In 2008, Marvel's Iron Man kicked off one of the most ambitious experiments in modern filmmaking: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. No longer would superheroes be locked into their own isolated continuities; now, they would share the same vast world, just like in the comic books and TV shows that inspired the films. Iron Man showed up in The Incredible Hulk; Thor and Captain America were after the same magical plot MacGuffin; and the ever-affable S.H.I.E.L.D agent Phil Coulson was there to tie everything together.
It was really only a matter of time until Coulson got his own TV spinoff: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The Marvel Cinematic Universe was about to get much bigger, branching off into weekly adventures that would connect to the films in subtle but important ways. A rewarding, interconnected universe full of cameos and wide-ranging plot repercussions was about to begin.
Then, fans tuned into the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiere on Sept. 24, 2013, and watched in utter indifference as they slogged through 44 minutes of a bog-standard spy procedural that would have felt right at home in 1995. A few offhand references to the movies did not do much to improve the show, even though it shared an important connection to Captain America: The Winter Soldier and a pretty important supporting character from Thor.
Since then, we've had 23 seasons of MCU TV shows across 11 shows, totaling 252 (about 10.5 days) hours of content. And, like a fool, I watched them all, expecting some sort of profound connection to the films. If you were planning to do the same thing, let me give you a word of warning: Don't. The shows barely connect to the much-more-interesting MCU movies, and even putting that aside, most of them are just not that good, taken on their own merits.
Read on for a brief discussion of the various Marvel TV shows, and why they're (for the most part) simply not worth your time.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D started off predictable and formulaic, but got fairly interesting for about a season-and-a-half in the middle there, before taking a nosedive again. It also deserves some recognition for its stellar cast and the camaraderie they've built up over five seasons. But the show is mostly filler, and after its first major Captain America-inspired twist, didn't have much more to do with the movies until Season 5.
In theory, S5 ties into the events of Avengers: Infinity War, but the results feel a little… fanfiction-y, for lack of a better term? It's about a new threat that the "real" heroes are too busy to deal with that just so happens to coincide with Thanos. Eh. This one had so much potential, but wound up being much more interested in its own mythos.
Agent Carter shares one of the most profound connections with the MCU films, since Peggy Carter herself was a major player in the first Captain America film. But once the show planted Peggy in a proto-S.H.I.E.L.D. in postwar NYC, it found that it didn't have much of a story to tell about her. Season 2 was better, featuring a sunny California setting and plenty of Howard Stark (Iron Man's dad), but the plot sort of fizzled out, and didn't introduce anything that affected the wider MCU.
You thought Thor: The Dark World was uninspired and tedious? My friend, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Inhumans is a mercifully brief eight-episode miniseries (it was never picked up for a second season) about a team of superheroes that pretty much needs the Fantastic Four to be interesting. (The Fantastic Four do not show up, due to licensing restrictions.) Black Bolt is the king of the lunar city of Attilan, but he winds up displaced by his evil brother, Maximus, and exiled to Hawaii, where nothing of interest happens. There's a slight connection to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but nothing that affects the MCU overall.
If you're going to watch any MCU TV, the Netflix shows are probably your best bet, and Daredevil is, if not the best of the series, then at least the most consistent. In the aftermath of the Chitauri attack in The Avengers, a new villain called the Kingpin wants to make Manhattan into his own criminal empire. Opposing him is the masked vigilante called Daredevil — by day, a blind Catholic lawyer named Matt Murdock.
Daredevil has an interesting premise, and a story that transitions from crime drama to magical ninja martial arts drama and back again within three seasons. But it also sets up the problem that every other Marvel Netflix show shares: an overstuffed, inconsequential supporting cast, a meandering narrative and a leisurely paced 13 episodes with perhaps five or six of worthwhile content. It's also more interested in building up its own mythology than in connecting to anything past the first Avengers film.
See the blurb for Daredevil above, and you'll know what you're in for with Jessica Jones. Jessica is an alcoholic private eye, on the hunt for a psychic supervillain known as the Purple Man. And it's a pretty good yarn — that takes way too long to unfold, and has barely any connection to the rest of the Marvel stories. Season 2 has similar strengths and weaknesses, although it's a little more superhero-centric than the first.
