This feature originally ran in April 2015 and has been periodically updated 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 44 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
44. 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
43. 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
42. Iron Fist (2017)
Network and Lifespan: Netflix, two seasons (2016-2018)
Press Release: Missing for 15 years and presumed dead after his plane crashes in the Himalayas, young Danny Rand turns up in New York city to try and reconnect with the only family he has left. But things are different; Danny has become the immortal Iron Fist, sworn to guard and protect the entrance to the mystical city K’un-Lun from an ancient evil that just happens to be surfacing in the Big Apple as well. Using his powerful chi, Danny must fight to save not only his family’s legacy, but the whole of New York City!
Cast: Finn Jones, Jessica Henwick, Jessica Stroup, Tom Pelphrey, David Wenham, Rosario Dawson, Wai Ching Ho, Sacha Dhawan, Ramon Rodriguez, and Carrie-Anne Moss
Artistic Pedigree: Season one showrunner Scott Buck has had a hand in TV shows that range from good (Six Feet Under) to very bad (the last three seasons of Dexter); for season 2, Iron Fist brought on Raven Metzner (Sleepy Hollow, Falling Skies) to run the dojo.
Chop Socky Mayhem: One of Iron Fist’s potential pleasures from the start was the comic’s roots in kung-fu and chop-socky pictures from the 1970s, leading to the potential for some great fight sequences. Season 1 was decidedly a mixed bag; while Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing is a stellar performer, Finn Jones was still new to the job, and most performers learned their moves a few minutes before shooting. The results were decidedly tepid, to say the least. Luckily, season 2’s fighting was a huge improvement over the first, Black Panther fight choreographer Clayton Barber coming on to craft flowing, lyrical sequences that weren’t just great showcases for action – they achieved the impossible task of making Finn Jones look like he knows how to fight. It’s just one indicator of the day-and-night improvements season 2 made over the first.
There is always an Iron Fist…so why Danny Rand? Let’s face it: if you’re not a fan of the original comic, or comics in general, you probably had absolutely no clue who The Iron Fist was. Since there has always been an Iron Fist protecting the ancient City of K’un-Lun, why not change the timeline and let someone else take the reins (preferably someone who isn’t white)? Refreshingly, the show itself began to ask those questions too, as season 2 saw Danny realize that he was undeserving of the Iron Fist, and convinced the far more competent (and dynamic) Colleen Wing to take the mantle – setting us up for a Daughters of the Dragon pairing that will, sadly, never come.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” Stan Lee’s local cop trend continues here with a BE PROUD police recruitment poster featured in Episode 13. (It also crops up in Chinatown in the second season.)
Summary: Oh, Iron Fist, your ship was sunk just as it had corrected its course, bouncing back with a second season that adequately addressed most of the (very valid) criticisms of the first season. Its shorter ten-episode order ramped up the pacing, they actually bothered to get a fight choreographer to help the show live up to its kung-fu roots, and Danny (like the fanbase) handing the show’s reins to the far more interesting Colleen Wing. With season 2 leaving the show in such an interesting place, with Colleen in possession of the Iron Fist and Danny on his own quest for purpose, it’s a shame the punching bag of the MCTVU won’t get the chance to maintain its upward climb.
— McKenzie Gerber and Clint Worthington
41. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Runtime: 1 hr. 48 min.
Press Release: Bruce Banner, a mild-mannered scientist, is exposed to a heavy dose of gamma radiation and is left with a peculiar physical side effect: whenever Bruce gets mad, he turns into a hulking, green giant. And the government wants him too, and he has to fight another government monster or something. Just know that Harlem and the Apollo Theater get wrecked by Hulk, that sloppy green butthead.
Cast: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt
Artistic Pedigree: From the director of The Transporter and the film that made us say “Release the Kraken!” for a couple of months came The Incredible Hulk. Louis Letterier helmed this baby with speedy pacing and a so-so eye for special effects, but the man delivered on some nifty action set pieces and surprisingly good acting for a comic flick … that we’ve all but forgotten. D’oh, move along.
Mark. Ed. Mark. Ed. In a clear case of cosmic irony, Letterier really wanted Mark Ruffalo. But no. He had to deal with Edward Norton, a prima donna who personally re-wrote the script himself (credited as Edward Harrison). Hey whatever, it’s not like Marvel cares if they re-cast. Hey, what’s up, not-Terrence Howard!
Omar Comin’? File this under strange but true? Norton’s script had a character specifically written for Michael Kenneth Williams, because at the time, Norton really loved The Wire. Think about it! Say the Hulk’s a-raging, and Omar could slide on down the street, and you’d think he had a chance. But no, he got cut. Thanks, O-Marvel!
