The Marvel Cinematic Universe was built around films that broke the mold of superhero movies, but those movies have gradually become a known quality. Over the last 13 years, the interconnected film series has made more than $20 billion, offering faithful audiences a single sprawling drama, full of recurring characters, escalating stakes, and a constantly evolving world full of complications. At the same time, MCU movies have developed a fairly predictable template, with only a certain amount of room for variation.
The MCU TV series have been much less predictable. Made for a variety of networks with varying budgets, covering a variety of tones, and often having iffy connections to the big MCU overplot at best, they’re an unpredictable grab bag. They run the gamut from single-season miniseries event to network mainstays. And they tend to tell lumpier, less streamlined stories — or at least, they did until 2021, when Disney Plus started turning around its own miniseries-length shows, which feel more like hyper-extended MCU movies than previous MCU TV ever did. The new crop of shows is more integrated into the MCU than ever, but are they actually better? We sat down with every MCU-integrated TV series to date, to rank them and find out.
[Ed. note: Shows are included if they were MCU-compliant in their day, regardless of whether they’ve since been or will later be retconned out of existence. Not included on this list are pre-MCU Marvel shows like Blade, or never-MCU-canon Marvel shows like the excellent mindgame Legion, the X-Men spinoff The Gifted, or the animated series Guardians of the Galaxy. Latest update: October 2021, to include What If…?, which tells expressly non-MCU-canon stories, but within the canon of a larger Marvel multiverse.]
16. Helstrom (2020)
2020’s Helstrom was the last of the live-action MCU shows released on Hulu before the launch of Disney Plus, and it was canceled after one nearly universally panned season. The show is borderline unwatchable, a dour procession of exorcist and paranormal tropes with only the loosest connection to the comic book characters it’s based on. Following a pair of siblings with demonic blood that gives them superpowers, it lacks likable characters, meaningful stakes, nuanced performances, or even impressive special effects. If you’re looking for a spooky supernatural story about fighting demons, check out Evil on Paramount Plus. If you want superheroics, you’re better off watching anything else on this list.
15. Inhumans (2018)
Originally planned as an MCU movie and its own MCU sub-franchise, Inhumans suffered in part from the same thing that gave it so much potential: It’s built around an entire society hidden from the rest of the world, where separatist superpowered folk live according to their own laws. Problem is, a series about literal inhumans that aren’t attached to human society has virtually none of the relatable aspects that make MCU characters interesting. And the story, about a coup in that secret society, has no stakes for the average person. (It seems like a pretty awful, oppressive oligarchy to begin with.) ABC’s series wound up feeling more like the the SyFy Superman spinoff Krypton than an MCU story: It’s technically within the continuity longtime MCU fans care about, but it feels completely removed everything that happens in the MCU. To top it off, the acting is stiff, the writing is clunky, bad guy Maximus (Iwan Rheon, Game of Thrones sadist Ramsay Bolton) is ridiculously obvious in his clumsy evil, and even once the action moves from the Moon to Earth, the story never feels like it’s about actual people. Technically, it’s all there in the series title, so we can’t say we weren’t warned.
14. Runaways (2017-2019)
Frankly, Runaways would probably be several notches higher on this list if the titular runaways had run away earlier. Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona’s original comics series, which launched in 2003, let the young protagonists find out early that their parents were powerful supervillains, and run off together out of fear and frustration, leading to plenty of plots about the difficulties facing homeless kids coming to terms with their powers and fighting villains without adult assistance. But the 2017 TV adaptation spends its entire first season with the kids wheel-spinning about what to do after they see evidence their parents are murderers. As they dither in uninteresting ways, the series dilutes the focus on their characters further by giving equal screen time to their parents’ soap-operatic power struggles and relationship dramas. Subsequent seasons finally put a little more focus on the young heroes, but the show really never overcomes the problem of its overcrowded cast, or its baffling attempt to make the parents personable and sympathetic, even as they’re systematically exploiting and murdering young people. And its focus on short-term, quickly resolved subplots, like a trying-to-be-current plot about mind control spread through cell phones, prevented the show from building up series stakes or meaningful energy.
