In the 15 years since Iron Man came out, ushering in the behemoth that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we’ve had roughly four full phases, 32 feature films, around 20 TV shows ( some de-canonized), and a veritable bord of smorgas of characters. It’s been a lot, folks. Some franchises are lucky to get to three movies, but the MCU is so vast it contains a number of trilogies in and of itself. But with another trio of movies recently wrapping, which of the MCU’s reigns supreme?
Below I’ve ranked the Marvel Cinematic Universe trilogies from worst (or my least favorite) to the best (or most favorite). But first, some ground rules.
- This will only be the trilogies (tetralogy in one case) pertaining to one character or separate team. Basically, I’m not counting the Avengers movies since they depend so much on all the other sub-franchises.
- I’m weighing each trilogy as a whole rather than which trilogy has the best individual film. So one might have a single movie that’s top three MCU, but if the other movies in the franchise don’t measure up, the average goes down.
Everybody ready? Then here we go!
I feel like people have already begun to draft their angry missives toward me. But listen. Look. Wait. Will ya wait? Just wait. Yes, 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok is outstanding. It reinvented the character of the Asgardian hammer god into the true God of Thunder. Taika Waititi allowed Chris Hemsworth to play to his strengths, offered up some of Mark Ruffalo’s best Hulk/Banner work, and paved the way for Loki’s redemption. But. The Thor series has four movies, doesn’t?
The rest of the Thor movies are just so much lesser. The first movie is fine; the second movie has its defenders but suffers, as many did, from having a lackluster villain. Then we had Ragnarok which was great, and set up Infinity War and Endgame in an amazing way. And then we come to Love and Thunder which proved even Waititi couldn’t do it again.
As a whole, the Thor tetralogy (not “quadrilogy,” which isn’t a word) is way too all-over-the-place to be really effective.
The one thing the Ant-Man movies have over the Thor movies, in my view, is consistency. They are consistently fair-to-middling. A lot of fun to be had, certainly, but nothing super special. The first movie has a goofy charm to it that plays to Paul Rudd’s charms, though the plot and narrative kept it feeling rote. The second movie, 2018’s Ant-Man and the Wasp, perhaps because it aimed a bit lower than a lot of Phase Three movies, was a fun little movie, but again, hampered by a boring villain and some needless messiness.
Wanna talk about messiness? Let’s talk about Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. This movie could not decide what the hell kind of thing it was. Sure, for comic dorks who follow the MCU for its universe-expanding, the Kang stuff was very exciting. But did it need to be an Ant-Man movie? Aside from a couple decent effects sequences, did this do much to further Scott Lang’s story? It sure as heck didn’t further Hope Van Dyne’s.
Ultimately, the Ant-Man movies are a pleasant diversion at best.
4. Iron Man
The one that started it all! We cannot overstate just how much of a watershed moment in superhero movies Iron Man was in 2008. It’s not even that it’s a perfect movie or even Robert Downey Jr.’s finest hour as Tony Stark; more, it let us know this would be a franchise made of franchises. The Marvel Cinematic Universe exists because Iron Man did it right. And because of that, Iron Man was the unofficial (maybe even official) main character of the MCU. He got his trilogy first.
But here’s the thing about this trilogy. While it’s arguably the most cohesive, it also started too fast. Iron Man 2 came out before the first Thor or Captain America. It felt a lot like a “okay, we need to hedge our bets a bit before we dive in.” Probably a smart move. But as a result, Iron Man 2 doesn’t feel like it does a whole hell of a lot. It gives us Tony stuff, naturally, and it has him deal with some of his daddy issues, but it feels pretty pedestrian—aside from introducing War Machine, of course.
And I’m one of the weirdos who thinks Iron Man 3 is pretty good. It’s not amazing, but it’s fun and it has a lot to say about PTSD which I think is perfect for Tony, post-The Avengers. All in all, the first movie is doing a lot of the heavy lifting, but it still works very well as a trilogy.
Okay, so here’s the thing about the MCU Spider-Man trilogy: they very rarely let Spider-Man be Spider-Man. Really, only No Way Home puts Spidey at the forefront, but it’s because it has all the previous versions’ villains and leads. It’s about Spider-Man as a franchise, not this Peter Parker. The first two movies are way too contingent on Tony Stark and his shadow over the whole thing.
That said, the overall quality of these movies, and especially Tom Holland’s amazingly winning performance, makes them worthy of this high ranking on the list. He manages, most of the time, to transcend the messy Sony-versus-Marvel-Studios-ness of the whole thing, and has very good repartee with the movies’ respective villains. Homecoming has Michael Keaton as a supremely sinister take on Vulture; Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio is a fresh and fascinating take on the character; and look, Holland somehow manages to go toe-to-toe with the best baddies in superhero history in Dafoe and Molina.
I’m looking forward to the next Spider-Man trilogy, one after all the shoe leather of making him Spider-Man. But as it stands, the “Home” saga is a ton of fun and full of heart. (Far from Home is by far my least favorite of the three, for the record.)
2. Captain America
I’m a Cap guy, I’ll admit it. While RDJ’s Tony Stark takes a lot of the spotlight for the MCU, it wouldn’t work nearly as well if it didn’t have a true, stalwart hero at the center. Chris Evans rules, playing Steve Rogers with a mix of “aw shucks” and “don’t you effing dare” that is perfect for Captain America. The entire trilogy of his, plus the first Avengers movie, feels like explorations of the themes of the past versus the future. Literally a man out of time has to learn, not only about technology, but the complicated political and societal issues that were seemingly much simpler in WWII.
I very much love Captain America: The First Avenger, even though it feels the least in keeping with the rest of the MCU. I just dig that whole 1940s vibe. They got the director of The Rocketeer for a reason! It’s a blast. Red Skull, we hardly knew ye. Then we go in a completely different direction with The Winter Soldier, for a while my favorite MCU movie. The hard-hitting spy story with complicated political intrigue was one of the best action movies I’d seen in years. It still holds up amazingly well.
If Steve’s first two movies were about learning things are worse than Nazis, and the government isn’t to be trusted, by the time of Captain America: Civil War, he’s lost all hope. With Peggy dying, he has one piece of his former life around, and it’s his formerly brainwashed best friend. He’d do anything to protect him, even if it means fighting other heroes and ruining his good standing with Tony to do it. How easy it was for Baron Zemo to sow discord. Superb trilogy all around.
1. Guardians of the Galaxy
Did you think it would be something else? Did you maybe think I hadn’t concocted this whole article because I loved Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and how it pulled everything off? I know the third installment has its detractors—and certainly it’s much grimmer than the other two—but as a saga about these misfits learning to be both a team and a family, and fighting some huge cosmic threats, it succeeds in almost every department.
We’ve already written a lot on this site about paying off the character arcs, but all three Guardians movies—plus Infinity War and Endgame—make the case that these are the best written and realized of all the MCU figures. Certainly the most consistent (Angry Quill ruining the universe notwithstanding). Aside from the Ant-Man movies, this is the only trilogy to have the same director throughout. But more than that, this feels like we got James Gunn’s full vision on display. I doubt we’ll see the like of it again.
So yeah. Hands down, far-and-away, the Guardians of the Galaxy is the best trilogy (so far, he says knowing six million more movies are on the way) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Kyle Anderson is the Senior Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Instagram and Letterboxd.