Hero for a Day: The casting was actually pretty through-and-through on this one. Norton negotiated in 2006 and eventually signed on, but only if he could star and write. The production struggled to find footing and tone after 2003’s Hulk, and this movie was being developed as a sort of sequel, a stand-alone, and a universe-building first step. You know, a really easy challenge for a movie about a big, angry science accident. However, art possibly imitates life, and if rumors were true, Norton was as big a dick as the Hulk was mad and green. And Marvel didn’t want to pony up more green to bring the talented but torturous star back. So hey, once again, nice work on Ruffalo, Marvel.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” This is the one where they jokingly put Stan in harm’s way by giving him a deadly dose of South American cola filled with Bruce Banner’s blood. Poor unlucky bastard, you’d at least hope for some super-powered accident for Stan. And then, he could do his own hero film. What? Just a thought.
Summary: It almost feels unfair to rank The Incredible Hulk among the rest of the MCU – at this point in the franchise, they didn’t know how far they’d go with their world-building, and until William Hurt showed back up in Civil War it barely seems to exist in the collective memory of Kevin Feige et al. Unfortunately, it’s for good reason – as a mediocre action picture it’s serviceable, but it pales in comparison to the rest of Marvel’s canon (yes, even with Hulk using a police car as brass knuckles). For all the criticisms of Ang Lee’s headier version of Hulk, at least it had more narrative ambition than the paint-by-numbers affair Norton and Leterrier produce. As a brick in the foundation of the MCU, it could easily be discarded with little impact to its structural integrity.
— Blake Goble and Clint Worthington
40. The Defenders (2017)
Network and Lifespan: Netflix, one season (2017)
Press Release: A disastrous earthquake shakes up New York City, grabbing the attention of four street-level superheroes making waves in the Big Apple – blind lawyer-turned-costumed-brawler Daredevil (Charlie Cox), super-strong private detective Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), bulletproof Harlemite Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and glowy-handed billionaire orphan Danny Rand, aka the Immortal Iron Fist (Finn Jones). Together, along with their respective mentors and sidekicks, they find themselves embroiled in a scheme concocted by the ancient ninja clan The Hand (led by Sigourney Weaver’s mysterious Alexandra) to destroy New York City, and band together to stop it.
Cast: Charlie Cox, Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, Finn Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Rosario Dawson, Elodie Yung, Jessica Henwick, Eka Darville, Elden Henson, Simone Missick, Scott Glenn
Artistic Pedigree: Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez were the showrunners of Daredevil‘s second season, as well as producers and writers on the first. Petrie has a long list of TV credits, from Buffy to CSI to Season 2 of Pushing Daisies.
Color-Coded Crimefighting: One of the more novel ways The Defenders tried to unify the differing visual and tonal aesthetics of its four leads was to adopt a different color scheme for scenes featuring each Defender – red for Daredevil, blue/purple for Jessica, yellow for Luke, and green for Danny. It’s on the nose, sure, but it allows for interesting compositions and instant recognition of whose story we’re following. Even when the Defenders finally…dissemble?… in the Chinese restaurant, eagle-eyed viewers can spot the different areas of the set where each Defender’s color wash is favored. For better or worse, it’s a quaint and inventive way to evoke the bright, bold colors of the comics.
“The Immortal Iron Fist…Is Still a Thundering Dumbass”: As in Iron Fist, Danny Rand remains the worst, a wimpy trust-fund baby with a glowing hand and a savior complex to match. Luckily, The Defenders leans hard into this characterization, which dulls the pain: he’s still a pill, but it feels so good to see everyone else recognize it too. Whether it’s Luke Cage taking him to task for not using his immense wealth to address wealth inequality, or the savage beatdown he gets at the start of Episode 6 by the other Defenders, Danny’s presence on the show is made more palatable by the show finally being on our side.
Talk to the Hand: Something Marvel failed to learn from both Daredevil Season 2 and Iron Fist is that no one cares about The Hand. At all. They’re a nebulous group of self-serious industrialists with an army of cannon fodder and a mystical chip on their shoulder, and the lot of them (Madame Gao excepted) are dull as dishwater.
Also, their plan sucks eggs: This is the big, earth-shattering crisis that brings together the four Netflix Marvel heroes? Earthquakes, real estate development, and dragon skeletons? Not even Sigourney Weaver (scowling her way through portentous dialogue as the underwritten Alexandra) can make The Hand interesting, leaving the show with a frustrating lack of stakes. Netflix was the one arena that had seemed to solve Marvel’s villain problem (Kingpin, Kilgrave), but they drop the ball hardcore here.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” Stan’s grinning visage can be seen over Matt Murdock’s right shoulder in “Worst Behavior”, as he trots past a very Steve Jobs-ian portrait of Stan the Man on the streets of New York City.
Summary: Just like The Avengers, The Defenders was Netflix’s attempt to weave their four major Marvel shows (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist) into one big miniseries event. Alas, The Defenders quickly becomes a tedious joke: the central villains are drop-dead boring, and the Defenders themselves often feel like stripped-down caricatures of the protagonists Marvel had already spent entire seasons developing. Even after cutting the run down to eight episodes from Netflix’s usual 13, the same pacing problems remain – endless scenes with supporting characters having circular conversations, repetitive cycles of characters getting captured and escaping, and so on.
