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