The Marvel Cinematic Universe is often described as a television series for a movie-going audience. That said, the actual television shows based in the universe haven’t been treated with the same respect as the films. Marvel Studios will attempt to change all of that with WandaVison. Premiering on Friday, it begins Marvel’s concerted effort to expand the MCU from just two to three films a year into a year-round, multiplatform content machine of one of Hollywood’s most profitable IPs.
Starting with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in 2013, a throwaway line here and a few guest appearances there was the most Marvel Television could do to weave the bigger story of the MCU into the small screen, but now the universe is expanding. WandaVision and the rest of Marvel’s Disney+ series going forward will have direct reverberations on MCU continuity at large. That is a new perk afforded to the new slate of MCU shows that the old shows did not get—one that comes with built-in interest from fans and, oh yeah, participation from A-list actors who in the past would never deign to appear on the small screen.
But before we move onto a new era of Marvel Television, let’s look back at the shows that came before. Let’s remember the roasts of Danny Rand, the hallway fights of Daredevil, and answer the question people truly want an answer to: What was the best TV show based in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
Inhumans is, without a doubt, the worst product Marvel has ever put their name on. Yes, worse than Blade: Trinity, Thor: The Dark World, or any of the three Fantastic Four movies. Ever since it was announced in 2014, it’s been a rocky road. It was supposed to be the lead-in film to Avengers: Endgame, but disagreements behind then–Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter and producer Kevin Feige resulted in a shift of the MCU’s timeline, which is how this eyesore found its way to television screens. It’s cheaply made, badly acted, poorly written, there was a ridiculous-looking giant CGI dog that everyone made fun of … Inhumans has no charm whatsoever. Luckily for the eyes of the viewing public, Marvel quickly realized their mistake and canceled the series after one season.
Unfortunately for Helstrom, the timing could not have been worse. The show was supposed to lead in a new “Adventure Into Fear” series on Hulu, but with Marvel Television folding into the bigger Marvel Studios banner, that project was canceled. It didn’t help that Helstrom was terrible. The story is “I’d rather watch paint dry”–level boring. It is nice to see Daniel Cudmore not covered in metal, but the characters aren’t compelling enough to keep anyone engaged for 10 episodes. Just because it looks pretty doesn’t make it good.
10. Iron Fist
Iron Fist left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth even before filming began. Finn Jones, everyone’s favorite Tyrell sibling, was cast as Danny Rand. Iron Fist is white in the comics, but with Marvel bringing in Lewis Tan to audition, fans believed the studio was moving to increase Asian American representation in their properties. Despite the internet’s pleas, though, Marvel gave the role to Jones—the beginning of the end. The show’s decision to make Danny out to be a sort of himbo does it no favors—why are we supposed to care about an idiot? There are some positive takeaways: Jessica Henwick is impressive as Colleen Wing, and Season 2 is slightly better than Season 1, but that’s not saying much. Marked by an over-convoluted story and uninspired action scenes, Iron Fist is the weakest series of the Marvel-Netflix era.
9. The Punisher
Man, The Punisher had so much potential. After the character arrived in the first half of Season 2 of Daredevil, Marvel decided to spin him off into his own series, but it just never worked out. The show’s action scenes are plenty brutal, just like the Punisher would demand, but after that there isn’t much substance left. Jon Bernthal is great as the lead, but is surrounded by unmemorable characters and forced to carry a DOA story line. I can remember every teacher I’ve had in school from elementary school to my MBA program, but I can’t for the life of me scrape my brain for anything memorable from The Punisher.
8. The Defenders
Remember all that talk about Danny Rand in the Iron Fist section? It all rolls over here. The Defenders’ choice to center its main conflict around Iron Fist proved to be a dreadful decision, as the first and only team-up between Marvel’s Netflix heroes ultimately gets bogged down by its reliance on Iron Fist. There are, however, still a few moments that spark joy: The science-fiction queen herself Sigourney Weaver brings much needed fresh blood and gravitas as a villain, and while it’s far from the best hallway fight scene in Marvel TV history, the team coming together in Episode 3 is still a great moment. The series is far from stellar, but even its most hardcore haters have to admit it’s fun to watch the other Defenders spend the entire series making fun of Danny.
Runaways was a departure from the norm when it premiered in 2017. Most Marvel Television offerings were geared for an older audience, but here they took a leap and created a series for teens and young adults that, you have to admit, works well. Even with its large ensemble cast of heroes, Runaways does a great job of letting each character have their own room to mature, and it’s great to watch the kids grow together as they fight against their parents’ evil organization. Also, Gertrude has a telepathic link with a freaking dinosaur and if you don’t think that’s cool, then I don’t know what else to say. Even though it was made with teens at heart, Runaways is filled with fun and heartfelt moments that people of any age can enjoy.
