With 'Avengers: Endgame' closing out the third phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe next week, what better time to take stock of the franchise so far and see where the franchise has landed in terms of creative output and critical acclaim.
If we use Metacritic as a barometer, the highest-ranked of the series is 'Black Panther' with an 88% rating. The lowest, however, is 'Thor: The Dark World' with just 54%, narrowly above 'Iron Man 2' and its 57% rating.
But where do these land in our ranking? We begin at the worst with...
'THOR: THE DARK WORLD'
Yes, our own ranking mirrors Metacritic's and it's clear to see why. A completely forgettable entry to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it says a lot that Taika Waititi was brought and given a free hand to do whatever he liked with 'Thor: Ragnarok'. If you can remember one scene in this movie, you're doing better than most.
To be clear, putting Kenneth Branagh in charge of Thor and trying to turn it into a Shakesperean epic and hiring Anthony Hopkins as Odin was an inspired choice by Marvel. The fact is that while it had its moments, there was ultimately not enough there to sustain that weight of talent. Also, Chris Hemsworth's dyed-blonde eyebrows are ridiculous.
'THE INCREDIBLE HULK'
Although Edward Norton gave it his all in 'The Incredible Hulk', can you honestly picture anyone else as Dr. Bruce Banner other than Mark Ruffalo? It's a shame, as Louis Letterier did a cracking job directing some of the more lighter moments and while it didn't connect into the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well as it should have, there's still interesting moments here. Also, Tim Roth didn't get the credit he deserved for playing Emil Blonsky.
'IRON MAN 2'
Ah, the difficult second album for 'Iron Man' and could have derailed the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe were it not for Robert Downey Jr's ineffable charisma and a willingness by Jon Favreau to make this thing happen whether peopled liked it or not. Mickey Rourke was completely miscast as Ivan Vanko, but what a shout Sam Rockwell was as the Tony Stark-wannabe, Justin Hammer.
'CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER'
To be clear, Chris Evans' casting as Captain America is as sharp a piece of casting as Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark / Iron Man. Evans clearly draws on Christopher Reeve's performance as Superman to give it that air of quiet humility.
But beyond that, 'Captain America: The First Avenger' didn't have a whole lot going on. Joe Johnston was basically aiming it squarely at 'Saving Private Ryan' and 'Band of Brothers', but just wound up with something much less. Still, Hugo Weaving vamping it up as the Red Skull was pretty decent.
Benedict Cumberbatch's turn as Doctor Stephen Strange was clearly setting him up for 'Avengers: Infinity War', but you also had some intriguing special effects that felt like it was taking cues from Christopher Nolan's 'Inception'. Not only that, Michael Giacchino's prog-rock inspired soundtrack was the perfect flourish to a spacey, trippy superhero movie like this.
Watching 'Ant-Man' with the knowledge that Edgar Wright almost directed it, you can't help but watch it and think about what might have been. That being said, Paul Rudd continued Marvel's excellent casting choices as Scott Lang, whilst Michael Douglas made the silliness of it all his own. Again, there's a forgettable villain in the otherwise great Corey Stoll, but you can't have it all unfortunately.
'ANT-MAN & THE WASP'
A far more focused effort this time around, 'Ant-Man & The Wasp' played up the comedy and gave director Peyton Reed more of a chance to push up the zaniness without it verging into 'Guardians of the Galaxy' and its self-effacing brand of humour. Evangeline Lilly, meanwhile, actually had to something to do in this one and made the role her own, whilst the always reliable Walton Goggins was slimy enough to make him stand out. It's a shame the same couldn't be said for Laurence Fishburne and Hannah John-Kamen.
While the character of Captain Marvel is likely to play a huge role in 'Avengers: Endgame', you couldn't help shake the feeling that 'Captain Marvel' was merely there to tee her up rather than it be a story of its own. That said, Marvel has origin stories down to a tee and 'Captain Marvel' was no different. It all just felt a little bit too processed and predictable, but hey, who cares when there's a cast this good lining up to take part? Annette Benning in a Marvel movie, like. Who could have pictured that twenty-odd years ago?
'AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON'
While 'Avengers Assemble' was the culmination of several movies to this point, there's no denying that 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' felt somewhat more rushed and less cohesive as a whole. It's not to say that there wasn't a lot to like about it, however. James Spader was perfectly dastardly as the AI Ultron and while Elisabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson didn't quite land as well as they should, there was enough action in here to make it all worthwhile.
'IRON MAN 3'
Let's be clear about this - looking at the character of The Mandarin, there was no way you could have moved that character into the modern world without it being super-racist. Not just racist, but super-racist. Therefore Shane Black's decision to jettison the whole thing and turn him into a false-flag operation with Ben Kingsley playing an actor's actor was just genius. Zippy, funny, and exactly the kind of comic-book movie you'd expect from the man behind 'Lethal Weapon' and 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang', this deserved far better than what it got.
Considering that there's been three actors who've played the role in the past twelve years, Tom Holland had an uphill struggle to make the role his own. Not only that, the fact that he was first introduced in someone else's movie and stole any scene he was in out from under people just shows how much talent he had. Michael Keaton's villain was surprisingly well realised, and Jon Watts' command of tone just made it all pull together beautifully. Up there as the best origin movies in the franchise bar...
As much as any movie in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, 'Iron Man' set the tone and the structure for all. The CGI-laden battle at the end of the movie between Iron Monger - piloted by Jeff Bridges, of all people - and Iron Man has been replicated to one degree or another in all preceding entries in the franchise. Not only that, you really just can't imagine anyone but Robert Downey Jr. in the role of Tony Stark - and that's down to Jon Favreau's tireless campaigning on his behalf. It's paid off in spades, as Downey Jr. and his performance as Tony Stark has been the core of the franchise since then.
While the first 'Guardians of the Galaxy' was so bonkers that just about everyone expected it to fail - ourselves humbly included - 'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2' was coming to the screen with huge expectations on its metaphorical shoulders. For one, Kurt Russell was involved and secondly, you also had to craft something that could live up to the first entry and forge its own path. Did it work? Well, yes and no. Kurt Russell did a decent attempt, but the script let him down somewhat and there was no denying that James Gunn was clearly feeling the pressure to live up to those expectations. Still, it was an enjoyable romp with a great soundtrack to boot.
'THE AVENGERS / AVENGERS ASSEMBLE'
Yes, the real reason why 'Avengers Assemble' was called such in Ireland and the UK was because of a terrible movie called 'The Avengers' in the '90s with Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman and Sean Connery. Anyway, 'Avengers Assemble' further solidified the blueprint from 'Iron Man'.
Joss Whedon's ability to weave together disparate tones - from Thor's Shakesperean flourishes to Captain America's cheesy earnestness - served him well here. It's still a blast to watch, not the least of which being because its action beats are finely attuned to pushing the story forward without any lag between the plodding plot beats.
'GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY'
Nobody - but nobody - expected 'Guardians of the Galaxy' to be a hit. The idea of it was so bonkers that you couldn't really conceivably think it would be. A talking racoon based on Joe Pesci, the shoe-shine guy from 'Parks & Recreation' as the hero, all of it directed by the guy who wrote the remake for Zack Snyder's 'Dawn of the Dead'.
Yet, it all coalesced into a splashy, joyful romp with flashes of, well, 'Flash Gordon' and '80s team-up movies like 'The Goonies'. Throw in a yacht-rock soundtrack and a surprisingly heartfelt story about orphans to the mixture and you've got a cracking action-comedy that just happens to feature Marvel characters.
'CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR'
'Avengers: Infinity War' and 'Captain America: Civil War' both suffer the same problems, but they're both handled exceptionally well. Essentially, there's just way too much plot being jammed into the run time and just about enough space to make the dramatic moments linger and have any kind of impact. 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' did this much better, but 'Civil War' failed somewhat in landing them all. For example, we never really got the torment that was lingering under the surface with Bucky Barnes. Yet, for these and other complaints, 'Civil War' did a lot well.
It managed to balance and weave each of the plot strands into one whole without sacrificing the complexity of any of them at the expense of pacing. Moreover, trying to condense a story arc like 'Civil War' down into a feature-length movie is a mammoth task, but one that the Russo Brothers were able to pull off with ease and no doubt won them the job for 'Avengers: Infinity War'.
Like 'Captain America: Civil War', 'Avengers: Infinity War' had numerous plot strands that could have easily frayed in the telling, but when you watch it all back, they all string together with an ease that speaks to the Russo Brothers' background in television and their command of storytelling. Josh Brolin layered his performance as Thanos with menace and used the other-worldliness of his character's CGI visage to his advantage.
Unlike 'Civil War', 'Infinity War' really was the culmination of the franchise up until this point rather than trying to shove an entire comic-book arc into one movie. Bringing in the wackier elements - like the Guardians of the Galaxy, or Spider-Man - could have easily blown it all apart, but there's more than enough malleability in these characters and their development that allows them to bend and shape themselves to whatever the story requires. The ending, however, is what made 'Infinity War'. One of the key moments in comic-book history, The Snap was handled beautifully and left a cliffhanger that'll rank alongside 'The Empire Strikes Back'.
Although he was introduced in 'Captain America: Civil War', T'Challa / Black Panther clearly had a lot going on and one movie was never going to cover it. Ryan Coogler, hot off the success of 'Creed', clearly was firing on all cylinders creatively - but this was all heightened with a sharply written, deeply incisive screenplay. What kind of superhero movie would dare to take on racial issues in the way that 'Black Panther' did, and so daringly place its villain on the side of the oppressed?
While it may not have followed through as convincingly on these themes, and certainly its third act battle was a mess of CGI like any other Marvel Cinematic Universe entry, 'Black Panther' more than overcompensated for this with a stunning soundtrack from Ludwig Goransson and Michael B. Jordan's thrilling performance as Erik Killmonger. Tie in the fact that it's the only Oscar-winning movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and there's enough to have 'Black Panther' comfortably near the top of any list.
It's telling that Thor's movies have gone through three distinctive phases, primarily because nobody really knew what to do with the character. The first tried to turn it into a blockbuster Shakespeare, the second tried to replicate 'Game of Thrones', so what could the third one do but completely throw out what came before and follow its own path? Bringing in Taika Waititi was an inspired choice, and using a fun, knowing sense of itself, 'Thor: Ragnarok' made itself into the funniest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
As much a commentary on Thor's meat-headed antics throughout the franchise, 'Thor: Ragnarok' and its deceptively intelligent story brought a much-maligned character back to prominence and bucked the odds on how good a threequel can be. Throwing in Jeff Goldblum was a fantastic choice, as was having Cate Blanchett as the gleefully evil Hela, but it was the dynamic between Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo - aping 'Midnight Run' in parts - that made it all sparkle.
There's no telling how 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' could have panned out. For one, Anthony and Joe Russo were untested in their roles as directors and had no previous experience dealing with major action set-pieces that the movie would undoubtedly call for. Not only that, there was always the sense that Captain America was a decidedly outdated character that couldn't be taken seriously on its own accord.
So, what do you do in that instance? You lean into them all. Pitching Captain America as a paragon of truth and justice in the face of encroaching fascism dressed up as American authority, 'The Winter Soldier' drew on '70s conspiracy thrillers like 'Three Days of the Condor' whilst using Michael Mann's 'Heat' as inspiration for its action setpieces.
Pulling all this together, however, was Chris Evans' performance. As mentioned, the comparisons between Christopher Reeve as Superman are there, but it's projecting that into a complex thriller about the limits of government surveillance that make it really special.