With four more entries to the Marvel movie portfolio this year alone, it's time to take a step back and see what we've got. These films come so fast, it's easy to forget the older ones. But there are 37 movies based on Marvel characters and comics now. They range from silly to spectacular and, like most things, they exhibit a distinct evolution since the early days.
Obviously, the advent of digital filmmaking changed everything for comic book films, whose imaginations far exceeded the limits of live action possibilities. But technology is only a small piece of what goes into a good Marvel movie. Smart casting is essential. As is the chemistry within that cast. In other words, Michael Chiklis and Jessica Alba should never share a sound stage. But the most important piece, as it is with every movie, is an overall vision, and that starts with the director.
Marvel movies have a lot to live up to. Legions of comic book fans waited patiently for years to see their heroes come to life on the big screen. Opinions abound. Hearts can be broken in the blink of 120 minutes. So the cheers from the masses are always deafening despite the reaction. But we must have some order.
These are all the Marvel movies, ranked from worst to best. Some spoilers will follow.
The Unspeakably Bad
37. Captain America (1990)
The cheapest, campiest Marvel adaptation, the first ever Captain America is basically a TV movie. It's included here to give an idea of what things used to be like. Comic books weren't taken seriously in the least bit and were produced with kids in mind.
36. Howard the Duck (1986)
Featuring an animatronic talking duck that just didn't work, Howard the Duck is still popular with some film fans for being a great "bad movie." Howard even has a cameo in one of this year's Marvel films, but that's about the best praise you can give it.
35. The Punisher (1989)
The Dolph Lundgren Punisher movie is full of hilariously bad acting, terrible special effects, and a plot that does no justice to the dark, tortured character that inspired it. But it does have Louis Gossett Jr, which is pretty cool.
34. Punisher: War Zone (2008)
It's honestly a toss up which Punisher is worse: Lundgren's or Ray Stevenson's. The star of HBO's Rome played Frank Castle in this 2008 laugher, the only Marvel film directed by a woman (Lexi Alexander). Unfortunately, its horrible writing and cliched characters didn't help her out much.
33. Blade: Trinity (2004)
Two words: Ryan Reynolds. That, Jessica Biel, and all the worst things about the first two films—the music, the stylized editing, the cheesy dialogue—are taken up a notch in this one as Blade wears out his welcome.
32. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)
The Ghost Rider sequel is only worse than its predecessor because it learned nothing from the mistake that was...
31. Ghost Rider (2007)
The Rider is, admittedly, one of the toughest Marvel heroes to bring to live action life, but so many other things went wrong here you can't blame the source material. Nicolas Cage is badly miscast as Johnny Blaze and, if the clumsy dialogue and obnoxious action sequences don't prove it, the hair does.
30. Elektra (2005)
Daredevil was soundly booed off the screen in 2003, so what did Fox do? It made a sequel starring one of its less interesting supporting characters. This was during the "Jennifer Garner is the Next Big Thing" Hollywood years and it thankfully ended them.
29. Fantastic Four (2005)
One of the best examples of a clueless, uncharismatic cast, Fantastic Four also fell short in just about every technical category as well. Plus, it has the guy from Nip/Tuck as Dr. Doom and Chris Evans is the only one who realizes he's in a superhero movie. "Look guys, I can fly!" "Yeah that's great Human Torch, but let's sit around and try to get rid of our new super powers instead."
28. Daredevil (2003)
Daredevil is only saved from the "Unspeakably Bad" category by its two over-the-top villains: played by Colin Farrell and the late Michael Clarke Duncan. Ben Affleck is uninterested as the title hero, but the movie is simply weighed down by a boring story that goes nowhere.
27. The Punisher (2004)
The best of the Punisher movies still isn't great. Thomas Jane gets the tortured part right, but doesn't have much to work with story-wise. Plus John Travolta makes for an unintimidating villain. The best part of this Punisher is its dark tone, established by director Jonathan Hensleigh.
26. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
This sub-par sequel features the only modern vision of The Silver Surfer and it's not terrible, it's just too bad the rest of the movie isn't as interesting. The script is unsophisticated, the cast is still wooden, and the urgency just isn't there.
25. Hulk (2003)
Ang Lee's Hulk features split screen editing techniques that you either like or hate, but you probably hate. Eric Bana does well enough as Bruce Banner, but the Green Guy is sissy-looking compared to the Hulk of today's Marvel films. This one only gets worse with age.
24. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Featuring a silly romantic subplot that shows Wolvy losing his roughneck girlfriend, this stand-alone X-Men movie misses the mark in almost every way. Most of the action is an assault on the eyes, and we have to endure Wolverine fighting with his bone claws and taking beatings too often.
23. Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Sam Raimi's third Spider-Man is his worst. Blame casting (Topher Grace as Venom), ambition (too many villains), and hubris (a campy dance sequence). But there is some fun to be had, as there usually is in Raimi films, and this one can be enjoyed if you don't take it too seriously.
22. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Vinnie Jones as Juggernaut is one of the more hilarious casting decisions by the X-Men movies. This is the worst of them, the bloated Last Stand which features too many mutants losing powers and too much Famke Janssen as the evil Jean Grey, but at least she dies... again... until The Wolverine.
21. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
"The Death of Gwen Stacy" is one of the most shocking moments in Comic history and this sequel just doesn't get it right. The story tries to cover too much ground and the whole film just has that studio-mandated, cut to the chase feel. But Emma Stone is a doll as Gwen and Garfield is solid as Spidey once again, even if his Peter Parker is a little too cool.
20. X-Men: First Class (2011)
Michael Fassbender is fantastic as young Magneto. His scene on the beach with the missiles is beautiful, but the rest of this cast and the contrived way director Matthew Vaughn tries to capture the '70s, is Austin Powers-esque. Kevin Bacon and January Jones are laughable as the villains.
19. Blade (1998)
Blade is overly stylized and obnoxiously edited, but Wesley Snipes is worth seeing alone. His snarling, invincible performance is a lot of fun amongst a sea of scary-looking vampires and David Goyer's script keeps things intense.
18. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
This is the worst of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films. It's saved by the presence of Tom Hiddleston as Loki, who teams up with Thor to defeat the unscary Malekith. Loki is unpredictable and the movie looks fantastic, great on the big screen, but the story is formula and Kat Dennings is really annoying.
17. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
The Spidey reboot stars the talented Andrew Garfield who makes for a likable and exciting Peter Parker. The CGI and stunt work are well done, but the film takes few chances so why was it made? Plus, the Lizard is terribly designed.
16. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
This film merges the X-Men timelines so it features tons of mutants and two versions of some which is cool in spirit, less in execution. Fassbender, again, leads the way and helps overcome the movie's paint-by-numbers time travel plotline.
15. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Mickey Rourke does not an imposing villain make and he's sorely out of place here with his pretty haircut, but it's the Robert Downey Jr. show as usual and he's great once more. And even in its worst moments, Iron Man looks terrific. He might be the most cinematic of the Marvel heroes.
14. The Wolverine (2013)
Based on the sacred Chris Claremont, Frank Miller comic, Wolverine goes to Japan where he is shot, sliced, and diced, but continues immortal and hunts down the dead men who kidnap his love. This movie is one of the most grounded comic book films since Batman Begins, but it's undone by a ludicrous ending.
13. Blade II (2002)
The soundtrack is God-awful, but Blade II stands out thanks to the imagination of director Guillermo Del Toro and the film's seeming dedication to making the most violent vampire movie ever. It's one of the most daring and creatively violent action films of recent years.
12. X-Men (2000)
X-Men was really the first modern comic book movie and it works as a stand-alone action film. Not using the suits from the comics was a mistake, but the heroes and villains are well-cast, especially Hugh Jackman, who was an unknown, and Halle Berry as Storm (who else?). The first half of the movie is especially fun as the X-Men come together and the overall theme of acceptance of outsiders is well established.
11. Thor (2011)
Thanks to Chris Hemsworth and some illustrious Asgardian production design, Thor is much better than it should be. The film is also sharply funny, as the supremely-mannered God of Thunder comes to Earth and falls in love with a normal girl (Natalie Portman). Cultures clash on our planet while on Asgard, the best Marvel villain, Loki, steals the throne.
The Top 10
10. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Directed by Louis Leterrier (The Transporter), this—the Edward Norton Hulk movie—might be the most distinct Marvel film. It's the most unsettling. No other Marvel hero conjurs such fear in everyone around him. The Hulk is an out of control punching machine and the movie thrives on that notion. Unlike the other MCU movies, Leterrier doesn't find much room for humor so the uneasy tone never lets up. The villain, Abomination (Tim Roth), is formidable and the film ends leaving us wanting more as we learn Banner can finally control his Hulk-ness.