Still, The Defenders isn’t a total wash, and there are a few charms to be had in this grand Netflix experiment. Throwing all the Netflix Marvel characters into the mix makes for some surprisingly entertaining dynamics (Murdock and Jessica’s snarky back-and-forth especially), and the episode where they all get acquainted in a Chinese restaurant is one of the show’s better hours. At the end of the day, though, the Defenders (yes, even Danny) deserve a better mission than punching a few ninjas in a cave next to a dragon skeleton.
— Clint Worthington
39. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Runtime: 1 hr. 52 min.
Press Release: Thor has returned home to Asgard, but discovers a greater threat not only to his world, but (duh-duh-DUH!) all the worlds. He must join forces with his villainous brother Loki to fight off a new evil, and save Thor’s beloved in the process.
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Christopher Eccleston, Anthony Hopkins, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgård, Idris Elba, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Tadanobu Asano, Jaimie Alexander, Rene Russo
Artistic Pedigree: Future Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins was originally attached to the This resulted in the hiring of Alan Taylor, who had previously helmed half a dozen episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones. The Dark World has the feel of a Game of Thrones episode, visually speaking, but takes itself far too seriously when compared to the breezy original, Kat Dennings notwithstanding.
“Who” Gives a Fuck About Malekith? A flaw many Marvel films share is their lack of a memorable villain. Doctor Who’s Christopher Eccleston is a great actor, but his Malekith is yet another unforgettable foe. You think they would have utilized Eccleston more, but wherever the blame lies, it isn’t with the director. Here’s Taylor with his thoughts on Malekith from an interview with Crave Online around the time of the film’s release: “You saw a lot more into the relationship between him and Algrim. You saw a lot more of what was driving him personally.” A director’s cut one day?
Captain, My Captain: I’ll leave this here. Feel the righteousness surge.
Hero for a Day: When one door closes, another one opens. That’s the saying, right? Anyway, Mads Mikkelsen had to walk away from the opportunity to play Malekith, but it was for the best. He got to play Hannibal Lecter on Hannibal, one of the best network TV dramas ever. And Mikkelsen eventually appeared in the MCU as the villain of Doctor Strange. Things have a way of working themselves out.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” Our man Stan finds himself in an insane asylum, listening to recently-mad Dr. Selvig (Skarsgård) ramble on about whatever he’s rambling on about. Stan just wants to know if he can get his shoe back.
Summary: There’s stuff to like in Thor: The Dark World. Heimdall gets a cool action scene, Jane gets to nerd out on Asgard, and the portal-filled final battle is incredibly visually inventive. Plus this is arguably the MCU movie that uses Loki to his fullest potential as a roguish anti-hero. Yet outside of some strong individual moments, The Dark World is just kind of a mess. It’s choppy, forgettable (we’re looking at you Malekith!), and pretty inconsequential for much of the ensuing MCU. On the other hand, we do have to point out that while Ragnarok is definitely the funniest Thor movie, it’s not the only one with jokes. This one features Thor riding the London underground and Mjolnir taking its rightful place on a coat rack, both of which are top-tier Marvel gags. It’s just a shame those jokes weren’t delivered by a movie with a little more meat on its bones.
— Justin Gerber and Caroline Siede
38. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 4 min.
Press Release: As the military pressures him to share the technology behind his Iron Man suit, billionaire inventor Tony Stark faces declining health and a new nemesis from Russia.
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Samuel L. Jackson
Artistic Pedigree: The first Iron Man may have cemented Jon Favreau’s reputation, but the director had already delivered strong work with the hit comedy Elf and the underrated sci-fi fantasy Zathura. It was a no-brainer to bring him back onboard for Iron Man 2, especially given his rapport with Downey.
Glass Half Empty: The infamous “Demon in a Bottle” story arc deals with Tony Stark’s alcoholism and remains a comic book touchstone to this day, but the Iron Man films generally away from such heavy themes. Favreau commented on this, stating: “I don’t think we’ll ever do the Leaving Las Vegas version, but it will be dealt with.” What we see is what we got, which is a shame, because Iron Man 2 could have used a more menacing villain than the outmatched tag team of Rourke and Rockwell. But don’t throw all the blame to Favreau; after all, director Shane Black was rebuffed by Disney when he tried to turn the page on the same story for its sequel.
The Cockatoo in the Room: Can we talk about that cockatoo for a second? Yeah, it’s a little weird. Rourke reportedly suggested the addition of the pet bird, and even paid for it himself. Fresh off his Oscar-nominated stint in The Wrestler, he seems to be having a pretty good time hamming it up as Russian supervillain Ivan Vanko.
Hero for a Day: Gee, Rhodey, something about you looks … different. Terrence Howard originally intended to reprise his role as Lt. Col. James Rhodes for the sequel to Iron Man, but a contractual dispute led him to quit. Years later, in 2013, a still-bitter Howard suggested that Robert Downey Jr. had betrayed him and stolen his paycheck. Whatever the truth, it’s hard to find fault with Don Cheadle and the film’s tongue-in-cheek way of introducing the new Rhodey to the world.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” Lee plays off his likeness to Larry King, impersonating the legendary talk show host as he tries to steal a moment with Tony Stark.
