“This is an impossible choice. AN IMPOSSIBLE CHOICE,” wrote one anonymous voter in response to our survey asking Wellesley students to pick the best Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film out of the 18 released thus far. Impossible choice though it may have seemed, the 93 respondents provided a clear answer: “Black Panther,” which swept with 51.6 percent of the vote. After “Black Panther,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” tied for a distant second place, each receiving 9 votes (9.7 percent).
So, why “Black Panther”? Voters cited everything from the casting to the soundtrack to the cinematography to the costume design. One anonymous respondent simply wrote, “Have you seen Black Panther?” while another admitted, “It’s the only [MCU film] I’ve seen.” Overall, survey takers who chose to elaborate on their choice most frequently pointed to character and plot development as key, as well as the film’s accessibility to viewers who have not seen other MCU titles. One anonymous respondent replied, “It blew all of the other films out of the water. It actually made me care about the characters and the plot. After I first saw it, I immediately wished that I could watch it again just to repeat the experience.” Similarly, Rachele Byrd ’18 wrote, “I think Black Panther was the best at breaking out of the MCU mold of ‘good guy fights bad guy’ with a plot only people who watched all the other movies can understand. Though it had some easter eggs, ‘Black Panther’ was an actually good story, and therefore a good movie, unlike other MCU films.”
On the subject of bad guys, several people mentioned Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger as one of strengths that set “Black Panther” apart. “It has the best villain, best overarching plot and Shuri is amazing,” wrote Samantha Lincroft ’21. Several respondents also lauded the film for its representation and landmark inclusivity. “Black Panther doesn’t just avoid being problematic, it actively pursues gender and racial equity, while being a really good movie at the same time,” praised one anonymous voter. “I nearly cried many times during that movie, and not for ‘this scene is sad’ reasons, but just because it was such a beautiful piece that I think made a lot of people feel represented and included in a way that they deserve, which was just overwhelmingly positive. The variety of roles women played in the film was also especially brilliant,” another anonymous respondent enthused.
“It’s a movie about Black characters who are thriving and doing well independently of white characters. It tells the story of family and love and how the way that you were raised and the struggles that you face ultimately have an affect on your future,” wrote Shanez’e Johnson ’21. “I love ‘Black Panther’ because I can finally watch a movie where I see myself represented and not as the token black friend.” She emphasized her appreciation for its portrayal of Black women especially and how the film depicts Black women as “warriors, scientists, inventors and leaders[…] the future and the backbone of [Wakandan] society.”
Another recent MCU release that did quite well in our survey was “Thor: Ragnarok,” which was released last November and received a total of seven votes, ranking fourth place overall. Writer/director/star Taika Waititi (he plays the lovably weird alien revolutionary, Korg) was the filmmaker most frequently mentioned by name in respondents’ explanations, with multiple students citing their admiration for the filmmaker of Maori and Jewish descent, who has made a name for himself outside the MCU through the heartwarming coming-of-age tale “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” vampire roommate comedy “What We Do in the Shadows” and his impeccable taste in floral printwear. In fact, “Taika Waititi” was the entirety of Ruth Jiang’s ’19 explanation as to why she chose “Ragnarok.”
Multiple “Ragnarok” fans cited the film’s levity and self-deprecating sense of humor as the motive behind their choice. “It knew how to tell a story for once, but wasn’t afraid to laugh at itself, something that’s almost required these days with the oversaturation of shoot-em-up, collateral-damage-queens we call superhero movies,” wrote Emily Pretchl ’19. Another anonymous respondent called “Ragnarok” the “fun, trash movie that Marvel produced knowing that Black Panther would be the REAL gem of the Marvel Universe this year.” This respondent went on to elaborate that although “Black Panther” is the better film in several regards, “Ragnarok is still so genuinely funny and smartly-made that I end up rooting for it.” One anonymous voter chose “Ragnarok” for more aesthetic reasons, writing, “With that haircut? Thor can get it.”
Neither of the other two films in the Thor franchise, “Thor” and “Thor: The Dark World,” received any votes. Out of the three trilogies started in Phase One—the first “era” of the MCU which lasted from 2008 to 2012, beginning with “Iron Man” and ending with “The Avengers”—Captain America is the only one for which all installments received votes. “Captain America: The First Avenger” took home three votes, with Seren Riggs-Davis ’21 writing, “Cap is smokin’ and I dig the WW2 plot line. Also, I love Steve and Peggy.” Middle installment “The Winter Soldier” was the most popular of all the Captain America titles, receiving nine votes. “‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ is the best movie in the MCU because it is the only film to address the deep nuances of Steve Rogers’ character,” wrote one anonymous voter, who called the film “more a political thriller in tone than a superhero movie” and lauded the film’s complex antagonist, The Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). This respondent also emphasized how the film’s success set up the directorial duo of the Russo brothers as major players in the MCU, going on to helm “Captain America: Civil War” and the upcoming behemoth “Avengers: Infinity War,” “in effect shaping the MCU to what it is today.” The third Captain America film, “Captain America: Civil War,” received two votes, including that of Assistant Arts Editor Kelechi Alfred-Igbokwe ’19, who elaborated on her choice by writing, ““#TeamCap, Stucky Lives! + Black Panther fight choreography.”
Beyond the Captain America trilogy, the only other MCU series for which all installments received votes in our survey was “Guardians of the Galaxy,” with James Gunn’s introduction to Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and company tying for second place overall. The sequel received a more modest two votes. Neither “Volume 2” supporter chose to comment on their selection, but Catherine Gooding ’19 elaborated on her choice of the first “Guardians” film, writing, “I think Guardians is when Marvel really hit its stride and figured out that their films can be goofy and epic simultaneously. Plus, who can resist that soundtrack?” Another anonymous voter wrote about an appreciation for the film’s focus on anti-heroes and the collaboration between unlikely allies instead of a narrow focus on the heroics of a single individual.
Interestingly, the MCU’s biggest team-up series, “The Avengers,” only got four votes, with the sequel “Age of Ultron” receiving none. Some students who voted for the big 2012 team-up seemed to base their decision on the film’s value to the MCU as opposed to its cinematic superiority over other titles. “It feels kinda wrong to pick [‘The Avengers’] when ‘Black Panther,’ ‘Captain America: Winter Soldier’ and ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ exist, but it’s such good superhero, popcorn-movie fluff,” wrote Carla Adams ’20. “It started it all! The three mentioned above are great—so great that it’s easy to forget they’re MCU films. The Avengers is THE MCU film.”
Five voters chose to go back to the beginning with 2008’s “Iron Man,” the film that started it all. In fact, multiple respondents indicated they chose it, at least in part, for that very reason. “It’s a classic,” wrote Erin Sullivan ’20. “It’s the story of how Tony Stark [Robert Downey Jr.] sobered up and decided to stop making weapons to be used all around the world, but he discovers that the path of the peacemaker is not always easy. It helps set up his behavior for the rest of the Marvel movies. He is constantly warring between his douchey, full-of-himself attitude and his desire to help the world stitch itself back together and end conflict.” One anonymous respondent highlighted an appreciation for Tony Stark’s narrative arc, writing, “Iron Man is my favorite Marvel movie because it shows that no matter how you mess up (or how messed up you are), you still have the potential to create something amazing or to make a difference or turn your life around.” Another anonymous voter gave a somewhat shorter justification: “RDJ! Duh.”