Marvel movies have come a long way.
Two decades ago this month, 20th Century Fox’s X-Men snikt’d into theaters and forever changed how Hollywood would view and value comic book movies — and Marvel. Granted, in the eight years between the first X-Men movie and Iron Man’s big-screen debut, Marvel struggled often with its identity, after initially licensing its characters to a slew of studios and creatives, who did whatever they wanted with them. That all changed, as fans know, thanks to Kevin Feige. Under his reign, Marvel became Marvel Studios and the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born, making significant box-office and movie history along the way.
As X-Men celebrates its 20th anniversary, we’re celebrating by ranking every movie based on a Marvel comics property. It’s a deep bench of titles, over 30 years of movies — some great (think Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 and X2) and others, well, not so much. (We’re looking at you X3 and ... shudder ... Daredevil.)
Using pop cultural impact and overall narrative quality as our main criteria (along with Editor’s Choice), here’s a definitive list of Marvel’s best (and worst) Hollywood adventures.
60. Man-Thing (2005)
Even Marvel Studios disowned Man-Thing. And rightfully so.
This waste of everyone's time and effort cost $30 million to make and came out of a time when Marvel (under the rule of Avi Arad) was eager to sell licenses to anyone who could pay. This unwatchable release was instantly shunned by both its distributor and audiences, leading to one of the lowest openings at the box office ever.
59. Howard the Duck (1986)
No matter what metric you're judging by, Howard the Duck is a good choice for the worst Marvel movie ever made. Despite the character’s surprising popularity on the page at the time, the film was a misguided project for all involved and one of the first signs that not everything George Lucas touches turns to box-office gold.
In the wake of his cameos in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, hopefully Howard will eventually get a second chance in the MCU.
58. Captain America (1990)
The MCU’s Captain America movies represent some of the best Marvel has to offer on the big screen. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have this dreadful, low-budget take on the Sentinel of Liberty.
There's a reason this one sat quietly in a vault for two years before finally being dumped on home video.
57. The Punisher (1989)
What are the crucial ingredients of a Punisher movie? We'd say a main character who wears the iconic skull shirt is pretty high up on the list. The fact that this movie couldn't even be bothered to include that basic detail, or was unable to, gives you some indication of how much care went into this Dolph Lundgren-starring vehicle that has “direct-to-video flop” written all over it.
We admire the intent for a grounded and gritty take on The Punisher, but this movie can barely afford to make it worthwhile — let alone look watchable.
56. Blade: Trinity (2004)
Like The Last Stand and Spider-Man 3, New Line’s Blade franchise fell victim to the “Curse of the Bad Threequel.”
While we enjoyed the addition of snarky Ryan Reynolds and Jessica Biel's vampire hunters, the rest of the movie settled for combining bland vampire tropes with the worst take on Dracula we've seen in a long time. (When the strongest vampire gets a big action scene ... it’s a scattershot foot chase.) Wesley Snipes' infamously difficult on-set behavior certainly didn't help, and neither did his phoned-in performance.
55. Elektra (2005)
Any interest fans might have had in a solo Elektra movie died after watching 2003's Daredevil. Yet, for some reason, Fox pushed ahead anyway.
Jennifer Garner, hot off her success on ABC’s spy drama Alias, makes the most of a generally thankless role, but pretty much everything else about this spinoff is bland and forgettable.
54. Punisher: War Zone (2008)
If you like reboot-quels with cheap production values and guys getting punched in midair by launched rockets, then this very, very, very guilty pleasure is for you.
53. Venom (2018)
Fans had been screaming for this movie for years. The wait was not worth it.
If you ever wanted to see Tom Hardy jump into a lobster tank and eat lobsters, or have his gooey symbiote call Eddie Brock a "pu**y,” then you need to re-evaluate all life priorities.
52. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
We can't say we're surprised (or disappointed) that Sony elected to scrap the rebooted Amazing Spider-Man series soon after this disastrous sequel and make history by partnering with Marvel Studios to make more big-screen adventures starring Peter Parker.
Like its predecessor, Amazing Spider-Man 2’s lone high point is the dynamic between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Everything else, however, about this bloated, unpleasant sequel rubs us the wrong way — especially the “secret origin” story involving Peter’s dad that falls flat and makes close to zero sense. From ret-conning Peter’s past and his relationship with his parents to wasting Paul Giamatti’s considerable talents in the surprisingly limited role of The Rhino, Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems overcommitted to being one of the biggest head-scratchers the genre has ever produced.
