As 2021 comes to a close, we’re taking a look back at all of the best offerings added to the Marvel Cinematic Universe this year.
It was a slow year as far as movie releases go, largely thanks to the persisting COVID-19 pandemic. Some films were released exclusively in theaters while others quickly landed on Disney’s streaming service, Disney Plus, ensuring wary viewers that they could still get in on the action. Despite slightly messy release plans and concerns over visiting the theater, each MCU film racked up huge numbers at the box office, cementing that even in Phase Four ⏤ and even during a global pandemic ⏤ the Marvel Cinematic Universe is as popular as ever.
Here is a ranking of each Marvel film released in 2021.
1) Spider-Man: No Way Home
The third film in the MCU’s trio of Tom Holland-helmed Spider-Man films swung into theaters on Dec. 17, immediately blowing fans away. Spider-Man: No Way Home is a stunning accomplishment in filmmaking, combining more than two decades worth of storylines and characters to create an epic crossover event that even non-Spidey fans are sure to enjoy.
Starring Tom Holland in the titular role alongside Zendaya’s MJ, the film features a huge number of popular actors snatched up from numerous storylines, worlds, and alternate realities. The film is an undeniable triumph, praised by critics and fans alike for its emotionally-driven story, the cast’s palpable chemistry, those stunning action sequences, and its ability to combine more than 20 years of filmmaking into a single, spectacular film.
Following its release in theaters, No Way Home broke numerous box office records, grossing $751 million worldwide in its first week in theaters and quickly cinching a position as the fourth highest-grossing film of 2021. It has a solid 71 score on Metacritic, with overwhelmingly positive reviews, and is “certified fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes. On the review-aggregation site, it has earned a critic rating of 94%, with critics declaring it “impossible not to like,” and one proclaiming that it “earns its joy and sorrow with thematic substance, the breathless action often contrasted with quiet reflection and grief.” Audiences rated the film even higher at an impressive 99%.
2) Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Shang-Chi was an instant hit when it was released in theaters on Sept. 3. The film, starring Simu Liu as Shang-Chi and Awkwafina as his goofy, stalwart companion, broke several pandemic box office records and created a horde of new fans for a superhero that many people had never even heard of.
The movie grossed more than $431.9 million worldwide and remained a hit once it shifted from theaters onto Disney Plus. It follows Shang-Chi, the young heir to the Ten Rings Organization-turned-valet, his best friend Katy, and his sister Xialing as they fight to protect their mother’s homeland from the hubris of their father.
The film is quite popular among fans and critics alike. On Rotten Tomatoes, a site known for its negatively-skewed ratings, the film has an impressive 98% among audiences and an only slightly reduced 91% overall Tomatometer score. On Metacritic, which is less skewed by the opinions of random people on the internet, the film still garnered mostly favorable reviews. It has a 71 metascore, which is higher than all of the Avengers films apart from Endgame.
3) Black Widow
While not nearly as popular as Shang-Chi or No Way Home, Black Widow was still a highly-anticipated entry into the MCU. The film sees Scarlett Johansson return to her role as Natasha Romanoff alongside Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova. It was overall well-received by fans, but many felt that the character wasn’t able to properly shine in the film due to the knowledge that Romanoff dies during the events of Avengers: Endgame. Knowing that the character they were watching in the prequel was doomed to die in pursuit of the Infinity Stones soured the film for some fans, leading it to perform more poorly than some of its counterparts.
Despite this and the numerous postponements the film was subjected to, Black Widow still performed well at the box office. It grossed $379 million worldwide and received mostly positive reviews from critics. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a Tomatometer score of 79%, which is solidly below the audience rating of 91%. It was slightly less popular on Metacritic, where the film has a 67.
Despite its presence as one of the most highly-anticipated films of 2021, Eternals performed rather abysmally at the box office. The film was considered overstuffed and distant by many critics despite grossing $384 million worldwide at the box office ⏤ several million more than Black Widow.
Just because it made money doesn’t make Eternals a popular film, however. Even die-hard Marvel fans found themselves disappointed by the film’s crowded plot, leading it to generally flop among audiences. The movie stars a stellar cast, between Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Salma Hayek, and Angelina Jolie, but still clocks in at the bottom of this list.
By now, it’s well-documented that Eternals was the first-ever MCU film to get a “rotten” score on Rotten Tomatoes. Mere days after it was released in theaters, negative reviews started pouring in. It remains rotten on the site, with a Tomatometer score of only 47%. Its audience score is significantly higher at 78%, but that isn’t enough to save the film from its “rotten” rating. On Metacritic, the film didn’t score much better, with a rating of only 52.
Shout-out: Venom: Let There Be Carnage
It’s not technically an MCU film, so this entry comes with a caveat. Despite its slightly off-center connection to the other films on this list, Venom is a Marvel character, which makes Let There Be Carnage a Marvel film. Due to the fact that it’s not part of the MCU, however, it can’t really be compared against the rest of the films in that line-up. For this reason, Venom: Let There Be Carnage gets a standalone shout-out.
After multiple postponements, the film finally hit theaters in early October. It quickly became an impressive money maker, earning more than Shang-Chi, Black Widow, and Eternals with a box office income of more than $483 million worldwide. The film continues the wonderfully odd, violent adventures of Tom Hardy’s Eddie Brock and Venom alongside Michelle Williams as Brock’s love interest Anne and Woody Harrelson as Carnage.
Despite its excellent performance at the box office, Let There Be Carnage hasn’t received good ratings online. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has earned a relatively abysmal ⏤ though not as bad as Eternals ⏤ Tomatometer score of 58%, with its audience score clocking in solidly higher at 84%. On Metacritic, Let There Be Carnage has performed similarly poorly, with a rating less than Eternals of only 48.