13. Cloak & Dagger (2018-2019)
The Freeform show Cloak & Dagger started off strong, driven by the powerful chemistry between Tandy Bowen, aka Dagger (Olivia Holt) and Tyrone Johnson, aka Cloak (Aubrey Joseph), teenagers trying to understand their new powers and the nature of the accident that sparked them. Because the writers were focusing on extremely minor Marvel characters, they didn’t need to adhere to comics canon, and instead were free to deliver a mix of heady wonder and romance, combined with sharp examinations of police brutality, addiction, and corporate malfeasance. Yet that early charm wore away as the show’s stakes increased and the comic book tropes piled up. A twist on fridging meant to be edgy still came off as unnecessarily brutal, the writers tried to make the show’s least interesting character work by giving her an evil personality, and both seasons ended in near-apocalyptic conflicts. It isn’t a terrible YA adventure, but it’s a textbook case of diminishing returns.
12. Iron Fist (2017-2018)
The first season of Iron Fist was rightly maligned for its rich, white man-child hero Danny Rand (Finn Jones) using his Chosen One powers to show up the people of color who are meant to be his loyal friends. But when Raven Metzner took over as showrunner for season 2, he oversaw a remarkable course-correction by shifting the focus away from Danny and building up the supporting cast. Sacha Dhawan does a remarkable job as Danny’s brother-in-arm turned bitter rival Davos, and Luke Cage cop Misty Knight (Simone Missick) is just as dismissive of Danny’s abilities as a vigilante as she works to come up with better solutions to Chinatown’s problems. The writers still didn’t seem to know what to do with some of the supporting cast, and the show continued to suffer from having too many subplots and villains, but it ended in a strange and surprising place, compared to where it began. It’s almost sad that there wasn’t a third season or spinoff that could have really embraced the potential to explore the MCU’s deep well of mystic kung-fu weirdness.
11. Agents of SHIELD (2013-2020)
ABC’s Agents of SHIELD was the show most closely tied to the MCU before Disney Plus came along. It stars recurring MCU film character Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who is mysteriously resurrected after being killed by Loki in The Avengers, then tasked with leading a group of agents investigating everything from rogue Asgardians to cyborgs. The show’s first season was written to compliment the Captain America: The Winter Soldier revelation that SHIELD had been infiltrated by Hydra, which gives the story an excellent twist, as several main characters show their true loyalties. But that connective tissue wore thin over time, and later seasons saw the characters sent to space or entirely different timelines so they could avoid intersecting with the MCU films. When the show is firing on all cylinders, Agents of SHIELD is among the top Marvel series, embracing the genre-bending sensibilities of comic book stories and a heavy dose of meta humor. Unfortunately, it spends a lot of time foundering, taking several seasons to become a true ensemble show, and even then, struggling with separated characters and a rotating cast of varying quality.
10. The Punisher (2017-2019)
Jon Bernthal’s gruff, fierce portrayal of Marine-turned-vigilante Frank Castle is the true highlight of Daredevil season 2, and the first season of The Punisher is among the best stories in the Netflix MCU. While the character’s legacy is highly problematic, showrunner Steve Lightfoot manages to keep the show from being just a brutal revenge fantasy by delivering plots that examine PTSD, the military-industrial complex, and ethical hacking. The show is also buoyed by a fantastic supporting cast, with Ben Barnes playing an all-too-charming villain, and Castle’s sidekick Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) giving the series some desperately needed levity. The second season fails to recapture that magic, though, with Micro’s absence keenly felt, and DHS agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) going from fierce foil to victim. That season’s plot also feels like a retread of the same conflicts presented in season 1, with little new to say. Most of the Netflix MCU shows experienced a quality dip after their first season, but The Punisher’s second and final outing was the worst offender.
9. The Defenders (2017)
Netflix’s single-season crossover series attempted to be a kind of miniature TV version of The Avengers, one-upping Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist by bringing all the heroes together in one big plotline. It lacks Avengers’ impact or scope, but it does share some of its strengths: Bringing these four heroes together in different combinations lets the writers explore their personalities and abilities in new contexts. As they banter and snark at each other, they highlight some of the individual faults that bugged fans of their solo shows. And as they learn to work together, the ways their abilities and personalities synergize injects some fresh energy into their individual stories. The overplot here is disappointing, but the characters themselves are generally both funnier and more thrilling than they were on their own.
