Talk about a thankless task: watching almost every Marvel Comics adaptation tossed at television screens since Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiered in 2013 and then arranging them in order of quality? It opens up all sorts of arguments about who's right and wrong, and all of them come to the same result. To kick things off, let's at least agree that no ranking is definitive; it all comes down to taste.
Because Marvel TV means different things to different people. For some, Disney+ offerings like WandaVision, Loki, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier are most pertinent to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, making them special (if not better) by default. For others, the grittiness of Netflix's Defenders saga (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, among others) trounce the offbeat experimentation of Hulu's Hit-Monkey, Helstrom, and M.O.D.O.K. And then there's The Gifted and Legion, Fox's disparate attempts at making X-Men shows without the X-Men. (Someone out there likes them!)
As arguably one of the most successful brands in pop culture, if not the most prolific, everyone has thoughts on the best and worst Marvel series. No two rankings can possibly look the same.
Now that Echo's premiered on Disney+, it’s time to take a fresh look at the landscape of Marvel TV. This ranking will certainly clash with others out there; know going in that's not just for the sake of being contrary. Appreciating what each of these 26 series has brought to the Marvel brand is one thing, but taking a clear-eyed view of how they stack up as television series in their own right? That's another matter entirely. The latter view will be applied to this ranking, a worst-to-best assessment of Marvel TV that grapples with story over spectacle, character over canon. (Sometimes, one thing is more crucial to a show’s success than the other. It’s surprisingly complicated!)
Avengers, assemble: this is Primetimer’s ranking of modern Marvel TV.
In establishing gritty origin stories for Cloak, aka Tyrone Johnson (Aubrey Joseph), and Dagger, aka Tandy Bowen (Olivia Holt), this Freeform series takes two of the more obscure characters from Marvel’s pantheon and distills their freaky essence into a treacly teen drama. There have been worse ideas. What tanks Cloak and Dagger is how unengaging it is: Vaguely assembled season-long arcs with parallel storylines concerning the broken lives of its two mopey leads so loosely threaded together that when they converge, the results can only be described as “elliptical.” Worse, its threadbare budget — behold the lousiness of that “Roxxon Corp” neon sign — only drives home what Cloak and Dagger ultimately became: disposable streaming filler.
Marvel’s Runaways takes a solid premise — superpowered kids with villainous parents decide to, well, it’s in the title — and dilutes it with hours of perfunctory TV drama. It would take three seasons for this Hulu series (co-created by The O.C. and Gossip Girl’s Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage) to become the frivolous goof it was probably always destined to be, embracing its campier aspects that put it a notch above the similarly cash-strapped Cloak and Dagger. (Go figure: They crossed over!) The prospects of Elizabeth Hurley as sorceress Morgan le Fay weren’t enough to warrant a Season 4, but don’t let it be said Runaways didn’t go out on the most ridiculous note possible.
Initially a part of Marvel’s Phase 3 film slate, Marvel’s Inhumans wound up on ABC instead. Its compromised vision amounted to Marvel’s biggest biff during its peak era, boasting a visual fidelity (due to being partially filmed in IMAX) that made its special effects, makeup, and costuming look cheap even by TV standards. This botched attempt at characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby ditched those creators’ grandiosity of vision and sense of wily fun for a soft take on Game of Thrones (with Iwan Rheon, Ramsay Bolton himself, as its villain). In so doing, Marvel ensured the Inhumans would remain far away from screens for years to come (mad multiversal shenanigans notwithstanding).
Shape-shifting Skrulls infiltrate Earth’s highest levels of government, and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the Earthman who promised them a new home and spent decades not doing that, is the only one who can stop them. What a premise! What a snooze: This Disney+ adaptation took an Avengers comic event (which, to be fair, wasn’t very good to begin with) and turned it into a meandering spy yarn in which B-listers like Capt. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and what’s his name Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) could play Spies ’n’ Aliens between tentpoles. Not even Olivia Colman, as Fury’s cheery but lethal MI6 foil, could save the day. Redact this whole mess.
