Marvel movies have been part of our popular culture for the better part of the last 20 years, but you might forget that given the dominance of Marvel Cinematic Universe films these days. You know, that whole kit and kaboodle encompassing Iron Man on through Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame, which busts into theaters next week.
The MCU isn't where Marvel begins or ends on screen, though. With this in mind, I decided to take a look back at all of Marvel's movie franchises (defined as having more than one movie in the series) and rank them from the best to the most regrettable.
In an effort to share the power bestowed on me to compile such an Earth-shaking list, I turned to my colleagues here in Louisville, Kentucky, where we busted out a white board on wheels and undertook the serious task of deciding just how bad Ben Affleck's Daredevil was and what exactly to do with Nicholas Cage's Ghost Rider.
Here's our ranking, from best to worst:
Ensembles movies can easily sprawl into unwieldy, disjointed disasters. Somehow, the Avengers have avoided all that. And after four years of movies leading up to the first Avengers installment of the MCU, there was a lot riding on this first point of culmination for the franchise that brought together the likes of Captain America, Iron Man and the rest of the high-powered crew.
Since 2012, we've been all about waiting for that next team-up, curious how the various relationships will play out, inching our way toward the highest stakes we've seen yet with Endgame, out April 26. From the original, to Age of Ultron, to Infinity War, it would be an understatement to say audiences were excited. Just consider that seven years after Joss Whedon's original entry, tickets for the upcoming Avengers: Endgame broke Fandango's presale record in just six hours.
2. Captain America
Captain America. He's quite a guy -- self-sacrificing with a ram-rod-straight sense of ethical duty. Maybe most importantly, Cap is reliable. That evenness translates to the franchise, which has been one of the most consistent of the lot. While franchises don't always produce a second movie that's as good as the first, Captain America came back even stronger with The Winter Soldier. Plus, this franchise has also done a lot of heavy-lifting in terms of setting up Infinity War and, ultimately, Endgame.
Let's get something out of the way: Spider-Man 3 was terrible. In fact, it was almost awful enough to tarnish the legacy of the Sam Raimi trilogy, because now when you think of Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker, you think of ill-advised guyliner... and that cringe-worthy dance number.
However, we're focused on the impact of Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 -- evidence that you can make fun, satisfying, heartfelt comic book movies capable of burrowing into our pop culture psyche (hello, upside-down Spidey kiss).
Those two entries from 2002 and 2004 helped create the kind of interest in terms of both box office and critical acclaim (domestically, the first did $114.84 million in its opening weekend, and the second did $88.16 million and is a Metacritic Must See) in superhero movies that's made it sustainable for Marvel to make a 20-something-part story arc in the years since.
Also consider the strength of Alfred Molina's Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2. What's scarier than a good man corrupted? Turns out making a villain relatable and even a bit sympathetic makes for a more compelling battle.
4. Iron Man
Back in 2008, Iron Man was first in a long line of MCU movies. This franchise helped establish a strong foundation for all MCU offerings that followed. It also gave us Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark, who is narcissistic, vexing, funny and kind of an ass, but a character you can't help but like. Iron Man also helped clue the MCU in on how to balance tone and stakes, pushing Stark's humor even while chaos is unfolding.
The Merc with a Mouth garnered attention when it came out in 2016, R-rating and all. Dripping in smart-assery and digs at the other inhabitants of its genre, Deadpool was just the counter-programming we needed to balance out the glossy and at times over-earnest MCU. Deadpool also gets a tip of the hat for consistency -- Deadpool 2 was just about as joke-packed and irreverent as the first.
In assembling this ranking, we made a call to keep all the X-Men movies together given Days of Future Past essentially fixed and linked back to X3. Both sets of films have had inconsistencies, starting strong but battling weakness in the third iterations. Rolling Stone said of X-Men: Last Stand that "the third and weakest chapter in the X-Men series is a blatant attempt to prove there is still life in the franchise." Meanwhile, X-Men Apocalypse's villain was… blue with a propensity for chewing up scenery. Even X3's writer Simon Kinberg told ScreenCrush in 2014 that "there are a lot of things about 'X3' that I love and there are a lot of things that I regret." In any case, the later movies tried to clean up some of the messiness the earlier ones left behind. And yes, we did also make allowances here for the size of the franchise.
