Ben can now be found on Facebook at Ben Watchin Movies or on Twitter at BenWatchinMovie. Follow and share my latest news and updates there!
It may seem unthinkable to viewers who have grown up with them but the Marvel Cinematic Universe only sparked into life with the release of 2008's Iron Man. Before that, comic book fans were poorly served by half-hearted adaptations like Daredevil and Fantastic Four. Yes, there was the odd highlight such as the first two Spider-Man films with Tobey Maguire's wallcrawler bringing superhero films back to life after years of being considered box office poison. But Iron Man was a legitimate game-changer - a big-budget release with a star-studded cast, cutting edge effects and the foresight to set up a vast and ever-expanding universe of characters sharing the same timeline and events instead of each character being a one-off. It was genuinely revolutionary and has provided the template for a number of imitators including Marvel's long-time rivals DC who have been playing catch-up ever since.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been its continuing box office appeal. With a huge number of intellectual properties brought to the big screen, audiences have been deluged with twenty-eight films since 2008 at the time of writing (the next Thor film, Love And Thunder is due for release in a couple of months) as well as numerous spin-off TV shows like Agents Of SHIELD, Luke Cage (which I thought was excellent, by the way) and What If...? Despite this near-constant presence, these twenty-eight films have earned more than $26 billion so far and it appears that our appetite for all things Marvel is far from satisfied just yet. Which makes producing a list like this quite a challenge!
To keep things simple and to prevent me from getting horribly confused, I have kept this list to include only the first three 'phases' of the MCU - any film released after Spider-Man: Far From Home in 2019 won't feature in this article. Neither will any of the TV shows, even if that character then features in said show. Obviously, this article will contain spoilers so if you haven't yet dipped your toes into the MCU, please come back here when you have caught up. Like my list of the coolest characters in Star Wars, each and every character has been subjected to my formula to work out just how cool they are and given a score. Cool aspects will be given a plus while uncool things result in a minus. Characters who just miss out on the top 20 include SHIELD Agent Phil Coulson, Bruce Banner aka Hulk, Vision, Peter Parker aka Spider-Man and The Grandmaster, memorably played by Jeff Goldblum in Thor: Ragnarok. Right, let's get started with...
Number 20: General Thaddeus 'Thunderbolt' Ross
Portrayed by the late William Hurt, Ross first appeared in The Incredible Hulk in 2008 as the man responsible for reviving the Super Soldier project that led to the creation of Captain America. Unfortunately, his next test subject would be Bruce Banner which inadvertently gives him his Hulk alter-ego. Nevertheless, he tries again and this time, it goes even worse as subject Emil Blonsky is transformed into the monstrous Abomination and goes on a rampage. Although he retires from the army, he is still involved in super-hero shenanigans when he proposes the so-called Sokovia Accord after the events of Avengers: Age Of Ultron which divides the super-hero community. Although Ross is generally seen as an antagonist, his character arc is interesting because he isn't really a bad guy - he has no plans for world domination or anything like that. He's just trying his best to serve his country which he sees as his patriotic duty, much like Tony Stark's friend Rhodey who later becomes War Machine. Hurt's performance is surprisingly understated given the character's usual gruff demeanour in the comics and he makes him one of the MCU's more interesting characters, one which we sadly won't see more off since Hurt's passing in early 2022.
Number 19: Wong
Wong, Dr Strange's friend and colleague, has somehow managed to transcend his comic book characterisation of simply being the servant to the Sorcerer Supreme. Benedict Wong's performance in the movies gives him a real personality and charisma that slowly grows upon you, as well as giving the audience a way in to a character and themes that are wildly at odds with the realism the MCU had seen up to that point. Such is Wong's popularity that he continues to pop up in other character's series as well as the MCU has gone on - not only does Wong appear in Shang Chi and the Legend Of The Ten Rings and Spider-Man: No Way Home but he even fights alongside the Avengers in Infinity War and Endgame. In fact, he even becomes the new Sorcerer Supreme after Dr Strange disappears in the Blip. There is just something about Wong - whether it's his unflappable demeanour, his quiet confidence or his sense of humour - that makes him one of the most endearing and cool characters in the MCU.
