Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
This is one superhero movies that’s endeared me more and more as it’s aged, probably because superhero movies have gotten cynical to the point of Batman v. Superman…and, to a different degree, Civil War. Despite its bittersweet payoff—a subversion of cliche that’s partly what sells the movie for me—, it offers a heaping of optimism as it gets us to root for the underdog Steve Rogers. While the action scenes are often chaotic and cartoony (plus, the way that musical number exploits its dancers makes for one of the most lurid scenes in any Marvel movie), the period production design is stunningly filmed. Above all, it’s the sincerity of its cast of characters that makes the story quite involving.
The Avengers (2012)
The Avengers‘s biggest drawback is that you have to watch the first Thor, which was ironically my favorite Marvel movie at the time, in order for it to make sense (on the other hand, the wonderful first Captain America [ironically my least favorite Marvel movie at the time] is the other most essential precursor). The novelty of seeing these pre-established heroes teaming up may have worn off by now, but this first Avengers still feels as special as watching Jaws, Star Wars, or Jurassic Park: the sheer entertainment value stands the test of time. It’s not just one of the best superhero movies ever made, it’s one of the best popcorn movies ever made.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
I remember thinking after I saw the first teaser for this movie, “What the heck did I just watch?” Now I know: the real new Star Wars. Of course, it could only be called Star Wars if Star Wars‘s main cast consisted of even more vulgar versions of Han Solo and the Empire were a mere terrorist sect, and its unqualified heroes’ ultimate promotion puts it more in common with J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek. Despite the antihero angle, the chemistry of the cast, two of whom are a tree and a raccoon, and the protagonists’ eventual willingness to put their lives on the line for the greater good give charm and resonance to the vulgarity and weirdness.
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
The inherent flaw with Marvel movies, that not many of them make sense unless you watch several films—both decent and mediocre—beforehand, actually works to Civil War‘s advantage. While the Avengers turning against each other would have made a more interesting Avengers 2 than Age of Ultron did, it would have been quite contrived if the fallout of Age of Ultron weren’t partly the basis for the plot. For once, said plot, crafted with surprising focus for what it is, all comes down to the characters, not another averted apocalypse; we already care for the characters, and their brilliant showdowns range from rollicking to heartbreaking.