We’ve come a long way since 2008, when the insanely ambitious gambit of Marvel Studios first put a hero on the big screen with the promise of a larger world. But claiming the big screen wasn’t enough for Marvel, who sought to bring smaller adventures into homes across the globe, each network or streaming service a new galaxy in its ever-expanding universe, each tenuously connected to the larger whole. Of course, that’s the nice way of looking at it. One could also say Marvel Studios got too big for its britches, over-extended itself to try and dominate the market, suffered a fissure in leadership causing the movies to write-off the TV shows, all resulting in a “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” attitude towards green-lighting series.
It’s undeniable that Marvel TV has taken some big swings over these four years, resulting in 15 seasons of television, but how many of those were swings and misses, and how many were home runs? Well, we’ve revisited all 15 seasons of Marvel TV, and we’ll let you know whether Marvel’s batting average can hold a candle to, say, Pete Castiglioni. We of course mean the Pittsburgh Pirates player from the 1940s, not Frank Castle’s alter-ego on The Punisher. Shoot, we shoulda mentioned, spoilers for everything up through The Punisher lie ahead.
15 IRON FIST
Sure, Marvel TV had had some stumbles before this much-maligned martial arts series debuted, but most fans had been able to forgive and muscle through with the idea that it all served a larger purpose. But the sins of Iron Fist were too great to ignore, the most egregious of which is its listless emptiness.
Sure, there will be plenty of folks in the comments who feel other shows might be “worse,” and were arguably bigger disasters. But in virtually every other case, those failed seasons collapsed under the weight of their own ambitious vision. In Iron Fist, from frame one, it was evident no such vision for the show even existed. Instead, viewers were treated to the blandest of walkthroughs, a belabored journey from point A to point B that seemed unable to invest the audience in its protagonist, mainly because its own creatives couldn’t figure out why they themselves should care about him.
From its origins as an unwanted movie to its failed IMAX debut and notably low ratings, some could argue Inhumans should rightfully occupy the lowest ranking, taken here by Iron Fist. But while there are certainly many reasons to absolutely despise ABC’s abysmally low-budget take on the Royal Family, from shaving Medusa’s head for an entire season to the lack of a single compelling character to root for besides the villain, there are at least a few elements worthy of the lowest amount of recognition in this barely-watched series.
Unlike Iron Fist, for example, Inhumans at least had the sense to only run for eight episodes, cutting down on the excess glut that weighed down even the finest Marvel TV shows. Additionally, credit must be given to the delightful Lockjaw and the occasionally enjoyable directions Karnak took during the show’s short run. Forgettable? Absolutely. Unnecessary? Sure. But at the very least, by virtue of low expectations, Inhumans didn’t disappoint quite as much as Iron Fist. So at least there’s that.
13 AGENT CARTER SEASON 2
The first season of Agent Carter was a colorful, quirky cult favorite among fans. A period piece revolving around a powerless minor movie character seemed to be proof of what strange and wonderful things Marvel had the freedom to do on TV, without worry about box office draw or international appeal. Unfortunately, though well-intentioned, its second season took a creative gamble that failed to pay off, turning off some fans while failing to bring in new viewers, resulting in the series’ premature cancellation.
The idea to move Peggy Carter from Marvel’s home of New York to the LA of Ellroy and Marlowe may have seemed like an obvious one, but the show just couldn’t quite keep the balance of drama and comedy that had sustained the first season. Playing your supporting cast as broad caricatures is fine, but simultaneously trying to invest the viewer in their interpersonal drama is asking a bit much, and somewhere in all that, the series sadly lost its way.
12 AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. SEASON 3
Coulson and co. had already broken ratings records, fallen out of fan favor, torn apart and rebuilt their entire premise and begun to regain critical favor, if not viewership numbers, by the time the third season aired. But while Season 3 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is arguably more consistent and sure-footed than the previous two uncertain seasons, it also squanders a lot of talent and opportunity, getting far too bogged down in both forced Inhumans references and attempting to satisfy Tumblr shippings.
Season 3 introduced some interesting elements, like the villainous Hive and the flawless one-off episode “4,722 Hours,” but even though it had some really cool toys in its sandbox, it never used them right. Though early advertising heavily pushed the “Secret Warriors” angle, that element did little more than fizzle, focusing instead on stale storylines like Grant Ward and Skye/Daisy’s Inhuman heritage. Like a new album from a band past its prime, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D found its groove with this one, but the tune just wasn’t that memorable.