Number 18: Taneleer Tivan / The Collector
Taneleer Tivan, also known as the Collector, is an intergalactic hoarder of almost every trinket, rarity and specimen in the universe. First introduced in a mid-credits cameo in Thor: The Dark World, Benicio Del Toro's intriguing character has plenty of mystery as well as obvious power and influence. He also has a style quite unlike anyone else seen in the MCU up to that point - the fact that he is the brother of Jeff Goldblum's wildly extravagant and colourful Grandmaster from Thor: Ragnarok should not come as a surprise. But what else makes him cool? Maybe it's the idea that he was considered powerful enough to hide an Infinity Stone from Thanos or that he was originally scripted to hold Stan Lee in his collection for the great man's cameo in Guardians Of The Galaxy. For me, it's the fact that he has Howard The Duck instead which I sincerely hope we'll see more of in the future after his horrific solo movie in 1986. I feel that we haven't seen the last of the Collector just yet as his existence opens up a whole other side of the MCU that hasn't really been explored so far.
Number 17: James 'Bucky' Barnes / The Winter Soldier
Death in comics is rarely permanent unless you are a parent or guardian of a particular hero like, for example, Peter Parker's Uncle Ben. It wasn't until 2005 when Marvel decided to bring back Captain America's long-time ally Bucky Barnes but with a twist, making him an amnesiac agent of death in the employ of Soviet Russia and later HYDRA. Moviegoers didn't have to wait that long as Bucky returned to face down Cap in the second Captain America film The Winter Soldier and thank goodness for that because he's a fantastic character. With a menacing look, shifting loyalties, a redemptive story-line and plenty of ways to kick anyone's ass, Sebastian Stan's rogue cyborg assassin is every inch Captain America's equal but with far more shades of grey than Steve Rogers' goody-two-shoes. Also joining the veteran good guys in the climatic battle of Endgame, the Winter Soldier allows audience members who have suffered immense trauma in their own lives to recognise themselves in Barnes. Rather than being just another baddie switching sides, he could be considered an inspirational character and he has the potential to be far more interesting than his baby-faced buddy Rogers ever could be.
Number 16: Thanos
Certainly not the only purple bad guy in Marvel's canon but definitely the baddest, Thanos is arguably the central character of the entire MCU for the first three phases. His galaxy-spanning plan for mass genocide via the use of the six Infinity Stones forms the crux of the whole saga, uniting characters good and bad to fight on one side or the other. Brilliantly played by Josh Brolin (for the most part anyway), not even the use of CG can disguise his performance. And unlike most bad guys in movies, he actually wins - defeating the good guys and achieving everything he wanted before his retirement and eventual murder at the hands of a vengeful Thor. What I found really interesting was despite his obviously bad intentions, he doesn't see himself as a bad individual. To him, his quest is about restoring balance to the universe by simply halving the number of lifeforms in it and thus preventing overpopulation. His misguided mission is one of surprisingly noble intent although anyone who sees what he does to his adopted daughters Nebula and Gamora would dispel any notion of Thanos being 'noble'. Consumed by his desire, his utter ruthlessness is pursuing his aims make him dangerous and one of the franchise's greatest villains.
Number 15: Gamora
Speaking of Gamora, the green-skinned Guardian of the Galaxy has made an instant impact on the MCU alongside her mischievous cohorts. Zoe Saldana's no-nonsense sword enthusiast is arguably the most competent member of the team, displaying little of the flaws that plague the others while generally displaying high levels of tactical awareness and extreme levels of combat proficiency. She also gives a much-needed female dynamic to the team, something which only improves with the addition of Mantis in the second film. While she might not be the most fun person to hang around with, she's definitely someone you'd want on your side and is also an all-too-rare example of an empowered female character - something which dogged Marvel long before the MCU ever came into existence. It took Marvel eleven years after her debut to give Black Widow her own solo movie despite the clamouring of fans for such a film and even DC managed to beat Marvel to the punch by releasing Wonder Woman. Gamora, however, is part of a team so a solo movie is unlikely but that shouldn't detract from a character atoning for her past crimes and paying the ultimate price to do so.
