Marvel's The Avengers
This was the first real superhero team-up film and it still shines like a glittering infinity gem. The MCU group films have gone bigger (Avengers: Age of Ultron) and more dramatic (Captain America: Civil War), but this one has an all-around balance that we’ll never forget. It’s bursting with wit and inspired pairings, and by the time the ending battle of New York comes around, you’re either swept up in the superhero insanity or you don’t have a pulse. Every character gets a payoff (even Hawkeye), which speaks to the patience and slow-burn development the MCU put into its world - making Avengers an unforgettable experience.
A flawless cast, a gripping story, and some incredible direction from Ryan Coogler makes this one of the best comic book movies period, whether from Marvel or not. This powerful, gorgeous, and well-balanced battle between King T’Challa and Michael B. Jordan’s antagonistic Killmonger is a layered, lethal, and fantastical experience. Letitia Wright’s Shuri steals every single scene she’s in, while the Afrofuturist design makes the look of this film something we’ve never seen before. Wakanda Forever!
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
We grew to love Steve Rogers during Captain America: The First Avenger, but this movie, a subersion of classic spy films, demanded that he decide what he truly believes and how far he's willing to go to defend those convictions. The tension in this movie is insane, only letting up for a host of incredible fight sequences along the way. The elevator scene, the highway fight, and the climactic battle of the helicarriers all stand out— but it's the story that comes out on top. With a whispered "Hail Hydra," the film cemented its place as one of the smartest superhero movies ever made.
This movie should not work. Based in Norse mythology, the film also weaves in a hefty dose of Jack Kirby-inspired psychadelia. It’s one of the funniest comic book films ever made and an inspiring meditation on immigration. Taika Waititi is an artful, subversive, and bonkers-beyond-belief genius, and we have no idea who decided to give him the reins to the third Thor film— we’re just glad that Marvel had the balls to do it. Chris Hemsworth has never been better as the title character, and, thanks to a supporting cast featuring the likes of Jeff Goldblum, the film is full of love, humor, and charm. Plus, the movie actually lives up to its title and destroys Asgard. That's no small feat.
The most somber entry on the list, this film about a dying warrior's final mission of redemption is alternatingy hilarious, violent, and completely tragic. Capping off a relationship that we’ve enjoyed for years, Wolverine and Professor Xavier pass a legacy on to the next generation while proving what lengths the truly good will go to in order to make a sacrifice count. There are no more guns in this valley.
Captain America: Civil War
Two words: Airport. Fight. In all fairness, this film has so much more to offer, but it's hard not to start with dessert when it's sitting right in front of us. The scene is utterly epic, giving us comic book action that we'd never thought possible. A new Spider-Man pops up and almost steals the whole thing with a modicum of screentime while Paul Rudd's Ant-Man similarly gives him a run for his money. Ant-Man, of all people! The film pulls off a version of the Civil War storyline that's very different from the comics, but finds satisfying amounts of justification on both sides that result in a perfectly divisive conclusion.
The film that launched the MCU is here for utterly perfect casting. Robert Downey Jr. was born to play Tony Stark. The charming, hysterical film is loaded with Stark-snark and plenty of pathos. We're already rooting for him by the time he starts to put his first suit together in a cave and we don’t stop until after he throws down with Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane. Ending with one of the greatest, secret-identiy-shrugging lines of any superhero movie, this was always going to kick off a franchise. It's just too good.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Nobody thought that a movie that featured a talking raccoon, a sentient tree, and the schlubby guy from Parks and Recreation would work, but Marvel Studios took the risk.. - and wow, are we glad that they did. The success of the MCU's first walk on the cosmic side was as dazzling as it was funny, with wit and whimsy bursting from the screen as Dave Bautista broke out of the film as quickly as the soundtrack. It's bright, fun, and touching, especially in its very silly, yet very heartwarming finale.
The best of the original Sam Raimi Spidey films, Spider-Man 2 had a depth and gravitas that made us realize how deep a superhero movie could truly be. A hero is only as strong as the villain he goes up against and Alfred Molina nails this version of Doc Ock. The surprisingly sympathetic Doc Ock and his mechanized tentacles give us all of the best action sequences in the film, with the train battle being a particular highlight. Mary Jane gets a few moments of joy (finally) and Spider-Man resuming his superhero-dom is one of comic book movies' greatest moments.
X2: X-Men United
The best of the X-Men films (Logan aside), the film opens in operatic fashion and doesn't slow down. Wolverine and Storm each get huge moments, but Sir Ian McKellen's performance as Magneto steals the movie. His escape from his plastic prison is an all-time classic scene, while his "god among insects" speech to Pyro is one of the best moments in any superhero film. The on-again-off-again relationship with Magneto and his X-men adversaries is as complex as it is beautiful, and here it proves just how exciting a well-written conflict can be.