The Marvel Cinematic Universe dominated the decade – here are all 23 films, ranked

With the recent release of the trailer for "Black Widow," let's look at the nearly two dozen films that led the way

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published December 7, 2019 11:00AM (EST)

Sebastian Stan as Winter Soldier, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Chris Evans as Captain America, MarkRuffalo as Hulk, Danai Gurira as Okoye, and Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther in "Avengers: Infinity War" (Marvel Studios/Disney)
Sebastian Stan as Winter Soldier, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Chris Evans as Captain America, MarkRuffalo as Hulk, Danai Gurira as Okoye, and Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther in "Avengers: Infinity War" (Marvel Studios/Disney)

As the 2010s come to a close, it's hard to think of a single franchise that has shaped the zeitgeist of the decade more than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Twenty-one of the 23 films in that epic saga will have been released between January 1, 2010 and December 31, 2019, with the sole exceptions being "Iron Man" and "The Incredible Hulk, which were released in 2008. Within that time, the MCU movies have grossed roughly $22 billion worldwide (slightly more if you include the 2008 movies, slightly less if you subtract them), reinvigorated the concept of creating shared cinematic universes, juiced up the superhero movie boom that began with "Superman: The Movie" in 1978, and brought to life a number of cinema's most iconic characters (Iron Man, Star Lord, Black Panther) and moments (Thanos' snap, the Hulk's bashing of Loki, Thor smashing a coffee mug on the ground and demanding "Another").

While it may be difficult to pick a greatest movie of the 2010s, the MCU has been so influential that it is almost ridiculously easy to identify it as the greatest and most influential franchise of the decade — not just in film, but in other forms of media. Yet within that 23-film narrative, there are movies that range from the bad to the perfect, and everywhere in between those two extremes.

Recently, we saw the release of the trailer for "Black Widow," which will be the first MCU film of the 2020s as well as the first entry in the MCU's Phrase 4 (which will also include "The Eternals," "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness," an untitled "Spider-Man" sequel ,and "Thor: Love and Thunder").

Before we head into that uncharted territory, I think it's appropriate to look back and assess the MCU films that paved the way for Phase 4. This will include all the films of the decade (as well as the pair from 2008), ranked from worst to best.

Several criteria will be used to analyze these films, which start with "Iron Man" and close with "Spider-Man: Far From Home," the last film in the MCU's Phase Three. These include cultural impact, box office performance, critical metrics, and the overall quality in terms of storytelling and impact on our larger culture. Please be warned that spoilers follow.

23. "The Incredible Hulk" (June 13, 2008) 
Box Office: $263 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 67 percent

This is the second movie in the MCU and, for all intents and purposes, a standalone film. After briefly summarizing the origin story for the Hulk character (the filmmakers almost certainly gave that background short shrift because it had been discussed in greater detail only five years earlier in Ang Lee's 2003 film "Hulk"), it tells the story of Dr. Bruce Banner (Ed Norton) as he struggles with losing his love interest Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) and being antagonized by General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt) and the future supervillian Abomination, Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth).

It says something about the MCU that, out of nearly two dozen movies, only two can be fairly described as downright bad. Even then, the "bad" movies are usually poor because they are generic and boring rather than because they're outright offensive to the sensibilities. Such is the case with "The Incredible Hulk," which alone among the MCU entries barely feels like it's part of that saga at all. Norton gives an uncharacteristically bland performance as the title character, the story never taps into the existential horror and tragedy of the character's plight, and the action sequences are ho-hum. Perhaps the most telling sign of its poor quality is that there are several plot threads left hanging that were presumably meant to be tied up in future movies, but have since been dropped completely. No one seems particularly upset about that.

22. "Thor: The Dark World" (November 8, 2013) 
Box Office: $645 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 67 percent

This is the other bad movie MCU movie, although perhaps not quite as much as its reputation suggests. After returning from Earth following the events of "The Avengers," the eighth movie in the MCU sees Thor (Chris Hemsworth) team up with Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to save Thor's love interest Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) from an extraterrestrial weapon known as the Aether that threatens both her life and the universe itself, as it has awakened a malevolent Dark Elf named Malekith (Christopher Eccleston).