Number 14: Clint Barton / Hawkeye
Quite often, Marvel don't get it right first time. Such was the case with Jeremy Renner's Clint Barton, also known as the world's greatest archer Hawkeye. Debuting in Thor, Hawkeye was a dull and almost robotic presence - something which wasn't helped when he was forcibly turned into a robotic bad guy by Loki in Avengers Assemble. Thankfully, the character got immeasurably better as time went on. He became more human thanks to the later appearance of his wife and family, giving him a unique dynamic among the Avengers as being a humble working man doing his day job which just happened to be saving the world. His lack of powers means he is more relatable to audiences and easier to cheer for - we all know how a fight between Hulk and whoever is going to pan out but it isn't so easy for Barton, which makes him more exciting as well. His relationship with Natasha Romanov and their shared past is just begging to be explored in a future project (pleeeease, Marvel?) and while his Phase 4 TV series didn't do him justice, it underlined his humanity and reluctance to share the spotlight, a stark contrast to the likes of... well, Tony Stark.
Number 13: Steve Rogers / Captain America
On the face of it, this is a character that simply shouldn't work in this day and age. A weak Brooklyn street kid transformed into a super soldier during the Second World War, frozen in ice, waking up in the modern world and continuing his flag-waving, never-say-die attitude feels rather passé in this era of psychologically challenged heroes and realism. But this version of Cap is much more than a comic book stereotype. The films utilise his comic origins in an ingenious way, acknowledging that the character was little more than patriotic propaganda during the early 1940s before reinventing the role as a man out of time, driven by duty and loyalty to his friends and country. Crucially, he feels much less jingoistic today than he ever has so he now has global appeal as a simple champion of good instead of simply appealing to Republicans. I especially enjoyed The Winter Solider, which sees Cap question his beliefs when SHIELD is torn apart from within by HYRDA and of course, that stunning moment when he becomes so pure of heart that he can wield Thor's hammer Mjolnir. His overwhelming and endless optimism may grate or even make him feel one-dimensional at times but Rogers has been a fine companion during these films, one I hope we haven't seen the last of just yet.
Number 12: Tony Stark / Iron Man
By now, you've probably realised that one thing I like in my characters is a good story or arc that helps them change and develop as time goes on. The first to do this is unquestionably is Tony Stark, wonderfully portrayed by Robert Downey Jr as an acerbic, self-centred billionaire arms dealer who realises the damage his weapons are doing in the world after having a close brush with death. Despite fighting evil as the technological trooper Iron Man, Stark forgoes his anonymity (due to his overwhelming ego) and refuses to hide from his foes - regardless of who may get drawn into the crossfire. By Iron Man 3, we see a different Stark now suffering from PTSD and possibly realising that the threat the Earth faces is far greater than anyone ever dreamed. As a ringleader and flag-bearer for the Avengers, Iron Man is a great character - he has enough gadgets and weapons to survive a fight with almost anyone (who doesn't love his Hulkbuster armour from Age Of Ultron?) but he also reminds us that he is human like us, doing extraordinary things we can only dream of while still retaining a vital sense of humour that can't help but win audiences over.
Number 11: Thor
And speaking of character arcs, here's another. Chris Hemsworth isn't just the extremely attractive physical embodiment of the god of thunder but he also expresses the character beneath, turning what started as an arrogant and cod-Shakespearean piece of nonsense into one of the more entertaining characters in the whole MCU. I will admit that I wasn't that sold on his first two solo films but his appearance in the Avengers franchise and finally his third film Ragnarok completely changed my mind. All of a sudden, Thor had a sense of humour that made him instantly likable as well as his interplay with perpetual foe Loki and his crisis of confidence in Ragnarok which makes him feel more human than Asgardian. We're now at the point where if we see Thor, we know we're in for a good time and if you'd asked me at the MCU's beginnings which character would be the first to reach four solo movies, I wouldn't have thought it would be Thor. The giveaway is truly in Hemsworth's performance - you can tell he's having fun in the role, which speaks volumes.
