Every Pre-MCU Marvel Movie Ranked

There's no disputing that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the biggest blockbuster franchises in film history. However, there are some Marvel films that predate the MCU that deserve the same praise. While there are some misfires — look, Marvel had to start somewhere, right? — most of the Marvel films that came out before 2008's "Iron Man" deserve a second look, not only to appreciate how far Marvel has come, but also to remember that, at one point, the X-Men were the superhero team to beat at the box office, not the Avengers. 

Some of the characters that were featured in Marvel movies pre-MCU are destined to return in the near future. We've already heard news about the Fantastic Four and Blade, and the X-Men are rumored to be coming soon. It'll be exciting to see what Marvel Studios has in store for these characters, but it's also important to remember how these characters made their live-action debuts. 

So, on that note, here is a list of all of the pre-MCU Marvel films that received theatrical releases, ranked from worst to best. 

17. Howard the Duck

"Howard the Duck" was the first live-action adaptation of a Marvel property. It was also the company's first box-office bomb. Released in 1986, Marvel teamed with George Lucas to bring the character of Howard the Duck to life using a team of puppeteers. Lea Thompson, Tim Robbins, and Jeffrey Jones rounded out the human cast. Critics skewered "Howard the Duck" for its poor special effects, boring story, lackluster acting, and, well, pretty much everything else about it.

This film was probably way ahead of its time, with most of the comic books' surrealism lost in translation. Howard the Duck has since made a couple of appearances in the MCU, primarily throughout the "Guardians of the Galaxy" franchise, much to fans' delight. For her part, Lea Thompson has already pitched Marvel a sequel, so who knows? Maybe Marvel will take another chance on the ill-tempered waterfowl in the not-too-distant future.

16. Ghost Rider

Ghost Rider has had a tough time on the silver screen. While this 2007 film was saddled with harsh CGI effects and shaky writing, it performed well enough to generate a sequel film in 2012, "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance," which received even worse reviews than the original. Although the movie has a decent cast that includes Nicholas Cage (who plays Johnny Blaze), Eva Mendez, Sam Elliott, and Peter Fonda, the film is ultimately more style than substance. 

At least the film stayed true to the source material, following Blaze's deal with the devil that led to him becoming a vessel for the Spirit of Vengeance. Still, fans of Ghost Rider may be better off just watching season four of "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," which featured Gabriel Luna as the Robbie Reyes version of the vigilante. Just don't wait for the Luna-led spinoff on Hulu — according to reports, that project is dead and gone.

15. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

While the original "Fantastic Four" took a wholesome approach to Marvel's first family, its 2007 sequel left a lot to be desired. "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer" ramps up the cheesiness from the first movie — which was already pretty cheesy — has a plot that didn't really go anywhere, and fails to deliver a decent portrayal of Galactus, one of Marvel's all-time best villains.

The original "Fantastic Four" cast — Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Chiklis, and Kerry Washington — are joined by famous motion-capture actor Doug Jones and Lawrence Fishburne, who provided the Surfer's body and voice, respectively. Still, even with this star-studded cast, "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer" performed so poorly at the box office that it ultimately ended the franchise. It was also the last Marvel movie released before the MCU officially began in 2008 with "Iron Man." 

14. X-Men: The Last Stand

Following the critical and box office success of "X2: X-Men United," it's understandable that Fox felt like it needed to ramp things up for the trilogy's final entry, "X-Men: The Last Stand." However, bigger isn't always better. An already full roster was joined by numerous new characters who had little more to do than fade into the background. Although casting Elliot Page and Kelsey Grammar as Kitty Pryde and Beast, respectively, was inspired, neither character was more than a one-dimensional addition to the team. 

The film's failed attempt to adapt "The Dark Phoenix Saga," widely regarded as one of Marvel's best stories, left a bad taste in fans' mouths. What should have been a story about Jean Grey fighting for both her life and her soul spiraled into a tale of mental illness that turned Jean into a cold-blooded killer. That the film's climax is an apocalyptic mess of CGI doesn't help, either. Here's hoping that the MCU can do justice to Jean and the Phoenix's story, some day. 

13. Spider-Man 3

By the time that the original "Spider-Man" franchise reached its third entry, all the magic of the previous two sequels dissipated. The storyline, which was based on the "Alien Costume Saga," was all over the place. The influx of new characters, including Thomas Haden Church's Sandman, Topher Grace's Venom, and Bryce Dallas Howard's Gwen Stacy, overloaded the film's cast. There were simply too many people, and too little time to fully explore each of them.

The film ambitiously tried to cram Venom's origin, Harry Osborn's transformation into the New Goblin, a heel turn for Peter Parker, and the retconning of Uncle Ben's death so that Sandman was involved into a single movie. It's too much, and just makes the entire film a long, convoluted mess. Though Sam Raimi's Spider-Man series remains a favorite among Marvel fans, "Spider-Man 3" will always be the low point of an otherwise perfect trilogy. 

