With the release of 'Ant-Man', we're now in a situation where enough Marvel movies have been released that you can have entire sets of sub-preferences based on the specific characters, styles and creative teams involved, just like you can with the comics. We're sitting on an even dozen movies right now, after all, and it's no longer just a case of, "'Iron Man 2' did/didn't live up to the first one," or "'Avengers' is clearly the best." So, with the caveat that this could change at any time based on rewatching or new releases or just my mood that day, here's where I think the current state of the Marvel movies are, from "worst" to best.
12. Incredible Hulk. This, to my mind, is pretty much the bar that Marvel movies need to clear. It's not a bad film by any means: The acting is good, if functional; the script is coherent and hangs together as a story, albeit a functional one; and the action sequences, while uninspired, are well-shot and drive the plot. However, you'll clearly note words like "functional" and "uninspired" in the above description--this is such a conscious attempt to steer clear of the marmite visual stylings of Ang Lee's 'Hulk' movie and play it safe that it winds up with no particular character of its own. It's not bad, but every other Marvel movie has aspired to be better, so it drops to the bottom by default.
11. Iron Man 3. Yeah, that's right, not 'Iron Man 2', 'Iron Man 3'. The third movie, while certainly filled with a lot of flair and action and humor and a really great concept for the Mandarin that examines the "evil foreigner" trope he emobies, suffers from a slightly saggy stretch in the middle where Tony Stark is hanging around with a cute kid and feeling self-doubt, and more importantly from a lack of introspection on Tony's part. Yes, that's kind of a central fault to Tony's character--he's never really introspective, being narcissistic to the point of solipsism--but it would have been nice if the film had drawn a clearer moral line between Tony and Aldrich Killian. As it is, it feels uncomfortably like Tony is primarily fighting the Mandarin for breaking his toys.
10. Thor. This one could have fallen into the same pit as 'Incredible Hulk', if not for a really talented cast that elevates every single moment above what it should be. Chris Hemsworth imbues Thor with a puppy-like charm that leavens his character's arc and makes him sympathetic despite his bad decisions, and Tom Hiddleston underplays Loki in a way that really gives the character extra dimensions and makes him less a villain than a protagonist in a conflicting narrative. Even the supporting cast makes the most of their roles, with Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgard walking away with scenes that they're barely in. (Poor Natalie Portman gets utterly wasted on this script, but that's been a problem with Jane Foster for ages. As a legacy character from an era where sexism was rampant, she doesn't really have much to her beyond "Thor's love interest", despite decades of work to try to change that.)
9. Iron Man 2. Much better than anyone gives it credit for. Mickey Rourke is magnetic as Whiplash, especially in the middle section of the movie where the plot is scattering in all directions (and I think this was a conscious artistic choice designed to emphasize Tony's feelings of loss of control as his various personal crises all converge and the sharks begin to circle). Scarlett Johannson makes her debut here as Black Widow, and while she doesn't get as much to do as she later will, she's great in her role here. Don Cheadle is an instant upgrade as War Machine, and Sam Rockwell redeems himself for 'Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy'. (Oh, and the Garry Shandling scenes take on a whole new meaning in retrospect...)
8. Ant-Man. New boy! It's really a thing of parts, which limits it somewhat. On the one hand, the human drama is kind of pat and uninteresting, despite the actors' attempts to breathe life into it; of course Scott Lang is going to rise above his vaguely-altruistic criminalish past and defeat Yellowjacket, and of course Hank Pym is going to achieve rapprochement with his estranged daughter. (As for the love interest, it's so perfunctory that it literally takes place off-screen.) But once Ant-Man shrinks, suddenly you realize that this is a super-power that screams with interesting possibilities. From literally hanging onto the grooves in a record to surfing a cluster of ants along a water-pipe to the final climactic battle that turns a little girl's bedroom into an epic landscape, the shrinking scenes show that Ant-Man deserves a movie.
