Save Me, Captain America!

Ranking all the MCU Films

The Definitive List, Part 3

And this is it, the final group for the MCU: the true tops of the franchise. Say what you will about the rest of these works, but there is no denying that when Marvel had a win, they had it hard. These films and shows mark the very best that the MCU could create, stories full of action and adventure, heart and feelings. They told stories unlike anything the franchise had given us before, and they did it all with the level of polish that came to become the MCU brand (right up until it went off a cliff with The Multiverse Saga).

While you might think one work on this final section should be slightly above another, here or there, there is no denying just how good all of these shows and movies really were. These are the cream of the crop, the best of the best, the films and shows we look back to and say, “yes, this is what the MCU promised, and damn did it deliver.”

Without any further blowing of smoke or dragging of feet, here are the final, best, and brightest films for the MCU:

What If...?: Season 2 (MCU 46)

What If…? started off as a set of fun side adventures. You didn’t have to invest heavily because the next episode we’d get something new, some new twist on the MCU canon that meant a whole new adventure in a new realm. Each episode could be its own thing and once something cool was over we all got to move on. Of course, then the last episode of the season did a big crossover with all the heroes from the previous episodes, sort of blurring that whole line just a bit. Plus, that season gave us Captain Carter and everyone collectively fan-girled so hard over her character that it shook the Earth. Marvel was going to have to do a second season, and some continuity was going to be part of the series because, well, that seal had already been broken.

Thankfully, the second season manages to do everything fans wanted, and in the right measures. Most of the episodes are self-contained adventures, great stories that stand on their own without needing to tie into other episodes of the season. "What If... Nebula Joined the Nova Corps?" is the opening of the season and it gives us a very different take on Guardians of the Galaxy lore while highlighting that, deep down, Nebula was always going to be a heroine. "What If... Iron Man Crashed into the Grandmaster?" is a fun Tony Stark story and a great reinvention of the world of Thor: Ragnarok. And "What If... Hela Found the Ten Rings?" brings in the ever fantastic Cate Blanchet once again as Hela, this time giving her a hero arc instead of making her the villain.

But it’s in the interconnected stories that the series really shines. "What If... Kahhori Reshaped the World?" introduces a new, First People heroine to the MCU (and Marvel in general) and she kicks amazing ass. Seriously, I love her story. And alongside her we get several episodes featuring the returning Captain Carter, which is always a treat. There’s even a sly episode reinventing Marvel 1602 (not unlike the previous season’s episode that reinvented Marvel Zombies). Overall, this season had a lot of great material and nailed it at every turn.

Well, almost every turn. The Christmas episode, "What If... Happy Hogan Saved Christmas?", is kind of meh but it’s just one weaker episode out of an otherwise resounding set. That’s a good batting average and absolutely fantastic for a TV show. Season two, then, is when the show really took off, and it only makes us look forward more and more to what comes next for the “What If-Verse”.

How Essential Is It?

Well, that really depends on how essential you think Captain Carter and Kahhori are to the greater MCU. I love these characters and I’d watch them in anything. If they showed up in movies (and not just a slightly different version of Captain Carter getting killed in the Doctor Strange sequel) I’d be there for them. But there’s been no announced plan to bring these characters out of What If…? and into the larger universe so, for now, this series is still less essential that some other works here.

Essential Score: 72

WandaVision (MCU 24)

When Avengers: Endgame rolled its credits, it wrapped up the stories for a number of heroes and let the franchise come to something of a conclusion even as it teased the threads for what was to come. One of those threads was where would Wanda Maximoff go from there? She’s just lost the love of her life, Vision, and was raw, hurt, and angry. Although the film wasn’t able to give her a lot of time (what with her being dusted for most of its runtime after the events of Avengers: Infinity War), it was obvious there would be a “next step” for her, whatever that would be. And when WandaVision was announced, it was clear we were going to get that answer.

What was weird was that instead of a standard adventure, like we generally expected from the MCU, instead we received a strange homage to classic sitcoms and family stories. It wasn’t even until the third episode that the reality of the situation was revealed in any form: Wanda was in a town that, itself, was trapped within some kind of reality distorting bubble and, within that bubble, Wanda was processing her grief over the loss of Vision through a lens of classic sitcoms. It was very odd, but also one of the more poignant stories the MCU had told. A tale of love and loss and grief unlike anything the franchise had told (and, frankly, quite unlike anything else as well).