12. The Punisher

Up until the 2004 release of "The Punisher," most comic book films were rated PG-13 in order to appeal to the widest range of people at the box office. However, "The Punisher" was rated R. Many members of the audience didn't know how to take that. Since "The Punisher" was still a comic book adaptation, people typically assumed it was safe to take their kids to see it. Ultimately this R rating, while very much justified, led to limited success at the box office. 

"The Punisher" is an exercise in brutality, following the comics' "Welcome Home, Frank" storyline, which depicts the deaths of the character's entire family at a tropical reunion getaway. Thomas Jane did a fine job capturing Frank Castle's tortured soul, and John Travolta is decent as the gangster Howard Saint — although too much of the movie focuses on Travolta, at Jane's expense — but it isn't enough to get the audience emotionally involved. Netflix's take on the character did a better job of fleshing out the Punisher, even though it didn't go over well with every critic, either

11. Hulk

While any film that includes the Hulk can be expected to rely on CGI, 2003's "Hulk" (thankfully) used it sparingly. Instead, the movie opts for a more intimate story that focuses on the multitudes that Bruce Banner contains, not just a big green guy. Told through the lens of famed director Ang Lee, "Hulk" features Eric Bana in the title role, along with Jennifer Connelly as Betty Ross and Nick Nolte as Bruce's father, Brian Banner. 

The star-studded cast delivered in almost every scene, with Bana and Connelly sharing genuine chemistry, and Nolte serving as the ultimate personification of daddy issues. The film performed well at the box office — although not anything close to the MCU's standard take — and Lee's split-screen editing, designed to evoke comic book panels, is innovative if nothing else. However, the downfall of "Hulk" is that it takes a small-scale approach to a larger than life character. 

10. Elektra

Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck's onscreen chemistry in 2003's "Daredevil" was so mesmerizing that the studio decided to give Garner her own spinoff in the form of 2005's standalone film, "Elektra." While "Daredevil" wasn't exactly praised by Marvel fans, it did well enough financially that Fox decided that there were more stories to tell about the two characters. 

"Elektra" is a visual masterpiece in a lot of ways — the cinematography, lighting, and wardrobe are all on point. However, the biggest problem with "Elektra" is the writing and the overall plot. Yes, we get to see some of Elektra's backstory, but the majority of it, including her previous interactions with Affleck's Matt Murdock, were cut from the theatrical release. Garner did her best with what she was given, but ultimately moviegoers weren't interested in seeing more of Elektra, or, for that matter, of Daredevil, following this film. 

9. Daredevil

Following the success of 20th Century Fox's "X-Men" in 2000, the studio began looking for other Marvel characters they could include in their burgeoning superhero universe. While the first "X-Men" film was a large-scale project, "Daredevil" was meant to be a bit more grounded. Rooted in tragedy and featuring superheroes without powerful mutant abilities, "Daredevil" was released in 2003, and while it performed fairly well it received mixed reactions from audiences and critics (admittedly, the director's cut has been much better received). 

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong with this one. The film's stellar casting included Ben Affleck in the title role, Jennifer Garner as Elektra, Michael Clarke Duncan as Kingpin, Colin Farrell as Bullseye, and future MCU director Jon Favreau as Foggy Nelson. The film adapted various classic comic storylines by Frank Miller, but ultimately failed at bringing Matt Murdock's depth to the big screen. 

8. Blade: Trinity

In 2004's "Blade: Trinity," Wesley Snipes returns as Marvel's vampire hunter and brings along some friends. This time, he's joined by a group of human vampire hunters called the Nightstalkers, a group that includes Ryan Reynolds as Hannibal King and Jessica Biel as Abigail Whistler, the daughter of Kris Kristofferson's character in the previous two "Blade" movies. Dominic Purcell, Parker Posey, and Natasha Lyonne also star in this action-packed conclusion to the "Blade" trilogy. 

While the film received mixed reviews (and in spite of some odd production issues), "Blade: Trinity" performed well and went on to become a cult favorite. With a solid storyline that continued to build out Blade's world, impressive fight sequences, and a new take on Dracula, "Blade: Trinity" is one of the finest final films in a pre-MCU Marvel trilogy — although, with competition like "X-Men: The Last Stand" and "Spider-Man 3," that's not saying too much. 

7. Spider-Man 2

Widely regarded as not only one of the best comic book movie sequels, but also one of the finest superhero films ever made, 2004's "Spider-Man 2" saw Tobey Maguire and the rest of the "Spider-Man" cast reprise their roles under the direction of returning Sam Raimi. Even Willem Dafoe, whose Norman Osborne died in the first movie, finds a way to make an appearance.

What makes this sequel stand out is that not only does it have some of the most awe-inspiring action scenes of any Marvel movie, but it also provides considerable character development for almost every single character in the main cast. Peter's strenuous relationships with both Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) and Harry Osborn (James Franco) are explored in much more depth this time around. There's even a fleshed-out backstory for Alfred Molina's Doctor Octopus, a fan-favorite character who is slated to reappear in the upcoming MCU film "Spider-Man: No Way Home." 

