This feature originally ran in April 2015 and has been periodically updated with the latest Marvel releases.
Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we sort through the best and worst of Marvel’s seemingly never-ending cinematic universe.
Have a quick glance at this:
That was April 2006. Now, 15 years later, the outline for Marvel’s ambitious (many at the time said overzealous) plan to take over movie theaters has been made manifest. Under their watch, a movie partially centered around a sassy talking raccoon and a giant tree fighting space evil became one of the highest-grossing films of 2014. In 2008, Robert Downey Jr.’s career was still on the mend, and now he’s one of the biggest and highest-paid movie stars of the current era.
Serialized superhero stories on TV are enjoying their biggest-ever boom period for Marvel and others alike, thanks to the brand’s immense success. At this point, the evidence is indisputable that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has permanently changed the way that both Hollywood and movies fundamentally work.
Avengers: Endgame brought three phases — and the original plan laid out in that post-credit sequence of Iron Man — to their end, but the Marvel machine is raging on, and we’d like to celebrate this genuinely unparalleled accomplishment. The how and why of Marvel Studios’ gambit working out so well is more complex than some will realize, but one simple explanation is that there’s a certain standard of quality expected from Marvel’s output, one that’s been consistently delivered upon with each production within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
So join us as we dissect what Marvel has accomplished so far by way of the 44 Marvel Cinematic Universe offerings that have been released (theatrically, on TV, or via streaming platforms) as of this publication. Because as we’ve now learned in abundance over the past decade and beyond, there’s more than one way to tell a great superhero story.
— Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
44. Helstrom (2021)
Network and Lifespan: Hulu, One season, 10 episodes
Press Release: Estranged siblings Daimon and Ana Helstrom spend their time apart hunting down the worst of humanity — and beyond. The son and daughter of a serial killer, each possess their own other unique powers. When it appears their father has returned, the two reunite to battle demons both figurative and devilishly real.
Cast: Tom Austen, Sydney Lemmon, Elizabeth Marvel, Robert Wisdom, June Carryl, Alain Uy
Artistic Pedigree: Putting someone who had past success in producer roles on beloved sci-fi dramas (Lost) and fan-favorite Marvel shows (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) in charge of Helstrom makes sense, so hiring Paul Zbyszewski is understandable. But treating a complex new corner of the MCU like any other series by throwing in a litany of directors (Daina Reid, Michael Offer, Kevin Tancharoen) and an inconsistent writer’s room wasn’t doing Zbyszewski any favors.
Spirits of Vengeance: Helstrom was meant to help launch a darker occult corner of the MCU, and it tried desperately to lay those seeds. You’ve got the Blood, an ancient race with ties to Ghost Rider and Doctor Strange; Caretaker, a constant companion of the many Ghost Riders; and Lily, a CW-ed version of the Mother of All Demons, Lilith. And yet you care so little about the characters at hand, namely the Helstroms, that you can’t bring yourself to even begin to be concerned with what the future holds.
If No One Hears You Scream, Are You Even in the MCU?: Marvel gave up on Helstrom before it even hit Hulu. The production was started by Marvel Television before it was folded into Marvel Studios in December 2019, and Zbyszewski’s deal was terminated four months later. He was allowed to finish the show, but the title Marvel’s Helstrom was dropped for the more deniable Helstrom. There’s not even a Marvel title card on this thing.
Summary: There’s really nothing here to make this a Marvel Cinematic Universe series except for a barely-there use of the Roxxon Corporation. This, in the end, is likely to Marvel’s credit. They’re well aware that the demonic side of their universe is going to take some careful finessing, and a fully generic supernatural serial isn’t the way to do it. There are some really cool things in this corner of Marvel (including Helstrom), so here’s hoping they figure out a more intriguing way to shine a light on it. Here’s looking at you, Moon Knight.
— Ben Kaye
43. Inhumans (2017)
Network and Lifespan: ABC, 2017-2017, may it rest in peace
Press Release: To most of humanity, the moon is just that big beautiful thing in the sky. To a group of people who are definitely, certainly, absolutely not the X-Men, it’s home, a place where they can hide their extraordinary abilities from the rest of society. But when a crisis in the royal family sees some of them banished to Earth, the Inhumans must stay hidden, make friends, and find a way back home.
Cast: Anson Mount, Serinda Swan, Ken Leung, Eme Ikwuakor, Isabelle Cornish, Ellen Woglom, Iwan Rheon
Artistic Pedigree: Showrunner Scott Buck has been nominated for seven Emmys. He was also the showrunner for the last several seasons of Dexter and was the creator and original showrunner for Iron Fist, but was replaced after the first season. I’m sure Scott Buck is a lovely person, and yes, that is shade. More about him shortly.
Let’s Put It In IMAX…And Make It Shorter!: There’s a lot about Inhumans, which this writer watched all of, god help her, that’s baffling, but the choices made about the show’s early rollout might be the most bewildering. Marvel and ABC took a cool idea — film the first two episodes of their hot new property in both standard format and in IMAX, giving audiences a chance to see larger-than-life characters in a larger-than-life setting before it launches on the small screen — and made it both a waste of time and money. The IMAX version highlighted the comically bad design elements, and rather than including more content for the die-hard fans determined to buy a ticket to something they could see for free, they actually chopped 10 minutes from the pilot. Why?
At Least There’s a Good Dog: There are some skilled performers on Inhumans, with Ken Leung coming closest to making Buck and company’s terrible dialogue work — though in Buck’s defense, the worst of the bunch is the almost entirely dialogue-free Anson Mount, who chooses to communicate the silent Black Bolt’s interior life through approximately three facial expressions.
Still, this is a section about the best character on Inhumans, who, coincidentally, also doesn’t speak. There is such a good dog on this show! Lockjaw is a giant teleporting pup. He’s enormous and adorable. He has something resembling a personality. He’s brought to life by CGI, and the CGI is well done. He’s not only not insufferable — a rarity on this show — but he’s a damn delight. If someone can find a way to work Lockjaw into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I will be very happy indeed. Hell, enlist him in the Avengers. They need a very good dog.
Hero for a Day: Vin Diesel was rumored to be in contention to play Black Bolt, a prospect he seemed pretty excited about. Our loss is Vin’s gain.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!”: It’s possible that there’s a poster somewhere that we didn’t spot, but as far as we can tell, Stan Lee gave this one a wide berth. There’s no cameo to be found.
Summary: You may be thinking to yourself, it can’t be that bad! You would be wrong. If you want to experience the best of Inhumans, just find a clip of Lockjaw online, preferably one where he’s alone. Better still, maybe just find a GIF. This is easily the worst entry in the MCU, and it’s not remotely close. Thank god it only lasted one season.
— Allison Shoemaker
42. Iron Fist (2017)
Network and Lifespan: Netflix, two seasons (2016-2018)
Press Release: Missing for 15 years and presumed dead after his plane crashes in the Himalayas, young Danny Rand turns up in New York city to try and reconnect with the only family he has left. But things are different; Danny has become the immortal Iron Fist, sworn to guard and protect the entrance to the mystical city K’un-Lun from an ancient evil that just happens to be surfacing in the Big Apple as well. Using his powerful chi, Danny must fight to save not only his family’s legacy, but the whole of New York City!
Cast: Finn Jones, Jessica Henwick, Jessica Stroup, Tom Pelphrey, David Wenham, Rosario Dawson, Wai Ching Ho, Sacha Dhawan, Ramon Rodriguez, and Carrie-Anne Moss
Artistic Pedigree: Season one showrunner Scott Buck has had a hand in TV shows that range from good (Six Feet Under) to very bad (the last three seasons of Dexter); for season 2, Iron Fist brought on Raven Metzner (Sleepy Hollow, Falling Skies) to run the dojo.
Chop Socky Mayhem: One of Iron Fist’s potential pleasures from the start was the comic’s roots in kung-fu and chop-socky pictures from the 1970s, leading to the potential for some great fight sequences. Season 1 was decidedly a mixed bag; while Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing is a stellar performer, Finn Jones was still new to the job, and most performers learned their moves a few minutes before shooting. The results were decidedly tepid, to say the least. Luckily, season 2’s fighting was a huge improvement over the first, Black Panther fight choreographer Clayton Barber coming on to craft flowing, lyrical sequences that weren’t just great showcases for action – they achieved the impossible task of making Finn Jones look like he knows how to fight. It’s just one indicator of the day-and-night improvements season 2 made over the first.
There is always an Iron Fist…so why Danny Rand? Let’s face it: if you’re not a fan of the original comic, or comics in general, you probably had absolutely no clue who The Iron Fist was. Since there has always been an Iron Fist protecting the ancient City of K’un-Lun, why not change the timeline and let someone else take the reins (preferably someone who isn’t white)? Refreshingly, the show itself began to ask those questions too, as season 2 saw Danny realize that he was undeserving of the Iron Fist, and convinced the far more competent (and dynamic) Colleen Wing to take the mantle – setting us up for a Daughters of the Dragon pairing that will, sadly, never come.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” Stan Lee’s local cop trend continues here with a BE PROUD police recruitment poster featured in Episode 13. (It also crops up in Chinatown in the second season.)
Summary: Oh, Iron Fist, your ship was sunk just as it had corrected its course, bouncing back with a second season that adequately addressed most of the (very valid) criticisms of the first season. Its shorter ten-episode order ramped up the pacing, they actually bothered to get a fight choreographer to help the show live up to its kung-fu roots, and Danny (like the fanbase) handing the show’s reins to the far more interesting Colleen Wing. With season 2 leaving the show in such an interesting place, with Colleen in possession of the Iron Fist and Danny on his own quest for purpose, it’s a shame the punching bag of the MCTVU won’t get the chance to maintain its upward climb.
— McKenzie Gerber and Clint Worthington
41. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Runtime: 1 hr. 48 min.
Press Release: Bruce Banner, a mild-mannered scientist, is exposed to a heavy dose of gamma radiation and is left with a peculiar physical side effect: whenever Bruce gets mad, he turns into a hulking, green giant. And the government wants him too, and he has to fight another government monster or something. Just know that Harlem and the Apollo Theater get wrecked by Hulk, that sloppy green butthead.
Cast: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt
Artistic Pedigree: From the director of The Transporter and the film that made us say “Release the Kraken!” for a couple of months came The Incredible Hulk. Louis Letterier helmed this baby with speedy pacing and a so-so eye for special effects, but the man delivered on some nifty action set pieces and surprisingly good acting for a comic flick … that we’ve all but forgotten. D’oh, move along.
Mark. Ed. Mark. Ed. In a clear case of cosmic irony, Letterier really wanted Mark Ruffalo. But no. He had to deal with Edward Norton, a prima donna who personally re-wrote the script himself (credited as Edward Harrison). Hey whatever, it’s not like Marvel cares if they re-cast. Hey, what’s up, not-Terrence Howard!
Omar Comin’? File this under strange but true? Norton’s script had a character specifically written for Michael Kenneth Williams, because at the time, Norton really loved The Wire. Think about it! Say the Hulk’s a-raging, and Omar could slide on down the street, and you’d think he had a chance. But no, he got cut. Thanks, O-Marvel!
Hero for a Day: The casting was actually pretty through-and-through on this one. Norton negotiated in 2006 and eventually signed on, but only if he could star and write. The production struggled to find footing and tone after 2003’s Hulk, and this movie was being developed as a sort of sequel, a stand-alone, and a universe-building first step. You know, a really easy challenge for a movie about a big, angry science accident. However, art possibly imitates life, and if rumors were true, Norton was as big a dick as the Hulk was mad and green. And Marvel didn’t want to pony up more green to bring the talented but torturous star back. So hey, once again, nice work on Ruffalo, Marvel.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” This is the one where they jokingly put Stan in harm’s way by giving him a deadly dose of South American cola filled with Bruce Banner’s blood. Poor unlucky bastard, you’d at least hope for some super-powered accident for Stan. And then, he could do his own hero film. What? Just a thought.
Summary: It almost feels unfair to rank The Incredible Hulk among the rest of the MCU – at this point in the franchise, they didn’t know how far they’d go with their world-building, and until William Hurt showed back up in Civil War it barely seems to exist in the collective memory of Kevin Feige et al. Unfortunately, it’s for good reason – as a mediocre action picture it’s serviceable, but it pales in comparison to the rest of Marvel’s canon (yes, even with Hulk using a police car as brass knuckles). For all the criticisms of Ang Lee’s headier version of Hulk, at least it had more narrative ambition than the paint-by-numbers affair Norton and Leterrier produce. As a brick in the foundation of the MCU, it could easily be discarded with little impact to its structural integrity.
— Blake Goble and Clint Worthington
40. The Defenders (2017)
Network and Lifespan: Netflix, one season (2017)
Press Release: A disastrous earthquake shakes up New York City, grabbing the attention of four street-level superheroes making waves in the Big Apple – blind lawyer-turned-costumed-brawler Daredevil (Charlie Cox), super-strong private detective Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), bulletproof Harlemite Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and glowy-handed billionaire orphan Danny Rand, aka the Immortal Iron Fist (Finn Jones). Together, along with their respective mentors and sidekicks, they find themselves embroiled in a scheme concocted by the ancient ninja clan The Hand (led by Sigourney Weaver’s mysterious Alexandra) to destroy New York City, and band together to stop it.
Cast: Charlie Cox, Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, Finn Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Rosario Dawson, Elodie Yung, Jessica Henwick, Eka Darville, Elden Henson, Simone Missick, Scott Glenn
Artistic Pedigree: Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez were the showrunners of Daredevil‘s second season, as well as producers and writers on the first. Petrie has a long list of TV credits, from Buffy to CSI to Season 2 of Pushing Daisies.
Color-Coded Crimefighting: One of the more novel ways The Defenders tried to unify the differing visual and tonal aesthetics of its four leads was to adopt a different color scheme for scenes featuring each Defender – red for Daredevil, blue/purple for Jessica, yellow for Luke, and green for Danny. It’s on the nose, sure, but it allows for interesting compositions and instant recognition of whose story we’re following. Even when the Defenders finally…dissemble?… in the Chinese restaurant, eagle-eyed viewers can spot the different areas of the set where each Defender’s color wash is favored. For better or worse, it’s a quaint and inventive way to evoke the bright, bold colors of the comics.
“The Immortal Iron Fist…Is Still a Thundering Dumbass”: As in Iron Fist, Danny Rand remains the worst, a wimpy trust-fund baby with a glowing hand and a savior complex to match. Luckily, The Defenders leans hard into this characterization, which dulls the pain: he’s still a pill, but it feels so good to see everyone else recognize it too. Whether it’s Luke Cage taking him to task for not using his immense wealth to address wealth inequality, or the savage beatdown he gets at the start of Episode 6 by the other Defenders, Danny’s presence on the show is made more palatable by the show finally being on our side.
Talk to the Hand: Something Marvel failed to learn from both Daredevil Season 2 and Iron Fist is that no one cares about The Hand. At all. They’re a nebulous group of self-serious industrialists with an army of cannon fodder and a mystical chip on their shoulder, and the lot of them (Madame Gao excepted) are dull as dishwater.
Also, their plan sucks eggs: This is the big, earth-shattering crisis that brings together the four Netflix Marvel heroes? Earthquakes, real estate development, and dragon skeletons? Not even Sigourney Weaver (scowling her way through portentous dialogue as the underwritten Alexandra) can make The Hand interesting, leaving the show with a frustrating lack of stakes. Netflix was the one arena that had seemed to solve Marvel’s villain problem (Kingpin, Kilgrave), but they drop the ball hardcore here.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” Stan’s grinning visage can be seen over Matt Murdock’s right shoulder in “Worst Behavior”, as he trots past a very Steve Jobs-ian portrait of Stan the Man on the streets of New York City.
Summary: Just like The Avengers, The Defenders was Netflix’s attempt to weave their four major Marvel shows (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist) into one big miniseries event. Alas, The Defenders quickly becomes a tedious joke: the central villains are drop-dead boring, and the Defenders themselves often feel like stripped-down caricatures of the protagonists Marvel had already spent entire seasons developing. Even after cutting the run down to eight episodes from Netflix’s usual 13, the same pacing problems remain – endless scenes with supporting characters having circular conversations, repetitive cycles of characters getting captured and escaping, and so on.
Still, The Defenders isn’t a total wash, and there are a few charms to be had in this grand Netflix experiment. Throwing all the Netflix Marvel characters into the mix makes for some surprisingly entertaining dynamics (Murdock and Jessica’s snarky back-and-forth especially), and the episode where they all get acquainted in a Chinese restaurant is one of the show’s better hours. At the end of the day, though, the Defenders (yes, even Danny) deserve a better mission than punching a few ninjas in a cave next to a dragon skeleton.
— Clint Worthington
39. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Runtime: 1 hr. 52 min.
