We're going from worst to best, so we have to start somewhere. "The Incredible Hulk" from 2008 (not to be confused with "Hulk" from 2003) isn't a bad movie. Yes, you could totally skip it and not miss a story beat in the MCU saga, but that doesn't make it bad. It just means that the stuff that happens here has little bearing on everything after.
That said, it's certainly not a great movie. It failed to make the relationship between Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) and Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) worth caring about and was devoid of the humor the MCU is now known for.
The biggest issue, however, is with Bruce himself. He doesn't want to turn into the Hulk, but at the end of the day, that's all you want him to do. It's difficult to sustain this kind of dynamic for two hours and have it not get repetitive, frustrating and a little boring. This is something Marvel Studios now understands. The Hulk probably works best in an ensemble like the Avengers movies or the upcoming "Thor: Ragnarok."
The final fight between Hulk and The Abomination still holds up for its visceral, kinetic fun and inventiveness, and I still love the last shot (before the Tony Stark cameo) of Bruce with the glowing green eyes.
Best moment: Hulk clapping his hands together with such force that he essentially snuffs out an explosion that had only started a split second before.
The best thing in "Iron Man 2" is Robert Downey Jr. -- he's just as charismatic and interesting as he was in the first movie. But this just feels like a stopgap. "Iron Man 2" has a lot of heavy lifting to do, introducing Black Widow and War Machine, and establishing S.H.I.E.L.D. All of which felt like it diluted the central conflict in the film: Iron Man versus his dark past.
The film takes some really far-fetched leaps of logic (the solution to the arc reactor problem is just silly) and many of the narrative decisions don't come from character, but instead feel like they're shoehorned in to fit where the filmmakers wanted the movie to end.
Still, the performances are great across the board and the action is definitely entertaining. I'm just glad Marvel was able to learn from a lot of the mistakes it made in these early days.
Best moment: Iron Man and War Machine teaming up to destroy a bunch of robots. Simple, effective and fun.
The biggest problem with "The Dark World" is that it services Loki better than it does Thor. As a result, Thor, played by Chris Hemsworth, is one of the movie's least interesting characters. He's trumped only by Malekith -- Marvel's dullest villain yet -- in his inability to make the audience care about his needs and wants.
Still, Tom Hiddleston is completely dialed in here as Loki and is easily the most interesting character of the bunch. It looks great -- there are some awesome and inventive action sequences. It's just too bad that Thor the character gets lost somewhere along the way. Hopefully he gets a much better run at it in 2017's "Thor: Ragnarok."
Best moment: In his battle with Malekith, Thor is teleported from Earth to an entirely different planet without his trusty hammer, Mjolnir. The weapon (which always comes to him when he beckons it) beelines out of Earth's atmosphere on a course to meet the mighty Asgardian light years away.
"Thor" does a good job of establishing the Norse god as a being who could exist in the same world as Iron Man. "Your ancestors called it magic and you call it science," Thor says. "Where I come from they are one and the same."
Hemsworth and Hiddleston turn in star-making performances. But the love story with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and some of the sitcom-like humor (which doesn't hold up well after repeat viewings) keep this from being truly great.
Still, the Shakespearean family dynamic (especially between the two leads) and Anthony Hopkins as Odin hold it together long enough to make for an entertaining film with some surprising turns toward the end. It's a classic redemption tale told well that never takes itself too seriously, but brings in enough weight to make the relationships believable.
Best moment: After bringing the Frost Giants to Asgard to kill his father, Loki turns the tables on them at the last possible second.
Director Jon Favreau set the bar high with the first outing of everyone's favorite genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist.
Because this is where it all began, the film will always have a special place in my heart. Upon subsequent viewings, however, it becomes very clear that the first half of the movie is far better than the second half, which suffers from a few too many superhero movie tropes. I'd watch Tony Stark invent stuff in his garage for eight hours if I had the chance!
"Iron Man" is still an incredibly fun movie, but Marvel has gotten better.
Best moment: The entire opening scene, ending with the title card. Immediately gets you invested in this character and his story.
This was the first MCU film to get the love story right. The mutual respect and adoration between Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) that organically grew as the story progressed was something few films (superhero or otherwise) nail as well as this one does.
