Leading up to the launch of Avengers: Infinity War on April 27, television and film writer AJ Caulfield, The Young Folks’ Film Editor Allyson Johnson, and The Young Folks’ Television Editor Mae Abdulbaki joined forces for a three-part Marvel series called “Marvel: The Good, The Bad, and The Strange.”
With 18 movies and a whole list of memorable characters, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been able to do what no other franchise of films has done: keep all the films tethered together and, with so many films in the shared universe, keep them tonally similar. Sure, the MCU has had its ups and downs, its fair share of good and bad. But what makes a Marvel film good? Is it the story, the particular set of characters, the execution? It’s honestly a combination of all of these things and more that makes each one specifically unique and memorable within the shared universe.
With so many films to choose from over the course of several years, we’ve picked seven of the MCU’s best to take a deep dive into just what makes them good. Each film had at least one thing in common, and that’s that they all achieved proper character development. Whether it was Peter Parker’s attempts to balance a normal life with swinging across skyscrapers, or Steve Rogers attempting to save his friend from the likes of Hydra, all of the movies encompassed what it means to be a hero for the specific character.
Check out the seven films that were tremendous highs for the MCU and exactly what made them great below!
A dance, a school crush, a decathlon team. Teachers’ frustration, friends, and frenemies. All of these things separately sound like the usual high school experience for many, but throw in Peter Parker’s story and some superpowers and you’ve got Spider-Man: Homecoming. Of all of Marvel’s films, Spider-Man: Homecoming was the first time the shared universe ventured into high school territory. Peter Parker’s adventures are as much teenage-related as they are hero-related and it’s one of the aspects of the film that make it stand out among the rest. Peter’s experience is a genuine one and it parallels his struggles as a kid in high school who still has a lot to prove.
Beyond simply the genuineness of Peter’s high school experience, Spider-Man: Homecoming has a lot of heart and a fantastic supporting cast. The trials and tribulations of wanting to be something greater than what you are is a big theme in the film and it’s accentuated with the minor and natural touches of Peter’s everyday experiences. It’s also the first time that Tony Stark has truly felt responsible for someone else in a way that felt personal. Tom Holland’s portrayal is wholly accurate to the source material and also separate from previous actors who have taken on the role. Peter is endearing, earnest, and, by the end of the film, understands his hero’s journey and why he must focus on the smaller-scale aspects of heroism without feeling left out of the big leagues. Spider-Man: Homecoming has a spark, a magnetism about it and its combination of characters and story make it one of the best MCU films so far.
The Avengers (2012)
As the first official team-up between the MCU’s heroes at the time, there was a lot of pressure riding on The Avengers. Several years later and it still holds up, though it’s odd to see Agent Phil Coulson surrounded by anybody but his team on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The team is in its early stages and, to be honest, they’re not really a team at all. Egos clash, perspectives don’t align, and internal fighting ensues. Still, the movie manages to be highly entertaining and full of energy. In hindsight, it sets up a lot of themes and conflict, which make up the remaining films, such as Captain America: Civil War. It’s what the team’s potential could look like when they set their differences aside to work together toward the greater good and also becomes a window into the issues that will break them later on. The Avengers is also the first time that Hulk seems like more than a joke as a character. Mark Ruffalo’s take on Bruce Banner feels much deeper than ever and his struggles with his dual personalities are especially tragic.
What really makes the film work are its individual character beats and calmer moments and there are several of these. Hawkeye and Black Widow get their time to shine and their friendship is one that seems to have depth from the get-go. Plus, they’re the only non-powered team members and Black Widow especially serves as the glue that holds everyone together. Tony Stark’s disappointment in Captain America as a hero is something relatable, as meeting one’s heroes isn’t always what it’s made out to be. However, it’s a good lesson for Tony because Captain America, while having been idolized as a hero, is also very human and has his own struggles to contend with. The battle of New York has also become an iconic symbol to the superhero world and what a good superhero team movie can look like. Still, while The Avengers is largely about the start of, well, The Avengers, the movie is ironically at its best when it chooses to focus on individual characters.
The first and second Thor movies, while being mediocre introductions to the God of Thunder, weren’t particularly worth writing home about. Thor: Ragnarok, however, developed the character in a far more intricate way that made him worthy of his title as the God of Thunder and as king of Asgard. With director Taika Waititi at the helm, Ragnarok transformed itself and found its soul, its source of energy and used all the things that make Thor a worthy (and entertaining) hero, testing him like never before. He started off spoiled and privileged and became mature, aware of his father’s faults, and was able to tap into his powers in a way that felt earned.
Perhaps what made Ragnarok stand out was its supporting cast, a memorable villain, and its sense of humor. It built upon the friendship between The Hulk and Thor that began in The Avengers and also introduced Valkyrie as a fierce warrior and former protector of Asgard herself. There were layers to the characters both old and new that had never been explored before and the film itself is infectiously fun and resilient. Cate Blanchett’s Hela, the MCU’s first female villain, is memorable and her anger at her father for sidelining her and locking her away feels far more potent than that of Loki’s story of revenge. Thor’s story comes full circle in a way that is incredibly satisfying and proves that the third time is perhaps the charm after all.
