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Saturday, February 24, 2024
Feb. 24, 2024

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Ranking the Marvel 50: The bad, the good, ‘Wakanda Forever’ and the movie for people who think they hate superhero movies

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MJ (Zendaya) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) jump off a bridge in "Spider-Man: No Way Home." (Matt Kennedy/Sony Pictures/TNS)
MJ (Zendaya) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) jump off a bridge in "Spider-Man: No Way Home." (Matt Kennedy/Sony Pictures/TNS) Photo Gallery

What we have here is a ranking of every single TV show and movie that’s a part of the 14-year-old Marvel Cinematic Universe, which will continue long enough to bury you and me. I’m doing this because it’s an online rite of passage to rank Marvel. Also, because I’m correct. What follows is the one true ranking. Forget Vanity Fair and Vulture. Unlike those rankings, you are not free to debate my choices. I have found the Infinity Stones of Journalism and when I snap my fingers — SNAP! — it shall be written.

You are free to ask questions:

Is Marvel destroying cinema? (Filmmaker Martin Scorsese says yes.)

Is Marvel saving cinema? (Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson says yes.)

But facts are facts: “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” now playing, is the 50th live-action installment of the MCU juggernaut, which includes streaming TV series on multiple networks. Part of the unease with the MCU (beyond its unending flood of stuff) is that it created a third species, neither TV nor film, but an ongoing, interconnected narrative that requires both. My criteria for inclusion here is simple: Was it intended as a part of the MCU? That means ranking TV and film together. (But not including animation. Or the Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” Or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man; any Deadpool, Fantastic Four, X-Men film — all of which were made before the formal MCU or by other studios.) The MCU began formally with “Iron Man” in 2008, and for a lumbering corporate beast, it’s been an achievement, an adaptation of an entire medium. Considering that scale and scheme, there’s lots of mediocrity. And dumb things. But also, lots to admire, a few gems, and many thoughtful moments.

50. “Iron Fist” (2017-2018): As reflexive as “problematic” can sound, this unintentionally hilarious martial-arts series centered on a rich white dude (Finn Jones) who travels to Asia and returns to New York a god — yet less skilled than the fighters around him. The battles are endless, the aesthetic early-’90s Skinamax, and even the powers are nuts: Iron Fist melds his “thoughts” into a mystical gun.

49. “Inhumans” (2017): I wanted to love this comic book as a kid. I never did. Nobody ever did. A royal family of genetically altered bores live on the moon, escape a coup, then move to Hawaii. No joke. Black Bolt, the lead super, could shatter the world if he spoke. He never does. His wife has magic octopus hair. Their dog (pretty fun) teleports. A knowing wink might have made this ABC series work. But no one smiles ever. The special effects alone make this a missing link between ‘70s superhero TV and today.

48. “Helstrom” (2020): Meant as a tie for several spooky Marvel shows that fizzled before they started, it’s a lifeless TV take on ‘70s horror comic “Son of Satan,” about siblings facing their demonic lineage. Dramatic as family catastrophe may sound, it’s all just a “Hannibal” riff. (Even Marvel distanced itself, removing its logo from the opening credits.)

47. “Thor: The Dark World” (2013): The nadir of the Marvel cinematic cavalcade, so undistinguished (anyone remember the villain?) Chris Hemsworth calls it “Thor, The Second One.” He would prove himself later a winning goofball in the role, but here, trapped in a multidimensional space splendor, not even Tom Hiddleston’s reliable Loki looks convinced.

46. “Iron Man 2″ (2010): Machine-tooled franchise sequel. Empty of purpose (other than getting super ducks ready for “The Avengers”) and jammed tight with booms, CGI and Mickey Rourke attacking a car race with electric whips. (Still, Scarlett Johansson’s walk-on as Black Widow hints at fun to come.)

45. “The Defenders” (2017): Meant as a crossover culmination of Netflix’s Marvel period, pulling together Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Daredevil for a grittier Avengers. Might have worked: Three of the characters were smart. Their bickering was fun. Sigourney Weaver’s chilly villain felt right. But even with eight episodes, that plot never builds steam. But I’d be up for a reboot.

