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Watching 25+ movies sounds daunting, but it's really not that bad. At the onset of 2021, I embarked upon a rewatch of the feature films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from 2008's Iron Man to 2019's Spider-Man: Far From Home, before eventually screening 2021's Black Widow in a theater (my first time back in one of those since March 2020) and returning a few months later to see Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals, and Spider-Man: No Way Home all on the big screen. These are fun movies that often get at and invoke deeper themes; they're action-packed with tons of levity and bring characters you'll love down the line, even if you don't care for them initially.
But back to that main point—watching everything. Look, obviously a 25+ project or list of anything is a lot to take on, and it sure sounds like it, too. But breezing through a rewatch (or a first watch) of the MCU is really not all that much when you think about it in the context of the way we now watch and binge TV. 27-28 movies (more on that in a bit) in the range of 2-3 hours each comes out to the equivalent of somewhere around 4-5 seasons of a prestige drama. It's a lot, but a far cry from insurmountable.
2021 has brought the MCU back from a lengthy delay with the debuts of Disney+ series WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Solider, Loki, What If...?, and Hawkeye. Black Widow, Shang-Chi, and Eternals are available to watch on Disney+, and Spider-Man: No Way Home is now available to rent on digital platforms.
Memories are fickle, people change, opinions change, and things take on new contexts. Rewatching movies with the privilege of hindsight can often be rewarding, and this is especially the case when watching through the MCU's three existing phases.
Through the years, Kevin Feige and the MCU team have done a really great job of building out what almost feels like a house brand or formula; they know what makes a good movie, and what fans of the genre and the characters tend to like. Which makes it difficult, really, to rank one of these movies ahead of another. And that's why for this particular exercise the movies are ranked in tiers. Essentially, that means that among each given tier, the movies are more or less interchangeable. Obviously, a decision had to be made among those tiers to put one movie in front of another, and those decisions are what they are. But the films among the tiers are so close they feel like they can be basically swapped in and out to your liking.
One note? You may notice one early MCU movie missing from the ranks—that's right: we aren't including 2008's The Incredible Hulk in this list. Yes, it's technically part of the canon, but between not being available on Disney+ (which is not a complete detractor—the two Spider-Man movies certainly make our list), having a different lead actor, having a number of discontinued plot threads, and coming at a time when the MCU didn't quite know what it was doing, it just doesn't seem to fit with the rest of what we're doing here. If you want to watch it for a complete picture of everything happening, then by all means, go for it. But we think The Avengers gives more than enough context when introducing Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner to carry you through the rest of the run.
So, uh, that's enough wind up for now. The movies below are ranked from worst to best, and as a bonus each movie will have a descriptor of just how much MCU knowledge you need to really appreciate everything that's going on. And one more thing? These movies aren't bad. OK, maybe Thor: The Dark World is bad. But even the ones on the lower end of the list are fun, have some great moments, and serve to develop characters who usually wind up paying off in the long run.
OK. Phew. Here we go:
The 'Honestly, Not Great' Tier
26. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Thor: The Dark World isn't all bad. There are some funny moments (Thor hanging his hammer up on a hook in Dr. Selvig's apartment like it's an umbrella? Classic!), some great character moments (particularly around the death of Frigga, Thor and Loki's mother), and Chris O'Dowd is there, so that's cool. But boy oh boy is it kind of all over the place. Malekith is the MCU's worst villain by far, and the whole plot of the movie feels kind of half-baked. At least Tom Hiddleston's Loki is around to be his usual off-the-charts entertaining for all of his screen time—and he makes the ending far, far better than the rest of the movie deserves.
MCU understanding needed? Probably worth checking out Thor and The Avengers beforehand, but you can understand enough without those still too, probably.
The Totally Watchable Tier
25. Eternals (2021)
Look. Eternals is not a bad movie. Let's eliminate that notion right away. It's directed by Chloé Zhao, the reigning Oscar winner for Best Director for her efforts on last year's Nomadland. This was never going to be a bad movie.