7. Thor: The Dark World. It shares the flaws of its predecessor (a generic fantasy concept) but in lesser measures, while improving on all of the virtues of the first 'Thor'. Hemsworth is freed from the predictable "brash jerk becomes humbled and learns virtue" arc of the first film, and is allowed to really inhabit his character. Hiddleston's Loki is fascinatingly mercurial, following his own unpredictable nature and giving astonishing depth to the villain of the past two movies. Christopher Eccleston is wasted, but the final battle is a dynamic set-piece that really showcases imagination and cleverness rather than just two people hitting each other. And it's sweet and charming, too.
6. Iron Man. The face that launched a thousand ships. This one still holds up, primarily because Robert Downey Jr takes an immensely flawed character and makes him sympathetic purely through the force of his charisma. His Tony Stark is arrogant, foolish, oblivious to the human cost of the decisions that keep him in his billionaire lifestyle...and then, when everything is taken away from him, we see that underneath all that he is a man with a strong moral sensibility and a belief that he can truly make the world a better place. Tony Stark wants to solve all the world's problems, and the hubris of that melds with the heroism of it to create a character that's the keystone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
5. Captain America: The First Avenger. I truly believe that this was God's gift to Joe Johnston. I really feel, deep down, like God saw 'The Rocketeer' and said, "This is a charming, clever, inventive, well-realized period piece that captures everything that was wonderful about the era in which it was set...and nobody saw the damn thing in theaters. That's just wrong. I'm going to give you the chance to do it all over again, with a more iconic hero and a bigger budget and the promotional muscle behind it to make it the hit you deserve." And that was 'Captain America: The First Avenger'. A love letter to the heroes of World War II, a charming and lively adventure story, and oh yeah, Chris Evans absolutely nails Steve Rogers. And we get Hayley Atwell as Agent Carter, a role so good she's still doing it.
4. Avengers: Age of Ultron. We're getting into some rarified heights, here. Everything from about #6 on up is a personal favorite of mine, and so I will make it clear that the fact that there are three other Marvel movies better than 'Age of Ultron' should not be taken as an indictment of the movie. It is a movie that's working on a lot of levels, as an exploration of the characters and as set-up for Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And it does all that without sacrificing its own plot, mainly thanks to James Spader's turn as a reckless, almost-stoned apocalyptic villain whose bemusement at the antics of the human race would be comical if he didn't plan to destroy us for it. All that and a fight scene so good they have to go into slo-mo for it.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy. Big, dumb, goofy fun. It's a quirky comedy about a group of misanthropes and loners who wind up liking each other, it's the bizarre and hilarious caper movie that 'Ant-Man' wishes it was, and it's also a cosmic space opera in the vein of 'Star Wars'. All at once, almost overlapping each other. There are certainly better films out there, but there's not many that are as much fun to watch.
2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier. If I were to be honest, I'd admit that this is the best of the Marvel movies. It's got amazing performances from all of the Marvel regulars and some great work from Robert freaking Redford, it's got stellar action sequences, and it's got a script that really does take a courageous stance on the "War Against Terror" that didn't so much stop when Bush left office as get swept under the carpet. Plus, it's a very bold movie in terms of what it does to the metastory, and while I'm someone who frequently complains when metastory is invoked as a reason to love something, it's okay when it would be an absolutely amazing movie anyway that also happens to take the gutsy step of demolishing SHIELD and forcing everyone in the Marvel Universe to re-evaluate their position in events. It really is the best movie. But...
1. Avengers is the movie I've been waiting for since I was eight years old. It is Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye and the Hulk all meeting for the first time and teaming up against the threat of Loki. It is the movie that had the most work to do--simply convincing people that the stars of three films with such disparate styles belonged in the same room together was its own massive undertaking, to say nothing of rehabilitating the Hulk after two underwhelming movies, giving the Black Widow the characterization she deserved in the absence of her own movie, making Hawkeye a believable superhero (although let's face it, most of the heavy lifting there was done in the sequel). On top of all that, it had an absolutely amazing battle sequence that raised expectations for pretty much every subsequent action movie, Marvel or otherwise. And it hit every single one of those notes perfectly. So while there may be reasons to recommend 'Winter Soldier' as a better movie, this is the Marvel film I love the most...and probably always will.