It took 4,010 days to get to this point. On May 2nd, 2008, the cinematic world changed with the release of Iron Man, the first in what was intended to be an expanded universe of Marvel properties that, if successful, would imitate its comic origins and share characters, environments, and, most importantly, crossover events in multiple films across many years. It’s bold ambition was buoyed by its unexpected success on a commercial and, more importantly, critical level.
Now, ten years, eleven months and twenty-three days from Iron Man’s release, we have the 22nd film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (hereafter referred to as the MCU) being released, entitled Avengers: Endgame. That previously mentioned success pushed the origin heavy opening Phase, known as Phase One, which introduced a myriad amount of differing characters, from the grounded, tech-based Tony Stark (Iron Man) to the god-like being from another realm known as Thor, into a full-on cultural event with its closing chapter, The Avengers, in 2012, in which all the characters joined up and, somehow, made sense together.
Now that the filmmakers knew they could mix realism and fantasy into a believable package, as well as make a pretty solid buck out of it (The Avengers currently sits as the sixth highest grossing film worldwide of all time) while not getting crushed by critics, they pushed the envelope with audiences and expanded the world in two additional “Phases”. What started as fairly low stakes in a hyper-real tech world in Iron Man became a full grown universe of magic and extra dimensions, culminating in a near eleven-year event called the Infinity Saga.
But what made the more grounded Tony Stark survive the existence of aliens, talking trees, and quantum realms was the slow integration of these elements over years of films as well as a consistent effort by the producers to make these “super” heroes truly human. Unlike many of the Marvel films that came before this integrated, specific MCU, the heroes were always a bit above us. We could see them, but we couldn’t reach out and touch them.
The MCU added heroes with damaged egos, life-changing pride, conflicting familial relations and, most importantly, vulnerability. We, as humans, connect more with those that feel real. Many superheroes before the MCU dealt with their issues in more two-dimensional ways or simply didn’t have to face them at all. Sometimes their very specific difficulties became the basis of their actual superpower and the story was strictly more allegorical than emotional.
The MCU never forgot that we had human beings at the center of this whole saga, not just powerful automatons that were too cool for school. So, in celebration of that human element, I am sharing with you ten personal favorite MCU moments (a definitive list would be impossible). I mostly kept to a few personal rules. I didn’t want to add specific “event” style stuff or particularly well-done action sequences. I feel those big-time moments speak for themselves and add to the entertainment value. However, most do not necessarily address character development.
No, I wanted to emphasize the emotional moments that made us love these characters and kept us coming back despite the occasional one-dimensional villain or predictable third act fight scene. Oh, and my last personal rule was that I couldn’t just make all my favorite moments come from the Ant-Man appearances because, as my 25 Years Later friends will tell you, I am all about Ant-Man. I mean, it is really embarrassing how much I’m into Ant-Man. Like, tattoos of Ant-Man on my body embarrassing. But I digress.
For the following list, I am going in chronological order of film release. I am also giving a warning regarding spoilers, just in case you haven’t seen some of this 22 film behemoth. Lastly, narrowing down nearly eleven years of films into ten moments was damn near impossible!
“I Am Iron Man” (Iron Man, 2008)
We start from the beginning. One thing that really dragged down the drama in both comics and prior comic book/superhero films was the secret identity. It limits a lot of storytelling and, frankly, plagues almost every character’s ability to function logically. At least in terms of superhero films, Tony Stark’s film-ending revelation that he is Iron Man was not only revolutionary and unexpected but is also a mixture of bad-ass mic-dropping, egotistical posturing, and, storywise, a moment that allows the future Iron Man appearances to have its own unique set of drama and suspense: what if everyone in the world knows exactly who, what, and where you are?
My Greatest Creation (Iron Man 2, 2010)
We talked earlier of vulnerability. In each of Iron Man’s solo films, Tony Stark is faced with a very personal problem. In the first film, it is his realization that is legacy is one of destruction and how he earns redemption. In Iron Man 3, it is post-traumatic stress and his sense of self; who is the hero, the man in the suit or the suit itself? But in the maligned Iron Man 2, Tony’s issues are on the mortal side. He is literally dying and trying to come to grips with this fact by denial and/or self-destruction.
At this point in the timeline, Tony had never made peace with his difficult father before his death and assumed he was always a disappointment to him. But there is a moment in Iron Man 2 when Tony sees his father’s true feelings, albeit almost entirely on accident, that sets him on the right path. It is a tear-jerking moment in a movie that tested the patience of many, including myself at times. Yet it remains an all-time favorite character moment for me in the entire saga.
Unworthy (Thor, 2011)
The first Thor is a heavily underrated film. It uses the first twenty minutes to show you where superhero films have gone wrong in a lot of places in the past: that hulking heroes are arrogant and invincible and we shouldn’t be laughing along with them. Our introduction to Thor himself laying waste to ice giants left and right would normally be reserved for a climactic battle at the end of a movie, with plenty of “wow” moments for us to cheer at. Instead, as directed with aplomb by Kenneth Branagh, the film shows how dark and disturbing a being with unlimited power can be when not using any form of intelligence.
By placing a typical climactic battle at the beginning of the film, Thor does a great job of stripping the title character down to the bare essentials for the remaining running time: no superpowers and a humbling fall from grace that must carry him through the day and on towards redemption. It emphasizes my core belief above: we don’t necessarily come to the MCU for the hammer smashing, but for the “human” trials within. Thor’s journey from arrogant lunkhead to noble warrior starts with the literal stripping of his powers in the scene below, where we see the worst of his attributes but also hope for his ability to reclaim them.
