We’ve been absolutely inundated with Marvel shows over the last several years. Well-known superheroes and cult-favorite characters alike have been showing up in seemingly every corner of television. A lot of this coincides with the rise of streaming services, combined with the fact that, until recently, several film studios were producing Marvel shows due to some old licensing deals that predate Disney ownership. This led to many adaptations with very different creative visions, not to mention levels of quality.
The result of all those deals with different production companies? Nineteen live-action Marvel shows across six different networks and streaming services since 2008, the start of Marvel Cinematic Universe, as of this writing. Many of which have little — or no — connection to the events that transpired with the Avengers on the big screen.
Over time, Disney has done some housekeeping, between regathering the franchises sold to other film studios and folding their Marvel Television unit into Marvel Studios proper. Now, with the end of Marvel’s deal with Netflix, and the addition of theirDefenders-related shows to Disney+, as well as the embrace of its characters in properties like Spider-Manand Hawkeye, there’s a level of interconnectedness present that fans of the comics have been wishing for.
Still, there are a whole lot of Marvel shows to catch up on, several with multiple seasons. It’s a daunting prospect for the Marvel neophyte. Which ones are worth viewing, and which are skippable? Fear not, dear reader, here’s every single one of them, ranked.
19. Iron Fist (2017–2018)
The first of the Netflix Defenders-related series to grace our list, Iron Fist’s real fatal flaw was that it was so … slapdash. Finn Jones’s casting in the titular role was announced February 25, 2016, and filming began in April. Jones told Metro in 2017, “I was learning the fight scenes 15 minutes before we actually shot them because the schedule was so tight. So 15 minutes before the stunt director would talk me through the choreography and I’d just jump straight into it.” His account was later contradicted by the stunt coordinator, Brett Chan, for the podcast JAMCast:
“Everyone’s fighting and the actor doesn’t want to train and … ‘Guys, throw me a bone. Give me something to work with here.’ That’s probably why the best sequences were with Jessica Henwick because she trained four hours a day and she had zero martial arts experience.”
The first season was rife with other problems, including the cultural appropriation inherent to the concept of a rich white man traveling to Asia and learning how to do martial arts better than everyone there. Those issues could’ve been overcome, honestly — season two was proof enough of that. But can audiences really be blamed for not wanting to take the time to get there, when the show’s own star couldn’t be bothered?
18. Inhumans (2018)
Inhumansis the “Fetch” of the Marvel Universe. They kept trying to make it happen, in comics and film both, and audiences just kept not biting. It’s a shame, really — the high concept is great! An isolated community of genetically enhanced people living in an invisible city on the moon should, ideally, be an easy sell. It’s fun, it’s got seeds for discovery and wonder in it. Instead, the first episode of the adaptation for ABC comes off like an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, only without that cast’s magnetic starship crew around to pay a visit. Audiences were meant to root for the deposed royal couple of Black Bolt (Anson Mount) and Medusa (Serinda Swan) as they were stranded in Hawaii, but the first episode outlines their living in opulence as their people are literally forced to work in mines for dwindling resources. There are plenty of superhero properties out there that fall into the trap of having their antagonists do something heinous to prove that their otherwise just reasons are a sham, but surely in this case, if Maximus (Iwan Rheon) hadn’t staged a coup, another of the Inhuman subjects would’ve.
17. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021)
Oh, where to begin? The constant attempts to portray Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) as a villain for espousing entirely sensible concepts like “people should have access to medicine” or “we should treat displaced people and refugees humanely”? The similarly futile attempts to portray John Walker as a flawed but good man, despite his callous rage and murderous tendencies? The weird character assassination of Sharon Carter? The Falcon and the Winter Soldierhad a whole host of issues, that unwieldy title being the least of them. The Disney+ series had a lot of great features, too — the return of the Dora Milaje, the introduction of Isaiah and Eli Bradley (yet another Young Avengers hint), some live-shot aerial action scenes, the absolutely perfect casting of Wyatt Russell as the inherently unlikeable John Walker — but those couldn’t save it in the end from being a confused, jumbled mess, weighed down by director Kari Skoglund’s bothsidesism. Caught between the Flag Smashers’ willingness to subvert the bureaucratic process in favor of direct action and Walker’s blind adherence to law and order, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) spent the entire show looking helpless as they attempted to find a nonexistent middle ground. Like Inhumans, TFATWS was asking us to root for the wrong side.
