Marvel second installments ranked — including ‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’

Right: Benedict Cumberbatch. Left, clockwise from top left: Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson, "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2," Zendaya and Tom Holland, Mickey Rourke and a bird.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Stephen Strange may have five Marvel Cinematic Universe credits to his name, but, remarkably, he’s only just now getting an official follow-up to his 2016 debut film, "Doctor Strange." That’s part of the charm of the sprawling MCU. But there’s also a fine art to making a direct sequel within those interconnected franchise parameters. So in honor of the long-awaited debut of "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness," we decided to look back on how Marvel second installments have fared over the years. 

While picking the top and bottom spots for this list was easy enough, the other films were a bit harder to rank. Marvel’s direct sequels tend to be characterized by a mix of impressive ambition and messy execution — in some ways better than the original films they followed and in other ways lesser. ("Multiverse of Madness" is no exception.) In fact, there’s maybe an argument to be made that a lot of these series don’t really find their groove until their more subversive, self-referential third installments, like "Iron Man 3," "Thor: Ragnarok" and "Spider-Man: No Way Home," but we’d need a whole other list to work that out. 

For now, we’re just sticking with second installments — the "number twos" of their respective. series. And after much deliberation, we settled on some undeniable winners and losers, as well as what we suspect are going to be a few controversial placements. 

1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier


Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson. 

Still one of the best movies Marvel has ever delivered, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" succeeds by taking the themes of the first film and expanding them in a whole new direction. Like Doctor Strange, Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers experienced some game-changing MCU adventures between his first and second standlone films (like saving New York City in "The Avengers"). And "Winter Solider" builds on that while bringing the stakes back to a small-scale human level. Indeed, a big part of what makes "Winter Solider" so effective is that it’s first and foremost a character drama, as Steve must figure out who he can actually trust in a modern world where concepts of "good" and "bad" no longer feel as black and white as they did back in World War II. Add in stellar supporting roles for Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson, some of the best staged action in the entire MCU and an intriguing core of melancholy, and "Winter Solider" is the epitome of a sequel that tops its predecessor.

OUR TAKE: Better than the first film

Rated PG-13. 136 minutes. Dir: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. Featuring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson, Emily VanCamp, Frank Grillo.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2


"Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2"

Unlike most of the other films on this list, "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" really does function as a direct sequel without any other franchise interludes for its characters in between. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t feature some offscreen changes for the MCU's lovable a-holes. Enter Baby Groot! The impossibly adorably, easily confusable sapling is enough to vault this film towards a top spot on our list, and the way the Guardians work together to parent him is one of the film's sweetest, funniest throughlines. In truth, the rest of "Vol. 2" is a bit of an uneven watch — Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) reuniting with his long-lost dad (Kurt Russell) feels like fairly rote fodder for a superhero sequel, for instance. But we’re also ranking this one so high because of how movingly it parallels the stories of Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper), two ornery loners who've learned to push people away rather than risk getting hurt. "Avengers: Endgame" may get credit as Marvel's biggest tearjerker, but for our money, nothing gets us choked up like the ending of "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2."

OUR TAKE: Good, but not quite as tight as the first film

Rated PG-13. 137 minutes. Dir: James Gunn. Featuring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Kurt Russell, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Sean Gunn.

3. Thor: The Dark World


Natalie Portman, Chris Hemsworth

We know, we know. Most MCU rankings would have "Thor: The Dark World" near the bottom of the list, if not in the very bottom slot. But we think this movie has developed a rather unfair reputation over the years. "Thor: The Dark World" is actually a fun, funny, delightfully weird addition to the MCU — one that revamps Tom Hiddleston’s Loki into the lovable rogue we know him as today. Yes Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster is underserved and Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith the Dark Elf is a forgettable villain. But the movie’s portal-hopping climax is one of the most visually unique third act battles in the entire MCU (with a great public transportation joke to boot). And there’s something really satisfying about the way "Dark World" blends its enjoyably offbeat sense of humor with a genuinely moving story about two very different brothers working together avenge their mother. (Again, so much of Loki’s most compelling characterization comes directly from this movie.) "Thor: Ragnarok" earned praise for comedically skewering the "Thor" franchise, but we think the earnestness of "Dark World" (and the first "Thor" movie, frankly) deserves a second look.

OUR TAKE: Better —and weirder — than the first film

Rated PG-13. 112 minutes. Dir: Alan Taylor. Featuring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Idris Elba, Christopher Eccleston, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgård.

4. Ant-Man and the Wasp


"Ant-Man and the Wasp"

Though Peyton Reed directed both "Ant-Man" films (and will also helm the upcoming "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania"), he largely inherited the vision of the first film from director Edgar Wright, who left the project at the last minute due to creative differences. So "Ant-Man and the Wasp" is where Reed really got to put his own stamp on the franchise from the ground-up. And the big win here is the much more substantial role he gives to Evangeline Lilly’s Hope van Dyne, who’s elevated from nagging sidekick to cool, funny superhero in her own right. "Ant-Man and the Wasp" also leans into a warmhearted, family-focused tone that fits this small-scale comedic corner of the MCU really well. The trouble is its story is pretty scattered and unfocused, which leaves the film as a fun but ultimately pretty inconsequential romp. Still, that’s as much a feature as it is, well, a bug. 

OUR TAKE: Sweeter but less focused than the first film

Rated PG-13. 118 minutes. Dir: Peyton Reed. Featuring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Laurence Fishburne, Hannah John-Kamen, Michael Peña, Abby Ryder Fortson, Randall Park.