Worthy (Captain America: The First Avenger, 2011)
Playing on the continued idea that the MCU heroes are characters first and costumes second, one of the best moments from Captain America: The First Avenger has nothing to do with super soldier Steve Rogers, with his massive pecs and absurd strength. No, it has to do with all heart, skinny-as-hell Steve Rogers and his inner moral code. The first Captain America film was a delightful comic book come to life and it makes the wise choice of showing us who Steve Rogers is on the inside before giving him more obvious powers on the outside. The scene below is a perfect encapsulation of Steve’s willingness to do the right thing, even if it means sacrificing himself. And typing that now makes me fear for Cap’s life in the upcoming Endgame!
Pelvic Sorcery (Guardians of the Galaxy, 2014)
If I told you before 2014 that a film with a walking tree, a wisecracking racoon, various green and blue-skinned ladies, and a man trapped in arrested development who thinks Kevin Bacon is king and music stopped in 1985 would be a sexy movie, you’d probably think I was crazy. But somehow, my god, Guardians of the Galaxy, released in 2014, is a sexy movie. Seriously.
No scene better encapsulates this then when Peter Quill (also knows as Star-Lord) and Gamora share a cultural exchange during a brief moment of quiet during their current mission to Knowhere. Entire papers could be written about Quill himself, who is the living embodiment of a paradox: self-sufficient yet bone-headed, overly emotional but strategic minded and, well, the most obvious, a playa but a hopeless romantic. The same could be said for Gamora, who is fierce and fearless but also sensitive and tentative.
Propelled by electric chemistry between Zoa Saldana, who plays Gamora, and Chris Pratt, who plays Quill, their brief moment together in the scene below shows that yes, a man-child who worships Footloose can nearly kiss a green alien woman and make is undeniably sexy.
“Ant-Man?” (Ant-Man, 2015)
Okay! I snuck in an Ant-Man. And here I will break two rules. The Ant-Man rule but also the action scene rule. I absolutely adore the fight scene between Ant-Man and Falcon. But it goes beyond the absurd nature of a man in goggles and mechanical wings fighting a man who commands ants and can shrink. To me, this moment encapsulates the true crossover nature of comic books and showed me that the MCU truly understands that nature and adapted it.
This particular scrap goes beyond the major event moments like The Avengers and shows that even in tiny pockets, this massive world is connected. This scene is the ultimate comic-book-come-to-life moment for me. When I watch it I feel like I’m reading a faded back issue of an Avengers or Ant-Man comic in my room at age 11. It simply brings me joy.
Teach Me (Doctor Strange, 2016)
I’m not sure if this breaks my action-scene rule but it does follow along the same path of revealing who our characters in the MCU are and who they could become. Doctor Strange is a more philosophical Iron Man film as Dr. Stephen Strange is very much a pre-Iron Man Tony Stark: arrogant, egotistical and perceives himself as infallible. Much like Tony Stark, Strange has a moment of awareness when he realizes the world he inhabits and lords over is actually an extremely tiny speck of sand in an endless universe. His journey of discovery not only humbles him but also might provide the MCU with its trippiest, most insane sequence to date. I call that a win-win.
With Great Power … (Spider-Man: Homecoming, 2017)
The Tony Stark/Peter Parker relationship is one of the best in the MCU. In an unexpected move, Stark becomes the (thankfully) absent Uncle Ben and explains to Peter, without verbalizing it directly, that with great power comes, well, you know the rest. The scene below is both the defining moment for the MCU Spider-Man, in which he must overcome his own vulnerabilities, and also a seminal changing moment for the MCU’s figurehead, Tony Stark. It is a surprising turnabout for Stark and the bonds forged here would lead to one of the most tragic moments in MCU history only a year later in Avengers: Infinity War.
Dad Talk (Spider-Man: Homecoming, 2017)
I warned of spoilers so don’t be mad when I tell you that one of the biggest twists in Spider-Man: Homecoming is that Peter Parker’s crush (and prom date) has The Vulture for a father! And when we discover this as an audience, so does Peter on the night of the prom, so his car ride to the big dance with “dad” is tense for pretty much all the reasons you wouldn’t think of normally.
Defying my distaste for secret identity stories, this one works well as we have the moment when good guy and bad guy realize who they are and set terms with each other. It helps that Michael Keaton, one of the MCU’s best villains, provides an absolutely terrifying performance for his “dad talk” with Peter. We’ve barely had time to register the twist when the MCU lays down one of the most harrowing emotional moments between hero and villain to date.
“Death Is Better Than Bondage” (Black Panther, 2018)
Our last entry here is also, arguably, the best moment in MCU history. I know there is “The Snap” and “Mr. Stark, I don’t feel so good…” or “I could do this all day” and “Puny God” and “I Am Groot” and on and on. But no moment in the MCU, to me, has as much relevance and power as Erik Killmonger’s death scene in the Best Picture nominated Black Panther.
Already the most three-dimensional MCU villain to date, with a sympathetic back story and an understandable, if misguided, attempt at righteousness, Erik Killmonger represents the post-colonized world of damaged Africans separated from their homeland by the great diaspora. In his final breath, even after seeing his wrongs made flesh, KIllmomger sticks to his general morals and reminds King T’Challa of the many men, women, and children of color who suffer from history and need attention today.
This scene never fails to make me cry at its power and righteousness. At the end of a superhero film, we are crying for the death of the villain and rooting for that villain’s influence on the hero. By film’s end, T’Challa seeks the right path to enact Killmonger’s wishes, for the betterment of not only Wakanda, but the world.
So that’s my Top 10! Please let me know what moments stuck out for you and comment below. Thanks for reading.