51. Fantastic Four (2015)
Fantastic Four’s behind-the-scenes drama, involving extensive reshoots and “creative differences” with director Josh Trank (Chronicle), didn’t do this flop any favors. What started as a grounded take on Marvel’s first family became a messy cautionary tale of studio filmmaking, with the movie’s only saving grace being the scene in which the titular heroes return to their HQ after being first exposed to the energies that would give them their powers.
Trank executes the scene with an unsettling effect usually reserved for horror movies, treating their origin story as a nightmare — a “what if this happened to real people?” take on the iconic comic book heroes. In a movie full of scenes that miss their mark, this one hits in a way that hints at the good movie we could have had.
50. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Thanks to studio-mandated fan service (too many mutant cameos), Wolverine is relegated to a supporting role in his own movie — which is full of terrible CG and even more terrible narrative choices. The worst of the worst? “Magic” memory-wiping bullets and a facepalm-y depiction of Deadpool, where the Merc With the Mouth has his, um, mouth ... fused ... shut?
The only thing that helps the movie along is Hugh Jackman’s go-for-broke performance; he is so likable in this unlikable movie that he emerges unscathed as he and his endless screen presence do their best to at least make you feel like you got some of your money’s worth.
49. X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)
The First Class cast deserved a better finale than this. The Last Stand co-writer Simon Kinberg gets a mulligan on the Dark Phoenix storyline here with his feature directorial debut — and one of the lowest-grossing (and most disliked) entries in the series.
The first and — until The New Mutants ever comes out — last X-Men movie made by 20th Century Fox to be released via Disney/Marvel, Dark Phoenix starts off promisingly enough with our heroes on a riveting rescue mission in space. But the movie quickly, frustratingly, unravels into a visually dull, by-the-numbers wannabe blockbuster with zero heart and a surplus of underwhelming set pieces.
The movie endured infamous reshoots and a grueling post-production process, resulting in Disney and Marvel Studios all but soft-pedaling it into theaters with the bare minimum of marketing effort. After viewing the final product, we can’t blame them.
48. X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
Never mind that a decade passes between these new prequels and the cast barely ages a day; that is the least of this uneven sequel's problems, as its reach often exceeds its grasp with cringe-worthy results.
X-Men: Apocalypse wants so hard to be an entertaining disaster epic starring your favorite mutants, and it falls terribly short thanks to a momentum-deficient plot centered on baddie Apocalypse (a bored Oscar Isaac) who looks more like a rubber-y Power Rangers baddie than the Thanos-level threat the comics source material intended him to be. Outside of a few emotionally resonant moments that call back to the first film in the series, there isn’t much to like in this misfire. Especially when it comes to another X-Men movie wherein Charles Xavier and the X-Men get duped by Magneto in their efforts to prove there is good in him.
While he turns good just in time in the third act, after spending most of it purposely floating in a swirl of CG metal, he is obviously super bad. The fact that our heroes don’t realize this (again!), and just let Magneto go to likely cause them pain and suffering in the next movie, makes it extra hard to find a reason to watch this movie — even if it’s only playing in the background.
47. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
The fact that Rise of the Silver Surfer improved upon its predecessor in the action department isn't a particularly impressive feat. It still suffers from many of the same problems as the first, along with giving fans a soul-crushingly bad take on Galactus (read: sky-sized poop cloud).
But whenever Silver Surfer himself appears on screen, you get a fleeting sense of what might have been with this over-too-quickly franchise.
46. Daredevil (2003)
Daredevil boasts a solid ensemble, including Ben Affleck as a suitably brooding hero and Michael Clarke Duncan as the Marvel villain he was born to play.
Unfortunately, Daredevil never seems sure whether it wants to be a gritty character drama or a campy superhero adventure. And director Mark Steven Johnson certainly lacked the skill set required to make either tone fully successful. This infamous entry in the genre really shows its age with the dated wire-fu action scenes and ear-splitting soundtrack. (Hi, Evanescence!)
45. Ghost Rider (2007)
We're surprised Sony didn't kill the comic book movie entirely in the summer of 2007. They followed up the disappointing Spider-Man 3 with an even worse take on Ghost Rider, from the director of Daredevil.
At least the sequel had the good sense not to take itself seriously. What was this movie's excuse?
