With “Endgame” just a month away, it’s time to look back at the most successful cinematic experiment of our time — the Marvel Cinematic Universe — from its billion dollar cinematic heights to its most minor TV outings, to see how well they tell their stories with the means available to them.
44. “Marvel’s Iron Fist”: Season 1 (2017)
Before its release, “Iron Fist” was staring down a whitewashing controversy and the weight of having to build up to “The Defenders,” and it blinked. Hard. The characters, with the notable exception of Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing, are largely unlikeable and saddled with boring storylines, and the fight scenes that should have been the lifeblood of the series are perhaps the most incompetent in the entire MCU. Come for the mystical kung-fu, stay for the endless board meetings.
43. “Marvel’s Inhumans”: Season 1 (2017)
The first and only season of “Inhumans” is the very definition of “cheap,” which is doubly surprising when you remember that this was originally announced as a Phase Three film to be released between “Infinity War” and “Endgame.” Someone at Marvel must have realized what a stinker they had on their hands, so they slashed the budget and exiled it to ABC. This is a show that stars alien superheroes from the Moon and decides to send them to Hawaii for a fish out of water story. The only thing worse than the writing are the visuals, the ugliest in the MCU.
42. “Marvel’s Runaways”: Season 2 (2018)
After a full first season in which the titular Runaways never actually ran away, the superpowered teenagers at the center of the show finally escape their evil parents and proceed to do nothing but argue, keep secrets and argue about keeping secrets for an insufferable slog of a sophomore season. Other shows usually need a full twenty-plus episode season to reach this level of directionless tedium. Season two of “Runaways” does it in thirteen.
41. “Marvel’s The Punisher”: Season 2 (2019)
The second season of “The Punisher” has thirteen episodes and enough plot to fill half of that. The opening salvo is resolutely solid with brutal action and another wounded performance from Jon Bernthal, but the interesting story it sets up about far-right extremists is quickly abandoned for a return to New York City and a protracted and predictable game of cat-and-amnesiac-mouse between Frank and Billy Russo.
40. “Iron Man 2” (2010)
The worst film in the MCU is one of its earliest, a movie that uses most of its runtime to put the pieces in place for the rest of the universe while neglecting to actually develop a story of its own. At any given moment there are something like three storylines all vying for attention, and most of them end in anticlimax. Remember Whiplash? Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer? Tony’s dad leaving him the plans for a new element in the layout for his off-brand world’s fair? Good, because Marvel doesn’t want you to.
39. “Marvel’s Runaways”: Season 1 (2017)
This show is called “Runaways.” It is composed of 10 episodes. It takes until the final moments of the first season for the characters to actually run away. At about fifty minutes per episode and ten episodes per season, that’s 499 minutes “Runaways” spends spinning its wheels when it could be using its outstanding cast to adapt one of Marvel’s most inventive comics. The first few episodes are interesting, but after that, it loses steam with almost breathtaking speed.
38. “Thor: The Dark World” (2013)
There’s an argument to be made that “The Dark World” is a worse movie than “Iron Man 2,” but “The Dark World” at least has a single central story. So there’s that. Otherwise, this is a lot of what people who hate the MCU hate about the MCU. The villain is paper thin, the action is flat and the excellent cast is wasted in the movie’s desperation to get more banter between Thor and Loki.
37. “The Incredible Hulk” (2008)
“The Incredible Hulk” is the redheaded stepchild of the MCU, not because it’s the worst movie, but because everyone forgets about it until Wikipedia reminds them of its existence. Edward Norton famously butted heads with director Louis Leterrier on set and would eventually hijack the movie to create his own cut, and the friction between director and star shows in the complete lack of humanity in a story that’s supposed to be about one man’s struggle to retain his humanity.
36. “Marvel’s Agent Carter”: Season 2 (2016)
If “Agent Carter” were a Netflix show and able to more fully lean into its postwar noir trappings, it might be something special. Instead, it’s another ABC show with a ludicrously great star and a shiny coat of paint to cover up the fact that it’s more of the same sorts of stories. Peggy Carter deserves better than playing second fiddle to “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”
35. “Marvel’s Iron Fist”: Season 2 (2018)
The second season of “Iron Fist” is such a dramatic improvement on the first that you might mistake it for good at first glance. Unfortunately, while the pacing is better and some of the characters are more palatable, others are introduced to at least partially counteract that, including Alice Eve’s Typhoid Mary, who you know is evil because she has dissociative identity disorder.
34. “Marvel’s Jessica Jones”: Season 2 (2018)
So much of the second season of “Jessica Jones” is good — Jess’s headway in confronting her trauma and her relationship with her mother are emotional high points brought home by Krysten Ritter’s winning performance — but the rest of the season is an unfocused mess of forced drama that follows one of the MCU’s high points with one of its nadirs.
The journey continues next week with some of the MCU’s more minor successes. The franchise’s first forays into TV are revealed and a handful of pleasant if forgettable movies show why the Marvel formula works even when it stumbles.