Summary: Iron Man 2 gets a lot of deserved grief for being the first standalone Marvel entry to experience the bloat of fusing MCU world-building obligations with a sustained, isolated piece of storytelling. Yet there are pleasures to be found all the same: the introductions of Rhodey 2.0 and Black Widow are perfect introductions to those characters, or at least their more comic sides, and Tony’s alcoholism makes for a compelling expansion of Stark’s character, even as it gets lost in a 2.5 hour film where a lot is going on.
— Collin Brennan and Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
37. Cloak & Dagger (2018)
Press Release: In Marvel’s version of New Orleans, two teenagers – Tandy, a young white girl born to privilege, and Tyrone, a young black man growing up in poverty – become inexplicably connected by twin tragedies that center around a collapsed Roxxon Oil platform. Drawn to each other by newly discovered superpowers, Tandy and Tyrone reluctantly band together to survive and solve the mystery of their powers.
Cast: Olivia Holt, Aubrey Joseph, Gloria Reuben, Andrea Roth, J.D. Evermore, Miles Mussenden, Carl Lundstedt, Emma Lahana, Jaime Zevallos
Artistic Pedigree: The show is created and executive produced by Joe Pokaski, best known as a writer for NBC’s Heroes, so at least he’s got experience with stories of young people grappling with superpowers. There are cheerleaders in this one, too.
The Big Uneasy: Unless you’re Ant-Man (or the Runaways), New York City is the default stomping ground for your average Marvel superhero. Cloak & Dagger moves the setting to New Orleans, which offers a slightly different palate to the show’s atmosphere. Right from the pilot, the collapse of a Roxxon oil platform offers some on-the-nose echoes of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, and one episode features one surprising character revealing his past as a member of a prominent Mardi Gras tribe. Here’s hoping more of that vibrant New Orleans culture bleeds through into the rest of the season. (I’m still holding out for a superpowered showdown on Bourbon St.)
Teamwork Makes the Dream-Worlds Work: While Cloak & Dagger is relatively grounded for a Marvel show, its conception of its titular characters’ superpowers is admirably inventive. Not only do they get their main powers (teleportation and light-daggers), each of them can read the minds of people they touch. The kicker is, Tyrone can only see people’s fears (manifested by visions of his subject in a dark forest), while Tandy sees people’s hopes (seen in visions of her looking in a brightly-lit glass room in the middle of the woods). It’s an intriguingly consistent way to manifest these psychic powers, and we hope they play around with them even more.
It’s Marvel-in’ Time!: Emma Lahana (who plays steely coke-addicted detective O’Reilly) is, strangely, just the latest of several Power Rangers alumni that have ended up in Marvel TV shows – she played the Yellow Ranger in Dino Thunder. Eka Darville (Malcolm from Jessica Jones) played the Red Ranger in Power Rangers RPM, while Nikolai Nikolaeff (Vladimir from the first season of Daredevil) was in Power Rangers Jungle Fury.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!”: While Stan the Man hasn’t shown up yet, executive producer Joe Pokaski says his mustachioed visage will be captured in a “fantastic painting… that’s hidden in one of our scenes” in the first season. That tracks with most of the Marvel TV shows, honestly – he’s a busy guy, he doesn’t have time for all this television nonsense!
Summary: As with Hulu’s Runaways, the teens of the Marvel universe have lives that are just as dark as their Netflix counterparts. Cloak & Dagger is about as grim as you could get – its leads are morose, driven by grief, crippled by poverty and drug abuse. It also tackles issues of race you don’t see much outside of Luke Cage and Black Panther; Tyrone’s confrontational attitude towards Tandy’s privilege (“This whole country’s trying to kill me every day!”) promises quite a few deeper conversations on the roles of marginalized people in a world where people can be more than human. Between its two compelling leads, and a novel cultural backdrop, the show demonstrates a great deal of potential to offer a new, edgier spin on the Marvel Universe.
— Clint Worthington
36. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013)
Network and Lifespan: ABC, seven seasons
Press Release: After Agent Phil Coulson’s death prior to the Battle of New York, Agent Not-Dead Phil Coulson forms an elite task agency within the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division to track the powers and threats now visible in the world.
Cast: Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Chloe Bennet, Iain De Caestecker, Elizabeth Henstridge, Brett Dalton, Henry Simmons, John Hannah, and on, and on, and on…
Artistic Pedigree: Creation-wise, it’s a Whedon family affair. Joss, his brother Jed, and Jed’s wife Maurissa Tancharoen brought the thing to life, and also wrote the pilot together. It’s got some of that Whedon wit, that’s for sure. It also has Clark Gregg, one of the most reliable players in the M.C.U, and the criminally underrated Ming-Na Wen. This isn’t prestige TV, which is fine, because that’s absolutely not the goal.