Number 10: Drax The Destroyer
I've gotta be honest, this is more of a personal pick than any of the others. I love Drax, played by former wrestler Dave Bautista, because of what he isn't. If anyone else made a film featuring the character, he would just be a dumb piece of muscle and nothing more - think of Jeep Swanson's portrayal of Bane in possibly the worst superhero film in history, Batman & Robin. Thankfully, Marvel didn't go down that route and gave him a personality beyond that of "angry big man". His child-like innocence, his inability to grasp metaphors, the sheer delight he takes from simple things. These all make Drax very funny and a key member of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Bautista's performance is also extraordinary, surprising many including myself who weren't expecting much from him. I have never been happier to eat my words when I first watched Guardians Of The Galaxy and roared with laughter throughout. Despite his appearance and fearsome reputation, he's actually something of a softie and like his team-mates, he's great fun to be around.
Number 9: Rocket Raccoon
Speaking of the Guardians, Bradley Cooper's homicidal trash panda has to be one of the most memorable characters in the entire MCU. Together with his accomplice Groot, Rocket is a bizarre but fascinating character that poses many questions. Where did he come from? Who made him, what adventures have him and Groot had before and why exactly is Rocket so proficient with almost any kind of boomstick? I want to know more about Rocket's past, if only so it means we can spend more time with him. Not only is Rocket gifted with incredible marksmanship, piloting skills and a talent of causing chaos but he also has a sick sense of humour (second only to Deadpool, in my opinion), complimenting his fellow Guardians well. Why Disney haven't given us an animated prequel series with these two characters is beyond me although I suspect Rocket's foul language may have something to do with that.
Number 8: T'Challa / Black Panther
It's difficult to overstate just how important Chadwick Boseman's portrayal of the Black Panther is. The first African-American superhero to lead a movie on this scale, Black Panther is a fabulous celebration of Africa and its people and it became wildly successful - the ninth highest-grossing film in history for a while. Part of the reason is certainly due to Boseman's performance as he brings strength, dignity and power to the role of the King of Wakanda drawn from his reclusive kingdom to battle forces that threaten the entire world. Although Stan Lee denied the character had anything to do with the civil rights movement in the US at the time (the character debuted in the comics in 1966), it's hard to mistake the message being given here. Marvel has traditionally had a problem with diversity, especially within the MCU but T'Challa's electric debut and subsequent appearances make him an important, sleek, modern and cool addition to the roster of characters. Boseman's unfortunate passing in 2020 has apparently meant that we have seen the last of the Wakandan king which is a damn shame but at least we were left wanting more.
Number 7: Shuri
Weirdly, though, T'Challa himself wasn't the most enjoyable character from that film. His younger sister Shuri, played by Leticia Wright, is actually even more fun. A brilliant technological mind coupled with a headstrong, no-nonsense attitude makes her one of the few people to talk down to the king, something he grudgingly accepts. Shuri's place on this list isn't just down to her attitude but her fun-loving approach to life. Despite her immense and obvious intellect (she is reputedly the most intelligent character in the entire MCU), she is down-to-earth and likeable and also isn't afraid to get her hands dirty when things start getting rough. Much like Q is to James Bond, Shuri offers audiences a tantalising glimpse of what is to come in the film via her gadgets and inventions and like other characters in Black Panther like Danai Gurira's Okoye, she is an inspiration to black women who have been under-represented in films so far too long. Shuri's appearance was one of the highlights of Black Panther and her reappearance in Infinity War and Endgame means she'll be a fixture for the MCU going forward.
Number 6: Peter Quill / Star Lord
From his unforgettable first appearance dancing to 'Come And Get Your Love' by Redbone, Chris Pratt's hopelessly charismatic space pirate Peter Quill is a wonderful character to base any film around. Whether he's goofing around listening to his Walkman, arguing with his fellow Guardians about what to do next or attempting to engage foes in a simple dance-off, Quill is a bundle of anarchic energy that's impossible to resist. Unlike the other Guardians though, Quill has a human background (to begin with, at least) and relatively little in the way of skills - he has a retractable helmet and rocket boots as well as a couple of lasers but that's it. But more than anything, he is a hero not driven by a sense of morality or the pursuit of justice but the feel of cold, hard cash. Even his relationship with his adoptive father Yondu is conflicted although it becomes genuinely touching at the end of Vol. 2 when Yondu dies. Quill is quirky, interesting and a whole lot of fun - even his taste in music rocks!