44. “Thor” (2011): Marvel was still figuring out this universe thing. Nearly a dozen years later, it’s hard to believe Hemsworth was once sluggish — or that Hiddleston’s perfect bad guy was so ill-served. Director Kenneth Branagh earns points for showing a Marvel film could play differently (Shakespeare meets Tolkien meets Natalie Portman), but he also trusts too much in the original Thor comics.

43. “The Punisher” (2017-2019): The Punisher — created in the ‘70s to capitalize on Dirty Harry-like antiheroes — was never interesting. You know his logo (a skull) from widebody pickup truck windows. Ironically, the Punisher hates extremists, and as this earnest but eh Netflix series barely got across, he’s a stand-in for how badly we treat our war veterans. Jon Bernthal is mostly good, but his self-pitying lunatic with a heart of gold never achieves those subversive aims.

42. “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2″ (2017): I remember wondering if I should leave the theater, not because it was miserable — it wasn’t — but because it felt like a highlight reel of the first film. Groot’s oblivious dance through a battle is fun. And Kurt Russell plays a planet who is also Chris Pratt’s father. The rest is a lumbering franchise checklist.

41. “The Runaways” (2017-2019): Mighta been huge. Mighta been your prototypical TV Western on a Sunday afternoon in February when you don’t want to leave the couch. The premise is clever: John Hughes-ish teens (goth, jock, etc.) discover their parents are supervillains and work to counter them. Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, who also launched “The O.C.” and “Gossip Girl,” started things well. But it took one season for everyone to run away. And why so much attention on the parents?

40. “The Incredible Hulk” (2008): Coming five years after Ang Lee’s heady stab, it suggested Marvel had vision. There’s more Hulk! More smash! The origin story is done by the opening credits! But the studio can’t yet balance Ed Norton’s philosophical Bruce Banner with thrills. The result is underwhelming — though in hindsight, compared with Mark Ruffalo’s beloved Hulk, anything would look weaker.

39. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015): As much as I liked James Spader’s patronizing laugh in the form of unstoppable AI (Ultron, Tony Stark’s Frankenstein creation), Joss Whedon’s second spin with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes suffers from being more of a superhero networking party than a compelling story. It’s all setup for stories that happen later (“WandaVision,” “Civil War,” “Black Panther”). But it did give us one great moment: Our heroes after work, sitting around, trying to lift Thor’s hammer. That’s Marvel at its best. And yet, also characteristically, it comes crammed between way too much plot.

38. “Cloak & Dagger” (2018-2019): Marvel corporate history is loaded with heroes who never click. These two channel light and darkness. Together — one superhero! It has fans, and at its best, this Freeform team-up show nailed the vibe of the ‘90s CW teen gold rush, blending trauma, parental expectations, addiction and the supernatural. But whatever camaraderie Olivia Holt and Aubrey Joseph managed was undercut by undercooked characters. (Eventually this’ll work.)

37. “Eternals” (2021): By the time this very serious epic landed — about godlike figures guiding history — we knew the MCU. And were maybe even sick of it? You have to admire director Chloe Zhao’s (“Nomadland”) offering a determinedly pensive alternative heralding a maturing MCU, eager to counter its fun-first image. But there isn’t a single interesting character — and there are so many.

36. “Black Widow” (2020): A thankless coda to Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanov, super spy. There’s a lot to like here: Florence Pugh’s Yelena, David Harbour’s Russian caricature, an “Americans”-like espionage backstory. It’s scene-setting for the rise of Pugh’s star, and a lot of uninspired action filler.

35. “Iron Man 3″ (2013): A sunny corrective to Jon Favreau’s tedious part 2, though mostly a showcase for Robert Downey Jr.’s rat-a-tat delivery. Its terrorism plot doesn’t land, and Downey spends a lot of the film in a farm house, asking who he is without his technology.Still, writer-director Shane Black (“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”) has a knack for action-flick dialogue that bounces like nobody’s business.

34. “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” (2013-2020): The first official MCU TV series ran an astounding seven seasons on ABC, remarkable because its promise of being an all-encompassing bus station for Marvel — its plots and characters floating in and out from the movies — never really worked. By the time its big secret was outed in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” — S.H.I.E.L.D. was full of traitors — Season 1 was over. Except, then its freewheeling heroes-on-a-budget thing clicked for a while, giving us Ghost Rider, time travel, dark magic.