…But Who is the Zeppo?: Whedon No. 1 (that’s Joss) has said that S.H.I.E.L.D. is basically a series-length take on “The Zeppo,” an episode from the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which poor, poor Xander gets an episode all his own while the rest of the Scoobies are fighting a great big monster. So, just imagine that Coulson starts his own Buffy team, complete with some nerds and one hot asshole. Coulson is not a Zeppo, but you get the point. Let’s all just disregard the fact that “The Zeppo” also inspired one of the worst-ever episodes of new Doctor Who, “Love and Monsters.”
The Trouble With Spoilers: When you’re writing a list about things that have been out for a long time, it’s fair to assume there’s no such thing as a spoiler. But TV is the wild, wild west, man. One of the single most important plot points in all of S.H.I.E.L.D. is also one of the smartest decisions the show has made, and has to do with who is working for HYDRA, who ain’t working for HYDRA, and who has secrets that have nothing to do with HYDRA. There’s some clumsy plotting on this show, but none of those moments are among them. So here’s me saying those things are great. If you’ve seen it, you know. If you haven’t, you’re welcome, you have not been spoiled.
Hero for a Day: Adrianne Palicki (Bobbi Morse) and Brian Patrick Wade (Carl Creel) also auditioned to play Gamora and Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy. Not only did Palicki miss out on the chance to sort of awkwardly dance with Star-Lord, her own Marvel property bit the dust: Bobbi and fan-favorite Lance Hunter (Nick Blood) were slated to anchor the series Marvel’s Most Wanted, a project which ABC has now passed on — twice.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” Stan shows up early in the series, as a debonair passenger on a train the agents have infiltrated. He publicly shames Phil Coulson, which is unforgivable. Back off, Stan.
Summary: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a bit of mess, and there’s no way around that. Like the best messes, when it is good, it is very, very good, and when it is bad, it is rotten. But when Captain America: The Winter Soldier blew up everything we knew about the agency, S.H.I.E.L.D got a jolt of energy that made elements of its second season a delight. The third? All over the map. The fourth? Closes surprisingly strong. The fifth? They go to space and Fitz-Simmons get married, what more do you want? It doesn’t always fire on all cylinders, but like nearly everything else near the lower portion of our list, it’s far from the worst that pop culture has to offer. Give it a try, if only to watch Agent Melinda May kick so much ass it’s almost indecent.
— Allison Shoemaker
35. Eternals (2021)
Runtime: 2 hrs, 37 mins
Press Release: After spending millennia protecting humanity from vicious predators called Deviants, a group of extraterrestrial super-beings called Eternals part ways. A few millennia later, the monsters return, portending an even larger threat to Earth. It’s up to three Eternals — Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), and Sprite (Lia McHugh) — to reunite their long-separated family to fight back. In doing so, however, they learn a dark secret about their own origins.
Cast: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Kumail Nanjiani, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, and Kit Harington.
Artistic Pedigree: Chloé Zhao moved from a history-making poetic indie film, Nomadland, to an interstellar, cross-century superhero epic. She brought her keen eye for simple beauty to the production, but after Ryan and Kaz Firpo came up with the story, then Zhao wrote the script, then re-worked it with Patrick Burliegh, then the Firpos got their own screenwriting credit, it became a case of too many cooks in what should have been a quaint kitchen.
An Eternity of Exposition: About half of the film’s 157 minute running time is spent explaining everything needed to understand what’s happening on screen. Flashbacks reveal the history of the Eternals on Earth as a means to understand their present day situations, but with so many individuals to follow in the present, we barely care about their past. Then again, even in the present, their battle needs to be re-explained because of a second act reveal that changes everyone’s motivations. It’s just too many characters to meet at once to give a damn about a fight that, frankly, only barely makes sense.
Mahd Wy’ry: You could go crazy as Thena trying to answer all the plot hole questions here. In particular, the main Deviant that is pushing our heroes towards a final confrontation that has nothing to do with him has completely indiscernible motivations. Worse, when you learn why the Deviants even exist, you realize they simply shouldn’t. Characters meet and say and experience things that contradict other things they greet and speak and do (the Eternals have been here for thousands of years, so why do only, like, two of them understand smartphones?); as beautifully as Zhao shot this, she wrote it into a disappointing corner of the MCU.
Too Many Heroes, Too Little Time: The biggest loss here is that much of the casting is truly stellar, but there’s too much slogging along to give anyone proper shine. Bryan Tyree Henry’s Phastos is brilliant, charming, and has a beautifully humanistic arc (and he’s the MCU’s first openly gay hero); Lauren Ridloff doesn’t get nearly enough screen time as Marvel’s first deaf hero, the speedster Makkari; and Kumail Nanjiani is a scene-stealer with his comic relief.
And they all have such cool powers, with gorgeous graphic work, particularly with Henry, Nanjiani, and Jolie’s abilities. But then Jolie’s Thena is hampered with an inconsistent brain injury, and Salma Hayek’s Ajak only becomes two-dimensional when the script tells us she is in the third act. There are going to be sequels here, so hopefully everyone gets a bit more time to do something beyond dumping details on audiences.