Press Release: Thor has returned home to Asgard, but discovers a greater threat not only to his world, but (duh-duh-DUH!) all the worlds. He must join forces with his villainous brother Loki to fight off a new evil, and save Thor’s beloved in the process.
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Christopher Eccleston, Anthony Hopkins, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgård, Idris Elba, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Tadanobu Asano, Jaimie Alexander, Rene Russo
Artistic Pedigree: Future Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins was originally attached to the This resulted in the hiring of Alan Taylor, who had previously helmed half a dozen episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones. The Dark World has the feel of a Game of Thrones episode, visually speaking, but takes itself far too seriously when compared to the breezy original, Kat Dennings notwithstanding.
“Who” Gives a Fuck About Malekith? A flaw many Marvel films share is their lack of a memorable villain. Doctor Who’s Christopher Eccleston is a great actor, but his Malekith is yet another unforgettable foe. You think they would have utilized Eccleston more, but wherever the blame lies, it isn’t with the director. Here’s Taylor with his thoughts on Malekith from an interview with Crave Online around the time of the film’s release: “You saw a lot more into the relationship between him and Algrim. You saw a lot more of what was driving him personally.” A director’s cut one day?
Captain, My Captain: I’ll leave this here. Feel the righteousness surge.
Hero for a Day: When one door closes, another one opens. That’s the saying, right? Anyway, Mads Mikkelsen had to walk away from the opportunity to play Malekith, but it was for the best. He got to play Hannibal Lecter on Hannibal, one of the best network TV dramas ever. And Mikkelsen eventually appeared in the MCU as the villain of Doctor Strange. Things have a way of working themselves out.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” Our man Stan finds himself in an insane asylum, listening to recently-mad Dr. Selvig (Skarsgård) ramble on about whatever he’s rambling on about. Stan just wants to know if he can get his shoe back.
Summary: There’s stuff to like in Thor: The Dark World. Heimdall gets a cool action scene, Jane gets to nerd out on Asgard, and the portal-filled final battle is incredibly visually inventive. Plus this is arguably the MCU movie that uses Loki to his fullest potential as a roguish anti-hero. Yet outside of some strong individual moments, The Dark World is just kind of a mess. It’s choppy, forgettable (we’re looking at you Malekith!), and pretty inconsequential for much of the ensuing MCU. On the other hand, we do have to point out that while Ragnarok is definitely the funniest Thor movie, it’s not the only one with jokes. This one features Thor riding the London underground and Mjolnir taking its rightful place on a coat rack, both of which are top-tier Marvel gags. It’s just a shame those jokes weren’t delivered by a movie with a little more meat on its bones.
— Justin Gerber and Caroline Siede
38. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 4 min.
Press Release: As the military pressures him to share the technology behind his Iron Man suit, billionaire inventor Tony Stark faces declining health and a new nemesis from Russia.
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Samuel L. Jackson
Artistic Pedigree: The first Iron Man may have cemented Jon Favreau’s reputation, but the director had already delivered strong work with the hit comedy Elf and the underrated sci-fi fantasy Zathura. It was a no-brainer to bring him back onboard for Iron Man 2, especially given his rapport with Downey.
Glass Half Empty: The infamous “Demon in a Bottle” story arc deals with Tony Stark’s alcoholism and remains a comic book touchstone to this day, but the Iron Man films generally away from such heavy themes. Favreau commented on this, stating: “I don’t think we’ll ever do the Leaving Las Vegas version, but it will be dealt with.” What we see is what we got, which is a shame, because Iron Man 2 could have used a more menacing villain than the outmatched tag team of Rourke and Rockwell. But don’t throw all the blame to Favreau; after all, director Shane Black was rebuffed by Disney when he tried to turn the page on the same story for its sequel.
The Cockatoo in the Room: Can we talk about that cockatoo for a second? Yeah, it’s a little weird. Rourke reportedly suggested the addition of the pet bird, and even paid for it himself. Fresh off his Oscar-nominated stint in The Wrestler, he seems to be having a pretty good time hamming it up as Russian supervillain Ivan Vanko.
Hero for a Day: Gee, Rhodey, something about you looks … different. Terrence Howard originally intended to reprise his role as Lt. Col. James Rhodes for the sequel to Iron Man, but a contractual dispute led him to quit. Years later, in 2013, a still-bitter Howard suggested that Robert Downey Jr. had betrayed him and stolen his paycheck. Whatever the truth, it’s hard to find fault with Don Cheadle and the film’s tongue-in-cheek way of introducing the new Rhodey to the world.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” Lee plays off his likeness to Larry King, impersonating the legendary talk show host as he tries to steal a moment with Tony Stark.
Summary: Iron Man 2 gets a lot of deserved grief for being the first standalone Marvel entry to experience the bloat of fusing MCU world-building obligations with a sustained, isolated piece of storytelling. Yet there are pleasures to be found all the same: the introductions of Rhodey 2.0 and Black Widow are perfect introductions to those characters, or at least their more comic sides, and Tony’s alcoholism makes for a compelling expansion of Stark’s character, even as it gets lost in a 2.5 hour film where a lot is going on.
— Collin Brennan and Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
37. Cloak & Dagger (2018)
Press Release: In Marvel’s version of New Orleans, two teenagers – Tandy, a young white girl born to privilege, and Tyrone, a young black man growing up in poverty – become inexplicably connected by twin tragedies that center around a collapsed Roxxon Oil platform. Drawn to each other by newly discovered superpowers, Tandy and Tyrone reluctantly band together to survive and solve the mystery of their powers.
Cast: Olivia Holt, Aubrey Joseph, Gloria Reuben, Andrea Roth, J.D. Evermore, Miles Mussenden, Carl Lundstedt, Emma Lahana, Jaime Zevallos
Artistic Pedigree: The show is created and executive produced by Joe Pokaski, best known as a writer for NBC’s Heroes, so at least he’s got experience with stories of young people grappling with superpowers. There are cheerleaders in this one, too.
The Big Uneasy: Unless you’re Ant-Man (or the Runaways), New York City is the default stomping ground for your average Marvel superhero. Cloak & Dagger moves the setting to New Orleans, which offers a slightly different palate to the show’s atmosphere. Right from the pilot, the collapse of a Roxxon oil platform offers some on-the-nose echoes of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, and one episode features one surprising character revealing his past as a member of a prominent Mardi Gras tribe. Here’s hoping more of that vibrant New Orleans culture bleeds through into the rest of the season. (I’m still holding out for a superpowered showdown on Bourbon St.)
Teamwork Makes the Dream-Worlds Work: While Cloak & Dagger is relatively grounded for a Marvel show, its conception of its titular characters’ superpowers is admirably inventive. Not only do they get their main powers (teleportation and light-daggers), each of them can read the minds of people they touch. The kicker is, Tyrone can only see people’s fears (manifested by visions of his subject in a dark forest), while Tandy sees people’s hopes (seen in visions of her looking in a brightly-lit glass room in the middle of the woods). It’s an intriguingly consistent way to manifest these psychic powers, and we hope they play around with them even more.
It’s Marvel-in’ Time!: Emma Lahana (who plays steely coke-addicted detective O’Reilly) is, strangely, just the latest of several Power Rangers alumni that have ended up in Marvel TV shows – she played the Yellow Ranger in Dino Thunder. Eka Darville (Malcolm from Jessica Jones) played the Red Ranger in Power Rangers RPM, while Nikolai Nikolaeff (Vladimir from the first season of Daredevil) was in Power Rangers Jungle Fury.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!”: While Stan the Man hasn’t shown up yet, executive producer Joe Pokaski says his mustachioed visage will be captured in a “fantastic painting… that’s hidden in one of our scenes” in the first season. That tracks with most of the Marvel TV shows, honestly – he’s a busy guy, he doesn’t have time for all this television nonsense!
Summary: As with Hulu’s Runaways, the teens of the Marvel universe have lives that are just as dark as their Netflix counterparts. Cloak & Dagger is about as grim as you could get – its leads are morose, driven by grief, crippled by poverty and drug abuse. It also tackles issues of race you don’t see much outside of Luke Cage and Black Panther; Tyrone’s confrontational attitude towards Tandy’s privilege (“This whole country’s trying to kill me every day!”) promises quite a few deeper conversations on the roles of marginalized people in a world where people can be more than human. Between its two compelling leads, and a novel cultural backdrop, the show demonstrates a great deal of potential to offer a new, edgier spin on the Marvel Universe.
— Clint Worthington
36. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013)
Network and Lifespan: ABC, seven seasons
Press Release: After Agent Phil Coulson’s death prior to the Battle of New York, Agent Not-Dead Phil Coulson forms an elite task agency within the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division to track the powers and threats now visible in the world.
Cast: Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Chloe Bennet, Iain De Caestecker, Elizabeth Henstridge, Brett Dalton, Henry Simmons, John Hannah, and on, and on, and on…
Artistic Pedigree: Creation-wise, it’s a Whedon family affair. Joss, his brother Jed, and Jed’s wife Maurissa Tancharoen brought the thing to life, and also wrote the pilot together. It’s got some of that Whedon wit, that’s for sure. It also has Clark Gregg, one of the most reliable players in the M.C.U, and the criminally underrated Ming-Na Wen. This isn’t prestige TV, which is fine, because that’s absolutely not the goal.
…But Who is the Zeppo?: Whedon No. 1 (that’s Joss) has said that S.H.I.E.L.D. is basically a series-length take on “The Zeppo,” an episode from the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which poor, poor Xander gets an episode all his own while the rest of the Scoobies are fighting a great big monster. So, just imagine that Coulson starts his own Buffy team, complete with some nerds and one hot asshole. Coulson is not a Zeppo, but you get the point. Let’s all just disregard the fact that “The Zeppo” also inspired one of the worst-ever episodes of new Doctor Who, “Love and Monsters.”
The Trouble With Spoilers: When you’re writing a list about things that have been out for a long time, it’s fair to assume there’s no such thing as a spoiler. But TV is the wild, wild west, man. One of the single most important plot points in all of S.H.I.E.L.D. is also one of the smartest decisions the show has made, and has to do with who is working for HYDRA, who ain’t working for HYDRA, and who has secrets that have nothing to do with HYDRA. There’s some clumsy plotting on this show, but none of those moments are among them. So here’s me saying those things are great. If you’ve seen it, you know. If you haven’t, you’re welcome, you have not been spoiled.
Hero for a Day: Adrianne Palicki (Bobbi Morse) and Brian Patrick Wade (Carl Creel) also auditioned to play Gamora and Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy. Not only did Palicki miss out on the chance to sort of awkwardly dance with Star-Lord, her own Marvel property bit the dust: Bobbi and fan-favorite Lance Hunter (Nick Blood) were slated to anchor the series Marvel’s Most Wanted, a project which ABC has now passed on — twice.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” Stan shows up early in the series, as a debonair passenger on a train the agents have infiltrated. He publicly shames Phil Coulson, which is unforgivable. Back off, Stan.
Summary: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a bit of mess, and there’s no way around that. Like the best messes, when it is good, it is very, very good, and when it is bad, it is rotten. But when Captain America: The Winter Soldier blew up everything we knew about the agency, S.H.I.E.L.D got a jolt of energy that made elements of its second season a delight. The third? All over the map. The fourth? Closes surprisingly strong. The fifth? They go to space and Fitz-Simmons get married, what more do you want? It doesn’t always fire on all cylinders, but like nearly everything else near the lower portion of our list, it’s far from the worst that pop culture has to offer. Give it a try, if only to watch Agent Melinda May kick so much ass it’s almost indecent.
— Allison Shoemaker
35. Eternals (2021)
Runtime: 2 hrs, 37 mins
Press Release: After spending millennia protecting humanity from vicious predators called Deviants, a group of extraterrestrial super-beings called Eternals part ways. A few millennia later, the monsters return, portending an even larger threat to Earth. It’s up to three Eternals — Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), and Sprite (Lia McHugh) — to reunite their long-separated family to fight back. In doing so, however, they learn a dark secret about their own origins.
Cast: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Kumail Nanjiani, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, and Kit Harington.
Artistic Pedigree: Chloé Zhao moved from a history-making poetic indie film, Nomadland, to an interstellar, cross-century superhero epic. She brought her keen eye for simple beauty to the production, but after Ryan and Kaz Firpo came up with the story, then Zhao wrote the script, then re-worked it with Patrick Burliegh, then the Firpos got their own screenwriting credit, it became a case of too many cooks in what should have been a quaint kitchen.
An Eternity of Exposition: About half of the film’s 157 minute running time is spent explaining everything needed to understand what’s happening on screen. Flashbacks reveal the history of the Eternals on Earth as a means to understand their present day situations, but with so many individuals to follow in the present, we barely care about their past. Then again, even in the present, their battle needs to be re-explained because of a second act reveal that changes everyone’s motivations. It’s just too many characters to meet at once to give a damn about a fight that, frankly, only barely makes sense.
Mahd Wy’ry: You could go crazy as Thena trying to answer all the plot hole questions here. In particular, the main Deviant that is pushing our heroes towards a final confrontation that has nothing to do with him has completely indiscernible motivations. Worse, when you learn why the Deviants even exist, you realize they simply shouldn’t. Characters meet and say and experience things that contradict other things they greet and speak and do (the Eternals have been here for thousands of years, so why do only, like, two of them understand smartphones?); as beautifully as Zhao shot this, she wrote it into a disappointing corner of the MCU.
Too Many Heroes, Too Little Time: The biggest loss here is that much of the casting is truly stellar, but there’s too much slogging along to give anyone proper shine. Bryan Tyree Henry’s Phastos is brilliant, charming, and has a beautifully humanistic arc (and he’s the MCU’s first openly gay hero); Lauren Ridloff doesn’t get nearly enough screen time as Marvel’s first deaf hero, the speedster Makkari; and Kumail Nanjiani is a scene-stealer with his comic relief.
And they all have such cool powers, with gorgeous graphic work, particularly with Henry, Nanjiani, and Jolie’s abilities. But then Jolie’s Thena is hampered with an inconsistent brain injury, and Salma Hayek’s Ajak only becomes two-dimensional when the script tells us she is in the third act. There are going to be sequels here, so hopefully everyone gets a bit more time to do something beyond dumping details on audiences.
Hero for a Post-Credit: In one of the most surprising turns for a movie that bores through so much of its run time, the last two minutes are incredibly engaging. Kit Harington’s Dane Whitman is confoundingly unnecessary and unconvincing for his three scenes, but then we learn a big secret about him right at the end and golly do we want more of it. The first post-credit scene sets up a sequel that looks like it’ll actually take these cosmic heroes into the cosmos, while also introducing two completely new and amazingly cast surprise characters (though one is created using some oddly poor CGI). No spoilers here, but again, golly do we want more of these two. Bring on Eternals 2, damn it all.
Summary: Eternals is an ambitious failure. It’s one of Marvel’s most original superhero stabs, but it’s also one of its most dull and poorly plotted. It’s like Zhao tried to fit a Marvel movie into her style instead of the other way around, and it unfortunately didn’t work to her advantage. Still, there’s enough quality cinematography, acting, and MCU groundwork here to make it worth a watch. It’s just hard to imagine being anything but disappointed by what on paper should have been a new level of Marvel epic. Hopefully Zhao can course correct on the follow-up (hey, it happened with Thor: Ragnarok).
— Ben Kaye
34. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Runtime: 2 hrs, 22 mins
Press Release: After raiding a Hydra outpost, Tony Stark decides to use the gem in Loki’s scepter to complete the Ultron program, a global defense force that would ideally streamline the Avengers’ necessity, and finally bring an end to supervillains. Instead, Ultron becomes sentient, decides that humanity is the greatest threat to the future, and looks to destroy both the Avengers and humankind at large.
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, James Spader, Paul Bettany, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, and the list goes on …
Artistic Pedigree: Joss Whedon returns after the rousing success of The Avengers, for a second round tenser than the first. We’ll come back to that shortly.
What’s in a Name?: Curiously enough, Age of Ultron bears incredibly little resemblance to the 2013 event arc of same name. There are no X-Men, Hank Pym hadn’t showed up in the MCU just yet, and that’s to say nothing of the alternate realities in which the comic Age of Ultron deals heavily. The film borrows far more heavily from an Avengers storyline from 1968, at least as far as the creation of Vision and Vision’s eventual transition to the heroes’ cause is concerned.
On Troubled Waters: And now, more on Joss Whedon. Age of Ultron was marked by a strained production cycle, but perhaps the most telling factoid is the one about the alternate version of the film that existed at one point. According to Vulture, “Whedon’s first cut of Age of Ultron came in at nearly three and a half hours; eventually, he and Feige worked together to slice the film down to 142 minutes.” The fact that over an hour of film was excised from Age of Ultron ends up explaining a lot about how the film turned out. Whedon, in general, was very clearly burnt out, and started to distance himself from the MCU as soon as the film’s press run was wrapped up.