Arguably the strongest first-time outing for a Marvel film, Black Panther is unique among the Marvel slate. It carries with it a sense of maturity and multi-layered themes regarding identity, while touching on deep socio-political issues with grace and depth. It doesn’t just introduce us to a new place, but builds an entire nation full of culture, history, and tradition and makes it so palpable. T’Challa leads his people as king, but his soft-spokenness and sympathy are what makes him a worthy leader and character. Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler transcends Black Panther to beyond what even a “good” superhero film is and sets a new standard that lifts the film to greatness. For every viewing, a deeper understanding of Wakanda, its people, and the film’s themes is reached and it only makes the film that much more wonderful.
Black Panther not only has a strong plot, but the most multi-dimensional antagonist in the MCU in Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). His actions are violent and extreme, but the understanding of why he became this way makes complete sense. Furthermore, T’Challa, a man who idolized his father, had to also deal with the effects of what it means to be disappointed by what he’s done and it’s an exceptionally strong storyline on its own. In addition, Black Panther has amazingly well-rounded female characters, the best in the MCU. Also a plus for the film is its ability to include romance in a way that’s stronger than any other standalone MCU film. T’Challa and Nakia have a subtle, yet mature romance and their chemistry is lovely.
When you add all of these things together, Black Panther becomes more than simply a superhero film, but one that resonates on many levels and remains impactful long after its viewing.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
While the other MCU films focused on singular heroes and guys who… tended to mean well overall, the Guardians of the Galaxy are the complete opposite. They’re essentially the misfits and outcasts whose heroism doesn’t exactly fit into the shared universe in any traditional sense. Peter Quill is getting his degree in being cool and graduating from the school of thievery when he winds up with one of the infinity stones. Part of the charm of the film is its ability to operate on its own merits. Quill, Gamora, Rocket, Drax and Groot are already a team of sorts, but they acquire each other’s company through accidental means and not because they ever really planned on doing anything actually heroic with their lives. And this is what sets them apart from the rest of the MCU’s characters. They have zero tact, but they’re all humorous and weirdly endearing. The characters all have their fair share of problems, from daddy issues to revenge, but they’re outcasts who have their heart in the right place. One of the standout characters is Gamora, who was more of a fully formed character with her own family drama that translated well onscreen. It also stands as the center of the MCU since Thanos is her father, which intrinsically links the Guardians to all the other films. Ultimately though, Guardians of the Galaxy proves that heroes can be found across the universe and, when they mean well and their hearts are all in the (eventual) right place, bonds can be made.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
The Captain America films are arguably the best trilogy of films within the MCU, which is saying something. As the shared universe expands and more characters are introduced, these particular set of films begin to feel like their own Avengers films. However, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the second film in the trilogy, is what defines a good Marvel film. Steve Rogers, following the adventures in the first film and in Avengers has somewhat grown accustomed to the 21st century (though some of his fish-out-of-water moments, while subtle, serve as reminders that he’s not from this time). He’s now working for S.H.I.E.L.D. on a more permanent basis, but Rogers goes on a true character journey when he discovers that Hydra hasn’t truly been defeated.
Captain America has always been a fairly idealistic hero. He stands on moral high ground and when he trusts he tends to trust fully. Which is why watching him go from confident hero to someone doubtful of even S.H.I.E.L.D. following the reemergence of Bucky, the newly dubbed Winter Soldier, is unsettling but also something that gives him purpose. His friendship with Bucky is one of the better relationships and, later, plot point throughout the MCU. Captain America is loyal to him and only a handful of others, but The Winter Soldier is best when it has Steve question even his past and his failures at preventing a friend from being hurt by the enemy. For the whole of this film, Steve is working with Fury in a way he hasn’t before and it’s seamless as they have one goal, which is to take down the remainder of the agency’s Hydra members. There’s a lot of continuity in the film, a lot of great action sequences, and plenty of fantastic interaction between Steve and Black Widow especially.
Captain America felt lost in The Avengers and The Winter Soldier gave him back a piece of his past and a new goal to work towards in a strong film with a lot of intensity.
Iron Man (2008)
For many, Tony Stark was the very first introduction to Marvel on a larger scale. He’s been at the center of the MCU since his debut in this film and he’s never wavered from that position. Iron Man had Stark playing up on the fact that he was a billionaire/genius extraordinaire and his behavior and selfishness. While this behavior was often problematic and grating, the film understood this about him and turned it around to benefit the film without taking away from development. And so Stark’s hero journey is one that is befitting of his character. There’s evolution and Stark has to come to terms with what his company has been doing and the repercussions of making and selling weaponry. It’s a more simplified version of a real-world argument, but it’s something the film makes sure to make a big part of Stark’s development from just a billionaire to superhero in the end.
Iron Man is thus the origin story of the beloved superhero, but also the emergence of Stark as more of a responsible man. One who takes control over his actions for positive change. It’s one of the more fulfilling standalone hero journeys in the MCU and one that certainly stands the test of time after so many years. The film also introduces one of the most enduring (and better developed) romances within the MCU between Stark and Pepper Potts, the level-headed personal assistant who manages to see right through Stark’s facade and also isn’t afraid to tell him when he’s wrong.
Iron Man is filled with Stark’s sarcastic sense of humor and it’s balanced with plenty of drama and great character beats that maintains the film’s status as one of the better films in the history of the MCU.