Evans' earnest portrayal of the self-sacrificing guy who just doesn't know when to quit only works as well as it does because Atwell's Peggy is a real person with her own arc. She isn't at all marginalized and isn't there to motivate the hero. To the script's credit, their characters operate almost equally narratively, elevating the film way above lesser "love interest" fare.
"Ant-Man" may be the MCU movie I was the least excited about (I only saw it three times in the theater). I was never a huge fan of the character in the comics and there was nothing in the trailers that gave me cause to feel differently.
And yet, here it is in my top 10. It's one of those low-key movies that just keeps getting better.
Paul Rudd is perfect as Ant-Man, and the movie showcases his powers and heroism, making you care about why he becomes a hero. I love this movie. Never thought I'd ever get the chance to say that about a film about a guy who can shrink down really small and talk to ants.
By the time Marvel Studios announced "Doctor Strange," the company was already on such a roll, with untested properties such as "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Ant-Man" finding success, that I really never had any doubt it would be a hit. And judging by its $85 million opening weekend in the US, I was right.
And the success is absolutely warranted. "Doctor Strange" is the best single character origin movie the studio has done to date.
Sure, the humor is hit or miss and there are some confusing character motivations on first viewing, but the cast, the quality of the acting, visual effects and details (the movie never lets us forget the heavy price Strange pays for choosing to be a sorcerer) elevate this to something much greater than the sum of its parts. "Doctor Strange" proves that magic and sorcerers can work in the MCU by flipping a few movie tropes on their heads and having an abundance of really cool ideas.
Yes, Earth has wizards now. And thanks to Doctor Strange they're badass wizards who will kick your ass and look cool as hell doing it.
Best moment: Strange forces Dormammu to kill him over and over and over again until the demon can't take the endless monotony of it all and gives the Doctor what he wants. A bargain.
"Spider-Man 2" (2004) is one of the best superhero movies ever made and that train sequence is one of the most memorable action scenes ever put to film, in any genre. From an action standpoint nothing in "Homecoming" stands up to that train sequence and yet, "Homecoming" is easily the better movie of the two.
There's a realness to the characters, relationships and the world that make this perhaps to most grounded MCU film so far, but thankfully the spectacle keeps pace and is almost as satisfying as the character interactions.
It's also really, really funny.
Best moment: Peter Parker, the boy truly becomes the Spider-MAN.
Imagine living in a reality where this didn't work. Where all the pieces failed to come together in such a rousing, entertaining way. Despite all the problems in this world, if there's one thing I'm grateful for it's that "The Avengers" exists in the same universe I do.
I don't really know why it works as well as it does. "The Avengers" is just really fun to watch. It's not a perfect film -- the first third is somewhat shaky -- but the last two thirds easily make up for it. While the novelty of watching characters from different franchises interact in the same movie has waned, the interactions still feel right and are entertianing as hell.
Best moment: The single tracking shot of superhero teamwork bliss I thought I'd never live to see captured in live-action.
This is the best Iron Man movie so far, thanks to a sharp, hilarious script and strong character work. With Tony Stark out of the armor for most of the running time, the film really has time to dig deep into who this guy really is.
The villains are credible and intimidating and the final fight with Aldrich Killian is one of the best comic fights of all time. The film is diabolical in its ability to make the audience think it's going one direction only to turn a cliche or trope on its ear, with mostly hilarious results.
Not everyone appreciated "the twist," but I did. It made me confront how quickly I bought into the prepackaged obvious villain instead of the real threat.
Best moment: The midair rescue of Air Force One is spectacular because it's an actual real-life stunt and one of the more cleverly heroic action sequences you'll see anywhere.
"Age of Ultron" asks some interesting questions of its heroes. Why do they do this? How long can they continue doing this? It goes deeper with the characters than any other Marvel movie before it.
While the first film is one of the best examples of a purely fun blockbuster with enough depth to keep it interesting, "Ultron" is a completely different beast. It takes more narrative chances and as a result (at least from a character standpoint) has bigger payoffs.
"Age of Ultron" isn't "The Avengers" and it isn't trying to be. It's something much more interesting, thought-provoking and (dare I say it) profound.
This film contains the best character work of any of the previous movies. Not everyone gets an interesting arc (sorry, Thor) but pretty much every Avenger is confronted with intriguing character challenges that are handled in the most elegant way.
