Ranking the 18 Marvel movies that came before 'Avengers: Infinity War'

  • Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), left, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Wong (Benedict Wong) prepare to fight the mad titan Thanos in "Avengers: Infinity War," opening April 26 in theaters.

    Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), left, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Wong (Benedict Wong) prepare to fight the mad titan Thanos in "Avengers: Infinity War," opening April 26 in theaters. Marvel Studios

 
 
Posted4/25/2018 9:05 AM

Ten years and 18 movies after "Iron Man" debuted in 2008, "Avengers: Infinity War" arrives in theaters this weekend as a "season finale" of sorts for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The unparalleled experiment in franchise filmmaking has grossed almost $15 billion at the worldwide box office, rejuvenated careers, christened superstars and vaulted directors to the upper echelon. It has answered the complaints about superhero saturation with a parade of good-to-great movies, with no end in sight. It's movie history, quite simply, and we are living it.

So before the mad titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) takes on the entire MCU cast, let's rank and recap the past 18 installments in the series:

 

Yes, the Edward Norton edition of "The Incredible Hulk" is technically part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; Norton would be replaced by Mark Ruffalo in "The Avengers."
Yes, the Edward Norton edition of "The Incredible Hulk" is technically part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; Norton would be replaced by Mark Ruffalo in "The Avengers." - Marvel Studios
18. "The Incredible Hulk" (2008), director Louis Leterrier

An ugly, forgettable film that most don't realize is even a part of the MCU franchise; Robert Downey Jr.'s cameo as Tony Stark during the credits is really the only hint. Edward Norton plays Bruce Banner, who turns into the CGI abomination of the title to fight, uh, The Abomination, played by Tim Roth in his human form. The only memorable scene is a favela chase, which would be outdone just a few years later by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's own favela chase in "Fast Five."

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) receives guidance from his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) in the original "Thor," directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) receives guidance from his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) in the original "Thor," directed by Kenneth Branagh. - Marvel Studios
17. "Thor" (2011), director Kenneth Branagh

The omnipresent product placement would be forgivable if the jokes were funny -- but they aren't. The bad jokes would be forgivable if the Asgardian god of thunder (Chris Hemsworth) had any chemistry with earthbound scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) -- but he doesn't. The lack of a spark would be forgivable if the CGI action was exciting -- but it isn't. The only things saving "Thor" from the bottom of the barrel are the larger-than-life theatrics of Anthony Hopkins as the Norse king of an alien world, and the introduction of Tom Hiddleston as Loki, a two-faced trickster who would become The Big Bad in "The Avengers."

Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) look cozy here, but spend most of "Iron Man 2" at odds.
Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) look cozy here, but spend most of "Iron Man 2" at odds. - Marvel Studios
16. "Iron Man 2" (2010), director Jon Favreau

The electricity of Downey's 2008 comeback is squandered in a sequel with two bad villains (Mickey Rourke's mumbling prisoner Whiplash and Sam Rockwell's arms dealer Justin Hammer) and too much squabbling -- the characters we loved in "Iron Man" are annoying and unlikable. Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts, Tony Stark's right-hand woman, is reduced here to a stereotypical nagging girlfriend. The ultimate showdown at Stark's futuristic world's fair is exciting, thankfully.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and brother Thor (Chris Hemsworth) team up in "Thor: The Dark World."
Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and brother Thor (Chris Hemsworth) team up in "Thor: The Dark World." - Marvel Studios
15. "Thor: The Dark World" (2013), director Alan Taylor

The action is genuinely exciting, especially when there are portals through time and space opening over London. But Thor still can't carry his own movie, ceding the spotlight to Loki and an out-of-nowhere cameo from Captain America (Chris Evans). A lifeless performance from Christopher Eccleston as villainous elf Malekith doesn't help; at least we have Kat Dennings' hilarious mispronouncement of the name of Thor's hammer (Mjolnir).

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Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) examines the suit that shrinks him down to bug size in "Ant-Man."
Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) examines the suit that shrinks him down to bug size in "Ant-Man." - Marvel Studios
14. "Ant-Man" (2014), director Peyton Reed

The purest comedy of the franchise shines when it focuses on visual invention and its funny supporting cast, especially Michael Pena and David Dastmalchian. It stalls whenever Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is out of that suit that shrinks him down to ant size and trying to woo Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), the daughter of the man (Michael Douglas) who invented it. Still, it's hard to dislike a superhero movie where the climactic action scene involves a gigantic Thomas the Tank Engine. (Look for more sizable high-jinks this July in "Ant-Man and The Wasp." The trailer features that deadliest of weapons: a Hello Kitty PEZ dispenser.)

Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) summons mystical powers in "Doctor Strange."
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) summons mystical powers in "Doctor Strange." - Marvel Studios
13. "Doctor Strange" (2016), director Scott Derrickson

Trippy, city-bending visual effects are the stars of this lukewarm origin story that manages to make us dislike Benedict Cumberbatch. He plays the dour Stephen Strange, a surgeon who goes looking for an unorthodox method to heal his hands after a car accident and winds up becoming a mystical superhero under the tutelage of The Ancient One; that character is a Tibetan monk in the comics, but is inexplicably played here by Tilda Swinton. She's great as always, but her presence ultimately hurts a film that can't quite decide if it wants to be funny or serious. Once again, the action-packed finale saves the day with its time-bending visuals.