That said, it's also hard to call Eternals a particularly good movie either; it's got a gorgeous color palette and stellar special effects, but the movie is 2 hours and 37 minutes long, and really feels like it. It takes a big swing—Zhao clearly wanted to make a potential best movie in the MCU, rather than something like Black Widow which rarely feels like it wants to be anything more than Winter Soldier-lite. It's unfortunate, in turn, that it just doesn't often work. It's a struggle to develop 10+ new characters all at once, and the movie's commitment to going back and forth between the present and flashbacks of the Eternals' history is confusing and, at times, frustrating as a viewer. We just want to see what's happening next!
There's some good here; Kumail Nanjiani is charismatic and funny as Kingo, an Eternal posing as a Bollywood movie star. Brian Tyree Henry is great as Phastos, the team's inventor and the first canonically gay Marvel superhero, and Lauren Ridloff and Barry Keoghan play really well off each other as Eternals Makkari (the MCU's first deaf superhero) and Druig. Kit Harington makes his own MCU debut as Dane Whitman, a character only briefly in the film but that we want to see much more from. Harington has always been charismatic, and this seems to be a role that will really highlight that down the line.
Eternals also has a stellar pair of credits scenes that go a long way to setting up whatever it is that's coming next in this cosmic lane of the MCU; in the end, though, it's a film that makes us more eager to see what's coming next than to ever really revisit again.
MCU understanding needed? As long as you have some general idea of the Marvel universe, you'd actually be pretty good going into this one cold. There are some references to Thanos and the events of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, but all things considered, as with most MCU first chapters, it's a fairly self-contained story.
24. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Ultron might be the messiest movie on this list. It was Joss Whedon's last go in the MCU after handling 2012's The Avengers, and it did some things really well—the party scene!—and other things just sort of don't fit right. James Spader is outstanding as Ultron, and WandaVision did a lot of nice backtracking work to make the introductions of Wanda Maximoff, Vision, and Pietro Maximoff more interesting after seeing that first Disney+ series. Also an oddly good Hawkeye movie? His mid-Sokovia battle speech to Wanda is a classic.
MCU understanding needed? Honestly? None. If you feel like watching this without seeing any other MCU movie beforehand, you'll get the idea. Maybe Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but not even really.
23. Iron Man 3 (2010)
Director Shane Black keeps his long-running tradition of setting every movie he makes during Christmas with Iron Man 3, which is a pretty solid movie. It falls this low on the list not because it's not entertaining—because it is—but because it kind of feels out of place with where some of the characters go from here in the MCU. Robert Downey Jr. is top-notch as always, and Don Cheadle was clearly the right man for the job as Rhodey. But some parts of the movie don't quite track. Ben Kingsley as "The Mandarin" is absolutely electric, though, and I'll defend that twist with my life. Also a top 2 Happy Hogan movie.
MCU understanding needed? I mean, you'll probably get the idea without anything else. But best context will come from the first two Iron Man films and especially The Avengers.
22. Iron Man 2 (2013)
Kind of the same idea as Iron Man 1 (which we'll get to later)! But just not as good. Downey Jr. is magnetic as always, Don Cheadle is solid in his first outing as James Rhodes, and wow does Sam Rockwell rule in the time he has. However, Mickey Rourke is pretty bad! Vanko is not a great villain and the movie suffers from it. Fine movie though! Fun enough, certainly watchable (as this tier suggests), and not bad. Plus, we get our first real glimpse at Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff.
MCU understanding needed? This takes place right after Iron Man, so, yeah, watch that one first.
21. Black Widow (2021)
Black Widow is a movie that, for the MCU faithful, feels special. It's been more than two years since we all got to see our favorite heroes on the big screen. Seeing that opening fanfare in a theater again (and sticking it out through the credits for a mysterious tease to the future) just felt right.
It doesn't re-invent the wheel, but Black Widow is a perfectly enjoyable entry in the Spy Thriller subgenre of MCU flicks. Scarlett Johansson is predictably fun in the titular role (even though this movie certainly could and should have probably come way sooner), but Florence Pugh and David Harbour steal the show in their second and third billed roles. The movie suffers from underbaked and, frankly, not great villains, but the movie features some great action sequences and stunt work that make it a really fun time.