Like "The Incredible Hulk," "Thor: The Dark World" is primarily done in by a boring, by-the-numbers plot. It doesn't help matters that the so-called comic relief provided by Kat Dennings' character Darcy Lewis is obnoxious and grating instead of funny, and that the scenes where Stellan Skarsgård runs around without his pants on acting craaaaazy are cringe-y instead of pleasantly goofy. The movie does have one redeeming quality — the love/hate bromance between Thor and Loki reaches a peak here, with their relationship being fleshed out and rendered three-dimensional in ways that the first two movies containing those characters ("Thor" and "The Avengers") only hinted at. If you want to catch their story, though, you're better off watching YouTube clips of their scenes together in this film rather than subjecting yourself to the entire movie.

21. "Iron Man 2" (May 7, 2010) 
Box Office: $624 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 73 percent

This is the third movie in the MCU, although at the time it was released it felt more like a traditional superhero movie sequel rather than part of something bigger. Watching "Iron Man 2" in theaters, one could be forgiven for thinking it was simply a direct sequel to the enormously popular "Iron Man" rather than the foundation of a cinematic universe. While future MCU major players like Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) are either introduced or fleshed out here, the main story is that of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) battling his personal demons while a real one from his family's past, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), attempts to exact revenge against the burgeoning superhero.

While "Iron Man 2" isn't terrible, it tonally feels somewhat out of place from the rest of the MCU. This is a movie that isn't sure if it wants to be a comedy or a character study, a slam-bang action sequel or a brooding look at the psychological toll exacted by being a superhero. It's a fun movie and, while juggling too many balls at once, doesn't drop any of them. At the same time, there are other movies that manage to do more with these substantive themes than this one. It's a good movie and well worth the watch, but in the end it mainly feels like an early effort to do what other MCU flicks pulled off better.

20. "Ant-Man and the Wasp" (July 6, 2018) 
Box Office: $623 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 88 percent

This is the 20th movie in the MCU and tells the story of how Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) must deal with being under house arrest, reenter the good graces of brilliant scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and love interest Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) while rescuing Hope's mother Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) and saving the life of an innocent woman named Ava Starr (Hannah John-Kamen). There are other subplots here as well, but none of them make much of an impact.

And that, really, is the main problem with "Ant-Man and the Wasp." When you're telling a story about someone who can shrink so much that he or she is capable of entering new universes, the potential for creative science fiction is limitless. "Ant-Man and the Wasp" eschews that potential, though, and instead settles in for a series of rote superheroics combined with some quirky comedy. To be fair, the comic scenes are quite funny — especially the monologues by Ant-Man's best friend Luis (Michael Peña) – but all in all, the movie feels like an underselling of its promise. What could have been a visionary exploration of other worlds is instead a souped-up crime caper, and not even a particularly memorable one at that.

19. "Avengers: Infinity War"(April 27, 2018) 
Box Office: $2 billion
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 85 percent

This is the 19th movie in the MCU and brings all of the previous storylines together for a big climax. Thanos (Josh Brolin) wishes to collect all of the Infinity Stones on his Infinity Gauntlet so that he can snap his fingers and wipe out half of all life in the universe. He aims to do this for reasons that can best be described as Malthusian — he believes, from dire personal experience, that overpopulation has rendered life unsustainable, and that removing half of all the living creatures that exist is ultimately doing the universe a favor. As a result, the superheroes from the previous MCU movies need to unite to stop him . . . or, at least, try.

As I wrote in my controversial review at the time, this movie feels less like a film "than a 'movie loaf,' somewhat akin to the prepackaged mystery meat available at the deli counter. It's a combination of various parts and pieces that could have been organic parts of something that was originally tasty, but here get ground up and mixed together." There are a lot of elements in "Infinity War" that could have worked if they had been better fleshed out, but the movie spends so much time trying to balance so many wildly different plot threads, characters and tones that it becomes (a) difficult to follow, and (b) difficult to enjoy as a self-contained cinematic experience.

Having said that, it is hard to deny that "Avengers: Infinity War" was an influential film. While most of the movie was forgettable, the final battle scene — and in particular the poignant ending after Thanos' snap, when half the universe is turned to dust — resonated deeply in our culture. For the year between this film's release and the premiere of "Avengers: Endgame," the moviegoing world wondered how the MCU would resolve that plot thread and restore the world to what it had been prior to the snap. It was the water cooler conversation few could avoid.

