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Ranking All Of Marvel's Phase 1 Movies Worst To Best

Ranking films within the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a time-honored tradition, especially on the eve of a new entry into its vast pantheon, and every MCU fan has their own list. As of this writing, the MCU spans 27 films and six television series, with plenty more on the way, which is why it's helpful that Marvel Studios breaks up different eras in its history by "phases," similar to a TV show being broken up into seasons.

Phase 1 of the MCU ran from 2008 to 2012 and produced six films (by contrast, Marvel Studios pumped out four films and five TV seasons in 2021 alone). This was the beginning — a start-up of sorts, and one that could have been disastrous if handled poorly. Of course, it wasn't, and from humble beginnings, the MCU splashed onto movie screens with a collection of six films that set the standard for everything that would follow. Here are Marvel's Phase 1 movies ranked worst to best.

6. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

It's not that "The Incredible Hulk" is bad. It's a fine movie — not terrible, but nowhere near the heights the Marvel Cinematic Universe would come to be known for. Some of its clunkiness might stem from competing visions for the film between Marvel Studios and lead actor Edward Norton, who in addition to playing Hulk's alter ego, Bruce Banner, also provided some written material for the script that wasn't always received with open arms.

"The Incredible Hulk" was only the second MCU film. As such, it's the first to give audiences a glimpse of the franchise's storied interconnectedness, with Robert Downey Jr. appearing in the post-credits scene as Tony Stark. This tiny sliver of synergy is by no means enough to save the whole film, however — it's clear that Marvel Studios was still tinkering with how to include the same characters in different stories, and how to make individual films feel like part of a bigger narrative. Even with the Stark cameo, "The Incredible Hulk" is altogether skippable within the grand scheme of the MCU, especially since Norton was replaced by Mark Ruffalo in Bruce Banner's future appearances.

Mediocre as a stand-alone film and arguably unimportant in the context of the full MCU (though the upcoming "She-Hulk" series might have something to say about that), "The Incredible Hulk" ranks last among the Phase 1 movies (and perhaps last, period).

5. Iron Man 2 (2010)

"Iron Man 2" was Marvel Studios' chance to show what it could do in the realm of sequels, and with some pressure from its warmly-received predecessor, it had its work cut out for it.

Director Jon Favreau returns to helm a follow-up that's not as culturally resetting as his first outing, but that's less of a discredit to "Iron Man 2" and more of a compliment to just how well the groundwork was laid prior. Forgettable villains take a backseat to Robert Downey Jr.'s endearing performance as Tony Stark, carrying on a legacy began by his father in a flashy vision of tomorrow reminiscent of Walt Disney in the 1960s.

It's in "Iron Man 2" that we get the first real sense of how fun the MCU interconnectedness can be. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who first appeared in a post-credits scene in "Iron Man," has a larger role here, and Scarlett Johansson debuts as Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, as the roster slowly begins to build toward "The Avengers." And of course, Thor's hammer is teased at the conclusion of the film.

At times, some of this seems a bit desperate, as though the film is overly eager to prove itself and carry the future of the MCU on its shoulders (which, admittedly, is exactly what was happening). Despite occasionally feeling like it's trying to do too much, though, "Iron Man 2" is highly enjoyable.

4. Thor (2011)

Known for his work in front of and behind the camera on Shakespearean adaptations, director Kenneth Branagh brings a sense of theatrical gravitas to "Thor," the fourth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Set partially in the realm of Asgard and partially in New Mexico, the contrast between its two major settings makes "Thor" sometimes feel like two different movies. It's not too much of a distraction, though, when we're busy being introduced to one of the MCU's best heroes and quite possibly its best villain.

Chris Hemsworth shines as Thor, the mighty God of Thunder whose fish-out-of-water performance echoes Will Ferrell in "Elf" and Amy Adams in "Enchanted." Tom Hiddleston counters as Loki ​​— the God of Mischief and Thor's brother. The siblings' complicated relationship and the actors' excellent chemistry make Thor and Loki's rivalry a highlight of the film.

