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Best To Worst: Every Marvel Movie Ranked

Best To Worst: Every Marvel Movie Ranked

Even by the ambitious standards of Marvel, 2014 is going to be a big year. They’ve got this weekend’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (review here) and hopeful franchise-starter “Guardians of the Galaxy,” while rival studios have the forthcoming “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (at Fox) and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (at Sony). No matter who is bringing them to the screen, Marvel has become a blockbuster brand, underscored by “The Avengers” scoring the third-highest-grossing-film of all time. 

But with the silver lining of world-conquering ubiquity, comes the cloud — overfamiliarity, potential consumer burnout (we have to confess the “Spider-Man” reboot still falls squarely into the “What? Again?” arena for us) and at the very least, their product being regarded as something plasticky and disposable and free inside every cereal box. Especially compared with rivals DC, who’ve taken their properties in the opposite direction, delivering gritty, brainy blockbusters instead (and “Man of Steel,” meow) that aim to be as prestige pic somber as Marvel’s are colorful and quippy. But before we get caught in the crossfire of a Biggie/Tupac style turf war, let us just say that we believe there’s plenty of room for both approaches, and both studios have produced films we’ve counted as among our favorite tent poles of recent years. 

And so we thought it high time we took a long, hard look at the films stamped with the Marvel logo, from best to worst (ranking them in reverse order), looking at all the Spider-Mans, Avengerses, X-men, Blades, Punishers, Daredevils, Fantastic Fourses and, um, Howard the Ducks. Or to put it another way: who’d win in a fight?

36.Captain America” (1990)
Even if you’re not a fan of the current “Captain America” movies, you have to acknowledge that they’re “Rome, Open City” in comparison to the 1990 take (which never surfaced in U.S. cinemas, though got a theatrical release in some international territories). A low-budget tossed-off take produced by D-movie legend Menahem Golan, and directed by “Cyborg” helmer Albert Pyun, it’s a moderately faithful take on the character (other than the Red Skull being Italian, for some reason), but a pretty terrible, and weirdly nasty, actioner that sees the Captain (Matt Salinger, son of J.D) battle the Red Skull in WW2, then have to save the world all over again in the present day in an attempt to rescue the President. The split structure is baffling and overstuffed, the dialogue terrible (“He’s still alive. We don’t know where he is, or who he is”), the casting baffling (Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty crop up in the weirdest possible “Deliverance” reunion, while Salinger is just terrible), and even the most vulgar auteurist couldn’t defend Pyun’s inept direction. There’s the occasional decent idea in among them, but if you’ve ever wanted to appreciate the modern-day movies, this is a good way of doing so. [F]

35. “Man-Thing” (2005)
In fairness, “Man-Thing” is hardly one of Marvel’s best-known characters (originally a scientist who turns into a plant monster), and these days would probably be lucky to be a one-off villain in “Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.” But even someone who’d never heard of him would feel that he’d been hard done by this 2005 film (which aired on SyFy in the U.S, but hit cinemas in Asia and China). Directed by Brett Leonard, helmer of “The Lawnmower Man,” it’s about as generic a horror film as you could come up with, as various low-grade Australian actors wrangle with Louisiana accents (unsuccessfully: most sound like they’re having strokes), as they’re picked off by the swamp’s guardian spirit, who turns out to be Man-Thing. Who looks ridiculous. Leonard does layer on some atmosphere occasionally, but the plot is both rammed with clichés and unnecessarily convoluted, there’s little in the way of decent gore or scares, and fans of the character, if such things exist, are surely still furious by the way it turns him from sympathetic creature to mostly-off-screen killer monster. This (man) thing probably still brings Kevin Feige out in hives. [F]

34. Ghost Rider” (2007)
Nicolas Cage is a long-time comics  fan, who’s flirted with a number of characters over the years, most notably DC’s “Superman” for an aborted Tim Burton movie in the late 90s. He finally got his chance for Sony’s “Ghost Rider” in 2007, having been attached to versions of the project since the turn of the decade. Unfortunately, the final product saw him team up with writer/director Mark Steven Johnson, who hadn’t got the message from the reception to “Daredevil” (see below) that maybe superhero movies just weren’t for him. The character, Johnny Blaze, is a motorcycle stunt rider who sold his soul to become the Devil’s flame-headed bounty-hunter to save his father’s life, but there’s little chance for Cage to do what he’s do best — when in human mode, he looks sleepy, and when he’s the rider, he’s replaced by an unconvincing CGI head. Some of the casting is nominally fun (Sam Elliott as a previous Ghost Rider, Donal Logue as the best pal, Peter Fonda as the Devil), but everyone’s thinking principally of the paycheck, not least Wes Bentley, at the height of his troubles with drugs, as super-generic principal villain Blackheart. Johnson can’t write the script, he can’t handle the tone, which lurches from morose to campy, and he can’t shoot action: thankfully he hasn’t yet tried to complete his trilogy of terrible comic book movies. [F]

