I’ll admit something feels a bit oxymoronic about a list of the most underrated films of the MCU. From Star Trek to Star Wars, Marvel’s film franchise is about as popular at the moment as any ever has been and doesn’t show any sign of slowing soon. With the releases of the MCU’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Daniel Craig’s final run as 007 in No Time to Die, Marvel Studios has matched the total number of Eon’s James Bond films—and in a fraction of the time.
Wherever your allegiance lies, it’s plain to see the MCU has left the hobbling DC Extended Universe (or the slightly longer-than-MCU-acronym of DCEU) well in its dust, and no amount of James Gunn or Matt Reeves could hope to bridge the gap at this point (though every bit helps and they shouldn’t stop trying).
Suffice it to say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has turned into a blockbuster juggernaut. But not every film in the series’ 14-year run has been met with equal praise. Some earlier entries (and even some more recent ones) tend to be passed over for some of the bigger crowd-pleasers that have stood on their shoulders. As theaters reopen and Marvel Studios sprints with Quicksilver-speed into their fourth phase, let’s take a look back at some of the undersung entries of Phases 1-3 of the MCU.
10. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
To be clear, The Incredible Hulk is not necessarily some masterpiece of superhero cinema just waiting to be rediscovered, reappraised, and podiumed beside Superman ’78 and The Dark Knight. In fact, most MCU rankings have it pretty spot on when they place this one somewhere near the bottom. But considering many forget this film even exists, The Incredible Hulk deserves a bit more recognition than it gets.
While everybody went crazy for the dry wit of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark the summer of ‘08, The Incredible Hulk did a lot in its own right to help set the tone for the MCU. Hulk’s origin story blended the darker, more serious approach of 2005’s Batman Begins with attempts at the comedic levity that would become a trademark of future films of the franchise.
A fine counterpart to Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, Ed Norton immersed himself fully in the role of haunted and hunted Bruce Banner and delivered to his usual high standards. Norton’s immediate departure from the franchise may even be largely responsible for the film’s descent into obscurity—though it is difficult to imagine Norton gelling quite as well with the rest of the Avengers team as Mark Ruffalo has. At least the return of Tim Roth (woot!) as Abomination in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and the upcoming She-Hulk TV series may help repopularize this early MCU entry (or at least remind people that it exists).
9. Iron Man 3 (2013)
Relatively early in the MCU’s run, Shane Black was a curious but not entirely unexpected choice of director. With Lethal Weapon, Last Action Hero, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang under his belt, Black had more than demonstrated his aptitude for crowd-pleasing actioners that straddle the line between mainstream entertainment and quirky dark comedy. What was a surprise was that Marvel Studios gave him the freedom to make such an unabashedly Shane Black movie, resulting in the least -Marvelly film of the franchise.
Humor-peppered conversation about PTSD with child sidekick? Giant stuffed bunny just for the heck of it? Enough versions of “Jingle Bells” to make Home Alone blush? Sounds like a Shane Black film to me!
But Black’s knack for delivering the unexpected (and often with tongue firmly cheek) is actually what makes Iron Man 3 a better Marvel entry than many give it credit for. Watching Tony try to infiltrate a hideout in a hoodie instead of his suit and repeatedly counting down to the moment his aerial-delivered glove will arrive until it finally happens are two of the better gags that smack of Black’s characteristic humor.
But the film’s real tour de force is also what many initially slated it for: Ben Kingsley’s hopelessly confused, Budweiser-guzzling Mandarin fake-out, Trevor Slattery. The twist may not have been what fans of the comics were hoping for, but surely no one can deny Kingsley crafted one of the most downright hilarious characters in the whole MCU. Now that the real Mandarin has received his due in the hands of the eternally cool Tony Leung, hopefully Kingsley’s turn in Iron Man 3 can be enjoyed in a new light.
8. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Iron Man 2 is routinely criticized for trying to juggle too many storylines: Vanko’s crusade against the Stark family, Hammer Industries vs. Stark Industries, Pepper’s appointment as CEO, Tony’s palladium poisoning, Tony’s fledgling racing career, Tony’s fledgling in-flight cuisine career, the introduction of Black Widow, the U.S. government demanding control over the Iron Man tech, the launch of the Stark Expo, Vanko’s missing bird (will we ever find out what happened to his original bird???).
But what naysayers call an unsuccessful juggling act, I call an entertaining time at the cinema. Sure there’s a lot going on, but it zips along with real pizzazz and—if I may assert a controversial opinion here—improves upon the way its predecessor just alternates between scenes of Tony partying and scenes of Tony sitting in his basement tweaking his suit. I’ll go ahead and duck now while you reach for your tomatoes.
But really, how could you miss with Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell chewing up the scenery like a couple of termites dropped into the deck building section of a Home Depot? I’ll go so far as to name the two the best villain team-up since Pfeiffer and de Vito. Then you’ve got Tony and Rhodey beating each other down in their battle suits to Daft Punk’s “Robot Rock” and “Another One Bites the Dust,” some serious Pulp Fiction vibes when Tony’s shooting the breeze with Nick Fury in a sunny donut shop booth, and that exhilarating climax battling dozens of remote-controlled Iron Men in, around, and above the Stark Expo.