18. "Captain Marvel"(March 18, 2019) 
Box Office: $1.1 billion
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 78 percent

The 21st film in the MCU, "Captain Marvel" is one of those movies in which the historic significance of the film itself is more important than its objective quality. It tells the story of an ex-U.S. Air Force pilot named Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) who is given superhuman strength, energy projection, and the power of flight after being exposed to energy from the Tesseract. While she is initially brainwashed by the Kree into believing that she is one of their warriors, she soon learns that she has been working for a villainous alien race that has been brutally oppressing a different shapeshifting species known as the Skrulls. Danvers must learn to regain her lost humanity with the help of Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury, who is here seen at the very beginning of his story arc.

The historic significance of "Captain Marvel," of course, is that it is the first MCU movie to star a female protagonist. On a purely filmmaking level, it is similar to "Thor: The Dark World" in that its greatest strength lies in the chemistry between its two lead characters — in this case, between Jackson's Fury and Larson's Danvers. At the same time, aside from some charming '90s references and a memorable pet cat named Goose (who is actually an alien called a Flerken), there isn't a lot that stands out in "Captain Marvel." It's a good movie to watch if you want a standard superhero flick and contains important plot information about the MCU as a whole, but it is otherwise a pretty routine story.

17. "Avengers: Age of Ultron" (May 1, 2015) 
Box Office: $1.4 billion
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 75 percent

In RedLetterMedia's review for "Avengers: Age of Ultron," one of the hosts noted how the 11th film in the MCU had an interesting core story but was overly stuffed with attempts to connect its plot to that of other past and future MCU movies. That observation was right on the nose: There is something inherently intriguing about its underlying story of an artificial intelligence named Ultron (James Spader), who was created by Iron Man and The Hulk (now played by Mark Ruffalo) to protect the planet, arriving at the conclusion that humanity is the problem facing Earth and must be eradicated. If the film had spent more time philosophizing on that concept, or at least digging into its dramatic potential, it could have been great.

That said, "Avengers: Age of Ultron" winds up working not because of its ingenious concept (which is under-utilized) but because it has the same qualities that worked so well in the first "Avengers" film: It has strong and likable superhero characters who bounce off each other in humorous ways, all set against the backdrop of a story that is suitably epic to include memorable action sequences and spectacular special effects. "Avengers: Age of Ultron" may fall short of greatness, but it is definitely very, very good.

16. "Ant-Man" (July 17, 2015)
Box Office: $519 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 83 percent

One of the more interesting production details about the 12th MCU film is that its original director, Edgar Wright, departed after he felt that Marvel Studios was stifling his individual creativity. While it's impossible to know for sure what happened behind the scenes, there are enough Wright-ian trademarks here — brainy science fiction, clever visual gags, the ability to simultaneously be a standard blockbuster while poking fun at one's own genre — that one can tell he had influence over the film ultimately created by director Peyton Reed.

"Ant-Man" tells the story of Scott Lang, an ex-con seeking a second chance at life, as he learns how to use a suit that allows him to shrink to a miniature size and fight bad guys. This is one of those MCU films that you see more for the dialogue and comedy than the action bits; Paul Rudd cranks up the charm in the title role, and the concept is unique enough as far as superhero powers go that the story is able to have fun exploring its possibilities in ways that wouldn't be possible with more generic powers. It is the epitome of a fun but not legendary Marvel film.

15. "Doctor Strange" (November 4, 2016) 
Box Office: $678 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 89 percent

The 14th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, "Doctor Strange" aroused some controversy by casting Caucasian actress Tilda Swinton in the role of the Ancient One, who in the comics was a Tibetan man. Despite the valid criticism of whitewashing, though, "Doctor Strange" is still an enjoyable film in its own right. It tells the story of Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a neurosurgeon who learns humility after a car crash . . .  and also learns how to interact with the world of magic and alternate dimensions.

