Which entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) have topped the all-important Rotten Tomatoes reviews aggregate list?
With Black Panther: Wakanda Forever now on release at Cineworld, let's take a look. (Ratings apply at time of publication.)
21. Eternals (47%)
At the bottom of the list is Chloé Zhao's undeniably ambitious Marvel epic, which brings us the story of the Eternals, the Celestials and the Deviants. An all-star cast including Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden and Salma Hayek leads the way in this story of mankind's secret saviours who are eventually compelled to turn against their intergalactic creators. The post-credits scenes tease big developments for Kit Harington's character Dane – and we also get an off-screen intro for a significant Marvel character who's yet to make his MCU debut.
20. Thor: Love and Thunder (64%)
The magic touch demonstrated by Taika Waititi on Thor: Ragnarok didn't manifest quite as potently this time around. Nevertheless, the fourth Thor movie (Thorth?) has a lot to recommend it.
Chris Hemsworth is having a lot of fun with his Asgardian himbo act, the narrative brings Natalie Portman's long-absent Jane Foster back into the fold, there are plenty of colourful set-pieces and Christian Bale's Gorr is an appreciably creepy villain.
19. Thor: The Dark World (66%)
Landing at the bottom of the pile is the hammer god's second adventure, one that failed to rouse the same level of enthusiasm as the first, despite some eye-catching effects and action sequences. Although Chris Hemsworth is as charismatic as ever in the title role, an underwhelming villain in the form of Christopher Eccleston and paint-by-numbers direction (let's face it, everyone wanted to see original helmer Patty Jenkins have a go at this) saw it branded as Marvel's weakest, and the critics agreed.
18. The Incredible Hulk (67%)
Back in 2008 the MCU was still in its embryonic stage. Although the release of the first Iron Man in May 2008 was one of the year's surprise successes, Hulk struggled to make much of an impact in its wake. Edward Norton was suitably brooding as the tortured Bruce Banner (taking over from Eric Bana in Ang Lee's 2003 version), but it wouldn't be until Mark Ruffalo that we got the definitive take on the character.
17. Iron Man 2 (72%)
The first Iron Man cast such an enormous shadow that a sequel was always going to struggle to live up to it. There's a lot to recommend Iron Man 2, namely Robert Downey Jr.'s typically witty central performance, the emergence of Don Cheadle's War Machine (he replaced Terrence Howard) and Mickey Rourke's snarling villain, Ivan.
But many agreed the magic got snarled in too many subplots and the movie lacked the streamlined joy of the original. It's still good fun though, as we get to watch Scarlett Johansson's emergent Black Widow kicking ass.
In the wake of the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home, the multiverse threatens to spin out of control. Step forward Benedict Cumberbatch's immaculately goateed, cape-wearing Doctor Strange who embarks on a madcap multiversal journey orchestrated by singular filmmaker Sam Raimi. The latter, returning to the comic book movie fold for the first time since 2007's Spider-Man 3, uncorks his signature energetic camerawork, and plenty of his characteristic horror flourishes, to make Strange's latest journey as creepy as it is spectacular.
Emotional heft is granted by the presence of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) whose violent and apparently deranged actions are fuelled by a genuine sense of tragedy. Also thrown into the mix: multiverse jumper America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) whose abilities may well be exploited in a future Marvel movie.
15. Avengers: Age of Ultron (76%)
Talking of sequels being overshadowed by their predecessor, here's a quintessential example. Age of Ultron gains great mileage by presenting us with the unified Avengers team for the first time (the stuff of comic book nirvana), although its best moments are the smaller ones (the contest to lift Thor's hammer, for example, is typical Joss Whedon). Ultimately it went bigger and bolder but critics thought it lacked the spark of the utterly magical first movie, Avengers Assemble.
14. Thor (77%)
Now here was a pleasant surprise. It's important to remember that back in 2011 the MCU wasn't burdened with the same level of expectation as it is now, and there was still a great deal of mystery surrounding its emerging characters. Outside of comic book circles, Thor was a bit of an enigma: a hammer-wielding Asgardian god talking in Shakespearean dialect? Wisely, director Kenneth Branagh plays the material as much for laughs as he does thrills, aided by an excellent cast including a breakout Chris Hemsworth.