It was only a matter of time before Patton Oswalt burst onto the Marvel scene. (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can count if you want it to.) Consider M.O.D.O.K. (Mental / Mobile / Mechanized Organism Designed Only for Killing) his cultural zenith after decades of über-nerd skulduggery. This abrasive, Robot Chicken-styled yuk machine, calibrated to maximize the comedian’s screeching delivery, followed Oswalt as the egomaniacal leader of A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics, lots of acronyms in the Marvel Universe). Its biggest innovation? Turning this giant floating head into a husband and father, which inundated the series with weak comedic targets like strained family relationships and corporate culture. Exhausting.
An X-Men show without the X-Men? Yes and no: popular mutants Thunderbird (Blair Redford), Polaris (Emma Dumont), and Blink (Jamie Chung) led this Fox series against Sentinel Services, a cut-rate take on the gigantic robot hunters of the comics. Here’s another “youths in peril” show where superpowers are conveyed by pretty people doing funky things with their hands as the sets around them explode in sparks, where everyone somehow keeps their eyeshadow on lock despite living under the threat of extermination. The Gifted might be an adamantium cut above similar super-fare with its engaging cast, but its slow tease of future X-events ultimately went nowhere. Periodically eXciting mutant mush.
Marvel's second Disney+ series is a lot. In fact, it's too much: There's The Flag Smashers, out to reset the world to its post-Thanos status (hilariously referred to as The Blip); an unhinged Captain America replacement (Wyatt Russell); and who could forget Zemo (Daniel Brühl), that unpredictable rascal whose dance moves became the stuff of memes? Topping all this off: a heel-turn for Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) and a subplot concerning America's exploitation of Black soldiers. Intriguing elements on their own, but the sum of The Falcon And The Winter Soldier was a chaotic game of Ultimate Frisbee, buoyed by Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan’s testy chemistry and sunk by the weight of its ambitions.
A pickled private investigator (Krysten Ritter), the Devil of Hell's Kitchen (Charlie Cox), a hero for hire (Mike Colter), and the Immortal Iron Fist (Finn Jones): theoretically, four combustible elements when combined. When all eight episodes of Marvel’s The Defenders finally dropped on Netflix, it was clear this power combo was all sizzle, no steak. Not for nothing, The Defenders was as big a swing as its tight TV budget would allow, with the casting of Sigourney Weaver as Alexandra, the leader of the ancient order known as The Hand, showing how much it meant business. Not exactly the MCU all-timer event it was hyped as, but points for effort.
As an international MacGuffin chase and an Eternals-level stab at signal-boosting underutilized Marvel characters, Moon Knight wears many hats. Most conspicuous is the actor's showcase it props up for Oscar Isaac; as Steven Grant, the flappable spud with a dodgy Bri'ish accent, and later, the lethal Marc Spector — and later still, other characters/aspects of Moon Knight — Isaac shows up to play. It's a mugging performance filled with tics that either speaks to his character's dissociative disorder or lampoons it. (Still up for debate.) Moon Knight might be a missed opportunity to faithfully adapt Marvel’s strange vigilante to the screen, but it's passable as far as these Disney+ jobs go, regardless of whatever Isaac’s doing here.
It’s a shame Iron Fist didn’t work out; a kinetic martial arts adventure would have been another slam-dunk for Netflix following Daredevil. Much has been said about Finn Jones as zen-billionaire Danny Rand, and while it’s true he isn’t much of a fighter, there remain reasons to appreciate this Defenders also-ran. Chief amongst them? Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing, who picks up the slack in the rock-em-sock-em department and livens things up whenever the Rand Enterprises melodrama wears thin (which it so often does). Jones would acquit himself better as the tag-along kid in The Defenders — imagine a Heroes for Hire spin-off with Luke Cage’s Mike Colter! — but left to defend his own series? Ouch.
Jessica Gao's limited series is a self-aware Ally McBeal situation where Jennifer Walters (Tatiana Maslany), superpowered attorney and cousin to The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), defends various legally compromised souls in the Marvel Universe. Court is in session until Jen needs to smash. (Er, take your pick of definitions.) Guest stars galore! While it is very much a part of the broader MCU schematic — Jen literally scales the Disney+ menu grid to demand Phase-related answers from a robot Kevin Feige — She-Hulk: Attorney At Law turned out to be an amusing if deliberately shallow goofball series that reached for low-hanging fruit (bad dudes, Marvel tropes, being single, etc.). It might have been junk food, but so what? Empty calories rule.