33. “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (2009)
As we’ll see, the “X-Men” movies have covered basically the complete range of the quality spectrum, but whatever happens, it’ll be some feat if this summer’s “X-Men: Days Of Future Past,” or any future X-movies, turn out to be worse than this. Hugh Jackman’s mutton-chopped semi-immortal was always better suited to a solo effort than most of the other characters from Fox’s franchise, and on paper, it should have worked: Oscar-winning “Tsotsi” director at the helm, Jackman facing off against great actors like Liev Schreiber and Danny Huston, etc. And in fairness, the film was one of many hampered by the 2007 writers strike, going into production without a finished screenplay. But one can only imagine from the results that Fox used a room full of monkeys with typewriters as scabs, because the result is nonsensical, illogical, wasteful, overstuffed with inconsequential characters and hugely uninvolving. Gavin Hood’s direction seems concerned principally with finding shots for the trailer (there are at least two moments when Wolverine looks to the sky and cries out), too. Having adamantium grafted to your bones would be preferable to sitting through this again. [D-]

32. “Howard The Duck” (1986)
Technically the first-ever Marvel movie (the “Captain America” serials in the 1940s predate the existence of Marvel as a company), and what a weird, weird place to start. Howard, a cigar-smoking anthropomorphic mallard, was always an outlier in the Marvel stable, closer to the subversive alt-comics world than to Spider-Man, and it’s hard to think of an unlikelier person to bring it to the screen than George Lucas, who made it a passion project after he left directing to focus on producing. Originally intended to be an animated film, it eventually ended up as a live action film helmed by “American Graffiti” co-writer Willard Huyck, with Howard (the voice of Chip Zien) transported to Earth, and battling an alien Dark Overlord (Jeffrey Jones) with the help of scientist Phil (Tim Robbins) and musician love interest Beverly (Lea Thompson). With superhero movies following such a close formula these days, in some ways one should be thankful for something as weird as this, but there’s a reason it’s still a byword for critical and commercial failure: there’s little consistency to the way that Howard interacts with the world, it tries to water the weirdness down into a very 1980s family adventure, and it simply isn’t very funny. [D-]

31. The Punisher” (1989)
We’ve never really seen the appeal of Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, as a character: even, or especially, within the context of the Marvel universe, he’s just another ex-cop vigilante, who could have walked out of “Death Wish” or a dozen B-movies like it. But we suppose that the generic nature of the character (and the relative budgetary ease of bringing him to the screen) appeals to studios, because he keeps coming back. This 1989 version, the first and worst, stars Dolph Lundgren as Castle, who’s persuaded to help the Mafia he hates so much when the Yakuza kidnap the mobsters’ kids. Despite a script by some reasonably well-known writers (Robert Mark Kamen, who’d later pen “Taken,” and Boaz Yakin, who went on to direct “Fresh”), the script might as well be a Steven Seagal vehicle, and veteran editor Mark Goldblatt shows that he probably should have stuck to the day job with some pretty uninspired action direction, and a complete lack of interest in the dialogue scenes. Unless you’re writing a thesis on Hollywood’s late ’80/early ’90s xenophobia/paranoia towards the Japanese (see also: “Die Hard,” “Black Rain,” “Rising Sun”), there’s basically nothing to recommend this, and Lundgren’s bland presence firmly makes it the least of the three “Punisher” films to date. [D-]

30. “Elektra” (2005)
You’d have thought that the odds of “Elektra” ever getting made were slim; not only did no one really give a shit about “Daredevil,” in which Jennifer Garner’s character first appeared, but she died at the end of it. But historically, such things have never been obstacles to poor studio decision-making, and so we ended up with this 2005 spin-off, in which Elektra is resurrected by ninja master Terence Stamp for some reason, goes on to become a contract killer, and then swiftly finds a conscience after being asked to kill hansome Goran Visnjic and his OCD-suffering daughter. It’s a plot you’ve seen a dozen times before, this time with a smattering of superpowers (highlight/lowlight: a guy who can turn his wolf tattoo into an actual wolf), and is pretty much uninvolving from the first frame to the last. Garner can be a gifted comic actress in the right role, but she’s completely adrift here, and the rest of the no-name cast can’t even match her uncomfortable level of engagement with the material. In theory, a superhero-ish martial arts film (the action cribs from then-recent wushu hits like “Hero” in places) could have been fun, but director Rob Bowman, whose “Reign Of Fire” was so guiltily entertaining a few years earlier, pretty much half-asses this throughout. When the nicest thing you can say about something is that it probably didn’t cost that much, you might be in trouble. [D-]