8. Luke Cage (2016-2018)
The first half of the first season of Luke Cage is nearly perfect, with Mike Colter’s titular hero with unbreakable skin still struggling to make a real difference when fighting against the formidable mix of criminal and political power wielded by Mahershala Ali’s Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes. Yet the series takes a hard turn when Stokes is replaced by the generic psychopath Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey), and it becomes borderline unwatchable. Season 2 is more consistent, though it never really reaches the highs of season 1.
It’s too bad that the Netflix MCU ended before showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker could really develop the examination of moral compromises he was clearly setting up with Luke walking dangerously close to Stokes’ path by the end of season 2. But in spite of those flaws, Luke Cage is a vibrant portrait of Harlem, with an impeccable soundtrack and fantastic performances that call on the significant charisma of Colter, Ali, and Theo Rossi, who plays Stokes’ opportunistic underling Shades. While the other Netflix MCU shows largely focus on withdrawn, brooding heroes, Luke Cage revels in his powers and fame, which gives the show a uniquely bombastic quality.
7. Jessica Jones (2015-2019)
Jessica Jones had the mixed blessing of a stellar first season, with a near-unbeatable villain in Kilgrave (former Doctor Who star David Tennant), whose voice is inescapably mesmeric, to the point where people kill each other or themselves at his casual verbal command. Krysten Ritter gives a consistently layered performance as the superhumanly powerful title character, a detective trying to ignore the deep traumas Kilgrave inflicted on her in the past, while dealing with his return. If the subsequent two seasons had been as targeted and intense as the first one, this series would probably top this list. Instead, Jessica Jones suffers a bit from the way its second and third seasons lose focus, tension, and personal stakes by comparison. Still, it’s well worth sitting down to that first season, a street-level superhero series, crime procedural, and personal story about abuse and recovery, all rolled into one.
6. Loki (2021)
Loki seems likely to climb the ranking charts once the series finds its way closer to an actual conclusion. Rating it after the closing of season 1 feels like rating it in the middle of its story, given the cliffhanger ending that’s far more about setting up the next wave of Marvel movies than about actually respecting the characters or themes on deck throughout the show. Season 1 is a mind-bending whirl through a game-changing series of reveals for the MCU, and specifically for Loki, who’s been through so many changes over the course of a decade in the movies, even accounting for how many of those changes have been retracted or reversed. Tom Hiddleston remains a standout in the MCU, an expressive, electric presence who’d make this series stand out no matter what. But while Loki is creative, colorful, and often a lot of fun, season 1 perpetually feels like it’s been edited down to the bone, with no time for the stronger character development or emotional exploration of some of the other shows on this list. It’s Disney Plus’ most purely fun MCU show so far, but at the moment, it’s still a story half-told.
5. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021)
As a story about how former Winter Soldier Bucky Barnes deals with his many MCU traumas and how Sam Wilson decides to take up the Captain America mantle, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is pretty rushed, and in the end, clumsy. As a story about a network of secret super-soldiers who could be labeled terrorists or freedom fighters, depending on your perspective, it’s well-meaning, but often just graceless. But as a story about two men trying to separately deal with losing their mentor and inspiration, each resenting the other for doing it wrong, until they finally bond over what they learned from him, it’s resonant and thoughtful in a way MCU stories rarely can be.
Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan, as the titular main characters, bring a vital combination of warmth and prickliness to their roles, which helps make their sometimes broadly drawn characters feel vulnerable, human, and engaging. At its absolute best, this action bromance is so good that it’s actively frustrating when it blows some of its narrative potential by zipping past important plot points with a hand-wave or a stuffy speech.
4. WandaVision (2021)
Disney Plus’ initial wave of MCU shows all deal with the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame, and to some degree with how grief, loss, and self-reflection affect the characters who lost or gained the most. WandaVision takes quite a while to reveal that agenda, though — it starts with its central character, Wanda Maximoff, in complete denial, having created her own cheery sitcom reality with a re-creation of her dead love Vision. The series creators play around with that faux-reality, jumping through decades of sitcom styles and generally having more fun with design, direction, and overall style than any MCU show so far.