Like many of the high-concept Marvel movies, the story of "Doctor Strange" isn't as important as the charisma of the leading character and the ability of the superhero concept to grab audiences. In both of these respects, "Doctor Strange" is a winner — Benedict Cumberbatch captures the pompous intelligence and dashing bravery of the title character perfectly, and the idea of a superhero who deals with the spiritual realm instead of pure science fiction or fantasy storylines is a refreshing departure from the previous films in this series. If "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" can continue in the spirit of this film — and avoid the racial insensitivity that marred it through the casting of Swinton in a role intended to be Asian — it can turn this into one of Marvel's best franchises.

14. "Thor" (May 6, 2011)
Box Office: $449 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 77 percent

The fourth film in the MCU is also, in this author's opinion, one of the most underrated. Directed by the master Shakespearean Kenneth Branagh, "Thor" feels like the kind of story that could have been penned by the Immortal Bard: Hemsworth is an arrogant, brutish prince who takes his royal destiny for granted and is banished for his bad attitude, causing him to be humbled and learn what it takes to be a good king before finally being worthy of his iconic hammer, Mjolnir. While his interactions with Foster and Loki had not yet reached their full dramatic potential in this story, there is a grandiosity to the movie's atmosphere — a sense that one is watching real-life mythological characters play out their story on an operatic stage – that makes "Thor" work in unexpected ways.

It stands out from the other MCU movies in that respect, even though its reputation among fans is not much better than that of its bleak sequel, "Thor: The Dark World." The movie works especially well when compared to "Thor: Ragnarok," which subverted the self-seriousness of this movie for comedy and pathos. Viewed side-by-side, "Thor" becomes a particularly compelling origin story of a great god-like superhero at his most cliche — and before those cliches would be brilliantly skewered.

13. "Spider-Man: Homecoming" (July 7, 2017)
Box Office: $880 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92 percent

When "Spider-Man: Homecoming" was released as the 16th film in the MCU, it had a daunting challenge ahead of it. This was the third time that the Spider-Man series would begin with an origin story in 15 years: Exactly how many times could audiences be expected to see the tale of a nerdy teenager who gets bitten by a radioactive spider, develops superpowers, and fights a father figure?

Wisely, the MCU decided to skip the origin part of Spider-Man's story and cut right to the chase. Picking up where the character's introduction was left off in "Captain America: Civil War" (a tactic they would also use for "Black Panther"), "Spider-Man: Homecoming" works (a) because Tom Holland is plucky, intelligent, and empathetic as the new Spider-Man and (b) because the filmmakers decided to focus on telling the Spider-Man story from the very specific vantage point of a high schooler trying to make his way into adulthood. In so doing, they distinguished the tone of their "Spider-Man" series from those of the other MCU properties, and by having Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man serve as a father figure to Holland's Peter Parker, director Jon Watts created a beating heart to a story that could have otherwise been sound and fury signifying nothing. Add to that a memorable twist regarding the unusually sympathetic villain's origins, and one is left with a Spider-Man movie that justified its own existence despite massive odds.

12. "Captain America: The First Avenger" (July 22, 2011)
Box Office: $361 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 80 percent

The fifth entry in the MCU is directed by Joe Johnston, and anyone who has seen his 1991 film "The Rocketeer" won't be surprised to learn that. Set during World War II, it tells a story that up until the final few minutes could have easily been a standalone period action flick: A scrawny soldier with a big heart and old-fashioned American values named Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) agrees to undergo dangerous scientific tests so that he can become a super-soldier who saves the world from the Nazis (or, in this case, a Nazi offshoot called Hydra and led by Hugo Weaving's Red Skull). He falls in love with Hayley Atwell's Strategic Scientific Reserve officer Peggy Carter, goes on adventures with his best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and fights for truth, justice, and the American way in a manner not seen since Christopher Reeve's Superman in the 1978 to 1987 blockbusters.

I suspect the reason this film didn't resonate as much with audiences as its successors is (a) it's not as good and (b) it was a bit too corny, too old-fashioned to land with moviegoers that have become increasingly jaded about their blockbuster fare. That said, if you want a quaint superhero flick that reminds you of the good old days — something that doesn't take itself too seriously but simply wishes to inspire you — "Captain America: The First Avengers" is hard to beat.