The series was great, especially in its early episodes as it parodied sitcoms even as the mysteries about what was going on spooled out. It was a great showcase for Wanda as well as for her actress, Elizabeth Olson. Yes, the ending of the series does devolve into the usual Marvel CGI superheroes, not trusting the story to be a villain tale for Wanda and letting her naturally process her grief on her own. “Audiences need a villain for Wanda to fight against,” we imagine the Marvel heads saying, and that did betray the conclusion just a touch. That’s what keeps this series from being one of the absolute best Marvel has ever made but, even still, it’s among the greats even with an uneven last episode.

If only Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness hadn’t ruined the ending even further…

How Essential Is It?

Sadly, as is so often the case with later-day MCU, the series both is and isn’t essential. On the one hand this is a great showcase for Wanda and Vision. It lets the characters breathe and have their big story together out of the context of all the other superheroes. It’s a lovely tale on its own. On that side, it’s probably the best story Wanda has gotten (or ever will get, likely) and I;m so glad Marvel took the big swing and made this weird show.

But then the Doctor Strange sequel came along and basically told the same story all over again, muting the impact of this story some. You need to see WandaVision to understand how Wanda gets the Darkholm and ends up in a wilderness by herself, studying dark magic at the start of that Doctor Strange flick. It also helps you know who her kids are, constructs she made that, apparently, exist in multiple realities.

But when all the important details about your story can be summarized in ten seconds of dialogue and the rest is discarded (like, where is Cataract, the resurrected Vision? Why is Wanda unconcerned about Vision and not trying to bring him back again?) it reduces the essential nature of the work. You watch WandaVision because you want to be there for that story, but it’s a poor fit with the rest of the MCU no matter how you cut it.

I suppose the Agatha show does tie in, so there’s that… but only barely. Eh. Marvel is a mess and this show’s place within it illustrates that better than most.

Essential Score: 7.3

Captain America: The First Avenger (MCU 5)

When Marvel started it was clear the goal was to develop each of the heroes so they could tie together into a single, in-universe crossover. That was what the end-credit scene for Iron Man told us: Nick Fury shows up to say, “there’s more going on here than just you, Tony.” We suddenly knew it was on. Marvel heroes were coming, and we’d get a steady stream of them, each with their own adventures, all before Nick Fury did something to pull all of them together. We just had to see who was next.

Sadly, the next couple of films in the franchise were pretty bland. The Incredible Hulk was one of the worst editions in the franchise (still the worst film, beaten only by Secret Invasion to be the worst overall), and Thor was likable but bland. In comparison to the brilliance of Iron Man, there was something lacking from these movies. Even sequel Iron Man 2 lacked the magic of the original. We needed something to get us hyped for what was coming up next. We needed a real hero… and we got it in the form of Chris Evans’s Captain America.

I don’t think Captain America: The First Avenger is a perfect film. There’s a solid two to three films worth of material crammed into a single film, meaning a lot of the scenes in the back half don’t get time to breathe. It would have been lovely to get more films set in and around World War II with Cap just to feel that setting more and enjoy all that the actors could do. Build up the relationship with Peggy. Feel the sting of losing Bucky. Watch as Cap fights battle after battle before finally sacrificing himself to save the world. All of that is in this movie but it’s rushed and truncated. Hindsight says Marvel should have started this series far earlier (in 2008, instead of The Incredible Hulk), but the production schedule being what it was, Marvel had to get Cap into the present and this was the only way to do it.

The film does work, though, and that’s all credit to the leads. Chris Evans is amazing as Cap, embodying that perfect American charm. It’s hard to think of anyone who could embody the goodness of the character quite like Evans could. If they’d said, after this film, “Evans is now going to play Superman,” I would have believed it. Here’s your beacon of hope to get you through a war. And then having him acting across from Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, with their electric chemistry filling every scene they shared, it was amazing. This is what I wanted. More of this, please.

Okay, yes, and the period setting is great. The Captain America dancers are so good. The propaganda nature of many of the scenes work so well. There’s just so much to like about this film that the unevenness of it doesn’t really hold it back. I’d have loved to have more than one film set during World War II but, at the same time, this one movie alone is fantastic and I just wish there was more.

