Comics on Film: Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the Road to 'Infinity War' – Phase One

Comics on Film: Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the Road to 'Infinity War' – Phase One

Mar 23, 2018

We're now just over a month away from the release of Marvel Studios' Avengers: Infinity War, the ten-year culmination of the entire experiment that the studio started with the release of 2008's original Iron Man film. In honor of the impending release and to celebrate ten years of engaging and imaginative comic book movies, Comics on Film will periodically rank the Marvel Cinematic Universe films by the "phases" they've been released in.

First up: the inaugural phase that culminated with the absolute payoff that was the original Avengers film!
6) Iron Man 2
It's not difficult to see where this countdown should begin. In an initial series of generally strong movies, the second outing featuring ol' Shellhead just doesn't manage to reach the heights of its predecessor. While no one can feasibly dispute Iron Man 2's importance in the larger MCU – introducing us to Don Cheadle as War Machine and Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow – it seemed a bit more concerned with creating the connective tissue for what would come later, which made the antagonism between Iron Man and Whiplash (played by Mickey Rourke) take something of a backseat to the world-building.
Still, Iron Man 2's post-credits scene was also the first of such scenes in the film series to hint at a world beyond Tony Stark or Bruce Banner, and that thunder was heard 'round the world. All in all, Iron Man 2 is serviceable, but simply doesn't match up to the other films in this phase of the MCU.
5) The Incredible Hulk
In some respects, the second MCU film is something of a black sheep in the larger film series, likely due to the fact that it seems so separate from everything that would follow. Still, watching Edward Norton's sole turn as Bruce Banner and seeing General Ross relentlessly pursue the subject of both his ire and military fascination absolutely makes for an engaging film experience, even if it seems largely separate from what would follow later.
And, just to be clear, that's a critique of the larger MCU, not of The Incredible Hulk. The fact that the only real lip service this movie has gotten in the subsequent films largely amounts to a throwaway line of dialogue in 2012's first team-up film is a shame, since The Incredible Hulk introduced some characters and threads that – ten years later – are still hanging loosely in the fabric of the universe. Thankfully, General Ross would reappear in Phase Three, but The Incredible Hulk is too often overlooked because it seems to rarely enter modern conversations about the MCU at-large.
4) Iron Man
Although you always have to start somewhere, it doesn't seem like anyone in 2008 expected things to start off quite like this. Launching the reign of the MCU as a dominant box office powerhouse, more importantly, director Jon Favreau's original Iron Man film introduced us to a world and characters that are endlessly fascinating. By embracing many aspects of what had made the Iron Man character endure for nearly 50 years at that point, Favreau showed directors and studios that larger fidelity to the source material can actually enrich a film, while also allowing your performers to do their own thing.
And holy hell, did Robert Downey, Jr. do his own thing when it came to embodying Tony Stark. While some of the more eccentric aspects to Downey's character aren't particularly recognizable to comics fans, what does come through is the sense of guilt and responsibility he feels that pushes him into becoming the hero we know him to be. Tony Stark, at the beginning of this film, represents the hubris that wealth and brilliance can give someone without struggle. By seeing firsthand the destruction his creations helped permit, we were treated to a movie that served as an incredible launching pad, but also a rewarding story of redemption. Not a bad way to kick things off.
3) Thor
Director Kenneth Branagh was the first of the MCU's helmers to truly expand the scope of the shared universe beyond the bounds of our own planet. Paving the way for future cosmic entries like Guardians of the Galaxy and even Doctor Strange to a degree, Branagh's grasp of the drama at the core of the characters also made Thor one of the major lynchpins of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That's before even touching the strength of the characters in the story.
Putting his classical training to excellent use, Branagh gives the Asgardians an air of formal regality that is fully backed up by the performers he helped choose to embody these roles, and the journey that he takes them on. Chris Hemsworth brings to life the Son of Odin and our main protagonist in a way that's both recognizable and relatable, even considering the fact that he's a God of Thunder. The story of his arrogance becoming the basis for his more tempered leadership is compelling, especially when paired with the first look we gleaned at Tom Hiddleston's unforgettable portrayal of Loki. Thor still holds up, even after everything else that's come to pass.
2) Captain America: The First Avenger
More than introducing us to the de facto leader of the team that would become the Avengers, the first Captain America film in the MCU also brought back a vision of cinematic period filmmaking that returned us to the swashbuckling vision of the early-to-mid-20th century that we hadn't seen at the movies since the original Indiana Jones films, or 1991's The Rocketeer. It's appropriate, then, that the filmmaker charged with bringing this to life was The Rocketeer's director, Joe Johnston.
In a few different ways, The First Avenger feels like the truest Marvel film in the entirety of the MCU's first phase. Evoking the kinds of stories by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon that first brought Cap to life in the 1940s, the film's vision of HYDRA and Hugo Weaving's unforgettable performance as the Red Skull helped put in perspective the kind of good that Steve Rogers, played brilliantly by Chris Evans, represents. Of all the Phase One films, The First Avenger is almost the purest example of a Marvel story we'd gotten on the screen yet.
1) The Avengers
No more teases, no more build-up. No, the first major team-up film in the MCU, and the culmination of Phase One, was nothing but pure, unadulterated payoff. Sometimes it's easy to forget that fan speculation ahead of the May 2012 release of The Avengers didn't exactly foresee a comic book film for the ages. The look of the film in pre-release materials didn't look particularly exciting for an audience that had been spoiled by the dark, complex framework of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight films, and putting the main characters of several disparate movies together didn't necessarily seem like a home run to some.
How wrong those people were, though. Under the full purview of Joss Whedon, who served as both writer and director with a track record of writing comics on top of all his other revered work, The Avengers pulled these heroes together and made for a team that worked, and made for a movie that was exciting.
The thrill of seeing Captain America and Iron Man in the same frame was infectious just in concept, but it certainly didn't hurt that Whedon helped to craft a movie that would prove to be an important forerunner for other major comic book crossover films like Captain America: Civil War, Justice League, and even the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War.
The importance of The Avengers to the entire superhero genre simply can't be overstated, but on top of that, it's an endlessly entertaining movie to watch. And, after this culminating piece, the MCU was off the leash and simply couldn't be stopped.
Still, we've got other phases to get through. Look for the rankings of both Phases Two and Three in the coming weeks, and be sure to leave your own Phase One rankings in the comments below.

Chris Clow is a comics expert/former retailer, and pop culture critic/commentator. He hosts two podcasts: Discovery Debrief: A Star Trek Podcast and Comics on Consoles. Find his column "Comics on Film" weekly at, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.

Categories: Comics, Features, Geek, Editorials
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