The Marvel Cinematic Universe may have become the biggest franchise in film history, but it can be hard to shake the feeling that the series’ most visionary action took place in boardrooms, rather than on the big screen. Despite the massive scale of this 22-movie saga, and the dozens of easily distinguishable characters it contains, many of the Avengers’ planet-saving fights have been kind of pedestrian — in part because most of the major set pieces were pre-visualized on a corporate level before a director was even hired to handle the rest of their respective chapter.
And yet, between nearly two dozen superhero movies and several billion dollars’ worth of production budgets, the MCU yielded a handful of spectacular fights. For every dull and unimaginative melee, there’s been an inspired bit of comic mayhem; for every abominable Hulk fight outside the Apollo, there was a thunderous smackdown on Sakaar. For every “Mortal Kombat”-looking eyesore on the subway tracks below Wakanda, there was a breathless clash amidst the waterfalls above.
Now, with “Avengers: Endgame” set to round out this peerlessly ambitious bit of cinematic synergy, we’ve assembled a spoiler-free look back (and slightly forward) at the 10 best fight scenes in the MCU.
10. Attack on the Tarmac (“Captain America: Civil War”)
If “The Avengers” proved that the MCU could work, “Captain America: Civil War” suggested how it might expand. With Earth’s mightiest heroes at a philosophical impasse and divided into two groups, the Russo brothers forced all 12 of them into direct conflict via a battle royale at a (completely abandoned) Berlin airport, which it turns out is a very unexciting backdrop for a battle royale.
The action itself is often uninspired, and it undercuts the urgency that even some of the characters don’t know why they’re fighting each other (Ant-Man’s animosity towards Tony Stark makes no sense, given the circumstances). But dull execution doesn’t get in the way of this sequence feeling like a comic book come to life. What the brawl lacks in artistry, it makes up for in ambition. Of course, it’s a testament to the scale of “Infinity War” and “Endgame” that the airport fight — once thought of as an all-you-can-eat buffet of superhero geekery — now feels about as satisfying as bar nuts on an empty stomach. At least until a quick exchange between two New Yorkers gives the battle some life of its own.
9. A Salt Shakeup (“Ant-Man and the Wasp”)
The Ant-Man movies sometimes feel like the forgotten stepchildren of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but that just means they get to mess around unsupervised. The Guardians of the Galaxy get to have their own fun, but Peyton Reed is operating on an entirely different level of silliness. Case in point: The Wasp knocking out a henchman by enlarging a shaker of salt.
That’s just one of several giddy moments in the two-part “Ant-Man and the Wasp” fight scene that introduces the film’s severely cool-looking villain, and ups the ante about everything that worked in the previous movie. Here’s just a smattering of the zany goodness that’s contained in this sequence: Evangeline Lilly phasing through matter! Walton Goggins being flustered! The Wasp running along the side of a kitchen knife! Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas acting very concerned from a safe distance! And the whole thing only gets more amusing once Ant-Man and Ghost are brought into the mix, as the various matter-altering sound effects build into a glitchy symphony of well-choreographed destruction.
8. Going Down (“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”)
Marvel obsessives like to pretend that “Captain America: Winter Soldier” is some kind of Alan J. Pakula-inspired riff on the paranoid thrillers of the ’70s, and… sorry, but no. Please find another way to validate your fandom. Be that as it may, the Russo brothers’ first at-bat does occasionally manage to harness a tighter, more suspicious energy than any of the other movies in the series, and that’s never clearer than in the film’s standout elevator fight, when Steve Rogers is forced to deal with a dozen Hydra spies in a glass elevator on American government property.
