Every Marvel Phase One Movie, Ranked

Marvel Phase One

Few film franchises match the critical acclaim, popularity, and financial success of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Spanning over two dozen films, Disney’s MCU has been around for over 15 years, and shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, with more films currently on the horizon, the MCU looks stronger than ever, continuing its tight monopoly on the superhero genre even as it continues its expansion onto Disney+.

From the first major crossover in the MCU to the series' earliest entries, have a look as every Marvel Phase One movie, ranked from best to worst.

1 – The Avengers

The Avengers Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth
Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Calling The Avengers one of the biggest cinematic events in recent history, not to mention the most anticipated crossover event of all time, feels like an understatement.

After the Nordic trickster Loki (Tom Hiddleston) gains possession of the Tesseract and prepares to seize control of Earth, Nick Fury (Jackson) recruits the world’s mightiest heroes—Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson)—to stop him.

Nothing before had ever come close to matching a project like The Avengers—a superhero film that saw heroes from not four separate movies join forces in one massive film. A movie years in the making, The Avengers featured a star-studded cast and some of the most impressive use of CGI ever seen. The movie that drew Marvel Phase One to a close, it captured the world’s attention, showing new potential within the superhero genre.

The MCU continued well after the groundbreaking success of The Avengers, operating on the same high level established with the original Iron Man. Regardless, the movie remains an achievement in itself, culminating in the largest cinematic universe.

2 – Iron Man

Iron Man Robert Downey Jr.
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

When most people think of the MCU, they forget how small it was in the beginning. Like all big things, though, the MCU had a modest starting point, beginning with 2008’s Iron Man.

Tony Stark (Downey) is the brilliant yet cynical CEO of Stark Industries, a company deeply involved in the weapons manufacturing industry. Upon being captured and held prisoner by terrorists in the Middle East, Stark realizes his technology can be used for more than destruction alone, building his own mechanized armor suit and eventually becoming the superhero Iron Man.

Still considered one of the best superhero movies within Marvel Phase One, Iron Man shows a flawed individual’s growth from narcissism into noble heroism. The first Iron Man boasts a solid and engaging story, intelligent script, fantastic performances, and amazing visuals and special effects. What’s more, it also helped set the basic tone for every Marvel Phase One movie that followed: namely, a more light-hearted comedic tone compared to the darker atmosphere of DC films. 

The movie spearheaded the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, beginning with the moment Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) first appeared onscreen in that post-credit scene, setting the stage not just for the first Avengers movie four years later, but dozens of superhero movies and TV shows that followed.

3 – Thor

Thor Tom Hiddleston, Chris Hemsworth
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Most MCU fans tend to dismiss the first Thor movie for its dull plotline. However, its expansion and exploration of worlds beyond Earth and introduction of fan-favorite characters like Thor and Loki made a grand contribution to Marvel Phase One, serving as a breath of fresh air for the more science fiction-heavy Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the Nordic god of thunder and the crown prince of Asgard, a mythological realm ruled by his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). When he reignites a war between Asgard and an ancient race of Frost Giants, Odin strips Thor of his powers and sends him to Earth, where he meets an astrophysicist (Natalie Portman).

Admittedly, the first Thor does have more than its fair share of flaws, with some critics feeling it was a movie more concerned with visual style over substance. The movie has a cut-and-dry plot, devoid of the spy-thriller excitement of Captain America: The First Avenger or more introspective character development in the Iron Man movies.

Still, the movie’s strengths triumph over its failure, notably in its characterization of Thor, his onscreen chemistry with Portman’s Jane, and the introduction of the fan-favorite character Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who would grow to become the first major antagonist in the MCU.

4 – Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America: The First Avenger
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Frail young man Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wants desperately to join the American military during the height of World War II. Volunteering for an experimental super-soldier program, Rogers undergoes a miraculous physical transformation and becomes Captain America, a superhero aiding the U.S. war effort and combating the villainous, Axis-aligned Red Skull (Hugo Weaving).

