The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has set plenty of records to become one of the most successful franchises. Its shared universe has stretched the potential of interconnected movies while its domination of cinema continues to inspire heated debate.
Backed by the vast resources of Disney, Marvel Studios’ connected brand has grown to encompass limited series and multi-season TV shows as it spins through the multi-year storylines it loves to tell through chapters.
The MCU hasn’t outgrown its source — there are thousands of characters, stories, and ideas still untapped from decades of Marvel Comics. But cinematic and on-page Marvel could never be the same. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness confirmed the on-screen Earth as 616, a number familiar from the multiverse of Marvel Comics. But as the MCU is an adaptation of that comic book Earth, it may as well be another Marvel Earth entirely.
The relationship between movies and comics isn’t reciprocal. While the MCU picks the cream of the crop of storylines from the pages, it hasn’t transferred to a boom in comic book sales. It’s a mixed blessing for Marvel that many people’s first encounter with Marvel giants like Iron Man, Hulk, and Black Panther is through the films.
The MCU owes its existence to the comics that inspired it, but its success is thanks to the studio’s approach to filmmaking. Under the oversight of Marvel Studios’ President Kevin Fiege, the franchise has kept itself fresh, even when formulaic, by making sure its movies draw on different movie genres.
Naturally, or supernaturally, all Marvel films are superhero movies. There’s no escaping that genre with its splash of science-fiction, a dash of fantasy, and a hefty serving of comedy. But there are hints of a surprising range of genres that the universe dips into, keeping things fresh and opening up unexpected ways to tell its stories.
Here’s our breakdown of every MCU movie by genre.
The MCU was forged in war, the battlegrounds of Afghanistan, where billionaire defense contractor Tony Stark was forced to transform himself into Iron Man. The first set-piece of the MCU was a savage attack. Superheroes and conflict go hand-in-hand, and that’s never far from the big-screen MCU. But some films lean into the horror and consequences more than others — the segue from Age of Ultron to Civil War is a great example. When more Avengers are involved, the risk of war increases. The Infinity Saga couldn’t have ended any other way.
- Iron Man (2008)
- The Avengers (2012)
- Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
- Captain America: Civil War (2016)
- Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
- Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Probably the MCU’s most divisive genre, although the franchise only went out-and-out scary with Multiverse of Madness ( ticking off at least ten horror sub-genres). Although the franchise soon backed away from those horror roots, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde haunt Banner and Hulk’s struggle to control one body.
- The Incredible Hulk (2008)
- Doctor Strange (2016)
- Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)
A surprisingly short list, considering thunder god Thor is one of the MCU’s most successful characters. The mythological elements Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and a host of creators have drawn into Marvel Comics have often had a solid basis in cosmic science-fiction. Unlike its sequels, the first Thor vehicle focuses entirely on the collision of our Earth’s superheroes and the new mythology at the end of the rainbow bridge.
- Thor (2011)
It could be grouped in with the war movies, but it’s no mistake that Iron Man 2 begins with Ivan Vanko watching Stark’s press conference from the end of the first film. It emphasized revenge — particularly mech-backed business revenge — and the consequences of Tony Stark’s decision to become a public superhero could have been better explored, but the MCU was preoccupied with universe-building.
- Iron Man 2 (2010)
The first film to be fully set in the past, Captain America wasn’t a gimmick but mirrored the fascinating journey of Timely Comics into Marvel Comics. The 1990s similarly defined Captain Marvel’s debut.
- Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
- Captain Marvel (2019)
Shane Black took the reins for Marvel’s first billion-dollar solo outing. It was no surprise that the wickedly sharp writer behind the Lethal Weapon franchise gave us an 80s/90s buddy film, with Stark and Rhodey versus the Extremis super-soldiers.
- Iron Man 3 (2013)
This is tough, but how could a film that pitted a Norse God against Dark Elves not be a fantasy? Dark Elves!
- Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Spy and political thriller
The Winter Soldier riffed on ’70s conspiracy thrillers like All the Presidents Men, dragging in the gravitas of that film’s Robert Redford as big bad Hydra Alexander Pierce. Black Widow took a more direct approach as the MCU’s twist on the James Bond franchise, complete with a Bond Villain-style cloud base.
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
- Black Widow (2021)
Space operas are all about sweeping generalizations, but this is where Marvel stories encroach on the territory of studio-mate Star Wars. The first Guardians movie was a risk that paid off when it itched that scratch. They may not be to everyone’s taste, but MCU’s space operas have proven more consistent than Star Wars under Disney’s watch. Things naturally went a bit cosmic as Ego introduced us to the Celestials in Guardians 2, ready for the epic themes of Eternals. But there’s classic alien make-up of the Marvel universe, too. Guardians established Kree as a threat, while the Skrull appeared in the period piece Captain Marvel.
- Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
- Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (2017)
- Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
- Eternals (2021)
Avengers: Endgame would be a shoo-in for this genre if it weren’t for the epic battle of its third act. Instead, it’s down to the shadiest Avenger and the inevitable benefits of his tech.
- Ant-Man (2015)
- Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
This could be labeled the MCU’s John Hughes genre. Absorbed into the MCU, Peter Parker was sent back to school. From the misdirection of Homecoming to the central anchor of Spidey’s second movie, a travelog, the rom-com between Peter and MJ was spun around action adventures. It’s most apparent in Far From Home, but what would have happened in No Way Home if Peter hadn’t cared so much for MJ?
- Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
- Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)
- Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
Black Panther was an instant classic that vibrantly burst open the middle of Phase 3. Wakanda is an utterly alien and terrestrial part of the MCU’s Earth. The richest hero? The most spiritual hero? It’s a different and dynamically important addition, combining science fiction with social and historical threads in the best tradition of the genre. Its sequel has a tough act to follow, especially without the immense but grounding presence of Chadwick Boseman.
- Black Panther (2017)
There’s no doubt Shang-Chi’s debut in the MCU was a fine martial arts movie, whether on the buses of San Francisco or the hidden city of K’un-Lun.
- Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
While it may seem obvious where sequels to the above movies will head, the MCU is at its best when it surprises us. Just as Winter Soldier was an unexpected standout, the forthcoming films planning to catch up with Wakanda and Ant-Man and Wasp may buck expectations.
Risks and genre-mashing have been apparent in the MCU’s small-screen expansion as of Phase Four. What If…? was an anthology lifted from Marvel Comics that brought some of the publisher’s more radical ideas to the screen, like Marvel Zombies.
Hawkeye riffed on Die Hard and stands as the MCU’s great Christmas series so far. Falcon and the Winter Soldier continued Captain America’s line in global conspiracy, while Loki’s first season was obsessed with establishing Phase Four’s multiversal emphasis. Moon Knight combined horror, mythology, and psychological thriller.
The greatest experiment so far has been Wandavision, which tackled genre head-on. Its first seven episodes were built around American sitcoms through the decades.
The multiverse has opened the MCU to even more genre-bending adventures, and Fiege has expressed his wish for the franchise to become more diverse. One genre notable for its absence is the Western. 2017’s Logan, which took its lead from the comic book arc Old Man Logan, proved that it worked well in the Universe. As for musicals, we can live with the Multiverse of Madness’ piano duel for now.
The MCU has raked in over $25B in global box office in little more than a decade — higher than many countries’ annual GDP! Few genres should be off the table for a blockbuster franchise that’s earned an unprecedented chance to take risks.