Of all the Phases Marvel releases movies by, Phase Two is usually regarded as being somewhat minor, especially when compared to the phases that came before and after it.
In Phase One, Marvel established an entire cinematic universe, culminating in the highly-anticipated crossover, The Avengers, in 2012. With Phase Three, plot threads that Marvel had developed for years were finally concluded, depicting the epic showdown between Thanos and Earth’s mightiest heroes in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.
In Phase Four (the MCU’s most recent and current Phase), Marvel has been expanding its fictional universe into television through its various Disney+ series, as well developing the continuing adventures of fan-favorite superheroes like Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, and Thor.
Compared to these earlier and later Phases, and due to the overall quality of the movies within its Phase, Marvel’s Phase Two tends to be glossed over a lot when fans think about the MCU as a whole. The phase contains neither the ambitious beginnings of Phase One (seeing world-famous heroes teaming up for the first time) nor the exciting final battle between the Avengers and Thanos.
Instead, it’s a Phase composed of superhero movies that were largely entertaining, but failed to live up to the high standard set in Phase One and later raised in Phase Three (with a few notable exceptions in the mix).
All this aside, it’s important to note that Phase Two remains a critical and enjoyable period in Marvel history. After the success of The Avengers, many people wondered which directions the MCU would veer towards next. The results were pleasantly surprising, delivering some enjoyable movies featuring some unexpected heroes, while building the emerging threat posed by Thanos throughout Phase Two.
With the MCU set to release Moon Knight on March 30 and Dr. Strange 2 on May 6, we decided to look back at Phase Two’s MCU movies, ranking them from worst to best, as well as providing information about where they are currently streaming.
Thor: The Dark World
Thor: The Dark World is commonly seen as one of the worst MCU movies to date, and perhaps one of the biggest missed opportunities in developing Thor character further after the first Thor film and his appearance in The Avengers.
Set one year after Loki’s invasion of New York City, Thor’s girlfriend, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) unknowingly awakens a race of Dark Elves who attempt to plunge the Nine Realms into complete darkness. With no other options left, Thor reluctantly teams up with his Loki to save the universe before it’s too late.
Thor: The Dark World may be one of the weakest MCU movies yet (frequently bottoming out on many publications’ list for the “Best Marvel Movie”), but it’s far from completely terrible. The movie does a great job exploring the complicated dynamic between Thor and Loki a bit more — with Loki having a notably fun presence as an untrustworthy ally whose motivations remain a mystery.
However, it also suffers from a hopelessly generic plotline, as well as containing one of the blandest villains in the MCU (Malekith, leader of the Dark Elves, played by Christopher Eccleston).
It probably speaks volumes about the film’s quality that its director, Alan Taylor, even voiced dissatisfaction at the finished product, claiming that Marvel had heavily edited the movie in post-production, delivering a film that was completely different from his original creative vision.
Streaming on Disney+, fuboTV, Sling TV and Hulu (premium subscription required for last two)
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Marvel movies have a tendency to eclipse each other a lot, unintentionally setting an almost unattainably high bar for any sequel that follows (or, in the case of something like Thor: Ragnarok, actually managing to redeem the quality of their earlier, less-than-stellar predecessors).
Such is the case with Avengers: Age of Ultron, the sequel to the earlier, much better 2012 Avengers film, which falls flat in pretty much every area that made The Avengers so easy and enjoyable to watch.
When Tony Stark and Bruce Banner try to develop an artificial intelligence as part of a proposed global defense network, they unknowingly cause the AI—dubbed Ultron (James Spader)—to become self-aware, deeming humanity a threat in need of eradication, and forcing the Avengers to band together one more time to defeat it.
The most noticeable flaw plaguing Avengers: Age of Ultron is how much it tries to accomplish within a single movie. All at once, the movie introduces new characters like Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), provides the origins for another hero (Vision, played by Paul Bettany), depicts the near-breakup of the Avengers, and works on setting up the events for later MCU movies (especially the growing rift between Stark and Captain America that would be more fully explored in Captain America: Civil War).
Because of all this, Age of Ultron tends to be seen as bloated and overstuffed, suffering a notably polarized reaction—some enjoyed the movie’s action and more complex, human depiction of the characters, and others called the movie an outright mess. No matter how strongly some fans feel about the movie, though, few view it as being up to par with the first Avengers or either Infinity War or Endgame in later years.
Streaming on Disney+, Sling TV and Hulu (premium subscription required for last two)
Iron Man 3
The last entry in the Iron Man trilogy, Iron Man 3 was a major improvement on the poorly-received Iron Man 2, but is today viewed more commonly as just an “okay” addition to the MCU.
After his near-death experience in The Avengers, Tony Stark suffers severe PTSD, insomnia, and anxiety, putting his relationship with Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) in potential jeopardy. As he tries to get his life back on track, Stark battles an infamous terrorist group, as well as a figure from Tony’s troubled past.
Replacing Jon Favreau as director for this final Iron Man film, Shane Black decided to explore a more human narrative centered around Tony’s character rather than the more tech-heavy adventures Tony found himself in with the previous Iron Man movies. The decision yielded some positive results, with Downey possibly delivering his best, most nuanced outing yet as the more despondent, uneasy, less confident version of Stark compared to his earlier, more charismatic performance in earlier MCU movies..