44. The Punisher (2004)
The second Punisher movie is leaps and bounds better than the first, for whatever that's worth. This violent and brooding wannabe blockbuster makes some fundamental mistakes by casting John Travolta as the main villain and opting for the PG-13 approach. On the other hand, Thomas Jane makes for a terrific Frank Castle, and we love seeing so many scenes and characters pulled directly from the comics.
43. The Amazing Spider-Man (2011)
No one asked for Sony to reboot the Spider-Man franchise a mere four years after Spider-Man 3, so it should come as no surprise that director Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man plays like an unnecessary retread of what came before.
It does everything different (that suit — woof!) and few things better. We enjoyed seeing a more comics-friendly glimpse of Peter Parker's (Andrew Garfield) high school days and his romance with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), but we would rather have watched Sam Raimi's scrapped Spider-Man 4 — which had John Malkovich on board as the Vulture.
42. Hulk (2003)
Hulk, directed by Ang Lee, may well be the most frustrating Marvel movie ever made. (It is also one of the most visually inventive.) Hulk has a lot of story problems, not the least of which being the atrocious Gamma Poodles and other shaky narrative threads between Banner (a miscast Eric Bana) and his villainous father, played by a scene-eating Nick Nolte.
But Hulk also gets a lot right about the source material and cleverly tries to recreate the look and feel of a comic book page onscreen. Here again, we wish studio interference hadn't resulted in a lesser movie.
41. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011)
Nic Cage hides behind some intermittently impressive flaming-skull CG in this action-packed sequel that is, sadly, narratively and emotionally bankrupt.
It reeks of being shot cheaply with “Insert-Vague-European-Country-Here”-itis, with directors Neveldine and Taylor shooting all their action scenes in a way that makes you feel (not in a good way) that the camera was clamped into a paint can shaker before they called “action.”
40. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
From “I'm the Juggernaut, b****!” to pretty much every other scene is this lackluster sequel, The Last Stand nearly sets a franchise record for packing in so many wrong things into a normal-sized movie. It's plagued with development issues from the jump, made all the more complicated when original director Matthew Vaughn left the rushed production and Brett Ratner stepped in.
Ratner, working off a problematic script from Zak Penn and Simon Kinberg, tried to mix the epic Dark Phoenix storyline from the comics with that of the Mutant Cure story from Joss Whedon’s epic run on the series. The end result failed to have either story truly shake hands with a narrative that serviced the characters therein, with Rogue especially getting the short stick as she agrees to take the cure basically so a boy will like her.
39. Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Expectations were high for Sam Raimi's third Spider-Man movie. Sadly, it was fated to be just another superhero franchise to stumble in its third outing.
It's easy to poke fun at the movie’s overreliance on goofy excess (ahem, Emo Peter Parker and whatever the hell James Franco is doing in that infamous “pie” scene). But the painfully obvious failure of this infamous threequel is that it juggles too many villains and fails to service either of them in any way that makes the movie better. Raimi was forced to include Venom thanks to studio mandates, and the character’s inclusion reeks of being a perfunctory afterthought designed to boost opening weekend grosses.
Under the hood of this junker, though, is an engine for a successful film. Unfortunately for fans, Tobey Maguire’s last Spider-Man movie was running on empty almost from the jump.
38. Fantastic Four (2005)
Fox struck lightning in a bottle with the X-Men franchise, but for whatever reason, that didn't carry over to its first attempt at a Fantastic Four movie.
Plagued by questionable casting choices (apart from a pre-Captain America Chris Evans), lackluster character designs, and a dull story, there was nothing particularly fantastic about this origin story.
37. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The Incredible Hulk feels very much like the odd man out in the MCU. Tonally, stylistically, it just doesn’t fit — and neither did its star, Edward Norton, who very publicly exited the franchise, allowing Mark Ruffalo to step in.
It's a decent Hulk movie on its own merits but lacks the humor and charm of other movies starring Avengers. It feels especially disposable, even in the era of the big cinematic universe, because most of its easter eggs and teases never come to fruition.
36. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
This is the Thor sequel everyone likes to forget about, the first all-out whiff for Marvel following the massive success of 2012’s The Avengers.
Thor: The Dark World suffers from an underdeveloped villain who operates mostly as a device for exposition, and the painfully unconvincing romance between Chris Hemsworth's Thor and Natalie Portman's Jane Foster is as stilted as the plot is limp. But at least there's plenty of witty Thor/Loki banter to go around, coupled with a reality-bending, world-hopping third act that feels straight out of the comics.
35. Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)
Spider-Man: Homecoming director Jon Watts returns for a very convoluted and underwhelming sequel that finds a post-Snap Peter Parker touring Europe on a school trip when the Elementals and Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) show up. From there, the movie becomes an uneven two-hander between Spidey and Mysterio as the latter’s true identity and motivations wreak havoc on Peter’s life both in and out of the suit.
The action sequences lack the pulse and personality of the previous film but double down on empty CG spectacle. The majority of Mysterio’s illusions just don’t make for compelling eye candy, so perhaps it’s fitting, if unfortunate, that the storyline falters under the bare minimum of scrutiny. Fans have nothing real to latch onto, other than the exceptional chemistry between Tom Holland’s Peter and Zendaya’s MJ.
34. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
Ant-Man and the Wasp is the perfect movie to watch on a plane. It doesn't radically reinvent the shrinking superhero wheel, but it does improve upon the rocky foundation built by its predecessor.
Both Ant-Man movies are directed by Peyton Reed, who seems to have a real affection for Paul Rudd’s microscopic hero; he gives Scott Lang the exact amount of whatever the character needs in either action scenes or comedic beats, thus making Ant-Man a far more interesting character this time around.
It also helps that this sequel puts Evangeline Lilly's Hope van Dyne/The Wasp prominently in the spotlight, creating a never-dull dynamic duo with her and Lang as they battle Ghost, a baddie who can go invisible. The heroes and their villain engage in some truly impressive action scenes, which capitalizes on Ant-Man’s power set in ways the first movie wishes it could.
33. Iron Man 2 (2010)
While definitely the weakest entry in the Iron Man trilogy, there's enough action and RDJ one-liners to like in this “just OK” sequel. Iron Man 2 gave us the debut of War Machine (Don Cheadle) and all the armor-on-armor carnage we could have asked for.
Jon Favreau’s second Iron Man movie is also significant for being the first MCU blockbuster to really dive headlong into the continuity of this shared universe; it paved the way for everything else to come in Phase One. It also culminates with Tony and War Machine essentially high-fiving repulsor rays to defeat the hammy Whiplash (Mickey Rourke), so YMMV.
32. Thor (2011)
So. Many. Dutch. Angles.
Kenneth Branagh’s first and only Marvel movie as director has a '90s comic book visual aesthetic that doesn’t mesh with the building-size charisma of its star, Chris Hemsworth. His Thor struggles to find his place in Marvel’s Cosmic Realm, as the movie also struggles to set up another load-bearing column setting up The Avengers.
The movie, while a hit, has aged poorly among fans when compared to subsequent films. But what still holds up is Hemsworth’s star-making turn, not to mention Tom Hiddleston as Loki.
31. Ant-Man (2015)
After Avengers: Age of Ultron, MCU fans needed a palate cleanser. A superhero movie with smaller, lighter stakes. What fans got was a serviceable, if forgettable, entertainment featuring Marvel’s tiniest Avengers.
While Ant-Man doesn't rival the best of the MCU, its goofy sense of humor and strong cast make it a very enjoyable romp — no small feat considering creative differences prompted the film’s original director, Edgar Wright, to depart the project.
30. X-Men (2000)
Despite criticisms that the film plays out like an extended trailer for a bigger (potentially better) movie, the first X-Men movie is a confidently executed introduction to the mutants — filled with powerful Holocaust imagery and strong thematic ideas centered on what life would be like as a mutant. And, of course, jets that live under a basketball court and lots of fights atop and within the Statue of Liberty. (Also, we get to see Hugh Jackman become a movie star in his iconic role of Wolverine.)
Underpinning all the comic-book action, though, was a real sense of stakes and purpose that are still relevant allegories today. The value of mutant life, and the rights afforded (and denied) mutants, weigh heavily in the balance of the conflict between Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen).
29. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
The true strength of James Gunn’s Guardians movies is that, if you take away all the vivid cosmic spectacle, what brings audiences back for more is the dynamic between these “A-holes.” They shouldn’t be in the same room, let alone on the same team, but that’s the definition of family — and Guardians Vol. 2 deepens that bond by pushing Marvel’s weirdest, most dysfunctional family to its extremes.
The movie is an uneven — at times bloated — funfest that falls short of the original’s success. At the same time, it’s also one of Marvel’s more emotionally driven movies, especially whenever the characters must deal with the fallout that comes from Star-Lord's (Chris Pratt) relationship with his enigmatic father, Ego, played by Kurt Russell.