16. The Defenders (2017)
It was too good to be true, really. The dream of Marvel’s deal with Netflix was one that had fans in awe: Four separate live action shows starring Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist, to culminate in a final, fifth show that would unite them as the street-level super-team, the Defenders. When the first season of Daredevil released, followed by the first of Jessica Jones, it seemed like it might actually live up to that hype, too. The various Marvel Netflix shows had their problems, but they were still shaping up to be stunning achievements. Unfortunately, by the time each series had completed its first season (not to mention DD and JJ’s second), the cracks were beginning to show. The overarching plot we were meant to dread as we were gripped by the charisma of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk and Wai Ching Ho’s absolutely delightful Madame Gao was revealed to be … the same villains from Daredevil season two, only this time led by Sigourney Weaver. Despite the episode count being only eight instead of 13, Defenders felt impossibly stretched out, full of meandering story beats. Even the team’s dunking on Iron Fist couldn’t save it. All four of the leads’ solo shows would go on to have additional seasons, but the bloom was off the rose by that point. Defenders was the beginning of the end.
15. Helstrom (2020)
You’d be forgiven for forgetting that Helstrom existed. Originally intended to do for Marvel’s supernatural corner what the Netflix shows did for street-level heroes, the Hulu show about the son of Satan was hamstrung prior to its release by the folding of Marvel Television into Marvel Studios. It was effectively canceled in April of 2020 by the termination of Marvel’s deal with series creator Paul Zbyszewski, despite the show not actually premiering until October 2020. Other signs of lack of faith in the project were the removal of Marvel’s from the title, as well as the decision to not include the standard Marvel Television intro logo at the start of each episode. Debuting with little fanfare and to even less critical warmth, Helstrom was not long for this earth. Add to that mix the confused identity of the show, trying to be equal parts Lucifer, Hannibal, and Supernatural,and there just isn’t much to recommend it. Still, it does feature some decent character work, and has a devoted cult following online.
14. The Punisher (2017–2019)
It’s not that what The Punisherand its lead, Jon Bernthal, were trying to do wasn’t noble, it’s just that, fundamentally, Punisher isn’t a character with the kind of depth to sustain a solo series. There’s a reason that even his comics get canceled over and over: It’s because in a world of superheroes, he works best as an antagonist and foil. He’s an extremist character, and he’s meant to be — his 1974 debut in Amazing Spider-Man is explicitly intended to be a story about how his methods don’t work! He can sustain the lead of a movie, because those are only a couple hours long, but at thirteen hours, his hardline stance becomes a herculean exercise in drudgery, even accounting for his very relatable struggles with PTSD. The Netflix show’s meditations on what it means to be a combat vet in civilian life are its high points. Unfortunately, the rest is just dull.
13. Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD (2013–2020)
Truly, Agents of SHIELD was doing the best it could with what it had. A secretly alive Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) leading a similarly secretive team, AoS’ big problem early on is that it just wasn’t that interesting. It slogged its way through most of its first season on ABC, before thebig Hydra-infiltration reveal in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier finally gave it the license to do something exciting. AoS isn’t the first show to subvert the trope of the clean-cut pretty boy, but Grant Ward’s betrayal of the crew after nearly a full season’s worth of team-building was the hook the show needed. It remained a flawed enterprise throughout its seven-season run, but it continued to improve and had some very notable highlights — chief among them the shockingly good adaptation of the Robbie Reyes version of Ghost Rider to TV, as well as somehow managing to use the Inhumans concept better than, well, Inhumans. In a time before Disney+, Agents of SHIELD was the little tie-in show that could and remains a solid bit of background popcorn for the discerning freelance writer with terminally divided attention.
12. Runaways (2017–2019)
One of the only two Marvel properties to have an MCU movie announced and then shelved (hello, Inhumans), Runaways has the distinction of being the one with both a writer and director attached. Marvel greenlit that flick early on after the success of 2008’s Iron Man, but it was shelved only two years later. Instead of a feature film, the 2003 comic was later adapted into a show for Hulu that ran for a solid three seasons starting in 2017 before being axed along with virtually every other non–Marvel Studios show ahead of Disney+’s debut. Runaways remained consistently high in critical ratings for its entire run, proving to be a stylish update to the 2003 comic that blended the timeless story of teenage rebellion with a modernized Los Angeles. Runaways sealed the deal with more-accurate-than-usual casting and its willingness to actually depict queer relationships, to say nothing of the sheer joy of seeing Old Lace the dinosaur in a live-action show.