The film does fall short in a few key places, including its choice of villain—a two-dimensional, evil version of Tony Stark played by Guy Pearce. Additionally, the plot twist regarding the true identity of Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin character also the subject of equal parts praise and derision from fans, with some positively commenting on the modern adaptation of the character and others viewing it as a disappointing, watered-down version of Iron Man’s traditional archenemy (although the original version of the character remains incredibly controversial due to its reliance on racist cliches and stereotypes).
It wasn’t the greatest Iron Man, but it was a fitting conclusion to the trilogy that started the MCU in the first place, focusing on Tony Stark’s character and ever-changing personality.
Streaming on Disney+, Starz, Prime Video, The Roku Channel, Sling TV and Hulu (premium subscription required for last four)
When Marvel announced plans to develop a solo movie built around Ant-Man, people were skeptical at first. After all, Ant-Man didn’t exactly have the same name recognition or popularity as someone like Captain America or Hulk. What kind of movie could the studio develop around such a B-list superhero?
The answer was a surprisingly good one. Focusing more on the comedy inherently found in nearly all MCU movies, Ant-Man favored laughs more than it did a high-stakes plotline (the world isn’t in danger from some sort of extraterrestrial threat or power-hungry warlord, for example), crafting a movie that was a fun, unpretentious introduction for the size-changing superhero into the Marvel universe.
Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a mild-mannered thief struggling to financially support his daughter. With no other options left, he soon reverts back to the life of crime he’s tried so hard to leave behind, eventually coming across a high-tech suit that allows its wearer to shrink to the size of an ant while increasing their strength to superhuman levels.
Like Marvel’s choice to adapt Guardians of the Galaxy, the studio’s idea to build a movie around famed comedian Paul Rudd as a superhero was a risky one, but certainly paid off in terms of the movie’s critical and commercial success. Many fans viewed the lighter, more comedic approach as a welcome change of pace for the increasingly dire movies that came out around the same time, such as the fairly humorless Thor: The Dark World or Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Streaming on Disney+, Sling TV and Hulu (premium subscription required for last two)
Guardians of the Galaxy
Save for the hardcore comic book fans, when Marvel announced a film adaptation of Guardians of Galaxy, pretty much everyone had the same response: “Who?” Like the aforementioned Ant-Man, though, Marvel managed to create a movie that was an unexpectedly great entry into the MCU.
Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) was abducted from Earth at a young age and brought to an alien-populated galaxy far from home. Now a professional thief, Quill steals a mysterious, all-powerful artifact, putting him at odds with several other intergalactic criminals. Initially enemies, the group eventually (and reluctantly) join forces to stop a brutal warlord from obtaining the artifact for himself, saving the universe in the process.
Co-written and directed by indie director, James Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy is brimming with Gunn’s signature fast-paced dialogue and affinity for genre stereotypes. An 80s-esque presentation of the sci-fi genre, it’s a movie that feels more like a space opera than it does a superhero movie—having very little to do with the overall Marvel Universe aside for a brief appearance by Thanos.
Some critics felt the movie runs a little too long or tries to do too much within the span of a single movie. Marvel fans, on the other hand, were far more receptive to the movie’s content, praising its humor, visuals, and ability to adapt largely unknown superheroes for the Big Screen and making them every bit as entertaining, likable, and interesting as long-standing Marvel characters like Iron Man or Captain America.
Streaming on Disney+
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The second entry in the Captain America trilogy, The Winter Soldier is a notably darker exploration of the MCU, abandoning the ‘40s era pulp conventions of The First Avenger and taking on the guise of a more espionage-heavy spy thriller.
As he continues to adapt to the modern world, Captain America uncovers a vast conspiracy within S.H.I.E.L.D. with ties to Hydra. Joined by Black Widow and a new superhero known as the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Cap tries to figure out who the organization secretly controlling S.H.I.E.L.D. really is, as well the identity of their top-assassin, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).
Echoing ‘70s spy thrillers like Three Days of the Condor, The Winter Soldier is less a superhero movie than it is a mystery film, one where the characters aren’t entirely sure who to trust. The throwback style of the movie also resulted in the directors, Anthony and Joe Russo, using far less CGI compared to earlier MCU movies, instead of relying on a more heightened, paranoid-laden atmosphere than any other Marvel movie before or since.
It’s one of the more mature MCU movies grounded in history and politics of the day (including the endearing threat of fascism and persevering dangers and hostilities from the Cold War), and has been positively compared to other first-class espionage franchises like the Metal Gear Solid series.
The better than average quality of the film earned it significantly high marks among critics and Marvel fans, many of whom tend to view it as the most noteworthy movie within Marvel’s Phase Two, as well one of the best MCU movies to date.
Streaming on Disney+
More From Wealth of Geeks
- From ‘Iron Man’ to ‘The Incredible Hulk’: Marvel’s Phase One Movies Ranked
- Netflix’s Marvel Series Were Gritty, But Far From Perfect
- 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.