With Marvel’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever dominating the box office and The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special charming households across the world, we thought it was time to rank the four Marvel Cinematic Universe phases from worst to best and determine whether the franchise is headed in the right direction, or in dire need of a recharge.
4) MCU Phase 4
• The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
• Black Widow
• What If…?
• Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
• Spider-Man: No Way Home
• Moon Knight
• Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
• Ms. Marvel
• Thor: Love and Thunder
• She-Hulk: Attorney At Law
• Werewolf By Night
• Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
• The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special
Phase 4 is not as awful as numerous YouTubers and bloggers will suggest. There are high points within, such as Spider-Man: No Way Home, most of Moon Knight, Werewolf by Night, and The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special (which is excellent, by the way). The biggest problem with this current era is that far too many mediocre entries feel haphazardly slapped together by committee — and none offer a cohesive storyline.
On the big screen, Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness offer sporadic fun but are largely forgettable; Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’s convoluted plot outweighs its lofty ambitions. Eternals and Thor: Love and Thunder are practically unwatchable.
Marvel’s television offerings got off to a promising start with the occasionally bewitching WandaVision. However, subsequent series, including Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, Hawkeye, Moon Knight, and Ms. Marvel, were more frustrating than captivating. She-Hulk: Attorney at Law flat-out sucked.
Moreover, none of the films or TV shows in Phase 4 feel connected like previous MCU installments. So what’s the overarching story? Who is the next big bad? Why does every villain emerge from a past organization that ignored Thanos and the Snap? We’ll have to wait for Phase 5 in hopes of a more cohesive story, which is a real negative for the latest grouping of MCU offerings.
3) MCU Phase 1
• Iron Man
• The Incredible Hulk
• Iron Man 2
• Captain America: The First Avenger
• The Avengers
Few predicted the unprecedented success that would emerge from Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, a strictly by-the-numbers action vehicle largely carried by Robert Downey, Jr.’s effortless charisma. The modestly budgeted superhero flick lacks the big-budget spectacle of modern-day MCU offerings, but that’s what makes it great. RDJ (and a well-cast Gwenyth Paltrow) deserves all the credit for Marvel’s early success.
By contrast, The Incredible Hulk is a joyless affair, Iron Man 2 and Thor are muddled, and Captain America: The First Avenger feels like a bland imitation of Indiana Jones and The Rocketeer.
Still, said films introduced likable characters, provided mild entertainment, and left audiences pining for more. And thanks to some well-executed post-credit sequences that competently teased the next entry, these early offerings played more like big-budget TV shows — you had to see what happens next.
Then came The Avengers. Yes, the first superhero team-up flick has lost some of its luster over the years, but make no mistake: The Avengers was a huge deal when it hit theaters in 2012 — so much so that it all but stole The Dark Knight Rises’ thunder that summer. Joss Whedon’s sharp, quippy, smart-ass dialogue set the tone for the remaining MCU, for better or worse, and truly changed the way studios approached superhero films from that point on. I have my nitpicks, but overall The Avengers is an enjoyable bit of pop culture entertainment and remains one of the better blockbusters of the last decade. This is the film that truly gave the MCU its legs.
2) MCU Phase 2
• Iron Man 3
• Thor: The Dark World
• Captain America: The Winter Soldier
• Guardians of the Galaxy
• Avengers: Age of Ultron
Phase 2 stumbled with Thor: The Dark World and Avengers: Age of Ultron, a follow-up to The Avengers that unfortunately fails to move the needle in either direction like its predecessor. Still, this period also gave us Captain America: Winter Soldier, perhaps the best MCU flick to date, Guardians of the Galaxy, and the divisive Iron Man 3, which I absolutely adore. Ant-Man was also a pleasant surprise, even if I’m still annoyed that Marvel kicked Edgar Wright off the project. Talk about a missed opportunity!
That said, the Russo brothers pumped Marvel with a much-needed edge, turned Captain America into a badass, and composed the series’ most thrilling action sequences. If Joss Whedon gave the MCU its voice, the Russos packed it full of muscle.
1) MCU Phase 3
• Captain America: Civil War
• Doctor Strange
• Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2
• Spider-Man: Homecoming
• Thor: Ragnarok
• Black Panther
• Avengers: Infinity War
• Ant-Man and the Wasp
• Captain Marvel
• Avengers: Endgame
• Spider-Man: Far From Home
Marvel’s rise to dominance took some time to forge. The initial phases offered a strange mix of spectacular highs (Captain America: Winter Soldier) and curious lows (Iron Man 2). However, there was at least a clear-cut destination that kept audiences invested during the meager offerings.
Luckily, Marvel rewarded our patience with a spectacular Phase 3 that catapulted the franchise into something akin to legendary status. Despite a few speedbumps (notably, Captain Marvel and the lackluster Doctor Strange), Phase 3 delivered some of the MCU’s most outstanding chapters to date, including Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and the one-two punch of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.
As time goes by, we may look back on Phase 3 as the peak of the MCU, one of the more astonishing periods of sustained success in cinematic history.