29. “The Punisher” (2004)
The best thing you can say about 2004’s reboot of “The Punisher,” in comparison to its predecessor is that it’s well-cast. Thomas “I Just Want My Kids Back” Jane is reasonably charismatic and handles the action well, John Travolta chews scenery (even if it’s a reprise of the villains he’d played better in other movies), and reliable character actor types like Ben Foster and Will Patton pop up, alongside a slumming-it Roy Scheider. And there’s a moderately crunchy satisfaction to some of the action, though little of it is well-handled. But otherwise, it’s something of a washout. Writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh (behind “Die Hard With A Vengeance” and “Armageddon,” among others) wanted the film to be a throwback to ’70s-style no-nonsense action films, but even those had a little more going on upstairs: so much of the dialogue might as well be replaced by “bla bla bla revenge bla bla” with no real weight or emotion to it, and there’s little invention to the way the combat’s staged. More than anything, it’s just unrelentingly and upsettingly dour, not as unpretentious and unapologetic as its successor, and pretty boring to watch as a result. It could have been worse, sure, but it certainly could have been better. [D]

28. “The Fantastic Four: The Movie” (1994)
Look, no one around is going to tell you that the 1994 edition of “The Fantastic Four” is a good movie. That’s what happens when you make a film on a dime in order to hang on to the rights to the character: producer Bernd Eichinger had picked up the rights to one of Marvel’s most beloved properties, but had to put something into production before the end of 1992, and he teamed with B-movie legend Roger Corman to get something done in only three months. The finished product (never officially released, but available on YouTube) is unbelievably cheaply made, probably written in less time than it would take to read, badly acted by an uncharismatic cast, and generally pretty mockable (indeed, it inspired one of the best gags in the fourth season of “Arrested Development”). But for all its “Power Rangers” production value and inadvertently funny dialogue, there’s something charming about it that elevates it above some of its more expensive and self-aware competition. You sense that, despite the craven intentions of its producers (which worked — Eichinger produced the two big-budget “Fantastic Four” films before his death in 2011), it’s been made with a certain level of love, if not necessarily competence. [D]

27. “Daredevil” (2003)
Blind attorney-turned-crimefighter Matt Murdoch, aka Daredevil, has always been one of Marvel’s very best characters, enabling a certain level of grittiness and heft without necessarily losing his sense of fun, so when the superhero movie was revived in the early ’00s, it was natural that he’d be one of the first to arrive. It’s a shame that it was in this form, though. Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson was something of an unknown quantity, but had reportedly won over 20th Century Fox through sheer passion, so in advance, there was every reason to think it could be something fun, especially with a likable cast: Ben Affleck as the lead, Jennifer Garner as his love interest, Michael Clarke Duncan and Colin Farrell as the villains, and ringers like Joe Pantoliano and Jon Favreau in support. But Johnson’s script is superhero-by-numbers, and the execution is worse: there’s something thoroughly naff about the look and feel of the action, aiming for Frank Miller stylization, but not really committing to it. Some will tell you that the Director’s Cut is superior, but it doesn’t add much except a subplot involving Coolio. Fingers crossed the upcoming Drew Goddard-penned Netflix series gets it right. [C-]

26. “The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012)
Rebooted only five years after the last Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire film (a fourth installment of that series, with John Malkovich and Anne Hathaway as villains got close to production before it was canned), Peter Parker swung back onto screens in 2012 with a new youth-friendly take, spiked with added “darkness” inspired by Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” films, courtesy of “Zodiac” writer James Vanderbilt and “(500) Days Of Summer” director Marc Webb. Webb did some things right: the casting is pretty much bang on, with Andrew Garfield making an excellent Parker and Spidey, Emma Stone a spunky Gwen Stacy, and the pair sharing plenty of chemistry together. Indeed, when it’s just the two of them hanging out (or scenes with Aunt May and Uncle Ben, nicely played by Sally Field and Martin Sheen), the film displays promise of matching or even topping the Raimi pictures. The trouble is everything else: the story (hacked up heavily in the cutting room, with entire sub-plots or characters left dangling) is nonsensical and unsatisfying, the villain (Rhys Ifans) weakly motivated and underdrawn, and the action pretty poor. If the imminent sequel were just Garfield and Stone in a rom-com, we’d be delighted, but we’re a lot warier of the villain overload promised by the bajillion trailers. [C-]

25. “Blade: Trinity” (2004)
David Goyer, the man arguably involved with more modern-era superhero movies than anyone bar Stan Lee, finally gets to direct one, and the result pretty much sunk the franchise that Goyer had helped to create. The script feels like Goyer neglected it in favor of preparing to direct, with a silly story involving Dracula (Dominic Purcell) that doesn’t do much to differentiate itself from its predecessors. But that would suggest that the film’s well-directed, and here, the action is choppy and unsatisfying throughout. Then again, given that star Wesley Snipes was apparently perma-stoned, trying to fire and/or kill the helmer, and only on set for his close-ups, it’s something of a feat that Goyer got it made at all. And there is some fun to be had here thanks to the supporting cast, most notably a scenery-chewing Parker Posey and an entertainingly smarmy Ryan Reynolds, who gets some of the best insults we can remember in modern times. If nothing else, the film added “cock-juggling thundercunt” to the lexicon… [C-]