11 THE DEFENDERS
This one hurts. The Defenders was the TV equivalent of being cheated on by your high school sweetheart. Not only does it hurt in the moment, but you realize all the promises made along the way meant nothing. Sure, the wonky second half of Luke Cage and the utter failure of Iron Fist should have foretold that The Defenders wasn’t the meticulously planned affair we’d been led to believe, but even with that we couldn’t have expected something that wasn’t bad so much as just plain boring.
At the end of the day, how much do you actually remember from The Defenders? The build up had given us the infamous “hallway fight,” the ominous Kilgrave, intimate and intricate interplay between Claire Temple and Luke Cage. The resultant culmination of this grand effort? A squandered Sigourney Weaver, a near chemistry-less cast (save Krysten Ritter’s ever-flawless Jones and some glimmers of camaraderie between Luke and Danny), and a hastily assembled plot that seemed like it was cooked up on a cocktail napkin at the Iron Fist wrap party.
10 AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. SEASON 2
By the start of Season 2, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D was in a tough place. Both trying to recover from a studio mandated dissolution of its namesake organization and a tonal retooling to try and adapt to the unrealistic demands of fans, the show tried balancing a dark, gritty espionage thriller and create a world full of superpowered beings via Inhumans, which had nothing at all to do with one Marvel exec’s personal vendetta against the X-Men owning Fox.
But amongst the confusion, there are some truly stellar parts of Season 2, including some showcase moments for the show’s standout cast members, including Coulson, May and a vastly improved Skye. By far, though, the show’s best decision was its new additions to the team, incorporating Adrianne Palicki as the iconic Mockingbird, and the sorely under-appreciated Kyle MacLachlan breathing new life into the forgotten Marvel villain Mr. Hyde.
9 AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D: SLINGSHOT
You may not have even known about this under-publicized spin-off series, but it's worth checking out for two reasons: one is its focus on one of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D’s most delightful, and diverse, secondary characters, proving she can more than carry a narrative all on her own (which, when it comes to non-white characters with accents, Hollywood still has trouble believing); and two, you can bang it out during a single commute.
With just six episodes at three to six minutes apiece, this web series builds on what Marvel had toyed with in its DVD-exclusive “one shots” while providing some immersive extra material for die-hard S.H.I.E.L.D fans. Short and sweet, Slingshot garnered both a Webby Award for Best Drama Series and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Short Form Series, arguably performing better critically than any season of its sister series.
8 AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D SEASON 1
We won’t pretend mistakes weren’t made with Marvel’s inaugural TV outing, but revisiting the loathed early season, we’ll say it: the fans were way too harsh on this one. Met with unrealistic expectations, with fans somehow assuming the show would feature near-weekly cameos from Iron Man and co. while introducing a new character from Marvel’s A-List every episode, then being outraged the never-made promise wasn’t kept, S.H.I.E.L.D never got credit for being what it was: a fun, family-friendly romp that was a throwback to ‘90s adventure series like Angel or Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.
That its “freak of the week” set-up and overly cutesy camaraderie masked their months-long telegraphing of the biggest twist in Marvel movie history is, in retrospect, absolutely brilliant. Not every episode is a winner, but Season 1 did a commendable job being two very different shows, even if neither one was the show fans had imagined it would be.
7 LUKE CAGE
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D Season 1 was two different shows because of a studio mandated split. Luke Cage was two different shows simply because the creative team couldn’t decide which it wanted to be. Fans bemoaned the blaxploitation-heavy second half of the series, preferring the grounded cool of the early Cottonmouth episodes, but a reverse viewpoint might have been expressed had the order been switched. We can’t say for sure whether one half was truly better, or whether it was just a matter of what we’d grown accustomed to.
What we can say is that when Luke Cage was good, it was God-tier good. That “Long Live The Chief” montage? Flawless. The menacing Mahershala Ali as Cottonmouth going toe-to-toe with Alfre Woodard’s ambitious Black Maria? Unparalleled. Mike Colter oozing cool out of every pore as he tore into gangsters set to Wu-Tang tracks? Amazing. It wasn’t always air-tight, but the show built a great foundation for an ideally incredible second season.
6 AGENT CARTER SEASON 1
Why so high, you may wonder? We’ll admit, the debut of sleeker, cooler Netflix shows, and an inarguably bad second season soured the memory of Agent Carter in many fans’ minds, but we implore you to take a second look at the show’s first season. Building on the best Marvel One Shot, but unafraid to trample on its continuity, the delightful Agent Carter Season 1 remains one of the most unique entries in the ever-expanding MCU, TV or otherwise.