The build-up to the fisticuffs is deliciously tense, as Steve begins to feel like he’s surrounded by the enemy (a heartbreaking realization for a trusting patriot like Captain America). And then, the First Avenger sets the stage for some close quarters combat: “Before we get started,” he asks, “Does anyone want to get out?” Alas, no one takes him up on what — in retrospect — was a supremely generous offer. The fighting itself is a little choppy, but it’s also constrained; it only gets better once the bodies hit the floor, and Cap finds some room to start flipping out. The Russos’ best touch is a top-down shot that surveys the carnage, and gives us the perfect view for one of the franchise’s most satisfying shield-kicks. Word to the wise: Don’t fight Steve Rogers. If Tony Stark couldn’t beat him, neither can you.
7. Portals! (“Thor: The Dark World”)
The closest the movies have ever come to replicating the mind-breaking madness of the “Portal” video games (sorry, “Incredibles 2”), “Thor: The Dark World” might get a bad rap, but its climactic battle has all sorts of fun poking holes in the space-time continuum, and laying the groundwork for Thanos’ favorite “Infinity War” tricks in the process. As Malekith and his army of Dark Elves teleport into Greenwich, Thor is forced to fight them through a series of inter-dimensional portals that suck cars onto distant alien planets and turn Mjolnir into the world’s most determined homing missile. Superhero movies seldom get cooler than the shot of Thor’s hammer screaming up the side of the Gherkin, or sillier than the shot of Thor and Malekith sliding down the egg-shaped building’s glass exterior. “Doctor Strange” would later do even more to warp major Earth cities into fantastical battlegrounds, but this portal fight proved that even the most hackneyed Marvel films contain moments of innovative magic.
6. Melee in the Mirror Dimension (“Doctor Strange”)
“Doctor Strange,” more than maybe any other movie in the MCU, depends on special effects in order to sell itself. Sure, other films in the franchise have computer-generated lead characters, but this one relies on warping the world that we know into one that we don’t; taking the familiar pieces of our reality and transforming them into something entirely new. In other words, if Doctor Strange’s awe-inspiring trip through the Mirror Dimension failed to look cool, the whole movie would have felt like a missed opportunity.
Not to worry. Diving into the Mirror Dimension headfirst, Scott Derrickson and his special effects team shot New York City through a kaleidoscope, creating a magic puzzle of new possibilities as the evil Kaecilius leads Doctor Strange and his good pal Mordo on a thrilling (and fatal) chase through Manhattan that feels like a massively scaled-up version of the hallway fight from “Inception.” Typical superhero combat is transformed by a city that’s folding in on itself, as crowded avenues turn into M.C. Escher paintings, buildings dance and bend, and the basic fabric of reality starts to collapse on itself (the scene gives a whole new meaning to the idea of Doctors Without Borders).
The contrast between Strange (who’s trying not to vomit) and Kaecilius (who doesn’t think twice about running upside down along the underside of a catwalk) makes for an arresting imbalance, and the sequence only shifts to a higher gear once Tilda Swinton drops in for one of the MCU’s most fluidly choreographed fights; the Russo brothers should be very grateful that Derrickson found a way to make astral magic feel so tactile. It also doesn’t hurt that the fracas ends with a sharp punch to the gut that resonates all the way through “Endgame.”
5. Yondu Escapes (“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”)
You’d never expect a guy who calls himself “Taserface” to make bad decisions, but that’s exactly what the space mutineer did when he imprisons Yondu, Rocket Raccoon, and Baby Groot aboard the Ravager ship that he recently claimed as his own. And so begins one of the most playful and cartoonishly violent sequences in the MCU, as Yondu’s whistle-controlled arrow tears through a legion of henchman while Jay and the Americans’ “Come a Little Bit Closer” bops on the soundtrack.
It’s a delightful bit of anarchy from start to finish, and one that director James Gunn fills with all kinds of fun grace notes. There’s the way the bad guys’ bodies kind of dance before they fall dead to the ground, and how Yondu’s drapes the hull in red neon ribbon, like it’s being controlled by a particularly anarchic little kid who’s doodling some hot death into their coloring book. Not only is the sequence a perfect example of speed-ramping done right, it also epitomizes the breezy swagger of the entire “Guardians of the Galaxy” series, and inspires an unexpected affection for Yondu that will come in handy an hour later.