24. “Thor: The Dark World” (2013)
At this point, it feels a little like “Thor” is the runt of the Marvel Studios litter, not least because the character’s second solo outing is the weakest film since the company started making their own movies. What worked about the first film —the strong performances by Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, the unexpected humor — is generally retained, and there are a few moments of spark, most notably an inventive, world-hopping final action sequence. But the much-mooted hiring of “Game Of Thrones” director Alan Taylor doesn’t do all that much to bring specificity to Thor’s homeworld of Interchangeable Fantasy Land, wastes the now Academy Award-winning Natalie Portman (and most of the other returning-by-contractual-obligation co-stars like Idris Elba and Anthony Hopkins), fails to find much good reason to bring back Hiddleston’s Loki (although he is responsible for some the rare moments when the film feels engaging), and generally has a messy, messy script. Worst of all is villain Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), who doesn’t have anything resembling a personality, or even all that much screen time. [C]

23. “Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance” (2012)
Speaking of things that were made in haste in order to hang on to rights: “Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance.” The original film was, like we said above, irredeemably terrible, but appeared to perform just well enough that it was worth Sony continuing on, with “Batman Begins” writer David S. Goyer hired to pen a script. It took nearly five years to get it together, but, just before the rights were set to revert to Marvel, they went into production, with “Crank” madmen Neveldine and Taylor at the helm. And the result is something… very slightly better. The script remains as dumb as anything, and some of the casting is questionable (someone called Johnny Whitworth plays the second-tier villain, and is terrible), but Neveldine and Taylor have the right approach to material as ridiculous as this, which is to fully acknowledge that it’s silly, and get on with having fun (which is how the Rider ends up pissing flames at one point). They bring real energy to the action sequences (which also benefit from improved effects), while the only direction they seem to have given their actors is “bigger,” which in this case, feels appropriate: Cage actually seems to be having fun this time. As a story, it’s eminently and entirely disposable, but there’s a lot more to like here. [C]

22. “Spider-Man 3” (2007)
Much derided at the time, Sam Raimi’s overstuffed, sometimes ill-judged “Spider-Man 3” certainly remains the weakest of the “Evil Dead” helmer’s three films in Marvel-land, but retains just enough of what the director did right in the first place to, seven years on, make it worth a little reevaluation. Yes, Peter Parker’s emo makeover is questionable, yes that musical sequence is kind of lame, and yes, there are probably two villains too many, particularly when it comes to Topher Grace’s Venom, whom Raimi was forced to include by the studio. But the director still has an excellent sense for energy, tone and comic-book framing, it’s well cast across the board (even Grace, playing Eddie Brock as a sad mirror image of Parker, is strong), and in Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman, has a villain with pathos to match that of Doctor Octopus in the second film. And to go with it, one truly remarkable visual effects sequence: the desperately sad birth of the Sandman, a monster sequence that James Whale would be proud of. [C]

21. “Fantastic Four” (2005)
Released in that awkward period of superheroics in the ’00s between the ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘X-Men‘ movies that birthed the modern craze, and the Marvel movies that took them to new heights, Tim Story’s “Fantastic Four” movies don’t get much love these days (or even at the time). But maybe it’s having spent a few days wallowing in the worst of what the genre has to offer, but we’d say that Story could have done a lot, lot worse, even with his inferior first attempt. The 2005 film is, admittedly, essentially plotless, focusing on the origin story at the expense of an actual story, and has a bright, cheap look that’s aged it remarkably quickly (what you get from hiring a studio comedy journeyman like Story, we’d wager). But the brightness carries over to the tone, which is about right, and while Ioan Gruffud and Jessica Alba are pretty bland as Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman, future Cap Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis are enormously likable as the other half of the central quartet. The action sequences also do what too few superhero flicks even attempt, and make the characters actual heroes, rather than gods who punch other gods into buildings. It’s slight and instantly forgettable, but not a particularly bad time at the movies. [C]

20. “X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006)
How to disappoint fanboys: make a third film of the trilogy that started the comic book movie craze, but replace credible original director Bryan Singer with internet whipping boy Brett Ratner. “X-Men: The Last Stand” is certainly the weakest of the first three X-films, with too many characters, too much plot, and with some decidedly half-assed performances. But it’s not a write-off either. Yes, the screenplay (credited to Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn) appears to have literally been written by a committee and the new additions, bar perhaps Ben Foster’s Angel, are unmemorable. But Ratner has a better handle on the subtext than most would give him credit for (the scenes involving a mutant “cure” are often fairly potent), and he does know how to stage a set piece: the battle in Jean Grey’s house might be the best action sequence in the trilogy. And it’s hard to dislike a film with the wanton ballsiness towards killing of its characters. It’s still an absolute mess, but one that has stuff to like in places. [C]