11. "Avengers: Endgame"(April 26, 2019)
Box Office: $2.8 billion
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 94 percent

The penultimate film of the Infinity Saga is also, as most of you reading this probably know, the highest-grossing movie of all time. It earns that distinction not just because of its intrinsic quality as an engaging action-sci-fi blockbuster, but because it is an excellent denouement to the story that had been told in the previous 21 films – and, in particular, to the final scene in "Infinity War," when it seems like Thanos had prevailed. When the characters overcome the odds and reverse the effects of Thanos' snap, before defeating the Mad Titan himself, it feels earned because we had seen just how difficult it had been to defeat him before. Similarly, as the original Avengers each reach the conclusions to their story arcs (save for Thor), we feel the full weight of how those tales are wrapped up because we feel the weight of the movies in which those characters had previously appeared.

One detail of "Avengers: Endgame" that does not receive enough attention, though, is its pacing. A three-hour movie like "Avengers: Endgame" could have very easily dragged, but the filmmakers are deft at keeping everything moving briskly. It is a three-hour movie that feels for all the world like its half the length, to the point where if anything its biggest flaw is that certain subplots get shortchanged because it is stuffing so much in there. (There are also plot holes that result from the use of time travel in the story.) Nevertheless, as far as final chapters go, "Avengers: Endgame" does far more right than it does wrong.

10. "Spider-Man: Far From Home"(July 2, 2019)
Box Office: $1.1 billion
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 90 percent

As I noted in an article written after "Spider-Man: Far From Home," the MCU's Spider-Man movies have developed an interesting habit of having the main character deal with the fallout of Iron Man's misdeeds. In "Spider-Man: Homecoming," the villain was created when Iron Man used his wealth and government connections to take a plum salvaging deal from a man who needed it to support his family. In the sequel, we learn that the villain came into being because he and his colleagues were chronically mistreated by Tony Stark; the one percenter may have given his life to literally save the universe, but he was still a one percenter, and as such prone to the same human foibles that afflict all billionaires.

This is one of several qualities that makes "Spider-Man: Far From Home" stand out from the 22 MCU flicks that preceded it. In a necessary tonal shift from the epic "Avengers: Endgame," this one has much smaller stakes in terms of its story. Like "Spider-Man: Homecoming," it wisely keeps the focus on Peter Parker's life as a teenager so that his superhero story can feel different from those of most of the other MCU characters. Finally, the father-son relationship between Parker and Stark's former bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) is surprisingly touching. When it seemed like Spider-Man was going to be kicked out of the MCU, the prospect of trying to make this series work without the references to Iron Man and Happy Hogan was a depressing one. Now that it is back in the universe, though, hopefully the third film will live up to the potential of the second (especially its unexpected cliffhanger ending).

9. "Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2" (May 5, 2017)
Box Office: $864 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 84 percent

The worst thing you can say about "Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2" is that it is basically a rip-off of the first "Guardians of the Galaxy" movie. The best thing you can say about "Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2" is that it is basically a rip-off of the first "Guardians of the Galaxy" movie.

The 15th film in the MCU, "Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2" picks up where the first movie left off, both in terms of the story (which revolves around Chris Pratt's Peter Quill developing a relationship with his father, Ego) and in terms of the style. Of all the MCU films, the "Guardians of the Galaxy" series is the one that feels most like the product of an auteur, and that is not a coincidence. Director and writer James Gunn has an inimitably edgy, witty sensibility that is a perfect match for a story of outlaw misfits who form a dysfunctional but loving family unit. With one exception (the movie I put as No. 1 on this list), the "Guardians of the Galaxy" films are the MCU movies that could most easily work independent of that universe. They are funny, exhilarating, and full of memorable characters, fictional worlds and action sequences.

8. "Iron Man 3" (May 3, 2013)
Box Office: 1.3 billion
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 79 percent

The seventh film in the MCU (and thus released at a time when Iron Man's shadow loomed large enough over the series that nearly half of the movies centered on him), "Iron Man 3" tells the story of Tony Stark fighting a sinister terrorist named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) while attempting to save the lives of the people who matter most to him.

"Iron Man 3" seems to have been forgotten among MCU fans, but it is one of the most daring of all the films in the series. It shows a previously unflappable superhero grappling with legitimate psychological issues as a result of his superheroics, as Stark copes with PTSD from his near-death experience in "The Avengers," and contains a plot twist involving the identity of the villain that dares to thumb its nose at the comic book's origin story — and, at the same time, work perfectly in terms of the flow of the story in this film. It is also the movie in which Downey's ability to toss off cutting quips and live up the glory of being an action star reaches its apotheosis. In future movies featuring the Iron Man character, Stark always seems a bit sadder and more serious, but here he is allowed to have fun in the final feature that is all about him and him alone.

