My Ranking of the MCU's Phase One Films
All MCU Phase One Films Ranked Worst to Best
With Infinity War now out on DVD, I thought it would be a great time to look back at the road that led us here. After I watched Avengers: Infinity War, I rewatched the entire MCU from the very beginning. I will admit I did it in release order and not chronological order (you can eviscerate me in the comment section below). During my two-month rewatch of the MCU, I came to realize how much Phase One is overlooked now.
The Phase One entries, Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger feel smaller in scale than the entries we are used to now. The Avengers is the closest to what we associated with an MCU movie and overshadowed the entries that laid the groundwork for it. This led me to begin making this list. I wanted to rank the Phase One entries against each other.
Before we get into the list, we have to do the standard disclaimer stuff. First, this list is my 100% my opinion. Your list may be different from mine, which is fine. You may have had a different experience with one of these films leading it to be in another spot. We're humans and are bound to disagree on a few entries.
Second, these are not attacks on the movie, they are critiques. I may vent about a film, but know that it is because I see potential not being realized.
Finally, this list is b'ased on my experience with each movie. I do not base my opinion on the opinions of others. I will not criticize a film because of faults other people see in it, only for the flaws I see.
With that out of the way let's get into the list!
#6: 'The Incredible Hulk'
I will be honest; I did not watch The Incredible Hulk until my recent re-watch of the MCU. I was told it was not necessary to understand the rest of the MCU, so I never got around to watching it until after I had seen Infinity War. Continuing with my honesty, I did not like it.
First, there was no chemistry between Liv Tyler and Ed Norton and their character's relationship seemed forced and underdeveloped. The acting overall was wooden, and the deliveries of the lines made it so even punch lines fell flat. Going back to Ed Norton while he does look like a good candidate for Bruce Banner he just never stuck the landing for me. His portrayal came off as a rehash of his performance in Fight Club, and he never convinced me that he was a brilliant scientist suppressing a brutish alter ego.
Second, unlike Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, The Incredible Hulk is not an origin story for the Hulk. During Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America we get to see those characters become their heroic identities. The Incredible Hulk opts not to do an origin story and drops us into Bruce Banner's life sometime after the accident that turned him into the Hulk. It ultimately feels like a sequel to a movie we never got to see.
Finally, The Incredible Hulk is just a difficult watch. It is the second longest Phase One movie, and it feels like it. The story doesn't do the characters justice and sections of the film drag on for what seems like an eternity. You know you're in trouble when you are watching an MCU movie that you are struggling to make it through.
I don't want to start in on a long-winded rant so I will wrap this up by saying I find The Incredible Hulk to be the weakest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase One.
#5: 'Iron Man 2'
Oh Iron Man 2, you had so much to live up to but could not bring yourself to succeed. The pros: Nick Fury appears in the actual movie and not just a post-credits scene. War Machine gets his armor and more screen time/character development. Black Widow is introduced, and the MCU was never the same again.
The problem? Well, let's start with the villains. The original Iron Man had one primary antagonist who had obvious motives. Iron Man 2 opts to have two antagonists but fails to balance the screen time between them. Despite Whiplash appearing on the posters for the movie, he is dropped for most of the second act to give the film's second villain, Justin Hammer, more screen time. This would be fine if the investment paid off, Hammer is defeated by Pepper Potts who has him arrested with zero resistance. So glad we invested in this character for him to give up so easily.
Then comes the plot, whereas the original Iron Man is a straight-line narrative Iron Man 2 devolves into several subplots that get resolved quickly and with no payoff. The arc reactor is poisoning Tony; Fury slows the effects with a compound that Tony failed to find himself? Then Tony learns his father had discovered an element to power the arc reactor decades ago, but instead of documenting his findings for his son to expand on when technology enables him to do so he opts to leave its blueprint in a very, VERY cryptic breadcrumb? Yeah, deus ex machina.
Iron Man 2 is the MCU's version of a cautionary tale to warn against rushing a product to market. It could have been a truly excellent movie had it been given the time it needed to be refined and focused.
Whiplash appears as Tony is trying to fight the poisoning forcing him to use the very weapon that is killing him. S.H.I.E.L.D. sends Black Widow to monitor Tony's health and secretly protect him when the poison begins taking its toll. After being hospitalized and knowing the world needs Iron Man Tony asks Rhodey to take up the Iron Man persona while Tony tries to find a cure. Whiplash ambushes Rhodey thinking he is Tony and takes him hostage after a vicious fight. Tony is forced to cure himself so he can don the armor and save Rhodey. Iron Man and Black Widow rescue Rhodey and the three teams up and defeat Whiplash. The film ends with Iron Man giving Rhodey a suit which is foreshadowed to become the War Machine suit.