19. “Iron Man 2” (2010)
The rocky transition between the first “Iron Man” and the triumph of “The Avengers,” “Iron Man 2” was undoubtedly disappointing for everyone concerned, but again, one with enough going for it that it doesn’t prove to be a complete waste of space. The one element where the film improves on its predecessor (other than the upgrade from Terrence Howard to Don Cheadle) is in its villains: in place of Jeff Bridges’ half-baked businessman, we get snarling Russian convict Mickey Rourke, and the charmingly smarmy Sam Rockwell (the latter having a total blast, with one of the best performances in a Marvel Studios film to date). But Justin Theroux’s script is a bit muddy (likely the result of conflicts between director Jon Favreau and the studio), being unable to commit to the darker character arc it seems that Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. want to go for, and for all the benefits of their performances, not making Rourke or Rockwell much of a threat. The action is still pretty disappointing too, with a rushed finale and a general lack of memorable sequences. But Downey Jr. is still charm personified, Scarlett Johansson has fun as Black Widow (even if, like much else with the script, she’s extraneous set-up for “The Avengers”), and it’s generally watchable. [C]

18. “X-Men: First Class” (2011)
There were high hopes for the semi-reboot/prequel “X-Men: First Class,” with a promising retro setting that looked to play more into the subtext of the characters than ever before, and some top-notch casting, with Michael Fassbender as Magneto and James McAvoy as Xavier (and Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult also joining). The actors certainly lived up to the promise: when Fassbender and McAvoy share the screen, you see the potential of the series. And there are, here and there, some vivid images and good ideas. But the short gestation period (director Matthew Vaughan was hired with writing partner Jane Goldman barely a year before the film hit theaters) shows, with a forgettable villain in Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw, and a general sense of unfulfilled promise, particularly when it comes to depth: Vaughn and Goldman show little engagement with real ideas except on the surface level. Like most of the X-movies, it suffers from too many mutant characters, has a particularly icky view of the female characters, almost every one of whom ends up in a state of undress at some point. It’s still better than the two X-films that came before it, but it could have been so much more. [C]

17. “Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer” (2007)
For better or worse, no super-hero movies are as close to each other in quality as the two “Fantastic Four” films. If you liked the first, you’ll probably like the second, if you hated the first, you’ll probably hate “Rise Of The Silver Surfer” too. By a hair’s breadth, we’d probably pick the second film over the first: the cast are more settled in their roles, the action is more memorable, and most importantly, it has the Surfer, a genuinely impressive visual effects creation (played by Guillermo Del Toro alumnus Doug Jones, voiced by Laurence Fishburne) that gets surprisingly close to nailing a tricky character who’d been in failed development for years. It still basically botches Doctor Doom (in part because Julian McMahon is terrible as the character), but the script, by “Simpsons” writer Don Payne and “Twin Peaks” co-creator Mark Frost, has some zip to it, and the scope and scale is much greater this time around. The bar is still low enough that Josh Trank’s upcoming reboot doesn’t have to perform a miracle to clear it, but there’s fun to be had here. [C+]

16. “Punisher: War Zone” (2008)
We’re very much aware that the placement of this one will raise some eyebrows (it did around Playlist HQ as well, in fairness). But hardcore genre fans know what we know: that this is a stupid, nasty, bloody blast that’s rather well directed, even if you need a bit of a shower afterwards. We’d repeat what we said earlier, that the character’s sort of a nothing, and we don’t really see the point of bringing him to the screen. But if you’re going to do it, do it like director Lexi Alexander does here: shamelessly. This time, The Punisher (played indifferently by Ray Stevenson) faces off against classic villain Jigsaw (Dominic West, devouring the scenery and then picking bits of it out from between his teeth), and it’s still a deeply generic set up, one that’s weirdly reminiscent of old-school 1990s superhero flicks. But she does shoot the action beautifully with real style, and with an absolute delight — Castle doesn’t just take a bad guy out when he can cut off their head with a butter knife and fire a rocket into the remains. It’s far from being a good movie, but the splattery grindhouse glee with which it’s executed makes it oddly pleasurable. [C+]

15. “The Incredible Hulk” (2008)
Second time around for Marvel’s green giant, for the second official Marvel Studios ‘Avengers‘ tease (tied in through a Robert Downey Jr. cameo, though little else, given the subsequent recasting), and it’s something of a mixed bag, likely because of the conflicts between star Edward Norton, who took a pass on the script, director Louis Leterrier, and the fledgling studio. It’s a much less interesting film than Ang Lee’s, but has some charms, at least in the early going: the “Fugitive”-esque feel of the first half, throwing back to the TV series, is fun, and the high caliber of casting (Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, Tim Blake Nelson and William Hurt joining Norton) pointing the way, along with “Iron Man,” to the likes of Robert Redford and Glenn Close in Marvel movies to come. Even so, there isn’t much in the way of substance, and things really fall apart in the third act, culminating in a punch-up that feels more like a round of “Tekken” than anything remotely involving. It remains to be seen whether a really good “Hulk” movie can ever be made (“The Avengers” suggests that he might be best as part of an ensemble), but it’ll need someone less workmanlike than Leterrier to pull it off. [C+]