How Essential Is It?

Oh, it’s absolutely essential. Not only did it prove to fans that Iron Man wasn’t a fluke and that Marvel could crank out other great movies, but it also established one of the key characters of the whole universe. Even more than Tony Stark, who appeared in a bunch of movies and was the fan favorite character (for good reason), Captain America was the pillar of the universe. His movies defined the big movements of the series, from the rise of Hydra, the return of the evil organization, the collapse of the Avengers, and more. All of that requires Cap and you have to have his first movie to get there.

In short you don’t have the MCU as we know it if we don’t have this film. If this film had sucked it could have sunk the whole thing. So… good thing it didn’t.

Essential Score: 9.1

The Avengers (MCU 6)

Marvel had their ambitions. They wanted to make a cinematic universe, something that hadn’t really been tackled successfully since the old Universal Monsters films of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. To do that, they knew they had to get audiences invested. They wanted people to put their butts in seats so they could see who the next hero would be, what the next adventure would be and, with the promise of Nick Fury at the end of Iron Man, how it would all tie together. At the end of Captain America: The First Avenger (itself having a title hinting at what was coming next) we got the answer: all these heroes we were watching and learning about would be back, together, in The Avengers. It was happening, and you had to be there.

To say this plan was ambitious is an understatement. This whole thing could have blown up in Marvel’s faces if the film had been bad (you know, like DC’s Justice League did a few years later). And yet, the movie was great. It’s big, it’s loud, it’s overstuffed but it’s all masterfully put together by director Joss Wheddon (and considering he’s a bit of an asshole now, that pained me to say). The film took all of Marvel’s hard work and ambitions and crafted a fun, action-filled adventure that let all of the heroes shine. It was masterfully done.

Audiences agreed, coming in to the tune of $1.5 Bil, a massively unheard of number for superhero films. Marvel got what they wanted and, in the process, audiences were treated to one of the best superhero films. Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Captain America, Black Widow, and Hawkeye (uh, yay, Hawkeye?) together, fighting aliens and having fun. It’s not a deep concept now, nor does it even seem all that shocking to say, “putting more superheroes together makes more money.” At the time, though, no one knew how this film was gonna work. But it did work, and it launched the MCU we know today (well, right up until the series fell right off a cliff, anyway).

How Essential Is It?

This is one of the most essential films of the franchise. Iron Man showed that Marvel had the chops to make films. Captain America: The First Avenger proved the studio could make other heroes fun to watch. But it was The Avengers that showed they could crossover the heroes and get the audiences to show up in droves. This set the formula for each phase (at least until Phase IV), building up the solo adventures before crossing them all over in an Avengers flick, and it’s the template many other studios tried (and failed) to mimic. Marvel did it and did it right, and this film was the best version of it we ever got.

Essential Score: 9.5

Iron Man (MCU 1)

I honestly struggled with placement for this film and the next on our list. The original Iron Man is a great film, one of the best superhero movies ever made (not just for Marvel but in general). It is the literal start of this franchise and you don’t get where we are (the highs and, yes, the eventual lows) without this first movie. Had Iron Man sucked, the rest of the series likely doesn’t happen. (Could you imagine where Marvel would be if a shitty Iron Man then led in the terrible The Incredible Hulk we actually did get? That’s like it, dead after two films.) The fact that this movie was an absolutely home run that then led to a 22-film streak with very few misses and absolutely astounding.

The only reason that I don’t rank this film slightly higher than Avengers: Endgame is that while I think this film is a better movie overall, Avengers: Endgame had the harder task ahead of it: it had to land a franchise that was already going and give it the perfect season finale. The stakes, big as they were for Marvel at the time Iron Man was released, weren’t anywhere near what they would be ten years and 22 films later. Iron Man could be a superhero goof and it didn’t really matter. It was great, and it’s beloved, but that doesn’t have the same weight to it so I don’t rate it quite as high.

With all that being said, this film is still phenomenal. From its lived-in special effects that feel real (sometimes because they were real, unlike in many of the later films), to its fantastic acting (the perfectly cast Robert Downey, Jr. leading the way) and the great humor, this was the film that not only set a template the other Marvel films would try to emulate, but it launched the entire series. There is no greater foundational movie for any franchise than Iron Man. It is the beginning, the key, the way of the Marvel universe.