7. "Captain America: Civil War"(May 6, 2016)
Box Office: $1.2 billion
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91 percent

The 13th movie in the MCU in many ways feels more like an "Avengers" movie than "Avengers: Age of Ultron." This one has big stakes for the MCU – it introduces two new superheroes, Spider-Man and Black Panther, and brings about the dissolution of the superhero alliance that had defined the series since the days of the first "Avengers" movie — and it tells a story worthy of those massive developments. It is, as I wrote at the time, a surprisingly political plot: After a humanitarian disaster causes world leaders to decide that superheroes should be accountable to the people, a rift occurs between the faction that believes this is wise (Iron Man) and the faction that believes heroes should only answer to themselves (Captain America).

It's easy to see such a division occurring in the real world if superheroes existed, and "Captain America: Civil War" addresses these conflicts in an intelligent and sufficiently dramatic fashion. Personally I disagreed with Captain America's standpoint and was disappointed that the movie sided with him (although it perhaps had no choice but to do so, since it is his movie), but that doesn't make the movie any less thought-provoking. It is a surprisingly complex story, as far as blockbusters go, and its only serious flaw is that it feels less like a straightforward "Captain America" movie than one in which most of the Avengers reassemble.

6. "Iron Man" (May 2, 2008)
Box Office: $585 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93 percent

This was the one that started it all. It's easy to forget how "Iron Man" was overshadowed by "The Dark Knight" when it was released in 2008: Anyone following superhero flicks probably thought that Christopher Nolan's dark crime thriller, rather than Jon Favreau's light-hearted romp, was the wave of the future.

Yet "Iron Man" had quite an impact, in one shot reviving Robert Downey Jr.'s flailing career and encouraging the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As a standalone film, it also holds up quite well: It's a formulaic story but still a compelling one, in which Downey's Stark learns to overcome his selfishness and become a superhero after being captured by a terrorist group and having his life saved by a scientist who initially has far more virtue than Stark himself. While there are other Marvel movies that I've watched more than this one, it is a must-see for any MCU fan simply because it was the film that made every other installment in this series possible. Without "Iron Man," there is no MCU at all.

5. "Thor: Ragnarok"(November 3, 2017)
Box Office: $854 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93 percent

As I wrote in my review at the time, "Thor: Ragnarok" gave me hope for humanity. After the extremely disappointing "Thor: The Dark World," I had deep concerns about revisiting Thor for this  17th installment in the MCU. The creative trailer — which used Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" and found an extremely funny way of introducing the Hulk character into the saga — had given me some optimism, but the character of Thor seemed so one-dimensional that it was hard to imagine a great movie being made around him.

"Thor: Ragnarok" changed all of that, and it did so through a plot that systematically stripped away from Thor everything that had once defined him: His hair, his eye, his father, his hammer, the kingdom of Asgard. It is one of those rare superhero movies in which the main character loses everything and doesn't get it back, and it introduces one of the most intimidating female supervillains ever created for the big screen in the form of Cate Blanchett's Hela. It is hardly a surprise, after the success of this film, that "Thor" is going to be the first MCU character to star in a total of four movies (the maximum at this point, attained by Captain America and Iron Man, is three).

4. "The Avengers" (May 4, 2012)
Box Office: $1.5 billion
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92 percent

"Iron Man" may been the movie that started the MCU, but "The Avengers" is the one that proved the interconnected universe was a commercially viable concept. Had "The Avengers" tanked at the box office, or even simply underwhelmed, it is quite likely that we never would have seen a shared universe of Marvel movies that all felt like they were part of one great story. We quite likely never would have had the tragedy of Thanos' snap, or the heartbreak of Captain America and Iron Man fighting one another, or the father-song relationship between Iron Man and Spider-Man.