5. Spider-Man: Far From Home


Zendaya, Tom Holland.

This is another potentially controversial ranking, as the "Spider-Man" films tend to be among the more beloved entries in the MCU. But like its predecessor "Spider-Man: Homecoming," "Far From Home" suffers from focus issues. On the other hand, it wants to be a charming John Hughes-inspired story about a teenage superhero. And, on the other, it wants to make Spider-Man the next Iron Man. Case in point: This European school trip romp somehow winds up centering on the question of how Peter Parker (Tom Holland) should handle the responsibility of a massive army of hi-tech killer drones — which hardly feels like a story fitting of a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Look, there’s a lot about this movie that works. Holland and Zendaya are utterly charming together, and Jake Gyllenhaal makes for a top-tier MCU villain. But we’re just not convinced that Spider-Man’s story works best when it’s so obsessed with the legacy of Iron Man, nor when it keeps inexplicably trying to make Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan a major supporting player in Peter’s life. (Justice for Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May!) 

OUR TAKE: Not as good as the first film 

Rated PG-13. 129 minutes. Dir: Jon Watts. Featuring: Tom Holland, Zendaya, Jake Gyllenhaal, Samuel L. Jackson, Jacob Batalon, Cobie Smulders, Jon Favreau, Marisa Tomei, Martin Starr, J. B. Smoove.

6. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness


Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff in Marvel Studios' DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2022. All Rights Reserved.

Like so many sequels on this list, "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness'" has no shortage of high points, especially when director Sam Raimi is allowed to fully unleash his horror-comedy instincts. But it's also messy and overstuffed; too concerned with setting up and paying off bigger MCU connections to fully function as a satisfying story in its own right. As we wrote in our review, "For those who crave style above all else in their superhero movies, that will likely be enough to make "Multiverse of Madness" an enjoyable romp, especially once Raimi goes all-out in the film’s gonzo third act (expect haunted houses, possessed witches and the director’s signature point-of-view camerawork). But for those who value things like plot, character arcs or even basic themes, however, "Multiverse of Madness" is more like a mountain of missed opportunity."

OUR TAKE: More inventive but less cohesive than the first film

Rated PG-13. 126 minutes. Dir: Sam Raimi. Featuring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Benedict Wong, Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Xochitl Gomez, Michael Stuhlbarg.

7. Avengers: Age of Ultron


Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth.

There’s no denying there’s some good stuff in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." The party scene is fun, the introduction of Paul Bettany’s Vision is perfect and James Spader is a blast as an egomaniacal robot. But the rest of the film is such a complete mess that those high points just can’t keep it afloat. Where to start? How about that thoroughly terrible Black Widow/Hulk romance. Or the movie’s complete lack of thematic follow through to its own story. (Tony Stark atones for building an all-power sentient robot by... building another all-powerful sentient robot?) Or the way MCU franchise obligations keep threatening to pull the entire story apart at the seams? (Remember Thor’s random cave bath vision sequence?) Particularly in comparison to the lean perfection of the first "Avengers" movie, "Age of Ultron" is a frustratingly bloated follow-up that's bigger but certainly not better. 

OUR TAKE: Significantly worse than the first film

Rated PG-13. 141 minutes. Dir: Joss Whedon. Featuring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Paul Bettany, Don Cheadle, Cobie Smulders, Samuel L. Jackson.

8. Iron Man 2


Mickey Rourke

It’s easy to forget just how rough the early days of the MCU had it, after the sky-high heights of "Iron Man" were followed up by the forgettable adventures of "The Incredible Hulk" and this disappointing sequel for Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). "Iron Man 2" tries to amplify what made the first film such a hit, but just winds up feeling like a half measure instead. Despite some committed performances, villains Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) and Whiplash (Mickey Rourke) never really click. The subplot about Tony’s palladium poisoning doesn’t build to anything interesting. And the overly sexualized debut for Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is just flat out embarrassing. Though "Iron Man 2" is arguably less messy than "Avengers: Age of Ultron," it’s bigger sin is being boring, rather than bad; filling for time as Marvel figures out how to actually build a cinematic universe. Still, credit where credit is due: "Iron Man 2" delivers the best take on Tony and Pepper Potts as a screwball comedy couple, so at least it has that going for it. 

OUR TAKE: Significantly worse than the first film 

Rated PG-13. 125 minutes. Dir: Jon Favreau. Featuring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Samuel L. Jackson.

About the writer: Caroline Siede is a film and TV critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, she spent four years lovingly analyzing the romantic comedy genre one film at a time in her column When Romance Met Comedy for The A.V. Club. She also co-hosts the movie podcast, Role Calling, and shares her pop culture opinions on Twitter (@carolinesiede).

More superheroes, streaming free on Tubi


Ryan Reynolds in "Green Lantern." Screenshot: YouTube.

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Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017): It turns out there’s more to Wonder Woman’s (real world) origin story than we knew. This thoughtful, sexy biographical drama looks at the psychologist and comic book writer who first created the Wonder Woman character, and the two women who helped him do it. Rated R. 108 minutes. Dir: Angela Robinson. Featuring: Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Connie Britton, Oliver Platt.

The Toxic Avenger (1984): This cult classic from the genre titans at Troma Entertainment follows a mild-mannered janitor ("98 lbs. of solid nerd") who becomes his city’s superpowered defender after he falls into a vat of toxic waste. Rated R. 82 minutes. Dir: Michael Herz and Lloyd Kaufman. Featuring: Andree Maranda, Mitch Cohen, Jennifer Babtist, Cindy Manion, Robert Prichard.

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