Watching 25+ movies sounds daunting, but it’s really not that bad. At the onset of 2021, I embarked upon a rewatch of the feature films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from 2008’s Iron Man to 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home, before eventually screening 2021’s Black Widow in a theater (my first time back in one of those since March 2020) and returning a few months later to see Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals, and Spider-Man: No Way Home all on the big screen. These are fun movies that often get at and invoke deeper themes; they’re action-packed with tons of levity and bring characters you’ll love down the line, even if you don’t care for them initially.
But back to that main point—watching everything. Look, obviously a 25+ project or list of anything is a lot to take on, and it sure sounds like it, too. But breezing through a rewatch (or a first watch) of the MCU is really not all that much when you think about it in the context of the way we now watch and binge TV. 28-29 movies (more on that in a bit) in the range of 2-3 hours each comes out to the equivalent of somewhere around 4-5 seasons of a prestige drama. It’s a lot, but a far cry from insurmountable.
Memories are fickle, people change, opinions change, and things take on new contexts. Rewatching movies with the privilege of hindsight can often be rewarding, and this is especially the case when watching through the MCU’s three existing phases.
Through the years, Kevin Feige and the MCU team have done a really great job of building out what almost feels like a house brand or formula; they know what makes a good movie, and what fans of the genre and the characters tend to like. Which makes it difficult, really, to rank one of these movies ahead of another. And that’s why for this particular exercise the movies are ranked in tiers. Essentially, that means that among each given tier, the movies are more or less interchangeable. Obviously, a decision had to be made among those tiers to put one movie in front of another, and those decisions are what they are. But the films among the tiers are so close they feel like they can be basically swapped in and out to your liking.
One note? You may notice one early MCU movie missing from the ranks—that’s right: we aren’t including 2008’s The Incredible Hulk in this list. Yes, it’s technically part of the canon, but between not being available on Disney+ (which is not a complete detractor—the two Spider-Man movies certainly make our list), having a different lead actor, having a number of discontinued plot threads, and coming at a time when the MCU didn’t quite know what it was doing, it just doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of what we’re doing here. If you want to watch it for a complete picture of everything happening, then by all means, go for it. But we think The Avengers gives more than enough context when introducing Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner to carry you through the rest of the run.
So, uh, that’s enough wind up for now. The movies below are ranked from worst to best, and as a bonus each movie will have a descriptor of just how much MCU knowledge you need to really appreciate everything that’s going on. And one more thing? These movies aren’t bad. OK, maybe Thor: The Dark World is bad. But even the ones on the lower end of the list are fun, have some great moments, and serve to develop characters who usually wind up paying off in the long run.
OK. Phew. Here we go:
The ‘Honestly, Not Great’ Tier
28. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Thor: The Dark World isn’t all bad. There are some funny moments (Thor hanging his hammer up on a hook in Dr. Selvig’s apartment like it’s an umbrella? Classic!), some great character moments (particularly around the death of Frigga, Thor and Loki’s mother), and Chris O’Dowd is there, so that’s cool. But boy oh boy is it kind of all over the place. Malekith is the MCU’s worst villain by far, and the whole plot of the movie feels kind of half-baked. At least Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is around to be his usual off-the-charts entertaining for all of his screen time—and he makes the ending far, far better than the rest of the movie deserves.
MCU understanding needed? Probably worth checking out Thor and The Avengers beforehand, but you can understand enough without those still too, probably.
Look. Eternals is not a bad movie. Let’s eliminate that notion right away. It’s directed by Chloé Zhao, the reigning Oscar winner for Best Director for her efforts on last year’s Nomadland. This was never going to be a bad movie.
That said, it’s also hard to call Eternals a particularly good movie either; it’s got a gorgeous color palette and stellar special effects, but the movie is 2 hours and 37 minutes long, and really feels like it. It takes a big swing—Zhao clearly wanted to make a potential best movie in the MCU, rather than something like Black Widow which rarely feels like it wants to be anything more than Winter Soldier-lite. It’s unfortunate, in turn, that it just doesn’t often work. It’s a struggle to develop 10+ new characters all at once, and the movie’s commitment to going back and forth between the present and flashbacks of the Eternals’ history is confusing and, at times, frustrating as a viewer. We just want to see what’s happening next!
There’s some good here; Kumail Nanjiani is charismatic and funny as Kingo, an Eternal posing as a Bollywood movie star. Brian Tyree Henry is great as Phastos, the team’s inventor and the first canonically gay Marvel superhero, and Lauren Ridloff and Barry Keoghan play really well off each other as Eternals Makkari (the MCU’s first deaf superhero) and Druig. Kit Harington makes his own MCU debut as Dane Whitman, a character only briefly in the film but that we want to see much more from. Harington has always been charismatic, and this seems to be a role that will really highlight that down the line.