How Essential Is It?

It is Marvel. As I noted above, this film is great, and super watchable, and it does so much right that even its flaws are forgivable (at least in this movie, even if Marvel has struggled to not duplicate everything, good and bad, about this film since). But the fact of the matter is that the MCU doesn’t exist without Iron Man. There isn’t a film series without this film, full stop. The Incredible Hulk was probably always going to be bad, coming out the same year this film was released so the train (so to speak) was already moving down the track. If this film had been terrible, then Marvel likely would have gone belly up. Disney likely wouldn’t have bought them (since they weren’t making gobs of money), the company might have had to go bankrupt again, and the whole of Hollywood filmmaking would be different for the next decade-plus.

One film, one absolutely essential movie, changed everything in the end. Whether or not you like Marvel now, whether you think Hollywood is in a good place creatively, there’s no denying how essential Iron Man was not just to Marvel but to Hollywood as a whole. This was the film that started the change of everything that Hollywood knew.

Essential Score: 10

Avengers: Endgame (MCU 22)

To be honest, Avengers: Endgame is not a perfect movie. It takes a long time to get going, with an entire first act that’s about the heroes trying to figure out what to do after they lost in the last film. It then diverges into a fun (if unnecessary) time travel plotline that really feels like a vessel to enjoy past moments from the previous films in the series. And all of that is so that we can get a last act that is one long, CGI-filled battle sequence, something that Marvel has abused so many times that it’s been called “the Marvel climax”. It has plot holes, plot issues, and a number of story inconsistencies that the films and shows that have come after have struggled with. It leaves things hanging it shouldn’t and, as a film that functions as a “season finale” for the whole of "The Infinity Saga" it actually leaves a fair bit to be desired.

But consider for a minute if Marvel has said, “we told our saga, we’re done now.” As a series finale, Avengers: Endgame works wonderfully. It takes a look back at the franchise, gives many of its main characters conclusions to their arcs, and it ends in one last, absolutely over the time battle that gives the top billed star of the whole franchise (Iron Man) one last great moment before sending everyone off into the sunset. If Marvel could have just said, “this is it,” the movie would work beautifully. All those issues I talked about above only matter if the franchise has to continue onwards into a new era. But this is a series of comic book movies and, like with comics themselves, you’re allowed to jump off at any point when the creative team changes.

I liken this to Green Lantern (the comics, not the awful 2011 movie). I got seriously into reading those books with the Geoff Johns run, starting with Green Lantern: Rebirth, and then all the way through Brightest Day and its aftermath. After that, Johns left Green Lantern and it wasn’t the same. A new team came in, and while they were writing the same characters it felt like a different series. It was okay, at that point, for me to stop reading (especially since Johns wrote his own ending into the book), so I took my leave of the comic. I think for fans of the MCU, Avengers: Endgame is that jumping off point. It’s the story every movie before had been building it, and it was the perfect conclusion of ten years of storytelling. It was Marvel’s victory lap, their final statement that they could do it. They told their saga, they made it work. They made billions in the process.

It’s no wonder that everything that’s come along since has felt like an afterthought. It’s been the band playing on even when they have nothing new to say and all their songs now feel like covers of their older, better work. Iron Man was the best start Marvel could have hoped for and Avengers: Endgame, against all odds, was the very best conclusion possible. It’s where Marvel should have stopped… and didn’t.

How Essential Is It?

Like with Iron Man, it’s hard to envision a better movie capping the whole of "The Infinity Saga" than Avengers: Endgame. It’s nearly as essential as Iron Man, and frankly, had the series stopped here (which is something Disney would never have allowed to happen), I think this would be considered the very best, top of the list, most essential movie of the franchise. There would be no way to top it, and everyone would accept that this was the right time for Marvel to bow out.

The fact that they didn’t, and instead continued the franchise after, does knock a couple of fractional points off its essential score. They were so close to perfection, but Marvel kept wanting to make money in this universe instead. That’s the true shame of it all.