=13. Iron Man 3/Captain Marvel/Black Widow (79%)
The third and final solo Iron Man movie caused controversy among loyal fans, with sticking points including the amount of time Tony Stark spends outside the suit and the twist surrounding the villainous Mandarin's (Ben Kingsley) reveal. But there's no denying writer/director Shane Black is out to get big laughs, and this is what freshens up the formula – a pleasingly tongue-in-cheek yet still loving salute to the character who kick-started the MCU in the first place.
Brie Larson's debut as the cosmically powerful Captain Marvel is directed by indie film veterans Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, and occupies an important place in the MCU. For starters, it's the first movie in the franchise to be led by a woman and, being set in 1995, it also introduces us to a younger Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson de-aged via CGI). The movie is an important stepping stone en route to both Avengers: Endgame and the mysterious phase four stage of the MCU.
Meanwhile, Natasha Romanoff bowed out in style in her long-overdue solo movie. The Black Widow film occupied the gap between Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018), although its most memorable aspect was the introduction of the tenacious, quick-witted Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh).
12. Captain America: The First Avenger (80%)
Quite possibly the most visually distinctive and beautifully designed of all Marvel's epics, the first Captain America movie benefits hugely from its period wartime setting. The sepia-toned World War II hijinks of the fledgling super-soldier (portrayed with great sensitivity by Chris Evans) are, refreshingly, not played for ironic laughs but instead for engrossing and surprisingly emotional impact. Plus Alan Silvestri's thunderously old-fashioned score is what superhero themes are meant to sound like.
11. Ant-Man (83%)
Another joint position sees a dead heat between Paul Rudd's miniaturised superhero and the affable Guardians' second adventure. The former defied somewhat low expectations to become a surprisingly snappy and sassy heist movie (albeit with eye-widening shrinking powers thrown in) whilst the latter, many agreed, was an enjoyable follow-up that couldn't top its wonderful predecessor. Top marks for James Gunn's typically excellent Awesome Mix Vol. 2 soundtrack though.
10. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (84%)
Some way below the original Black Panther but still placing strongly on the RT rankings is Wakanda Forever. Despite the movie's manifest and exhaustively staged action sequences, the movie is destined to be remembered for its quieter, more poignant moments.
Director Ryan Coogler dips into the reservoir of feeling that distinguished his acclaimed dramas Fruitvale Station and Creed. It's the potent sense of loss and grief that resonates through, transforming the late Chadwick Boseman's absence into a dramatic through-line as Letitia Wright's Shuri and Angela Bassett's Ramona take centre stage.
=9. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2/Avengers: Infinity War (85%)
Another joint position sees a dead heat between Paul Rudd's miniaturised superhero and the gargantuan first instalment of the Infinity Saga.
Does bigger necessarily equal better? Many critics agree that directors the Russo brothers do an exemplary job juggling a stupidly large amount of characters and storylines in this, the epic culmination of 10 years of the MCU. We have so much invested in these characters now, it's vital that there's a sense of urgency and something at stake, particularly with speculation rife as to who will survive in this year's Avengers: Endgame (released 25th April).
Praise was reserved for Josh Brolin's impassively evil Thanos, an all-consuming force of nature looking to obliterate half of humanity through the power of the Infinity Stones, with the Avengers the only ones standing in his way. Perhaps inevitably, several reviewers observed this feels like one half of a wider story (indeed, it was originally planned that way), but there's no denying the quick wit, grandiose action and likeable characterisations that have become hallmarks of the Marvel movies.
8. Ant-Man and The Wasp (87%)
Just nudging ahead of the colossal Infinity War is the far breezier, more lighthearted Ant-Man sequel. In keeping with its predecessor, critics agree the movie draws strength from its lower, more personal stakes, in which character interplay and humour take precedence over end-of-the-world action. Key to this is the return of Paul Rudd as shrinking superhero Scott Lang, whose struggle to balance a life under house arrest with his estranged family and the need to become Ant-Man gives the movie a wildly entertaining charge.
Of course, the biggest news emerging from the movie relates to Evangeline Lilly's character, The Wasp – given she's the first female character in the MCU to share the film's title with the central hero; she is, in her own way, something of a revolutionary. In fact, she helped set the standard for Brie Larson's Captain Marvel.
7. Doctor Strange (89%)
The first appearance of Benedict Cumberbatch's Doctor Strange aka the Sorcerer Supreme won us over with its mystical, trans-dimensional effects sequences, east-meets-west mythology and nicely judged humour.
Of all the Marvel characters, Steve Rogers is probably the one who's undergone the most interesting arc. The excellent, intriguing The Winter Soldier saw the noble Captain adapting to the morally murky 21st century, mixing political intelligence (including the appearance of sly conspiracy movie veteran Robert Redford) and cracking action sequences to superb effect.