Riffing on the classic Marvel Comics concept, in which characters are subjected to changes big and small with the resulting effects observed by a cosmic Watcher (Jeffrey Wright), What If…? explores MCU tangents on a spectrum of inspired and insipid. (That "Happy Hogan Die Hard" episode might be fun, but it's still lazy!) On the plus side, it introduced us to Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell), populated Earth with the superpowered walking dead, and there's the bonkers Season 1 finale in which Ultron (Ross Marquand) used the Infinity Stones to break the multiverse. Its unlimited potential is gunked up by the Marvel formula more often in Season 2, but when What If…? cooks, it really cooks.
As a mid-budget spin-off, Echo feels crushed by expectations from the Disney+ content mill. Dig beneath the diligence it pays to other franchises (namely, Daredevil), and you’ll find a quiet story of generational power and personal growth. Admittedly, that’s a lot of digging, as Echo was clearly hacked down into a five-episode mess. Still, Alaqua Cox acquits herself with the same fury as in Hawkeye (those fight scenes!) while bringing untold depths to an exciting new character; truly, a force to be reckoned with. Compromise defines Echo in the days following its release, but with some luck, any future seasons will have much to build on: visible strengths, a beautiful cast, history, and heart. Not to mention grit.
Helstrom may be disliked more for being what it isn’t. No, this Hulu horror series isn’t about Satan’s kids running amok on Earth; it’s about smartassed siblings (Tom Austen and Sydney Lemmon) reunited through demonic possession and generational pain. That can sound boring, and sometimes Helstrom is precisely that, but there’s a stateliness to its production (think par Blumhouse) and, Austen’s stiff Daimon Helstrom aside, fun performances to enjoy (Elizabeth Marvel — save the jokes — is an exceptionally strong presence). Disney stripped this series of its Marvel banner years ago to separate it from the MCU brand. That’s where Helstrom belongs: Outside the noise, allowed to be its own freaky thing.
The yakuza crime havoc of Marvel’s Hit-Monkey feels like an homage to an homage — Seijun Suzuki by way of Quentin Tarantino — with a blistering amount of graphic limb-rending and other affected stylized violence. Yet it’s not without solid character work and a firm sense of dramatic cause-and-effect, attributes that so often elude live-action Marvel TV. Jason Sudeikis’ deceased assassin character does indeed grate the nerves (as an ersatz Tony Stark in both visage and voice, he never, not once, shuts up), and its herky-jerky animation puts an ache on the eyes more than it should. Yet Marvel’s Hit-Monkey has just enough offbeat thrills to justifiably merit a second season. And why shouldn’t it? Everyone loves monkeys.
Don't blame Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for its superhero shortcomings. Its attempt to broadcast the Marvel Cinematic Universe into our homes via ABC was thwarted almost as quickly as it premiered (courtesy of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which ostensibly put a freeze on all things S.H.I.E.L.D.). Besides, real ones know Agents became a better show once it steered away from the Avengers to explore its own intrigues. Its legacy might be a mess, but this seven-season run remains cozy entertainment for those looking to tune in for some mindless Marvel fun. And lest we forget, this boasts canonical first appearances of Deathlok (J. August Richards) and Ghost Rider (Gabriel Luna). Checkmate, every other Marvel show!
Made at a time when Marvel felt more family-friendly than ever, this Jon Bernthal-led actioner was unabashedly brutal, dirt-under-the-fingernails TV that explored bluntly rendered, blood-spattered paths that HBO might hesitate to tread. Does that make it unpleasant to watch? Sure. And if Steven Lightfoot’s Netflix series was simply about Frank Castle satiating his bloodlust, it wouldn’t be very interesting, either. But let the smoke settle and see how The Punisher explores Castle’s relationship with members of the police, military, and government who might, in real life, brandish his skull icon in tribute — or worse, a warning — for all to see. Then see how Bernthal navigates Castle’s relationship with these people with disdain, even hatred. It might come up short in other departments, but there’s no question this deliberate poke in the eye for those who idolize the character took guts.
