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 14 years, and shows no signs of slowing down.
In fact, with a total of seven films currently on the horizon, the MCU looks to be stronger than ever, continuing its tight monopoly on the superhero genre even as it expands onto Disney+ with TV spin-offs like WandaVision, Loki, and the upcoming series, Moon Knight.
As most hardcore MCU fans likely know, Marvel Studios release their films in different “phases,” with more recent and upcoming releases like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Spider-Man: No Way Home, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness all belonging to Marvel’s Phase Four grouping.
With new additions to the MCU scheduled for release later this year, including the debut of Moon Knight on March 30, the new Doctor Strange on May 6, and Ms. Marvel on June 8, we decided to look back to a time when the MCU was first starting off, ranking the studio’s earliest Phase One movies from best to worst, as well as where they are currently streaming (surprisingly, not all of them are on Disney+).
The Incredible Hulk
The MCU 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—but easily ranks among the most generic superhero movies ever released by Marvel.
Edward Norton stars as Bruce Banner, a brilliant scientist who transforms into the colossal, destructive, perpetually ill-tempered creature known as the Hulk after a military experiment goes horribly wrong. Now on the run, Banner searches for a cure while being chased by the US military, led by the Ahab-like General Ross (the late William Hurt), who also happens to be the father of Banner’s girlfriend, Betty (Liv Tyler).
There’s no question that The Incredible Hulk was a massive improvement on the earlier, far more disappointing 2003 Hulk adaptation. However, the resulting 2008 remake was far from excellent, suffering from a largely 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, most people have almost completely forgotten about The Incredible Hulk, and with perhaps 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. (It’s probably not an accident that we’ve yet to receive another Hulk-related solo film following this one.)
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. Little did we know at the time what Marvel had in store for us in the future.
Not currently streaming, but available to rent online
Iron Man 2
Iron Man 2 may not appear to be as important as it is, but its production was critical to Marvel for several key reasons. First and most obviously, 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 were starting to form (remember, just two years prior, Tony Stark had appeared in the post-credit scene of The Incredible Hulk, so fans were wondering how Marvel would build off of that in this film). 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 officially 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 MCU film, Iron Man 2 may have been a major success at the box office, even earning an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects (a category all three Iron Man movies would earn nominations within), most Marvel fans and movie critics saw it as being inferior to the earlier Iron Man.
A point of particular criticism the movie suffered was its fairly bland and forgettable villains, slow-moving plot, failure to capitalize on Stark’s appearance in The Incredible Hulk, and really only setting up the events for future MCU films—Thor and The Avengers, most especially.
Streaming on Disney+
Captain America: The First Avenger
Here’s where the list becomes more difficult—from here on out, it seems more a matter of personal preference and taste regarding which Phase One Marvel movie is the best. However, for several reasons, while we definitely enjoy Captain America: The First Avenger, it seems that it’s not necessarily as strong as some of the other Phase One movies in MCU.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a frail young man who wants desperately to join the American military during the height of World War 2. Volunteering for an experimental super-soldier program within the army, Rogers undergoes a miraculous physical transformation and becomes Captain America, a superhero aiding the US in the war effort and combating the villainous, Axis-aligned Red Skull (Hugo Weaving).
The final MCU movie released before The Avengers, Captain America: The First Avenger brought in arguably the most iconic superhero in Marvel comics (essentially the company’s version of Superman), delivering a movie that balanced the war, espionage, and superhero genres all equally well.
Similar to how Thor expanded the Marvel cinematic universe by introducing new worlds other than Earth, Captain America likewise pushed the narrative into past decades, creating a greater sense of history and interconnectivity existing within the Marvel universe, adding in some connections that helped tie the entire universe together (such as as the appearance of a young Howard Stark, the Tesseract, and an early incarnation of S.H.I.E.LD.)
