Movie Theory: Let’s Talk MCU

Today I had the day off from work due to an unexpected springtime snowstorm. With several inches of snow on the ground and nowhere to be for the day, I turned my focus inward to think about the really important things in life. Namely the order in which I would rank all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. It’s very, very important work. So I’ll start off with my ranking of movies, but after the ranking (and a little bit of explanation behind why certain movies are my favorites) I’m also going to talk about the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole and how it’s affected the entire movie ecosystem with its popularity.

Here we go:

God Tier:
1. Captain America: Winter Soldier
2. Captain America: Civil War
3. Spiderman: Homecoming

Awesome Tier:
4. Guardians of the Galaxy
5. The Avengers
6. Iron Man 3
7. Black Panther
8. Thor: Ragnarok

Solid Tier:
9. Iron Man
10. Doctor Strange
11. Ant-Man

Alright (Alright, Alright) Tier:
12. Avengers: Age of Ultron
13. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
14. Captain America: The First Avenger
15. Thor

Nah Tier:
16. Iron Man 2
17. The Incredible Hulk
18. Thor: The Dark World

Here’s what I wrote about Winter Soldier and Civil War back in May 2016 after Civil War had recently been released. Pretty much everything I say here still applies:

“Winter Soldier is by and far my favorite Marvel movie. In fact, it would probably rank in my top ten favorite movies ever, not just Marvel. Civil War is also an absolutely amazing movie. It manages an ensemble cast to a T – it never feels crowded, all the characters get their own moments. People who are funny are supposed to be funny. People who aren’t supposed to be funny still get some fun moments, but they’re natural – unlike a Whedon script where everybody gets a quip like Oprah was handing them out. All the action sequences are fantastic (except for a little bit of shaky-cam in a few places). It’s a true, good sequel to Winter Soldier.

There’s only one place Civil War fails that makes it not as great as Winter Soldier – the score. Music is important to me. The Winter Soldier score was top-notch and I bought it immediately when I got home after the first movie. The Civil War score is forgettable and non-offensive – it’s just there. We have all sorts of different heroes that could have had their own motifs – it was a veritable playground for any composer. And yet somehow Jackman dropped the ball despite already having a great base in the Winter Soldier score.

Winter Soldier is a pseudo-spy thriller action movie with great characterization and a few lighthearted moments. It makes Black Widow a much more well-rounded character than she was in Avengers and it introduces the best bro in superhero history in Sam. The elevator fight sequence is one of my favorites overall – along with, well, basically every action sequence in the movie. I could go on and on about the praise for this movie – the writing, the directing, the music – I’ve probably watched it seven or eight times since I got it on Blu-Ray two years ago.”

(I’ve added at least another three or four watches to Winter Soldier since then).


This is such a great action sequence.

Spiderman: Homecoming was the Spiderman movie I’ve wanted since Sam Raimi started. I talked about how great it was in my best of 2017 movies post a while back. So those three movies are undeniably my top 3 MCU movies.

The next group of five can be interchangeable. I love Shane Black as a director, so Iron Man 3 is my favorite of the Iron Mans despite it not being super popular amongst other people. It’s mostly due to how most of the action scenes revolve around Tony not using his suit (or using his suit in unique ways beyond “fight and blow up the bad guys.”) Guardians was a space opera classic that filled a void (that was shortly thereafter also filled by yearly Star Wars movies) and Avengers was a movie event like none other. Black Panther and Thor Ragnarok are the two most recent entries in the MCU and were both amazing – although I also understand why people don’t like Ragnarok due to the slapstick nature of the movie’s comedy. But all five of these movies are great and depending on my mood and which ones I’ve watched the most recently, the order could change.

The next set of three are also good, but not overwhelming great. They also don’t have anything I really could complain about – they’re just solid movies overall. The next group, though, starts to have flaws I can actually enumerate. Age of Ultron has a few good scenes (the Avengers party in Avengers Tower, Hulkbuster vs. Hulk, the slow moments at Hawkeye’s cabin) but the overall flow of the movie is muddled due to Whedon and Marvel execs butting heads. Ultron never feels super menacing and it tries to do too much with all its characters. GOTG Vol. 2 has a great beginning and a great ending, but the whole middle of the movie falls flat. Gunn repeats jokes too many times, along with too many nods to “hey, remember that thing you liked from GOTG? Here it is again, laugh please!” The first Captain America is unfortunately dull and uninspired, while it has some great period piece moments and lays a wonderful foundation for who Steve Rogers is, the overall movie is unimpressive. Same for Thor: they try to do an Asgard fish-out-of-water story, but essentially rob Thor of everything that separates him from other Marvel heroes and give him a really kind-of-creepy three-day romance with Jane that actually bugs me.

And then there’s the bottom 3 which are…well, just bad. Iron Man 2 was built quickly off the surprising success of Iron Man and you can tell that it was slap-dashed together. The Incredible Hulk wasn’t that great and Mark Ruffalo has done such a good job of being Bruce Banner post-Avengers that it’s hard to accept Edward Norton in the role. And Thor: The Dark World was a just plain bad movie. It is too broodingly serious and tries to tie an intergalactic plot to Earth only for the reasons of pushing the Thor/Jane romance, and then has a slapstick final battle out of nowhere that would be more fitting with the Benny Hill theme as background music.


Do you remember this guy? Because Christopher Eccleston wants to forget this role, too.

But the most impressive thing about what Marvel has done is create a cinematic universe where any character showing up in another character’s movie can be bought completely. Black Widow first appeared in Iron Man 2, then Avengers, then switched over to Captain America: Winter Soldier seamlessly. Doctor Strange is introduced in his own movie and then shows up for a bit in Thor Ragnarok and nobody blinks an eye. Both Black Panther and Spiderman show up in Civil War first before getting their own movies to flesh their character out. And we have huge tentpole movies like The Avengers, Civil War, and the upcoming Infinity War where the ensemble cast is made entirely out of headliners that come first on their own individual movie posters.