Yet "The Avengers" became the highest grossing film of 2012 and the movie that did indeed make all of these things possible. It also is close to being a perfect superhero movie, similar to how "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is a perfect action movie or the original "Ghostbusters" is a perfect sci-fi comedy. Everything from the action scenes and the character interactions to the little things like Loki's glowering villainy and Nick Fury's motivational speeches don't just work — they feel like things we have always known, that have always been part of our pop culture fabric, long before this movie ever hit theaters. "The Avengers" isn't just a great movie, it is a movie so significant that it is difficult to remember what our pop culture was like before it hit theaters. Now that is an achievement.

3. "Black Panther"(February 16, 2018)
Box Office: $1.3 billion
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97 percent

The 18th film in the MCU is also the first one that truly deserved an Oscar nomination (as I wrote at the time). On the surface, it is a traditional superhero story: It is the tale of T'Challa, who was once the prince and is now the king of the fictional super-advanced African kingdom of Wakanda, who becomes the Black Panther after his father dies and must save his society from a villain named Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Yet when Killmonger enters the picture, "Black Panther" transcends its genre origins and becomes something greater. Killmonger is not your traditional supervillain: He is a man with a radical political agenda, one rooted both in his own traumatic personal experiences and a deep knowledge of history, and it is impossible to not see the validity in his point of view as he executes his plan.

As I wrote in my review at the time: "Its closest equivalent would be 2016's 'Captain America: Civil War,' which used the feud between Captain America and Iron Man as a metaphor for complex political debates about issues like government regulation and foreign policy. While that movie merely created a fictional conflict that could be applied to real-world problems, however, 'Black Panther' doesn't deal only in abstractions. Characters in the film directly discuss actual injustices like the over-policing and mass incarceration of racial minorities, refugee crises, systemic poverty, colonialism and post-colonial exploitation, and racism in general. Nor are these merely dropped in as cute ways to show the audience that a superhero movie can be topical. Major character motivations are rooted in the reality of these problems, boldly intersecting real world battles between good-and-evil with their fantastical celluloid counterparts."

2. "Guardians of the Galaxy" (August 1, 2014)
Box Office: $773 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91 percent

As I pondered this list, I came very close to putting "Guardians of the Galaxy" at the top as the best MCU movie released so far. Like its sequel, this story of a group of misfits finding each other and forming a makeshift family while fighting a threat that imperils the entire galaxy is smart, action-packed, visually enthralling and surprisingly heartfelt. It also furthered the careers of many actors who were more than worthy of the attention: Chris Pratt as Star-Lord, Dave Bautista as Drax, Karen Gillan as Nebula and Bradley Cooper as Rocket Raccoon had all been stars before this movie hit theaters, but each one showed dimensions of their acting ability that had not been previously explored.

The 10th film in the MCU, "Guardians of the Galaxy" also stands out because of how different it feels from the previous nine movies. Each of those films — and for that matter all of their successors — were, at their core, superhero flicks in terms of their story structure. "Guardians of the Galaxy," on the other hand, feels more like a foul-mouthed "Star Wars," the kind of cheeky space opera that could easily have been made in the 1970s with cheap special effects and tremendous brio. It is also the only MCU movie that I have repeatedly heard non-MCU fans say they watched and enjoyed, which has to count for something.

1. "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (April 4, 2014)
Box Office: $714 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 90 percent

The ninth installment in the MCU is also my personal favorite. It is a perfect MCU movie because every element works just right: The special effects look real instead of like CGI, the action scenes are breathtakingly well-choreographed, the story is intelligently written, it works equally well as both its own standalone story and a continuation of the larger MCU narrative. It has the courage to be more than just a superhero movie, but also a political thriller as well: The story involves spies infiltrating our government who need to be rooted out, dangerous technology that Captain America realizes threatens our civil liberties and must be stopped, a paranoid plot in which no one knows who they can trust.

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is one of those films that isn't the best at any single thing. "Guardians of the Galaxy" is funnier, "Black Panther" and "Captain America: Civil War" have better political commentary, "Thor: Ragnarok" is a more poignant character study. Yet it is the best movie in the series because it is excellent at everything it tries and bad at none of them. Plus the final exchange of dialogue between Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes in this film is, quite frankly, the single most powerful moment in any MCU movie released so far. If I had to pick a single MCU movie to be remembered for eternity, with the others left to fade into obscurity, I would choose "Captain America: The Winter Soldier."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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