That would have been a fantastic movie with the poison helping to increase the tension of the film culminating in a pulse-pounding action slug fest. Unfortunately, that is not what we got. As it stands, Iron Man 2 is the flawed followed up to Iron Man and cursed to forever remain in its predecessor's shadow.
It was tough to decide which film would outdo each other for the number four and five slots; ultimately I gave the advantage to Thor. Whereas Iron Man 2 gets itself muddled down by too many subplots and splitting its focus between two villains Thor gives us a more concise plot with a strong primary antagonist. That is not to say that Thor is without its shortcomings, it just does a better job at minimizing them.
First, let us get the pros out of the way. Loki is a fantastic character and provides an excellent antagonist for Thor. His motive is pure, he wants the throne and plays an intricate game to get it. He manipulates his brother, the first born and heir, into committing actions that will get him banished. He entices enemies to strike so he can swoop in to become the hero so his people will support him. And he very nearly succeeds but is stopped by Thor who exposes his plot.
Second, Thor does a fantastic job at expanding the MCU. Up until Thor, each installment of the MCU took place on Earth with no magic involved. Thor handled this transition well and began preparing us for what would be the first major story arc of the MCU, the Infinity Stones. Think about how it would have been had Thor not happened and the MCU skipped from the events of Iron Man 2 to Captain America: The First Avenger. It would have been a rough transition at best, and this is something I think people often overlook about Thor.
Finally, the inclusion of Agent Coulson and the introduction of Hawkeye, Heimdall, Odin cannot be understated. Heimdall and Odin are amazing characters who do not get as much screen time as they deserve. Hawkeye is an understated character, and his scene in Thor is one of the more memorable of the movie.
The cons? Well let's address the oliphant in the Shire: the scenes on Midgard (Earth) are just SO BORING. Besides the battle sequences (Thor attempting to reclaim Mjolnir from S.H.I.E.L.D. and the battle with The Destroyer) you will be struggling to pay attention during the Midgard portion of the film.
Second con: Thor's "redemption" is rushed and comes off unbelievable. The way the movie is paced it seems that Thor is on Earth for two days, three tops. While a life lesson could be learned in that amount of time, we see so little of it that it just doesn't work. There is a definite jump that happens after his failure to reclaim Mjolnir like there were ten minutes cut from this point of the movie that made it hard to follow Thor's progression.
Last, there is the wig they had Chris Hemsworth wear for this movie. At least, I hope it was a wig! Not to be mean to the people who were behind it, but it looked like a bad CG wig.
#3: 'Captain America: The First Avenger'
Starting off the top half of the list is Captain America: The First Avenger. Cap's debut in the MCU remains one of the stronger entries in Phase One, a zero to hero tale told against the backdrop of World War II that successfully pulls off both with great effect.
Chris Evans's Captain America is spot on. Like all of the Phase One characters, well bar one (see #6), Evans's portrayal of his character is nothing short of a perfect embodiment of Steve Rogers/Cap. Evans brings an internal strength to the role that makes you believe his story and transformation. Also, Sebastian Stan's take on Bucky is what friendship goals are made of, and Hugo Weaving's Red Skull is the perfect foil to Captain America in his first outing.
The entire supporting cast turn in strong performances, Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell, and Dominic Cooper all shine in their roles making it almost criminal that this was their only appearance in the MCU. Samuel L. Jackson once again kills it as Nick Fury not only in the main runtime of the movie but also in the post-credits scene.
Captain America: The First Avenger also features some of the best moments of character development in the MCU. The grenade scene at boot camp, the flagpole contest also at boot, Agent Carter touching Cap's chest after his transformation, Agent Carter shooting Cap's shield, Bucky's sacrifice, the Red Skull grabbing the Tesseract, etc. All of these moments are instantly recognizable and live on today as memes.
We also cannot forget about the mysteries that Captain America: The First Avenger set up which stretched into Phase Two and even into Phase Three. What happened to Bucky? What happened to Red Skull? It took until The Winter Soldier to find out what happened to Bucky and all the way until Infinity War that we found out where the Tesseract sent the Red Skull.
