RIP Stan Lee: Our ranking of the best-ever MCU movies
Comic and superhero fans around the globe were left saddened last year when Marvel maestro Stan Lee passed away at the ripe age of 95. His legacy, not only to comic book history but to pop culture as a whole, will undoubtedly still be leaving an impact decades down the line.
Right now, you can visit any cinema the world over with confidence a film featuring one of his iconic characters will likely be playing. And that’s not to mention the stunning influence his worlds have had on other comics, literature, film, television, and video games.
Lee’s genius will be sorely missed, and upcoming MCU films will have lost a touch of magic without his signature cameo appearances and input. Stan the Man consistently fought to dissuade bullies and stereotypes in his comic book runs, and we’re sure he would have been thrilled to see the culmination of this with the MCU’s first female-led blockbuster, Captain Marvel.
With the exciting twenty-first entry into the gargantuan superhero franchise right around the corner, we thought it would be the perfect time to celebrate Stan Lee’s legacy with a ranking of our favorite super-powered action extravaganzas.
So while the world and his wife goes to see Avengers: End Game this weekend in cinemas, we take a look back at our favorite-ever Marvel movies.
Evil Dead director Sam Raimi achieves the perfect blend of sentimentality and DIY body horror for this wall-crawling hero’s cinematic foray. Ditching the sloppy CGI and overwrought sappiness of Spider-Man’s origin story, Spider-Man 2 is sleeker, funnier, and consistently thrilling. Until the last few years, the answer to “What’s the best Spider-Man movie?” was a complete no-brainer, but we think it’s got some competition nowadays.
Who would have thought a half-improvised, sloppily planned blockbuster directed by ex-Swinger Jon Favreau was not only going to clean up pretty damn nicely, but also launch the most successful comic franchise of all time?
Back when the MCU was enjoying simpler days of streamlined origin stories with just enough tidbits here and there to plant the seeds of an ongoing story – Nick Fury crashes the party after the credits, and who could have guessed Agent Coulson’s eventual significance? – but for us it’s all about Robert Downey Jr’s comeback tour.
The payoff of four years’ worth of meticulous planning, recasting, rewriting, and universe-building finally dropped in 2012, the biggest and most ambitious cinematic crossover ever conceived.
Was it all worth it? Okay, The Avengers frequently looks and plays like a TV show, and Joss Whedon’s characteristic sarcastic quippiness oozes unpleasantly out of every pore, but we can’t help but be whisked away by its pace and charm every time we stick it on.
Superhero movies have featured African-American heroes taking center stage before, but never has a celebration of black excellence and identity been this complex, layered, and vibrant. Black Panther is the MCU entry that finally addressed the global issues of heroism, with a sharp villain who brings the ideals of a character like Magneto ferociously into the 21st century.
The expertly staged action set pieces make each hit land with the weight of modern conflict and frequently ensure the women of Marvel are not only commanding the spotlight but, crucially, taking the wheel.
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Writing about the X-Men now is incredibly hard to do, given recent developments with a director who will remain unnamed. But, moreso than the direction (which, when we consider X-Men Apocalypse and shakier moments of the first X-Men, is decidedly hit or miss), the casting is what bolsters this series above even some of the best entries into the MCU.
Days of Future Past is no exception, as we remember the likes of Patrick Stewart & Ian McKellen just as fondly as we revere James McAvoy & Michael Fassbender as their younger counterparts.
Quicksilver’s defining moment is a landmark for superhero fare (and woefully imitated in the followup), our dwindling interest in Wolverine as a key player is revitalized, and its complex time travel plot still hasn’t been bested by a blockbuster thus far.
Avengers: Infinity War
If The Avengers was the thrilling season finale to four years of hard work, Infinity War is pure flexing. After building a multitude of sandboxes to play in and an interminable roster of super-powered action figures to populate them with, Marvel’s ten-year anniversary celebration feels like a psychedelic Saturday morning cartoon threaded with adult stakes, and is all the more entertaining for it.
Josh Brolin’s Thanos is the star of the show, the realest CGI character we’ve ever had the displeasure of watching take over the universe. Not everything is as finely tuned as the intricate details that make up the Mad Titan’s facial expressions but, a year later, we still can’t get over that cliffhanger, and Endgame can’t arrive sooner.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
We still don’t give a jot about Bucky Barnes, but watching The Winter Soldier makes us forget all that for two blissful hours of political intrigue, martial arts mayhem, and tragic bromance. Robert Redford is cast perfectly as Alexander Pierce, throwing back to his earlier roles in 70s thrillers to justify the constant discourse of these films supposedly playing in different genres.
The Winter Soldier is the first and only film in the MCU to stay true to that claim. No, it’s not in the same league as Three Days of the Condor or All the President’s Men, but it retains the grittiness and cynicism of New Hollywood without compromising the demands of the Marvel formula.
Directed by James Mangold, the filmmaker behind the second, slightly less disastrous attempt at a solo outing for this clawed anti-hero, Logan takes a scalpel to the superhero genre and keeps twisting. Finally delivering the brutality and gore comic book readers have long associated with Wolverine, Hugh Jackman steps up for his most challenging appearance as the experiment-turned-X-Man yet, and hits home runs every time.
As movie fans frequently irritated by Wolverine’s prevalence in superhero films that are supposedly ensemble pieces first and foremost, we have to admit saying goodbye to the longest-running superhero portrayal still leaves a lump in our throats.
X2: X-Men United
Hot take incoming: this is still the best X-Men movie. And it’s primarily because Wolverine’s bloated presence irks us so much in the other mutant brawls. X2 is an ensemble piece through and through.
Sure, the film delves into Logan’s troubled past with characteristic brutality and some surprising sensitivity, but each member of the team is given thrilling moments to shine. New players are even introduced without bogging down the core cast.
Nightcrawler’s crucial and endearing supporting role still hasn’t been topped; Magneto teaming-up with the good guys only to betray them at the last minute remains gripping (before this M.O. turned stale in later entries); and the fact X2 manages to construct a breathtaking finale around Patrick Stewart sitting stationary in his wheelchair remains a sight to behold over a decade later.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Animation was built for superheroes. Ask anyone what the best Fantastic Four film is and, unless they’ve got a peculiar fondness for Tim Storey’s relics of the naughties, you’re likely to receive “The Incredibles” in response, with a knowing smirk.
Although Marvel has dabbled in Direct-to-DVD animated fare (and there are some classics hidden within the impenetrable stockpile of kids cartoons), Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the first animated feature to push the superhero genre to its very limits.
Featuring Miles Morales, a Spider-Man for a new age of plucky outcasts, this interdimensional, relentlessly frenetic, expectation-defying, street-savvy hero’s journey into the unknown is the first feature that truly demonstrates the sentiment that anyone can wear the mask.