Best moment: "The Vision, Iron Man and Thor shoot Ultron with their beams!!" is the way I would describe my favorite moment in this film if I were 8 years old.
Great characters you immediately care about, interacting with each other in fun ways, coupled with well-directed action -- that's why "Guardians" is so good. From the late title card to the final dance-off, the movie strongly establishes its tone and doesn't deviate for over two hours.
The fact that people actually watched this movie and came to care about a talking raccoon and a walking tree is a testament to the skills of Marvel, the director (James Gunn), the writers and actors. You'd have to be ultra nitpicky to find any fault here.
Best moment: The team comes together to share their pain in the overwhelming power of the Infinity Stone. It still makes me tear up.
To say that this is the best Thor movie is not saying enough. To say that this is the best version of the Thor character in any movie (including the first two Avengers) is still not saying enough.
"Thor: Ragnarok" feels like when your favorite comic gets a new creative team and they have a slightly different interpretation of the character. That doesn't always work, but it absolutely works here.
It's funny, it's weird, it's creative and completely entertaining.
Best moment: The Willy Wonka-esque introduction of The Grandmaster.
"Winter Soldier" is "Three Days of the Condor" mixed with "The Raid," with a little "Heat" and "Return of the Jedi" thrown in for good measure. If you never thought of Captain America as an interesting character, this is the film with the best chance to change your mind. Before "Civil War," of course.
The movie takes some bold actions and its ramifications are still being felt years later in the MCU. Almost as much time is spent developing the characters of Natasha Romanov and Nick Fury.
The script is taut with enough surprises, texture and detail to surprise even the harshest superhero movie critic. And until "Civil War," the action set pieces were the best we'd yet seen in the MCU.
Best moment: The highway battle, culminating in a fight between Steve and the Winter Soldier, is one of the best action scenes in any movie ever.
There is a scene at the end of this movie that absolutely wrecks me. It's a spoiler so I won't go into it, but it features Cat Stevens' "Father and Son." And as I watched it unfold I was surprised at just how much it was affecting me. It's a beautiful sequence and it's the moment I realized that I was watching my favorite MCU movie.
There's so much character depth here, it's almost staggering. Story arcs are interwoven between multiple characters and everything matters. Every scene and every line seems to have meaning behind it. And I'm not even going to go into the amazing effects, editing, action scenes and acting. If you thought the filmmakers used '70s and '80s pop music effectively in the first movie, this is on another level. The first Guardians had catchier tunes, but the ones in the sequel have much more meaning.
Again, the movie is all about how its characters relate to each other. By the last shot in the film, there were tears running down my face. As the onscreen characters realized what they'd lost, the path they'd chosen and what it meant for their opportunity for redemption, I was in awe at the movie's staggering accomplishment.
Best moment: The whole sequence that begins with "Father and Son" is payoff after payoff and completely wrecks me.
The third Captain America movie, "Civil War," takes the pure popcorn fun of the first Avengers movie, adds the grittiness of "The Winter Soldier" and bathes it in the character depth of "Age of Ultron." I got everything I wanted from this movie. Black Panther and Spider-Man are perfectly represented and woven seamlessly into the central conflict.
But what really surprised me was just how affecting it was. There were several times that I found myself getting really emotional. The movie takes everything that has come before in the MCU and uses that baggage to make an even better film than would have been possible otherwise. Thanks to this movie I'll never be able to watch any of the previous films in the same way. It really does change everything and I love it for that.
Best moment: The airport fight is a comic book superhero fight scene come to life. Not just in the action, but maybe even more in the characterization and banter. It has never been done as well as it is here.
This is the first movie ever that, in order to get the most out of its narrative, absolutely requires you to have seen at least most of the 18 movies in the series that preceded it. That's not criticism, but I think one of the movie's biggest strengths.
As the culmination of this series of movies that has spanned over 10 years, it works absolutely best the more familiar you are with the huge amount of characters that appear in the film.
Still, even if you've only a passing familiarity with thes series, there's still enough funny, spectacle, and suspense to sate your summer movie blockbuster hunger. And a fairly straightforward plot means it's unlikely you'll be too lost.
Best moment: Thor's entrance into a certain battle is a thing I've waited my entire life to see.