Hero for a Day: Curiously, James Spader was the first and only choice for Ultron. After all, what’s more sinister than Robert California’s signature droll-yet-menacing delivery? Spader also jumped into the role; initial plans had him simply voicing Ultron, but the actor ended up doing the character’s motion capture work as well. Sasha Pieterse and Saoirse Ronan were initially looked at for Scarlet Witch, before Elizabeth Olsen took the part. Apparently, her work with Aaron Taylor-Johnson on Godzilla played some role in both of them taking the parts as the Maximoff siblings.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” Early on, at the Avengers’ ill-fated “mission accomplished” party, Thor and Steve Rogers start knocking back some ancient Asgardian liquor. Unimpressed with their bravado, Lee’s World War II vet asks for a pour, and is promptly carried out, trashed and declaring “Excelsior!”
Summary: “Divisive” is the best word to describe Age of Ultron. Not only was the critical reaction mixed, but the film itself often feels divided. It’s clearly bitten off more than it can chew; rarely has a Marvel film felt this scattershot or this governed by universe-building objectives. At one point, Thor disappears into an underground cave to listen to some Infinity Stone exposition that doesn’t particularly serve this film or even future ones, really. And the less said about that rushed Black Widow/Hulk romance, the better.
Yet to its credit, Age of Ultron is never lacking in ambition. The film tries to to tackle big philosophical questions about safety, technology, heroism, and human nature, best exemplified in a gorgeous scene in which the movie unexpectedly slows down to let Ultron and Vision — two of Tony Stark’s robotic creations — discuss the nature of humanity. The film has solid character-centric stuff throughout, including a comedic interlude at Tony’s house (complete with a hilarious hammer-lifting competition) and a more somber visit to Hawkeye’s secret farm. And while some of Ultron’s action scenes feel rote, the film at least displays an admirable commitment to showing superheroes actually, you know, saving people. There’s probably a much better movie to be made with this material, ideally one that puts more focus on the film’s fascinating but underutilized villain. But if Age of Ultron is a bit of a failure, at least it’s a noble one.
— Dominick Suzanne-Mayer and Caroline Siede
33. Marvel’s Runaways (2017)
Network and Lifespan: Hulu, ongoing (two seasons, with an upcoming third confirmed)
Press Release: Adapted from the comic series of the same name by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona, Runaways follows a group of six teenagers – tech genius Alex (Rhenzy Feliz), Wiccan Nico (Lyrica Okano), preppy blonde Karolina (Virginia Gardner), riot grrl SJW Gert (Ariela Barer), stealth-nerdy jock Chase (Gregg Sulkin), and the youngest, Molly (Allegra Acosta) – as they slowly start to discover their parents aren’t just overbearing control freaks, but supervillains.
Cast: Rhenzy Feliz, Lyrica Okano, Virginia Gardner, Ariela Barer, Gregg Sulkin, Allegra Acosta, Angel Parker, Ryan Sans, Annie Aersching, Kip Pardue, Ever Carradine, James Marsters, Brigid Brannagh, Kevin Weisman, Brittany Ishibashi, James Yaegashi, Julian McMahon
Artistic Pedigree: Runaways’ teen bonafides come courtesy of Josh Schwartz, who created and executive produced The O.C. and co-created Chuck. He and fellow showrunner Stephanie Savage developed Gossip Girltogether for The CW, making for a creative team uniquely suited to complicated adolescent intrigue.
Super Friends: Patently pitched as The Avengers meets The O.C., Hulu’s Runaways is nothing without its central cast of talented, dynamic young actors. Each of the six Runaways does surprisingly good work with the material they’re given, juggling adolescent angst with the larger questions of their newfound abilities and the larger impact their family squabbles have on the world. Whether they’re wrestling with their feelings about each other, or wrangling a loose velociraptor, the Runaways are an eclectic and magnetic group of youngsters whose rekindled friendship is more important to the show than any of their powers.
Parents Just Don’t Understand: Unlike the comics, the members of Pride – a cabal comprised of the Runaways’ parents, dedicated to sacrificing people’s lives to maintain the life of their benefactor Jonah (Julian McMahon) – don’t have superpowers, nor are they patently villainous. In fact, one of the show’s greatest strengths is fleshing out the differing motivations, desires, and dedications to the cause they each possess. While their goals run opposite to that of the Runaways, the show takes time to let us know where they’re coming from – whether they’re trapped by obligation to Jonah, or forbidden love for another member of Pride. They all get their moments, but Kevin Weisman and Brigid Brannagh deserve special mention as Gert’s crunchy-science-hippie parents, who come the closest to being completely sympathetic.
Go, Gert: While the show’s large ensemble makes it hard for any one member to stand out, Ariela Barer’s Gert is a wonderfully distinct character who at once embodies all the stereotypes of an overbearing, social justice-minded teenager – dyed hair, constant talk about the patriarchy – while grounding it within an endearing insecurity. All her affectations are, at least in part, borne of a desire to stand out and abide by strong principles, making her the soul of the Runaways. Her awkward teen romance with Chase later in the season is just adorable, right down to taking time out of stopping Pride’s plans for world domination to put out feelers to Chase about how he defines the relationship.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” Lee shows up as a chipper limo driver in Episode 6 of season one, driving the Runaways to the school dance. “We’re here!”
Summary: Runaways is a much different kind of show than we’ve seen out of the Marvel universe thus far. For one thing, it’s not all that concerned with superhero stuff, the Runaways’ powers and foes acting mostly as symbolic window dressing for universal teen problems like “our bodies are changing” and “I want to rebel against my parents.” For a souped-up teen drama, though, you can do far worse; as previously mentioned, the ensemble are well-suited to the material, and the prolonged origin story of the first season (it takes them until the final minutes of the season finale to, you know, run away) gives the characters room to develop.
It’s not all sunshine and roses. Putting the superhero jazz on the back burner also means that this mid-budget TV show doesn’t have the resources to make major CGI elements like Karolina’s Rainbow-Brite routine or Gert’s pet dinosaur look super convincing. Also, the eventual reveal of Pride’s big plan gives one unpleasant flashbacks to the tedium of Daredevil season 2 (another mysterious hole in the ground? Really?!). Still, you’d have to be a stone-cold monster (or one of their parents) to not want to root for these kids.
32. Ant-Man (2015)
Runtime: 1 hr. 57 min.
Press Release: Hank Pym once left S.H.I.E.L.D. over attempts to replicate his shrinking-suit technology, rightfully believing it dangerous in the wrong hands. When master thief Scott Lang ambles his way into possession of the suit, he becomes Ant-Man, capable of reducing himself to microscopic size while retaining his fully-grown strength. But now, another suit is being developed at Pym Technologies, the Yellowjacket, which could put the world in danger.
Cast: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Corey Stoll, Michael Pena, David Dastmalchian, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Anthony Mackie, Abby Ryder Fortson
Artistic Pedigree: So Peyton Reed finished the film, ably so, but there are a lot of other fingerprints on Ant-Man. Look no further than the film’s four screenwriting credits, honoring the original draft by Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish that was written with Wright as director in mind. But Wright and Marvel notoriously disagreed over the number of required universe-establishing bits of symmetry the film was going to require, and Wright left the production relatively late into the proceedings. Reed came in to pitch relief, around which time it was announced that both Adam McKay and Paul Rudd were punching up the film’s script. There are also two or three other writers that were likely involved in additional drafts, but couldn’t be cited because of Writers Guild requirements.
On antiheroes: In a lot of key respects, Ant-Man might be Marvel’s first true-blue antihero movie. Yes, Tony Stark begins Iron Man as an arms dealer, but he ends up renouncing his ways thanks to his abduction, and is an outright (if sarcastic) hero from that point forward. Likewise, for whatever flaws in personality they may have, every Marvel hero is generally good, if tempted by more nefarious urges. Ant-Man, by contrast, is a thief. And at the end of the film, he may be an Avenger, but he’s still a thief, just one playing for the right team. Most of the movie is also about him committing various acts of high-end theft. It’s a weirdly subversive arc for Marvel, even if it’s right at home with the generally sardonic world the studio has established to date.
Hero for a Day: Sean Bean, Pierce Brosnan, and Gary Oldman were looked at for Hank Pym. Curiously, so was Steve Buscemi, whose very presence would have made Ant-Man a very different movie. At one point, Hank’s wife Janet (the original Wasp) was part of the proceedings, and might have been played by Emma Stone or Rashida Jones. Instead, Hope’s role was expanded, and Janet was saved for a later film (one still ahead on this list).
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” As Pena’s sidekick Luis breaks down the series of events leading to the revelation that Ant-Man’s services are being considered by the Avengers, Lee appears as a bartender.
Summary: Ant-Man might be a disposable Marvel standalone, but as those go, it’s an eminently watchable one. The endless rewrites led to a lot of jokes being worked into what’s otherwise a fairly standard, if effectively made, first installment origin story. That Lange’s character arc isn’t exactly a straightforward “hero comes into himself” tale also helps the film feel relatively fresh, despite arriving after so many other origin stories in the MCU and elsewhere. That the humor is largely funny helps a lot more.
It’s also cast to the nines. Douglas makes for a terrific Hank Pym, the old-timer swagger belying a wounded spirit who wants to help prevent the kind of mistakes he feared years before. He’s a curious parallel of Tony Stark; both came up with their master inventions to improve the larger world, only to fear what they might have made. And for such a goofy hero premise, Rudd is dead-on for Ant-Man, his charisma working well against Lang’s generally unsavory tendencies. For one of the MCU’s more lightweight origin stories, it’s a fine time all around.
— Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
31. What If…? (2021)
Network and Lifespan: Disney+, nine episodes, with a second season of nine episodes in development
Press Release: The Watcher sees through the mists of the Multiverse like a high-collared interstellar Rod Serling, ushering us through various stories that wonder what the MCU would be like if just one major element were changed — like Peggy Carter getting the super-soldier serum, or T’Challa becoming Star-Lord.
Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Hayley Atwell, Chadwick Boseman, Samuel L. Jackson
Artistic Pedigree: Head writer and EP A.C. Bradley has a solid resume in 3D animated shows, having written 23 episodes of Trollhunters and serving as head writer for the first season of 3Below. Each episode is directed by Emmy-nominated storyboard artist (and Genndy Tartakovsky protege) Bryan Andrews, best known for his work on Samurai Jack and — most pertinent here — virtually every MCU film since Iron Man 2.
The Bifrost Less Traveled: What If…?’s appeal largely lies in its titular question: What if major elements of the Marvel Universe didn’t come to pass as we expect? Ostensibly, that should make for some really wacky premises, but what we’ve seen so far feels disappointingly tame. From Peggy’s bout as The First Avenger to a tepid murder-mystery plot with the Phase One Avengers as the victims, long stretches of What If…? feel like palette-swapped versions of things we’ve already seen.
Earth’s Most Cel-Shaded Heroes: Speaking of palette-swapping, the animation style takes some getting used to. Rather than opt for hand-drawn animation or a more fluid CG animation style, What If…? tries to thread the needle with 3D cel-shaded animation that comes across as disappointingly flat and Flash animation-y. That’s hardly aided by the voicework, courtesy of a cavalcade of returning Marvel actors slumming it in a voice booth and hardly giving it their all.
A Ravager Never Flies Solo: That said, if there’s one episode of What If…? You shouldn’t miss, it’s Episode 2. Here, T’Challa (voiced by a returning Chadwick Boseman, technically making this his final performance) lets loose as the leader of a decidedly different roster of the Guardians of the Galaxy — including a reformed Thanos (Josh Brolin, back as well). It’s still slight, but carries with it a sly sense of space-heist fun, and Boseman himself gets to have the kind of fun he didn’t often get to have as the stoic Black Panther.
Summary: Boseman’s final bow aside, it’s hard to make the case for What If…? as anything other than a disposable experiment for Marvel fanboys. Once the novelty of a given premise wears off, the show rarely does anything interesting with it. What’s more, the anthological nature of the series means we don’t get to sit with the implications of some of the more dramatic twists and turns the Watcher shows us. It might get wackier and wilder as more of the series goes on. But until then, it’s decidedly disposable Marvel fodder.
— Clint Worthington
30. Thor (2011)
Runtime: 1 hr. 54 min.
Press Release: There’s trouble in Asgard, as the crown prince Thor is exiled from his homeland to a lame, green and blue planet called Earth. California? Miami? New York City? More like New Mexico. Hey, it’s not all bad; he manages to win over a pretty sweet astrophysicist, and the guys at S.H.I.E.L.D. are interested in his talents. His crown-seeking stepbrother Loki? Not so much.
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgård, Colm Feore, Ray Stevenson, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, Rene Russo, Anthony Hopkins
Artistic Pedigree: The fiftysomething Irish director, actor, writer, and producer might be a little too overqualified for Marvel Studios, but then Kenneth Branagh has never been one to do the obvious. The mastermind behind many a film adaptation of William Shakespeare — 1989’s Henvy V, 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing, and 1996’s Hamlet, for reference — has quite the eccentric resume (see: 1999’s Wild Wild West). So, when Marvel hired Branagh to bring their first godly superhero to the silver screen, it only made perfect sense.
Every scene on Asgard feels tailored to his Shakespearean sensibilities (apparently, he modeled the story after Henry V, go figure), which is likely why they’re among the film’s strongest moments. While other directors would take Thor in some wacky, cosmic directions (chur, Taika), Branagh’s elevation of the comics to such operatic grandeur is an essential element of what makes Thor, well … Thor.
A Cast Fit for a King: The talent’s all listed above, but take a look once more. Has there been a more prestigious cast for a Marvel Studios outing? Not only do you have two Academy Award winners in Hopkins and Portman, but they’re fully supported by veterans Skarsgård, Russo, Feore, and Stevenson in addition to in-demand star power like Hiddleston, Elba, and CBS goldmine Ms. Dennings. Keyword: Branagh. As evidenced by Portman, aka Dr. Jane Foster, who admitted: “I was just like Kenneth Branagh doing Thor is super-weird, I’ve gotta do it.”
Norse Code: Given that the comics of Thor are deeply rooted in and based on Norse mythology, Branagh was only wise to include echoes of its history within the film. The conflict between the Asgardians and the Jotunns was based on the Aesir-Vanir war; the Bifrost bridge is seen as a rainbow beam of light, as originally conceptualized by the Norse; Odin rides an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir; Jane is shown a drawing by Thor of a crossroads with nine orbs, his representation of Yggdrasil; and Odin’s ravens Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory) sit on his throne. Rest assured, there’s much, much more.
Old Man Odin: There’s no denying the power of Thor’s prolific father, especially when it comes to representing the connective tissue in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was he who hid away the Tesseract that would surface in Captain America: The First Avenger; in fact, the Norwegian village you witness in a flashback here is the same one that the Red Skull invades. Also, take a closer look at the silver fox’s trophy room and you’ll see the elusive Infinity Gauntlet, which may prove either lucrative or detrimental for the Avengers. Ah, don’t you just love all the connective tissue?
Hero for a Day: It’s funny how art imitates life or vice versa, but the role came down to the Brothers Hemsworth, who had to battle for the real-life crown before Marvel. Obviously, Chris made Liam kneel before him. Prior to this, Brad Pitt, Channing Tatum, Triple H (!), Daniel Craig, Charlie Hunnam, and Tom Hiddleston were all considered. Alexander Skarsgård, whose father Stellan plays Dr. Erik Selvig here, also auditioned and was in the running. One would hope it was Stellan who broke the news to his boy, preferably over some beers in Boston:
“The role’s going to Hemsworth,” says Stellan.
“You know what? You can shove your role up your fucking ass,” Alexander screams back. “Because I knew you before you were a mathematical scientist. When you were pimple-faced and homesick and didn’t know which side of the bed to piss on!”
“Yeah, you were smarter than Chris then and you’re smarter than Chris now,” Stellan patronizes, “so don’t blame me for how your life turned out, it’s not my fault.”
“I DON’T BLAME YOU,” Alexander roars. “It’s not about you, you mathematical dick!”
Something like that.
Conan’s Still Not Sure They Got the Right Guy for the Part:
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” Apparently, Lee had always wanted to play Odin, but Marvel Studios “settled” on Hopkins instead, leaving yet another bit part for Mr. Marvel. In Thor, he appears as a friendly truck driver who attempts to tow Mjölnir out of the crater it landed in.
Summary: While Ragnarok injected some much-needed vitality and wit into the hoary Shakespearean formula, it’s important to remember that Branagh created the mold that Taika Waititi needed to break in the first place. Hemsworth found the perfect balance between cold and charming, while Branagh was able to connect Marvel’s Earthly delights with the unfathomable heavens. As a soft introduction to the Cosmic era Marvel would later perfect with Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor shouldn’t be discounted.
