The Marvel Cinematic Universe was once the most carefully constructed franchise in Hollywood. Each new movie required at least some vague knowledge of what came before. A decade’s worth of films culminated in every single superhero introduced in the MCU—including Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, Hulk, and Hawkeye—teaming up to defeat Thanos, a big purple alien with environmentally-sound but maniacal designs.
In Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Thanos made half the universe’s population disappear with a snap of his fingers. And though the Avengers were able to resurrect those they had lost in Avengers: Endgame (2019), the victory came at great sacrifice. Iron Man and Black Widow died. Captain America retired. Thor flew into space to have his own adventure. Thus ended what Marvel has dubbed “Phase 3” of the MCU. That left relatively minor characters to take up the mantle of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in Phase 4. It was at this moment that Marvel Studios’ parent company Disney launched its streaming service Disney+, and with it a slew of Marvel television shows to expand on the stories of the characters that will eventually make up a new super-team.
The results have been mixed. WandaVision, which premiered early in the pandemic, generated conversation across social media because of its creative storytelling. But other shows with impressive A-list casts, like Moon Knight, fell flat after promising starts because interesting characters were pushed into uninspired plot lines.
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Most of the shows have begun to feel more like required reading for future MCU films than fully formed stories that can exist independent of the Marvel machine. Throw in convoluted explanations of parallel timelines to understand how Season 2 of Loki connects to Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, and your head may start spinning. Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige himself acknowledged that the studio may be creating too much content and has decided to scale back. “People will see that as we get further into Phase 5 and 6. The pace at which we’re putting out the Disney+ shows will change so they can each get a chance to shine,” he told Entertainment Weekly. While Loki Season 2 just debuted and the animated series What If…? Season 2 is still scheduled for 2023, Marvel has pushed back other planned series like Echo to 2024.
If you’ve given up on tracing every character’s intricate storyline and are just looking to watch the most quality offerings in this multiverse, here are all the MCU live-action Disney+ shows, ranked.
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8. Secret Invasion
In theory, Marvel should be experimenting with genre. At a certain point, the same superhero origin stories get a bit tired. And Samuel L. Jackson is arguably the hardest-working man in Marvel Studios’ Atlanta compound with 15 superhero projects under his belt. Why not give him a paranoid spy triller in which he faces off against shapeshifting aliens who could be impersonating anyone in the MCU? But, without spoiling the series, I’ll say that Secret Invasion drops a series of utterly baffling and often illogical revelations for the sake of surprising viewers with “twists.” Characters we’ve followed for years are given confounding backstories. Shocking deaths or betrayals are undone mere minutes later. Moments of slick banter between Jackson’s spymaster Nick Fury and his British counterpart, played by Olivia Colman, are totally undercut by rote superhero storylines involving alien terrorists played by Emilia Clarke and Kingsley Ben-Adir. All four talented actors deserve better. And the CGI fight in the final episode may just be Marvel’s worst-looking one to date. —Eliana Dockterman
Read More: What to Remember Before Watching Marvel’s Secret Invasion
7. Moon Knight
Given Moon Knight’s tremendous cast and delightfully wacky premise, I’m upset that this show fizzled out so spectacularly. The first couple episodes were intriguing: We meet a man with multiple personalities, played by Oscar Isaac, who phases in and out of consciousness. He eventually discovers that when he blacks out he becomes possessed by an Egyptian god who grants him superpowers. Throw in a scruffy-looking Ethan Hawke as some sort of evil messiah figure who dumps glass shards in the bottom of his shoes, and you’ve got yourself an intriguing story that looks like it may just diverge from the same old “with great power comes great responsibility” formula of other MCU projects. But no. Marvel seems incapable of allowing itself to get too weird or its heroes too dark. As fun as it is to watch Isaac experiment with bizarre accents in his life as a museum gift shop worker/mercenary/terrible ex-husband, every time the character dons his superhero garb, the plot becomes boring. What a waste of talent! —E.D.
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6. Ms. Marvel
I applaud Ms. Marvel for fully embracing its main character’s journey and not getting too caught up in tropes. People expecting typical superhero fare rather than a teen’s coming-of-age story may be disappointed: The show is more about Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), her family, and her journey of self-discovery than it is about what exact powers the teen can wield. The show fully immerses itself in the culture of its first Muslim American hero and her neighborhood in Jersey City, a welcome diversion from the green-screened adventures of other series. But ultimately, there are better shows and movies about those awkward preteen and teen years out there—ones in which the main characters don’t have superpowers. I cannot endorse Ms. Marvel over shows that are more interested in the real challenges of puberty rather than the metaphorical ones, unless you’re specifically trying to track the goings-on of the Marvel multiverse. Plus, Marvel has a mixed track record when it comes to villains, and unfortunately The Clandestines of Ms. Marvel are no exception. They exist in the show primarily to introduce concepts like cosmic energy that will become important for Ms. Marvel’s film debut in November, The Marvels.—E.D.