So, all things considered, Iron Man 2—weakest of the franchise? Only if you’re that poor cockatoo freezing its tail feathers off somewhere in Russia.
Seriously, what happened to that bird?
7. Doctor Strange (2016)
“Really?” you might say with a Hemsworthian squint on your face. “Doctor Strange, underrated? Is it though?”
A little bit, yeah.
Doctor Strange tends to get lumped into the middle to low tiers when it comes to MCU rankings. The “pretty good but only really worth dusting off when you’re pulling a marathon” films. As the film’s tagline goes, let’s expand our minds and consider what more there might be to this sometimes overlooked entry…
Dr. Strange himself is a refreshing change of pace for a Marvel hero. His arrogance is treated as a fascinating foible rather than an endearing trait like Tony Stark’s camera-winking self-absorption. Benedict Cumberbatch clearly had the range to pull off both the self-important surgeon and the humbled student of the mystic arts who’s willing to sacrifice himself endlessly on an altar of agony for the sake of all humanity. There are strong supporting turns by Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Tilda Swinton too, and even Mads Mikkelson on autopilot is better than no Mads at all.
But perhaps even more important than the pristine casting and handling of character is how Doctor Strange introduced into the MCU the concept of space and time manipulation, paving the way for Phase 3’s climactic Infinity War and Endgame. The psychedelic, reality-expanding trip Doctor Strange hurtles through and the flawlessly rendered scenes of cities revolving and folding in on themselves in impossible ways place this Marvel entry into a higher tier all on their own.
6. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
The lukewarm reception of Ant-Man and the Wasp may have been more a result of unfortunate timing than anything. The film came out between two of the biggest movies Marvel had produced and probably ever will produce—Infinity War and Endgame—and Ant-Man’s sequel is basically about a bunch of characters chasing a Rollaboard suitcase around San Francisco.
But if the very concept of the Ant-Man character has taught us anything, it’s that bigger is not always better…
Okay, in this case bigger was in fact better. I can’t see anyone arguing Ant-Man and the Wasp was a better film than Infinity War or Endgame. But that’s beside the point. My point is you don’t need a baker’s dozen in Avengers, a three hour running time, and the fate of all humanity hanging in the balance to make a perfectly enjoyable little film. And that’s exactly what Ant-Man and the Wasp is: a perfectly enjoyable little film.
The best Marvel efforts focus on character and combine heartfelt storylines with ample comedy and cool action. Tell me Ant-Man and the Wasp doesn’t deliver all that and then some. On the character front, you’ve got three-way tension between Scott, Hank, and Hope. For a pull on the ol’ heartstrings, there’s Scott bonding with his daughter in the world’s greatest home maze while under house arrest. For comedy, Randall Park’s hilariously awkward Agent Woo and the sight of a man-sized ant watching daytime TV while munching on a shredded box of Fruit Loops.
And as for the action, the absurdly steep streets of San Francisco, which have allowed for many a memorable, undercarriage-scraping car chase in films as diverse as Bullitt and The Rock, prove the perfect playground for Ant-Man’s miniaturization and giganticization effects. Anyone who ever raced a Hot Wheels across a hardwood floor as a kid surely felt no greater envy for a Marvel character than Michael Peña’s Luis when he takes the wheel of his own life-sized, flame-decaled hot rod.
5. Thor (2011)
It can be a bit of a surprise to revisit Thor after 10 years and so many increasingly grander adventures, both in terms of the smaller scale of the story and just how fresh-faced Hemsworth and Hiddleston are.
Some of the more common criticisms of Thor’s debut are justified: the film does spend too much time dawdling in that desert town in New Mexico with only the occasional smashed coffee mug for comedic relief, and the Frost Giants pose about as much threat as a nippy breeze in November. But as constrained as the story may be, there is still real splendor to be enjoyed whenever we’re in Asgard. Kenneth Branagh gave us the most visually spectacular fantasy world since Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth, and Patrick Doyle’s accompanying music is suitably triumphant and valorous.
Though the action in Thor may be quaint and even lacking to some degree by comparison with what was to follow, the real selling point here is Thor’s journey from cocksure troublemaker to worthy heir. In shattering the rainbow bridge Bifröst, Thor spares his enemy from annihilation and in so doing cuts himself off from his newfound love. It’s a sacrifice that proves his worthiness to wield Mjölnir.
Though the story ends with Thor and Jane worlds apart, the soaring notes of Doyle’s theme as we zip through the expanse of space impart such a tremendous sense of hope and wonder you can’t help but believe in that moment that anything really is possible. Is that ethos not after all what superhero stories are really all about?
4. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Age of Ultron had a lot to accomplish: new characters to introduce (including Wanda and Vision), new plotlines to set in motion for future films as varied as Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok, and an increasingly unwieldy cast of characters to divide screen time between. Some view the finished product as a bit of a mess: a haphazard collection of character scenes and action sequences that stagger under their own ungainly weight like the first steps taken by antagonistic A.I. Ultron while embodying one of Tony’s battle-damaged Ironman drones.