— Michael Roffman and Clint Worthington
29. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
Press Release: Scott Lang’s stint under house arrest is almost done (the result of a certain airport brawl with a certain ragtag bunch of illegal renegade superheroes), but former friends Hank Pym and Hope Van Dyne aren’t so lucky. Scott’s use of Pym’s super-suit has forced them to go on the run, and their relationship to Scott is as fractured as their sense of stability. But when Scott has an odd dream about Janet Van Dyne — long-lost wife to Hank, mother to Hope, and hero to many — they’re drawn back together. All the while, a mysterious, ghost-like villain is hot on their tails — or stingers, if you prefer.
Cast: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Michael Pena, David Dastmalchian, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Abby Ryder Fortson, Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, Hannah John-Kamen, Walton Goggins, Randall Park, Laurence Fishburne.
Oh, and MICHELLE FUCKING PFEIFFER.
Artistic Pedigree: As with the first Ant-Man, Peyton Reed ably directs Ant-Man and the Wasp; like its predecessor, this one has a pack of credited screenwriters (including, once again, Paul Rudd). But while Ant-Man and the Wasp may lack just a bit of the first film’s surprises — after all, things getting smaller and/or bigger is pretty familiar territory now — it more than makes up for it in cohesiveness. As noted above, Reed took over for the departing Edgar Wright on his first go-round, and the film definitely felt like one that had switched horses mid-race. But this time, it’s Reed’s show, and he done fine, effervescent work, with the same slight bite that made the first film (as well as Bring It On and Down With Love, two of the director’s more notable credits) such an enjoyable ride.
Boo, it’s the Ghost: Hannah John-Kamen’s role in AMATW continues Marvel’s course-correction when it comes to villains, the second in the A.K. era (after Killmonger). Like both Killmonger and Thanos, she’s motivated by something that is to her essential; like those two, she would probably not consider herself a villain. We won’t spoil her precise motivation here, but it lends this relatively lightweight film a much-needed sense of urgency, and adds a tiny streak of darkness that allows the film’s post-credits scenes, both grim affairs, to seem slightly less left-field than they might otherwise. Oh, and Ghost is also a dude in the comics. Casting John-Kamen in the role is a much more interesting choice.
Hero for a Day: It was rumored that Jeremy Renner would be appearing as Hawkeye in this sucker, perhaps answering the question of “hey, where the fuck was Hawkeye when Thanos was destroying all of civilization?” But no such luck. Guess he’s still in his farmhouse, either as a human being or a little pile of ashes. Whatever works.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!”: Why, he’s just a humble motorist.
Summary: If you liked the first Ant-Man a lot but found yourself thinking, “well, that was a bit of a mess,” have I got a sequel for you. Despite the rather, erm, dour ending of its immediate predecessor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (that would be Infinity War), Reed’s follow-up maintains the scrappy, almost subversive tone of the first while remaining essentially the story of a guy who would really like to be a good dad, if he could just stop fucking everything up all the time. While most Marvel stories are epic in scope, Ant-Man is almost of a piece with the televised corner of the MCU, focused on a small group of people, their misadventures, and the feelings those misadventures stir up. All good things.
And have we mentioned Michelle Pfeiffer? With her addition to the cast, the Ant-Man continues to assert itself as of the MCU properties most interested in featuring compelling female characters as part of the narrative, not as love interests — or at least, not exclusively as love interests — but as forces of nature unto themselves. And she’s Michelle Goddamn Pfeiffer. What more do you need from your filmgoing experience?
— Allison Shoemaker
28. Agent Carter (2015)
Network and Lifespan: ABC, two seasons. Cancelled because you (yes, you) didn’t watch it. Our hearts, they are broken, and it’s your fault.
Press Release: During the war, Peggy Carter was an elite agent, and did lots of world-saving things (many of them with a certain American Captain). Now, as an agent of the SSR, her job consists mostly of taking lunch orders and being ignored. So when Howard Stark asks her to become a double agent and clear his name, she’s primed for some real action — and Stark’s butler, Jarvis, comes along for the ride.
Cast: Hayley Atwell, James D’Arcy, Enver Gjokaj, Chad Michael Murray, Wynn Everett, Reggie Austin, Bridget Regan, Dominic Cooper, Lotte Verbeek, Lyndsy Fonseca
Artistic Pedigree: Cap’s best girl was always going to be in good hands. The series was created by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the screenwriters behind all three Captain America movies), and stars Hayley Atwell, one of the most consistent players in the MCU. She’s joined by a cast of varying levels of artistic clout, but the most important member is James D’Arcy, whose buddy act with Atwell sits at the show’s heart. To put it plainly, Atwell and D’Arcy have serious game, and are largely responsible for the show’s critical buzz and passionate (if small) fanbase.
Like Alias, but with Jazz and Manners: The show has plenty of ties to the MCU — it’s a veritable gold mine of easter eggs — but don’t expect Loki to drop in out of the sky. The vibe’s unique in the Marvel-verse, a heady blend of a 1940s screwball farce, all the wigs, kicks, and intrigue of Alias, and the polite silliness of a British comedy of errors. That goes right down to the way the show is shot: can you imagine The Avengers being filmed through lenses covered with vintage Christian Dior stockings?
Aren’t You a Bunch of Cute Little Misogynists: You don’t have to have seen The First Avenger to know that Peggy Carter is a total bad-ass. She’s aggressively competent. But the dudes in her office clearly missed the memo, which makes for the smartest little twist in the whole series. How is Agent Carter able to pull off the stuff she does, right under the noses of her co-workers? She’s a woman, so she’s basically invisible. While the misogyny is often overt, the consequences of it are far more subtle and smart. It’s got feminist bonafides, but they sneak ‘em in while you’re distracted by all the great hats.
Hero for a Day: Not much to report here. Hayley Atwell plays Peggy on the big screen, so it’s not as though they’d bring in somebody else. What’s fun here is the number of people who reprise their big-screen roles, however briefly: keep your eyes peeled for Toby Jones (Arnim Zola), Neal McDonough (Dum Dum Dugan), and others.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” He’s just a guy getting a shoeshine who’d like to take a look at the sports section.
Summary: God, Agent Carter is just so much fun. Smart, great fights, great wigs, great costumes, and great, great, great Hayley Atwell. Low ratings, some rocky moments in season two, and the fact that you — yes, you — didn’t watch it condemned this gem to the cancellation heap. Still, we’ll always have those two seasons. So don’t worry about Peggy. No matter what, she always lands on her feet.
— Allison Shoemaker
27. Daredevil (2015)
Network and Lifespan: Netflix, three seasons (2015-2018)
Press Release: By day, Matt Murdock’s a great lawyer who turned down big money to fight for the little guy. By night, he serves up vigilante justice to the criminal element of Hell’s Kitchen. In between, he talks to his priest about morality. All the time, he’s blind.
Cast: Charlie Cox, Deborah Ann Woll, Elden Henson, Vincent D’Onofrio, Royce Johnson, Jon Bernthal, Elodie Yung, Geoffrey Cantor, Toby Leonard Moore, Vondie Curtis-Hall
Artistic Pedigree: Creator Drew Goddard has quite a resumé, particularly in film, with credits in both the Abrams-verse and Whedon world (Lost, Cloverfield, Alias, Buffy), not to mention an Oscar nomination for the screenplay for The Martian. Pacific Rim: Uprising’s Stephen S. DeKnight ran the first season, until Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Doug Petrie and Fear the Walking Dead’s Marco Ramirez took the reins for the second. For season three, Arrow writer Erik Oleson strapped on the mask of showrunner. While Goddard’s the big name (and has consulted on every season), every new showrunner brings a slightly different flavor to the show’s Wire-like grittiness.
No, it’s Not Hyperbole: When USA Today ran an article titled “On ‘Daredevil’ and the greatest fight scene in TV history,” to anyone who hadn’t seen it, it may have seemed absurd. But watch the scene in question (now pretty much just called “the hallway scene”) and it’s easy to see why.
Three minutes, one take, totally thrilling. It really is that good – so good that each season has tried to top it with their own all-out fight sequence, from season 2’s lengthy fight down the stairwell of an abandoned building to season 3’s stunning eleven-minute, one-take incursion into Kingpin’s prison.
The Punisher Punishes: The news that Frank Castle was going to be tearing up Hell’s Kitchen was met with a lot of buzz, and in the capable hands of The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal, The Punisher more than lived up to the hype. A dominant and undeniable force in the slightly uneven but mostly excellent second season, Bernthal’s quiet, ferocious presence drove Charlie Cox and Deborah Ann Woll to even higher heights. Unsurprisingly, the powers that be decided that this Frank Castle person was worth a longer look, and you’ll find The Punisher elsewhere on this list.
Hero for a Day: Once upon a time, Jason Statham was rumored to play Matt Murdock for a film adaptation of the comic (and no, not that adaptation). That obviously didn’t happen, but the bad-ass cueball was also rumored to be playing Bullseye in the second season. That didn’t happen, either. Clearly, Jason Statham hates blind people and/or dudes named Foggy. (The show eventually found its Bullseye in Wilson Bethel, though the lantern-jawed actor is given little to do but glower as an FBI sharpshooter with anger issues.)
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” As a young Matt Murdock makes his way down the street, there’s a guy reading a newspaper. It’s Stan Lee. Also, if you look closely, you’ll see Lee’s mug on a commemorative plaque behind Brett Mahoney’s desk in the police station (and that’ll come back, too.)
Summary: Daredevil doesn’t always pack the intellectual heft of its sister Netflix series Jessica Jones, but it’s a finely acted, well-written, appropriately dark series with some truly dazzling fights. There are missteps here and there — the season one finale costume looks a bit goofy, for example — but a terrific villain, a top-notch sidekick (you’re the best, Foggy!), and a captivating lead can cover all manner of sins (even for a Catholic). Season 2 stumbled after its impressive Punisher arc at its start, but season 3 managed to bring the show to a much more satisfying, if entirely unexpected, conclusion.
— Allison Shoemaker and Clint Worthington
26. Luke Cage (2016)
Press Release: Personal tragedy and an experiment-gone-wrong have made Luke Cage a fugitive from both the law and his past, and he spends his days sweeping hair from the floor of a barbershop. But when trouble comes knocking, he’s forced to rejoin the world and fight for his city — a task for which his super-strength and impenetrable skin will come in handy.
Cast: Mike Colter, Simone Missick, Alfre Woodard, Mahershala Ali, Erik LaRay Harvey, Frankie Faison, Theo Rossi, Rosario Dawson, Ron Cephas Jones, Jaiden Kaine, Mustafa Shakir, Gabrielle Dennis, and the late Reg E. Cathey in his last performance
Artistic Pedigree: Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker has done time as a producer and writer on shows such as Southland, Ray Donovan, and Almost Human, and also penned 2009’s Notorious. He assembled a roster of solid television directors, including Jessica Jones and Daredevil vet Stephen Surjik, Phil Abraham of Mad Men and Halt and Catch Fire, Emmy nominee (for Sherlock) Paul McGuigan, and actor/director Clark Johnson (The Wire).
That Music, Though: If the soundtrack for Luke Cage consisted only of the stellar score by Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, it would still be a winner, surpassing all MCU soundtracks to date (yes, even Guardians). But no, those hot-as-fuck tracks weren’t enough for Luke Cage. Saadiq. Faith Evans. Method Man. Sharon Jones. Charles Bradley. Esperanza Spalding. Faith Evans. Rakim. Ghostface Killah. And oh yeah, they pressed both season soundtracks to vinyl (and in Power Man yellow).
The MCU Inside the MCU: First appearing in Jessica Jones, Luke was an early arrival to Netflix’s little corner of the Marvel-verse, but he wasn’t the last. Cage and Jones share the screen again in Marvel’s The Defenders, alongside Daredevil’s Matt Murdock and Danny Rand (a.k.a. Iron Fist). While the big-screen Marvel heroes do plenty of hopping from franchise to franchise, it’s the Netflix contingency that feels most linked and cohesive. When Turk Barrett, first introduced in Daredevil, says he’s going back to Hell’s Kitchen where it’s safe, we can picture it, just a train ride away. (And then he shows up, and decides maybe Hell’s Kitchen is too nuts for him, too.)
Hero for a Day: For a brief, heady time, Dulé Hill (Psych, The West Wing) was rumored to be in line for Power Man. Hill himself debunked that one on Twitter. But long before Hill or Colter were considered, Quentin Tarantino wanted to make a Cage movie with Laurence Fishburne. Maybe lock Tarantino in for season three?
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” As with Daredevil and Jessica Jones, Stan’s a local cop, here encouraging citizens to see something and say something.
Summary: Like its fellows on Netflix, the first season of Luke Cage runs out of gas for a bit, and there are scenes where the writing falters. But the show is stylish and smart, anchored by terrific performances from Colter, Ali, Missick, and Woodard. Beyond that, its cultural and social relevance is topped only by one other entry in the MCU (that one’s also on Netflix, and higher on the list).
It was then great news that the excellent second season was a big step forward. It was hardly flawless, but it’s the best second season from any of the Marvel-Netflix joints, rightly handing over much of the show’s runtime to the ever-compelling Alfre Woodard, while Mike Colter’s performance continued to improve. Of all the Netflix series to conclude thanks to the upcoming rollout of Disney+, this is one of the series we’re saddest to see go.
— Allison Shoemaker
25. Black Widow (2021)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 14 mins.
Press Release: While on the run following the events of Civil War, Natasha Romanoff finds herself dragged back into her past by the discovery that the Red Room — the program that created other super-assassin Widows like her — is still up and running. Banding together with her government-assigned “family” from her Russian-spy childhood (sister Yelena and mother Melina, both fellow Widows, and Red Guardian Alexei), Nat vows to wipe out the red in her ledger.
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, Ray Winstone
Artistic Pedigree: Director Cate Shortland is known for intimate historical dramas and psychological thrillers like Lore and Berlin Syndrome. The screenplay comes courtesy of Marvel vet Eric Pearson (Thor Ragnarok, a host of uncredited rewrites with other Marvel pictures), working from a story from WandaVision creator Jac Schaeffer and Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby writer/director Ned Benson.
Pugh Better Believe It: As much as Black Widow is meant to be Johansson’s time to shine, Florence Pugh snatches the film right out from under her. In many ways, the film feels like an audition to give Yelena the Black Widow baton after ScarJo’s time is done — not only can she handle the action chops, Pugh’s deadly naif feels like the natural consequence of giving the stereotypical bratty little sister archetype the ability to snap your neck on a dime.
Widow-no You Didn’t: As tight and wily as Black Widow can be for its early (and especially middle) stretches, Pearson’s script feels tragically dragged into the same third-act doldrums of a lot of Marvel scripts. There are monologuing, indistinct baddies, James Bondian showdowns, CG-addled setpieces that defy physics as much as they do tension. I admire Shortland for keeping the focus on Nat’s demons (and her family of reluctant angels) as much as possible, but the last thirty minutes really let down the rest of it.
Summary: As solo movies go, Black Widow ain’t too bad: it’s got some solid spy action, buoyed by some incredibly fun supporting performances from Pugh, Harbour, and Weisz. The comparatively stripped-down scale of the thing compared to most Marvel helps too, shucking intergalactic stakes for more personal vendettas and some Bourne-style action. But Nat gets lost in her own movie amid the bigger personalities around her, which is doubly unhelpful considering the character “died” in audiences’ minds two years prior. At the end of the day, Black Widow is not just a casualty of the delayed release brought on by COVID-19, but of the fact that this is a Phase Two movie in Phase Four leather.
— Clint Worthington
24. The Falcon and The Winter Soldier (2021)
Network and Lifespan: Disney+, six episodes
Press Release: Six months after the blip, Bucky Barnes finally has time to confront the emotional and personal toll of his as The Winter Soldier. Meanwhile, Sam Wilson, aka The Falcon, has been handed the shield of Captain America, but struggles with the weight of the mantle. When a group of superpowered international terrorists called the Flag Smashers start making a play to reset the world order to a pre-Blip status quo, the two join forces with some old enemies and allies to take them down — only the US government has also put a new, less-than-heroic Captain America on the job.
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Wyatt Russell, Erin Kellyman, Daniel Brühl, Emily VanCamp, Danny Ramirez
Artistic Pedigree: Malcolm Spellman’s pedigree on shows like Empire and Truth Be Told gave him the tools necessary to explore the complicated race issues at the center of Wilson’s growth into Captain America. Even if the series didn’t get as deep into the concepts as some may have wanted, he handled it well enough to be given the reins of Captain America 4. Director Kari Skogland, meanwhile, is no stranger to comic book action (The Walking Dead, The Punisher) or socio-political commentary (House of Cards, The Handmaid’s Tale), making her a strong helmer for this project.