28. Doctor Strange (2016)
Doctor Strange's third act, in which Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sorcerer Supreme traps the Big Bad in a Groundhog Day-esque time loop and talks him into submission, is one of the MCU’s most exceptional climaxes.
Outside of that memorable sequence and director Scott Derrickson’s trippy visuals, Stephen Strange's first live-action movie is a moderately successful and all-but-dismissed entry for the house that Iron Man built. It gave Phase Three a much-needed shot in the arm, acting as a big-budget intro for Strange’s role on the road to Endgame.
Strange's origin story is structurally very similar to that of Tony Stark’s first film, therefore leaving few narrative surprises for fans. But the movie did prove that the tried-and-true formula still works, but fans hoped for something more daring overall from Marvel’s first foray into the magical realm.
27. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
The early, positive momentum the MCU earned in its third year could have easily gone off the rails if Captain America: The First Avenger turned out to be a dud. Flashing back to World War II and focusing on Marvel's most squeaky-clean Avenger was a risk that ultimately paid off.
Director Joe Johnston’s only MCU film brought a much-needed dose of Indiana Jones-style adventure to Marvel's Cinematic Universe, complete with period-accurate aesthetics and a rousing storyline that pits Cap and his Howling Commandos against Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) and HYDRA. Chris Evans' Steve Rogers immediately emerged as Marvel’s compelling moral center, a hero you can’t help but root for. First Avenger is also Marvel’s first blockbuster to end on a very intimate, but earned, emotional beat — featuring one of the best last lines in any of the MCU’s films.
26. Deadpool 2 (2018)
Deadpool 2 isn’t a bad movie, per se, but it lacks the surprise and spontaneity that made the first R-rated hit so much fun.
While undoubtedly entertaining, with more of everything — more characters, more action, and way more blood (it really flirts with an NC-17, which makes the PG-13 cut even more baffling) — Deadpool 2 arrives without much in the way of dividends. And worst of all, the big emotional moment in the first act — the death of Wade Wilson’s gal — is confoundingly undone by the credits. What works in the movie, though, really works, especially Zazie Beetz’s charming and charismatic performance as Domino and Josh Brolin’s Terminator-inspired take on the time-traveling badass Cable.
25. Blade II (2002)
The first sequel to a Marvel movie ever, Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II is not quite as strong as the first, but at least it doesn't settle for rehashing the same formula.
This dark, brooding follow-up forces Blade to team up with his vampire enemies to confront a newer, deadlier breed of suckhead. Unsurprisingly, good things come when you put del Toro in charge of a bloody, R-rated superhero movie.
24. The Wolverine (2013)
The first two acts of James Mangold’s first Wolverine movie capture the brooding, lone-wolf thing that fans love in their Wolverine stories, with this one finally bringing the character's fan-favorite Japan arc to the screen.
The last third of The Wolverine, however, goes off the rails with a questionable and weird showdown between Wolverine and a DNA-sucking Silver Samurai (don't ask) that feels like an out-of-touch studio note come to life. What The Wolverine lacks in tonal consistency it makes up for in an abundance of meaty scenes for Hugh Jackman to play, with the script, co-written by Scott Frank (Out of Sight), finally exploring the emotional and physical consequences Logan must endure as a result of outliving all those he will or could ever love.
Also, bonus points for that very inventive midpoint fight atop a bullet train.
23. Captain Marvel (2019)
Captain Marvel wasn’t quite the creative slam dunk fans wanted it to be, but its themes of empowerment and individualism still resonate despite the uneven filmmaking and flimsy script.
The original intent behind Captain Marvel ('90s-type buddy action movie co-starring a young Nick Fury and Skrulls) is a lot cooler than the actual movie turned out to be. But still, Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers is a very commanding and welcomed new addition to the MCU, as further proved by her appearance in Endgame.
22. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
As Joss Whedon’s follow-up to his 2012 hit, Avengers: Age of Ultron struggles under the weight of all the studio execs’ hands trying to exert their control over it. Their sensibilities and Whedon’s seem in a tug-of-war, with the latter more interested in making the Avengers’ second big-screen mission more personal and painful than their first movie. (Whedon famously said during press rounds for the film that it all but broke him.)