14. “Thor” (2011)
Marvel’s first big risk. If “Thor” had tanked like, say, “Green Lantern” did for Warners, it made the “Avengers,” and everything after it, a much, much dicier prospect. There’s plenty wrong with the finished product — some garish design, an anonymous setting for the third-act, the “Iron Man 2”-esque shoehorning in of S.H.I.E.L.D, and in particular the Jeremy Renner afterthought cameo. But it gets some of the important things right, and that helped the movie become a hit. The fish-out-of-water humor embraces and owns the inherent silliness of the character. The unlikely choice of Kenneth Branagh lends some gravitas, and though much-mocked, his fondness for dutch angles gives a nice comic-book feel to proceedings. Two movie stars were born, in Tom Hiddleston’s surprisingly multi-faceted Loki, and Chris Hemsworth’s charismatic, deftly comic Thor. There’s enough room to grow from this one that we’re still a way off from seeing a definitive movie starring the character, but Branagh and co. did a pretty good job at laying the groundwork, and making a space Viking someone to root for. [C+]

13. “The Wolverine” (2013)
Director James Mangold (who replaced the much more tempting Darren Aronofsky on this long-delayed second Logan-centric spin-off) talked a big game in the lead up to the film’s release, dropping references to Ozu and Kurosawa in relation to his Japanese-set tale, which sees Hugh Jackman’s mutant embroiled in the battle for succession for a major Japanese corporation. It’s hard to really see the influence of either in the final film, but for much of the running time, the “3:10 To Yuma” helmer does a pretty good job — the smaller scale, more character-led plotting is a good guideline for how to make a solo movie like this one work, and Jackman’s as good as he’s ever been in the role, with a new vulnerability that stops the character from getting old the sixth time around. Unfortunately, it screws the pooch a bit in the final moments: Fox, it seems, couldn’t resist stuffing in extraneous mutants and CGI setpieces, and the final act is overblown and uninvolving. But it is a moderately valiant effort, even if there’s little trace of “Floating Leaves” when all is said and done. [B-]

12. “X-Men” (2000)
The film, more than any other, that revived the comic book craze, and finally made Marvel characters viable on the big screen, Bryan Singer’s adaptation of the mutant heroes arguably changed cinema, or at least studio thinking, in a big way. After a 1990s full of campiness and gaudiness like “Batman and Robin,” Singer found a way to connect with far-out material in the parallels he drew with civil and gay rights (which, in fairness, were always there in the comics), and approached them with a seriousness that fans appreciated. And in Patrick Stewart’s Professor X, Ian McKellen’s Magneto and Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, he had three immediately iconic performances that, fourteen years on, are still gracing our screens when almost every other franchise has been rebooted at least once. That said, his first attempt wasn’t entirely satisfying: the script has the fingerprints of many hands, and the tone wobbles occasionally (that famously botched Halle Berry one-liner being one example), while Singer’s not especially confident with action at this stage, probably in part thanks to a surprisingly thrifty budget for the genre. Nevertheless, the solid foundations were here: it’s just a shame that only one subsequent film really went on to build on them. [B-]

11. “Blade” (1998)
All that said, if “X-Men” was the film that opened the door, “Blade” was the one that wedged its foot in first — the first moderately successful Marvel movie, and one that suggested that an audience existed for these films beyond the geek crowd. “Blade” stars Wesley Snipes as the titular part-vampire vampire slayer, who takes on dickish upstart Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), and the moderately-budgeted B-movie proved a surprise hit for New Line, giving them a new franchise. The film might mark Snipes’ shift from being a decent actor to being a lunatic, but there’s no denying the power of his screen presence here, and there’s fun to be had in the supporting cast below him, with Kris Kristofferson lending gravitas, and Donal Logue lending further dickishness. Goyer’s script is genuinely inventive with vampire lore and goes through some fun twists and turns, and director Steven Norrington (who would blow up his own career a few years later with the execrable “League Of Extraordinary Gentleman”) directs with real style. Some of the trendy nightclub scenes have aged swiftly, but this is still mostly something to be thankful for, and not just for the most baffling kiss-off line in film history (“Some motherfucker’s always trying to ice skate uphill”). [B]

