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It’s been 10 years since the Avengers first assembled, and since then, it seems like the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been assembling all the time.
Marvel's ongoing film and TV series get more and more connected, as heroes make guest appearances in other heroes’ solo movies, take part in an impromptu team-up, or pop up in an especially exciting post-credits scene. It’s enough to make a Marvel fan forget that there have only actually been four Avengers movies — and two of them were basically two parts of the same story, released only a year apart.
So, on the 10th anniversary of Marvel’s The Avengers, the film that first brought Earth’s mightiest heroes together, let’s see where it stacks up amongst the four official Avengers movies. This means that Captain America: Civil War is not eligible for this ranking. The third Captain America movie is an Avengers film all but in name — and a pretty good one, we might add — but it is not an Avengers movie.
4. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
The sophomore Avengers movie is unquestionably the worst Avengers movie because it’s also in contention for being one of the worst MCU movies, period. There’s some stuff to like here. James Spader gives Ultron a delightfully smarmy affect that’s so oddly alluring that it almost offsets the tonal confusion behind the movie’s big bad. And the Hulkbuster Iron Man armor fight is big dumb fun. Age of Ultron introduces Scarlet Witch and Vision, though neither are all that interesting here compared to their characters as they currently exist (err, existed - sorry, Vis) in the MCU. And, the party sequence after the Avengers’ mission that kicks off the movie, is an absolute highlight. An entire movie of just the Avengers hanging out and bouncing off each other would’ve been much better than what we got.
Instead, we got a relationship between Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff that felt weird at the time, and feels weirder now, in light of everything that’s been made public about director Joss Whedon’s M.O. We got a frankly deplorable line where Natasha compares herself to a monster because she can’t have kids. We got a whole section of the movie where Thor just kinda wanders off to do his own plot so he can do a poor job setting up a movie that everybody already knew was coming. Ultron also delivers an overlong climax that spent too much time being a direct and unsubtle rebuke to Man of Steel’s collateral damage-heavy ending fight. We also lingered around at a farm.
Avengers: Age of Ultron tries to do too many things at once and still finds ways to do exactly the wrong thing. Later MCU movies — including the next two Avengers movies — would be overstuffed, too, but had a sense of mission and narrative clarity that Age of Ultron lacks.
3. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Luckily, Age of Ultron is the only bad Avengers movie. The others are pretty great, actually, and there’s a case to be made for any possible Top Three arrangement. For our list, Infinity War is getting the bronze medal, if only because you can make the argument that it’s not an Avengers movie so much as it’s a Thanos movie.
The Mad Titan is Infinity War’s protagonist in that he’s the common point amongst all the action, and indeed several scenes are told from his point of view. Infinity War is almost sympathetic to him.
While Thanos is at the top of his game in Infinity War, the Avengers are at their lowest. This is the only Avengers movie where the Avengers lose. Our heroes are disassembled due to the rift between Iron Man and Captain America’s factions in Civil War, and the additions of characters like Doctor Strange and the Guardians of the Galaxy can’t paper over that there’s a fundamental brokenness. It makes for compelling drama and plenty of gripping action — some of the best the MCU has to offer — but it feels weird to celebrate the Avengers’ darkest moment as one of their finest hours.
2. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
It’s easy to forget now, ten years, 22 movies, and several TV shows later, how exciting and unprecedented the first Avengers felt. Five movies about four separate heroes — plus Hawkeye and Black Widow — would come together for what was then the ultimate big screen team-up? It was mind-boggling.
Now, The Avengers is quaint in comparison. Its flaws — a bloated middle act, Whedon baggage, and the crossover of IP's arguably destructive impact on the Hollywood creative landscape — are more apparent. None of that changes how exciting it was to see all these disparate heroes, well, assemble. For as exciting the Battle of New York is, The Avengers’ real superpower is that it got characters we knew in the same movie and let them play off each other. This being a Marvel team-up, the heroes fought with one another before joining forces. They bickered. They bantered. They learned a little something about each other (and even themselves). They saved the day, and at the end of that day, ate shawarma together.
The assembling of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes doesn’t mean much if they’re not interesting characters, and The Avengers made sure that they were.
1. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Endgame almost doesn’t feel like a movie.
Reliant on more than a decade worth of films, almost all of which were essential viewing to have even a slight idea of what was going on in its time-traveling, self-referential plot, Endgame was a spectacular event. That word, "event," is fitting. Comic book history is full of massive crossover “event comics” that were special, bursting with ideas, meticulous (or sloppy) continuity, and “I-can’t-believe-they-did-that” moments. It’s not unusual for an event comic to take too big a swing and crumble into incoherence, but the best are exciting coronations that elevate all the stories that led up to this epic moment. Endgame pulls this off.
A big part of the reason why Endgame works is that despite the huge stakes and massive scale of the movie, it’s more emotionally intimate than one might expect. The sprawling Infinity War cast has been pared down to the original Avengers line-up, plus a small handful of extras like Nebula and Ant-Man, both of whom get load-bearing emotional arcs of their own. For the most part, though, Endgame focuses on the heroes we as an audience have been with the longest — and therefore know the best — as they revisit (literally) their past and deal with their failures before eventually overcoming them.
The highs are tremendously high — Captain America finally wielding Mjolnir was a moment that transcended fan service — but they’re rooted in a very tangible sense of character. It’s the biggest event that movies have ever seen, starring characters who manage to be more relatable than ever despite the complexity and scope of the story. We want the day to be saved in Endgame, but more than that, we want our heroes to save the day. We want them to build on everything they’ve lost and come out on top.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the best Avengers is the one where the team is actually avenging.