It Isn’t Someone Else’s: For all the cool action scenes and character drama of the show, the crux was always going to be about Sam’s acceptance of the Captain America persona. True, Disney and Marvel could have dug into the complexities of a Black Cap further, but its relatively subtle approach is still effective. Watching the elder Steve Rogers hand Sam the shield at the conclusion of Endgame remains one of the most impactful moments of the entire MCU; watching Sam recognize his worthiness to take on that responsibility in the context of the larger cultural implications over the course of six hours is equally powerful in its own right.
Everyone in the World Expects Me to Be Something: WandaVision carries some major implications for the future of Phase 4, but The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is much more in-your-face about it. It feels as connected to the larger MCU as any of the best crossover films, continuing the stories of previously established characters like James “Rhodey” Rhodes, Sharon “Power Broker” Carter, Dora Milaje favorite Ayo, and Batroc.
It takes things further by introducing future major players (Wyatt Russell’s U.S. Agent, Danny Ramirez’s Joaquin “The Falcon 2” Torres, Elijah Richardson as Eli “Patriot” Bradley), perhaps none more intriguing than Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ surprise appearance as Valentina Allegra de Fontaine — aka Madam Hydra. The MCU’s world building is one of its most consistently exciting elements, and it’s nice to see that translate so well to the serial format.
Summary: It’s an interesting thought experiment to consider how The Falcon and the Winter Soldier would have been received had it been released prior to WandaVision, as was originally planned. Its more straightforward action-adventure storytelling felt less engrossing than the weird world Scarlet Witch created, which may have read to some as a comparative letdown. That’s a bit unfair, because this show still does plenty enough, especially when it comes to setting up the future of the MCU and establishing Sam as Captain America. The way that last feat was handled in particular is applaudable, even if at the end of the day the show does fall short of WandaVision‘s wonder.
— Ben Kaye
23. Doctor Strange (2016)
Runtime: 1 hr. 55 min.
Press Release: Stephen Strange is a gifted surgeon whose considerable talents are outstripped only by his massive ego. When an accident seemingly ends his career, he seeks out alternative methods of healing and discovers a world of unknown power — and a centuries-old battle between good and evil.
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong
Artistic Pedigree: Not to slight Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, but director Scott Derrickson — also one of three writers credited on the screenplay — doesn’t exactly come to the MCU straight from Cannes. This film’s artistic clout comes from the folks in front of the cameras, not behind it. That would be true if Tilda Swinton was the only person in the movie, but she’s not; you have critical darlings in Cumberbatch and Mikkelsen (NBC’s Hannibal) and reliable heavy-hitters in McAdams and Ejiofor. Between them, you’ve got one Oscar, three Oscar noms, and all the fancy international awards Mads has racked up over the years.
Pay Extra for the Funny Glasses: It’s no surprise that the folks at Marvel know what they’re doing when it comes to big, fancy special effects. It’s not as though previous MCU entries aren’t any fun in 3D. But Doctor Strange is the first Marvel film that is best viewed through those weird, disposable glasses. When the physics of a given room or street can change at any given moment, why rob yourself of a chance to be tripped out just a little bit more?
Hero for a Day: Cumberbatch is perfectly cast in the role, which makes it even harder to imagine Matthew McConaughey in the cape and goatee. It just wouldn’t be right (alright, alright). Other actors rumored to have been in the hunt for the coveted role: Ewan MacGregor, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Joaquin Phoenix, and renowned used condom-mailer Jared Leto.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” During one of the film’s epic fight sequences, Mordo and Strange land on the side of a bus, and who’s inside but Stan the Man, reading Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception.
Summary: Doctor Strange isn’t a perfect film by any stretch, but despite its fairly typical running time, it feels like the most brisk and efficient entry in the MCU. That’s not faint praise: in a world where superhero movies seem to grow more and more bloated by the year, the tightness of Strange makes it feel fresh, despite being packed to the gills with the trappings of the origin story. But that’s not all that sets it apart. It’s an eye-popping spectacle — the most visually accomplished film yet released by Marvel, without a doubt — and all that efficiency gives each city-bound fight or trip to Everest plenty of room to breathe.
Still, stunning though it may be, what truly makes Strange a winner is neither the speedy feel nor the stunning effects. It’s the careful balance of the mysticism with off-kilter humor, best displayed in a scene in which the spectral form of Strange has to battle another spectral acolyte, all while McAdams’ Christine Palmer tries to keep his earthly body alive. It’s a weird, spooky scene, but it’s also genuinely funny and epitomizes what works best about the film as a whole. Yes, it’s really going to go full Strange, but isn’t that weird stuff kind of hilarious?
— Allison Shoemaker
22. The Punisher (2017)
Press Release: After exacting revenge on those he believes brought about the deaths of his wife and children, Frank Castle’s tries disappearing into an anonymous life. But when a stranger tracks him down with evidence of a conspiracy to which Castle is directly linked, the semi-retired vigilante realizes he’s still got work to do.
Cast: Jon Bernthal, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Ben Barnes, Amber Rose Revah, Daniel Webber, Paul Schulze, Jason R. Moore, Michael Nathanson, Jaime Ray Newman, Floriana Lima, Giorgia Whigham, and Deborah Ann Woll and Royce Johnson, who hop over from elsewhere in Marvel TVland.
Artistic Pedigree: Showrunner Steve Lightfoot was an Executive Producer on Hannibal, with writing credits on more than 20 episodes of NBC’s daring, evocative thriller. While the two shows are more different than they are alike, it’s easy to see the root of The Punisher’s focus on Castle’s grief and trauma in the psychological complexities of the earlier series.
Let’s Get That Nice Blonde Journalist Over Here: As Karen Page, Deborah Ann Woll is a highlight of Daredevil, but in the show’s second season, most of the character’s best stuff involved Frank Castle. It seems Marvel and Netflix noticed, as Woll is one of the only elements of the wider MCU to appear in the series. The Punisher leans into the complexity of the Frank/Karen relationship, giving Woll a chance to dig into some of the darkest corners of Karen’s existence. Her appearances are relatively few, but as with Daredevil, it’s a performance and a character that’s nearly always a breath of fresh air—and that’s even more true in The Punisher’s second season than its first.
Just a Couple Guys, Sittin’ Around and Talkin’: There are some real hiccups in The Punisher’s first season, including some complicated ideas handled without much nuance, as well as some pacing issues typical of many a Netflix joint. But the highs are really high, particularly “Kandahar,” an episode that manages to stage both a Daredevil-style battle with minimal cuts and a two-person play all in one hour. It’s the latter that’s particularly gripping, as Bernthal’s Castle and Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s Daniel Lieberman (also called Micro) square off. It’s a battle of wits and endurance, each manipulating the other and trying to uncover motivations and liabilities. It’s a stunner of an hour, made possible by two terrific performances.
It sadly has no equivalent in the show’s second season, which has some high points, but also spends a lot of time on Billy Russo, who no longer remembers the events of season one. Really weird. Still, Bernthal’s scenes with season two co-stars Amy Bendix (as a wayward teen Frank befriends) and the returning Jason R. Moore are a pleasure, because again, they’re just sitting around and talking.
Hero for a Day: Speaking of performances, Bernthal is the biggest reason to check out The Punisher. He’s the fourth person to play Frank Castle, following three film adaptations starring Thomas Jane, Dolph Lundgren, and Ray Stevenson. And Bernthal particularly excels at blending the character’s violent tendencies with a gruff tenderness and a fierce protective streak.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!”: In keeping with the other Marvel Netflix shows, Stan Lee’s good cop shows up on a poster.
Summary: Listen, The Punisher isn’t a perfect series, but it gets more right than it does wrong. Its greatest strength is a barn-burner performance from Bernthal, who makes the best material even better, and makes the not-so-great stuff a great deal more interesting. But its secret superpower is its removal from the rest of the MCU, which give or take a few scenes with Karen and her editor, is close to absolute. Sure, there are one or two subplots too many, but for the most part, The Punisher’s focus on Frank Castle, rather than the broader mythology, allows the series and Bernthal to paint a hell of a portrait. Only one other Marvel/Netflix series has done so much to explore the inner life of its central figure, and you’ll find that one much higher on this list.
— Allison Shoemaker
21. Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 9 mins.
Press Release: After the loss of friend and mentor Tony Stark, Peter Parker struggles to reintegrate himself to post-Blip life. But his class trip to Europe is hijacked by Nick Fury, who sends him off to battle elemental creatures threatening havoc across the continent — with the help of interdimensional warrior Mysterio. But Peter’s vulnerable state leaves him blind to the true nature of the attacks…not to mention Mysterio’s role in them.
Cast: Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Jake Gyllenhaal
Artistic Pedigree: The same creative team from Spider-Man: Homecoming returns, including director Jon Watts and screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (here the only two names credited after the, woof, six writers on Homecoming).
Picking Up the Pieces: Far From Home had the unenviable task of following up the superhero event of the decade just a few scant months after its release. So it tracks that Watts and crew kept their webs close to the ground, zeroing in on how the rest of the world reacted to the Blip for a lighter, lower-stakes adventure.
Even Dead, I’m the Hero: Spider-Man has always been the MCU’s working-class hero, and even within the Stark-adjacent version of the character, there are interesting wrinkles to play for Holland. The sequel is no exception, with Peter buckling under the weight of responsibility he feels from Tony’s absence (will he join the Avengers? Is he now responsible for saving the planet?). That his villain is yet another victim of Stark’s arrogance — Jake Gyllenhaal’s disgruntled, image-obsessed Stark employee Quentin Beck — positions him even further in the shadow of his former mentor. It’s intriguing stuff to play; here’s hoping that he can eventually step out of Iron Man’s shadow and be his own man.
Summary: It was borderline impossible for the first thing to follow Avengers: Endgame to be a masterpiece, but Far From Home does its level best to keep afloat with boatloads of charm. Its stakes feel somehow far more pedestrian than even Homecoming’s street-level shenanigans, but Holland maintains a capable leading-man presence and Gyllenhaal is clearly having a good old time as Mysterio. The storytelling is more than a little shaggy in places (and the ethics of Tony Stark gifting a pair of sunglasses that grants access to weapons of mass destruction to a teenager are… suspect), but it gets points on fundamentals.
— Clint Worthington
Runtime: 2 hrs. 5 min.
Press Release: Vers, a warrior hero of the Kree, lives to protect the galaxy from the scourge of the shape-shifting Skrulls. Or at least she has for the last six years; before that, all Vers can recall are scattershot images of a former life. When a mission ends in sabotage, however, Vers winds up crash-landing into C-23, or Earth, circa 1995. There she must figure out how to protect C-23 from Skrull infestation, and just who and what she was before that mysterious crash she can’t stop dreaming about.
Cast: Brie Larson, Jude Law, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Lashana Lynch, Annette Bening, Akira Akbar, Gemma Chan, Lee Pace, Djimon Hounsou, and Clark Gregg. Also, animal performers Reggie and Gonzo and Archie and Rizzo as a very good kitty named Goose.
Artistic Pedigree: As the MCU has gone on, it’s opened itself more and more to new and interesting ideas of what kind of director, or directors, will fit at the helm of a massive Disney tentpole. Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck were previously best known for lower-budget indie fare like Half Nelson and Mississippi Grind; to say that Captain Marvel represents a pretty substantial leap in scale would be an understatement. Yet the directors do a fine job of meeting the obligations of Marvel’s now-familiar house style (every scene awash in either shadow or radiant light, regular quips) while adding their own distinct touches. The washes of weird, nervous human emotion poking out of every corner of the film, for instance.
HEY, DID YOU KNOW THAT CAPTAIN MARVEL TAKES PLACE IN THE YEAR 1995? As we write this, it’s 2019, and we are now accordingly far enough away from the 1990s that a new wave of cultural nostalgia is rising. Few movies have doubled down harder so far than Captain Marvel, which sees its heroine spend the middle act in a Nine Inch Nails T-shirt, take off on a motorcycle to the tune of Garbage, and do battle to several other era-specific needle-drops. It’s easy to see a bunch of modern-day kids getting into No Doubt and TLC as the result of Captain Marvel’s soundtrack, in the same way that the Guardians of the Galaxy movies introduced a new generation to the easy-rocking tunes of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but it’s just weird as shit all the same to think that “Waterfalls” is now an equivalent nostalgia item.
Love and Friendship: One of the more appealing aspects of Captain Marvel is the way in which the montage-heavy visual storytelling spins the MCU origin movie formula into a consideration of the ways in which the things we experience throughout our lives, and the people we know, hold more weight on who we become than any kind of rigorous training and discipline ever could. Central to that is the relationship between Vers (or Carol, because let’s be honest, if you’re seeing this movie you probably know who Carol Danvers is) and Marie Rambeau, a copilot in another life. We don’t want to give too much of the game away, but suffice it to say that most of the best stuff in Captain Marvel comes from the connections formed between even the unlikeliest allies.
Hero For A Day: Oddly, as Marvel movies go, it’s hard to track down too many steady rumors of who might have otherwise become the future of the MCU before Larson. Old speculation turns up rumors of everybody from Jennifer Lawrence to Jessica Chastain to Charlize Theron, but given how well Larson embodies Carol in all of her multitudes, it’s already tough to imagine an alternate choice.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” The recently departed mastermind of so many Marvel universes gets two emphatic bits of love here. The opening Marvel Studios logo, usually focused on the primary character(s) in the movie to come, gets an all-Stan makeover, and he pops up on Los Angeles public transit a bit later while preparing for an earlier movie cameo.
Summary: There’s now a lot of talk about “origin stories” as it relates to modern-day Marvel vehicles, both because somewhere between a third and a half of the feature-length MCU movies to date have been them, and because they’ve become so popular as a direct result of the MCU that they’re as recognizable a part of modern film storytelling as anything. Yet “origin story” isn’t a swear word out of hand, in the way it’s sometimes bandied about. It’s a necessary, table-setting piece of storytelling that allows the viewer to immerse themselves more deeply in subsequent stories, because of the work which was already done. Put more succinctly: Thor is nobody’s favorite Marvel movie, but Thor: Ragnarok might be, and it’s because of the work that the former did upfront.
Captain Marvel is very much an origin story, and features some of the overstuffed messiness that the concept tends to involve at its best and worst alike. If anything, it’s the rare Marvel movie that leaves you wishing there were roughly 20 more minutes in the middle, just so everything between Vers’ crash landing and the obligatory Big Climax (which has a few more wrinkles in it than usual, at least) would have adequate time to breathe. Brie Larson is going to be a major part of the MCU going forward, in no small part because of how absurdly overpowered Captain Marvel already is, but what Captain Marvel makes abundantly clear from the jump is that the new character’s arrival is far more than some sort of shoehorned effort to keep the franchise going. Carol Danvers is here, and she’s arrived to go higher and further and faster.
— Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
19. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 12 mins.
Press Release: Trained from his youth to be a deadly assassin, Shang-Chi escapes the brutal watch of his father, Wenwu, to live a life of relative peace and obscurity. When Wenwu reactivates his criminal empire, the Ten Rings, in an attempt to bring his late wife back from the dead, Shang-Chi gets pulled back into a deadly family drama he thought he’d left behind for good. Together with his estranged sister, Shang-Chi must embrace the legacy of his heritage to stop their father’s potentially world-ending plans.
Cast: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Chiu-wai Leung, Michelle Yeoh, Meng’er Zhang
Artistic Pedigree: Feige went back to the independent well with this one, tapping Just Mercy and Short Term 12 filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton to helm the MCU’s first AAPI-starring blockbuster. Helping him on the script were his Just Mercy collaborator Andrew Lanham and Wonder Woman 1984 co-writer Dave Callahm.
Hero for a
Day Lifetime: There were plenty of reads and tests to find Marvel’s Shang-Chi, but Liu had been gunning for the role for years. He tweeted at the studio a number of times telling them to call him about Shang-Chi. Infamously, he responded to his own December 2018 post about it in July 2019 with the simple, “Well shit.”
The Birth of a Legend: Easily one of the MCU’s best origin stories, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings should also go down as a career-making turn for both its star and its director. While the surrounding cast is truly one of the most captivating of any Marvel ensemble, Simu’s subtle and powerful turn as the title hero offers the perfect balance of depth and charisma. Watching a guy known mainly for Kimn’s Convenience hold his own against Hong Kong legends like Leung and Yeoh is a joy.
Then there’s Cretton, a director who can’t get enough credit for what he did with Shang-Chi. His real trick is taking some truly outlandish scenes and not only making them believable, but beautiful. Adding a subtle touch to such a graphics-heavy feature with some of the franchise’s best fight sequences elevates this film into the upper echelon of MCU.
