, a quirky twenty-one-year-old British kid now holds the reins to the Marvel empire
3. “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014)
Rotten Tomato rating: 91 percent, IMDb rating: 8.1/10
Net Box Office: $655.5 million
If you had told me five years ago that one of the greatest superhero movies of our time would involve the chubby guy from “Parks & Recreation,” Vin Diesel repeating the same three words, a director best known for writing that god-awful live action “Scooby Doo” movie and be based on a comic no one knew, I would kindly ask if you were on drugs.
But not-so-chubby Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel and James Gunn did just that. This rag-tag group of misfit toys, much like the Guardians themselves, formed one of the most formidable team of superheroes in movie history.
The groundbreaking success of “Guardians of the Galaxy” changed the rules of the game. A superhero movie can be playful and silly, yet still badass, unless you’re David Ayer (see “Suicide Squad”); it doesn’t need widespread name-brand recognition; Vin Diesel can be an integral part of the team with only a single line; the comedic element should be mandatory, not just encouraged; and finally, music should be more than just background noise—it should facilitate character development, in the same way the classic rock played throughout “Galaxy” not complements the cosmic battles, but adds a personal element to Peter Quill’s character.
“Guardians” almost seems like a spoof of the superhero movie, but it was vital for the future of the MCU. Not only, as the MCU begins to prepare for a future post-Avengers, does it provide them an alternative to the traditional Marvel blueprint, by introducing the Power Stone and a few more ties to Thanos, the film offers the most important piece to the highly anticipated “Infinity War.”
Previous links to Thanos or the “Infinity War” were discreet, often with Thanos acting through an intermediary or another infinity stone being uncovered. In “Guardians,” multiple characters have a direct relation to Thanos. Drax promises to kill him, as Thanos was behind the murder of his family, and Gamora, one of Thanos’ daughters, has similar motives. In addition, the Power Stone is the crown jewel of the infinity gauntlet, as it would allow Thanos to destroy entire worlds.
This little experiment struck gold for Marvel, as James Gunn and company have discovered the recipe for a great superhero movie: sprinkle in dynamic characters, a pinch of sarcastic self-deprecation, a few moments of true heroics and top it the bad-ass music, and you got yourself a winner. “Homecoming” used it, “Suicide Squad” tried (and failed) to use it and “Deadpool” put Fox back on the map by using it.
“Guardians” offers the MCU a bridge to “Infinity War” and beyond.
2. “The Avengers” (2012)
Net Box Office: $1.28 billion
No one thought it could be done. No one thought Marvel could pull off a project this ambitious. How could a single movie incorporate so many different dynamic heroes all on one screen? Wouldn’t the heroes overshadow one another?
In the crown jewel of the MCU, Joss Whedon proved all the naysayers wrong. When assessing just how “The Avengers” became the most profitable superhero movie of all time, it helps to look at all the factors.
First, Phase One worked to perfection. The lead up to “The Avengers,” by slowly, methodically building up each vital character with their own franchise and then carefully intertwining the franchises, was masterful. Such intricacy requires more than just having spin-offs for each character. Look how the DCEU has stumbled in the build-up toward the Justice League, or how worlds like the Universal Monsters Universe have been complete train-wrecks.
You can’t just throw different movies together and expect them to mesh; it takes patience and a whole lot of consistency. The movies leading up to “Avengers,” while wildly different in subject matter, often had consistent tone and visuals, which allowed the diverse group of individuals to work so well together on the screen. Instead of overshadowing one another, the dazzling action scenes manage to highlight each hero’s unique abilities and personality. Whether it’s fighting aliens in New York or fighting each other, “The Avengers” doesn’t let off the gas for a second.
In fact, the film had such an impact on superhero movies that you can still see traces of the epic battle in today’s movies.
In “Homecoming,” Adrian Toomes develops his Vulture suit and the other weapons in his arsenal from alien technology left by the Chitauri; the New York incident is a major part of the Sokovia Accords in “Civil War”; even “Deadpool,” a movie outside the MCU, shows a downed S.H.I.E.L.D. aircraft carrier.
So it’s okay if “The Avengers” falls victim to more than a few campy moments; it’s the reason the MCU is where it is today. The film took Marvel and superhero movies to new heights and proved that superhero movies were no longer some summer guilty pleasure, but rather a dominant blockbuster genre all on their own.
1. “Captain America: Civil War” (2016)
Net Box Office: $882 million
In Phase One, the MCU had the monumental task of forming a super-team in “The Avengers”; by Phase Three, they had the even harder task of breaking them up. If the two Avengers movies made over a billion dollars by showing some of the most iconic heroes fighting side-by-side, “Civil War” joined the billion-dollar club in a more intriguing fashion—by having them fight each other.
Moviegoers love to see the rise of heroes, underdogs, long shots—it’s why we loved “The Avengers”, “Rocky” and ”Guardians of the Galaxy”—but more than that, we want to see them fall.
In every facet of life, the fall from grace is always more intriguing than the rise to prominence. Consider the world of sports: Lance Armstrong, O.J. Simpson and Aaron Hernandez all received the most publicity of their lives when their careers crashed, much more than they received during their ascent.
In the MCU, we see this in “Civil War.” The seeds of discord that were carefully placed throughout Phase Two take fruition as the beloved Avengers beat each other to a pulp. The action scenes are infinitely more dynamic and groundbreaking than any movie on this list, even “The Avengers.” Instead of choreographing our heroes take down an army of Chitauri or Hulk throwing Loki around like a rag-doll, the crew from “Civil War” had to orchestrate fight scenes between individuals of equal strength. In the classic airport scene, they had to figure out how to balance the personalities and fighting strengths of every major character in the MCU, along with two newcomers in Black Panther and Spider-Man. Seeing these powerful super-beings soar through the air, rip each other to shreds and collaborate in some of the coolest scenes yet was a work of art.
With the final fight scene between Captain America, Winter Soldier and Iron Man, the Avengers look completely broken, and right before the onset of their greatest threat yet in “Infinity War.”
Now, the intrigue lies in how the Avengers will come back to battle Thanos—which is good, because there’s nothing better than a comeback story.