11. The Gifted (2017–2019)
Prior to the acquisition of Fox by Disney, The Gifted was the closest viewers were going to get to an actual live-action X-Men show. Operating at about the level of Agents of SHIELD, The Gifted was set in an alternate universe where the X-Men had mysteriously disappeared. The Fox show’s PR left fans nervous ahead of its debut with the announcement that it would focus on the Strucker family — in comics canon, while the Strucker twins are mutants, they’re more widely known (along with their father) as Nazis. The Gifted gave us something a little different, painting father Reed (Stephen Moyer) as a lawyer who blandly repeats the things he’s told about how it’s safer for everyone when mutants are put into camps, only to have a rude awakening when it turns out his own kids are mutants. The Strucker family went on the run and encountered the mutant underground, leading to the appearances of lesser-known (but no less X-ceptional) X-Men characters Polaris (Emma Dumont), Thunderbird (Blair Redford), and later, the Stepford Cuckoos, a hive mind of telepaths cloned from Emma Frost (Skyler Samuels). The Gifted only got two seasons, but it was a ride the whole way, and here’s hoping any future X-Men projects take a few pages from its book.
10. Legion (2017–2019)
Alongside The Gifted, Legionwas the other big X-Men-related show at the time. Instead of the overarching mutant struggle, however, the FX series focused entirely on David Haller (Dan Stevens), the son of Charles Xavier, as he wrestled with mental illness and multiplicity, both of which were supercharged by his awakened mutant powers. Legion hasn’t always been handled with the most sensitivity in the comics, owing to a time before the internet was a widespread phenomenon and information about mental illnesses was harder to come by. There’s been some work to correct that in recent years, though, and for all that Legion sacrifices scientific accuracy in the name of glorious psychedelic visuals, it provides a very endearing portrait of a young man who’s trying his best with a whole lot on his shoulders. Add to that the magnetic performances of Aubrey Plaza and Jemaine Clement and the result is a show that was truly enjoyable to watch. And the fashion!
9. Luke Cage (2016–2018)
Luke Cage was a Netflix Defenders show that seemed eternally on the verge of greatness, but never quite there. It was very, very good in a lot of respects, and a solid 70 percent of its first season features some absolutely timeless television. Mike Colter’s turn as the titular character was a joy to watch, and its Harlem setting felt both real and relatable. Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard both turned in absolutely riveting performances as Cornell Stokes and Mariah Stokes-Dillard, and those characters proved to be considered updates to their often racist depictions in comics. Unfortunately, the midseason twist involving the two didn’t really pay off, and the first season’s final villain (Diamondback, portrayed by Erik LaRay Harvey) felt cartoonish by comparison, using a powered exo-suit to challenge Luke to a fistfight. It’s not that shows like this can’t have cartoonish elements, mind you, but if they’re not implemented correctly, they can really mess with the tone.
8. Cloak & Dagger (2018–2019)
The trouble with mining Marvel’s vast archive of comic properties for adaptations is that not every risk is going to pay off. For every Guardians of the Galaxy, you have a Morbius. Cloak & Dagger is one of those properties that has languished around Marvel Comics for years, occasionally getting a series, never selling too well. Its two leads are victims of illegal experimentation and always on the run; whether they’re mutants or not changes every now and then (ask a Marvel fan about mutants versus mutates if you’re having trouble sleeping some time), but their one constant was that they were just never very compelling. The adaptation for Freeform was a refreshing balm by contrast; making the leads younger and connected by tragedy gave them an intense emotional pull, and updating their origin to tie it to the collapse of a Gulf platform owned by fictional energy giant Roxxon made them relevant in a way their comic counterparts’ ties to the War on Drugs never really succeeded. Cloak & Dagger got two seasons before falling to the same cancellation wave that affected every live-action show prior to Disney+, but since it was set in the MCU, here’s hoping we see those characters again sometime.
7. Hawkeye (2021)
Hawkeyehad a hard road ahead of it. The MCU’s version of the character is vastly different than his comics counterpart, and that’s with good reason: He was adapted largely from Marvel’s now-defunct Ultimate Comics line, which launched around the time of the first X-Men and Spider-Man movies and presented a newer, updated comics universe that was free of the decades of continuity hanging on Marvel Comics’ mainline. That’s where the idea of Hawkeye as a SHIELD agent comes from, as well as the idea that he’s married with kids. The MCU took that concept and ran with it, leading to the death of his family due to the Snap, followed by several years of Clint Barton running around the world as Ronin and murdering people of color like an even more hardline Punisher (it would have made more sense for him to die instead of Black Widow in Avengers: Endgame and I will stand by that opinion forever).