Essential Score: 9.4

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (MCU 42)

It’s fair to say that Marvel excels at conclusions. It’s funny to say that, considering this is a franchise of films and movies purposefully designed to never end, but some of their greatest movies are the ends of eras and sagas. Avengers: Endgame works so well because it was the culmination of an entire era for Marvel fans. Smaller and more personal, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 works because it’s the conclusion of James Gunn’s planned trilogy for these unlikely heroes. In fact, because it’s a small set of movies with a lot of dedicated heart and focus, this film works even better than Marvel’s grand Avengers “season finale”.

When the Guardians of the Galaxy films started (and, worry not, we’ll be discussing the first film soon), it showed two things: Marvel could (at the time) sell any of their heroes and make them hits and, also, James Gunn was a director to watch. His first film was phenomenal, and while the follow-up, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, was weaker, it still was a successful hit at the Box Office. He was all geared up to make the third when, out of the blue, Disney fired him for posts he made years earlier on Twitter (that he’d deleted, apologized for, and legitimately seemed to understand that he’d fucked up). That put the status of his last film in limbo, with Disney even discussing finding someone else to come in and finish the job.

Thankfully they relented and, after filming The Suicide Squad (which really felt like a hard-R version of Guardians), Gunn was able to come back to film his planned conclusion. Well, more or less. Due to the machinations of the Marvel machine, some characters from his films died, or changed, or had things happen to them he hadn’t expected, and that threw some of his plans out of whack. The resulting film, a conclusion for his trilogy and a conclusion of his time working for Disney, is masterful. It’s a fantastic work of superhero fiction, and one of Marvel’s few bright spots in their "Infinity Saga" (which has been met with a number of Box Office disappointments, especially in Phase V).

What makes it so great is that, for this whole team in so many ways, this truly does act like the end of an era. The Guardians split off, with some becoming caretakers for Knowhere, some leading a new version of the team, some going off with the Marauders, and Star Lord returning home to Earth to be with family. Even with Marvel saying, “this isn’t the end for Star Lord,” it certainly felt like the end of an era and, when told with the heart and laughs Gunn perfected, it was the best conclusion Marvel had brought yet.

How Essential Is It?

If you loved the Guardians of the Galaxy films (and Holiday Special) then this was the perfect conclusion for you. It carried through the team, let them laugh and bond and adventure together one last time, and it ensured they were all better, richer characters at the end of their arc then they were at the beginning. It’s the perfect way to send them off, all underscored by Gunn’s stylish and strange sensibilities.

It is nothing less than essential for any Guardians fan, and the only downside to it at all is that it comes after Avengers: Endgame when it feels like the entire MCU around this movie is crumbling apart. That doesn’t affect this film directly, but if you are the kind of fan to stop watching with Endgame then this movie sits outside your regular viewing. Still… it might be good to make an exception for this film.

Essential Score: 9.1

Spider-man: Homecoming (MCU 16)

When Marvel and Sony announced a co-produced Spider-man film set in the MCU, fans were understandably skeptical. Marvel, at that point, had produced very few bad movies (see: The Incredible Hulk) and everything they put out seemed to come covered in gold. It was an amazing run of films for the studio that seemed like it would go without end. But at the same time, Sony had managed to run not one but two successful Spider-man franchises (both the original recipe 2000 film series and the follow-up Amazing films as well) into the ground. It seemed like Sony could do no right while Marvel could do no wrong. Who, between these studios, would win?

It was Marvel. They won. Spider-man: Homecoming was an absolutely fantastic return to form for Spider-man movies. It’s a fantastic, fun, light-hearted superhero adventure featuring Tom Holland as the new version of Spidey, and everything about him, and the film, just works. Sure, Marvel goosed the film a little, putting Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man in as well (just to make sure the film was successful), but the film works with and without Tony Stark hanging out. It’s just a good Spider-man movie, top to bottom, and it proved that audiences still wanted the web-head in theaters so they could watch him again and again. Frankly, the Marvel universe would look very different at this point if the Spider-man films weren’t part of it.

How Essential Is It?

At this point, Spidey is one of the only successful franchises still in Marvel’s pocket. Sure, they still have to share the character with Sony (and that studio is also making a series of regrettable “Spider-man without Spider-man” films), but Marvel can rely on the web-head to goose their numbers when needed. That’s all thanks to his introduction in Homecoming which, even today, still stands as one of the best films in the MCU. It’s essential watching for any fan of Spidey and/or the Marvel canon.