4. T’Challa vs. M’Baku (“Black Panther”)
Much of the action in “Black Panther” simply isn’t up to the standard that Ryan Coogler set for himself in “Creed” — it’s too chaotic, too choppy, and too obviously computer-generated within an inch of its life. Even major emerging auteurs are still at the mercy of Marvel’s assembly-line approach. But this time around, that almost doesn’t matter: “Black Panther” is so richly conceived, so character-driven, and so full of life that the fight scenes can afford to be a means to an end. And that’s exactly what the ritualistic throwdown between T’Challa and M’Baku becomes, as the first-act scuffle for the Wakandan throne isn’t just a bruising clash for dominance at the edge of a waterfall, it’s also a fitting intro to a culture where tradition and modernity are bound together with violent beauty. The Killmonger brawl that comes later might appear to have higher stakes, but this first fight is even more crucial for how it introduces the incredible world of Wakanda, and makes it clear what T’Challa is fighting to protect. And the percussive force of Ludwig Göransson’s instantly iconic score is just icing on the cake.
3. The Final Battle (“Avengers: Endgame”)
We can’t tell you who’s fighting. Or where they’re fighting. Or what they’re fighting against. But we can tell you that the climactic battle at the end of “Avengers: Endgame” does a rousing job of bringing the entire MCU saga together in the biggest melee in superhero movie history. And while the Russo brothers don’t have the chops to make things quite as balletic and coherent as Joss Whedon does on his best day — and they’ve once again found the grayest, dullest backdrop for their big action moments — the grand finale is an impossibly massive spectacle full of all-time hero moments.
2. Iron Man Is Forged (“Iron Man”)
For genius billionaire playboy philanthropist (and merchant of war) Tony Stark, weapons had always been a means to an end — what they did to other people didn’t matter as much as what they did for his bottom line. That all changed when the egomaniacal showboat was locked in a cave by some Afghani terrorists and forced to become the most destructive weapon he’d ever built. Thanks to some desperate circumstances and the kind-hearted doctor Yinsen, that moment is when Stark began to appreciate the true human cost of his actions, and the need to protect the people he puts in harm’s way.
It’s a transformation dramatic enough to galvanize the biggest cinematic universe ever conceived, and Jon Favreau shot it with all the explosive energy it deserves. From the little gracenotes that keep Tony’s escape grounded (like the bullet ricocheting off the cave walls), to the unmistakably practical volcano-like explosions that erupt as he uses the makeshift iron suit to fight his way free, the sequence captures the fun and fury of a hero being forged from out of the darkness.
1. The Battle of New York (“The Avengers”)
The Battle of New York is hands down, the single greatest action set piece in the dense (if brief) history of superhero movies. And it had to be. “The Avengers” was the first true put-up-or-shut-up moment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — the film that would either galvanize this grand experiment as visionary corporate synergy or prove that spandex could only stretch so far — and much of that legacy was always going to rest on the climactic fight scene that brought all of the franchise’s heroes together.
Needless to say, Joss Whedon nailed it. As the Avengers finally assemble to fight the Chitauri and seal the portal that has opened up in the sky above Manhattan, Whedon delivers perfect hero moment after perfect hero moment, threading them together in a series of fluid, computer-assisted long-takes that viscerally illustrate how the Avengers work together as a team.
Almost 20 movies later, the MCU still hasn’t topped the thrill of Black Widow fighting at the foot of Grand Central Station while Iron Man zips above, Hawkeye provides cover from a rooftop, Captain America flips over some cars, Thor brings the thunder, and Hulk smashes. The individual moments are all killer (Hulk punching Thor remains an all-timer), while the shot of the Avengers circling into formation is still the clearest expression of the series’ core ethos. And while all of that would be enough to earn the Battle of New York the top spot on this list, it sure doesn’t hurt that Kevin Feige and co. recognized the sequence’s impact, and made it the emotional cornerstone of the next two Phases.