This Thursday sees the release of the 18th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But this is no normal movie: it’s Avengers: Infinity War, the second most expensive film of all-time that’s only sort-of ironically being called the “most ambitious crossover event in history.” (It is, according to directors Anthony and Joe Russo, one of the “most complicated movies ever made.”) Almost no one has seen it, almost no one knows who’s getting out alive, and almost no one knows what the sequel is going to be called. Infinity War is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in Captain America’s beard.
But instead of guessing what might happen, let’s take a look back at what’s already happened. The Marvel eras are separated into three phrases: the appropriately named Phase One, Phase Two, and Phase Three. They each currently contain six movies, from Iron Man to The Avengers, Iron Man 3 to Ant-Man, and Captain America: Civil War to Black Panther. (When it runs its course after Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel, and next year’s untitled Avengers movie, Phase Three will be the longest, with a total of 10 entries.) And they all have highlights and lowlights. But which is the best Phase? Let’s find out! I’ve separated each Phase into four categories: average Rotten Tomatoes score, number of Oscar nominations, combined box office gross, and personal preference. There’s no “right” answer for which Phase reigns supreme, but a) it’s still a fun exercise to pass the time until Infinity War, and b) if you don’t like Iron Man 3, you’re wrong.
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2
Captain America: The First Avenger
Marvel’s The Avengers
Average Rotten Tomatoes score: 80.5%
Number of Oscar nominations: 4
Combined box office gross (worldwide): $3,811,244,484
Personal preference: I’m going to begin with a hot take that will probably alienate half the people reading this, but I swear I mean it: Iron Man is slightly overrated. It was good at the time, but in a lowered expectations, “better than it should be” kind of way. But even I, a hater, have to commend Robert Downey, Jr.’s sharp performance. And Downey’s performance almost, but not quite, carries the properly rated Iron Man 2, a rush-job production following the surprising success of the original that feels like it. (It’s still weird that Mickey Rourke — Mickey Rourke — was in a Marvel movie.) But where Iron Man 2 failed, the fourth and fifth MCU movies — the stoic and charming Thor and winningly old-fashioned Captain America: The First Avenger — succeeded. Chris Evans is suitably genuine as the quintessential all-American hero and Chris Hemsworth has the physique of a god, and although it wasn’t fully tapped until The Avengers, the timing of a comedian. (It’s also still weird that Natalie Portman — Natalie Portman — was in two Marvel movies, but has since been all but forgotten.)
Speaking of The Avengers: that’s where it all came together for the MCU. Writer and director Joss Whedon (he and James Gunn are the only ones to handle both scripting and directing duties by themselves) focused on the humanity of our heroes, something a lesser movie would have left behind to make room for more explosions. Those are there, too, but never in at the expense of the story. Hopefully, the Russos were paying attention in how to not overstuff a spectacle. Also, that Hulk movie happened.