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5. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier contains kernels of good ideas. Anthony Mackie’s Falcon hesitates to take up Captain America‘s shield because he assumes (rightly) that not everyone will accept a Black man in that role. Before he can spend much time meditating on the decision, a pugnacious white dude (played by a pitch-perfect Wyatt Russell) leaps at the chance to carry Cap’s shield instead. Weave in a B-plot about super-soldier experiments on Black men during World War II, and this show in theory has a lot say about who America does and does not allow to wield immense power. But any compelling points The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has to make about race, class, and privilege are largely overshadowed by a plot about refugees-turned-terrorists called the Flag Smashers that drags the pace of the show to a crawl. Marvel’s villain problem rears its head again.—E.D.
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Any time a sci-fi or fantasy project depicts a lead character that doesn’t look or sound exactly like Chris Evans’ Captain America, it can be expected that racism and misogyny will rear their ugly heads in the comments section. She-Hulk was no exception. When Marvel Studios announced the show at D23 in 2019, the comments on social media were an ugly sight to behold. Brilliantly, the show poked fun at them and stripped them of their power by including them as fictional social media comments after the character of She-Hulk is introduced to the world. She-Hulk also took a different approach in its storytelling, one that takes inspiration from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Fleabag in the way the show breaks the fourth wall and gives Tatiana Maslany’s Jennifer the opportunity to offer up quippy commentary. The story, in which the protagonist juggles her roles as an attorney and a superhero (and a 6-foot-tall green one at that), lent itself well to this quirky approach, and Maslany carries the show. The series also saw the official re-introduction of Charlie Cox’s fan-favorite Daredevil character, who MCU fans caught a glimpse of in Spider-Man: No Way Home.—Moises Mendez II
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This show is ranked high on this list not only because of the confirmation that Loki is a bisexual icon, but also because it explains so much. The multiverse is an essential part of the Marvel Universe, both comic and cinematic, but after it was introduced in Avengers: Endgame, many were still left scratching their heads. In comes Loki, which focuses on the 2012 variant of the character that managed to escape during the Avengers’ “Time Heist.” The Time Variance Authority apprehends him, and they explain to Loki (and the viewers) how the timelines work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, what the “Sacred Timeline” is, and why it’s important to keep it intact. Most importantly, the show’s first season introduced the MCU’s newest Thanos-level antagonist, Kang the Conqueror, played by Johnathan Majors. (Majors’ future in the MCU is uncertain after he was arrested in March and charged with misdemeanor assault and harassment, among other charges, following an alleged altercation with his then-girlfriend. Majors has pleaded not guilty to the charges and is awaiting trial.) The first season managed to balance all this exposition with a plot that chugged along; the beginning of Season 2 presents a concern the show could lose itself in all these details, but we’re holding out for a course correction. —M.M.
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If Marvel must produce television shows, WandaVision is exactly the kind of series that it should make. For several episodes, the show brilliantly interwove the mystery of how Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and her dead android lover Vision (Paul Bettany) wound up in some idyllic suburb with riffs on the family sitcom. Each episode parodied a different era of the ever-popular genre, from I Love Lucy to Modern Family, while offering tiny hints as to Wanda’s true whereabouts that sent viewers rushing to Reddit to offer their own theories. It was a bold, experimental entry into an emotionally wrought story about one woman’s grief. Olsen shone, as did Kathryn Hahn as Wanda’s nosy neighbor. But Marvel can’t seem to help itself: They insist upon big battles at the end of every story, at which point WandaVision turned into an entirely different, less compelling show. Still, here’s hoping that the spinoff Agatha: Coven of Chaos, built around Hahn’s character, takes a cue from its quirky predecessor. —E.D.
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I’ll be honest, Hawkeye is my least favorite Avenger, so I was not really sure what to feel going into his stand-alone show. But the first season offered ample justification for its placement at the top of this list as the best Marvel show on Disney+. Hawkeye perfectly balances heart and humor while still being keenly aware of its task to expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as Jeremy Renner’s titular character—who is ready to hang up his bow and arrows—unwillingly takes on a new protégé in the form of the witty, skilled Kate Bishop, played with verve by Hailee Steinfeld.
Throughout the movies, Hawkeye didn’t get much in the way of character development, and whatever we did learn wasn’t entirely memorable—until The Blip. His entire family was taken away from him, and he fought like hell to bring them back, so it’s understandable that he wants to spend as much time with them as possible. At the beginning of the season, audiences see him spending time with his kids in New York City for Christmas, but when he is unexpectedly forced to deal with enemies from his past, he sends the kids home and promises to be back in time for the holidays. Renner and Steinfeld expertly bounce off of each other over the course of six episodes, and Steinfeld shines with her impeccable comedic timing. Florence Pugh’s drily funny Yelena makes an appearance, complementing even more entertaining performances by Vera Farmiga (Eleanor Bishop), Alaqua Cox (Echo), and Vincent D’Onofrio (Kingpin). A hunger for Season 2 certainly exists among fans, though there has not yet been any official news on plans for another season. —M.M.
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