The 20 best Marvel films – ranked!

Following the death of Stan Lee – comic-book titan and prolific creator – we examine the screen adaptations of some of Marvel’s greatest characters. Excelsior!

20. Ghost Rider (2007)

No list of Marvel films – or of any films – can be without Nicolas Cage. Here he plays the terrifying Ghost Rider. By day: stunt motorbike rider Johnny Blaze. By night: a flaming skeleton forced by Satan to ride around collecting souls for hell on his lethal chopper.

19. Ant-Man (2015)

There is something funny, understated and self-deprecatory in the superpowers of Ant-Man – chiefly an ability to get really, really small – and Paul Rudd was perfectly cast in this likable Marvel movie, originally written by Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish. Like many Marvel films with a more obvious comic touch, it has grown in retrospect.

18. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield were in their late 20s when they played Peter Parker, but Tom Holland was just 21 when he made his bashful Spidey debut in Captain America: Civil War. As a result, he was instantly more credible as a high-school kid, coming under the wisecracking mentorship of Tony Stark. Holland has been absolutely great in the role since, instantly getting Marvel’s verbal and physical language of dynamic, yet self-aware superheroism.

17. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

Time-travel was a complicating factor in this X-Men movie – perhaps too much so – but it at least brought us Evan Peters’s Quicksilver, who features in the glorious “bullet-time” sequence, in which the lightning-fast teenager ambles around catching bullets in the air as they are shot towards Magneto and Prof Xavier, all set to Jim Croce’s yearningly melancholicTime In a Bottle.

16. Spider-Man (2002)

Sam Raimi made a splash with this, the first of his original trio, and he persuaded a new generation to love Spider-Man as the existential underdog, the winner who is also a loser. Filmed before 9/11 but released afterwards, Raimi had to junk a spectacular shot of a helicopter being caught in webbing strung between the two WTC towers, along with much contingent narrative.

15. Iron Man (2008)

Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man.
Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man. Photograph: Allstar/Marvel/Sportsphoto Ltd

The casting of Robert Downey Jr as the central pillar of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was very important – his quicksilver wit and his handsomeness, salted with cynicism and bleariness, allowed the films a crucial difference in tone and feel to previous superhero movies, giving them a new kind of savvy comedy. The first Iron Man, directed by John Favreau, isn’t my favourite, but it was a vital foundation of Marvel’s filmic cosmos.

14. Thor (2011)

For sheer grandeur and a very literate, almost Shakespearean sense of cosmic power politics, director Kenneth Branagh gave us a very enjoyable drama centred on the great deity Thor, played by Chris Hemsworth. He has issues with his father, Odin, played – perhaps inevitably – by Anthony Hopkins. Tom Hiddleston played his malcontent evil brother, Loki, in the great tradition of Jeremy Irons’s Uncle Scar in The Lion King. The giant universal vistas of Asgard, Jotunheim and Earth are created with surreal brio.

13. Doctor Strange (2016)

Doctor Strange is the most avowedly, even pedantically freaky hero in the MCU: the statutory Stan Lee cameo has the great man on a city bus, chuckling over a copy of Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception – the closest a Marvel film will come to actually advocating drug abuse. Benedict Cumberbatch cemented his unique A-list status as Dr Stephen Strange, the wealthy and temperamental neurosurgeon who is terribly injured in a car crash, but then ascends to a higher level of psychokinetic mastery thanks to Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One. The landscape-folding moments of surreality are more lightly managed than in Christopher Nolan’s Inception.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange. Photograph: Marvel

12. Logan (2017)

A fascinatingly downbeat movie from the Marvel canon: superpowers are one thing, but no-one said the chracters were immortal. So, what happens when superheroes get old? This film goes some way towards an answer with this tale of Logan: X-Men’s Wolverine – seen at some stage in future, making an incognito living as a limo driver while caring for a decrepit Charles Xavier, and enduring severe pain every time his claws are unsheathed.

11. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

In the great bible of Marvel, the cataclysmic Avengers: Infinity War is the nearest to the Book of Revelations. It’s the closest the franchise comes to actually showing us the awful reality of an end to everything – that unthinkable final curtain the mighty battles between good and evil appear to have been gesturing at before now. The management of tone is expert: at one moment tragic, the next funny, and the next just exciting.