Age of Ultron may have bitten off more than it could chew—but oh what a bite it is!
However well all the elements do or don’t work together, you have to admit there’s rarely a dull moment. The action comes flying furiously and in spectacular fashion, from the opening assault on a snowy Hydra fortress to the battle between Hulk and hulked-out Iron Man across what feels like twenty city blocks in Johannesburg to the semi-truck/motorcycle chase through the streets of Seoul. Then there’s the fan favorite party scene where everyone takes turns trying to lift Thor’s hammer and Captain just about gives Thor a minor heart attack.
There are heartfelt moments too, like when Natascha reveals to Bruce she had been sterilized as part of her training and admits she regards herself just as much a monster as he does himself. Plus you have the introduction of Wakanda, the birth of Vision, and the fleeing of Hulk into space. Age of Ultron laid a massive amount of groundwork and did so while telling a compelling story with plenty of heart, humor, and panache to spare.
And it may just be my healthy fear of heights speaking, but how about that Sokovia-in-the-sky set piece where the team has to evacuate a whole city onto their helicarrier? That scene put into pictures a certain nightmare I never even knew I had.
3. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
When people talk about MCU films they find underrated they’ll often use Thor: The Dark World as some kind of barometer of badness, using phrases like, “C’mon, maybe it wasn’t the greatest, but at least it wasn’t Thor: The Dark World bad…”
As someone who never saw Thor: The Dark World as anything but an entertaining time at the cinema, I’ve long been confused by this common lexicon. Where others see disappointment or blandness, I see an evolution of Thor’s world into an intriguing blend of sci-fi and high fantasy. Where else will you find futuristically armored dark elves firing particle rifles at sword-wielding Asgardian warriors on horseback?
Beyond the battle scenes and action sequences, which are thrilling and plentiful, we’re afforded a more expansive portrait of Asgard itself, and Earth-side the American Southwest is traded for one beautifully photographed London. Also, the portal-happy climax that sends Thor and Malekith and dark elves and Mjölnir and a random Frost Beast back and forth between Greenwich and space is some of the best fun to be found in the MCU.
And how could a review of the first Thor sequel go without mention of one of the greatest original characters the films have come up with: Kat Dennings’ Darcy Lewis. Every Marvel film would benefit from a comedic sidekick of Darcy’s caliber. All I need is to see Darcy poke Thor in the armor and say, “Look at you, still all muscly and everything. How’s space?” and I’m good. Maybe that makes me easier to please than most, but I still maintain Thor: The Dark World belongs nowhere near the bottom of an MCU ranking.
2. Ant-Man (2015)
Fans can sometimes get a little too hung up on what they didn’t get to appreciate what they did get, and that I believe was very much the case with 2015’s Ant-Man. The prospect of a comedic Marvel film conceived and helmed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) was tantalizing to be sure. But that doesn’t mean the film we got from Peyton Reed wasn’t a terrific bit of superhero cinema in its own right. Even in the absence of Edgar Wright, Ant-Man strikes an excellent balance between dramatic storytelling and cracking comedy.
At heart, Ant-Man is a redemption story about an ex-con trying to get his life back on track so he can reunite with his daughter, Cassie, and Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang is instantly endearing. The comedy and visual spectacle would all be for nought if they didn’t revolve around characters you truly rooted for.
That said, one of the biggest ways Ant-Man distinguishes itself from other Marvel fare is by its superbly realized miniaturization effects that are put to both thrilling and wildly comedic use. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be a speck on the floor of your bathtub when the faucet lets loose or an organism to whom a wall mouse appears the size of a dinosaur, here you go. Ant-Man takes the viewer on a wild journey through the world that exists all around us but that we never see. A journey every bit as fun as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids but with even more realistic and more immersive visual effects.
1. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Here’s one I simply have never understood: a film brimming with action, heroism, romance, and tragedy—a very nearly perfect action-adventure outing in every respect—and yet Captain America: The First Avenger is routinely dismissed as one of the lesser efforts of the MCU.
Having helmed the equally underrated The Rocketeer in 1991, Joe Johnston was no stranger to either the time period or rousing heroics and he pulled out the big guns here, delivering a story as entertaining and as moving as any other in the franchise. Everyone was cast perfectly, from Chris Evans as determined young Steve Rogers to another first-rate villain from Hugo Weaving in Hydra’s Red Skull. Hayley Atwell’s Agent Carter proves one of the best written and best performed characters of the MCU (and was the first to headline her own TV series, following 2013’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.).
While this earliest adventure of Cap’s packs enough action to go toe-to-toe with an Indiana Jones film, what really sets The First Avenger apart is its finale. I’ll refrain from sharing the details (though I generally don’t think spoiler moratoriums need last much longer than a decade) and will simply say this earliest of offerings from Marvel delivers one of the saddest, most emotional climaxes of the franchise and a terrific twist ending that perfectly sets up the future of Steve Rogers and Captain America.
Far from one of the MCU’s most underwhelming entries, Captain America: The First Avenger is one of the greatest and well due a reappraisal.