6. Blade II

Following the success of 1998's "Blade," "Blade II" was released in 2002, turning a pre-MCU one-off into a fully-fledged superhero franchise. Through the lens of master director Guillermo del Toro, this sequel finds Blade being forced to work with an elite vampire death squad called the Bloodpack to stop a new strain of uber-vamps. Future "The Walking Dead" star Norman Reedus and Ron Perlman co-star with Snipes, who returns as the titular Daywalker.

This sequel succeeds where many others on this list fail. It progresses the main character's story, it shines a light on Blade's human collaborators, and it explores the inner workings of a vampire cluster. The special effects are 10 times better this time around as well, especially when the vampires who feed on their own kind transform into even more terrifying versions of themselves. Then again, with del Toro at the helm, do you really expect anything less?

5. Fantastic Four

While the film certainly has cheesy moments, 2005's "Fantastic Four" was the first legitimate live-action adaptation of Marvel's First Family (the less said about Roger Corman's never released take, the better). With inspired casting like a pre-Captain America Chris Evans as Johnny Storm and Michael Chiklis as Ben Grimm, the actors certainly looked the parts, and the film itself is an acceptable adaptation of one of Marvel's most famous origin stories. 

The film has a fun, laid back vibe, with a storyline that's fairly faithful to the source material, although it does deviate in showing how Dr. Doom originally met — and became a rival to — the team. Plus, "Fantastic Four" gets bonus points for trying to diversify the cast by having Jessica Alba (a Latina actress) and Kerry Washington (who is African American) play Sue Storm and Alicia Masters, respectively; both characters are traditionally portrayed as Caucasian in the comics. 

4. X-Men

Before the Avengers made box office history, Marvel's band of merry mutants took the multiplex by storm. "X-Men," the first live-action adaptation of the popular Marvel franchise, was released in 2000, and became one of the most successful comic book films in history. It was a well-orchestrated introduction into the world of the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, with standout performances by Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Anna Paquin, and Hugh Jackman, who first appears in what's still his signature role.

Storylines that mirror the real-life oppression of specific groups help propel this film to the top tier of this list. The only negative things about "X-Men" are that the plot is a bit of a slow burn, some of the dialogue is cringeworthy, and both Halle Berry and Famke Janssen as Storm and Jean Grey, respectively, are poorly utilized — although those two characters would get more time to shine in the sequel, "X2." 

3. Blade

After Christopher Reeve's bright and optimistic "Superman" movies of the '80s and the darkly gothic (and increasingly ridiculous) "Batman" films of the '90s, audiences were ready for a different, more mature, type of superhero flick. In 1998, New Line took a chance on a little-known comic book character called Blade, launching the first successful live-action Marvel adaptation. Complete with an R rating for action, horror, and violence, "Blade" wasn't your parents' superhero movie. 

Wesley Snipes lights up the screen as a dark-humored human-vampire hybrid who hunts his own kind. Kris Kristofferson stars as Blade's mentor Whistler, and Stephen Dorff plays Deacon Frost, the leader of a modern-day vampire uprising. Darkly atmospheric and boasting an excellent soundtrack, "Blade" still has some of the best action scenes in modern superhero cinema, and highlights the inner turmoil Blade faces as he tries to find his place in the world. 

2. Spider-Man

Following the success of the first two "Blade" films, Sony decided to bring another live-action Marvel icon to life in the form of "Spider-Man." The iconic comic book character had recently experienced newfound popularity thanks to the self-titled hit Saturday morning cartoon that ran from 1994-1999 on Fox and the introduction of "Ultimate Spider-Man," a fresh take on Spider-Man's early days, in comic shops. Marvel and Sony brought Peter Parker and company to the big screen with the help of genre director Sam Raimi. The results speak for themselves.

Raimi struck gold by casting Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker, Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson, James Franco as Harry Osborn, and Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn, aka the Green Goblin. The film serves as a wonderful introduction into the world of the web-slinging hero, with top-notch writing that doesn't talk down to its audience. "Spider-Man" became one of the earliest superhero blockbusters and remains a fan favorite to this day; it's still the standard against which all other solo superhero movies are judged. 

1. X2: X-Men United

One of the most riveting comic book films ever made, "X2: X-Men United" is the pre-MCU film that feels the most like it could take place in the MCU. The sequel to the original film from 2000, "X2" ups the stakes on every level. More characters that receive an almost even distribution of screen time, a storyline that brings together mutants both good and evil to fight against a common threat, and, of course, great action sequences. 

There's a little bit of everything in this film. We get some Wolverine backstory, we get the coming out as a mutant story, there's a Phoenix Saga tease (which was very exciting before we saw how that turned out), and we finally see Storm, and Jean presented as the heroes they were born to be. With huge battles, high stakes, lots of character development, and even a little bit of fanservice, "X2" is the best pre-MCU Marvel film.