Now, let us hit on Captain America: The First Avenger's main drawback; after his transformation, the movie drags to a halt. I understand it is supposed to show us the other side of World War II, the politics back at home to keep public interest in the war and wartime propaganda, but it felt like it took up the majority of the runtime of the film. Coming directly off of the excitement of Steve Rogers turning into Captain America and the ensuing fight with the H.Y.D.R.A. agent makes this section feel even slower.
#2: 'Iron Man'
Coming into the two slot is the original Iron Man, and it should not come as a surprise that it made it's way to the second spot. The original Iron Man launched the MCU; it is the reason so many of us went to see Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers.
Let's start with the obvious—Robert Downing Jr. is Iron Man. His performance is now what I think of when I think of Tony Stark, and it is little wonder why. He fully commits to the role and effortlessly embodies Tony Stark in every Single SCENE.
Next, come the moments of comic relief. Tony being dosed by the robot after his failed jet test then threatening to donate it to a school, Tony crashing into the ceiling on his first test, the press conference after Tony's escape, the scene where Tony asks Pepper to help take out the reactor from his chest, etc. These and so many others help make the movie what it is.
Then there is the script; Iron Man is a solid film all around. It touches on the real world issues of terrorism, war profiteering, and ethic-less capitalism while weaving a story that builds up its characters. Tony's progression from weapons maker to anti-war superhero is believable and well-handled. The film is full of hilarious moments but has tense scenes as well.
Finally, the post-credits scene that started them all. Not literally, there were post-credits scenes before Iron Man came along, but it was the one that made us stay to the end of the credits of every movie we now see. Its implications made everyone's head implode as we got a glimpse at what Marvel had up its sleeves for us.
The one fault that I find in it is it has a rather forgettable primary villain. It opts to use the "player behind the scenes" schtick to make a big reveal near the end of the film, but only succeeds in making the Crimson Dynamo underdeveloped and underwhelming. Crimson Dynamo could have made a fantastic first villain for the MCU but is now largely forgotten and overshadowed by his contemporary counterparts.
#1: 'The Avengers'
Let's be honest, after Alien vs. Predator and Freddy vs. Jason, we were all cautious going into Avengers. Bringing together characters and plots from not one, not two but five different movies was something that had not been done before. Not only did Joss Whedon manage to weave the plots from Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger, but he also managed to create the quintessential crossover film.
In a movie with so many characters, it is easy for some to get lost in the crowd, but this does not happen with any of the primary characters. They all get their time to shine leading to some endearing moments. Whether it is when Coulson called Black Widow while she was tied up to the chair, Cap paying Nick Fury for blowing his mind, Tony pointing out one of the crewmen was playing Galaga, Hulk randomly punching Thor, etc. I could go on and on, but the point is each character had their moment to shine.
The film is well-balanced with the above character development and humor being balanced by great action set pieces and tense moments. The scene when Hulk was stalking Black Widow through the bowels of the airship? Yeah, that gets me on the edge of my seat every time. Or the fight between Cap, Thor and Iron Man in the forest? Perfect way of showing how they compare to each other in powers, strength, and wits while also being an amazing action piece.
The Avengers also features and debuts the best villains in the MCU in Loki and Thanos. Loki has consistently been the best villain to be featured in the MCU, at least until he was dethroned by Thanos (my opinion). He has lived up to his title of God of Mischief and did not disappoint in The Avengers. He fights on the front lines, manipulates others from afar and gets his hands dirty, all rather successfully. His hubris was his downfall, but he gave the Avengers an awesome run for their money!
And we cannot understate how The Avengers shaped the MCU to come. Up until The Avengers, it was speculated that the main story of the MCU would involve the Infinity Stones which was confirmed in the opening moments of the movie. It also showed us what Marvel had in store for us, up until The Avengers we had been shown stand-alone films with secondary characters crossing over here and there, but the major characters and plot lines were isolated from each other. The Avengers changed this by showing how Marvel will be weaving storylines together and crossing characters from film to film.
With the pros out of the way let's hit on the one con, the Chitauri are another nameless, faceless enemy which makes the Battle of New York scene hard to follow at times. Cap just punched a Chitauri, was that the same one as before or another? Wait, didn't Hulk already smash that guy? No? Oh... So Black Widow missed? Oh, it's a different soldier. There tends to be a lot of those moments because the Chitauri are identical in appearance to each other.
And why did taking out the ship kill them? They were shown to be biological so what did the ship being blown up by the nuke have to do with them? Is this a comic thing? Please let me know in the comments below!