Hero for a Post-Credit: In one of the most surprising turns for a movie that bores through so much of its run time, the last two minutes are incredibly engaging. Kit Harington’s Dane Whitman is confoundingly unnecessary and unconvincing for his three scenes, but then we learn a big secret about him right at the end and golly do we want more of it. The first post-credit scene sets up a sequel that looks like it’ll actually take these cosmic heroes into the cosmos, while also introducing two completely new and amazingly cast surprise characters (though one is created using some oddly poor CGI). No spoilers here, but again, golly do we want more of these two. Bring on Eternals 2, damn it all.
Summary: Eternals is an ambitious failure. It’s one of Marvel’s most original superhero stabs, but it’s also one of its most dull and poorly plotted. It’s like Zhao tried to fit a Marvel movie into her style instead of the other way around, and it unfortunately didn’t work to her advantage. Still, there’s enough quality cinematography, acting, and MCU groundwork here to make it worth a watch. It’s just hard to imagine being anything but disappointed by what on paper should have been a new level of Marvel epic. Hopefully Zhao can course correct on the follow-up (hey, it happened with Thor: Ragnarok).
— Ben Kaye
34. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Runtime: 2 hrs, 22 mins
Press Release: After raiding a Hydra outpost, Tony Stark decides to use the gem in Loki’s scepter to complete the Ultron program, a global defense force that would ideally streamline the Avengers’ necessity, and finally bring an end to supervillains. Instead, Ultron becomes sentient, decides that humanity is the greatest threat to the future, and looks to destroy both the Avengers and humankind at large.
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, James Spader, Paul Bettany, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, and the list goes on …
Artistic Pedigree: Joss Whedon returns after the rousing success of The Avengers, for a second round tenser than the first. We’ll come back to that shortly.
What’s in a Name?: Curiously enough, Age of Ultron bears incredibly little resemblance to the 2013 event arc of same name. There are no X-Men, Hank Pym hadn’t showed up in the MCU just yet, and that’s to say nothing of the alternate realities in which the comic Age of Ultron deals heavily. The film borrows far more heavily from an Avengers storyline from 1968, at least as far as the creation of Vision and Vision’s eventual transition to the heroes’ cause is concerned.
On Troubled Waters: And now, more on Joss Whedon. Age of Ultron was marked by a strained production cycle, but perhaps the most telling factoid is the one about the alternate version of the film that existed at one point. According to Vulture, “Whedon’s first cut of Age of Ultron came in at nearly three and a half hours; eventually, he and Feige worked together to slice the film down to 142 minutes.” The fact that over an hour of film was excised from Age of Ultron ends up explaining a lot about how the film turned out. Whedon, in general, was very clearly burnt out, and started to distance himself from the MCU as soon as the film’s press run was wrapped up.
Hero for a Day: Curiously, James Spader was the first and only choice for Ultron. After all, what’s more sinister than Robert California’s signature droll-yet-menacing delivery? Spader also jumped into the role; initial plans had him simply voicing Ultron, but the actor ended up doing the character’s motion capture work as well. Sasha Pieterse and Saoirse Ronan were initially looked at for Scarlet Witch, before Elizabeth Olsen took the part. Apparently, her work with Aaron Taylor-Johnson on Godzilla played some role in both of them taking the parts as the Maximoff siblings.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” Early on, at the Avengers’ ill-fated “mission accomplished” party, Thor and Steve Rogers start knocking back some ancient Asgardian liquor. Unimpressed with their bravado, Lee’s World War II vet asks for a pour, and is promptly carried out, trashed and declaring “Excelsior!”
Summary: “Divisive” is the best word to describe Age of Ultron. Not only was the critical reaction mixed, but the film itself often feels divided. It’s clearly bitten off more than it can chew; rarely has a Marvel film felt this scattershot or this governed by universe-building objectives. At one point, Thor disappears into an underground cave to listen to some Infinity Stone exposition that doesn’t particularly serve this film or even future ones, really. And the less said about that rushed Black Widow/Hulk romance, the better.
Yet to its credit, Age of Ultron is never lacking in ambition. The film tries to to tackle big philosophical questions about safety, technology, heroism, and human nature, best exemplified in a gorgeous scene in which the movie unexpectedly slows down to let Ultron and Vision — two of Tony Stark’s robotic creations — discuss the nature of humanity. The film has solid character-centric stuff throughout, including a comedic interlude at Tony’s house (complete with a hilarious hammer-lifting competition) and a more somber visit to Hawkeye’s secret farm. And while some of Ultron’s action scenes feel rote, the film at least displays an admirable commitment to showing superheroes actually, you know, saving people. There’s probably a much better movie to be made with this material, ideally one that puts more focus on the film’s fascinating but underutilized villain. But if Age of Ultron is a bit of a failure, at least it’s a noble one.