6. Cloak & Dagger
Marvel’s second run at a young adult series came in the form of Cloak & Dagger. The series tells a story of two teens who are intertwined through their power sets and history. Airing on the cable network formerly known as ABC Family, Cloak & Dagger stars Aubrey Joseph and Olivia Holt as Cloak and Dagger, respectively, and Power Rangers Dino Thunder Yellow Ranger Emma Lahana joins as Brigid O’Reilly and pulls double duty in Season 2 as the villain Mayhem. In all honesty, I enjoyed Cloak & Dagger more than I thought I would. The show could have easily been weighed down by typical YA drama, but it avoids those tropes by building an extremely genuine environment. The characters, the decisions they make, and the lessons learned are all very believable, even in a world inhabited by heroes and villains.
5. Luke Cage
Let’s be clear: This series would have easily come in at no.1 if Mahershala Ali was able to stick around as the villain. He’s electric as Cottonmouth and gave one of—if not the best— performances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Thankfully for the fans, Ali will be coming back to the MCU as Blade.) Luke Cage never quite hit the same heights after Ali was dispatched midway through Season 1. With all that said, the series was solid and special for viewers. Remember, Luke Cage premiered in 2016, a full year and a half before Black Panther. It wasn’t as big, but seeing a Black superhero lead a Netflix show was genuinely significant.
4. Agent Carter
I will freely admit that I am higher on Agent Carter than maybe anyone else on the planet. Debuting in 2015, the show followed Peggy Carter as she settled into life after Steve Rogers’s disappearance after Captain America: The First Avenger, and it’s delightful. Hayley Atwell is phenomenal in the lead role. Given room to cook, she carries two seasons of network television better than most of the leading characters on this list. Edwin Jarvis (who is one of the few characters to make the leap from the small screen to the big screen), Daniel Sousa, and Howard Stark round out one of the more entertaining supporting casts in Marvel Television canon. It’s unfortunate the series couldn’t stay on the air longer, but I will forever maintain that Agent Carter is the most underrated series in Marvel history.
3. Jessica Jones
Only three shows have left me so shook that I had to pause an episode and come back to it later. The Wire and Game of Thrones are two of them, Jessica Jones is the third (Season 1, Episode 10, at 16 minutes and 11 seconds in … if you dare). Through three seasons, Jessica’s investigations intersect with her superpowers and provide a base for a riveting story that keeps you hooked. Krysten Ritter’s portrayal of the titular heroine is outstanding, while David Tennant as the Season 1 villain is a revelation. Kilgrave brings a terrifying conviction to a person comic readers knew was the definition of evil, yet he remains disgusting and charming on the show. It’s a shame we didn’t get more of him, but the show’s other villains are still up to par. With great acting combined with a compelling story, Jessica Jones is one of the more successful Marvel Television entries.
2. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
When Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiered in 2013 off the heels of The Avengers, something was immediately amiss. Between the monster-of-the-week formula not really working and the show sometimes being off the air for weeks at a time, it never really found a rhythm. That all changed when Captain America: The Winter Soldier came to theaters. By literally blowing up S.H.I.E.L.D.’s premise, it forced the series’ showrunners to rethink its entire approach. From there, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. used the freedom to take risks that completely paid off. From Season 2 on, S.H.I.E.L.D. was different, fun, and highly imaginative. The series was able to build multiple story lines around their dynamic core cast, tackling Ghost Rider, Agents of HYDRA, and LMDs—and that was just in one season! Following Agent Coulson, May, Daisy, Fitz, and Simmons over seven seasons is a real treat, and it goes to show that if you stick with something that has potential, you could be rewarded.
Even Ben Affleck couldn’t mess this one up. Daredevil is nearly flawless. Charlie Cox and Vincent D’Onofrio’s cat-and-mouse game as Matt Murdock/Daredevil and Wilson Fisk/Kingpin is a riveting throughline for the Netflix series, no matter how the dynamic changed. With a host of compelling side characters to help ground the story, Daredevil also found ways to keep the story fresh and interesting from season to season with the additions of the Punisher, Elektra, and Bullseye. The series—even the boring second half of Season 2—is made with care, detail, and energy. But what truly sets Daredevil apart from rest are its fight scenes. The action sequences are immaculate; from the fantastic hallway fights to the one-take prison brawl, there isn’t a show on this entire list that did anything as well as Daredevil handled its action.
Combine that with a great cast and captivating narrative, Daredevil is clearly at the top of the MCU shows.
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