Sure, a lot of that rides on the shoulders of the flawless Hayley Atwell, who elevated what could have been a one-off side character into an indelible element of the MCU. But the show also had a sense of style and scope that seemed a proving ground for fans' willingness to explore new ideas and new time-periods outside of the “present day powers and puns” format superhero media had almost entirely consisted of. Though good numbers in the key demos always eluded it, and it couldn’t make lighting strike twice, hopefully Agent Carter’s legacy will prove to be a single season of truly great television.
5 DAREDEVIL SEASON 2
Daredevil Season 2 took everything about its debut season and amplified it, for better or worse. You thought Wilson Fisk was an intimidating and downright Emmy-worthy antagonist? Wait until you see The Punisher. You thought Matt Murdock’s tortured double life couldn’t get more intense and overwrought? Wait until Elektra enters the picture. You thought Season 1 had a lot of momentum but just couldn’t stick the landing at the end? Wait until you honestly can’t even remember how Season 2 ended, can you?
Unarguably, the portion of Daredevil devoted to Jon Bernthal’s criminally underrated turn as Frank Castle proves how brilliant the core characters are, not to mention the capabilities of Marvel TV’s creatives. However, when the show tries to return to the matter of The Hand and the interplay between Murdock and Elektra, it becomes unwieldy, poorly paced and concludes chaotically. That said, damned if those Punisher scenes don’t carry the rest of this sloppy season.
4 THE PUNISHER
That trailer set to Metallica’s “One” teased a series that both satisfied America’s narrative bloodlust and wrestled with the demons that motivate that hunger, and linger in the hearts of the veterans forced to satisfy it. And guess what? The series delivers on all of that, in absolutely stellar fashion.
Bernthal delivers the best performance of any Marvel show to date, and there isn’t a weak link in the entire supporting cast. With scenes looking as though they were ripped straight from Ennis’ memorable MAX run, The Punisher is a satisfying series that raises some tough questions, even if it never offers any answers. If there’s a disappointment to be had in the series, its the action scenes, which never extend beyond standard TV fare, despite the cinematic style of its predecessor series.
3 AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D SEASON 4
If you stopped watching after Season 1, stick with us here. Not only is Season 4 the strongest of any ABC superhero series, it managed to solve the biggest problem facing literally every comic book series today, and hopefully serves as a blueprint for all of them moving forward, Marvel or otherwise. The idea of splitting the season into three “pods” finally rids us comic book fans of horrendous filler episodes intended to stretch one overwrought plot and a single “big bad” over 22 episodes (we’re looking at you, Arrow).
Instead, Season 4 not only crafted three compelling and interconnected arcs, but delivered on all the overly ambitious ideas fans had hoped for since Season 1. Incorporating fan-favorite Ghost Rider, playing with classic S.H.I.E.L.D tech like LMDs, and allowing the stories to flow on their own, instead of at the mercy of Marvel movies’ release schedule, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D Season 4 finally found its stride, and irrefutably makes the case for its continued existence.
2 DAREDEVIL SEASON 1
After the fun but forgettable ABC entries, fans were ready to write-off Marvel TV as mere supplemental material. That all changed with Netflix’s first entry into the genre, obliterating the memory of the cartoonish film adaptation, and proving that Marvel’s TV output could rival, if not outright surpass, its film entries.
It’s not just that Daredevil was dark and gritty, or that its writing found clever ways to blend contemporary Manhattan with the Warriors-esque hellscape depicted by Frank Miller. It’s the care put into every single aspect of production, from the art direction and cinematography to the profound performances from Charlie Cox and Vincent D’Onofrio (robbed of an Emmy nomination for his stellar Wilson Fisk), and most notably the fight choreography, culminating in the single greatest action scene in Marvel screen history, the infamous Raid-inspired hallway fight. This innovative and ambitious series set a high bar for Marvel TV, and only one series would pass it.
1 JESSICA JONES
As close to perfect as any comic TV show has gotten, Jessica Jones did what almost no other “geek” franchise could and crossed over into the mainstream in a big way. Its empowering (without being sanitized) female-centric stance both in front of and behind the camera made Jessica Jones must-see TV even for mainstream audiences.
It was a show of dualities, where David Tennant’s Kilgrave could be both unforgivable and sympathetic, where Ritter’s Jones could be both inspirational example and warning sign. It wasn’t so much a show “for women” as some wrote it off. It was what the best art is, a window into a world you may not know, inviting you to live in it, feel it, and come out the other side changed. In its somber virtuosity, as well as its portents of our present day sexual assault reckoning, Jessica Jones is an example of the lofty heights a “genre” show can reach.
What was your favorite (and least favorite) Marvel TV show? Let us know in the comments!