East Meets West Meets Marvel’s Best: For good reason, there’s a lot of talk about this movie’s balance between kung fu classics and Marvel bombast. As the MCU’s first Asian-led adventure, there was a lot riding on getting that blend just right. Cretton and his cast nail it, from the momentary insights into Chinese-American life to the epic imagery of the mystical final act. Frankly, there’s no reason a giant wingless dragon and dangerously cuddly komainu should work in the world of Marvel as we’ve known it thus far, yet the movie does such a good job of selling the mysticism as a natural extension of the reality that it all pays off. While it opens up a new corner of the MCU, it also ties itself very naturally the the older ones, again presenting those elements not as cheeky nods but natural aspects of the world.
Summary: Shang-Chi should go down as one of Marvel’s great success stories — which is impressive considering it’s the first film that truly pushes into Phase Four. (Although Black Widow may be Phase Four, it’s set in Phase Three, so…) It does so much of what the best MCU entries have done for years, but with a sense of originality and maturity. You can see where the studio has learned from past low points (strong villain, Asian representation, deep family drama), and at the same time how comfortable it’s become in the massive continuity it’s built over the years. This might be the perfect example of how a Marvel movie can feel completely its own within the greater universe, something that’s going to have to become standard for these things to keep being successful as Phase Four barrels onward.
18. Loki (2021)
Network and Lifespan: Disney+, six episodes
Press Release: Right after his defeat in The Avengers, The God of Mischief sneaks away with the Tesseract after another set of Avengers from the future try to grab it. His escape is short-lived, though, as he’s immediately snatched up by the Time Variance Authority (TVA), an all-seeing organization dedicated to preserving the timeline against any deviations from the universal canon. He’s then roped into service to help stop a similarly dangerous Variant who threatens the “Sacred Timeline,” all the while looking for the next angle to play.
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Owen Wilson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Wumni Mosaku
Artistic Pedigree: Head writer Michael Waldron comes from the Dan Harmon-verse, having written for Harmon’s series HarmonQuest before writing for Rick and Morty and now Loki. He’s also set to write every episode of the Starz series Heels and, in Marvel news, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.
Oh Waaow: The key to Loki’s infectious charm is the kooky buddy-cop dynamic of a humbled Loki and his wry, soft-spoken handler, Owen Wilson’s company man Mobius. Wilson’s a perfect foil for Hiddleston, his excessive casualness luring Loki into a false sense of superiority before he brings the hammer down with a bone-deep knowledge of his subject. And yet, when Loki manages to surprise him, he’s not angry, but excited. It’s a beautiful back and forth that’ll hopefully be explored further.
Mad Supermen: The show’s Kirbyian setting is catnip for fans of everything from Brazil to Legion to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with the TVA offices depicted as a foggy, Kafkaesque nightmare of analog telephones and dot-matrix-printed paperwork. Turns out preserving the timeline means crafting an office environment not even Sterling Cooper would envy, and the little anachronistic touches of the whole place — including cityscapes that stretch on into infinity — make it an environment rife for exploration.
Summary: It’s tough to evaluate Loki off the strength of its first two episodes (it’s just premiered as of press time), but all signs point to one of the Marvel Universe’s weirder, more idiosyncratic stories. Hiddleston was always a preening delight in his earlier appearances, but here he gets to play with a Loki thoroughly powerless and out of his element. There’s some flirtation here with the nature of fate and free will, and the complicated nature of supervillainy. But that takes a backseat to the weirdness of its bureaucratic backdrop, apocalyptic hiding places, and sentient cartoon clocks. It might shit the bed by the end like the other Disney+ shows, but for now we’re enjoying the ride.
— Clint Worthington
17. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 29 min.
Press Release: The culmination of 10 years’ worth of popcorn flicks, Infinity War marks the long-dreaded arrival of a being of immense power, intent on seizing even more power through the acquisition of the Infinity Stones. Two of these terrifying gems currently call Earth home, but ominously, our small planet finds itself in no position to mount a defense, with the Avengers fractured and its members scattered to every corner of the globe and, in some cases, the galaxy. Thanos’ appearance will force heroes on and off the planet to take a stand, and failure, as they say, is not an option.
Cast: Not even going to try to cover all bases here. Pick a Marvel cinematic hero, and there’s a decent chance they’re in the mix.
Artistic Pedigree: The Brothers Russo (Joe and Anthony) cemented their place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe by thoroughly kicking ass with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. They’ve pretty much got nothing to prove, Marvel-wise. The most staggering thing here, pedigree-wise, is that they managed to get nearly all the bright lights of the MCU in one film together and then thought, “hey, what the hell, let’s add national treasures Carrie Coon and Peter Dinklage. We’ve got a couple seats left on the bus.”
Wakanda Forever!: Infinity War’s only slightly older sister casts a long shadow in this big fat film, making it possible to “get this man a shield,” to get another man an arm, and to call upon the smartest person on the planet in a time of crisis (that would, of course, be Shuri). But as the trailers promised, much of the action of on Earth takes place in T’Challa’s kingdom, and it’s a thrill to see some of the newest members of Marvel’s roster of heroes lead the charge in this climactic film. Frankly, even a brief visit to Wakanda is welcome, though one could wish it were under better circumstances.
Now That’s What I Call A Post-Credits Scene: At this point, moviegoers have been well-trained: don’t leave a Marvel joint before the lights come up. Still, the MCU stingers vary pretty wildly in quality, from the good (T’Challa at the United Nations, Shawarma, Baby Groot) to the bad (Jane and Thor on the roof, endless Thanos-es) to the divisive (Howard the Duck). You can make a solid argument that Infinity War’s lone post-credits scene is the best. Don’t skip it. Not that you would.
Hero for a Day: Lots of rumors about announced characters showing up early, none of which came to fruition. Don’t expect to see Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Janet Van Dyne, or any other soon-to-be heroes you haven’t already met.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!”: Facts are facts. Life in the MCU is weird, and spaceships are pretty ordinary things ’round these parts, especially if you live in New York.
Summary: This may sound like damning with faint praise, but honest to god, it isn’t — Infinity War should have been a disaster. Divide the number of minutes (and it’s a lot of minutes) by the number of significant announced characters in the film, and you wind up with roughly four minutes per character. That’s four for Cap, four for Tony, four for T’Challa and Wanda and Rocket and Natasha, four for Peter Parker, four for Peter Quill, four for Peter Dinklage. You get the idea. Sounds like a great way to create a lot of spectacle and absolutely no substance while you rake in a hell of a lot of money.
That’s not what happened. We’ll say more about this major MCU turning point in the years to come. For now, suffice it to say that Infinity War not only succeeds at not being a total disaster, but it also succeeds, for the most part, at being a movie. It’s far from perfect, but it’s entertaining and damned ambitious. Sometimes ‘better than expected’ really is a win. And if nothing else, we got several great memes out of it.
— Allison Shoemaker
16. Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 28 minutes
Press Release: After his real name gets revealed by J. Jonah Jameson, Peter Parker’s life as Spider-Man becomes a very complicated thing. But when he tries to simplify things by asking Doctor Strange to do a memory spell that would wipe the world’s memory of his secret identity, things instead get very, very complicated, thanks to the old villains from other universes that get drawn into Peter’s.
Cast: Tom Holland, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jacob Batalon, Jon Favreau, Jamie Foxx, Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, Benedict Wong, Tony Revolori, Marisa Tomei (plus a few surprises)
Artistic Pedigree: Jon Watts returns for his third Spider-Man adventure, after getting his early start with the indie films Clown and Cop Car, and co-writer Chris McKenna was nominated for (and should have won) Emmys for his work on Community.
But also, look at that cast: There’s one scene mid-way through the movie where there are over half a dozen actors on screen, and every single one of them save Tom Holland has either at least one Oscar or Tony nomination to their name. (And the only reason to mention the Tony nominations is that Alfred Molina has, criminally, never been nominated for an Oscar.) While it’s unlikely that any of them will be nominated for their work on this particular film, it’s staggering to see them all work together.
Enter the Multi-Verse: No Way Home stands out as not just a charming conclusion to the Holland trilogy, but a fascinating document of how commerce and art interact in the 21st century. Would this movie exist if the character of Spider-Man didn’t currently dwell in a very peculiar place, rights-wise, between two different corporations? Absolutely not. But looking back at the character’s past across multiple realities provides a fascinating meta-level portrait of his past, and who Peter Parker fundamentally is.
“Scooby-Doo This Shit”: No Way Home continues the MCU’s slow but steady progress towards what feels very likely like a multiversal crisis, enabled here by Doctor Strange’s inept spell-casting. (Yes, it’s Peter who initially interrupts the spell to add some provisos, but a) Doctor Strange is a doctor, he should know a little something about informed consent and b) Doctor Strange is an adult trained wizard and should know better.)
How the dominos set up here will come crashing down over the next year or so is known only by Kevin Feige and his lieutenants, but certainly the movie provided plenty of reason to get excited by the possibilities of the multiverse. Even if the movie also established that when it comes to the multiverse, Doctor Strange is pretty freaking clueless.
Summary: While No Way Home is a hard film to talk about without spoilers, it remains an impressive achievement in how it balances an awful lot of moving parts and still ends up being a very intimate story about Peter fully coming of age as his own man. While often quite bittersweet for a superhero story, the movie still manages to capture everything that has made this character such a popular and enduring one, with a remarkably epic final battle and some delightfully meta jokes and commentary.
— Liz Shannon Miller
15. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 16 min.
Press Release: They may still be basking in the afterglow of their victory against Ronan the Accuser, but all is not well for the galaxy’s favorite team of wise-cracking misfits. When Rocket’s self-destructive streak ensures that a job goes horribly wrong, the Guardians find themselves in need of rescue — and luckily, a mysteriously powerful and fatherly god turns up right on time.
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Sean Gunn, and Kurt Russell
Artistic Pedigree: Cult-director-who-could James Gunn nailed the first Guardians so hard that there was no way he wasn’t going to stay at the tiller. The film also gives loads more oxygen to two of its predecessor’s more exciting supporting players: Rooker and Gillan.
A Moonage Daydream: There’s no shortage of people — fans and friends alike — who were devastated by David Bowie’s death, and we can count James Gunn among them. Shortly after the musical icon’s passing, Gunn wrote: “69 years old. Goddammit. I know we’re supposed to be positive in situations like this, but that’s just seems too young to me. Fucking cancer.”
He also revealed that he and producer Kevin Feige were working on a Bowie cameo, something that the artist’s illness obviously prevented. Now we’ll only be able to imagine what a Starman-Starlord teamup might be like — or rather, attempt to imagine, since Bowie was so adept at ziggy-ing just when you thought he’d zag.
Hero for a Day: Loads of familiar faces return from the first film, including expanded roles for Rooker, Gillan, and Sean Gunn, so it’s not so much the hero search that’s of interest here. Instead, let’s focus on the search for the enigmatic Ego, a sly charmer of incalculable power who may or may not be a planet. (Spoiler: he’s a planet). Reportedly, Gunn and company considered Gary Oldman, Viggo Mortensen, Christoph Waltz, and Christopher Plummer, among others. Ultimately, however, they landed on the lusciously tressed Kurt Russell.
But let’s also take a moment to appreciate the aforementioned Sean Gunn, shall we? In addition to playing Kraglin, Gunn (brother to James) also plays Rocket on set, ensuring that the ensemble isn’t forced to emote against a tennis ball taped to a broom or something. Here’s what he told Entertainment Weekly about the experience” “It is strange to spend so many hours as a character and then see it and have it be neither my voice nor my face. But I never did the job because I thought it would get me a lot of attention. I did the job because I wanted the movie to be as good as it could possibly be.”
Sounds pretty heroic to us.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” Yondu and Rocket race past a group of watchers being regaled by, you guessed it, Stan Lee (something we see again in one of several post-credits scenes). It’s silly stuff, business as usual — that is, unless it’s confirming a long-simmering fan theory.
Summary: The task of following up on the most jubilantly weird entry in the MCU cannot have been easy, but you’d never know it from watching Gunn’s assured sequel. Tonally, it’s familiar and fantastic territory, with every piece of eccentricity and earnestness returning with the dial turned up to 11. But, as with the first entry, this is a film that’s smarter and more thoughtful than it might seem on the surface, tackling big thematic questions with the same gusto with which it embraces a talking tree.
That these big questions are seamlessly linked to those from the first film is a particularly clever trick. While the first entry explored the notion of a family you choose, Vol. 2 looks at the family you’re stuck with, for better or for worse. That can apply to “chosen” loved ones as well as those to whom we’re linked by blood or circumstance. Rocket alienates those he loves, perhaps intentionally; Yondu’s habit of sparing Peter sparks unrest in his tribe, while old choices alienate him from his once and former brothers and sisters in arms; Gamora and Nebula continue their deeply fucked-up tête-à-tête. And then there’s Peter Quill, whose drama drives the narrative. Nothing’s quite black and white when it comes to those we love, and tucked in amongst the hijinks and explosions are morsels of thought that illuminate this simple truth. As with the best Marvel outings, it’s escapist, popcorn-friendly fare with a bloody beating heart beneath.
— Allison Shoemaker
14. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 26 min.
Press Release: After the city-lifting finale of Age of Ultron, the world community calls for the Avengers to willingly sign over their right to engage in combat to the U.N. because of the collateral damage that an Avengers battle tends to cause. Captain America believes it’s a first step on the road to manipulation, while Tony Stark just wants the casualties to end. And then there’s the matter of the Winter Soldier, whose involvement in a clandestine theft years ago could endanger the Avengers’ present.
Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Sebastian Stan, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Daniel Bruhl, William Hurt, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Holland, and all the rest of your favorite Avengers
Artistic Pedigree: Joe and Anthony Russo are back, with screenwriters Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus in tow. The Winter Soldier remains one of the MCU’s very best projects, so why fix what isn’t broke?
The Adaptation Game: Civil War bears only a partial resemblance to its much-vaunted, Mark Millar-penned event from 2007. The key fix is that the Sokovia Accords are tied into the events of Age of Ultron. Because of this, it’s the Accords that form the basis of so much dispute in Civil War, instead of the Superhuman Registration Act. It takes some of the harder political allegory out of the story, but also makes sure that Civil War can accomplish what it needs to in far less time than the event did. (It’s also a nice way of building around the fact that the X-Men are essential to the comic’s story and would not be showing up here.)
Breaking the Rules: During the film’s airport throwdown, in reaction to the revelation of Ant-Man’s ability to engage his Giant-Man abilities, Spider-Man delivers a “holy shit,” marking the first time Peter’s ever cussed onscreen. Shame, shame, Mr. Parker.
Hero for a Day: Civil War marked the MCU debut of Spider-Man, a Marvel comics character previously owned by Sony. The search for Peter Parker was extensive, with seemingly every young actor in Hollywood trying to get in on the MCU fun (Holland eventually won out over the likes of Logan Lerman, Asa Butterfield, and Dylan O’Brien). But part of the reason the webslinger’s role in Civil War is relatively small is because it was uncertain whether Sony would actually relinquish the rights to the property in time to work the character in. Thankfully, however, that gave the filmmakers the idea to beef up Chadwick Boseman’s role as T’Challa and put him in the Black Panther costume ahead of his appearance in his own solo film. Talk about a win-win.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” Near the film’s end, Lee appears as the FedEx driver who delivers Cap’s olive branch (via heartfelt letter and burner phone) to “Tony Stank.”
Summary: Civil War is tasked with a lot of wider world building, but if there’s one chief advantage to the “cinematic universe” storytelling model, it’s that characters’ entire arcs can factor into later films’ bigger emotional beats. That’s never been truer to date than it is here, with the conflict between Captain America and Iron Man rooted firmly in their past conflicts and their individual journeys to different conclusions on the same issues. It’s the beauty of comic book storytelling at its best, played out onscreen, and it’s wholly effective.
The Russo Brothers’ contributions to the Captain America series also can’t be understated. They perform so many of the clumsily expository hoop jumps required by the MCU with endless momentum; Civil War plants a substantial number of seeds, but it’s always moving, and more importantly, it’s always entertaining. If the film’s final scenes do feel like a copout to keep the larger franchise wheels greased just a little bit longer, it’s still a largely excellent continuation of Marvel’s best offshoot franchise.
— Dominick Suzanne-Mayer and Caroline Siede
13. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 4 min.
Press Release: Eager to help his country during World War II, scrawny but noble Steve Rodgers is chosen for a government experiment that transforms him into the ultimate super soldier: Captain America. Initially used as a propaganda tool, Steve eventually goes on to battle Nazis, discover the secrets of the mysterious Red Skull, and, of course, fall in love.
Cast: Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Hugo Weaving, Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones, Toby Jones
Artistic Pedigree:: While not a perfect director, Joe Johnston was the perfect director to take the MCU back in time. His most recent efforts have been spotty (The Wolf Man, Hidalgo, Jurassic Park III), but The First Avenger needed his nostalgic spirit to propel it forward. The film has the romance, humor, and action of Johnston’s underrated The Rocketeer while selling us on sentiments akin to his inspiring October Sky. Captain America is supposed to be a propaganda tool, but Steve decides that he’s so much more than that. Characters in earlier Johnston efforts can relate.