Eternals also has a stellar pair of credits scenes that go a long way to setting up whatever it is that’s coming next in this cosmic lane of the MCU; in the end, though, it’s a film that makes us more eager to see what’s coming next than to ever really revisit again.
MCU understanding needed? As long as you have some general idea of the Marvel universe, you’d actually be pretty good going into this one cold. There are some references to Thanos and the events of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, but all things considered, as with most MCU first chapters, it’s a fairly self-contained story.
26. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Ultron might be the messiest movie on this list. It was Joss Whedon’s last go in the MCU after handling 2012’s The Avengers, and it did some things really well—the party scene!—and other things just sort of don’t fit right. James Spader is outstanding as Ultron, and WandaVision did a lot of nice backtracking work to make the introductions of Wanda Maximoff, Vision, and Pietro Maximoff more interesting after seeing that first Disney+ series. Also an oddly good Hawkeye movie? His mid-Sokovia battle speech to Wanda is a classic.
MCU understanding needed? Honestly? None. If you feel like watching this without seeing any other MCU movie beforehand, you’ll get the idea. Maybe Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but not even really.
Director Shane Black keeps his long-running tradition of setting every movie he makes during Christmas with Iron Man 3, which is a pretty solid movie. It falls this low on the list not because it’s not entertaining—because it is—but because it kind of feels out of place with where some of the characters go from here in the MCU. Robert Downey Jr. is top-notch as always, and Don Cheadle was clearly the right man for the job as Rhodey. But some parts of the movie don’t quite track. Ben Kingsley as “The Mandarin” is absolutely electric, though, and I’ll defend that twist with my life. Also a top 2 Happy Hogan movie.
MCU understanding needed? I mean, you’ll probably get the idea without anything else. But best context will come from the first two Iron Man films and especially The Avengers.
Kind of the same idea as Iron Man 1 (which we’ll get to later)! But just not as good. Downey Jr. is magnetic as always, Don Cheadle is solid in his first outing as James Rhodes, and wow does Sam Rockwell rule in the time he has. However, Mickey Rourke is pretty bad! Vanko is not a great villain and the movie suffers from it. Fine movie though! Fun enough, certainly watchable (as this tier suggests), and not bad. Plus, we get our first real glimpse at Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff.
MCU understanding needed? This takes place right after Iron Man, so, yeah, watch that one first.
Black Widow is a movie that, for the MCU faithful, feels special. It’s been more than two years since we all got to see our favorite heroes on the big screen. Seeing that opening fanfare in a theater again (and sticking it out through the credits for a mysterious tease to the future) just felt right.
It doesn’t re-invent the wheel, but Black Widow is a perfectly enjoyable entry in the Spy Thriller subgenre of MCU flicks. Scarlett Johansson is predictably fun in the titular role (even though this movie certainly could and should have probably come way sooner), but Florence Pugh and David Harbour steal the show in their second and third billed roles. The movie suffers from underbaked and, frankly, not great villains, but the movie features some great action sequences and stunt work that make it a really fun time.
MCU understanding needed? It probably stands alone decently, but MCU fans who at least know what happened in Civil War and Infinity War will enjoy this one the most.
There’s not a ton wrong with Captain Marvel. Brie Larson is a great casting choice and a fun lead, but the movie really thrives on the absolute blast performances from MCU mainstay Samuel L. Jackson (as Nick Fury) and newcomer Ben Mendelsohn (as Talos the Skrull). Captain Marvel gets the advantage on Doctor Strange due to how it figures to tie in to future MCU installments (introducing Monica Rambeau!), but mostly for the excellent ’90s soundtrack (and having Carol Danvers wear a Nine Inch Nails shirt for much of the movie).
MCU understanding needed? You’d probably be OK going in cold, but you’ll miss some character throwbacks and hints at things going forward.
Ant-Man and the Wasp tops this tier because these movies are just fun. Is there a person alive who doesn’t like Paul Rudd? I doubt it. It’s not as good as the first movie in the franchise, but the cast additions—Laurence Fishburne, Walton Goggins, and Randall Park, just to name a few—are perfect, and the movie is fun. Bonus points for one of the better MCU credits scenes.
MCU understanding needed? You should probably check out Ant-Man, Captain America: Civil War, and Avengers: Infinity War beforehand, at least.
Doctor Strange is a perfectly solid MCU origin story, and does a good job introducing the character who will become absolutely essential to the Infinity War and Endgame part of the story, and Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly cast as the titular doctor. The movie doesn’t get the most of some of its cast (Why is Michael Stuhlbarg in this movie?) and hopefully Rachel McAdams gets more to do in the upcoming sequel. That being said, Mads Mikkelsen is a lot of fun, Tilda Swinton is great, and the movie has a surprising amount of humor. And the visuals are fun. It’s a good movie! These are all good movies. Some stuff just has to be ranked down here, you know?
MCU understanding needed? None! Go to town, newbies.