10. “Spider-Man” (2002)
Like Bryan Singer, Sam Raimi did a lot right the first time around with his big-budget superhero property, while leaving enough wrong that there would later be things to correct. The filmmaker, who’d worked in the studio system before but never with a budget like this, was a somewhat surprising choice to direct, but immediately felt like a safe pair of hands: he gets the underdog nature of the character, the thing that makes Spider-Man unique among heroes, and nails the origin story side of things, with a loose and fun teen-movie feel to the early proceedings — there’s genuine heft to the death of Uncle Ben, and the change it causes in Peter. He’d go on to make bigger and more confident action sequences in the franchise, but there’s still some iconic moments here (that swoonsome upside-down kiss, for one). The biggest downside to the film is, as is often the case, the villain: Willem Dafoe gives a good performance, but the design of the Green Goblin is ill-conceived, and the arc somewhat rushed. Still, as the first movie to open over $100 million in its first weekend, Raimi had done his job, and had more to build on the next time around… [B]

9. “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011)
Thor” was the trickiest task of Marvel Studios’ Phase One, but “Captain America: The First Avenger” presented an equally difficult challenge: a patriotic and irony-free hero in a time where neither of those things are popular. But making “Captain America: The First Avenger” a period piece was the perfect way to introduce the character, and Joe Johnston’s film is the rare superhero film to really make the origin story sing — you love little Steve Rogers (ably played by Chris Evans) from the first moment, and the film makes his transformation into an unlikely superman relatable and genuinely moving (it helps that strong performances from Stanley Tucci, Tommy Lee Jones and Hayley Atwell are around to make this arguably the most purely human of the Marvel movies). The retro feel makes it visually distinctive as well, at a time when more and more superhero films were clogging up multiplexes. But like Captain America himself, the film can’t stick the landing: the second half, so much of which is delivered in montage, descends into rather interchangable superheroics, and some faintly disappointing action. It pulls it back with somewhat of a tearjerker ending (a rarity for one of these films), but it’s still hard not to feel that, had the whole film been as a good as the opening, we’d have had a different movie atop this list. [B]

8. “Hulk” (2003)
Ah, Ang Lee’s “Hulk”: the red-headed (green-skinned) totally bonkers step-child of the Marvel movies. The chameleonic Lee was always a bold choice for a superhero movie, even after the majestic action of his “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” but no one expected anything like what he eventually delivered: an existential actioner with a unique pop-art look and feel (he seemed to be literally mimicking comic books with his cutting), and a final act that sees Nick Nolte growling incomprehensibly before turning into a giant jellyfish or something. The film was extremely divisive at the time, but it’s aged well: an esoteric and idiosyncratic picture with more personality than most of the films below it on this list combined. But it’s not without its problems: the cast feel a bit adrift for the most part (Eric Bana, as Bruce Banner, doesn’t quite find a way to let us into his head), and the finale is borderline incoherent. Still, as we approach superhero overload, we find ourselves wishing for more swing-and-misses like this in the genre, versus the competent-but-unexceptional films we already have plenty of. [B]

7. “Blade II” (2002)
Speaking of weird, who gave Guillermo Del Toro a superhero movie to make? The first “Blade” was a surprise hit, but it was exceeded when the Mexican madman got his grubby hands on the Daywalker, with a follow-up that saw Wesley Snipes team up with a Dirty Dozen-esque band of vampires to take down a greater threat. Del Toro’s film still has some scripting issues, and a more anonymous villain than the original in the shape of former Boy Band-er Luke Goss (although the grisly design of the Reaper creatures is great), but the action is terrific, the atmosphere nicely rank, and the engagement with vampire mythology continually inventive. The CGI can be ropey in places, but the practical effects, and general style with which proceedings are helmed, more than make up for it, while the director’s fine sense of character is kept up with the way he nicely sketches the various members of the Bloodpack. Del Toro would go on to make more expensive superhero pictures with the “Hellboy” films, but we’d argue that this remains his best attempt at the genre. [B]

6. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014)
The most recent Marvel movie (at least for a few weeks…), and a pretty decent one at that. Our review won’t be long in the mind at this point, and we do still agree with the problems we raised there: the title villain is mostly wasted in the film, it reaches a sense of action fatigue by the time it reaches its conclusion, and the politics are kind of muddy at best (even if it’s pleasing that the film even tries to engage with the real world, which all too few of these films do). But we’ve definitely warmed to it in the few weeks since we saw it, and the benefits of the film have lingered more than the demerits: the fine performances by Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie and Robert Redford, the confidence with which it’s all executed, the twists and turns of the plot, the stylish way in which the action sequences are executed. Like most of the latter-day Marvel Studios pictures, it overstays its welcome. But the tone is so well judged, and the characters so involving, that you don’t begrudge that extra twenty minutes or so too much. [B]

5. “Iron Man” (2008)
The film that really kicked off Marvel’s billion-dollar mega-franchise, and it’s a rarity among these movies in that it works because of, essentially, one element alone: Robert Downey Jr. That’s not to say that the other elements are disastrous: the script might be a beat-by-beat reconstruction of “Batman Begins,” but it does its job, director Jon Favreau keeps the tone bouncy without losing the stakes, and it even managed to make Gwyneth Paltrow a winning screen presence for the first time in a long while. But really, this is the Robert Downey Jr. show, and it’s really a remarkable tour-de-force of a performance that rightly relaunched the once-troubled actor to being the biggest, and best paid movie star on the planet. His improv-y comic energy lets us warm to Tony Stark even when he’s at his most jackass-like, but he lends the character a vulnerability and, when it matters, a seriousness that made him an instant iconic. More than any of its rivals, Marvel (mostly) understand that the most special effect you can ask for is an actor that people want to pay to see, and it’s hard not to feel that their enormous success simply wouldn’t have happened without that gamble on Downey Jr. to begin with.