Even though Age of Ultron spends too much time setting up future conflicts, it excels in the here and now with its execution of James Spader’s creepy Ultron. Spader’s mo-cap’d performance is charged with a singular wit and menace, as the advanced A.I. endeavors to wipe out humanity — starting with the Avengers. When Ultron isn’t delivering some of the MCU’s funniest scenes and dialogue, it takes our heroes to some dark and dangerous places. Sure, the handling of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch is underwhelming, but the debut of Vision, the epic Hulkbuster armor battle, and Hawkeye’s bolstered screen time all help to balance out the film’s flaws.
21. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
X-Men: Days of Future Past serves as both a sequel (-ish) to X-Men: First Class and a ret-con of the original X-Men films, as the laws of physics are literally broken via time travel to bridge the two casts.
Singer's first X-Men film since 2003 is one of his best. It's an assured, Terminator-influenced adventure that boasts the biggest production values the series has ever seen, thanks to the franchise getting a budget boost to compete in a post-Avengers world where epic crossover team-ups equal box-office gold.
20. Blade (1998)
Before Blade, the idea of a good Marvel movie was basically unheard of. This sleeper hit in the summer of 1998 turned out to be the little superhero movie that could, wooing audiences through a combination of stylish action, snappy writing, and an entertaining performance from star Wesley Snipes.
It set the standard for every great Marvel movie to come.
19. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Civil War is the kind of superhero movie that's only possible after years of steady world-building and character development. We saw the Avengers at their best in Phases One and Two. This landmark MCU entry chronicles what happens when the ideals the team fights for force them to turn on each other in order to defend them.
Cap vs. Tony is both the film’s primary source of conflict and its emotional core, leading fans to sympathize with either hero’s stance but wishing our friends didn’t have to fight it out. The Russo brothers’ follow-up to their creatively successful Winter Soldier boasts some of the most memorable action scenes of any MCU movie — especially when Tom Holland’s Spider-Man swings into action. But what hooks audiences in is really the fractured bromance between Captain America and Iron Man.
18. Iron Man 3 (2013)
Iron Man 3 tends to get a bad rap, in large part because of its unusual handling of classic Marvel villain the Mandarin. Frankly, we appreciate the subversive take and how committed the movie is to forcing Tony to find who he is outside his suit. Writer-director Shane Black’s brand of humor and approach to character-first action scenes give an extra edge to Downey’s Tony Stark shtick, with the movie giving the actor a welcome chance to explore the PTSD Tony suffered after the Battle of New York.
The threequel is both hilarious and touching in equal measure, and a showcase for how the franchise can bring in new voices while still maintaining a cohesive vision.
17. X-Men: First Class (2011)
Magneto's James Bond-inspired Nazi hunt is just one of the many great things about this 1960s-set prequel, directed and co-written by Matthew Vaughn.
X-Men: First Class is basically "Magneto Begins" or maybe "Professor X: Year One," as we watch the birth of the X-Men — a genesis that finds them struggling to stop World War III by way of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Dropping our mutant heroes into key moments in U.S. history is an inspired choice, one that results in one of the darkest and most powerful final showdowns in comic book movie history: Magneto (Michael Fassbender) vs. Hellfire Club baddie Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). The former’s vendetta for the latter, which started when Shaw took young Erik as a boy during the Holocaust, reaches a bloody conclusion when Magneto wills a Nazi coin through and out of Shaw’s skull.
16. Iron Man (2008)
It's hard to underestimate the importance of Jon Favreau’s first Iron Man movie. This 2008 hit overperformed and marked the beginning of a true shared universe full of Marvel characters whose stories intertwine and evolve over time — a cinematic first.
The film’s third act is a little weak and uneven, but Robert Downey Jr.'s charismatic performance instantly transformed Iron Man into a pop culture icon. Seriously, when has an actor realized a character in a genre piece so fully formed as RDJ does here?
15. Spider-Man (2002)
It took Hollywood way too long to figure out how to bring Spider-Man to the big screen, but his first blockbuster was worth the wait. In fact, fandom and the genre wouldn’t be where they are without it helping spark the modern comic book movie gold rush.
Spider-Man offered a very entertaining origin story, bolstered by Tobey Maguire's lovably dorky Peter Parker and director Sam Raimi's unique, go-for-broke visual flair. The movie doesn't entirely hold up alongside more recent, better superhero projects, but it's safe to say those projects wouldn't exist without Spider-Man paving the way.
14. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Spider-Man: Homecoming is perfect summer matinee entertainment. When it's not throwing set pieces grounded in character at you, it's making you laugh — a lot.
The diverse cast and their effortless dynamic finally gives Peter's high school life justice. And there is life before, and life after, watching Tom Holland's Spidey in action. This is the funniest Spider-Man movie ever, and the best one since 2004. And that killer twist/reveal, when Peter realizes that his crush’s dad is Vulture (Michael Keaton), is one of the best “clutch the pearls” moments the genre has ever pulled off.
13. Big Hero 6 (2014)
Based on a popular manga, this Disney animated film under the Marvel label is one of the most underrated features of the last decade.
Baymax and Hiro’s dynamic is as exciting and heartstring-tugging as E.T. and Elliott’s as Disney and Marvel reach new visual and dramatic storytelling heights with a superhero story with very big ideas on its mind and engaging characters to tell them with.
12. Deadpool (2016)
It's ironic that the one movie set in the X-Men universe that doesn't (technically) feature Wolverine has proven to be the most successful and beloved of the bunch.
Deadpool freed moviegoers from the increasingly convoluted continuity of the main films to deliver a gleefully funny, raunchy, and self-aware R-rated blockbuster about an assassin getting in touch with his inner hero.
11. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
James Gunn made movie history with his first MCU entry. He forever altered the course and tone of the franchise with a four-quadrant crowd-pleaser that resonated with fans in ways that evoked memories of a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
At the time of Guardians' release, Marvel was at the height of its popularity and box-office powers. At the same time, fans were growing quite comfortable and aware of Marvel’s “assembly line” approach to churning out hits. Gunn subverted all that while also protecting and servicing it, with Guardians proving to be the riskiest Marvel movie to date.
Having established heavy hitters like Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man, Marvel needed to prove that fans would follow into space for a movie featuring heroes most casual fans had never heard of. Flash-forward a few years later, and characters like Drax, Groot, and Rocket Raccoon are household names. The movie serves as a reminder that the MCU’s success is a mix of both brand recognition and quality control.
10. X2: X-Men United (2003)
X2 is the Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan of the X-Men films. The riveting script forces our heroes to team up with their enemy to battle an even bigger threat: Colonel Stryker (Brian Cox), who wants to wipe out mutantkind.
The character-driven story and impressive set pieces — including a harrowing dogfight featuring the X-Jet vs. military fighters and lots of tornados — make X2 one of the best comic book films ever.
9. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Marvel’s Thor franchise was the weakest link in the MCU before Thor: Ragnarok came along. The God of Thunder’s solo outings struggled to connect with audiences the way Iron Man and Captain America’s did.
Luckily, the third time proved to be the charm, thanks to co-writer and director Taika Waititi. He brought his witty and off-kilter sense of humor to Thor while putting the hero on a technicolor cosmic road trip. This endlessly rewatchable threequel is the movie equivalent of an '80s rock album cover or painted van mural come to life. At times, the rampant silliness risks undercutting the more dramatic elements of the story, but, as a whole, Waititi's take on the God of Thunder is the definitive one.
8. Logan (2017)
With the Academy Award-nominated Logan, director and co-writer James Mangold set out to deliver a definitive, R-rated comic book movie for adults, one that explores the cost of being an aging superhero full of bone-deep regret.
The end result is a violent and, at times, tear-jerking affair that makes it hard to let go of Hugh Jackman's iconic take on the character.
7. The Avengers (2012)
Phase One of the MCU culminated with Joss Whedon’s game-changing The Avengers, the first movie to bring together Iron Man, Black Widow, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, and Hawkeye in one place.
The film isn’t a perfect one, but it is a very great time at the movies, with Whedon's energetic and (at times) poignant script fueling a terrific team dynamic. Plus, the final battle in New York remains one of the most thrilling sequences in all of the MCU. Other standouts include Mark Ruffalo's Hulk, which instantly made us forget every incarnation of the Green Guy that had come before, and the return of Tom Hiddleston’s manipulative Loki.
6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
With Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directors Joe and Anthony Russo put a stake in the ground and said, “This is the creative benchmark all future MCU movies must measure up to.” From their approach to the endlessly inventive action scenes to the quieter moments between Steve Rogers and Natasha as they go on the run from the very agency they fought beside, the Russos elevated both the action movie genre and Marvel’s A-game.