Essential Score: 9.3

Thor: Ragnarok (MCU 17)

I don’t think anyone would hold either of the original Thor films (2011’s Thor or 2013’s Thor: The Dark World) up as good films from the Marvel machine. They’re watchable enough, to be sure, but each has some massive flaws that hold the films back from making any kind of “best of list” (well, unless we make it the “Top 40 Marvel works that aren’t The Incredible Hulk or Secret Invasion). They’re mediocre at best in a series that someone managed to crank out one very solid film after another.

But then along came Thor: Ragnarok, and the game changed. It was pretty clean that Chris Hemsworth was solid at comedy and while the previous two Thor films didn’t really showcase his talent, he was able to display some of his comedy chops in small moments in those two films (as well as The Avengers). With this third film, director Taika Waititi, working off a script by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher L. Yost, was able to bring the levity and comedy that the previous films promised and never delivered. Thor, here, is funny, and he’s put into a technicolor, 1980s inspired world with new rules and new challenges. It’s a film that pushes forward its hero, making him into the hero he was always meant to be, all while letting Hemsworth be the kind of comedy actor he clearly relished. It’s just a fantastic movie.

It is, without a doubt, the best of the Thor films and it did something no one had expected before: it made Thor into a truly awesome superhero. It was about damn time.

How Essential Is It?

If any Thor movie is required watching, it’s Thor: Ragnarok. It’s fast, fun, and absolutely enjoyable, all deftly put together by the creative team. Plus, it ties directly into the events of Avengers: Infinity War, the first part of the saga’s grand conclusion. On all fronts this is a movie that’s key to understanding the MCU and enjoying all that the franchise has to offer.

Essential Score: 9.2

Guardians of the Galaxy (MCU 10)

Released early in the span of the MCU (seriously, it was only the 10th film ever for the franchise, and yet still, somehow, came in the back half of the second phase), Guardians of the Galaxy was a crazy bet for the production team. This was a no-name superhero team (even in comparison to the B-squad heroes Marvel had to work with to launch the MCU) out in the middle of the universe, far from all the heroes we’d already been watching and enjoying. They were aliens, a giant tree, and a talking raccoon. Who in their right mind thought they could make a watchable film out of this group of weirdos?

James Gunn did, and the resulting film is nothing short of amazing. Gunn had a vision to let these weirdo heroes live in their weirdo universe, and he then packed it full of action and humor and musical deep-cuts. The movie felt very different from anything Marvel had done before (hell, it ends not with a climactic fight but with lead character Star Lord singing and dancing to defeat the villain) and that let it feel like a breath of fresh air in the Marvel franchise. It was different and even back then different was good.

Even now it still holds up. I think the third film, Vol. 3, is fantastic, a proper and solid conclusion for a trilogy of films, all made by Gunn. That film, though, is still defeated by the original. That was a great conclusion but this film is an even better start for the heroes, free of franchise concerns or worries about how this movie will tie in with others or be affected by what comes from one of the crossovers. This film could just be a film, a grand and silly and adventurous movie that let Gunn do everything he wanted the way he wanted. It’s exactly what audiences craved in that moment from the MCU.

How Essential Is It?

If somehow there had never been another Guardians film and this movie didn’t become one of Marvel’s bankable franchises, this film wouldn’t be all that essential. Yes, it does introduce one of the Infinity Stones, something Thanos would need to fulfill his plans at the end of "The Infinity Saga", but that stone could have shown up here and then wandered off to get picked up by Thanos later. The rest of what happens in this film is siloed off, away from the main universe and out in its own little pocket (probably just in case this movie bombed, so Marvel wouldn’t have to account for these heroes later). As great as it is, in a vacuum this film doesn’t need to tie in or be watched with the rest of the movies.

But, of course, then there were two sequels, and the Guardians showed up in other crossovers, leading the team to become core members of the MCU. So, in the end it is actually pretty essential, just because of the way Marvel tied together all its films. But for a brief moment this film stood alone and, hell, that made it even better.

