Published March 3, 2022
MCU PHASE ONE: RANKED
NOTE: OBVIOUS SPOILER WARNING FOR ANYONE THAT HASN’T SEEN THESE FILMS.
In the past couple months or so, I found myself motivated to run through all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s films after really enjoying my watch of Spider-Man: No Way Home. I’ve kept up with the franchise for a long time now, but I was starving for some revisits before they continue with more installments this year; specifically Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
With that came some inspiration to compile my thoughts on each of the franchise’s four phases, starting with the first. Ranging from Iron Man to The Avengers, you’re about to see how well Marvel’s earliest era holds up today.
6. THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008)
All I can say is that struggles are bound to happen early in something’s lifetime.
Following the greatness of “Iron Man“, the MCU quickly prepared itself for another release only a month later. This one was themed around the infamous Hulk, whose action-packed demeanor and unique backstory seemed perfect for a modern film adaptation.
Unfortunately, this was nowhere close to expectation or the quality of the surrounding MCU films. It’s poorly paced, predictable, and tiring to sit through; everything an experience themed around the Hulk of all people shouldn’t be.
It probably peaked in entertainment in the first half hour or so, marked by an exciting special forces team chase-down scene and a unique opening setting for a Marvel film. That didn’t save it from slowly deteriorating into a pit of sluggish scientific and military scenes, though. By the time the engagement picked up near the end, you’re already waiting for it to finish and wondering how they went from “Iron Man” to this.
We can at least credit Edward Norton for a solid performance, although Mark Ruffalo surpassed his approach to the Bruce Banner character years later.
5. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)
This is one of the more acclaimed films of this MCU era, but I’ve still never fully gotten it.
It seems like one of those where it’s technically impressive, but just can’t click with me any further. It’s great visually, has a concrete plotline and respectable acting performances, but I never found myself invested throughout.
One of the most refreshing aspects of this franchise is the expansive, unique world it builds, but First Avenger felt rather closed in. This came with the very distant place it finds itself in Marvel’s timeline, so that sort of characteristic was inevitable. Cap himself wasn’t interesting enough to offset how stagnant it was, and only the action scenes made up for that in bursts.
It’s definitely an interesting World War 2-based experience – and very necessary to understand Cap’s character – but doesn’t stand as a long-time favorite in my book.
4. IRON MAN 2 (2010)
The sequel to the MCU’s original film isn’t quite bad by any means, but definitely finds itself in this weird state of averageness that’s hard to ignore.
Iron Man is arguably my favorite Marvel superhero, so I was naturally a big fan of the first installment; the second, however, leaned a bit too far in the wrong direction. Tony Starks didn’t feel as well-written a character here, lacking that depth and development that works so well in his other titular films.
The bigger roles we saw from characters like War Machine and Nick Fury were appreciated, and it had its fair share of exciting moments (mostly in the first half). It slowly declined in interest, though, and Whiplash was very one-dimensional.
All of these things culminated to deliver a sequel that wasn’t bad, but definitely forgettable. It’s the furthest thing from a “must-watch” you’ll find in these six films.
3. THOR (2011)
The first Thor is probably the most underrated of this batch. By no means exceptional, but better than most imply.
It’s a bit of an awkward watch, balancing between the serious tones of Asgardian lore and seeing Thor slowly adapt to being on Earth. For this reason, the film never quite found its footing to execute its ideas to their full potential; that didn’t strip it of some great moments, though.
It definitely hit the mark on humor, and the pacing manages to handle itself despite the film’s over-ambitious nature. With that being said, it didn’t exactly push beyond that likable level. It’s something you could always sit down and enjoy, but will rarely have you wanting to offer high acclaim.
This renders it as one of the undeveloped Phase One‘s better films, but a much less standout experience in the wide scope of the MCU.
2. Iron Man (2008)
It’s clear that Marvel wanted to start with a bang, and that they did.
The first film in the Cinematic Universe is, to this day, one of my favorites. Tony Starks presented himself as an unlikable asshole with no desire to give credit to anyone but himself, yet I still wanted to root for him throughout. He managed to develop into a premier hero by the end of the film, with an amazing plot tying that together.
It’s fast-paced and built a unique world for the viewer to get lost in, properly dividing time between Tony Starks becoming Iron Man and managing his outside relationships as well. It wasn’t some freak story that jumped straight into action or a drag to watch; it fell right in that stable sweet spot, instead slowly showing sides of who would become one of the MCU’s main faces.
Simply put, it’s a decently sized gap between this and the other three Avenger backstories in Phase One. I’m not here to sit around and bash the others, but Iron Man is just a true gem.
1. The Avengers (2012)
However, nothing tops the moment that brought it all together.
I was honestly torn between this and Iron Man as far as favoritism goes, but this held it to an unbelievably high standard. Even though my opinions on the Phase One movies aren’t all positive, any weak moments were more than made up for with this one.
It managed to weave together Tony Starks’ development, Hulk’s unique character, Thor’s inter-planetary travelling and Captain America’s re-introduction to society perfectly. It wasn’t awkward, forced, or messy in any form, which is the most impressive aspect of it all.
It remained entertaining from start to finish, and the plot failed to feel stretched out or unimportant. The final fight scene was also one of the best in MCU history; you could actually argue it was the best, but the competition is definitely there to create some hesitation on that take.
The Avengers‘ status as an all-inclusive movie that gave every character some relevance created the formula for future MCU films, and was definitely the first installment that managed to fully showcase what would make this franchise so special.
The peak of Phase One, and still one of the greatest superhero movies in general.