This feature originally ran in April 2015 and will be periodically updated and re-published with the latest Marvel releases.
Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we sort through the best and worst of Marvel’s seemingly never-ending cinematic universe.
Have a quick glance at this:
That was April 2006. Now, 15 years later, the outline for Marvel’s ambitious (many at the time said overzealous) plan to take over movie theaters has been made manifest. Under their watch, a movie partially centered around a sassy talking raccoon and a giant tree fighting space evil became one of the highest-grossing films of 2014. In 2008, Robert Downey Jr.’s career was still on the mend, and now he’s one of the biggest and highest-paid movie stars of the current era. Serialized superhero stories on TV are enjoying their biggest-ever boom period for Marvel and others alike, thanks to the brand’s immense success. At this point, the evidence is indisputable that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has permanently changed the way that both Hollywood and movies fundamentally work.
Avengers: Endgame brought three phases — and the original plan laid out in that post-credit sequence of Iron Man — to their end, but the Marvel machine is raging on, and we’d like to celebrate this genuinely unparalleled accomplishment. The how and why of Marvel Studios’ gambit working out so well is more complex than some will realize, but one simple explanation is that there’s a certain standard of quality expected from Marvel’s output, one that’s been consistently delivered upon with each production within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
So join us as we dissect what Marvel has accomplished so far by way of the 38 Marvel Cinematic Universe offerings that have been released (theatrically, on TV, or via streaming platforms) as of this publication. Because as we’ve now learned in abundance over the past decade and beyond, there’s more than one way to tell a great superhero story.
— Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
38. Helstrom (2021)
Network and Lifespan: Hulu, One season, 10 episodes
Press Release: Estranged siblings Daimon and Ana Helstrom spend their time apart hunting down the worst of humanity — and beyond. The son and daughter of a serial killer, each possess their own other unique powers. When it appears their father has returned, the two reunite to battle demons both figurative and devilishly real.
Cast: Tom Austen, Sydney Lemmon, Elizabeth Marvel, Robert Wisdom, June Carryl, Alain Uy
Artistic Pedigree: Putting someone who had past success in producer roles on beloved sci-fi dramas (Lost) and fan-favorite Marvel shows (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) in charge of Helstrom makes sense, so hiring Paul Zbyszewski is understandable. But treating a complex new corner of the MCU like any other series by throwing in a litany of directors (Daina Reid, Michael Offer, Kevin Tancharoen) and an inconsistent writer’s room wasn’t doing Zbyszewski any favors.
Spirits of Vengeance: Helstrom was meant to help launch a darker occult corner of the MCU, and it tried desperately to lay those seeds. You’ve got the Blood, an ancient race with ties to Ghost Rider and Doctor Strange; Caretaker, a constant companion of the many Ghost Riders; and Lily, a CW-ed version of the Mother of All Demons, Lilith. And yet you care so little about the characters at hand, namely the Helstroms, that you can’t bring yourself to even begin to be concerned with what the future holds.
If No One Hears You Scream, Are You Even in the MCU?: Marvel gave up on Helstrom before it even hit Hulu. The production was started by Marvel Television before it was folded into Marvel Studios in December 2019, and Zbyszewski’s deal was terminated four months later. He was allowed to finish the show, but the title Marvel’s Helstrom was dropped for the more deniable Helstrom. There’s not even a Marvel title card on this thing.
Summary: There’s really nothing here to make this a Marvel Cinematic Universe series except for a barely-there use of the Roxxon Corporation. This, in the end, is likely to Marvel’s credit. They’re well aware that the demonic side of their universe is going to take some careful finessing, and a fully generic supernatural serial isn’t the way to do it. There are some really cool things in this corner of Marvel (including Helstrom), so here’s hoping they figure out a more intriguing way to shine a light on it. Here’s looking at you, Moon Knight.
— Ben Kaye
37. Inhumans (2017)
Network and Lifespan: ABC, 2017-2017, may it rest in peace
Press Release: To most of humanity, the moon is just that big beautiful thing in the sky. To a group of people who are definitely, certainly, absolutely not the X-Men, it’s home, a place where they can hide their extraordinary abilities from the rest of society. But when a crisis in the royal family sees some of them banished to Earth, the Inhumans must stay hidden, make friends, and find a way back home.
Cast: Anson Mount, Serinda Swan, Ken Leung, Eme Ikwuakor, Isabelle Cornish, Ellen Woglom, Iwan Rheon
Artistic Pedigree: Showrunner Scott Buck has been nominated for seven Emmys. He was also the showrunner for the last several seasons of Dexter and was the creator and original showrunner for Iron Fist, but was replaced after the first season. I’m sure Scott Buck is a lovely person, and yes, that is shade. More about him shortly.
Let’s Put It In IMAX…And Make It Shorter!: There’s a lot about Inhumans, which this writer watched all of, god help her, that’s baffling, but the choices made about the show’s early rollout might be the most bewildering. Marvel and ABC took a cool idea — film the first two episodes of their hot new property in both standard format and in IMAX, giving audiences a chance to see larger-than-life characters in a larger-than-life setting before it launches on the small screen — and made it both a waste of time and money. The IMAX version highlighted the comically bad design elements, and rather than including more content for the die-hard fans determined to buy a ticket to something they could see for free, they actually chopped 10 minutes from the pilot. Why?
At Least There’s a Good Dog: There are some skilled performers on Inhumans, with Ken Leung coming closest to making Buck and company’s terrible dialogue work — though in Buck’s defense, the worst of the bunch is the almost entirely dialogue-free Anson Mount, who chooses to communicate the silent Black Bolt’s interior life through approximately three facial expressions.
Still, this is a section about the best character on Inhumans, who, coincidentally, also doesn’t speak. There is such a good dog on this show! Lockjaw is a giant teleporting pup. He’s enormous and adorable. He has something resembling a personality. He’s brought to life by CGI, and the CGI is well done. He’s not only not insufferable — a rarity on this show — but he’s a damn delight. If someone can find a way to work Lockjaw into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I will be very happy indeed. Hell, enlist him in the Avengers. They need a very good dog.
Hero for a Day: Vin Diesel was rumored to be in contention to play Black Bolt, a prospect he seemed pretty excited about. Our loss is Vin’s gain.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!”: It’s possible that there’s a poster somewhere that we didn’t spot, but as far as we can tell, Stan Lee gave this one a wide berth. There’s no cameo to be found.
Summary: You may be thinking to yourself, it can’t be that bad! You would be wrong. If you want to experience the best of Inhumans, just find a clip of Lockjaw online, preferably one where he’s alone. Better still, maybe just find a GIF. This is easily the worst entry in the MCU, and it’s not remotely close. Thank god it only lasted one season.
— Allison Shoemaker