Ms. Marvel is an example of a fine series that would have made a great movie. It starts strong — "Generation Why" is among the best episodes of any show on this list — but its finale, in true Marvel fashion, is hastily assembled, long, and obliged to seed the next few years of Phase-structuring (see its egregious use of the word "mutation"). The casting gods were kind; Iman Vellani's turn as Kamala Khan is about as perfect as these roles get. Her optimism keeps Ms. Marvel afloat even as it oscillates in tone and all but jettisons the neon-drenched Spider-Verse energy that bookends it. Its supervillain stuff might be deliberately mushy, as it's clearly designed to inform the more affecting aspects of our hero's life and family history, but that doesn't make matters any less messy or unexciting. Still, whenever Vellani is front and center, it feels like magic.
No wonder WandaVision gets so much love from the Marvel fandom; it's made just for them. It's a post-Endgame eulogy, where hard truths are compartmentalized under safe, familiar fantasies. Who can’t relate to that? Marvel’s first Disney+ series starts intriguingly enough, with Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) conjuring a Happily Ever After with her departed android boyfriend, The Vision (Paul Bettany), her lies glowing with the soothing warmth of reruns. Too soon after that, WandaVision sets up the franchise's next battery of shows and movies; Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) gets saddled with this busy work. People remember this for its performances (most notably from Kathryn Hahn, who was so good she scored a spin-off) and flirtations with surreality (those commercials!), and rightfully so. But rewatches have not been kind to WandaVision, a TV series so concerned with the future that its ending wound up in a movie that came out a full year later.
As the first (and probably only) Disney+ series to star a founding Avenger (Jeremy Renner), Hawkeye has too much in its stocking. Yet, even as a sanded-down riff on the original hard-scrabble comics run from Matt Fraction and David Aja, showrunner Jonathan Igla makes sure to spike his eggnog with just enough edge. The pairing of Renner with Hailee Steinfeld (as future Young Avenger, Kate Bishop) hits a solid bull’s-eye, and when it isn't stuck on LARPing culture, there's a Daredevil-esque pilot episode of Echo simmering at its edges. While all are welcome at this holiday feast, Hawkeye becomes overburdened with additional characters like Kingpin (Vincent D'Onofrio), Echo (Alaqua Cox), and, yes, Yelena Balova (Florence Pugh, forgive us), which keeps it from achieving the perennial classic status it might have aspired to.
The mulligan fate tossed to Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in Endgame took the God of Mischief to an unexpected place: Disney+. Loki Season 1 was a twisty journey into mystery that introduced fun variants of the character (Richard E. Grant, a wee little alligator, and, most consequently, Sophia Di Martino), all of whom showed Loki new ways to achieve "glorious purpose." Luckily, although the series went through a creative overhaul between seasons, the team behind Loki recognized that if they cast appealing co-stars like Owen Wilson, Wunmi Mosaku, and Ke Huy Quan, weaving through its multiversal nonsense logic might lead to exhilarating places. The sum of Loki is chaos; it's fascinating, frustrating, and, in Season 2, occasionally dull despite itself. Some might take issue with how Loki's malice was tabled for something more thoughtful, but there's no denying the series's final glimpse at its newly-forged God of Stories is one for the books.
Marvel’s Agent Carter was small potatoes compared to the first Captain America picture in terms of scale, but its premise, to say nothing of its charming lead (Hayley Atwell), gave its two-season run on ABC serious legs. Period-set Marvel shenanigans, wherein Atwell teams up with Jarvis (James D’Arcy), butler to Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), to expose the nefarious Leviathan organization while donning chic special agent gear like trench coats, fedoras, and the like… how was this allowed to sink? Blame the cost of doing business — period pieces are expensive — and shifting priorities at Marvel Television for putting the kibosh on poor Peggy’s show. Yet there it sits on Disney+, a crackerjack charmer for folks who enjoy the snap, crackle, and pop that can only come from MCU mega-writers (and series co-creators) Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Atwell’s future at Marvel worked out okay, but this? This had the goods to be great.
