This story was originally published in 2017 and has been updated ahead of the release of Captain Marvel.
Comedy is the element that once set Marvel comic books apart from its competitors, and over the last decade, it’s set Marvel movies apart as well. Marvel movies are funny. It’s part of what you’re being promised when you buy a ticket. In some Marvel movies, the comedy is an added bonus, like a sweet treat at the end of a hearty meal of big human muscles punching big CGI muscles; others feature some of the funniest scenes in the last ten years.
With Captain Marvel opening in theaters this weekend, Vulture decided to look back and pick and rank the five funniest Marvel films thus far. We break down how comedy was used differently — or more effectively — in each of the movies: Some introduced a totally new tone, some showcased a new way to build relationships between the film’s leads, and others just had more jokes — and those jokes were better than those we’ve come to expect from comic-book films. We limited the list to five (fine, essentially six) because, though each of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies have a semblance of comedy, most just offer a glimpse — or essentially duplicate — the wit of the films we unpack below.
Here are the the top-five funniest Marvel films in America, Milky Way Galaxy, and the rest of the Seven Realms.
Honorable Mention: Iron Man 2
In retrospect, it’s funny how funny people thought the first Iron Man was. Save for the scene when Tony Stark blows up, and the scene where Jarvis keeps spraying him with a fire extinguisher, it’s mostly fairly straightforward. What it did have, though, was Robert Downey Jr. giving a much looser performance than we’d come to expect from a superhero. RDJ’s Iron Man, unplagued by the self-doubt of, say, Spider-Man or Wolverine, or a Nolanian gray backdrop, had the energy of a guy always entering a party in his honor. It was a revelation.
In comparison, however (and though it’s a worse movie), Iron Man 2 is way funnier. In Iron Man, director Jon Favreau showed us the tiger; in Iron Man 2, he let him out of the cage. And by tiger, I mean something just as dangerous: improvised comedy. Arguably, the Second City–trained Favreau’s biggest contribution to the MCU was showing the Marvel higher-ups that their superhero movies could include a ton of improv and it wouldn’t get in the way of the BOOMS! BLAMS! and POWS! There are clearly scenes in Iron Man 2 where Favreau just let RDJ go and filmed whatever happened. And there are scenes like this one, where it’s clear at times that RDJ is riffing over an existing script:
Notice the crosstalk. It’s why Vulture comics expert Abraham Riesman jokes in conversation that Iron Man 2 sometimes feels like a mumblecore movie. I love that little touch of RDJ walking to hit the bell, which seems like something that was decidedly spontaneously. At its core, that’s what was so exciting about these two Iron Man movies: You had a star at the center who felt more present than we’d come to expect in the genre. There’s almost a Bill Murray quality to RDJ’s Tony Stark; he’s able to walk the line of being both in character but a little outside of it. It’s why he’s the MCU actor that would be the hardest to replace.
5. Avengers: Age of Ultron
Another case where the sequel is worse, but the comedy is better — or, at minimum, more bountiful. This is largely because the titular Avengers all know each other now, and know how to push each other buttons (learning a bit from what worked so well in Guardians of the Galaxy). It’s all very cute, because they’re giants acting like babies. And it gets at what is, arguably, the most consistent, repeatable source of comedy in the MCU: the egos of super men bouncing against each other. [Leans back in a therapist chair and pushes glasses up nose.] Here’s the thing about so-called “super” heroes: Yes, they save the day, but why? Of course, of course, they don’t want innocent people to die. However, people are motivated by their desires — superheroes save people because it feels good. They think of themselves as individuals who deserve the power given to them to save; they deserve the muscles bestowed upon them by God, or Gods, or by some chemical. So what happens when they hang out with someone with bigger muscles or access to stronger chemicals? Something like the party scene from Age of Ultron:
(The moment where Thor is worried that Captain America might be able to lift his hammer marks our first glimpse of the Thor we have now — goofy, insecure.)
Because the gang is together in various pairings for the entirety of Age of Ultron, this playfulness is allowed to continue throughout (Vision’s eventual arrival, with his British-accented, robot deadpan is a great addition) — until, eventually, the film gets sucked up by Ultron’s melodrama. The shawarma scene from the first Avengers movie will probably be Joss Whedon’s most-remembered comedic moment from his turn at the helm, if only because the first film was much more of a sensation. Ultimately, Ultron earns the director his nickname, Jokes Whedon.
The two Iron Man movies set a broad template for the MCU that most of the films have since followed. It was less about defining a story structure or visual style, and more about setting the parameters of what we could expect from the universe — namely, charming superheroes coming to terms with being a superhero, while either cracking wise (Dr. Strange, the latest Captain America movie, and obviously the Iron Man movies) or getting made fun of for being a fish out of water (the first Captain America and first two Thor movies). MCU jokes are what I like to describe as “script-doctor comedy,” meaning those little quips at the end of scenes that either can be easily replaced by a comedy writer hired to do a pass on the script, or by the director or actor while shooting. (On an upcoming episode of my podcast with Thor: Ragnorak director Taika Waititi, he told me he was given a script with jokes like this that he just ignored.) But there’s nothing wrong with this! With a good cast, these jokes can get legitimate laughs.