Respect Agent Peggy Carter: The first Captain America movie also introduces us to Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter, a character so compelling that Marvel gave her a whole spinoff series. Peggy feels an instant affinity for scrawny Steve who, like her, is treated like he doesn’t belong in the world of the military. And she becomes the perfect audience surrogate when Steve first emerges from his transformation (Peggy reaching towards Steve’s pec was, delightfully, an adlib on Atwell’s part). Though she only has a major role in one MCU film, Peggy’s presence has continued to loom large over Cap’s journey ever since. She’s a reminder of the inherent sadness baked into Steve’s time-jumping backstory. And one of The First Avenger’s very best moments is a quiet final line that acknowledges that heartbreak.
No Post-Credits Scene?! Well, Not Technically: No cameos from other Avengers, no hammers, no Howard the Duck. However, those who saw The First Avenger in theaters were treated to a sneak peak of The Avengers. Though there were no mentions or showcases of shwarma in the trailer, people seemed to be fine with that.
Hero for a Day: Although it’s now hard to see anyone but Chris Evans in the role, Ryan Philippe and John Krasinski (whose name appears more than once in this feature) were also considered for Cap. Most importantly, so was Ryan McPartlin, a.k.a. Captain Awesome in Chuck. Chad Michael Murray auditioned as well, and though he didn’t end up getting the part, he still wound up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, albeit on the small screen in Agent Carter.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” That’s General Stan Lee to the likes of you!
Summary: While Guardians of the Galaxy is often credited as the first film to drastically expand the MCU’s universe, The First Avenger was the first to exist in a different era than that of Tony Stark, Thor, Bruce Banner, Black Widow, and S.H.I.E.L.D. Would people go for a comic book film set during WWII with a hero so squeaky-clean that he makes Superman look like Bizarro? The answer is yes, and as long as Chris Evans holds the shield, Marvel doesn’t have much to worry about. Captain America: The First Avenger is a fun movie set in a bleak time, and a reminder that it’s okay to root for someone who exudes hope.
— Justin Gerber and Caroline Siede
12. Iron Man (2008)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 6 min.
Press Release: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), a genius inventor and billionaire playboy, ends up abducted by terrorists and outfitted with an electromagnet in his chest that prevents the shrapnel their attack left from killing him. After escaping, Stark uses the magnet to build a super-powered exoskeleton that uses the magnet as its power source. It’s not quite made of iron, but you get the drill.
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Paul Bettany, Clark Gregg
Artistic Pedigree: Before Iron Man came out and heralded the start of an entirely new age of blockbuster filmmaking, there was a lot of speculation about whether Jon Favreau had the chops necessary to bring Tony Stark to the big screen. Luckily, Favreau ended up making one of the all-time great superhero origin stories right out of the gate for Marvel. Iron Man brings the Stark lore into the modern industrial era and sets the table for later Marvel movies to play with social commentary in its vision of a superhero called to duty by a tragedy brought on by his own arrogance and greed.
The Many Men Behind Iron Man: Before Marvel Studios finally brought Stark to the big screen, a number of directors were in the running for the Iron Mantle. As early as 1990, the property bounced around from studio to studio, with Universal and Fox and New Line and others trying to get something going. Long before Favreau was picked up (a late-game pick over Underworld’s Len Wiseman, no less), filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Stuart Gordon and Nick Cassavetes were attached to the property. So was Joss Whedon, but things worked out just fine for him in the long run.
On the Rhodes: For all the controversy surrounding Downey Jr.’s casting (Favreau was adamant about nobody else playing Stark, and Marvel was at the time apprehensive about casting the newly sober but long-troubled actor in the lead of their franchise-launching property), it was Terrence Howard as Lt. Col. James Rhodes that ended up causing the most drama. If you forgot, Howard attributed his recasting post-Iron Man to a whole lot of different things, enough of them that the late, great Grantland even made a handy brief history of the blame game that resulted.
Hero for a Day: Both Nicolas Cage and Tom Cruise were attached to the leading role in the ‘90s. Just stop and imagine either of those scenarios for a minute. Especially Cage.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” Though the tradition of the obligatory Stan Lee cameo in a Marvel adaptation actually goes back to 1989’s The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, it’s the Marvel Studios movies that made them a standard. Here, Tony Stark briefly mistakes Lee for Hugh Hefner:
Summary: Thanks to the much-lauded, absolutely perfect leading turn by Downey Jr. as a new kind of superhero, Iron Man works like gangbusters as an origin story and action movie alike, bringing costumed heroes further into the modern age even as its vitality and spirit suggest something from a simpler, less cynical time. This was the invention of a storytelling template that would change the film industry forever, on a global scale. Not bad for the second best superhero movie of 2008.
— Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
11. WandaVision (2021)
Network and Lifespan: Disney+, nine episodes
Press Release: Sometime after the events of Avengers: Endgame, Wanda Maximoff and her synthetic romantic partner Vision find themselves in a bizarre, TV-inspired suburb, complete with nosy neighbors and wacky shenanigans. But as the decades change (along with their family tree), it becomes ever clearer that this fantasy isn’t their prison…but Wanda’s escape.
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Kathyrn Hahn, Teyonah Parris, Randall Park
Artistic Pedigree: WandaVision was created and written by Jac Schaeffer, known for co-writing both Captain Marvel and the Anne Hathaway-Rebel Wilson vehicle The Hustle. She also co-wrote the upcoming Black Widow movie. All episodes are directed by Matt Shakman, a veteran TV director who’s done episodes of everything from Ugly Betty to Succession.
It Was Grief All Along: The phrase “It was secretly about grief” has already been chewed up and swallowed by the Discourse as a lazy way to shoehorn pathos into your comic-book show. But for what it’s worth, in the moment, WandaVision held a lot of promise as a show about a woman forging a more pleasing reality to escape the existential nightmare of her own loss. And in fits and spurts (see: fake-Vision’s confrontation with Wanda halfway through the show), it explored the moral compromises inherent in what she was doing.
Welcome to the Hahnnaissance: If there’s one thing to come out unscathed from WandaVision’s divisive reception, it’s Kathryn Hahn as Agatha Harkness, aka Agnes, aka the singer of that absolute bop of a character theme. In all of her on- and off-”camera” incarnations, Hahn hammed it up with devilish glee as the real-life witch obsessed with Wanda’s own burgeoning powers, slotting into the sitcom role of scene-stealing neighbor with aplomb. And then, when the curtain was finally lifted, Hahn lets loose with all the theater-kid theatricality the role asks for and more. Now that the world knows her talents, go over to Netflix and watch Private Life, dammit!
Summary: WandaVision had a lot of ground to cover as the first of a bazillion Disney+ shows to expand on the Marvel Cinematic Universe after its O.G. incarnation came to a close in Endgame. And in a lot of respects, it succeeded: its formal experimentation (at least in the early stretches) allowed for us to expand our idea of what a Marvel property could look like, and it felt more character-driven and introspective than the typical shooty-zoomy superhero series. Of course, it did eventually succumb to those instincts, which brings it down a few notches. But as the bellwether for the Marvel TV universe, it got us off to a mostly successful start.
— Clint Worthington
10. Hawkeye (2021)
Runtime: Disney+, 6 episodes
Press Release: In Hawkeye, the least super-powered Avenger just wants to spend some time with his kids in New York during Christmas. Unfortunately, his past as both a hero and the force of bloody vengeance known as Ronin come back to haunt him, thanks to the way that aspiring superhero Kate Bishop comes crashing into his life. Can Clint keep both himself and Kate safe from the Tracksuit Mafia and other looming threats — and get back home for Christmas?
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Hailee Steinfeld, Vera Farmiga, Tony Dalton, Linda Cardellini, Florence Pugh, Vincent D’Onofrio
Artistic Pedigree: Beyond the cast (with at least four Oscar nominees in the mix, not to mention Tony nominee Adam Pascal), behind the scenes Hawkeye head writer Jonathan Igla’s previous credits include the critically acclaimed Mad Men and Bridgerton.
In addition, three episodes were directed by Rhys Thomas, who has proven with his work on Saturday Night Live, Documentary Now!, and John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch that he’s both a master of mimicking genre and also finding his own unique voice within said genre. The other three were directed by Bert + Bertie, a female directing team who broke out with the YA adventure film Troop Zero, and established themselves here as an exciting pair to watch.
“I Can Do This All Dayyyyyyyy!”: Even if the rest of the show didn’t work (and it does, remarkably well), Hawkeye would go down in MCU history for the gift that was Rogers: The Musical. As seen in the post-credits sequence for Episode 6, yeah, they really went for it, enlisting Smash songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman to craft a quite believable Broadway number (specifically, the Act 1 finale).
Pugh Done It Again: At this point, we all have to acknowledge and embrace the fact that if you put Florence Pugh in your Marvel project, she will become arguably the very best part of it. Yelena’s appearance, as prophesied by the post-credits sequence of Black Widow, was the undeniable highlight of the second half of the series, though she got some stiff competition from Vincent D’Onofrio’s return as Kingpin.
Summary: Hawkeye was the last MCU series released on Disney+ in 2021, and while WandaVision featured more creative daring, it was Hawkeye that really defined how the concept of what a TV show is (versus a film) is now almost a moot point, as the boundaries between both mediums continue to crumble in the streaming age. Hawkeye is not a “six hour movie” — it’s a serialized story that functions as both individual episodes as well as a complete story, and the way that it holds together represents a huge step forward for not just the MCU, but for TV and film in general.
— Liz Shannon Miller
09. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Runtime: 3 hr. 1 min.
Press Release: So, The Snap happened. Many of the greatest heroes of this or any time vanished, floating away in a cloud of ash, leaving only a faint Mr. Stark, I don’t feel so good on the wind. And it wasn’t just them. A trillion other people have also vanished, leaving behind a crumbling world, overrun with grief and its requisite, unseen ghosts. So, what’s next? Our remaining heroes are stumped — most of them are, anyway. But Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) might have a few ideas.
Cast: We’ll update this list once y’all have had a chance to see it, but suffice it to say that the two actors mentioned above have plenty to do, as do the folks you’d expect: Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, and, of course, Robert Downey, Jr.
Artistic Pedigree: The Brothers Russo have had nothing to prove since Winter Soldier, but with Infinity War, they went ahead and proved something anyway. They demonstrated that it was possible to draw together the threads of 10 years of filmmaking in satisfying fashion. The same is true here, to an even greater degree.
Hey Mister, She Was My Sister: One of the best parts of both Guardians films, Karen Gillan’s Nebula has always been entertaining at worst and thoroughly engrossing at best. But the death of Gamora in Infinity War pushed Nebula to a new phase in her life, and as such, it’s also pushed the character (and the remarkable actor who plays her) to a new level of prominence in the MCU. Given the chance to step to the foreground, Gillan does not disappoint, and for now, we’ll just leave it at that.
Don’t Be Fooled: The credits of a Marvel movie are always part of the show, right? Well, sort of. This time around, it’s definitely worth staying to see the lovely curtain call the film gives its actors, but once we get to the traditional scroll-up, the only things left to see are the names of the hundreds and hundreds of people who brought this movie to the screen. That’s worth staying for, and we’d never say otherwise. But if you’re hoping for another Howard the Duck sighting, reset your expectations.
Hero for a Day: Not saying a damn thing about the past, but as for the future, don’t count on The Eternals showing up.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!”: Mum’s the word for now.
Summary: Infinity War was entertaining, but overstuffed. Too many characters, too many stories, too many moving pieces; until the end of the end, it was all middle. Endgame isn’t a perfect movie, but it is a hell of an achievement, and more importantly, it’s a story, rather than a collection of somewhat related mini-stories. Oh, for a chance to see the corkboard on which Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely plotted this film, moving names and stones and goals around, checking boxes on a to-do list, crossing out some obvious ones and adding a few unexpected others. Like the scenario the heroes are chasing, one set in motion by Stephen Strange, this thing had a one in 14 million chance of actually working.
A it does. In the weeks and months to come, many will quibble with this scene or that, this plotline or another — though none of our biggest qualms can be addressed without revealing plot details for the moment. Still, there’s no denying that it works. It’s an improbable, impossible achievement. It’s a lovely end and a thrilling beginning. Bring on Phase Four.
— Allison Shoemaker
08. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 10 min.
Press Release: After a sojourn into the galaxy in pursuit of Infinity Stones yields precious little for Thor, he’s forced to deal with a new threat: his estranged sister Hela, the goddess of Death, who has plans to conquer Asgard, and then the rest of the known universe. But on his path to prevent the apocalypse (or, in Asgardian mythology, Ragnarok), Hela jettisons Thor and Loki into space, where they wash up on an anything-goes foraging planet called Sakaar. But not every face on Sakaar is a hostile one. Just most of them.
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Tessa Thompson, Jeff Goldblum, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins, Taika Waititi, Idris Elba, Karl Urban
Artistic Pedigree: As unorthodox choices to helm an MCU movie go, few have been more so than Taika Waititi, previously the director of the terrifically deadpan comedies What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt For the Wilderpeople. Yet he’s a perfect match for a superhero series that’s previously struggled to match Hemsworth’s immense natural comic charisma with the gravitas necessary to tell a story about intra-deity power struggles. By contrast, Waititi directs a comedy that happens to be a superhero movie as well, and it’s a solid look for the series. Add in appearances by human statuette Blanchett and swiftly rising star Tessa Thompson, and we’ve got a live one.
Source Material(s): Given that it’s named after one of the more popular comic arcs in the Thor canon, Ragnarok is a liberal interpretation of its 2004 namesake, to say the very least. The crucial detail is the titular end of all things, but the film hardly draws in the larger Avengers universe in the same way as the comic. Aside from Thor and eventually Hulk, there aren’t too many other familiar faces who enter in. The film also draws from “Planet Hulk” in depicting Sakaar and Hulk’s new life as a champion warrior in the planet’s battle arenas, but likewise, putting Thor and Hulk back together involves splicing pieces of both comics with the existing MCU mythology.
Hammer of the Gods: Much of the film’s early promotional material foregrounded Waititi’s use of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” over two key scenes in the film. It’s an odd move given how typically reluctant the MCU films have been so far when it comes to invoking the broader pop culture universe, but watching Thor beat the hell out of ghoulish beings over Robert Plant’s escalating wails is basically the cinematic equivalent of an airbrushed van depicting an epic battle between good and evil. In so many words, it fucking rules.
Hero for a Day: Perhaps we’d better call this “Hero for Another Day,” instead. Scheduling conflicts prevented Jaimie Alexander’s Lady Sif from joining in on the Ragnarok fun, making Sif one of the only Asgardian side characters to make it out of the first act alive.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!”: The master rears his head as Sakaar’s barber-in-residence, who shears the locks that were never to be shorn to prepare Thor for his new career as a space gladiator.
Summary: Ragnarok is very much of a piece with the Guardians films, in that there’s a lot of comedy to go around — the actors are funny, the characters are funny, the plot is often funny. Throw Miek’s limp body any which way, and you’re likely to hit a solid visual gag. It’s actually a bit of a liability when it comes to the film’s villain, if anything; while Hela gives Blanchett the opportunity to vamp deliciously, she’s yet another in a series of one-off Marvel baddies who do a lot of damage until it’s time for them to meet their comeuppance through a hero reaching their full potential at last.
But we can’t overstate it enough: This may well be the single funniest Marvel movie. Hemsworth stands out, his chemistry with Hiddleston and Ruffalo remains excellent, Tessa Thompson is a wonderfully wry addition to the MCU, and Waititi himself (as a CG creature made of stone) gets some of the very best one-liners in the whole shebang. It’s the kind of movie that turns kids of all ages into superhero enthusiasts. More surprisingly, it’s a film of subtle complexity, with layers that become more apparent on repeat viewings; the political underpinnings add considerable heft, but never lessen the oddball, effervescent comedy that makes Ragnarok such a goddamn delight.
— Dominick Suzanne-Mayer and Allison Shoemaker
07. The Avengers (2012)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 23 min.
Press Release: S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Nick Fury recruits a dream team of superheroes to defeat the evil Loki, who has captured the Tesseract and plans to use the powerful energy cube to conquer Earth.
Cast: Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston
Artistic Pedigree: As the mastermind behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the space western Firefly, Joss Whedon amassed an impressive cult following in the 1990s and early 2000s. Whedon’s signature wit permeated both television shows, and Marvel Studios executives gambled that it would make for a refreshing counterpoint to the grim realism of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Unlike Nolan, Whedon embraced the fantastical elements of his source material and turned out a campy, self-referential blockbuster that revels in its own absurdity.
