In the run-up to “Avengers: Endgame,” I’m running down every movie and TV show the MCU has ever put out and ranking them based on how well they tell their stories with the means available to them. This is part three of a four part series.
22. “Marvel’s Luke Cage”: Season one (2016)
As with many Marvel projects on both TV and on film, what makes the first season of “Luke Cage” work more than anything else is the casting. Mike Colter is electric in the title role, so unbelievably charismatic in every scene that you couldn’t take your eyes off him if you wanted to. He’s more than matched by his villains, played just as magnificently by Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard. Seriously uneven narrative aside, the worst part of the season might just be that no amount of time with these characters would be enough.
21. “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”: Season three (2015-2016)
“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” truly comes into its own in its third season, with Brett Dalton completing his transformation from a “big, brave brick of meat” into one of the most deliciously evil villains the MCU has yet offered. Meanwhile, Ian De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge prove themselves to be the show’s hidden weapons — not just charming, but capable of wringing more emotion out of a single glance than some onscreen couples can with entire scenes.
20. “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017)
“Ragnarok”’s greatest weakness is that it’s a sequel to “The Dark World,” and thus must spend its entire first act cleaning up that film’s mess before Taika Waititi can get around to telling his own story. There’s a notable shift the moment the story gets to Sakaar, and from there, Waititi is free to realize his heavy metal-inspired dreams for all to see. I may not love this as much as others, but there’s no denying how special it is to watch the God of Thunder finally get his due in his third solo film.
19. “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011)
“The First Avenger” is a delight: an old-fashioned, pulpy, cheesy delight. From the moment he first steps foot on screen, Steve Rogers is everything a superhero should be — brave, noble and selfless — and that’s before he’s turned into a beefcake. The film functions in much the same way; it’s a big-hearted ode to classic superhero movies, one that reminds everyone watching that they don’t need a star-spangled shield to be a hero.
18. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017)
Whatever the flaws of the landmark Sony/Marvel effort, director Jon Watts absolutely nails the most important parts of “Spider-Man: Homecoming” — namely, Spider-Man here feels more human than any interpretation of the character since “Spider-Man 2.” Much of this is due to the casting of Tom Holland in the title role but just as superb is Michael Keaton as the Vulture, grounding the yet another larger-than-life story of the film in some semblance of humanist reality.
17. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015)
People dislike “Iron Man 2.” People are ambivalent about “The Incredible Hulk.” But people hate “Age of Ultron,” and I just don’t get it. It would have been so easy for Joss Whedon to let his characters stagnate in their second team-up flick, but instead, he gives them arcs that admirably walk the line of self-containment and feeding into conflicts to come. The action will always be a big draw for these movies, but “Age of Ultron” also understands that just as important are the moments where the movie slows down to give the Avengers time to grow.
16. “Captain Marvel” (2019)
As if proving my point about “Age of Ultron,” the MCU’s most recent big screen outing is at its worst during its action scenes, which all-too-often come down to people just shooting beams at each other. Thankfully, much more plentiful are the scenes focused on the characters and their relationships. Captain Marvel is an immediately relatable potential leader for the next generation of Marvel movies, the supporting cast is one of Marvel’s best and Brie Larson’s performance is nothing short of incandescent.
15. “Iron Man 3” (2013)
Like “Ultron,” “Iron Man 3” achieved near “Last Jedi”-levels of vitriol from some corners of the fanbase, and like “Ultron,” I think it’s a gem. The title is almost misleading, as “Iron Man 3” is much more interested in Tony Stark outside of the suit than it is in him as Iron Man. Most of the movie is therefore spent with Tony running around without his armor, struggling to cope with his PTSD in the wake of “The Avengers.” It’s a startlingly real story to foist upon one of the MCU’s bigger personalities, but under the direction of Shane Black, there’s an intelligent sheen to the whole thing that makes it irresistible.
14. “Marvel’s Luke Cage”: Season two (2018)
The biggest problem with the first season of “Luke Cage” was that, after all the grounded examination of privilege and the politics of Harlem, the main antagonist was another guy in a supersuit. The second season rectifies this, electing Alfre Woodard’s Mariah Dillard for the role of the lead villain and setting the stage for a gripping season where the line between what’s right and wrong becomes more blurred than anyone would like. Her showstopping monologue in the ninth episode should have netted her an Emmy.
13. “Marvel’s The Punisher”: Season one (2017)
“The Punisher” would always face a tricky release, as releasing a series centered on a gun-toting mass murderer at a time of great turmoil of America’s relationship with gun violence is just a bad idea. There’s no glory to the story of Frank Castle, though. There’s not a moment the show asks us to actively root for him to shoot a place up in his quest for revenge. Instead, “The Punisher” takes a look at PTSD and the soldiers afflicted with it and in doing so becomes a mature, surprisingly affecting look at soldiers’ issues in modern day America.
12. “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”: Season four (2016-2017)
The fourth season of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” opens with Ghost Rider himself rolling up to a gang of white nationalists in a flaming Dodge Charger and crushing a man’s skull with his bare hands, and it somehow only gets better from there. By all accounts, the run of twenty-two excellent episodes that followed – split into three intensely character-focused arcs that kept the pacing lightning quick in seeming defiance of TV norms – should have changed the way broadcast television operated, and the fact that it didn’t is part of the reason why traditional TV is going the way of Edward Norton’s MCU career.
Next week, with “Endgame” upon us, the MCU’s film arm blasts them out of the park like nobody’s business while the cream of the TV crop make their case for why they should have a shot at the top of the list.