As fun as the movie’s portrayal of the 1940s is and as great as Evans’ Captain America is, though, the movie lacks the same level of character development that Tony Stark and Thor underwent previously. Initially, Stark and Thor appear as generally unlikable, cynical heroes who really only care for themselves, but 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, he may appear physically weak, but he makes it clear that he desperately wants to make a difference in the world by helping others, in spite of his frailties. Because of this, his journey to super-soldier is more a physical one, rather than the more engaging emotional growth that Stark and Thor undergo in their solo films.
Streaming on Disney+
Most MCU fans tend to dismiss the first Thor movie for its admittedly dull plotline. However, its expansion and exploration of worlds beyond Earth and introduction of fan-favorite characters like Thor and Loki were a welcome and unexpected contribution to the Marvel cinematic universe, as well as a major 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 Odin (Anthony Hopkins). When he ends a reignites a brutal war between Asgard and an ancient race of Frost Giants, Thor is stripped of his powers and sent to Earth, where he meets an astrophysicist (Natalie Portman) whom he slowly develops feelings towards.
Like other MCU heroes such as Tony Stark and Dr. Strange, Thor’s development from hotheaded immaturity into a more responsible hero is an interesting one, especially considering the fact that his character evolution is still ongoing even now (as seen with his last appearance in Avengers: Endgame).
However, 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’s plot is fairly cut and dry, possessing none of the spy-thriller excitement of Captain America: The First Avenger or more interesting character development of Tony Stark in the Iron Man movies (comparatively, Thor’s growth is far slower than Stark’s, taking place over several different MCU films, whereas Stark’s is contained almost entirely depicted in Iron Man and Iron Man 2).
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 Hiddlestone), who would grow to become the first major antagonist in the MCU, and the reason why the Avengers assemble in the first place.
Streaming on Disney+
When most people think of the MCU, rarely do they remember how small it was in the beginning. Like all big things, though, the MCU had a very meager starting point at first, beginning with 2008’s Iron Man.
Tony Stark (Downey) is the brilliant yet cynical CEO of Stark Industries, 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 the MCU, Iron Man is a fun, thrilling character study showing a flawed individual’s growth from narcissism into a more responsible, caring hero who wishes to leave a positive mark on the world, having realized there’s more to life than living a carefree, self-indulgent lifestyle free of worry or accountability.
Possessing very few weaknesses, 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 MCU movie that followed: namely the more lighthearted, comedic approach to the superhero film compared to the more realistic/darker kinds of movies rival companies like DC were producing.
It’s the movie that spearheaded the entire Marvel cinematic universe, beginning with the moment Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) first appeared onscreen in that then-mindblowing 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 for the next 14 years.
Streaming on Disney+
It’s not an exaggeration to say The Avengers was one of the biggest cinematic events in recent history, not to mention the biggest, most expensive crossover event of all time.
After the Nordic trickster Loki (Hiddlestone) gains possession of the all-powerful Tesseract and prepares to seize control of Earth for himself, Nick Fury (Jackson) recruits the world’s mightiest heroes—Iron Man (Downey), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Hemsworth), Captain America (Evans), Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson)—to stop him.
Nothing before had ever come close to a project like The Avengers—a superhero film that saw heroes from not two, but four separate movies join forces in one massive and highly ambitious film. A project years in the making, The Avengers was a huge movie complimented by a star-studded cast and some of the most impressive use of CGI ever seen. The movie that drew Phase One of the MCU to a close, it was the film that captured the world’s interest, showing how much potential there was within the superhero genre.
Additionally, it marked the earliest appearance of Thanos in the post-credit scene—the ultimate antagonist in the MCU who would take center stage 6 years later in Avengers: Infinity War.
It’s a feat in itself that the MCU continued well after the groundbreaking success of The Avengers, operating on the high level it’s established from the offset with the original Iron Man. Regardless, the movie remains an achievement in itself, culminating in the largest cinematic universes there is, as well as illustrating the initial meeting of Marvel’s most famous superheroes on film.
Streaming on Disney+ and Paramount+
More From Wealth of Geeks
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- 10 of the Best Marvel TV Shows to Watch After ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’
This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Image Credit: Marvel Studios.