A Fan’s Loving Touch: Whedon’s filmmaking history wasn’t all that qualified him to helm Marvel’s biggest production to date. The director is also an unabashed comic book nerd, and his deep relationship with the Marvel universe also includes a stint writing the Astonishing X-Men line of comic books. It’s Whedon who decided to include that juicy post-credit sequence with Thanos, and touches like this ultimately make The Avengers feel like a film for the fans, by a fan.
Poor, Poor Jeremy Renner: You have to feel for Jeremy Renner, who spends half of the film playing a hypnotized, zombified version of the character he signed on for. It’s a sad state of affairs for a truly likeable actor, who was similarly shafted (yep, pun intended) in his Thor cameo.
Hero for a Day: The Avengers is technically the sixth installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s the first film in which that universe and all of its moving parts are fully realized. For many years, a plan had been in place to merge the characters of the first five films into one crossover mega-film, so there were relatively few surprises when the ensemble cast of The Avengers was announced. The biggest shock was Mark Ruffalo’s casting as Hulk, played in the previous film by Edward Norton. After a round of contentious negotiations and career reflection, Norton bequeathed the role to Ruffalo, whose nuanced performance nearly stole the show from his longer-tenured peers.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” Lee shows up fashionably late to this one, just a few minutes after the Avengers’ climactic battle for New York City. In a news report about that battle, Lee turns around from a game of chess to say, “Superheroes? In New York? Give me a break!” The irony is a bit too on the nose, but give the master a break.
Summary: The Avengers could have easily crashed and burned under the weight of expectations, but Whedon somehow manages to corral all that star power into a sleek, cool, and surprisingly funny blockbuster that emphasizes the “human” in superhuman. Whether you’ve seen the previous films or you haven’t, The Avengers gets you to care about all its major players while also transforming less developed characters like Agent Coulson and Loki into icons of the MCU. Plus the climactic Battle of New York remains one of the best, most satisfying third acts in superhero cinema history, with the quotable lines and memorable images coming fast and (Nick) Fury-ious.
— Collin Brennan and Caroline Siede
06. Jessica Jones (2015)
Network and Lifespan: Netflix, three seasons, with the third and final yet to air (2015-2019)
Press Release: A pissed-off private eye with a hell of a right hook, super-strong Jessica Jones would rather drown her sorrows in whiskey than confront them. But when a simple case turns out to be connected to a villainous figure from her past, she’s forced back into the saving-people business she thought she gave up long ago.
Cast: Krysten Ritter, Rachael Taylor, Eka Darville, David Tennant, Carrie-Anne Moss, Will Traval, Mike Colter, Erin Moriarty, Robin Weigert
Artistic Pedigree: Showrunner Melissa Rosenberg might be best known for writing the Twilight movies, but don’t let that deter you. She also racked up three Emmy nominations for her work on Dexter, and assembled a terrific cast, headlined by Ritter (Breaking Bad) and Tennant (Doctor Who). It’s legit.
Jeri, with an I: Jeryn Hogarth is a pretty faithful adaptation of the comic equivalent, with one big change. On the page, Jeryn’s a dude. But here, played by Carrie-Anne Moss, Jeri manages to be as (sometimes) awesome and (often) shitty as her male counterpart, while simultaneously becoming the first lesbian character in the MCU. It’s one more way that Jessica Jones does right by women. They can be complicated, smart, lying, brave assholes too.
Allons-y: Instantly becoming one of the most memorable villains in the MCU is no small feat, but David Tennant pulled it off with ease. Part of this comes down to the casting (spot-on) and writing (terrifying and complex), of course, but the Scottish actor made one brilliant, unnerving choice that took an already excellent performance and pushed it over the edge. By playing, ever so slightly, with some of the mannerisms and vocal affectations he used during his heralded stint on Doctor Who, Tennant made a monster ever so slightly charming and just a little familiar. It makes every moment of seeming sincerity that much more difficult to parse.
Hero for a Day: Alexandra Daddario, Teresa Palmer, Jessica De Gouw, and Marin Ireland all tested to play Jessica, but apparently Rosenberg had her girl even before the series landed at Netflix. Back when the show was in development at ABC as a series completely outside of the MCU called AKA Jessica Jones, Rosenberg already had Ritter at the top of her list. Turns out that was a pretty good call. Ritter is sheer perfection as the prickly but compassionate Jones.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” Remember that police station photo in Daredevil? Well, here it is again. Same station, same cops (hi, Brett Mahoney!), same Stan.
Summary: If what you want is super-strength, a terrifying villain, surprisingly sexy superhero sex, and some great noir styling, Jessica Jones has got you covered. But what sets the series apart is that it also offers a great deal more than that. There’s nothing wrong with simply setting out to thrill (and there are plenty of thrills in the series), but Jessica Jones also provides an unvarnished yet thoughtful examination of rape, PTSD, and survival — all without ever feeling exploitative. The first season in particular is a towering achievement, dwelling in the purple, densely dark shadow of Kilgrave while offering a referendum on violation, manipulation, and power.
The second season struggles to tell a story as coherent as the first, often getting lost in a too-complicated labyrinth of shadowy organizations and unnecessary origin stories. But at its best, it grounds its super storytelling in complicated relationships between women, including a mysterious new addition played by Janet McTeer.
— Allison Shoemaker and Caroline Siede
05. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 13 min.
Press Release: After joining the Avengers fray in Civil War, Peter Parker wants more of that lifestyle and a lot less of the tedium of high school and teenhood. Instead, Tony Stark insists that the promising young superhero learn to crawl before he can swing into battle, despite Peter’s best wishes. But when a scrap-hunting criminal boss starts putting dangerous, alien-based weapons on the streets of NYC, it’s up to everybody’s friendly neighborhood hero to save the day.
Cast: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Bokeem Woodbine, Tony Revolori, Donald Glover
Artistic Pedigree: Continuing the trend of promising young filmmakers being snapped up to make their studio debuts with big-budget franchise tentpoles, Jon Watts’ only previous films were the horror feature Clown and the mild Sundance success Cop Car. Neither found much of a broader audience, which is what makes Watts’ accomplishment with Homecoming all the more impressive. Despite the film’s six (!) credited screenwriters, this is one of the more tonally cohesive Marvel movies to date, and Watts’ perfect handle on the anxieties and tempers of real-life teenagers is a major contributor.
Closing the Gap: After some early inter-studio collaborations, the MCU largely tightened its grasp on its own properties, to the point where Homecoming‘s status as a mutual production between a property owner and Marvel itself has become a fairly big deal for the industry. With the first generation of Marvel superheroes reaching the end of their respective contracts, efforts like these (featuring fresh new faces like Holland) become more important than ever to make sure the MCU keeps itself hip, fresh and up to date. As it stands, Homecoming was a revolutionary bit of corporate synergy – proof that two major studios can hash out their differences if it means putting out something that’ll make them both money.
The Unexpected Virtue of Resurgence: It’s tough to watch Keaton’s take on Adrian Toomes, aka Vulture, and not think about his acclaimed leading turn in Birdman. But while that film’s divisive take on the tensions between artistic integrity and personal gain would suggest that roles in superhero movies are “beneath” a venerable actor in some ways, it’s worth noting that the MCU has done quite a bit to flip the script on what’s considered a respectable Hollywood role. The amount of interesting work done by MCU stars in their non-Marvel months has been staggering, and let’s be honest, Keaton was born to play a Marvel baddie. As villains go, Toomes is among the most interesting in the MCU, played with a sneering, relatable menace by Keaton – a man who, like Peter, is an average Joe living among gods and monsters. Contrasting Peter’s admiration for Stark and co. with a bitter resentment towards their taking his livelihood, Keaton’s Toomes turns to crime just to keep up with this new status quo. “The world’s changing, boys. Time we changed too.”
Hero For a Day: More than 1,500 actors tested for the webslinger’s role after the Sony hacks confirmed that the Spider-Man IP was moving in a different direction after Andrew Garfield’s two Spidey films weren’t received as well as the studio had originally hoped. Holland was just one of numerous finalists, each of whom tested with Downey Jr. for the part; Charlie Rowe, Asa Butterfield, and several other actors were also considered to be in the mix. There were also rumors for a while that Billy Zane would star as Vulture, which would’ve just been the best.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” When Peter breaks the cardinal NYC rule of causing a racket outside of several apartment buildings at once, he’s loudly chastised by the locals, including Lee:
Summary: Everybody has their own take on what a good Spider-Man movie should be. Many love Sam Raimi’s version, which brought the dorkier and more innocent Peter Parker of the character’s early comics into the 21st century. Some will argue for Marc Webb’s modern, hyper-stylized update and its high-tech Spidey. But Homecoming does something with Tom Holland’s take on the webslinger that arguably nobody else had until now: he truly feels like a kid. Peter lives in a small-ish apartment with a single mother, he has a favorite corner deli in his neighborhood, he goes to a school with largely disinterested teachers and hangs around with his best friend. Even after Civil War, Peter’s life isn’t all that remarkable, and that’s what makes Homecoming feel like such a breath of fresh air in a flooded market of superhero epics. He’s just one more hero in the world, trying to do what he can within his limited means.
This relative reduction in scale benefits Watts’ re-invigoration of the character at every level. It’s not as exhausting as many of the world-on-the-line stories of recent vintage, it allows Holland to bring life into Peter in his idle moments, and it allows his eventual showdown with Vulture to carry a real sense of weight and importance. Adrian and Peter are both people with inner lives, and Homecoming borders on showing more interest in them than in what they can do with their suits on. The cuts to the center of what makes Peter Parker, and Spider-Man, such a particularly lovable and enduring character, and what might motivate another decent man in his world to break bad. And in its more modest way, it’s among the most exciting Marvel movies to date.
— Dominick Suzanne-Mayer and Clint Worthington
04. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 1 min.
Press Release: Think of this one as The Dirty Dozen gone intergalactic. Five criminals, each with agendas, skills, baggage, vices, and deep-rooted desires of their own, come begrudgingly together to bust the hell out of space prison. Along the way they pick up a spare leg, some new enemies, and unlikeliest of all, something just a little bit like team spirit. One of them’s a raccoon. One of them’s a tree. Two of them have serious unfinished business. One of them is trying really hard to make Star-Lord happen. Together they crack wise, pump some sweet jams, and try like hell to save the universe.
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Lee Pace, Josh Brolin
Artistic Pedigree: James Gunn, a Troma veteran and cult favorite with credits like Slither, Super, and Tromeo and Juliet to his name, was a long and particularly unexpected shot for a Marvel film. Lucky for him and even more luckily for us, Guardians was easily the most unexpected entrant in the MCU when it arrived on the scene, and even now, it’s the best and most authentic oddball in the canon. Guardians is Gunn’s frenetic, esoteric wiles writ large and gone commercial, but to think of it as lesser Gunn would be a full-grown Groot-sized mistake.
Come and Get Some Love: Yes, the soundtrack is a ridiculously obvious post-Tarantino romp, but what a blast it is! It was such a damn hit with audiences that the thing made it to the top of the Billboard 200, a feat, apparently never achieved by a soundtrack without new music. How about that?
Yo Soy Groot: Forgive the pun (or don’t), but Vin Diesel gave Groot all the rooting he could. As a result, his leafy hero stands tall and proud as the heart of the movie — and he does it with one freaking line. From recording that one line over a thousand times in at least seven languages, to actually showing up for promotional shoots in stilts to “get a feel for Groot,” he went above and beyond. It’s not classically method, but it’s a method, alright.
Hero for a Day: Here’s a list so long, you’d swear Marvel was casting across the known galaxy. The Guardians’ acting rumor mill was bountiful. Lots of IMDb trivia here, so take these with a grain of salt, but here goes. Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, H. Jon Benjamin, and others were rumored for Rocket, a list that pales in comparison to the insane roster of potential Peters Quill.
Let’s rattle off some of these names: Glenn Howerton, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Aaron Paul, James Marsden, Cam Gigandet, Joel Edgerton, Eddie Redmayne, Jensen Ackles, Lee Pace, Wes Bentley, Jack Huston, Sullivan Stapleton, Logan Marshall-Green, Garrett Hedlund, Chris Lowell, Jim Sturgess, Michael Rosenbaum, and John Krasinski all had a shot at Star-Lord. Yet it was Pratt’s to lose, a fact made plain from the moment he first boots a space rat across a cave.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” Stan Lee shows up for a quick flirt that Rocket rightly mocks. You’re all right, Rocket.
Summary: Guardians of the Galaxy was the first film in the MCU that made it plain that while things might not get easier for its heroes, ooh, child, they would get brighter. James Gunn’s first foray in the Marvelverse is still his best, an intergalactic romp in the best sense of the word with real stakes, tremendous heart, and the most climactic dance-off in the history of dance-offs. From grooving to Redbone to annihilating a purple-powered catastrophe with the power of teamwork, the first Guardians is equal parts bark and bite.
Perhaps most notably of all, when it first sailed onto the scene, it had no obligations to the other films on this list. That makes it the best single entrant to toss at a newcomer, and if you get to revisit it too, well, that’s just a bonus. It remains one of the most distinct efforts in the entire catalogue, a crayola charm offensive made of wit, wonder, and even the occasional nugget of wisdom. To paraphrase Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill, this was Marvel’s chance to do something different and give a shit. Mission accomplished. Start the cassette again, would you?
— Blake Goble and Allison Shoemaker
03. Black Panther (2018)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 14 min.
Press Release: After the death of King T’Chaka (seen in Captain America: Civil War), T’Challa returns home to assume the throne and continue his father’s good works. But external threats bring old secrets to light, challenging the stability of Wakanda and shaking the Black Panther to his core.
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Martin Freeman, Forest Whitaker, Florence Kasumba, Andy Serkis
Artistic Pedigree: Ryan Coogler is so good at his job that it’s easy to forget that Black Panther was only his third feature-length film. The first two: Fruitvale Station and Creed, both starring Michael B. Jordan and both real damn good. In addition to directing, Coogler’s also credited on the screenplay alongside Joe Robert Cole, an Emmy nominee for the first season of American Crime Story.
STEM, bitches!: Black Panther dazzles from moment one, with world-building that marries a rich cultural history to technology that make some of the most ambitious far-future stories look a little backward. One of the film’s purest joys is that many of these incredible advancements come courtesy of Letitia Wright’s Shuri, the teenage sister of T’Challa. According to Collider, producer Nate Moore called her “the smartest person in the world, smarter than Tony Stark,” and that seems about right. Wright is a charm factory, and she lends that warmth and charm to Shuri, but it’s the character’s palpable intelligence and her obvious joy in discovery that makes the biggest impact. More Shuri, please, in everything.
Gag on the Eleganza: Virtually every design in Black Panther, from the remarkable visual effects to that killer soundtrack to the goddamn gorgeous fonts, is worthy of dissection and discussion. But if one design element stands out above the rest, it’s Ruth E. Carter’s costumes, glorious works of afrofuturism that are rich in detail, color, texture, and story. Every citizen of Wakanda is more stylish than anyone you have ever met — unless you happen to have met the cast of Black Panther.
But Carter’s work has the potential to have an impact greater than you’d expect from the costume design in a superhero flick. In a must-read interview with The Cut, she talks about what she wants women of color to take away from her designs:
“When you put on your shapely garments and your beautiful color palette, and you wrap your hair and you put that knot at the top, you feel a sense of pride. Even though Wakanda is made up, it is still a part of the continent from which our ancestors came, and it gives people a context with which to think of people of color in a positive way — instead of in a radical militant way or a negative way. We’re making Africa chic again, and I hope when women see that, they go, “Tomorrow when I go to work, I’m going to wrap my hair up!”
Hero for a Day: Casting rumors can take a seat. The most interesting might-have-been is imagining what Ava DuVernay’s Black Panther might have looked like.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!”: When T’Challa, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and Okoye (Danai Gurira) stroll into a private casino in South Korea, a certain thirsty gambler is there to snag the chips T’Challa leaves behind. That’s not a joke, by the way — he’s credited as ‘Thirsty Gambler.’
Summary: Coogler’s film is thematically and intellectually complex, unpacking heavy ideas and often acknowledging that the messiest questions rarely have easy answers. Much of the story centers on a villain who’s complicated and often sympathetic, and the film’s big heartbreaking moment centers not on T’Challa or his family, but on Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger. If your viewing experience is anything like this writer’s, you thought about Black Panther for hours, if not days, after your first viewing. It’s honestly that good.
But what that paragraph doesn’t acknowledge is part of what made it such a massive hit: it is so much fucking fun. There’s a car chase as good as any in Baby Driver, a fight in which a wig plays a significant role, gadgets galore, a soundtrack you’ll want to immediately buy — in physical form — and a feast for the eyes so rich that few can hope to rival it. Killer performances. Terrific jokes. A great story filled with big, messy ideas, and all that, to boot. Who could ask for anything more — besides a sequel, that is.
— Allison Shoemaker