MCU understanding needed? It probably stands alone decently, but MCU fans who at least know what happened in Civil War and Infinity War will enjoy this one the most.
20. Captain Marvel (2019)
There's not a ton wrong with Captain Marvel. Brie Larson is a great casting choice and a fun lead, but the movie really thrives on the absolute blast performances from MCU mainstay Samuel L. Jackson (as Nick Fury) and newcomer Ben Mendelsohn (as Talos the Skrull). Captain Marvel gets the advantage on Doctor Strange due to how it figures to tie in to future MCU installments (introducing Monica Rambeau!), but mostly for the excellent '90s soundtrack (and having Carol Danvers wear a Nine Inch Nails shirt for much of the movie).
MCU understanding needed? You'd probably be OK going in cold, but you'll miss some character throwbacks and hints at things going forward.
19. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
Ant-Man and the Wasp tops this tier because these movies are just fun. Is there a person alive who doesn't like Paul Rudd? I doubt it. It's not as good as the first movie in the franchise, but the cast additions—Laurence Fishburne, Walton Goggins, and Randall Park, just to name a few—are perfect, and the movie is fun. Bonus points for one of the better MCU credits scenes.
MCU understanding needed? You should probably check out Ant-Man, Captain America: Civil War, and Avengers: Infinity War beforehand, at least.
18. Doctor Strange (2016)
Doctor Strange is a perfectly solid MCU origin story, and does a good job introducing the character who will become absolutely essential to the Infinity War and Endgame part of the story, and Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly cast as the titular doctor. The movie doesn't get the most of some of its cast (Why is Michael Stuhlbarg in this movie?) and hopefully Rachel McAdams gets more to do in the upcoming sequel. That being said, Mads Mikkelsen is a lot of fun, Tilda Swinton is great, and the movie has a surprising amount of humor. And the visuals are fun. It's a good movie! These are all good movies. Some stuff just has to be ranked down here, you know?
MCU understanding needed? None! Go to town, newbies.
The Good But Not as Good as Some Other Stuff Tier
17. Thor (2011)
Thor is good. With Chris Hemsworth's Thor and Tom Hiddleston's Loki, introduces us to one of the most complex and interesting family dynamics in the entire MCU. There are some aspects that are a little odd (Laufey and the Frost Giants don't quite play, and some of the Shakespearean dialogue is a bit much), but the stuff that's good is really good. One thing to look for here? Hemsworth's whole fish-out-of-water-comedy is great (smashing a coffee mug to the ground and screaming "I like it, ANOTHER!" is a legend move), and something that both Taika Waititi and The Russo Brothers would use to maximum effect later on.
MCU understanding needed? None! If you wanted to watch Iron Man 2 for a credits scene teasing Mjolnir (Thor's hammer), then go for it. But this is Thor's first standalone movie, so you don't need anything else beforehand.
16. The Avengers (2012)
This probably feels a little low for most people with the original Avengers movie, but I can explain myself. When this movie first came out, it was absolutely fucking mind-blowing. I was all-in on the MCU from the moment I realized what they were doing, and I spent the year between Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers eagerly awaiting any and everything about the movie. And when it came out, my expectations were met! It was a blast, and all the pieces fit together perfectly.
Upon rewatch—having now seen all the movies that have come after The Avengers—it isn't quite mind-blowing anymore, and will have to settle for simply being really good. It takes a long time for the pieces to get set-up into place, and for the conflicts to be set-up. But the importance of realizing that a movie like this can be pulled off to this massive scale cannot be understated. And can we talk about just how good everyone in this movie is? From the obvious of Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans and Samuel L. Jackson to Clark Gregg to Tom Hiddleston's incredible villain performance. This movie is great, and the last 40 minutes or so are an absolute classic. It falls here because, well, there are just so many other good movies in the MCU.
MCU understanding needed? This was the first colossal team-up for the MCU, and a lot of the viewers in the theater probably didn't see any of the previous films. You don't need to watch anything beforehand, but Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger would help you learn who these characters are.