33. “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018): Yeah, I know you liked it and can’t believe it’s low on this list. Well, it’s a bummer — and not because of that shock ending. The highs here work because the MCU is a monument to smart casting; there’s warmth amid the chill. But also a million fights, a zillion CGI hordes, and more exposition than “One Life to Live.” It’s a hoot watching beloved fictional characters meet for the first time and compare notes but the moving parts pig-pile until you just want to get to the next film.

32. “Moon Knight” (2022): I hate to knock a show with so much on its mind and willing to explore it in just six episodes, shuttling from horror to comedy, musing on free will and justice. Oscar Isaac’s rhythms are typically unpredictable; he fits well as the title Egyptologist diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder. The show is similarly apart from the traditional MCU, its priorities fresh. Ethan Hawke’s villain (who keeps glass in his shoes, to show humility) is unnerving. But plays like a superhero show in name only. Not a bad thing, but it needs another season.

31. “Captain Marvel” (2019): You want this one to work more often than it does. By 2019, Marvel had not had a movie centered on a woman. (Odd, since attendance at comic cons has been approaching gender parity for years.) Brie Larson is a steely portrait of resilience as a pilot whose powers place her at the center of an alien war.There are respectful nods to immigration and the fickleness of memory. But it’s another Marvel table setting, and colder than most, giving Larson some of that Superman remoteness.

30. “Doctor Strange” (2016): It was the MCU’s most convincing argument these flicks could venture outside grounded “Iron Man” territory into Jack Kirby-inspired psychedelic travel. And yet, the rest is so familiar — arrogant professional brought low (Benedict Cumberbatch), do-nothing romantic lead (Rachel McAdams) — it also manages to play way too dutiful.

29. “Thor: Love and Thunder” (2022): Boy, after the heights of Taika Waititi’s “Thor: Ragnarok,” expectations soared. Like too much MCU, though, it’s a mess of tones and stabs at reviving what worked. Its charm strains; three subplots on terminal cancer, child kidnapping and God’s indifference are a bit much.There’s fun: Natalie Portman’s Mighty Thor, Christian Bale’s creepy villain, two screaming goats and one Russell Crowe eating scenery. Waititi seems distracted, but he throws a decent party.

28. “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” (2022): Chaotic, yet … fitting? Sam Raimi returns to comic books after his “Spider-Man” set the stage for the MCU. Ironically, he helms the Marvel film that implodes beneath the MCU’s accumulated subplots. Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda steals her scenes. That octopus monster is great. Raimi is delightfully horror-inspired. Yet new superhero America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) feels shoehorned, and shards from the wider MCU gather in a tangle.

27. “Spider-Man: Far From Home” (2019): Tom Holland’s Spidey has proven so indelible that part of me wishes he operated outside the MCU infrastructure. This European road trip gives him space to explore that iconic “with great power comes great responsibility” credo. Jake Gyllenhaal is an oily bad guy. The rest is typical so-so mid-trilogy timid, dedicated to showing Spider-Man’s rebirth wasn’t a fluke.

26. “Ant-Man” (2015): I like the Ant-Man movies, even if I have a hard time remembering them — which feels right. This is a light diversion powered by an excellent cast (Paul Rudd, Michael Pena, Michael Douglas) and dependable heist-flick snappiness with pleasant slightness (via director Peyton Reed of “Bring It On”). It’s a tribute to the MCU that a superhero flick without ambitions is a change of pace.

25. “Ant-Man and the Wasp” (2018): A bit sharper, leaning into what worked the first time — the laughs and Pena’s embellished recaps of its confusing plot. The best MCU films get “Abbott and Costello”-esque, and this, which mostly sets up “Endgame,” turns its lack of consequence into rollicking fun, with inspired set pieces Buster Keaton would have admired.

24. “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (2021): Before the second half slides frustratingly into CGI bombast and stale MCU rhythms, Marvel’s first Asian-led blockbuster is vibrant, casting legends (Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh) alongside a smart young cast. It mixes folklore, martial arts and an immigrant tale (the urge to stand apart from traditional family) into something fresh.

