"Guardians of the Galaxy" (which opens nationwide in theaters Aug. 1, with special screenings late July 31) is the tenth film produced by Marvel Studios and their last feature before next summer's "Avengers: Age of Ultron."
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is unlike any endeavor in cinematic history: each film exists in a shared universe. For the first time, characters could crossover between films, opening the door for cross-pollination on a scale never seen before in major theatrical releases.
In honor of the release of the tenth Marvel film, here's how the 10 Marvel films rank, from best to worst:
Note: No spoilers here for "Guardians of the Galaxy" - but plenty for every other Marvel film.
#10) "Iron Man 2"
Marvel's first sequel tried to open up the Marvel universe too quickly. The villain duo of Whiplash and Justin Hammer form one sub-par antagonist. Oh, and Tony is dying? "Iron Man 2" desperately wants to be a personal story for Tony Stark's past, his future as head of Stark Industries and a jarring ramp up for the Avengers - but so many thinly-developed plot threads never form into one complete story.
#9) "Iron Man 3"
Tony Stark may be the most compelling Marvel films character so far - but he's also featured in a pair of mediocre superhero films, with "Iron Man 3" only being a marginal improvement over "Iron Man 2." Although the core of Tony Stark's story is a more focused story - finalizing his evolution from selfish billionaire playboy into a true hero - the distinct lack of Iron Man in an "Iron Man" movie and an insane reveal involving the Mandarin drag "Iron Man 3" down this list.
#8) "Thor: The Dark World"
The Dark Elf antagonist Malekith is somehow less than one-dimensional: he wants to destroy the universe. That's all. Malekith has virtually no depth of character - he may as well be a robot solely programmed to get the 'Aether' and use it to destroy everything. The silver lining to "Dark World" is the glorious return of Loki - unredeemed for his part in trying to conquer Earth, yet somehow impossible to root against. Oh, and the reveal of the 'Infinity Stones' (which include the Aether and the Tesseract) - powerful objects with destructive capability - was a fun bonus.
#7) "The Incredible Hulk"
It's hard not to imagine what this movie would have looked like with Mark Ruffalo in it as Bruce Banner. The decision to make this film closer to the TV series - which followed a wandering Bruce Banner as a permanent fugitive - made this Hulk movie interesting. This is a serviceable origin story of sorts -- but given how well the Hulk was managed/written in "The Avengers," this film feels underwhelming in retrospect.
#6) "Captain America: The First Avenger"
Pretty much everything about this Captain America flick feels like a prequel for "The Avengers" - more so than any other previous Marvel film. Given that this story takes place 70 years before any other Marvel film, "The First Avenger" was saddled down by a lot of exposition and scene setting -- yet remained a pretty focused hero's story and fun action-adventure.
"Thor" was the first step for the Marvel films in expanding its shared universe -- and it did so by now injecting space travel and magic into the Marvel universe. This was the first Marvel film to not just have a small hand full of super powered beings -- and most of them got involved in some brutal battles. The heart of "Thor" is much more personal than most Marvel films - "Thor" is as much a search for identity for Odin's two sons as it is a battle for power. And, of course, "Thor" introduced the most dynamic Marvel villain yet: Loki.
#4) "Iron Man"
'Audacity' best sums up "Iron Man" - Marvel Studio's first film that established a larger universe of superheroes and the story of a normal human who turned himself into the world's first superhero. Besides being a clean origin story for Tony Stark, it's worth noting that Stark's actions absolutely set-up the world for the emergence of superheroes. His reveal to the world that he is Iron Man speaks to his narcissism, but also a truth: he is a superhero. And the after-credits scene teasing the "Avengers Initiative" was an atomic bomb for all super hero movies -- it established the groundwork for Marvel to create a shared universe. Without "Iron Man," there's no Marvel Cinematic Universe.
#3) "Guardians of the Galaxy"
Prior to "Guardians," most Marvel films followed a pretty standard hero's journey template: protagonist becomes heroic, saves the day. "Guardians" is arguably the first major adventure flick in the Marvel series and also proves great storytelling can elevate even the most obscure, ostensibly unlikable characters into an awesome origin story. "Guardians" opens up the Marvel Cinematic Universe to deep space -- where some of the Marvel's greatest cosmic heroes and threats lie in wait. If "Iron Man" begat the era of heroes and "Thor" opened the door to magic, "Guardians of the Galaxy" expands the shared universe to include the entire galaxy.
#2) "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"
No film in the Marvel series has fundamentally shaken up the shared Marvel Cinematic Universe like "The Winter Soldier." As a film, this sequel works on so many different levels: as a personal journey of purpose for Steve Rogers, a spy-thriller involving SHIELD and a brother-versus-brother element between Rogers and his childhood friend Bucky Barnes. The espionage agency SHIELD played a part in virtually every Marvel film leading up to "The Winter Soldier": it tracked Bruce Banner, assisted Tony Stark and was integral in forming the Avengers. So the decision to reveal the evil organization HYDRA had covertly infiltrated every strata of government leadership - including SHIELD - shook the very foundation of the entire Marvel universe. The reveal that HYDRA was still very alive after World War II is perhaps the single greatest event in the Marvel shared universe.
The best Marvel film to date: "The Avengers"
Until the "The Avengers," every comic book movie was either a standalone origin story or a sequel to said origin story. Every franchise was a wandering series of sequels telling the continuing adventures of some specific hero. "The Avengers" changed all that. Every "Phase One" Marvel film lead up to the formation of the Avengers -- for the first time, there was an overarching, long-range plan for film franchises. Characters in the shared universe could pop up in seemingly unrelated films: Tony Stark could appear in a Hulk movie and Black Widow, who first showed up in "Iron Man 2," could play a much larger role in "The Winter Soldier." And it's all due to "The Avengers" - the alliance of major superheroes, each of whom require their own origin stories, and necessitate a shared universe. For the first time, major comic book superheroes teamed up against a common enemy - one that no single hero could defeat alone. "The Avengers" is why the Marvel Cinematic Universe exists -- and the shared universe only continues to expand.
Looking ahead into the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: "Avengers: Age of Ultron" opens May 1, 2015, which will close out the so-called "Phase 2" of Marvel films. "Phase 3" kicks off July 17, 2015 with the release of "Ant-Man," followed by "Captain America 3" and "Doctor Strange" in 2016 and "Guardians of the Galaxy 2" in 2017.