The 'I Like Where This Is Going' Tier
15. Spider-Man: Far From Home (2013)
The most recent movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a damn good one. It helps that Tom Holland oozes charisma—he's our favorite Spider-Man ever—and the rest of the cast, with Jake Gyllenhaal as Mysterio, Zendaya as MJ, et cetera, is exceptional. Far From Home also keeps the great tone of Spider-Man: Homecoming, where, yes, it's a Marvel movie, but it also kind of has that Easy A or Booksmart feeling of just being a fun, modern high school movie. The movie also sets up some big things for the next Spider-Man movie and bunch of MCU films, so we really can't wait to see where things go from here.
MCU understanding needed? Uh, yeah. If you care about spoilers at all, don't watch this movie until after you've seen Avengers: Endgame and everything else that fits into watching that one.
The (Mostly) 'Damn Good First Outing' Tier
14. Ant-Man (2015)
This movie is just damn fun. We said it before and we'll say it again: Paul Rudd. You cannot go wrong. But aside from the stuff we mentioned, Ant-Man is basically a genre exercise—the movie is super funny, and also basically a heist movie? Michael Peña is so great as Luis, best friend of Scott Lang (Rudd) and an ex-con in his own right. Evangeline Lily? Actually has great chemistry with Rudd. And Michael Douglas as Hank Pym? So, so good. I would probably say that outside of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Douglas as Pym is the best performance by a 'legend' actor in the MCU. This is one you can watch over and over again.
MCU understanding needed? None really. Some older films (Captain America: The First Avenger, Iron Man 2) add a bit of context to the opening scene, but it's nothing you can't pick up on your own. Also, Anthony Mackie is the Falcon and he's an Avenger. You're all caught up!
13. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
Honestly, just a great movie. Some of the absolute best action sequences in the entire MCU—including the instant classic bus scene—and with a script that's funny at times and has a ton of heart. Kevin Feige and company totally nailed it when casting Simu Liu, who is a natural in the title role, an Tony Leung as Wenwu is one of the most layered villains in the franchise's 13-year run. Sure, some of the usual problems are there—some overlong training montages and a bit of incoherent CGI—but ultimately the movie is really, really, fun, and should probably be even more fun upon rewatch.
MCU understanding needed? This one takes place after Avengers: Endgame, so some references to those events are made. There are also more than a handful of references to Iron Man and Iron Man 3, of all movies, so knowledge of those will help. And there are a few more cameos from throughout the MCU (both in the movie and during the credits scenes) that would help to understand all of what's happening. But all that being said, it's also a movie that—for the most part—would make sense without any MCU context. Just a really good action movie.
12. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Look, this one doesn't really need too much of a breakdown: it's a lot of the same as the first Guardians. But we see more development for characters like Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Yondu (Michael Rooker), and Dave Bautista's hilarious Drax gets even funnier. Kurt Russell joins the cast as Peter Quill (Chris Pratt)'s father, and he's one of the best single-movie characters in the entire MCU. And, of course, the soundtrack is another gem. James Gunn proved he was the perfect man for the Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014, and he further reaffirmed that in 2017.
MCU understanding needed? Just watch Guardians of the Galaxy first.
11. Iron Man (2008)
The movie that started it all! Iron Man is almost 13 years old already, but it's still one of the best movies in the franchise. Some of the movie's humor hasn't aged super well, but it also feels very Bush era in a kind of endearing way. Jeff Bridges is an absolute dynamo as the villain, Obidiah Stane—so much so that we kind of wish they kept him around a bit longer. But the story of this movie is always going to be Robert Downey Jr. What a picture perfect casting, and what a wonderful first chapter of what turned out to be a long-running and constantly evolving performance.
MCU understanding needed? This is the first movie! Nothing but your brain and your screen and your remote (or your cursor, or finger for your touch screen, whatever floats your boat).
10. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Putting the first Captain America movie over the first Iron Man movie may not be a common opinion among MCU fan circles, but guess what: I don't care! This movie is so great, and as you can tell from these rankings, the Captain America trilogy within the MCU is just full of bangers. The First Avenger, which focuses on the origin of Steve Rogers as Captain America, basically functions as a WWII movie—albeit one with super soldiers and evil Nazis with red skull heads.
The First Avenger is just so good that on top of all the action, tension, drama, and stunning visuals, it just has an emotional through line that matters. Chris Evans is so ridiculously good at being Steve Rogers that we just really, really care about this guy. And we believe in his relationships: with Dr. Erskine, with Bucky, and, of course, with Peggy. One of the MCU's great endings comes here too—you can tell why everyone was hyped out of their minds for The Avengers to finally hit theaters in 2012.
MCU understanding needed? That Howard Stark guy, with the mustache? Yeah, that's Iron Man's dad. You're good from there.
The 'Yeah This Movie Rules' Tier
10. Black Panther (2018)
Black Panther was a breakthrough, even for the MCU. The first Marvel Studios film to ever be nominated for Best Picture, which says so much just for how far these movies have come not only since the MCU started in 2008, but even from movies like X-Men in 2000 and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man in 2002. And Black Panther lives up to that hype.The movie re-teams director Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan, who isn't the hero here but rather one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's very best villains in Erik Killmonger. The hero, of course, is the late Chadwick Boseman, who so perfectly captures the humble confidence of T'Challa. The rest of the cast is also just ridiculous: Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong'o, Letitia Wright, Daniel Kaluuya, Sterling K. Brown, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, Forest Whitaker, among countless others. And the movie also has some of the very best action sequences—the fight in the Casino that leads into the epic car chase with T'Challa on top of the car is amazing stuff. It's just a well-made, well-rounded movie from top to bottom that means a lot for the present and future of this massive franchise.
MCU understanding needed? None. A few references here and there to Captain America: Civil War, but you'll be OK without anything else.
9. Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
Where Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Far From Home are almost these smaller-scale (relative to some other movies in the franchise), coming-of-age teen movies, Spider-Man: No Way Home moves Tom Holland's Peter Parker into the big leagues. Spider-Man: No Way Home is a movie with a scale and scope that matches anything else in the entire MCU, Infinity War and Endgame included. This is simply a huge movie, and while not everything totally lands, enough does that with the benefit of time you'll remember the cool parts very, very fondly.This is the kind of movie that you'll remember seeing in the theater for the first time. You'll remember the audience's reactions, and the way your stomach and heart felt when certain things happen. It carries the same charm—Tom Holland, Zendaya, and Jacob Batalon are still great as our central trio of teens—but brings back a superhero friend (Benedict Cumberbatch) and some old villain and villain-adjacent faces (Willem Dafoe, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Jamie Foxx) to really make this thing stick the landing. An absolute blast of a movie, and one you'll be happy to see as soon as possible.
MCU understanding needed? You'll definitely need to have seen the previous two MCU Spider-Man movies. There are also a few references to both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. And it'll also help if you're familiar with either previous Spider-Man movie franchise, and, hell, know what's going on in the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. May sound like a lot of homework, but it just makes a great movie all the more enjoyable.
8. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
It must have been such a challenge for Kevin Feige and the MCU powers that be to come up with the best way to start a Spider-Man franchise over for the third time. Or maybe it wasn't, because those guys are just so damn good at what they do, and absolutely knocked this one out of the park. One particular stroke of genius here? Skipping the whole Spider-Man origin story: we know what happened to Uncle Ben, and we didn't need to see it again.
Instead, Homecoming opts for an almost high school/John Hughes vibe, meeting with a young superhero of course. Add in one of the MCU's best villains in Michael Keaton's Vulture, and a post-Avengers world landscape, and you've got one of the best, and most fun movies in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. The movie really goes a long way in developing that Tony Stark/Peter Parker relationship that winds up mattering so much to any fans along for the full ride. It helps to have actors with charisma—and this shows that off in a big way.
MCU understanding needed? Probably best to watch Captain America: Civil War first.
7. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Remember when we talked about how Ant-Man is just a fun movie? Ramp that up about 3x and you get the Guardians franchise within the MCU. There certainly was a time when I would've had this movie as the #1 movie on this list—but that time is not now. That being said, this movie is still so fun. The tone is perfect, the plot is constantly moving, and the dialogue is sharp and funny. And the cast are all perfect in their roles. The only place Guardians falls a little short is in its main villain—Ronan—who is kind of bland. But the movie introduces Josh Brolin's Thanos, who we'll talk about again shortly, and while it doesn't directly connect to any other MCU film just yet, it introduces the concept of the Infinity Stones, which will soon tie everything across the universe together.
But the bottom line here? Fun space movie. Very fun space movie. Like, guys: there's a talking raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper and a big tree that repeats the same line over and over voiced by Vin Diesel. Let's not overthink this.
MCU understanding needed? None! This movie 100% stands on its own.
6. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)
Honestly, restraining myself to only rank Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness at number 6 on this list is hard—but this is where it lands for now. Without question, more than any other movie on this entire list, Multiverse of Madness is the distinct, singular work of a director with a vision: Sam Raimi. Raimi, who is probably best known for his Spider-Man trilogy of the aughts, really made his name with a very specific camp/horror/comedy blend that came to screen with movies like The Evil Dead series and Drag Me To Hell. (He also proved he can do more than just that, though, jumping through genres in the '90s with movies like A Simple Plan, Darkman, and For the Love of the Game like America Chavez jumps through universes).
I digress. Anyway, this is just a unique and super well made entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It's not super congruous with everything it follows (which includes the first Doctor Strange, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Avengers: Endgame, and WandaVision), but as a standalone story, this movie, for its 2 hour and 12 minute runtime, is a blast. Raimi brings his flourishes in a way that no one else could, and his key actors, specifically Benedict Cumberbatch and Elizabeth Olsen, come fully game for whatever screenwriter Michael Waldron (who also wrote Loki) had for them. Don't expect your typical Marvel fare with this one, and embrace the madness.
MCU understanding needed? You probably won't be able to go into this one blind at all. You'll need Doctor Strange to know about the core characters, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame to know about how Steven helped us get to this point, and WandaVision to figure out how Wanda ended up in her current situation. You could also watch No Way Home on, like, an easter egg level, but it's really not too important in the scheme of things happening here.
5. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
The first part of the MCU's grand finale for what they call "The Infinity Saga"—AKA all the events that happened to this point—Infinity War really goes all out. After 6 years of hinting at Thanos' impending conquest for the Infinity Stones, we finally see it in action in Infinity War. But while Josh Brolin's Thanos is an incredible foe to see in action at full strength throughout this movie, the strong parts are what we see in some of the character pairings. The scenes with Vision and Wanda Maximoff hit a bit different after WandaVision. Tony, Peter, and Doctor Strange in space, with the Guardians of the Galaxy is just loads of fun. And the Guardians in space with Thor! Oh man, so good. And let's not forget about Captain America and....his luscious "on the run" beard and incredible hair. Chris Evans, what a guy.
Anyway, enough pining. Infinity War rules—The Russo Brothers know how to get the absolute best out of their stars for every minute they're on screen, and the fact that the movie packs an absolute knockout of an ending gives perhaps the biggest Empire Strikes Back vibe since it happened for the first time in 1980.
MCU understanding needed? Yeah, we'd say you should watch up before checking this one out. Lots of characters here!
4. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Captain America: Civil War does just about all you could ask a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie to do at this juncture. It follows up on running threads, gives us numerous incredible action sequences, has a uniquely formidable villain with motivation that makes sense, and has character moment after character moment that just feel so right. Captain America: Civil War, really, is an Avengers movie under a different name—but it's better than almost every other Avengers movie.
With factions led by our two favorite heroes, Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, we see into two distinctly different ways of thinking—and thankfully, Steve is the guy who's right in the end. But as the Avengers break themselves up, and the villainous Zemo manipulates them against each other little by little, framing Bucky Barnes in the process, we get to not only see how these characters interact with one another (like Ant-Man meeting Captain America and Wanda, which is amazing), but seamlessly introduce Black Panther and Spider-Man, two of the universe's most important figures, to the story. I could talk about this movie for a couple hours. It's great.