23. “Hawkeye” (2021): The Aquaman of the MCU. He shoots arrows. Which is why this Disney+ series works more often than not. The world isn’t at stake. Just Christmas. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), an antihero Scrooge, fights off ghosts of his past to make it home for the holidays. Hailee Steinfeld, as his biggest fan (and heir), offers a warm lesson in what makes a hero (and hopefully gets her own show).

22. “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” (2021): Black Panther aside, the MCU nods vaguely to social context. Not here. As Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) inherits Captain America’s shield, we watch how it feels for a Black man to embody America. Uneasily, for starters. The series was uneven, but the fights were balletic, and its smart stress-testing of the meaning of patriotism was well worth the watch alone.

21. “She-Hulk, Attorney at Law” (2022): Tatiana Maslany, as the Hulk’s cousin, anchors essentially a sitcom, though one that reminded how enjoyable Marvel can get when it allows inventive freedom, and goes with its knowing, winky instincts. She-Hulk sleeps with Daredevil! Fights toxic fandom! Then, in a delightfully meta left turn, takes on the MCU’s own formulaic Hollywood architects.

20. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017): You have to admire a film that arrives this confidently, knowing you’ve seen it many times before. Its charm is in its return to the early ‘60s source, giving us a truly teenage Spidey — a kid — played with a nervous pep by Tom Holland. Michael Keaton’s working-class villain is more thoughtfully rendered than expected, and there’s none of the mournful quality of older Spidey films.

19. “Luke Cage” (2016-2018): Like Black Panther, Luke Cage was mostly a white creation, loaded with reflexively racist detail. (He rarely fought crime outside Harlem.) This nearly great Netflix show gave those questionable roots a humanity, depicting a broken man combating social injustice and his own reticence. Toss in a remarkable supporting cast (Mahershala Ali, Alfre Woodard, Rosario Dawson), and you almost forgot that its excellent parts never steamrolled into compelling story.

18. “Agent Carter” (2015-2016): A victim of Marvel still figuring out TV. This spirited wartime spy show never had enough time in two short seasons to meld MCU tics to the midcentury matinee serials in its heart. Hayley Atwell was a blast as Peggy Carter, moving on after Captain America’s disappearance, landing in screwball comedy and intrigue. Its reputation is overblown but only a bit.

17. “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011): It’s hard to remember a time when we knew Chris Evans as the Human Torch in bad Fantastic Four films. But Evans as the sincere Cap proved a keeper, this generation’s Christopher Reeve. Good thing: He’s is the linchpin of the MCU, and this old-school 1940s adventure establishes a joyous baseline. Cap isn’t fighting Nazis, he insists. He just hates bullies.

16. “Loki” (2021): Mighta been a tonal train wreck. Tom Hiddleston returns to his beloved bad guy, facing a worse villain, the Time Variance Authority. Basically, a multiverse bureaucracy. Hiddleston’s charisma pairs well with Owen Wilson, building a buddy dynamic that lends layers to Loki — literally, in the form of variant Lokis. Convoluted yet ambitious, it’s closer to an existential thriller.

15. “Captain America: Civil War” (2016): No matter how resonant the MCU — the issue here is federal regulation of superpowers — someone gets punched in the head. The mix of character to action, though, is elegant here, as its dozen superheroes are drawn to opposing camps. Ugliness gets personal.

14. “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (2022): With a heavier heart than the first film — and least satisfying when it seeks to bring back the Panther — it’s nonetheless a heartbreaking farewell to the late Chadwick Boseman. It’s also an aesthetic beauty that showcases a terrific female cast and another smart antihero in Namor, an Aztec god whose 1939 roots as Sub-Mariner get a riveting fresh relevance.

13. “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014): The most consequential movie in the MCU? If it hadn’t clicked, Marvel would have been less eager to trot out more B-list heroes from its deep reserves. Now this ensemble (led by Chris Pratt and a raccoon) is a connector of cinematic worlds. A whimsical one, with a dancing tree, and more Han Solo-like pirate crackle than “Solo” had. (Writer/director James Gunn made this so much fun, he’s now the co-architect of DC’s movie universe, which has been notably less fun.)

12. “WandaVision” (2021): The first MCU TV series truly integrated with its big-screen precedent was an often captivating portrait of loss and madness. Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda) and Paul Bettany (Vision) are moving as a fated couple locked in a fantasy. It’s a thoughtful, clever use of episodic TV to explore the pain of a single character. You forget you’re an adult watching a show about a robot married to a witch.

11. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014): Everything blows up. But before it crumbles into spectacle, this is the fleetest of paranoia thrillers, featuring jaw-dropping stunts on D.C. boulevards. Bonus points for a weary Robert Redford providing a link to 1970s conspiracy cinema, and for delivering a Captain America who knows his once-familiar understanding of right and wrong is at best outdated.

10. “Ms. Marvel” (2022): Among the best-reviewed MCU shows, and least seen. Because it was Spider-Man-lite? About a Muslim hero with a warm Islamic family? Because it taught a nuanced history on the India-Pakistan Partition? Who knows? As a portrait of a community, it was a groundbreaking treat.

9. “Daredevil” (2015-2018): No bones were broken in the making of this show. I think? Brutal and pensive, with a hero wearing a cobbled-together costume and a lifetime of moral regrets, this street-level epic about the contradictions of justice had the finest hero-villain electricity in the MCU, featuring Charlie Cox’s blind lawyer facing down Vincent D’Onofrio’s imposing Kingpin. No wonder that, years after this terrific Netflix series was canceled, the MCU is finally bringing back Cox and D’Onofrio.

8. “The Avengers” (2012): It put the U in MCU. Writer-director Joss Whedon nails what seemed unlikely: A team-up crossover in which every hero’s story dovetails perfectly with a larger story. As New York City burned behind them, and the camera swirled, each fighting back to back — the defining MCU image — you saw Hollywood’s future.

7. “Black Panther” (2018): The first MCU film to suggest the MCU should aspire beyond its usual borders: Not just a series of warehouse fights, but also paradises defined down to its architecture. Not villains with grudges, but villains (Michael B. Jordan) with relatable motivations. Not just serviceable direction, but distinctive visions (Ryan Coogler). It’s all so effortless and cool, a new world pops to life.

6. “Werewolf by Night” (2022): More like this, please. Casting off the standard MCU, this “Special Presentation” is a tight, 53-minute salute to horror comics and Universal monsters, told in black and white, starring an endearing Gael Garcia Bernal and told with wit. It’s not stretched to nine episodes. It’s just fun, and though a novelty, it’s also an immersive reminder of how to tantalize an audience, not overwhelm.

5. “Iron Man” (2008): The “Stagecoach” of superhero cinema. An establishing of elements, beats, etc., that go into the contemporary superhero genre. Iron Man never was never a household name like Hulk or Spider-Man, but Robert Downey Jr.’s sparkle proved two things: Casting was the key, and a superhero movie with the right actors and tone could spend as much time on character as it does on the fantasy.

4. “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (2021): A hugely satisfying juggling of themes and characters (and actors from other cinematic Spider-Man franchises) that finds room to stay tender and, astonishingly, lucid.Both a love letter to decades of super-soap-operaing and a moving appreciation of storytelling.

3. “Jessica Jones” (2015-2019): Like most episodic TV, seasons are not created equal. But even if this never made it past its first season, it’d be a down-low noir classic. A rare focus on vulnerability, with a hero (Krysten Ritter) whose PTSD after years of abuse has left her wondering why her super strength and internal bells weren’t enough to protect her.

2. “Avengers: Endgame” (2019): Rousing and big, then finally, so touching it’s hard not to tear up. Sacrifices here take on intimacy. There’s a reason audiences recorded in-theater reactions to this culmination of narratives and posted them on YouTube. When Captain America growls “Assemble” one last time and the whole MCU rushes in behind, it’s hard not to love movies again.

1. “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017): The MCU movie I tell people to watch who think they don’t like superhero films. Director Taika Waititi is no comic book purist, but he recognizes that when pop culture sings it can be simultaneously, joyfully, meaningless and meaningful. Think Monty Python, a clear inspiration. There’s invigorating creative freedom that plays out in laughs, gorgeous designs and a cast (Tessa Thompson, Mark Ruffalo, Cate Balnchett, Tom Hiddleston, Jeff Goldblum) who bring a disarming casualness to nearly every scene. Also, they may not give Oscars for the kind of inviting wit Chris Hemsworth wields here, but when the final history of our superhero days gets written, the smiles from this one will remain.