— Dominick Suzanne-Mayer and Caroline Siede
33. Marvel’s Runaways (2017)
Network and Lifespan: Hulu, ongoing (two seasons, with an upcoming third confirmed)
Press Release: Adapted from the comic series of the same name by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona, Runaways follows a group of six teenagers – tech genius Alex (Rhenzy Feliz), Wiccan Nico (Lyrica Okano), preppy blonde Karolina (Virginia Gardner), riot grrl SJW Gert (Ariela Barer), stealth-nerdy jock Chase (Gregg Sulkin), and the youngest, Molly (Allegra Acosta) – as they slowly start to discover their parents aren’t just overbearing control freaks, but supervillains.
Cast: Rhenzy Feliz, Lyrica Okano, Virginia Gardner, Ariela Barer, Gregg Sulkin, Allegra Acosta, Angel Parker, Ryan Sans, Annie Aersching, Kip Pardue, Ever Carradine, James Marsters, Brigid Brannagh, Kevin Weisman, Brittany Ishibashi, James Yaegashi, Julian McMahon
Artistic Pedigree: Runaways’ teen bonafides come courtesy of Josh Schwartz, who created and executive produced The O.C. and co-created Chuck. He and fellow showrunner Stephanie Savage developed Gossip Girltogether for The CW, making for a creative team uniquely suited to complicated adolescent intrigue.
Super Friends: Patently pitched as The Avengers meets The O.C., Hulu’s Runaways is nothing without its central cast of talented, dynamic young actors. Each of the six Runaways does surprisingly good work with the material they’re given, juggling adolescent angst with the larger questions of their newfound abilities and the larger impact their family squabbles have on the world. Whether they’re wrestling with their feelings about each other, or wrangling a loose velociraptor, the Runaways are an eclectic and magnetic group of youngsters whose rekindled friendship is more important to the show than any of their powers.
Parents Just Don’t Understand: Unlike the comics, the members of Pride – a cabal comprised of the Runaways’ parents, dedicated to sacrificing people’s lives to maintain the life of their benefactor Jonah (Julian McMahon) – don’t have superpowers, nor are they patently villainous. In fact, one of the show’s greatest strengths is fleshing out the differing motivations, desires, and dedications to the cause they each possess. While their goals run opposite to that of the Runaways, the show takes time to let us know where they’re coming from – whether they’re trapped by obligation to Jonah, or forbidden love for another member of Pride. They all get their moments, but Kevin Weisman and Brigid Brannagh deserve special mention as Gert’s crunchy-science-hippie parents, who come the closest to being completely sympathetic.
Go, Gert: While the show’s large ensemble makes it hard for any one member to stand out, Ariela Barer’s Gert is a wonderfully distinct character who at once embodies all the stereotypes of an overbearing, social justice-minded teenager – dyed hair, constant talk about the patriarchy – while grounding it within an endearing insecurity. All her affectations are, at least in part, borne of a desire to stand out and abide by strong principles, making her the soul of the Runaways. Her awkward teen romance with Chase later in the season is just adorable, right down to taking time out of stopping Pride’s plans for world domination to put out feelers to Chase about how he defines the relationship.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” Lee shows up as a chipper limo driver in Episode 6 of season one, driving the Runaways to the school dance. “We’re here!”
Summary: Runaways is a much different kind of show than we’ve seen out of the Marvel universe thus far. For one thing, it’s not all that concerned with superhero stuff, the Runaways’ powers and foes acting mostly as symbolic window dressing for universal teen problems like “our bodies are changing” and “I want to rebel against my parents.” For a souped-up teen drama, though, you can do far worse; as previously mentioned, the ensemble are well-suited to the material, and the prolonged origin story of the first season (it takes them until the final minutes of the season finale to, you know, run away) gives the characters room to develop.
It’s not all sunshine and roses. Putting the superhero jazz on the back burner also means that this mid-budget TV show doesn’t have the resources to make major CGI elements like Karolina’s Rainbow-Brite routine or Gert’s pet dinosaur look super convincing. Also, the eventual reveal of Pride’s big plan gives one unpleasant flashbacks to the tedium of Daredevil season 2 (another mysterious hole in the ground? Really?!). Still, you’d have to be a stone-cold monster (or one of their parents) to not want to root for these kids.
32. Ant-Man (2015)
Runtime: 1 hr. 57 min.
Press Release: Hank Pym once left S.H.I.E.L.D. over attempts to replicate his shrinking-suit technology, rightfully believing it dangerous in the wrong hands. When master thief Scott Lang ambles his way into possession of the suit, he becomes Ant-Man, capable of reducing himself to microscopic size while retaining his fully-grown strength. But now, another suit is being developed at Pym Technologies, the Yellowjacket, which could put the world in danger.
Cast: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Corey Stoll, Michael Pena, David Dastmalchian, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Anthony Mackie, Abby Ryder Fortson
Artistic Pedigree: So Peyton Reed finished the film, ably so, but there are a lot of other fingerprints on Ant-Man. Look no further than the film’s four screenwriting credits, honoring the original draft by Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish that was written with Wright as director in mind. But Wright and Marvel notoriously disagreed over the number of required universe-establishing bits of symmetry the film was going to require, and Wright left the production relatively late into the proceedings. Reed came in to pitch relief, around which time it was announced that both Adam McKay and Paul Rudd were punching up the film’s script. There are also two or three other writers that were likely involved in additional drafts, but couldn’t be cited because of Writers Guild requirements.