MCU understanding needed? Yeah, a lot. The whole Civil War is caused by the competing beliefs that the Avengers do or don't need government intervention based on damage caused by previous adventures. You don't need to know what happened, but it helps.
3. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
If you love these movies, and this world, as much as I do, Endgame is 3 hours of basically pure catharsis. As far as big franchise "endings" go, this is the filet mignon. I fucking love Star Wars, but Rise of Skywalker wishes it could be Endgame. Endgame has more resolution and consistency in its first half hour than Game of Thrones Season 8 does in its entire running time. Anyway—enough comparison.
Endgame is so great because where Infinity War made the MCU's scope as big as it ever possibly could be, here we get our focus greatly refined, mostly down to the "original six" Avengers: Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanoff, Clint Barton, Thor, and Hulk. And we get to spend time with those characters and a few fun others (Rhodey, Nebula, Rocket) as they attempt to do the unthinkable and defeat a world-threatening threat in Thanos. If you have any sort of emotional connection to this world, you will cry—at least once. Just a fair warning.
MCU understanding needed? Oh boy. Uh, yes. Just watch everything and then come back here.
The Best of the Best Tier
2. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
While Endgame is a great ending to the Infinity Saga, the top two movies in the MCU are chapters that come a little bit earlier. The #2 spot on the list is where Thor: Ragnarok, the first outing from director Taika Waititi lands. And why does it land so high up while the other two Thor movies were fairly further down, you might ask? Well, it's because Taika figured out a simple fact: Chris Hemsworth is funny. Like, he is really, really, funny. Hemsworth is hilarious here, and The Russo Brothers were smart enough to realize that for Infinity War and Endgame as well, letting Thor be his big mighty self, but also be, you know, super funny.
And Waititi's vibe is felt everywhere in this movie. Yes, it's a big action movie with some amazing and exciting sequences. But we get humor and excitement everywhere. From Thor and Loki moments, to Thor and Hulk moments to Jeff Goldblum (!) as the villainous Grandmaster. Honestly, I've been talking about this movie for two full paragraphs now and haven't even mentioned that Tessa Thompson joins the cast as a drunken warrior named Valkyrie and the villain, Thor and Loki's sister Hela, is played by two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett. Karl Urban, our friend from The Boys, is great in this movie! Waititi himself plays Kork, a hilarious guy made of rocks. Just brilliance through and through. Just a super fun movie with a great story through and through. Waititi will be returning to the director's chair with Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, and Thompson returning, along with Christian Bale as the villain and many of the Guardians of the Galaxy cast members for Thor: Love and Thunder next year. Excited would be an understatement.
MCU understanding needed? Honestly, the more you know and the more context you get, the better (the first two Thor movies, The Avengers, and Doctor Strange probably help the most if you want), but without any of that you should still be able to pick up on what's going on. The jokes aren't really super insidery MCU in-jokes.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
The best movie in the MCU is Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Modeled after spy and espionage movies of the '70s—like All the President's Men, Three Days of the Condor, etc—it's simply a film that works on every beat and at every moment. With thrilling action sequences, old characters getting more development (Steve, Natasha, Nick Fury), new characters being introduced (Anthony Mackie's Sam Wilson), and a ton of fun snuck in with every thrill, The Winter Soldier is just a masterpiece.
But just like with First Avenger and Civil War, the thing that really powers Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the emotional resonance. From start to finish, we know how much Steve Rogers values friendships, and it's easy to feel his pain when he learns the identity of the titular Winter Soldier ("Bucky? Who the hell is Bucky?"). And the relationship between those men, and how it evolves mostly throughout the course of this movie and, eventually, Civil War, is just one that feels real.
The final confrontation scene between Captain America and The Winter Soldier aboard the SHIELD helicarrier is among the best and most emotionally resonant fight scenes you'll ever see, Marvel Universe or any movie.
MCU understanding needed? Just watch Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers and you'll be good to go.
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