7. Guardians of the Galaxy
When Guardians of the Galaxy came out in 2014 with its '70s rock soundtrack, it brought an important insight -- superhero movies don't have to be stifling and take themselves too seriously. They can be funny. While the 2017 installment wasn't quite a strong as the original, we're giving it serious points for paving the way for the likes of the surprisingly funny Thor: Ragnarok.
When we put Ant-Man right smack in the middle of this ranking, we do it with love. Why? Because Ant-Man is fine. The world isn't about to end. Half the population is about to disappear. There are stakes, yes, but they're a break from the destruction and catastrophe the MCU wreaks. Also, at this point we've seen so many action sequences it's easy to get numb to them. Ant-Man gets props for re-energizing fights by, you know, getting Thomas the Tank Engine in the mix.
One word: Logan.
Three movies in, Thor has managed to produce one of the most fun Marvel movies we've seen (Ragnarok, helmed by Taika Waititi) and one of the most ponderous, dull ones (The Dark World, directed by Alan Taylor). Ragnarok was everything The Dark World wasn't -- like good. Who knew giving the god of thunder a sense of humor would make for a more enjoyable viewing experience?
While reviewers gave 1998's Blade props for its visual style, the trilogy was inconsistent. Of Blade 2, Slate said "There's no script to speak of," and Blade Trinity earned this sick burn: "If ever there was a case for quitting while you're behind, this Blade is it," from The Washington Post. However, as The Ringer pointed out in 2018, the original Blade accomplished two important things: essentially launching the superhero movie industry, and placing a person of color in the lead role.
12. The Amazing Spider-Man
In short, there was no solid reason to make this iteration of Spider-Man. Granted, Andrew Garfield does a good job capturing teenage boy nervous energy. But it's not enough to save what feels like long, un-noteworthy deviations from Sam Raimi's earlier movies. The Amazing Spider-Man flirts with the hour mark before Peter Parker gets into something resembling a suit. Also, who is prepared to watch Jed Bartlett die on screen? Not us.
13. Fantastic Four
It's almost hard to believe our beloved Cap originally came from the critically panned Fantastic Four franchise. The original? Oft referred to as "juvenile." And when Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer came out in 2007 (two years after its predecessor), it smacked of trying to milk this whole superhero movie thing for maximum dollar before leaving the genre a desiccated husk. As Entertainment Weekly put it, "If you swept the cosmic dust of the superhero boom into a flimsy dustpan, you'd have the Fantastic Four franchise."
14. Ghost Rider
If you're like me, you might have forgotten that Ghost Rider and its sequel Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance even happened. It did, though. Nicholas Cage portrayed Johnny Blaze and the The New York Times asked the important question, "Is the world ready for a flaming Nicholas Cage?" Meanwhile the New York Daily News called it a "vast an array of spiritual gibberish, literary poppycock and pure flummery." We cringed hard at the CGI effects, which probably should have been a lot better for 2007. The real question remains, though: How did Sam Elliott get dragged into this?
By the early 2000s, superhero movies smelled like money. Unfortunately, we ended up with Daredevil and the Jennifer Garner-led follow-up Elektra, two films that still take casual beatings for how bad they were. If you need a refresher on just how bad, consider that the Daredevil trailer alone contains the lines "time to give the devil his due" and "I prowl the rooftops and alleyways at night searching for justice -- blind justice."
Elektra, meanwhile, claims a whole 10% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 42 on CNET sister site Metacritic and might have put Marvel off female superhero movies until, well, this year. A February Times piece on Marvel's "woman problem" referenced an email exchange that surfaced out of the 2014 Sony hack where then-Marvel CEO Isaac Perlmutter listed Elektra and other disastrous female-led superhero movies.
CNET's Andrew Gebhart and Chris Monroe contributed to this report.
How to watch every Marvel Cinematic Universe film in the right orderSee all photos
Originally published April 6, 2019.