Ant-Man represents the funniest version of this sort of comedy. It helps that Paul Rudd is just a funnier actor than, say, Chris Evans or Benedict Cumberbatch, so his smart-alecky quips just hit a little bit harder. It also helps that Rudd worked with Adam McKay to rework Edgar Wright’s original after he left due to those infamous creative differences. As a result, Rudd and McKay find a little bit more room for comedy than in other, similar films in the franchise. For example, Michael Peña gives a quirky-as-hell performance as Rudd’s heist buddy. This scene would read okay on the page, but the line readings are just so dang good:
And, of course, shrinking teeny-tiny is a good premise for some solid visual gags. There has not been a sillier, bigger final fight scene than the final fight of Ant-Man, as the tension of the danger constantly gets undercut by the fact that they are essentially playing with toys. This is one of the MCU’s great comedic moments:
3. Spider-Man: Homecoming
There’s never been a superhero movie where the man in the funny suit said things were “awesome” so many times. It’s a small thing, but it’s indicative of how refreshing Homecoming felt when it came out earlier this year. By skipping over the Uncle Dying and the Spider Biting, we got a Spider-Man who’s just so excited to be Spider-Man. Homecoming had the familiar MCU plot points, but a tone of its own, one of childlike wonder. Look at how the movie opens, with Peter Parker’s voice cracking with excitement as he relives his involvement in Captain America: Civil War in vlog form:
This tone is sustained throughout the picture, which, compared to the increasingly galactic universe, has a humble scope. With a villain whose goal isn’t to become a God, there’s plenty of time for classic high-school hijinx.
Another reason the comedy works so well: Homecoming is a movie in the long tradition of comedies about a place. Director Jon Watts treats Queens like the Guardians of the Galaxy movies treat space — an area filled with charming, peculiar characters. And smartly, Watts cast funny people like Hannibal Buress, Martin Starr, and Donald Glover to be those characters; each is able to make things pop a little bit more. Watch how grounded Glover is in this scene, building the comedy from character and not just dialogue. You believe him when he says he likes bread. It allows for a deeper laugh, as opposed to a brief giggle that comes from watching people just talking quickly to each other:
2. Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians of the Galaxy came right when the MCU needed it most. All of the previous movies were still pretty solid, but heading out of the first Avengers with a new Thor, a new Captain America, and a newly dour Iron Man, the MCU felt like it was losing some of its color. Then came Guardians of the Galaxy, with a degree of levity not yet reached in the franchise.
It’s not that the other Marvel movies failed to build comedy from character — it’s just that they kind of cheated, by making Iron Man a real cutup. We saw a little bit of relationship-based comedy in Avengers, but even that was mostly a bunch of hunks standing around as straight men for Iron Man to riff off. But like The Good Place, each galaxy guardian is a specifically rendered character perfectly designed to annoy everyone else — which means, essentially, all their interactions are a recipe for comedy. Just watch how, in this scene, each character’s personality sets up another’s:
This is arguably the best scripted piece of comedy in this series of films. Because of scenes like this, Guardians of the Galaxy almost was No. 1 on the list, if only because of how well-integrated the comedy was with the action. Out of all the Marvel films, it is, most completely, an action-comedy. The fight scenes build up to something akin to a contemporary comedy set piece — all physical gags and people yelling at each other. The prison-escape scene, for example, fulfills both the desire for kicks and punches as well as laughs.
1. Thor: Ragnarok
Unlike most of the MCU, Thor: Ragnarok is not a comedic action movie. It’s not even really an action comedy, like Guardians. It’s a comedy, full stop — just one with a big fight scene toward the end. As director Taika Waititi mentioned to me, Chris Hemsworth was getting tired of Thor being so boring, so it was Waititi’s mission to make him the coolest dude in the universe.
But he isn’t cool like Iron Man is cool, all swagger and comebacks. No, to Waititi, turning Thor cool meant turning Thor into an idiosyncratic, sensitive weirdo. And it’s not just Hemsworth — everyone does the absolute most in this movie. Jeff Goldblum basically does an impression of Jeff Goldblum, all stammers and whimsical turns of phrase. Cate Blanchett does an impression of a drag queen impersonating Cate Blanchett, complete with long hallways for her sashay down, arms outstretched. Tessa Thompson literally falls down drunk, a modern version of Han Solo.
Technically, this movie shouldn’t even exist. As Waititi told me, he and Mark Ruffalo would occasionally find themselves openly wondering when they’d get fired. The film deliberately subverts everything at the core of a big superhero movie — dialogue moves slowly and sometimes awkwardly, the characters are all gentle, feelings are discussed openly. These sort of incongruities probably make up the largest part of the film’s comedic stew. In this scene, for example, watch how Thor has transformed into a sensitive child, excited to tell his new friend Korg (hilariously voiced by Waititi) about how freaking cool his hammer is:
Do you see Hemsworth smile a little? Thor: Ragnarok isn’t just the loosest movie in the MCU, it’s one of the loosest movies in recent memory. Characters break a little, actors perform as thinly veiled versions of themselves — it’s incredible to believe it’s a Marvel movie. It’s all because Waititi wanted to convey how fun the movie was to shoot to the audience.
It’s a really silly movie, with some of the best, dumbest jokes this side of Popstar. My personal favorite moment comes when Goldblum’s character is tasked with sentencing a man who committed a crime. “I pardon you,” he proclaims, to the relief of the criminal, “from life.” (Waititi said that they tried it five times and couldn’t get a take where Hemsworth doesn’t laugh.) It’s so beautifully dumb and I love it with all of my little heart.
As he tells it, Waititi achieved this brilliance by focused on creating the tone he wanted — and letting the bosses figure out what it means for Infinity War and the future of the character. This means it might not be for everyone — especially those who want their Gods to be big punchers and not awkward nerds — but the rest of us will be laughing too much to care. He shot his shot. A lot could’ve went wrong, but Marvel was right to trust Waititi and Waititi was right to trust himself. It is, after all, the funniest Marvel movie.