On antiheroes: In a lot of key respects, Ant-Man might be Marvel’s first true-blue antihero movie. Yes, Tony Stark begins Iron Man as an arms dealer, but he ends up renouncing his ways thanks to his abduction, and is an outright (if sarcastic) hero from that point forward. Likewise, for whatever flaws in personality they may have, every Marvel hero is generally good, if tempted by more nefarious urges. Ant-Man, by contrast, is a thief. And at the end of the film, he may be an Avenger, but he’s still a thief, just one playing for the right team. Most of the movie is also about him committing various acts of high-end theft. It’s a weirdly subversive arc for Marvel, even if it’s right at home with the generally sardonic world the studio has established to date.
Hero for a Day: Sean Bean, Pierce Brosnan, and Gary Oldman were looked at for Hank Pym. Curiously, so was Steve Buscemi, whose very presence would have made Ant-Man a very different movie. At one point, Hank’s wife Janet (the original Wasp) was part of the proceedings, and might have been played by Emma Stone or Rashida Jones. Instead, Hope’s role was expanded, and Janet was saved for a later film (one still ahead on this list).
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” As Pena’s sidekick Luis breaks down the series of events leading to the revelation that Ant-Man’s services are being considered by the Avengers, Lee appears as a bartender.
Summary: Ant-Man might be a disposable Marvel standalone, but as those go, it’s an eminently watchable one. The endless rewrites led to a lot of jokes being worked into what’s otherwise a fairly standard, if effectively made, first installment origin story. That Lange’s character arc isn’t exactly a straightforward “hero comes into himself” tale also helps the film feel relatively fresh, despite arriving after so many other origin stories in the MCU and elsewhere. That the humor is largely funny helps a lot more.
It’s also cast to the nines. Douglas makes for a terrific Hank Pym, the old-timer swagger belying a wounded spirit who wants to help prevent the kind of mistakes he feared years before. He’s a curious parallel of Tony Stark; both came up with their master inventions to improve the larger world, only to fear what they might have made. And for such a goofy hero premise, Rudd is dead-on for Ant-Man, his charisma working well against Lang’s generally unsavory tendencies. For one of the MCU’s more lightweight origin stories, it’s a fine time all around.
— Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
31. What If…? (2021)
Network and Lifespan: Disney+, nine episodes, with a second season of nine episodes in development
Press Release: The Watcher sees through the mists of the Multiverse like a high-collared interstellar Rod Serling, ushering us through various stories that wonder what the MCU would be like if just one major element were changed — like Peggy Carter getting the super-soldier serum, or T’Challa becoming Star-Lord.
Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Hayley Atwell, Chadwick Boseman, Samuel L. Jackson
Artistic Pedigree: Head writer and EP A.C. Bradley has a solid resume in 3D animated shows, having written 23 episodes of Trollhunters and serving as head writer for the first season of 3Below. Each episode is directed by Emmy-nominated storyboard artist (and Genndy Tartakovsky protege) Bryan Andrews, best known for his work on Samurai Jack and — most pertinent here — virtually every MCU film since Iron Man 2.
The Bifrost Less Traveled: What If…?’s appeal largely lies in its titular question: What if major elements of the Marvel Universe didn’t come to pass as we expect? Ostensibly, that should make for some really wacky premises, but what we’ve seen so far feels disappointingly tame. From Peggy’s bout as The First Avenger to a tepid murder-mystery plot with the Phase One Avengers as the victims, long stretches of What If…? feel like palette-swapped versions of things we’ve already seen.
Earth’s Most Cel-Shaded Heroes: Speaking of palette-swapping, the animation style takes some getting used to. Rather than opt for hand-drawn animation or a more fluid CG animation style, What If…? tries to thread the needle with 3D cel-shaded animation that comes across as disappointingly flat and Flash animation-y. That’s hardly aided by the voicework, courtesy of a cavalcade of returning Marvel actors slumming it in a voice booth and hardly giving it their all.
A Ravager Never Flies Solo: That said, if there’s one episode of What If…? You shouldn’t miss, it’s Episode 2. Here, T’Challa (voiced by a returning Chadwick Boseman, technically making this his final performance) lets loose as the leader of a decidedly different roster of the Guardians of the Galaxy — including a reformed Thanos (Josh Brolin, back as well). It’s still slight, but carries with it a sly sense of space-heist fun, and Boseman himself gets to have the kind of fun he didn’t often get to have as the stoic Black Panther.
Summary: Boseman’s final bow aside, it’s hard to make the case for What If…? as anything other than a disposable experiment for Marvel fanboys. Once the novelty of a given premise wears off, the show rarely does anything interesting with it. What’s more, the anthological nature of the series means we don’t get to sit with the implications of some of the more dramatic twists and turns the Watcher shows us. It might get wackier and wilder as more of the series goes on. But until then, it’s decidedly disposable Marvel fodder.
— Clint Worthington