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The 10 best movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ranked

In general, Marvel has been pretty good at quality control. There are no outright disasters in the MCU canon, and even slight disappointments like Eternals and Thor: The Dark World have their champions. Unfortunately, though, there are plenty of titles that fall into a murky middle: They work, but they’re not exactly great.

There have been times, though, over the course of Marvel’s long history, where the studio has managed to make movies that felt like more than just the latest movie in a long line of assembly-like products. These are the movies that hit the high bar of excellence audiences expect from Marvel, and rise to the top of the MCU.

10. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

10. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
67 %
Genre Adventure, Action, Science Fiction
Stars Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, Dave Bautista
Directed by James Gunn
Not an obvious choice for the top spot, perhaps, but Guardians Vol. 2 has all the things that made the first Guardians great, but it seems like Gunn is even less inhibited in this sequel. The colors are brighter, the jokes are bigger, and everything just seems more perfectly calibrated. Introduce Kurt Russell as a father figure and eventual big bad, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a great Marvel movie. Guardians Vol. 2 is a great time, but it also features some of the best character arcs in the entire MCU, from Rocket’s realization that he needs his friends to Yondu’s recognition that he was Peter’s father, whether he wanted the job or not.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Teaser Trailer

9. Iron Man 3 (2013)

9. Iron Man 3
62 %
Genre Action, Adventure, Science Fiction
Stars Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle
Directed by Shane Black

Yes, this is a controversial choice, but hear us out on this one. One of the most idiosyncratic movies in the MCU, Iron Man 3 is also the furthest any Marvel movie has gone towards suggesting that being an Avenger has some psychological consequences. The movie’s fake-out villain is certainly controversial, but part of the movie’s fun is that it’s really not about the villains anyway. This is a movie about Tony Stark’s struggle to be the hero he wants to be, and his inability to see a path forward for himself. It’s telling that this was the last Iron Man movie; when Iron Man 3 is over, Tony’s arc as a solo character was essentially complete.

Marvel's Iron Man 3 Domestic Trailer 2 (OFFICIAL)

8. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

8. Ant-Man and the Wasp
70 %
Genre Action, Adventure, Science Fiction
Stars Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peña
Directed by Peyton Reed
Ant-Man and the Wasp may be the most unimportant Marvel movie, and that’s part of what makes it so great. The movie takes the madcap energy that defined Ant-Man and pushes it to new levels, even as it elevates Evangeline Lilly’s Hope into a co-lead. The action here is crisp and clean, and the movie’s climax feels truly unique, in part because the stakes are relatively low. Ant-Man and the Wasp may be the funniest Marvel movie, and it is certainly the silliest, and that makes it endlessly rewatchable.
Marvel Studios' Ant-Man and The Wasp - Official Trailer

7. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

7. Avengers: Infinity War
68 %
Genre Adventure, Action, Science Fiction
Stars Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo
Directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Infinity War should have been an impossible movie to make. It’s got roughly a billion named characters, and many of them have been the leads of their own films or franchises. The movie doesn’t just work, though, it’s actually pretty good, and that’s in part because it makes the somewhat radical choice of putting Thanos at its center. We get plenty of time with Iron Man and Thor (who is truly great here), but the movie is really about Thanos’s quest and his ultimate success. It’s a crazy structure, but one that allows for a truly downtrodden ending that perfectly sets up its sequel.
Marvel Studios' Avengers: Infinity War Official Trailer

6. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

6. Captain America: The First Avenger
66 %
Genre Action, Adventure, Science Fiction
Stars Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving
Directed by Joe Johnston
The first Captain America movie is so great because it’s really a war movie with superhero trappings. The film’s ensemble is almost entirely contained in this installment, and the central love story between Steve and Peggy was so compelling that it wound up being the conclusion to his entire arc almost a decade later. Steve Rogers remained one of the great characters in the MCU all the way through Endgame, but he was never better than in this first installment when he’s more useful as a symbol than as an actual soldier.

5. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

5. Guardians of the Galaxy
76 %
Genre Action, Science Fiction, Adventure
Stars Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, Dave Bautista
Directed by James Gunn
James Gunn’s presence in the MCU was a godsend in 2014, the moment when Marvel movies started to feel like they were drafted from a single template. The first Guardians movie is an out-and-out comedy, but it’s also among the more stylish entries in the MCU and one that really leans into how weird its cast of characters is. The Guardians were a truly deep-cut group of Marvel characters, but because of Gunn’s work to make them seem compelling, they feel totally essential to the larger tone of the MCU moving forward.
Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy - Trailer 1 (OFFICIAL)

4. Avengers: Endgame (2019)

4. Avengers: Endgame
78 %
Genre Adventure, Science Fiction, Action
Stars Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo
Directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Another movie that seemed almost impossible, and works better than it should have, Avengers: Endgame is exactly what everyone wanted it to be. The first hour, which is genuinely melancholy and downbeat, builds beautifully to the time heist, and then eventually to the final battle that takes up the last act. It’s a movie that everyone involved knew they couldn’t afford to mess up, and they didn’t. Cap finally gets to say “Avengers, assemble,” and then people proceed to lose their minds for about 30 minutes. Avengers: Endgame is funny, moving, and above all, a triumph.
Marvel Studios' Avengers: Endgame - Official Trailer

3. Iron Man (2008)

3. Iron Man
79 %
Genre Action, Science Fiction, Adventure
Stars Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges
Directed by Jon Favreau
The movie that kicked off the MCU still holds up as one of the very best. As Marvel has evolved, it’s felt less and less grounded in the real world, but in Iron Man, we get a superhero who has both feet firmly grounded in reality. The movie’s patience, especially when Tony is held prisoner in the desert, is worthy of tons of praise, as Robert Downey Jr.’s incredibly charismatic performance. Tony Stark would come to define his entire career, and it’s easy to see why. In Iron Man, he defines the snarky tone of the MCU, but undergirds it with a real feeling of humanity that he would keep up throughout his Marvel work.
Iron Man (2008) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
70 %
Genre Action, Adventure, Science Fiction
Stars Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan
Directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
When The Winter Soldier first came out, it earned lofty comparisons to the paranoid thrillers that were so common in the 1970s like The Parallax View and even All the President’s Men. That was always an exaggeration, The Winter Soldier has plenty worth recommending even if it’s a slightly watered-down version of those ’70s masterpieces. The movie is a real pivot point in the MCU, as Cap learns that his contacts inside of S.H.I.E.L.D. are not the noble people he thought they were. On top of that, Bucky’s back! The Winter Soldier is consistently thrilling and often surprising. What more could you want from a Marvel property?
Marvel's Captain America: The Winter Soldier - Trailer 2 (OFFICIAL)

1. Black Panther (2018)

1. Black Panther
88 %
Genre Action, Adventure, Science Fiction
Stars Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o
Directed by Ryan Coogler
An obvious choice, but the best one, and who can deny this film’s excellence? Expectations were sky high for Black Panther, but Ryan Coogler met and then exceeded them. This movie has basically no connection to the broader MCU, but the contained story it’s telling is so compelling, and the world of Wakanda that it introduces is so thoroughly realized, that those connections would feel superfluous anyway. The action in this movie may not be quite up to snuff, but this remains the only Marvel movie to earn a Best Picture nomination for a reason. It’s got things on its mind, and also has a half-dozen truly great performances to anchor it.
Marvel Studios' Black Panther - Official Trailer

Editors' Recommendations

Movie images and data from:
Joe Allen
Joe Allen is a freelance writer based in upstate New York focused on movies and TV.
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