'Thor: The Dark World' is probably the dorkiest superhero movie ever made. Norse gods battle elves armed with laser guns. The final fight sees heroes and villains alike literally jumping between dimensions as they duel. It's crazy. It's nutty. It's oh-so-silly. But above all, it's a blast. Like the first 'Thor,' this is a very funny movie filled with very charming actors, but unlike its predecessor, the action is terrific and the scope is huge. Who needs more 'Hobbit' and 'Star Wars' movies when you have the 'Thor' series?
'Guardians of the Galaxy'
No Marvel film feels quite like 'Guardians of the Galaxy.' Director James Gunn injects his own wild and anarchic personality into a space opera starring C-list characters and the results are magical. This colorful and downright weird movie has personality to spare, which more than makes up for its bummer of a villain and occasionally wonky plotting. This film manages the unique trick of being simultaneously badass and adorable. Bravo, Mr. Gunn.
Captain America: The First Avenger
How do make a character as old fashioned and potentially silly as Captain America work on screen? Simple: you refuse to hide the fact that he's old fashioned and silly, embracing everything about him and not caring what the cool kids think. A patriotic superhero clad in red, white and blue feels like silly propaganda, but director Joe Johnston and star Chris Evans don't paint him as a flag-waving fanatic. On the contrary, they deliberately play him as a collection of lost values, a man who believes in bravery, common decency and sticking up for your fellow man. Steve Rogers is quietly noble and humane, a selfless hero who actually feels like some kind of ideal. It's a miracle that this character exists in this day and age. The fact that he's at the center of an exciting, old school WWII adventure with a top-notch supporting cast (how is Tommy Lee Jones not phoning this in?) and one of the best comic villains of all time (how good is Hugo Weaving's Red Skull?) is just icing on the cake.
There have been a lot of 'X-Men' movies, some good and some bad. However, they all have one thing in common: they're all chasing 'X2,' which represents the one time every element of a 'X-Men' movie was pitch perfect. Hugh Jackman has never been better as the ferocious and oddly sympathetic Wolverine. Few villains have been as interesting (and convincing) as Ian McKellen's Magneto. Rarely has the subtext (well, text) of a superhero film been so true and worthy of discussion. Director Bryan Singer balances the two sides of the X-Men franchise deftly, nailing it as a big sci-fi action movie without losing the social commentary that's been a series trademark since the first issue of the comic book. This is an incredibly satisfying movie.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
What's most remarkable about 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' is how different it feels from the other Marvel Studios "Phase 2" movies. Plot-heavy and obviously inspired by the political and espionage thrillers of the '70s, it somehow manages to both ground its hero while sending him on a truly crazy journey filled with double crossings and assassination attempts and talking computers and, of course, Nazis. With the ever-charismatic Evan in the lead (and a superb supporting cast to back him up), the film has that trademark Marvel charm while bringing it just enough grit to make this the most morally murky Marvel movie so far. And yet it never gets too dark thanks to Captain America himself, who remains one of fiction's great moral compasses.
'Iron Man 3' feels nothing like its predecessors. It is, first and foremost, a Shane Black picture…and that's why it's so great. Like Sam Raimi and the 'Spider-Man' films, Black doesn't let the fact that he's playing in someone else's playground diminish his own personal voice and the result is a superhero movie that feels like a quasi-sequel to the tremendous 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.' Unlike the first two films, 'Iron Man 3' is as tight as a drum, filling every minute with gags and action and one-liners and plot twists. The action is satisfying, the villain is great and, somehow, Black creates one of the great relationships in the Marvel movie universe by teaming Tony Stark up with a hilariously unsympathetic kid for the second act. If the rest of Marvel's Phase 2 is half as unique and fun as 'Iron Man 3' then we're in for a very good time.
Avengers: Age of Ultron was always going to face an uphill battle. There was no way the sequel to one of the most popular movies of the past decade wasn't going to fall under scrutiny from rabid fans and casuals alike. And yet, Joss Whedon’s second (and supposedly final) Marvel outing has divided people like no other superhero movie. As you can tell from the ranking, we belong on the positive end of the spectrum. Avengers: Age of Ultron is really 12 movies in one, an overwhelming experience so full of information and jokes and characters that it can be hard to take in. Like the best comic books, it plunges headfirst into genre craziness and dares you to keep up. This is one nerdy movie, a messy but massively entertaining smorgasbord of geeky goodness that manages to toe the company line while letting Whedon’s voice ring loud and clear.
The fact that 'Spider-Man 2' isn't number one on this list is a bit of a travesty, huh? After all, Sam Raimi's second outing with the web-slinging hero is as perfect as superhero movies get, nailing everything that's great about its hero without sacrificing the unique tone established by the first film. How exactly does Raimi pull off a movie that's simultaneously goofy, melancholy, romantic, frightening, melodramatic, crazily intense and emotionally fulfilling? Some kind of cinematic alchemy, apparently. Watching 'Spider-Man 2' is like watching a dozen different movies at once, each of them complementing the others. It showcases the unlimited potential of this genre by recognizing how silly a superhero is while asking you to care deeply about his personal plights. Most of all, it has a huge heart, powered by people who truly love Spider-Man but aren't afraid to break the rules of the character's comic universe to make a better film. 'Spider-Man 2' is a masterpiece.
It just has to be 'The Avengers' at number one, huh? 'Spider-Man 2' feels more complete and 'Iron Man 3' is a flawless machine of a movie, but those films don't have Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and Hulk all standing side by side, defending New York from an alien invasion. 'The Avengers' may get a clunky start, but once all of our heroes are on board the SHIELD helicarrier working to take down the villainous Loki, the film simply radiates joy, feeling less like a product manufactured by a movie studio for mass consumption and more like the first time a comic book movie has captured the childlike glee of its source material. 'The Avengers' is a little shaggy and it takes a little too long to get where its going (even writer/director Joss Whedon would probably agree), but the destination isn't just worth it -- it's like finding the Holy Grail. This film has no right to exist and these characters have no right to be on the same team, so the end result isn't just joyous…it's miraculous.
Next: 50 Marvel Comic Facts You May Not Know