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.
Iron Man 3
Thor: The Dark World
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Average Rotten Tomatoes score: 80.5%
Number of Oscar nominations: 4
Combined box office gross (worldwide): $5,271,691,209
Personal preference: Phase Two got off to a divisive start with Iron Man 3. Some, like myself, think the Mandarin twist is clever and it’s awesome that Marvel let Shane Black make a snappy Shane Black Movie That Also Happens to Be An Iron Man Movie — unless those are the exact reasons you don’t like it. Less controversial: calling Thor: The Dark World the weakest Marvel movie (it has the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score with a 66 percent “Fresh” rating). There’s some good stuff in there (namely, Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston’s crisp chemistry), and the consensus is so low that I almost want to call it underrated, but Malekith is peak anonymous MCU villain. Ant-Man is the Marvel movie that’s most like Foxboro Hot Tubs — an amusing side project, but it’s no Green Day — and it also suffers from a nondescript bad guy. Avengers: Age of Ultron is bloated, suffers from an overload of CGI, and Whedon (who felt broken after making this movie) does an insufficient job of getting us to care about the poor people of Sokovia. And yet… James Spader. That man’s voice can forgive a lot of sins.
It’s Phase Two’s middle section that makes the best case for it as the MCU’s strongest phase. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a character-driven espionage thriller, and the funny Guardians of the Galaxy takes the “misfits come together for a common goal” trope, and adds a talking raccoon and walking tree. It’s to the movie’s credit that something so weird now seems normal.
Captain America: Civil War
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Average Rotten Tomatoes score: 90.5%
Number of Oscar nominations: 2 (for now…)
Combined box office gross (worldwide): $5,752,901,350
Personal preference: Captain America: Civil War has the best fight scene that somehow nails every character’s specific dynamic; Doctor Strange employs the best use of a cape in superhero history; Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 has the strongest opening (even if the film overall isn’t quite as good as the original); Spider-Man: Homecoming has one of the few genuine shocking moments in the MCU; Thor: Ragnarok is a color-coated blast with legitimately funny jokes; and with compelling performances from Chadwick Boseman, breakout Letitia Wright, and Michael B. Jordan (as the tragic and emphatic villain Killmonger), Black Panther is the first Marvel movie to deserve Best Picture consideration.
The winner: in case you couldn’t tell, it’s Phase Three. Maybe it’s recency bias, maybe it’s growing tired of Iron Man and Captain America, maybe it’s my affection for Ryan Coogler for making Creed, but Marvel’s recent hot streak is undeniable. There are no duds, the Rotten Tomatoes score is exactly 10 percent higher than the other phases, the box office numbers are there, and the only reason the Oscar nominations are so low is because Black Panther wasn’t eligible for this year’s ceremony. Guardians, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther have their own unique styles formed by genuine auteurs Gunn, Taika Waititi, and Coogler, while Marvel was so impressed by the Russos’ work on Civil War (they were previously best known for directing episodes of Community and Arrested Development) that they were handed the keys to the Infinity War kingdom. Of course, if they screw it up, I’m changing my pick to Phase Two.