So when it was announced that Disney+ was giving Hawkeye a series, especially one that would star Hailee Steinfeld as Kate Bishop (also Hawkeye), the speculation was intense. How would this series manage to bridge the gap between the version the MCU had built and the affable disaster popularized in Matt Fraction and David Aja’s award-winning comic run? The answer turned out to be an inversion of sorts — Kate ended up with a lot of comics Clint’s beats, including Lucky, the Pizza Dog, the messy apartment, and the fun trick arrows. Tying the Tracksuit Mafia to Clint’s time as Ronin, and building the story specifically around attempting to atone for his crimes in that identity made for a series that had more heart than anyone expected, and the introduction of Alaqua Cox as Echo, plus the return of D’Onofrio’s Fisk (his first appearance on Disney+) made for an absolutely stellar cast the whole way around.
6. Moon Knight (2022)
The most recent addition to Disney+’s stable of Marvel shows, Moon Knight was set up to be a failure in every way. Oscar Isaac’s casting raised eyebrows among some fans from the start: A man of mixed Cuban and Guatemalan descent, Isaac was cast as Marc Spector, a Jewish character draped in Egyptian mythology (Moon Knight is the earthly avatar of the Egyptian god Khonshu). Additionally, Spector as a character is diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, meaning that multiple personalities exist in his head. Somehow, the show manages to neatly navigate all of these things in a mere half-dozen episodes, and treats Spector’s condition with dignity. It’s quite the feat, as it’s also wrapped up in a plot wherein a former avatar of Khonshu attempts to release a different Egyptian god, Ammet, who’s more fond of judging souls for the crimes they haven’t yet committed, Minority Report (or Civil War II, if you’re a Marvel Comics reader) style.
In fact, it’s proven to be a cleverer show than anticipated. When preview footage was first revealed, viewers balked at Isaac’s strange English accent in portraying Spector’s alternate personality, Steven Grant. It was derided as unrealistic and not really matching any actual English dialect, but it turns out there’s a reason for that in the latter half of the show, one that makes a surprising amount of sense. Sure, the suits look a little goofy, but Moon Knight’sgot heart where it counts.
5. Agent Carter (2015–2016)
Like a wartime cake recipe, Agent Carter made a little go a long way. An underbudgeted period piece struggling in a mid-season filler spot on ABC while early seasons of Agents of SHIELD were on break, Agent Carter still managed to somehow deliver a gripping story and compelling characters despite a total series episode count of less than even a single season of AoS. Set after the events of Captain America: The First Avenger, Agent Carter had Hayley Atwell and Dominic Cooper reprising their roles as Peggy Carter and Howard Stark, respectively, from that film. It also cast James D’Arcy as Howard’s butler Jarvis, as they chased down foreign spies and encountered an early iteration of the Red Room’s Black Widow agents against the backdrop of the late 1940s.
As a show, Agent Carter was full of fun and bombast, showing some of what its eponymous lead got up to after losing her love, Steve Rogers. It ended too soon, but had a lot of fun with the two short seasons it had, and there’s plenty of room still for stories of Peggy Carter, given the gap between the end of season two and her death decades later in the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Steve didn’t feel like talking about it in the epilogue of Avengers: Endgame, but maybe one day someone will?
4. WandaVision (2021)
The first of Marvel’s Disney+ offerings, WandaVision was in an unenviable position. Would the pilot show of the program responsible for so many other cancellations be a success? How would it navigate the story of Wanda’s magically created children with her android husband, Vision? The initial comics depicting their relationship were far more fun than they had any right to be, but the later ones, involving the end of their union and the loss of their children, were insensitive and misogynist, and it had looked like the MCU was already starting to tread that path with Wanda as a character.
However, instead of leaning further in that direction, WandaVision proved to be a thoughtful meditation on grief, loss, and trauma, told through the filter of Wanda’s childhood adoration of television shows. WandaVision set the bar for the current slate of Marvel shows, directly featuring MCU characters in main roles and with heavy ties to the films, a marked departure from the Netflix shows and their veiled references, or Agents of SHIELD and bargain discount, Oh, you want a SHIELD director and an Asgardian? We can get you Maria Hill and Sif. Best we can do. It’s not that those characters weren’t great, it’s just that … well, Marvel Studios and Marvel Television had kind of a one-sided relationship in that the latter spent its time reacting to the films of the former, while being summarily ignored in return.