"Thor" also shows Marvel's improving mastery at bringing the narratives of different movies together while still allowing each to do its own thing. Jeremy Renner makes his franchise debut as Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, while Clark Gregg appears for a third time as Agent Phil Coulson, seamlessly acting as the glue between heroes, and thus between films, but the movie is still unquestionably about the Asgardians. "Thor" checks all the boxes of an MCU crossover while maintaining Branagh's Shakespearean style, giving us a delightful experience in and of itself.

3. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

"Who'll give the Axis the sack and is smart as a fox? Who's making Adolf afraid to step out of his box?" Yes, these are real lyrics from an actual song in a Marvel movie. Patriotic pageantry in the face of real danger perfectly encapsulates the aura of the MCU's first period film, "Captain America: The First Avenger." Just like when he made "The Rocketeer" two decades earlier, director Joe Johnston winds back the clock to World War II and transports the audience to a different era by contrasting cinematic flair with sobering reality.

Fitting for the character who may be the ultimate superhero, the story follows the tried-and-true hero's journey formula — the protagonist, good-natured but flawed, faces adversity and overcomes challenges against all odds. We're introduced to Steve Rogers with a tale of heroism for the ages, brought to life by Chris Evans in the first of what would ultimately become three "Captain America" films and 10 overall MCU appearances. We also get to meet Peggy Carter, one of the MCU's most iconic heroines, played by the incomparable Hayley Atwell, and Bucky Barnes, the future Winter Soldier, played by Sebastian Stan.

It helps that composer Alan Silvestri knocks the score for this movie absolutely out of the park (Silvestri would go on to compose the signature "Avengers" anthem), but it's the peerless direction, timeless narrative, and fantastic performances that make "Captain America: The First Avenger" a classic Marvel movie.

2. The Avengers (2012)

While it might seem tame these days to mash a whopping six superheroes together in one movie, "The Avengers" walks so everything coming after it can run. This is the first super-sized crossover event in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it's sheer joy to watch Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Thor, Hulk, and Hawkeye come together, guided by Nick Fury, Phil Coulson, and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders).

While there had been co-mingling of characters in films prior to "The Avengers," this is the big payoff that proves Marvel Studios' multi-year filmmaking experiment could work as intended. If everything they worked toward had failed to meld together cohesively, "The Avengers" could have easily been the end of the MCU as we know it, and the concept of its shared universe would have been a failed hypothesis. Instead, the movie — the finale of Phase 1 — soars as an ensemble film and creates the formula the MCU would continue to utilize in the future (and that numerous imitators would attempt to replicate). Perhaps the story's smartest move is to bring back Loki as the villain. Formal introductions having already been established, Loki is free to simply be the bad guy, and Tom Hiddleston does that amazingly.

"The Avengers" admittedly feels a bit dated in style and approach by today's standards, but that doesn't diminish its likability. It's an important turning point for the MCU (and the history of modern cinema as a whole) and a wild ride of a film.

1. Iron Man (2008)

The movie that started it all and set the precedent for everything that follows, "Iron Man" is not only significant as the first chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but unique in its homegrown feel. This is the first impression of a new film studio just trying to make it, and while there is a sense of wanting to break through the noise to make an impression, there's an equally strong feeling of Marvel simply telling a great story the way it wants to tell it.

Over a decade before he would create "The Mandalorian," Jon Favreau directs "Iron Man" unbound by any rulebook. On the contrary, this film instead writes the rulebook for how the entire MCU operates from this point forward. Everything established here is the foundation for every hero, every villain, every story that lies in the future.

At the heart of the film is Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, whose firecracker wit and dreams of a better world ground the playboy millionaire character into someone more real than any superhero: a human being. Downey's performance sends the message loud and clear that the soul of the MCU won't come from its flashy costumes or slick action sequences (though those are undeniably cool). A Marvel hero is first and foremost a person, someone the audience can empathize with and see themselves through.

The math is simple: No "Iron Man," no MCU. It's an astonishing first impression, and the best film in Phase 1.