Winter Soldier also solidified Cap’s franchise as the source of the major turning points that would ripple-effect throughout the entire MCU — and it did it all by using a comic book movie as a way to deliver Marvel’s take on a political thriller. The HYDRA conspiracy makes for a compelling narrative through line, and the dynamic between Chris Evans' Cap and Sebastian Stan's corrupted Bucky Barnes gives the movie all the emotional weight fans could ask for.
5. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Where Sam Raimi’s original Spidey film tends to show its age in dated CG and uneven pacing, its sequel is still pretty much the pre-Marvel Studios movie to beat.
This emotionally compelling summer hit, with a gut punch of a final shot, has everything we loved about the original but with significantly more drama and emotional stakes. Raimi's inspired sophomore outing also delivers by far the best villain in the series: Alfred Molina's Doctor Octopus.
Doc Ock and Spidey’s fight on and around a speeding train is a perfect encapsulation of what the film's story sets out to do: execute blockbuster-friendly thrills that service the emotional and thematic tentpoles holding them up. This then-novel approach was enough to establish Spider-Man 2 as one of the greatest superhero movies ever made.
4. Black Panther (2018)
Black Panther ranks among those rare cultural events that only comes along a few times a decade, if we are lucky.
Ryan Coogler’s Oscar-nominated film — the first comic book movie ever nominated for Best Picture — is both an action-packed blockbuster and an intimate epic. The stirring set pieces work so well because of how invested the film is in the drama of T’Challa (an exceptional Chadwick Boseman) and his complicated rise to inheriting his father’s throne.
Along the way, Black Panther gives the MCU several of its most iconic scenes and characters, especially those featuring Shuri (Letitia Wright) and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). The latter’s death is truly tragic and emotionally devastating — especially for a movie released by parent company Disney, which is rarely this overtly political in its biggest blockbusters. It’s a perfect ending to one of the best cinematic stories Hollywood has ever told.
3. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Fans had been clamoring for a Miles Morales-lead Spider-Man movie for years. The wait was more than worth it, thanks to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Before Spider-Verse, fans had never seen or experienced either a comic book movie or animated film like this. Its Oscar-winning filmmakers — co-directors Peter Ramsey, Bob Persichetti, and Rodney Rothman, alongside producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller — pushed the medium to rewarding creative and emotional lengths, in ways that would make many live-action entries envious. In doing so, the filmmakers also made Miles the big screen's most relatable Spider-Man; he’s struggling to figure out who he is and how to accept what he has to be.
While the theme of identity is often a load-bearing column in movies like this, rarely has it been explored as deeply and profoundly as it is here. Throwing in other Spideys from the multiverse, each with distinct personalities, is a master stroke as well.
When the movie isn’t making you belly-laugh, it has you watching in wide-eyed awe at its literal ripped-from-the-comics visual aesthetic. The inventive visuals and the meta take on the source material made Spider-Verse an endlessly rewatchable classic.
2. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Avengers: Infinity War centers on baddie Thanos (Josh Brolin) and his Infinity Stone heist, with our favorite Avengers caught in the middle of this intergalactic caper that puts Earth (especially Wakanda) in the Mad Titan’s crosshairs. This bold narrative choice makes the villain the main character of the movie, which leads to some of the MCU’s most powerful dramatic scenes as our favorite heroes are forced to confront their limitations by suffering significant loss.
That’s the genius of the Russo brothers and their deft handling of the dense screenplay written by their Civil War scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. They have every major MCU hero at their disposal, and they don’t shy away from making sure they and the audience have real stakes to grapple with — in between the many GIF-able fight scenes and one-liners, of course.
Infinity War is top-tier blockbuster filmmaking, a thrilling collection of set pieces and emotional beats that culminate in a cinematic cliffhanger that is an all-timer.
1. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
The Russo brothers conclude over a decade of movies set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Avengers: Endgame, a fitting, near-perfect, three-hour epic conclusion. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes pull a Back to the Future, reaching back in time to key moments in the MCU to undo Thanos’ snap and bring back the friends they lost. Endgame unfolds with big emotional stakes and some of the best character moments and performances in the entire MCU, especially from Downey. Iron Man’s death sees the hero, who as the “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist,” goes from selfish to selfless — paying off a character arc that was set up more than a decade ago.
Despite the narrative’s considerable moving parts and the dozens of characters this three-hour movie has to service, Endgame pulls it off effortlessly and delivers a wildly entertaining theatrical experience a decade in the making.