Captain America: Civil War was less a Captain America movie and more a proto-Avengers smash-em-up, bustling with incident and vibrant characters (including the first appearances from Chadwick Boseman's Black Panther and Tom Holland's Spider-Man). That central airport set-piece still remains one of Marvel's finest.
Spidey's most recent adventure, Far From Home, sits alongside Civil War and Guardians on this list. The wall-crawler ventures beyond Manhattan to Europe, where he must confront Jake Gyllenhaal's master of deception, Quentin Beck aka Mysterio. That cliffhanger climax is a killer, no doubt setting up all manner of problems for Spider-Man in Phase 4 of the MCU. Even so, our favourite bit has to be the reveal of Mysterio's master plan – when was the last time a blockbuster villain had this much fun being bad?
5. Avengers: Assemble (91%)
Back in 2012, the disparate Marvel superheroes were brought together for the first time by Joss Whedon. What was remarkable about the first Avengers movie was how funny and light on its feet it was, preserving each character's idiosyncrasies while building towards the future of the MCU.
=4. Guardians of the Galaxy/Spider-Man: Homecoming/Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (92%)
Talk about a Marvel movie defying expectations – the first Guardians was that movie. The initial trailer was met with bemusement: a talking raccoon and a walking tree, seriously? Well no-one reckoned on the sheer rollicking attitude, sweet character interplay and rocking soundtrack that director James Gunn brought to the party.
In July 2017, another important figure took pride of place in the effervescent form of Tom Holland's Spidey, the first iteration of the character to officially join the MCU brand. As memorable for its hormonal angst as its crashing action, it secured Tom as possibly the best Spider-Man actor so far.
In Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the MCU takes a progressive and exciting step forward. Canadian-Chinese actor and martial artist Simu Liu becomes the first actor of Asian descent to lead a Marvel movie. He plays the titular Shang-Chi, a warrior drawn into a conflict with his father, the feared crime lord known as The Mandarin (Tony Leung).
3. Thor: Ragnarok (93%)
Reviewers fell over themselves to praise Taika Waititi's bold and hilarious Thor: Ragnarok, a movie that steers the Marvel blockbuster into total comedy territory. Waititi brings his surreal sensibility to the movie's humour and retro-inflected visuals, Mark Mothersbaugh's score brilliantly riffs on '80s synth, and the performers are having a blast – not least Chris Hemsworth who is clearly liberated by this quip-happy, irreverent new Thor. More, please.
=2. Iron Man/Avengers: Endgame/Spider-Man: No Way Home (94%)
The first movie in what was to become the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and for many still the best. There's a kind of innocence and purity to the first Iron Man, unencumbered by franchise expectations and clearly revelling in letting this second-tier character loose to do whatever the heck he wants.
Director Jon Favreau marshals an excellent sense of pace and convincing effects to pull us into Tony Stark's journey but really it's the casting of Robert Downey Jr. that's alchemical. The actor famously hadn't been in a good place for much of the 2000s and his synergy with the fast-talking, irreverent Stark is so utterly seamless it takes the breath away.
How poignant, therefore, to see Iron Man's farewell in Avengers: Endgame ranking in the same position. It's astonishing to note that 11 years on, the MCU can still conjure movies that stun both critics and audiences, a surefire testament to the Russos' skill in handling a gargantuan onslaught of storylines and characters. Funny, emotional and more than a little surprising, Endgame is the culmination of everything that makes this franchise so beloved.
Joining the above films is Tom Holland's latest Spider-Man adventure, No Way Home. This MCU epic introduces the concept of the multiverse as Peter Parker teams up with Doctor Strange to reverse the consequences of his identity being leaked. This results in the emergence of several non-MCU villains including Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) and Electro (Jamie Foxx).
1. Black Panther (96%)
Currently sitting pretty at the number one spot, Black Panther was praised as both a superior Marvel blockbuster and a watershed cultural moment. Critics and audiences went wild over its depiction of Wakanda, topical storyline and engrossing performances.
Director Ryan Coogler brings the street level grit from his acclaimed Fruitvale Station and Creed, the late Chadwick Boseman anchors it as the noble T'Challa, and the supporting cast is among the richest seen in any Marvel film. Standouts: Letitia Wright as T'Challa's quick-witted, gadget-tastic sister Shuri, and Michael B. Jordan as the compelling, anguished villain Eric Killmonger.