Number 5: Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow
Introduced way back in 2010's Iron Man 2, former Russian spy Natasha Romanoff - also known as the Black Widow - is one of the longest serving members of the Avengers and a pivotal character in Infinity War and Endgame. An expert martial artist, she becomes de facto leader of the Avengers following The Blip and leads efforts with the surviving members to undo Thanos' work. Despite all her heroics, Natasha is still plagued with guilt over her actions when she worked as a KGB assassin for many years and she ultimately sacrifices herself to help her friends in their battle against the mad titan. Romanoff has been a constant presence in the MCU by appearing alongside Captain America, Iron Man and the rest of the Avengers before finally getting her own movie which served as an epilogue to Romanoff's Black Widow before introducing Yelena Belova as a new Black Widow, this time being played by Florence Pugh. As good as Pugh is in that role, Scarlet Johansson will always be many people's choice for Black Widow. She brought the right levels of athleticism, sexiness and ability to the role and gave us a heroine that was much more than mere eye candy. Just a shame that there aren't more women being portrayed.
Number 4: Groot
How can something best described as a sentient tree and extremely limited in their vocabulary be this high up the list? It's puzzling but perhaps not hard to argue that Groot, superbly voiced by Vin Diesel, was the breakout star of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Usually passive and happy to go along with the flow, Groot can become a nightmarish foe when the situation demands and is possibly the most dangerous member of the crew. But more than that, Groot is extremely marketable and especially when he reverts to Baby Groot after the first film. His one-sided banter with Rocket is also great fun to watch, even if Groot doesn't bring many ideas to the table. Charming and genuinely funny, Groot is great fun in whatever guise he is in and offers a character that is quite unlike anything else. The only thing I didn't like was the one time he deviated from saying his only line "I am Groot." but frankly, he's far too much fun for me to hold a grudge against.
Number 3: Nick Fury
Because it's Samuel L. Jackson.
Number 2: Loki
Because it's Tom Hiddlestone.
Also, Loki has emerged as one of the MCU's most popular characters and certainly its most popular villain. The Norse god of mischief has been a thorn in the side of do-gooders everywhere since he debuted in 2011's Thor before coming into his own during Avengers Assemble. Not only is Loki memorable and gifted some wonderful dialogue but his cheeky sense of humour and trickster nature make him interesting. Crucially, Loki is not just a one-trick pony and undergoes a redemption himself by ultimately fighting alongside his brother Thor to defeat Hela in an attempt to save Asgard. Hiddlestone's impish performance was pitched perfectly for Loki, making him a volatile and explosive character but one you simply couldn't take your eyes off. In spite of everything, you secretly wanted to root for Loki because he's more interesting and enjoyable than Thor and with his array of powers, more exciting as well.
Number 1: Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch
I've returned to the theme of character arcs several times over this article but none have been as dramatic as that of the Scarlet Witch, Wanda Maximoff. The mutant twin sister of her brother Pietro, the Maximoffs first appear in a mid-credits scene in The Winter Soldier as two prisoners of HYDRA being experimented on before being unleashed as opponents of the Avengers in Age Of Ultron. One of the most powerful characters within the MCU, Wanda ends up switching sides and joining the Avengers following the death of her brother. Her relationship with Vision is one of the few genuine romances shown in the MCU and her reaction to his death in Infinity War is heart-breaking. Again, this role might have felt silly in this era of realistic depictions of these characters (and thank God they updated her look to be far more contemporary than her comic counterpart) but Elizabeth Olson's performance is remarkable, making her feel relatable and human in spite of her character's otherworldly abilities. If you haven't watched the TV series WandaVision, give it a try because it's one of the most moving things Marvel has ever done. If nothing else, her endearing popularity and story arc means she'll be a mainstay for the MCU going forward and shows that all heroes, male or female, can suffer unimaginable torment and still shine through on the other side.
© 2022 Benjamin Cox