4. “Iron Man 3” (2013)
That said, the first one is still not the best “Iron Man” movie — last summer’s threequel took the momentum from the “Avengers” and ran with it, with the most distinctive and, arguably, daring Marvel Studios movie to date. As the director of only one film beforehand (the brilliant, but mostly unseen “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”), the choice of Shane Black to direct the movie raised some eyebrows, but even more surprising was the way that it had turned out that Marvel had let Shane Black be Shane Black — “Iron Man 3” was less superhero formula, more quippy ’80s action movie, and all the better for it. Black (and co-writer Drew Pearce) understood what we were saying above about Downey Jr. being the heart of the movies, and brilliantly decided to put him out of his suit as much as possible, reconnecting him with the audiences that loved him so. They also had the best action sequences of the trilogy (the Air Force One rescue sequence, done mostly with practical skydivers, is one for the ages), and best of all, a humdinger of a twist, a daring subversion of one of Marvel’s best known villains that enraged fanboys, but delighted the rest of us. The film’s imperfect — Guy Pearce’s ultimate villain is a bit weak, and Rebecca Hall is shamefully wasted — but it’s also ludicrous amounts of fun when it does work. [B+]

3. “Spider-Man 2” (2004)
If Sam Raimi got most of the way with his first Spider-film, he lapped back around with “Spider-Man 2,” which, short of an unprecedented turnaround with “The Amazing” franchise, is likely to remain the best incarnation of the character for at least another reboot cycle or two. Pitting Peter Parker and his alter-ego against former mentor turned robo-armed bank thief Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina), it manages the tricky balance of keeping the focus on its hero while also giving him a villain (importantly, one villain) worth fighting (and saving) and a girl worth nearly dying for. Tobey Maguire‘s at his most winning in this installment, even when Peter’s being a bit of a dick (the balance then tipping over in the third film), James Franco‘s a useful foil without developing his full-on subplot, Kirsten Dunst is charming, and Alfred Molina brings real pathos to Doc Ock. Perhaps more importantly, the film lets Raimi off the leash: the famous tentacle sequence is the director through-and-through, while the other action sequences are consistently satisfying. What we’re saying is that it’s good enough that we forgive Raimi for “Oz The Great & Powerful.” [A-]

2. “X2” (2003)
Another example of the superhero sequel proving superior to the original (which is unusually common in the genre, it seems), “X2,” as it was called for some reason, develops everything that works about the original film and takes it further. From that cracking opening, as Alan Cumming‘s Nightcrawler (still a hugely impressive make-up effect) tries to kill the president, it’s a more confident, rich and exciting film, turning the set-up on its head by forcing the two sides of mutants to uneasily work together, while still giving Ian McKellen‘s Magneto room to plot and scheme. Brian Cox makes an excellent villain (and importantly, a properly motivated one), the new additions mostly work, but aren’t prevalent enough that the film feels as overstuffed as the others, the action is leaps and bounds better than in the first film, and, more importantly, it still has a soul: few scenes in these films are as affecting as when Bobby (Shawn Ashmore) ‘comes out’ as a mutant to his parents. Except, perhaps, for the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) at the end. Laced with humor and thrills, this is the superhero sequel done right, and the only reason at this point that we’re holding out hope for Singer’s return to the franchise with “Days Of Future Past” next month. [A-]

1. “The Avengers” (2012)
The math shouldn’t have added up: films are all too rarely the sum of their parts, and it shouldn’t have held that the movie with the most superheroes — the one that combined four existing franchises into one mega-franchise — would be the best. But somehow, against all expectations, Joss Whedon (only a second-time feature director, let’s not forget) pulled it off. But then, anyone who knows his work wouldn’t have been that surprised: Whedon carried over his strengths — real stakes, disarming humor, a deep abiding love for his characters, an ability to surprise — over to the film. He can’t take all the credit — the casting in the previous films really starts to pay off as the stars, joined by an excellent Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, butt heads — but Whedon certainly deserves the lion’s share, which is why the studio paid through the nose to have him return for the sequel. With huge laughs, real drama and proper comic book action (one of the few comic book action movies that feels like it has), everyone involved pretty much nailed it. And while box office is rarely an indicator of quality, there’s a reason this is the third biggest grossing movie in history. [A-]

Now we know there’s absolutely no possibility that out of 36 films you agree with the placement of all of them, so go ahead — the comments section awaits. 

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