I’ve always been a fan of continuity. The first TV show I really got into was 24 back when it premiered in 2001 and it was because it was a serial story taking place in “real time” over 24 hours. I love when, in TV, the story is serialized instead of episodic and guest stars from an early episode show up in later episodes making it feel like an established world. “Mythology” episodes in shows like X-Files, Castle, etc. where the long-term story arcs show up are always my favorites. It’s why shows like Justified and Person of Interest top my all-time favorite shows because all the episodes are tied together through plot arcs and characters you don’t expect to show up are suddenly there in an episode you didn’t expect to see them in.

Marvel Studios has become the first to insert that continuity into movies. Infinity War (and its sequel next year) are the culmination of a decade of movies setting up the Infinity Stones and the heroes defending the Earth. I love that each movie feels like its own movie due to the cast and director, but at the same time they all fit into the same universe and that doesn’t feel like a stretch. They’ve forever changed the landscape of movies because of their success – even James Bond, the longest running film series to date, still has had several reboots and a majority of those movies have been standalones with nothing tying them together (the nebulous SPECTRE and Ernst Blofeld only a tenuous connection at best).

We’ve seen plenty of studios try to emulate the Marvel success – DC being the most obvious one, with the “Dark Universe” being the most spectacular failure and the MonsterVerse slowly rolling out to mild success but without the promiment mindshare. All of them tried to rush into the success immediately instead of doing what Marvel did, which was a very, VERY slow roll. Remember that while yes, we are getting 3 Marvel movies a year NOW, the road to Avengers was more tortoise than hare. Iron Man dropped in 2008, Incredible Hulk in 2009, Iron Man 2 in 2010, and Thor and Captain America in 2011. They took their time and built a solid foundation of cast and characters before hitting it big with the Avengers and then having the MCU really take off.


Godzilla vs. King Kong is coming…very slowly…in like three years.

Meanwhile, other studios wanted money right away. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel in 2013 was an alright standalone movie, but as Avengers had done so well the previous year and Iron Man 3 had busted a few records earlier the same year, Warner Bros was in a rush to emulate and get that Avengers money. So instead of drawing up a slow plan, they piggybacked off a movie never intended to jump start a universe and rushed out a Batman vs Superman movie, a Suicide Squad movie that didn’t tie into anything in their intended universe (but wanted to emulate GOTG’s success badly) and a Justice League movie before they’d asked their audience to care about any members of the Justice League besides Wonder Woman. Because they tried to put the cart before the horse, instead their big tentpole universe flopped hard (at least compared to expectations) and DC has become the butt of movie jokes more often than not, when only a few years prior they were owning the comic book movie space with Nolan’s Batman trilogy.

While I could probably talk for hours on how bad Warner Bros screwed up their attempt at a cohesive universe, I’d also like to point out how badly the “Dark Universe” launched. Marvel’s success with the MCU was in part due to their excellent casting choices. Robert Downey Jr. was still trying to recover his reputation when he was cast as Tony Stark. Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth were basically nobodies. Chris Pratt was just a funny guy from Parks and Rec, Scarlett Johansson was doing alright but hadn’t shot to world-class fame and possible action star yet. Where the Dark Universe went wrong was hiring already multi-millionaire actors and actresses to be their stars. Tom Cruise to star in the Mummy? Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll? Angelina Jolie as the Bride of Frankenstein? It would nearly impossible to nail these kind of box office stars down for multi-movie contracts – especially when you were making movies at a rate of one movie every two years, with the big team-up movie not happening for a good five+ years in the future. Marvel drew people in with the character, not the star power, and ended up making new stars instead of relying on established ones. And that’s why they succeeded.

Before the MCU, blockbuster movies were a one or twice a summer event. Independence Day, Jurassic Park, etc. Studios maybe had one or two tentpole releases that they wanted to make hundreds of millions at the box office. Now if a superhero/blockbuster movie (or attempt at a cinematic universe) doesn’t crest a billion made worldwide it’s not meeting expectations. Hundred million dollar domestic opening weekends are the norm – Justice League only made $93 million in its first weekend and that was considered a “failure” as it’s only the 57th highest opening weekend of all-time. (Just as a reference point, Iron Man 2 had a $128 million opening weekend in 2010 and is 27th of all time…and it’s widely considered one of the worst MCU movies). Also, of the top 50 highest opening weekends of all time, only 13 came before 2010. While that can’t be directly tracked to the MCU’s redefintion of blockbuster (as things like inflation and movie ticket prices really put a damper on 80s and 90s blockbuster opening weekends) you can clearly see a trend recently emerging where every MCU movie is an event regardless of season – not just the Avenger team-up movies and not just in the summer.

Whether people want to admit it or not, the MCU has had as much an effect on the movie-making industry as the Harry Potter saga inspiring all those Young-Adult series that ended in two-parters that didn’t need to be two-parters. It’s why we’re getting Aquaman this year as DC continues to try and salvage a universe out of their failed attempts, and why we’re getting a Venom movie that’s rumored to not have a lot of Venom in it. But they aren’t learning from why Marvel succeeded – they’re only seeing the finished results and thinking “we can do that with no effort!”

I’m excited to see the culmination of everything with Infinity War and the next movie next year. I love the MCU and what it’s done for movies, even if movie studios are learning the wrong lessons. Hopefully they stop trying to take shortcuts and make better attempts at emulation, if they do I’m all for more crossovers! Bring it on! Just…don’t emulate Thor: The Dark World, please. That one’s better left dead.

*All screenshots retrieved from Google Image Search.