Essential Score:

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (MCU 9)

There aren’t a lot of films in the MCU that managed to find crossover genre status outside the bounds of the franchise. Most good Marvel films are considered “good superhero movies”. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though, is just considered a good movie. Call it what you will – a political thriller, an action adventure, and dramatic actioner – the film gets a lot of mileage out of being “more than a superhero movie”, and while it’s easy to dismiss a statement like that as a backhanded compliment, in this case of the second Captain America film, it’s actually true. This is more than just a Marvel film.

The trick with this sequel is that it finds a way to strip away the superhero trappings, putting our heroes – Captain America and Black Widow – on the run and without backup. They aren’t part of SHIELD anymore, they don’t have the other Avengers to call on, and that have to rely on subterfuge and espionage (things Black Widow is far more versed in than Cap) to get the job done. It plays very differently than anything we’d seen before in the MCU (which, up to that point, had only been eight prior films). It feels like the kind of movie that would be released now to show that Marvel can be more than just superhero films. The fact that it came out so early in Marvel’s run is amazing.

Plus, frankly, it’s just a damn good film. Say what you will about the last act, which does veer into superheroic bombast, the first two acts are tense and taught, leading a really solid spy story that keeps you engaged and anxious. Even that last act, which lets the espionage trappings fall away for the superheroes, is still a whole lot of fun. This is one of those movies from the Marvel run that’s fun to watch on its own, free of all the other films around it, just to enjoy the story and the characters and (yes) the action. It improves on everything Marvel gave us before to be a movie that can stand the test of time in any genre.

How Essential Is It?

Cap is one of the most essential characters in the MCU, with his story basically being the through line of the whole cinematic universe. Where Cap goes, the franchise follows, from the 1940s, to the fall of SHIELD, and on to Wakanda and against Thanos. Cap always leads the charge with his story, and that was made explicit in this film. Because of Cap’s actions SHIELD fell (which complicated things on Agents of SHIELD, and also then got walked back some in later works). That makes this film a required part of any watch party for the universe. You have to know what happens.

But also, again, it’s a damn good movie. The quality of a film absolutely counts towards its “essentialness”, and in this case, being one of the best makes it absolutely essential for any fan of the series. Even if the later films walk back the downfall of SHIELD, even if characters introduced here are retconned around later, this film is still great on its own and it did, for a time, show that anything could happen in the MCU. That’s pretty darn impressive.

Essential Score: 9.5

Spider-man: No Way Home (MCU 32)

Everything in the MCU is part of the grand tapestry of that universe, but only one movie can claim to be an essential part of three universes, three franchises at once. Marvel wasn’t the first company to tackle Spider-man on the big screen since, as we all know, Sony had (and still has) the rights to the web-crawler and all his related characters and has, for years, done multiple films featuring the character. There was the Raimi-verse and the Webb-verse before the MCU took over the character, and each of them were loved, and beloved, in their own ways.

The thing that’s so magical about Spider-man: No Way Home is that it works not just as a conclusion for the MCU Spider-man’s arc (up to that point at least) but it also works as a conclusion of sorts for the other two Spider-men as well. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield get to play in this movie as well, and they have character development that lead to the completion of their own arcs as well. With one movie, Marvel (and Sony, sure) managed to tie up all their Spidey films in a satisfying way, a feat I never would have expected.

And it has so much fun doing it. The first couple of acts are delightful, of course, because the MCU Spider-man films have been delightful. But then when all three Spider-men are together, bantering and laughing and working alongside each other, it becomes utter joy. It’s just so much fun watching all of them, seeing them as they work and fight and have fun. The film builds so much energy off of them, crafting a multiversal adventure that really sticks the landing. Marvel hasn’t had much luck with their multiverse stories, especially on the big screen, but this film does it perfectly.

It’s the best Spider-man film because it’s the Spider-man film for every fan. It just works.

How Essential Is It?

This is the only film on this list that is essential viewing for three different franchises, but that’s the power of Spider-man: No Way Home. It’s a conclusion for two previous series, and it can also work as the ending of the MCU’s arc as well. And, considering it’s one of the only really watchable films to come out in the MCU post-Endgame, it also gets to claim the title of the best of that run as well. In all regards this is the one film from Marvel’s late game you have to watch.

Essential Score: 9.9