Similar to how Thor expanded the Marvel Phase One cinematic universe by introducing new worlds other than Earth, Captain America likewise pushed the boundaries of the MCU into past decades, creating a greater sense of history and interconnectivity existing within the Marvel universe (such as as the appearance of a young Howard Stark, the Tesseract, and an early incarnation of S.H.I.E.LD.)

Though fun, the movie lacks the same level of character development that Tony Stark and Thor underwent. Initially, Stark and Thor appear as generally unlikable, cynical heroes who eventually grow, change, and evolve into more mature men in the course of their movies.

Rogers, on the other hand, appears in the film as an already likable character. An underdog with a heart of gold, and though he may appear physically weak, Rogers makes it clear that he wants to make a difference in the world by helping others. Because of this, his journey to super-soldier is merely a physical one, rather than the more engaging emotional growth that Stark and Thor experience in their solo films.

5 – Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2 Robert Downey Jr
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Iron Man 2 may not appear to be as important as it is, but its production was critical to Marvel Phase One for several key reasons. First, it was the first sequel in the MCU, following up the earlier, more warmly received Iron Man. 

Secondly, it was the first movie released after the connections in MCU started to form. (Remember, just two years prior, Tony Stark had appeared in the post-credit scene of The Incredible Hulk, so fans wondered how Marvel would build off of that). And finally, it was the movie that continued to lay the groundwork for future MCU projects—namely, Thor, as shown in the movie’s post-credit scene.

Taking place almost immediately after the events of Iron Man, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has revealed his superhero status to the world. Attempting to prevent his technology from falling into the wrong hands, Stark battles both a mysterious illness caused by his arc reactor, as well as a vengeful Russian physicist (Mickey Rourke) who creates his own modified version of the Iron Man suit.

Like every Marvel Phase One film, Iron Man 2 had major success at the box office, even earning an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects (a category in which all three Iron Man movies would earn nominations), but most Marvel fans and movie critics saw it as inferior to the earlier Iron Man.  A point of particular criticism the movie suffered from generic villains, a slow-moving plot, and failure to capitalize on Stark’s appearance in The Incredible Hulk. 

6 – The Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk Edward Norton
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

The Marvel Phase One film most people tend to forget about, The Incredible Hulk, did well under the circumstances—after all, it’s hard to make an interesting movie about a giant, monstrous being with limited communication skills. That said, it ranks among the most bland superhero movies ever released by Marvel.

Edward Norton stars as Bruce Banner, a scientist who transforms into the colossal, destructive, perpetually ill-tempered creature known as the Hulk after a military experiment gone wrong. Now on the run, Banner searches for a cure while chased by the U.S. military, led by the relentless General Ross (William Hurt), who also happens to be the father of Banner’s girlfriend, Betty (Liv Tyler).

There’s no question that the 2008 remake suffered from an uneventful storyline and an underwhelming use of the movie’s talented cast (Norton, Hurt, Tyler, Tim Roth, and Tim Blake Nelson).

With the recasting of Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner in The Avengers onwards, audiences have almost forgotten about The Incredible Hulk, and with good reason—it doesn’t really have anything to do with the later MCU films, nor does it contain anything that stands out in terms of a memorable plot or story.

Still, it’s notable for being the second entry to the MCU, containing that epic post-credit scene where Ross meets with Tony Stark, who goes on to say that he’s “putting a team together.” Back in 2008, that scene was a huge deal, with few mainstream superhero films hinting at a potential high-budget crossover before. 

Author: Richard Chachowski

Title: Journalist

Expertise: Classic Film, Contemporary Film and TV, Video Games, Comic Books

Bio:

Richard Chachowski is an entertainment and travel writer who has written for such publications as Wealth of Geeks, Fangoria, Looper, Screen Rant, and MSN. He received a BA in Communication Studies and a BA in Journalism and Professional Writing from The College of New Jersey in 2021. He has been a professional writer since 2020. His geeky areas of interest include Star Wars, travel writing, horror, video games, comic books, literature, and animation.