10. Deadpool (2016)

Marvel humour is at its most studenty and self-aware in this movie about the mutant mercenary assassin who first emerged on screen as a cameo in X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009. It’s also very macabre and very funny. Ryan Reynolds is once again Deadpool, the black sheep of the X-Men family.

9. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

The two great enemies of picnics get co-billing in this hilarious, charming and distinctly lovable film tackling the micro-universe, the second in the Ant-Man series. Paul Rudd is great as Ant-Man and Evangeline Lilly is formidable as the Wasp. Michael Douglas has a certain old-school aplomb as Dr Hank Pym, and Michelle Pfeiffer has a great supporting turn as the Wasp’s mother, Janet van Dyne.

8. X-Men (2000)

This was the first of many X-Men films, and in Bryan Singer it had a director overtaken by controversy, although at the time, the only controversy concerned the film’s extraordinary – or crass – “concentration camp” scene set in Poland in 1944. This was the movie that brought us Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as Professor X and Magneto.

7. Iron Man 3 (2013)

Not everyone agrees, but my favourite of the Iron Man films is the third – because of the lip-smacking relish brought to the writing and directing by Shane Black, a master of action comedy. Downey Jr is on fine form as the titular mercurial mogul and, in an age when we have to endure Elon Musk and his unwieldy submarine, Stark’s persona seems charm itself.

6. Marvel Avengers Assemble (2012)

Perhaps this is the quintessential MCU film, which introduced mainstream audiences to the idea of mashing up the lives and existences of superheroes to have them work together and encroach on each other’s adventures while playing everything more or less deadpan. This one teamed Iron Man, Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor, Captain America (Chris Evans), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) – creating a virtual blood-sugar overload of superhero potency. They faced Hiddleston’s outrageously evil Loki. Johansson is superb as Black Widow.

5. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Director James Gunn has fallen on his sword for inappropriate tweets, but this hasn’t cancelled the claim his Guardians of the Galaxy movies have on the hearts of Marvel fans. Again, the keynote of comedy is all-important. Chris Pratt plays Peter Quill, the Han-Solo-ish intergalactic freebooter, listening to his retro playlist on an old-school Sony Walkman and commanding a ragtag multi-species crew, a tree-shaped creature called Groot, a huge guy called Drax, a talking raccoon called Rocket and a green alien called Gamora. There is a rush of absurdity, but excitement as well.

4. Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Sam Raimi’s second film in the original Spider-Man series is often thought the best of the trilogy, and perhaps even the best Marvel film. It’s certainly the most serious, and taps into the melancholy self-questioning of Spider-Man, while Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus is still the best Marvel supervillain.

3. Blade II (2002)

This sequel to 1998’s Blade was directed by Guillermo del Toro with a swirling, demonic energy. The story once again concerns the charismatic daywalker, played by Wesley Snipes. It is a delirious Gothic-tech martial arts movie and the fight sequences Del Toro unleashes are horribly exciting. Not a typical superhero film, in many ways, but a great one.

2. Black Panther (2018)

This superb film is a deliriously entertaining Afrofuturist adventure, with strange echoes of Rider Haggard. Black Panther was established as one of Marvel’s greatest heroes, and Ryan Coogler’s movie showed that having a nearly non-white cast was not simply a matter of diversity signalling – it was a colossal box office hit across the board, with a richer and more cultish element of fantasy than other Marvel films. (It also boasts MCU’s first woman cinematographer: the Oscar-nominated Rachel Morrison. Marvel Studios’ president, Kevin Feige, has promised to get more women writers and directors on board, with next year’s Captain Marvel co-written and co-directed by Anna Boden. So far, the only Marvel female writing credit is Nicole Perman for Guardians Of The Galaxy.)

1. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie and Chris Hemsworth as Thor in Thor: Ragnarok.
Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie and Chris Hemsworth as Thor in Thor: Ragnarok. Photograph: Allstar/Marvel Studios

Somehow the Marvel planets came into alignment more perfectly, more sublimely, with this film than with any other Marvel movie: it is smart, visually exciting and perhaps above all, funny. And it’s funny in a way that only Marvel movies can be, demonstrating that comedy need not undercut or send up the drama, but that it can be an integral part of it. Taika Waititi was an inspired choice as director, and Hemsworth and Cate Blanchett are tremendous as Thor and Hela, the goddess of death who also happens to be Thor’s half-sister.


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