That freedom to creatively explore her character while being outright weird is one of the two biggest things that makes WandaVision a standout. The other is the depth of the series’ emotions, as Wanda navigates her own rage, guilt, and selfishness on top of everything else. The series wraps up messily, with plenty of loose ends that it means to set up future movies, so it never feels like a fully self-contained story, but it certainly is a wild ride while it lasts.
3. What If…? (2021)
Currently a lock for Most Underrated MCU Show, the What If…? series may have been a victim of MCU fatigue, or of prejudice against animation, or of a feeling that a series of speculative multiverse stories don’t really matter to the overall MCU continuity. One way or another, fans of the franchise don’t seem to have engaged with the show nearly as much as they did with some of the series on this list. They’re missing out. The nine-episode opening season starts out in an overly straightforward way, in a universe where Peggy Carter got the super-soldier treatment instead of Steve Rogers, but otherwise, events mostly played out in a familiar pattern. But once the AU training wheels are off, subsequent episodes escalate the stakes and the distance from familiar canon, either heading in much darker and more brutal directions than the mainstream movies ever could, or having much more fun with the characters, as Black Panther’s T’Challa heads to space (and proves the universe is better off without Peter Quill), or Thor throws a worldwide party.
But what really locks What If…?’s place on this list is the final two episodes of the season, which integrate all those previous episodes in surprising ways, paying off some plotlines that didn’t seem like they were designed to be resolved. The show gets big and cosmic in exciting ways, but it’s also meticulous about the details, from in-jokes like multiple Howard the Duck cameos to the way all the seemingly standalone stories line up in the end. The individual episodes can be uneven, but this season is more about the integrated package, and where it all leads in the end.
2. Agent Carter (2015-2016)
Where WandaVision explores what happens when an immensely powerful superhero loses the love of her life, Agent Carter flips the formula, by exploring the same kind of grief, but steeping it in powerlessness. After the events of Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America’s “best girl” Peggy Carter is mourning his supposed death, but also trying to carry on as a hero in an environment that increasingly doesn’t want female heroes.
Mimicking the real-life societal shift that moved women into traditional men’s work during World War II, then sidelined them again when the soldiers came home, Agent Carter deals closely with the sexism and condescension Peggy (played fiercely by Hayley Atwell) faces on the job at the FBI-like Strategic Scientific Reserve. When her sexist fellow agents contemptuously treat her like a side-piece Captain America foolishly allowed a little equality, she’s forced to chase down America’s enemies on the sly, alongside Howard Stark’s butler Jarvis (James D’Arcy). The series is sharp, with meaningful conflict, a satisfying Marvel-movie overplot, and a noir-movie concept of both the gender wars and the job of a private investigator. Atwell and D’Arcy make a terrific team. And the show even looks spectacular, with a Technicolor-style sense for style. It’s unquestionably MCU-modern, rather than a period piece, but it takes all the most beloved ideas about costuming, cinematography, humor, and storytelling from the period it’s evoking.
1. Daredevil (2015-2018)
The first of the Netflix MCU shows, Daredevil established the darker, street-level tone of the venture while still feeling very much like a superhero story, complete with costumes, secret identities, and spectacular fights. The one-shot hallway fight scene proved that Marvel didn’t need a movie-sized budget to create epic setpieces, while the battle between Daredevil (Charlie Cox) and Bullseye (Wilson Bethel), which weaponizes every stray object found in a newsroom provides a strange mix of high stakes and whimsy.
But even more astounding than the combats are the performances. Cox is absolutely believable in his portrayal of a hero driven by a mix of rage and Catholic guilt as he tries to make the world better, both as a lawyer and as a vigilante. Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin is a study in how to make a compelling villain. The show is also a launchpad for The Punisher, with Frank Castle serving as a perfect cautionary tale of what Matt Murdock could become if his friends don’t keep him in check. Daredevil isn’t perfect: The back half of the second season descends into an endless onslaught of ninja to set up The Defenders, and the writers never seemed to know what to do with some of the supporting cast. But the show never failed to be creative and ambitious, and its finale provided a satisfying and hopeful conclusion to a major chapter in superhero television.
Article From: Polygon