In the run-up to “Avengers: Endgame,” I’m running down every movie and TV show the MCU has ever put out and ranking them based on how well they tell their stories with the means available to them. This is the final part of a four part series.
11. “Marvel’s Daredevil”: Season One (2015)
The first season of “Daredevil” signaled another turning point for the MCU, proving that the idea of their Netflix series wasn’t only viable, it was different from anything the studio had done before. Instead of its zippier counterparts, “Daredevil” showed that Marvel wasn’t afraid to get dark with an emphasis on heavier themes and more complex characterization, brought to life by Charlie Cox’s portrayal of the title character and Vincent D’Onofrio’s immediately-iconic take on the Kingpin.
10. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (2017)
Everything “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” does well is exemplified in a single perfect scene. As Jay and the Americans belt out “Come a Little Bit Closer,” we watch Yondu take his revenge on his mutinous crew and massacre his way back to control of his ship with Rocket and Groot in tow. This is the most delightful killing spree ever put to film. True to the spirit of the “Guardians” films, it’s fun, hilarious, inventively shot, marvelously scored and really twisted when you stop to think about it. Over the course of about three minutes, hundreds of people are killed. And our heroes laugh.
9. “Marvel’s The Avengers” (2012)
The first time the MCU came together and showed what it was capable of still ranks as one of its finest hours. The action soars more so than almost any other Marvel property with no shortage of all-time great moments of spectacle — the shot tracking the Avengers through the streets of New York is as astounding today as it was the first time we saw it — but as always, the most important work “The Avengers” does is on the Avengers themselves. The character dynamics established here are what have carried us to the precipice of “Endgame.”
8. “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018)
“Infinity War” is a film so gargantuan in scale that it seems impossible anything could ever top it. From the first scene to the last, the pedal is pushed firmly to the floor. There’s little time to breathe, yet the Russo brothers somehow managed to craft an emotional story that put our heroes through the ringer, gave us a showstopper of a villain in Josh Brolin’s Thanos and ended on a note of pure terror that has kept us all waiting with bated breath for a year now.
7. “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014)
If you’re looking for the moment where Marvel started to rule the world, I give you “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Sure, “The Avengers” had to bring together characters from separate standalone films, but “Guardians” had to introduce us to its ensemble cast of D-List intergalactic a-holes, bring them together and make us care about them all in one movie while working with a cast whose most recognizable stars played a talking raccoon and tree. “Guardians of the Galaxy” is a miracle, and the fact that James Gunn and Marvel pulled it off in such fun, emotional and thrilling fashion is what earned the MCU the loyal fanbase it has today.
6. “Marvel’s Jessica Jones”: Season One (2015)
The first season of “Jessica Jones” is a bruising story of trauma and recovery, a fiery rebuke of toxic masculinity and a stylish “feminist noir” all rolled into one. Led by Krystin Ritter’s commanding performance, there are few beats the series doesn’t absolutely nail, from the treatment of its title character’s PTSD to the characterization of its villain, David Tennant’s Kilgrave. The shared history that reveals itself between these two lends itself to the most unsettling material in the entire MCU, made all the more horrifying for its real world parallels.
5. “Iron Man” (2008)
Hey, remember that time a multi-billion dollar superhero franchise got its start with a critique of the military-industrial complex starring an actor coming off a string of career setbacks and directed by the guy who made “Elf”? I’ve mentioned a lot of miracles the MCU pulled off, so it’s fitting that the movie where it all began was itself totally miraculous. On top of everything else, the cast and crew were working from an unfinished script and reportedly improvised most of the dialogue. Somehow it all came together, though, and provided the foundation for the biggest film franchise of all time.
4. “Marvel’s Daredevil”: Season Three (2018)
“Daredevil” ended its run with one of the finest takes on faith and identity the small screen has seen in years. Based on the iconic “Born Again” arc, the season essentially plays out as an arresting 13-episode game of chess between Matt Murdock and a seemingly omniscient Kingpin. D’Onofrio has never been better in the role than he is as he plots and enacts his revenge against Daredevil, while Cox plays Matt’s struggle with his own duality with brilliant precision, a man whose every belief has been shattered and who has no idea how to pick up the pieces.
3. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014)
If you thought you wouldn’t leave a “Captain America” film uneasy about America’s surveillance state, you’d be wrong. On top of its surprising depth, “The Winter Soldier” packs some of the best action Marvel has brought to bear, ranging from Falcon’s high-flying stunts to the grounded hand-to-hand combat of the fights between Steve Rodgers and the titular villain. Package the whole thing as an espionage thriller, and you’ve got one of the most electric superhero films in recent memory.
2. “Captain America: Civil War” (2016)
If the MCU is its characters, then it’s “Civil War,” not “Infinity War,” that functions as the true culmination of everything that came before it. Just about everyone from every corner of the world Marvel created is here and they all bring their own motivations to the fight. While the airport sequence is undoubtedly breathtaking, it’s in the final battle between Tony and Steve that everything comes together (while the Avengers fall apart). It’s not just about the spectacle, it’s about the futility of revenge and the ways we lash out when the person we blame most is ourselves.
1. “Black Panther” (2018)
Ryan Coogler’s exhilarating introduction to Wakanda was only released last year, but there’s nothing else that could have claimed the MCU’s throne. The Afrofuturist fantasy world Coogler creates feels wholly original even as he draws from a diverse set of influences in both his sharp storytelling and immaculate visual design. That’s without even touching on the cast, filled with so many great performances and characters that picking a single favorite becomes simply impossible. It isn’t perfect, but then, no Marvel movie has been. Instead, like its franchise and the heroes it has brought to life, it rises to the top because it serves as a reminder that all of us — from kings down to high-school students — are capable of rising above ourselves and becoming something more.
And with that, we’re in the endgame.