With WandaVision, all that changed. Wanda and Vision were both reprised by their MCU actors (Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany), and the show sets the stage for events in the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, as well as the Captain Marvel sequel. The budget and the show’s narrative stakes both reflect the increased focus on integration; instead of a disregarded cousin, WandaVision was the first show to feel like an actual part of the MCU, a feeling that viewers are used to by now, but that was very novel at its debut.
3. Loki (2021–)
Lokiisthe first show I recommend to folks who aren’t sure about Marvel’s TV slate. It’s fun, accessible, and stylistic, and it’s willing to challenge conceptions in interesting ways. Owen Wilson’s charisma with Tom Hiddleston is delightful, and series additions Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Wunmi Mosaku provide characters with compelling depth whose stories play out against the background of a Variant, female Loki. Sylvie (played by an actively pregnant Sophia Di Martino), as she prefers to be called, spent her life running from an organization that wiped out her entire timeline on the whim of the Time-Keepers, in order to protect the “Sacred Timeline.”
Loki managed to weave a complex narrative that opened up the Marvel Multiverse, meditated on the banality of evil, and introduced Jonathan Majors to the MCU as obscure Marvel Comics character He Who Remains. In doing so, it set itself up for a highly anticipated second season as well as introducing a version (possibly a Variant?) of Majors’s character for the upcoming Ant-Man & Wasp: Quantumania,the classic, time-traveling Marvel villain known as Kang.
2. Daredevil (2015–2018)
The first show of Marvel’s Netflix deal, and the one that opened the door. Prior to this streaming exclusive, superhero shows had always been a bit goofy, constrained by smaller effects budgets than movies as well as broadcast guidelines that limited what they could achieve. They were fun, but always more than a little camp, and viewers versed in comics lore were always wishing for more. Daredevil was the first to grant that wish, spending nearly its entire first season mired in the moral conflict of blind lawyer Matt Murdock, a man sworn to uphold the law and unable to stop himself from pursuing justice outside of it. The Irish Catholic son of a boxer, Murdock has all the pathos of Bruce Wayne without the benefit of his blank checkbook, making do with store-bought athletic wear and a black bandanna tied around his head, a look adapted from the classic Daredevil: Born Again, by Frank Miller (Sin City) and John Romita Jr.
Opposite Vincent D’Onofrio, Charlie Cox sold Murdock’s pain and fury incredibly well, and Netflix viewers ate it up, leading the show to multiple seasons, awards, and a new paradigm in the opening credits of shows. Season two was bogged down by the same storyline that would cause Defenders to rank so low on this very list, but features high points in the introduction of both Punisher (Jon Bernthal) and Elektra (Elodie Yung), and season three proved a strong finisher for the show. When news of its cancellation came down, it truly felt like a shame. Now, with Charlie Cox’s cameo in Spider-Man: No Way Home, who knows what could happen?
1. Jessica Jones (2015–2019)
Truly, it was a toss-up as to whether this show or Daredevil would get the top spot, but Jessica Jones’ unflinching presentation of a woman struggling with the aftereffects of her assault made for harrowing television. Krysten Ritter’s Jones was a woman whose virtually limitless strength wasn’t able to save her from being victimized, and that made for relatable storytelling to just about every woman. Still, even with that recipe, it would have been easy for the show to fall into the same tired tropes too often seen with stories about assault: too much focus on the victimization itself, not enough on the consequences of it, or the victim in the aftermath. Yet Jessica Jones defied those conventions, letting its lead talk about what she’d been through, letting her struggle and feel real pain. It also gave us David Tennant’s sinister take on comics character the Purple Man, an entitled, arrogant abuser whose downfall at the end of the first season was fist-pumpingly triumphant.
Jones didn’t dress in skimpy tights or run around with a codename. She drank too much, made barely enough money to get by as a private investigator, and generally was miserable despite making a largely positive influence in the lives of those around her. It helped that the show didn’t share Jones’s derision of superheroes, too — while she might have felt a bit in tune with X-Men (2000)’s fear of “yellow spandex,” the show as a whole leaned into the weird, giving us Patsy Walker’s gradual transformation into Hellcat as well as an adaptation of Nuke, the failed attempt by the government to create a super-soldier in the vein of long-lost Steve Rogers.
On the whole, Jessica Jones was a show that was brave enough to try new things, and to present new sides to stories we’ve seen elements of before. In doing so, it created unmissable television and opened the door to long, long overdue conversations about the depiction of women in media, a thing we should be endlessly thankful for.