9. IRON MAN 3 (2013)
Iron Man 3 had a lot to live up to as the first MCU movie after the smash hit Avengers and co-writer/director Shane Black (Lethal Weapon) didn't let fans down. This is one of the darkest Marvel movies. Tony Stark (Downey) has PTSD after saving New York and creates over a dozen new Iron Man suits to stay busy. But Iron Man 3's greatest feat is its psychological villain, played by Guy Pearce, who uses misdirection to fool the genius-playboy- philanthropist and put his love, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in harm's way.
8. X2 (2003)
The X-Men sequel is just a more experienced version of the first film, so it works better. Professor X is taken by William Stryker (Brian Cox) and the team, with a backhanded assist from Magneto, set out to rescue him. Director Bryan Singer manages a lot of moving parts well and narrows the scope so the film never feels out of its depth. Highlights include Wolverine remembering his origin (although Jackman's feathered bangs are distracting), Ian McKellan as Magneto killing a guard by pulling all the iron in his blood through his skin, and Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler, a great bit of casting.
7. Spider-Man (2002)
Sam Raimi's original Spider-Man is really a signature film—the Evil Dead of comic book movies. It's knowingly campy thanks to Willem Dafoe's great Norman Osborne/Green Goblin performance. (his reaction to Aunt May whacking him at the dinner table is priceless.) And it's urgent, as Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) keeps finding his love, Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) in mortal peril. Don't hate the shoddy special effects, embrace them, they're Raimi's specialty.
6. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Even that Wayans brothers-inspired, big headed version of Steve Rogers works because when he covers that grenade, man, I'm right there with him. Captain America's MCU reboot doesn't try to do too much. It's just a solid, heroic action film with great stunt work and a fundamental good versus evil storyline. Chris Evans is yet another perfect fit for a Marvel hero, capturing Rogers' earnestness while remaining the toughest guy in the room.
5. Iron Man (2008)
Tony Stark was the role Robert Downey Jr. was born to play and he's only the second-best thing about Iron Man. The first is the look of the film, the visual effects which director Jon Favreau was smart enough to use to drive the story and not overwhelm it. This is an action movie with the right amount of action. If anything, we want to see more of Iron Man, his red and gold armor shining in the sun. This was the first film of the MCU and it set a tone right away that these movies would be story-driven spectacles and not the other way around.
4. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
James Gunn's raucous, comedy-fueled superhero ode to Star Wars and Indiana Jones is the happiest submission to the Marvel Universe thus far. It's full of huge moments, memorable characters, and amazing alien details that make it totally re-watchable. The CGI heroes, Rocket (a genius racoon) and Groot (a killer tree) are beautifully rendered onscreen and a blast to watch. Guardians is a prime example of a film that borrows relentlessly from other movies to create something new.
3. Marvel's The Avengers (2012)
The highest-grossing Marvel movie not only features the greatest comic book movie cast, it actually has a coherent, thrilling story and satisfying conclusion, a rarity for any action film. So The Avengers is pretty special. Here's some more cool stuff: Hulk catches an ejector seat for no reason, realizes it, and chucks it; Harry Dean Stanton has a cameo; Stark calls Thor "Point Break"; and Hulk rag dolls Loki. Avengers is just an amazing example of great moments. It's as if director Joss Whedon had a five hour movie he loved and he just whittled it down to its most essential elements.
2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
The rare Marvel movie that doesn't skip a beat. Every scene in The Winter Soldier seems correct and necessary. It's funny at the beginning, before the adventure starts, and then it transitions into an explosive action movie with some of the best fight choreography this side of The Raid. Cap is a beast. The early scene that shows him haymaking bad guys while he runs the length of a ship is fantastic stuff. And he finally uses his shield as a weapon, though it does little good against his old best buddy, Bucky Barnes, who's now the near invincible Winter Soldier.
1. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
If Avengers is the ultimate Marvel spectacle and Winter Soldier is ultimate Marvel fight movie, Spider-Man 2 is the ultimate combination of both. Raimi lost the camp appeal of his first film and created a movie with spectacular comic adventure sequences and CGI, but also a real emotional core, intelligence, and romance (it's also the only Marvel movie to have won an Oscar—Best Visual Effects). Peter Parker tries to protect Mary Jane by keeping his distance, but she's captured by the diabolical Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina). For my money, Spider-Man is the best Marvel superhero and Doc Ock is the second-best villain (behind Magneto), so seeing them together is everything I want in a comic book movie. Plus, Spidey 2 has the single greatest Marvel moment, when the web slinger stops the speeding subway and the citizens of New York carry him gently to safety.