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 two of a four part series.
33. “Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger”: Season one (2018)
Like so many MCU TV shows, “Cloak and Dagger” coasts for as long as it can on its leads before conjuring up anything resembling narrative momentum. Well-built characters are, of course, the most important thing, but so often Marvel applies the same logic to TV shows as they do to movies — if the characters suit up by the end of their first outing, it’s fine. The problem is a season of TV is a long time to go without the reason people tuned in, so you end up with a show called “Cloak and Dagger” with a glaring lack of Cloak and Dagger.
32. “Thor” (2011)
There may be no MCU film as uneven in quality as “Thor.” On the one hand, it’s a character-driven story in which the Thor’s arc is intrinsically tied to how the plot progresses. On the other, that story is about as generic a hero’s journey as Marvel has yet put out. The Asgardians are further examples of Marvel's perfect casting. The human characters are bland, forgettable and a waste of superb actors. It’s deeply funny in some scenes. Elsewhere, it falls flat on its face.
31. “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”: Season one (2013-2014)
Of all the miracles the MCU has pulled off, the first season of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is one of the most impressive. The first 16 episodes are a mess of cliché characters matched with boring storylines, a show trying to justify its own existence in a universe defined by its big screen outings. Then, in the final moments of episode 17 everything changes, and “S.H.I.E.L.D.,” as if by magic, becomes tightly-written and paced, constantly pushing its characters to new, exciting places.
30. “Marvel’s The Defenders”: Season one (2017)
Over two years, Marvel’s Netflix shows laid the groundwork for their small-screen answer to “The Avengers,” and when it finally dropped, it was met with a resounding, “Sure.” There’s a certain joy in watching these characters come together, but the Hand had been boring through the individual shows and is no different here. I’ll grant that the twist at the three-quarter mark is shocking, but even that only serves to make everything more boring. The fact that another Disney property, “The Last Jedi,” pulled off a similar twist much more successfully that same year doesn’t help.
29. “Marvel’s Agent Carter”: Season one (2015)
It’s tempting to say “Give Hayley Atwell her own movie,” and leave it at that, but that would be a disservice to a pretty decent season of TV. In contrast to the lackluster second season, the first season of “Agent Carter” gives its star much more to do by taking place directly after the events of “The First Avenger” and showing her working through her grief while also having to deal with a postwar spy story. That story is still handicapped by its need to constantly tie itself to the wider MCU, but it was a promising solo debut for the character.
28. “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”: Season two (2014-2015)
The biggest challenge the second season of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” faced was translating the magic of the last five episodes of its first season into a full 22 episode run. To an extent, it works, thanks mostly to an expanded ensemble and some interesting narrative developments, but there’s also a good deal of growing pains on display in the pacing. Given where “S.H.I.E.L.D.” would go, though, that’s easily forgiven.
27. “Marvel’s Daredevil”: Season two (2016)
The tight focus of the first season of “Daredevil” is replaced by a bisected structure where anything and everything dealing with Jon Bernthal’s Punisher is great, forcing Matt Murdock to reckon with his actions in a way very much in line with the series’ core themes. Then there’s the other half, centered on Elektra and the Hand, which exists solely to build up to “The Defenders.”
26. “Doctor Strange” (2016)
“Doctor Strange” is essentially a more visually impressive version of “Iron Man,” but it’s saved not just by those vaunted effects but by the insane talent of its cast. Benedict Cumberbatch absolutely owns the title role from start to finish, embodying Strange’s razor sharp wit perfectly. Even better, though controversial, is Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, whose final scene ranks as one of the best and most beautiful in the MCU.
25. “Ant-Man and the Wasp” (2018)
If “Ant-Man and the Wasp” has a story to tell, it’s lost on me in the barrage of car chases, heel turns and one-liners. But in a way, that makes it the perfect movie to show why Marvel movies work even when they stumble. From beginning to end, this is a movie that finds its life in its characters, and Marvel’s willingness to focus on them even in the aftermath of something like “Infinity War” is a breath of fresh air.
24. “Ant-Man” (2015)
More famous for the drama during its production, “Ant-Man” is nevertheless the most immediately accessible the MCU has been since “Iron Man.” Again, it’s all centered on the character of Scott Lang and builds his character and his relatable struggle before it puts him in his supersuit and sends him off on his pseudo-science-fueled heist. What follows is a stylish blast, but it’s all built upon the foundation of the characters.
23. “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”: Season five (2017–2018)
“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” oversteps a bit with an admirably ambitious fifth season that sent its characters decades into the future. A handful of charming new characters and Fitz’s continued struggles with his own duality are definite highlights, yet after their return from the future, the show seems to be unsure of how to proceed with its central story, throwing Hydra into the mix yet again before finally settling on Graviton as the season’s Big Bad.
Next week, Marvel turns in one of the best, most miraculous seasons of genre TV broadcast networks have had in years. Meanwhile, a couple misunderstood cinematic gems get their due.