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) gets into the swing of things in "Spider-Man: Homecoming."
Peter Parker (Tom Holland) gets into the swing of things in "Spider-Man: Homecoming." - Marvel Studios
12. "Spider-Man: Homecoming" (2017), director Jon Watts

This second cinematic reboot of the Spidey franchise wisely skips the origin story we've already seen in 2002's "Spider-Man" and 2012's "The Amazing Spider-Man" and instead pits Peter Parker (Tom Holland) against one of the MCU's rare great villains. Adrian Toomes (a terrific Michael Keaton) sells alien technology harvested from the climax of 2012's "The Avengers" on the black market. He also has a big secret that you definitely won't see coming. It's too long and treads too much familiar ground, but "Homecoming" gives us a likable Spidey we want to see again.

The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), left, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) fight to save Asgard in "Thor: Ragnarok."
The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), left, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) fight to save Asgard in "Thor: Ragnarok." - Marvel Studios
11. "Thor: Ragnarok" (2017), director Taika Waititi

The "Thor" series gets it right with this funky, funny blast of color from the director of "What We Do in The Shadows." Hemsworth builds on the comedic chops he showed off in "Ghostbusters," playing off the likes of Cate Blanchett (a fierce performance as Thor's evil sister, Hela), Jeff Goldblum (at his Goldblumiest as an alien overlord who is part Roman emperor, part Willy Wonka) and his "friend from work," Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, who took over for Norton in 2012). Waititi himself steals the show as Korg, a CGI rock creature who speaks in an easygoing New Zealand accent: "Hey, man. I'm Korg. We're gonna get outta here on that big spaceship. Wanna come?"

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) gives his armored suit a whirl in the original "Iron Man."
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) gives his armored suit a whirl in the original "Iron Man." - Marvel Studios
10. "Iron Man" (2008), director Jon Favreau

The huge gamble that is the MCU began here with a second- or third-tier superhero played by an actor with a history of drug problems in a film directed by the guy who made "Elf." Executive producer Kevin Feige had a clear vision from the start, planting the seeds of "The Avengers" in a post-credits scene featuring S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), but the franchise's success ultimately depended on Downey, who used his second (third? fourth?) chance to become arguably the biggest movie star in the world. "Iron Man" seems almost quaint now, with its relatively small stakes and its MySpace joke, but its place in movie history is ironclad.

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) plot to save the world from an alien invasion in "The Avengers."
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) plot to save the world from an alien invasion in "The Avengers." - Marvel Studios
9. "The Avengers" (2012), director Joss Whedon

It starts slow with a dark, ugly action scene and some inert character introductions, but "The Avengers" fulfills its promise of the ultimate superhero mash-up with bombastic action and snappy dialogue from the writer/director, who inexplicably made "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" a TV classic. The heroes do not provide the film with its best moment, though; that comes courtesy of character actor Kenneth Tigar. He plays an elderly German man who refuses to kneel before Loki after the villain ransacks a Stuttgart museum. His two lines of dialogue in defiance of the tyrant create a poignant moment amid a blockbuster bash.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) takes a break in "Iron Man 3."
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) takes a break in "Iron Man 3." - Marvel Studios
8. "Iron Man 3" (2013), director Shane Black

Your enjoyment of this controversial entry likely hinges on two things: the canon-defying twist involving big baddie The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) and the unique brand of humor that Black cultivated in unrelated crime flicks such as "The Long Kiss Goodnight" and "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang." I enjoy both, and am intrigued by Tony Stark dealing with post-traumatic stress in the wake of "The Avengers" -- this is Downey's best performance in the role. The funky closing-credits theme by Brian Tyler is an earworm. (Side note: If you haven't seen Black's "The Nice Guys," starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, you're in for a treat. Don't let the kids watch it, though.)

Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) ignite the screen in "Black Panther."
Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) ignite the screen in "Black Panther." - Marvel Studios
7. "Black Panther" (2018), director Ryan Coogler

Michael B. Jordan is electric as Killmonger, the MCU's best, most charismatic villain -- and one the audience may agree with, aside from his murderous ways. The music by Childish Gambino producer Ludwig Goransson stands tall above the rest of the franchise with memorable themes and distinct percussion and vocal tracks. The supporting cast members, especially the title character's tech-savvy sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), each get his or her moments to shine. And they shine even brighter than the panther himself, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who at times feels like a guest star in his own movie. But that's pretty much the only misstep in Coogler's perfectly paced film.

Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), left, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) must fight the evil Hydra organization in "Captain America: The First Avenger."
Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), left, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) must fight the evil Hydra organization in "Captain America: The First Avenger." - Marvel Studios
6. "Captain America: The First Avenger" (2011), director Joe Johnston

Casting Downey was a risky gamble with a big payoff. Casting Chris Evans, though, was Kevin Feige's masterstroke. Evans hits all the right notes as Steve Rogers, the scrawny kid who becomes America's patriotic supersoldier; it's a part that could have easily been played as too earnest or too broad. Rogers becomes the heart of the franchise before he even gets injected with Dr. Erskine's (Stanley Tucci) serum when he jumps on what he thinks is a live grenade -- that act of self-sacrifice is truly heroic, with more dramatic heft than a dozen shootouts.

Gamora (Zoe Saldana), left, Nebula (Karen Gillan), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista) and Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) are the unlikely heroes of "Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2."
Gamora (Zoe Saldana), left, Nebula (Karen Gillan), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista) and Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) are the unlikely heroes of "Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2." - Marvel Studios
5. "Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2" (2017), director James Gunn

This sequel that ascribes to the "more is more" theory juggles brash comedy, unparalleled visual effects and reams of exposition in a story that, at its core, is about fractured parent-child relationships and emotional abuse. It's not always successful -- many of the jokes don't land, and it feels even longer than its 137-minute runtime -- but it's a joy to spend more time with the characters we fell in love with in 2014's original film (more on that a little later), and to see Kurt Russell at full throttle as godlike villain Ego. The third act is an overwhelming visceral and emotional experience that was almost too much to bear on the big screen -- this film feels as big as the universe it portrays.

Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), aka Black Widow, prepares for action in "Avengers: Age of Ultron."
Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), aka Black Widow, prepares for action in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." - Marvel Studios
4. "Avengers: Age of Ultron" (2015), director Joss Whedon

You didn't expect to see this one quite this high, did you? Fans regard it as far inferior to its 2012 predecessor, and Whedon himself has voiced his frustrations with it. I admire how Whedon's script takes the time to get personal with its larger-than-life characters, whether it's Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce wrestling with their pasts while trying to be a couple, or a peek into Hawkeye's (Jeremy Renner) home life. Ultron never feels like much of a threat, but James Spader keeps the character aloft with his dry, delicious vocal performance; his final scene with fellow A.I. creation Vision (Paul Bettany) boasts the best dialogue exchange of the franchise.

American soldier Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) becomes a brainwashed double agent in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier."
American soldier Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) becomes a brainwashed double agent in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." - Marvel Studios
3. "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (2014), directors Anthony and Joe Russo

A giant leap forward from an improbable directing duo previously best known for episodes of "Community" and "Arrested Development." No, "Winter Soldier" isn't a comedy, but rather a brutal, political action-thriller that's equal parts James Bond and Jack Ryan. The presence of Robert Redford as a corrupt government official lends it a '70s vibe, but the street-level fight sequences filmed with a shaky handheld camera are decidedly modern. Those include two inventive car chases -- one with Nick Fury's autonomous armored SUV, and another that ends with a shootout and a showdown between the two title characters.

Falcon (Anthony Mackie), left, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) prepare to battle their fellow Avengers in "Captain America: Civil War."
Falcon (Anthony Mackie), left, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) prepare to battle their fellow Avengers in "Captain America: Civil War." - Marvel Studios
2. "Captain America: Civil War" (2016), directors Anthony and Joe Russo

Our heroes square off against each other in an entertaining airport battle in which Ant-Man discovers that his size-changing abilities go both ways, but this ambitious film's most impressive fireworks come in the first act: In the space of five minutes, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely give us a flashback that's not really a flashback, reveal new information about Stark's past, show that Stark's out of the weapons business and give us hints of why, lay the groundwork for Spidey's introduction later in the film, artfully reveal that Pepper is no longer in the picture, draw a clear connection between this film and "Age of Ultron," call back to Stark's personal struggle from "Iron Man 3," and clearly define the problem that will cause the war of the title. It's a wonder of screenwriting. It also contains the most astonishing reverse-aging CGI I've ever seen.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, takes flight in the crown jewel of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, "Guardians of the Galaxy."
Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, takes flight in the crown jewel of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, "Guardians of the Galaxy." - Marvel Studios
1. "Guardians of the Galaxy" (2014), director James Gunn

Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), a snarky space pirate, dances to '70s tunes and casually drops references to John Stamos and "Footloose" to his alien pals, who include a muscle-bound convict (Dave Bautista) who happens to be a deadpan comedic genius, a wisecracking raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and a sentient tree (voiced by Vin Diesel) who only knows three words. Add Gamora (Zoe Saldana), daughter of Thanos, and you have an unlikely family that makes us laugh hard -- and cry even harder. Gunn had my attention when the heroes flew a spaceship into the hollowed-out skull of a celestial being while David Bowie played on the soundtrack; he had my affection when Bautista's Drax comforted Rocket Raccoon in the closing moments. Gunn's movie channels the aw-shucks spectacle of the original "Star Wars" and the absurdist humor of "The Fifth Element" into an endlessly watchable entertainment machine. I can't wait to see these Guardians meet the Avengers this weekend.

• Sean Stangland is a Daily Herald multiplatform editor. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanStanglandDH.

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