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Let’s Remember A Time When the MCU Phases Were Enjoyable

Posters of Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Avengers: Infinity War, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever to represent Phases 1, 2, 3, and 4.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first kicked off in 2008 with the release of Iron Man. 15 years later, the MCU has grown to become the biggest, highest-grossing film franchise in the world. To date, it has released 30 films and eight TV shows, with ten more confirmed movies on the way. With a staggering total of nearly 40 titles, it might be difficult to know where to start.

Fortunately, the MCU has made its storylines and films easier to track by dividing the cinematic universe into Phases. So far, Marvel has completed four Phases and will kick off Phase 5 in February with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.

Each Phase includes a group of movies that are interconnected and share an overarching storyline, theme, or timeline. For example, Phase 1 introduces the founding members of the Avengers and culminates in the first Avengers film. Meanwhile, Phase 2 explores the consequences of heroes being introduced to the world, Phase 3 tracks the rise of Thanos (Josh Brolin) and the resulting Endgame, and Phase 4 tracks the post-Endgame era and introduction of the multiverse.

Some Phases in the MCU have had a more coherent and intriguing storyline than others, while some Phases have boasted higher-quality films than other Phases. Here is every Phase of the MCU ranked from worst to best so far, based both on the overarching story and the quality of the individual films in each Phase.

4. Phase 2

James Spader as Ultron in an Avengers: Age of Ultron poster
(Disney)

Films in Phase 2:

Iron Man 3

Thor: The Dark World

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Guardians of the Galaxy

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Ant-Man

While Marvel Phase 1 culminated in the formation of the Avengers, Phase 2 largely tracked the aftermath of The Avengers and the connotations of a superhero team being introduced to the world. Just from reading the list of films in Phase 2, one can tell that the majority of them were continuations of the Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Avengers series. Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man were the only two films that introduced some new heroes to the MCU.

The major problem with Phase 2 was that it had the least cohesive overarching storyline. In trying to continue several pre-established series while also starting new stories, it struggled to connect the films significantly. Avengers: Age of Ultron was the closest thing to a culmination, but it lacked the grandeur to be a truly satisfying conclusion. Plus, Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man felt a little random, and the former might have fit better into Phase 3.

What also hurt Phase 2 was the quality of the films. Thor: The Dark World is definitely the weakest entry in Phase 2 and is one of the lowest-rated Marvel films in the MCU for its bland tone, poor villains, and unnecessaries plot structure. Avengers: Age of Ultron was also the weakest link in the Avengers film series, lacking the high stakes and grandeur of its predecessors and successors. Iron Man 3 and Ant-Man also struggled to add meaning and innovation to the MCU. As good as Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy were, those two films alone couldn’t hold up the disjointed and mediocre Phase 2.

3. Phase 4

Spider-Man posing with smoke in the background.
(Disney/Sony Entertainment)

Films in Phase 4

Black Widow

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Eternals

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Thor: Love and Thunder

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

TV shows in Phase 4

WandaVision

Falcon and the Winter Soldier

Loki

What If…?

Hawkeye

Moon Knight

Ms. Marvel

She-Hulk: Attorney at law

Phase 4 was a bit of a weird Phase for the MCU. Black Widow ended up in Phase 4 after being delayed more than a year past its original release date due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It takes place between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. As a result, it clearly does not fit with Phase 4 or its overarching story. Hence, the Phase started poorly storyline-wise. Phase 4 boasts a more coherent overarching story than Phase 2, but has too many stories to tell. It tries to explore the aftermath of Endgame, introduce a new era of heroes, and introduce the multiverse. Most of it fits into a rather broad post-Endgame timeline, but the story is definitely scattered and disjointed.

Just like its storyline is kind of all over the place, so is the quality of Phase 4. Three of its films, Eternals, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and Thor: Love and Thunder, are among the top 5 worst-rated films of the entire MCU. However, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Spider-Man: No Way Home are among the top 10 best-rated films in the MCU. Meanwhile, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was an unexpected departure from the MCU and a very emotional and powerful tribute to Chadwick Boseman.

Phase 4 is very hard to rate. When its films were bad, they were very bad, but when its films were good, they were very good. Black Widow threw off the continuity, but the rest of the Phase had somewhat of an overarching storyline. Plus, Phase 4 had something every other Phase didn’t – TV series. Most of its TV shows were of fairly high quality, too, and gave fans some additional context. Ultimately, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), MCU TV shows, and the overarching multiverse saved Phase 4 from being ranked worst than Phase 2.

2. Phase 1

Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark in the first Iron Man film
(Disney)

Films in Phase 1

Iron Man

The Incredible Hulk

Iron Man 2

Thor

Captain America: The First Avenger

The Avengers

Of all the MCU phases, Phase 1 offered the most cohesive overarching storyline. This might seem surprising on the surface, but it makes sense in retrospect. The MCU was just starting, and its only natural move was to start introducing the founding members of the MCU and then bring them all together for a big finale. Hence, Phase 1 is very interconnected and boasts a simple, unified storyline of heroes entering the world and slowly forming the Avengers.

Quality-wise, Phase 1 was also fairly strong. The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2 were the only films that really floundered in this phase. They featured poor casting decisions, storylines, and overused superhero tropes. However, the rest of the films in this Phase made up for the two outliers. What made them all such good films was that they were groundbreaking, innovative, and like nothing that theater-goers had seen before. Plots, acting performances, direction, visuals, and the final culmination of The Avengers, left audiences invigorated and excited for the future of the MCU, and firmly established its place as a franchise that demanded attention.

The only downfall of Phase 1 was that it was still finding its footing as a franchise. As a result, it boasted a lot of origin stories and had to make some mistakes to find what worked and what didn’t work. It didn’t have enough time to build up high stakes and solidify its cast and themes.

1. Phase 3

Josh Brolin as Thanos wearing the Infinity Gauntlet in Avengers: Infinity War
(Disney)

Films in Phase 3:

Captain America: Civil War

Doctor Strange

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Thor: Ragnarok

Black Panther

Avengers: Infinity War

Ant-Man and the Wasp

Captain Marvel

Avengers: Endgame

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Phase 3 is where Marvel really found its stride. What was especially impressive, was that it boasted more films than any Phase in the MCU, but yet managed to interconnect them better than any Phase. The major storyline in Phase 3 is Thanos’ rise of power, his collection of the Infinity Stones, and the rise and efforts of the heroes who oppose Thanos. Even the films that were a little far removed from this central storyline, like Captain Marvel or Ant-Man and the Wasp, still introduced heroes or brief scenes that directly tied into and had huge connotations for Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.

Quality-wise, Phase 3 killed it. Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Avengers: Endgame all make up some of the very best films in the entire MCU, and they all premiered in the same Phase. As far as quality goes, every Phase 3 film stays well above mediocre, and none can truly be considered poor. All the films boasted performances, directing, visuals, and storylines that appealed to viewers. Plus, every single story and hero had a purpose in the overarching story of Phase 3. This Phase is a clear testimony to just how important interconnectivity is in enhancing the overall quality of big film franchises.

(featured image: Disney)

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Rachel Ulatowski is a Freelance Writer, blogger, and aspiring author. As a Freelancer Writer she hopes to give readers the same comfort and enjoyment that she finds in all things nerdy and noteworthy, as a blogger she enjoys snarking on YouTubers and reality stars, and as a future novelist she hopes to raise awareness for child abuse through literature.