Superhero movies have been around long enough that audiences are understandably starting to grow bored of a frequently recurring trope within them: the origin story.
There are only so many times one can watch Uncle Ben die, or Thomas and Martha Wayne die, or Punisher’s whole family die (wow a lot of these have to do with death) before it gets old. Thankfully, the Marvel Cinematic Universe understands audiences’ superhero origin fatigue. Of Marvel’s 25 feature films, well over half are sequel or team-up efforts. Still, when introducing a new character to the world, sometimes an origin story is unavoidable.
Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings is just the latest in a long line of MCU origin stories dating all the way back to Iron Man in 2008. How does Shang-Chi compare to its peers? There’s only one way to find out.
That’s right, we’re ranking ‘em.
11. The Incredible Hulk
Though The Incredible Hulk is a decent superhero film, it now sticks out like a sore thumb in the MCU thanks to its recast lead and aging special effects. It’s also not much of an origin film. Coming just five years after Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003), The Incredible Hulk doesn’t spend a lot of time on Bruce Banner and the Hulk’s origins before moving right along into the story it wants to tell. With Thunderbolt Ross and Emil Blonsky popping up increasingly more in the MCU, Marvel is starting to reclaim this film’s legacy but it’s still the studio’s weakest origin story.
10. Captain Marvel
The experience of watching Captain Marvel is actually quite fun! Brie Larson is charming as the supremely overpowered and delightfully cocky lead, all the ‘90s references are a hoot, and Sam Jackson does his Sam Jackson thing. It’s only until after the film is over that one realizes how little sense everything just made. Captain Marvel just doesn’t have a distinctive script and that holds it back as a movie. As an origin story, however, it’s still decent. One gets the sense though that Carol Danvers’ real introduction to the MCU will be in the epic 2022 sequel The Marvels.
Look, with Paul Rudd all things are possible. Ant-Man is a perfectly fine entry into the MCU. The action is whimsical and creative. The characters are well-written. And the ants? Oh, they be antin’. As an origin story, however, Ant-Man just struggles under the weight as serving as an origin for both Scott Lang and Hank Pym. It’s a lot of information to download at once leading to a middle tier Marvel origin story.
MCU origin stories don’t get much more straight-forward than this one. Our 2011 introduction to Thor Odinson is a paint-by-numbers fish out of water saga. It’s wonderful to meet the God of Thunder and the God of Abs who plays him, but there’s not much else to set this film apart. This is a good origin story wrapped around an average movie.
7. Doctor Strange
This is a tricky one. The “origin story” portion of Doctor Strange is undoubtedly the worst part of the film. Stephen Strange’s beginnings are rather boring and glossed over quickly. The rest of the film is just so damn cool that it deserves middle-of-the-pack status on this list. In a little over two hours, Doctor Strange believably goes from normal jerk to sorcerer supreme jerk. Maybe that’s a lesson that less origin is better.
6. Spider-Man: Homecoming
The next two entries are also tricky. Who’s to say that Spider-Man: Homecoming is an origin story? We’ve seen basically a half-dozen onscreen Spider-Man origin stories at this point and the MCU’s Peter Parker’s introduction occurs earlier in Captain America: Civil War. But if we accept that the first headlining appearance from any MCU character is a de facto origin story, then this is a great one. This is the only MCU Spider-Man film yet that believably establishes Pete as your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. The characterization is great as is Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes. It all amounts to a pretty superb MCU outing.
5. Black Panther
This is another instance where it’s hard to call a film a true origin story. Like Peter Parker, T’Challa also received his introduction in Captain America: Civil War. As such, this film gets into the action pretty quickly. While Black Panther isn’t our first introduction to its title character, however, it is our introduction to Wakanda and so many other important MCU characters: Shuri, Nakia, Okoye, M’Baku, and more. That doesn’t make it an an origin story strictly speaking, but it is pretty great.
4. Captain America: The First Avenger
Now THIS is a great origin story. Iron Man was a wonderful beginning to the entity that would one day become the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But if Marvel storytelling was to survive onscreen long-term, it quite simply had to nail its Captain America. Thanks to Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger it does so in spades. Chris Evans is perfect as Steve Rogers in this origin tale that takes things all the way back to World War II. This is a perfect introduction to a character that would serve as the beating heart of the MCU for the next three phases.
3. Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings
Call this recency bias if you must. But we really think Shang-Chi is the third best Marvel origin story ever. For starters, this is just an exciting film through and through with remarkable performances from Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Tony Leung, and more. What we can’t lose sight of, however, is the relatively high degree of difficulty the movie is facing. This is the 25th MCU film…and it’s another origin story. That shouldn’t work this late in the game. The fact that it does is a small miracle and a testament to just how well-made Shang-Chi is. The movie concludes with an absolute fever pitch of excitement that makes the audience crave more Simu Liu ASAP.
2. Guardians of the Galaxy
We debated leaving this one off the list as it’s hard to call a film with five lead characters a simple origin story. Shockingly though, that’s just what Guardians of the Galaxy is! James Gunn’s wonderful 2014 film somehow gives Peter Quill, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, Rocket Raccoon, and Groot all equal billing. It serves each character equally, fairly, and sets them up as crucial cogs in the big MCU machine. And then it also has the audacity to be one of the most purely enjoyable and entertaining Marvel films ever. Origin stories can’t get much better than this.
1. Iron Man
As far as origin movies in the MCU go, it’s going to be hard to top the origin of the MCU itself. Better Marvel movies have come around over the years, but Iron Man will always have a special status as the first. It certainly helps that the movie is just flat out awesome. Even all this time later, it’s remarkable to watch Robert Downey Jr. develop a multi-billion dollar global film franchise through sheer charm and talent alone. Bless Tony Stark. Bless Iron Man.