Here's a show that, by rights, should be at least six seasons deep by now: Luke Cage, from Cheo Hodari Coker, starring Mike Colter as Harlem's resident hero for hire, with a deep bench of character actors who lent this street-level superhero saga the depth and gravity it so rightfully deserved (Alfre Woodard, Mahershala Ali, Theo Rossi, Simone Missick, Rosario Dawson, the list goes on). Midway through Season 1, the series turned on a dime and began a far less subtle exploration of the blaxploitation roots from which Cage's Power Man was originally derived; it turns out two seasons wasn't enough room for those ideas to breathe. Even with appearances in Jessica Jones and The Defenders, Colter had so much left to accomplish as its star. If there's any justice, Luke Cage's return to the Marvel Universe will one day be as high a priority as Daredevil.
Private investigation is a dirty, dangerous business. Throw superpowers into the mix, and you wind up with a noirish wonder like Marvel’s Jessica Jones, the three-season Netflix series whose only crime was letting its first season be so great. That's where Krysten Ritter's frequently soused PI faces off against David Tennant's Kilgrave, whose mind-control powers put Jessica through an emotional wringer unlike anything you'll see in the rest of this list. Jones trafficked in difficult subjects — physical and emotional abuse, the trauma that comes from experiencing both, how a clean break from the past is only a dream — and in true Netflix-Marvel fashion, it rarely shied away from the rough stuff. Blunt-force honesty gives Jessica Jones its clarity of purpose, but Ritter's performance — acerbic and tough yet vulnerable when it counts — is its beating heart. The agonies and victories of Jessica Jones remain a welcome, hard-as-concrete detour from Marvel's silly gesticulating power set.
Let’s be honest: a psychotropic riff on the X-Men from Fargo’s Noah Hawley seemed like a strange fit. Thankfully, he let the druggy headspace of the reality-warping mutant David Haller (Dan Stevens, who absolutely goes for it here) venture into bizarre and sometimes nightmarish places, expectations and convention be damned. Legion did lose some oomph once Aubrey Plaza's Lenny/Cornflakes character took a powder; one part Sancho Panza, one part devil on David's shoulder, Lenny's sinister presence pushed the series to further outposts of peculiarity and salaciousness that it'd rarely return to. But throughout its three-season run, Legion worked its on-point set design, costuming, and special effects into a wicked, lysergic-dropped candygram. (Best of all, it wasn't above breaking out into dance sequences set to music by Nina Simone or Serge Gainsbourg.) People dazzled by Loki would be well advised to pop a gummy and soak in this Marvel miracle.
We’re so spoiled by the number of shows produced by Marvel that it’s easy to forget that most of them don’t make exceptionally good TV. Netflix’s Daredevil is good TV. It’s a gritty crime drama draped in crimson superhero garb; a character study about the corruption of faith, wealth, media, and self; a comic book adaptation that embraces its best stories and the creators who made them what they are. It’s true that the war between Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) and Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) was hard to top. Even tossing in the stick of dynamite that was Jon Bernthal’s Punisher couldn’t beat what came before. Yet there’s a reason why folks are clamoring for Daredevil: Born Again; even if the upcoming Disney+ series doesn’t hit these heights, it will be worthwhile just to spend a little more time in one of the MCU’s more forbidding corners. As a Marvel project, Daredevil remains the ideal.
Jarrod Jones is a freelance writer currently settled in Chicago. He reads lots (and lots) of comics and, as a result, is kind of a dunderhead.
TOPICS: Marvel, ABC, Disney+, FOX, FX, Hulu, Netflix, Daredevil, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, The Gifted, Hawkeye, Helstrom, Hit-Monkey, Iron Fist, Legion, Loki, Marvel's Agent Carter, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger, Marvel’s Inhumans, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Marvel's Luke Cage, Marvel’s M.O.D.O.K., Marvel's Runaways, Marvel's The Defenders, Marvel's The Punisher, Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel, Secret Invasion, She-Hulk, WandaVision, What If...? (Marvel series)