Luke Cage was the first of two Netflix shows to get off to a rocky start, undergo massive improvement in the second season, and then get unceremoniously canceled. Luke Cage is a bulletproof black man in Harlem, up against a charismatic cabal of music industry gangsters. Season 1 starts and ends strong, but nothing much happens in-between. Season 2 is considerably better — and has a cool Iron Fist crossover — but it doesn't change the status quo, either in the Netflix continuity or in the overall MCU.
Iron Fist had the biggest debut of any Netflix Marvel show, which is surprising, considering it also had the worst first season by a wide margin. Danny Rand, the Immortal Iron Fist, returns from a hidden city of monks in East Asia, only to find himself embroiled in endless corporate boardroom drama. Riveting. Season 2 was an enormous improvement, though, streamlining the show to 10 episodes rather than 13, and focusing on a Chinatown gang war with plenty of magical martial arts to go around. It's still a lot to sit through for plot points that are never touched on outside of the Iron Fist series.
The Defenders was supposed to be sort of a small-screen Avengers, combining Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist into an eight-episode series that would combine all of their individual stories into something bigger. Except it didn't, really — it took bits and pieces of Daredevil and Iron Fist's plots, then had Jessica and Luke tag along for the ride. To be fair, the end result was mostly entertaining, but the narrative was flabby toward the beginning, and after everyone went their separate ways, there wasn't much lasting fallout.
If Daredevil is the most consistent MCU show, then The Punisher is arguably the best. It aims high, and if it occasionally misses big, it at least goes for broke. Murderous vigilante Frank Castle, first introduced in Daredevil S2, is out to solve a mystery that followed him all the way from the war in Afghanistan, even if he has to murder every shady military official in the country to do it. I've actually got very few complaints about The Punisher, particularly S2, which is the only MCU show to date to earn its 13-episode runtime. But have you seen what this guy does to his enemies? He's not showing up in Avengers: Endgame, I can tell you that.
I don't know which showrunner thought it would be a great idea to introduce a cast of six kids, 10 parents, one archvillain and a bevy of supporting characters all in one season — and then keep growing that cast in Season 2. But if you think that sounds like way too many personalities for a 10-episode superhero story, you're correct. Runaways has a fantastically repetitive plot ("Our parents are evil!" "But are they really evil?" "We must investigate this issue further"), and only the mildest connections to the rest of the MCU. (There was one Black Panther reference in S2.)
Cloak & Dagger
Teenage romance and superheroes should mix very well, but Cloak & Dagger works overtime to ensure that they don't. This plodding teen drama tells the story of Tyrone, a wealthy black boy, and Tandy, a poor white girl, in post-Katrina New Orleans. They discover that an accident in their childhoods gave them special powers, but they need each other to awaken their full potentials. There are slight connections to the recurring Roxxon energy corporation, as well as a small nod to Luke Cage. But otherwise, Cloak & Dagger's stand-alone quality works in its favor, since you don't actually have to watch it.
Marvel's Redheaded Stepchildren
Of course, it's important to remember that Jeph Loeb and Kevin Feige, bigwigs at Marvel TV and film, respectively,don't really want the MCU shows and movies to cross over. The show writers are perfectly capable of creating a deeper world, but for logistical and practical reasons, they can't. In that respect, it's not fair to blame the MCU TV shows for being the films' redheaded stepchildren.
But at the same time, that also doesn't explain why the TV shows are, for the most part, so boring and slow-paced. The Marvel TV shows are filled with uninteresting characters and go-nowhere side plots, with lazily justified action beats and episodes that run right into one another with little differentiation.
Graded on a curve against each other — and even against some of the movies — some MCU shows are great. But compared to other modern prestige TV shows, they come up short. They don't have the depth of Game of Thrones, or the charm of Better Call Saul, or the cleverness of Legion (also a Marvel show, just from a different continuity — The Gifted falls into the same category). In an era where TV is doing unexpected, inventive things with linear storytelling, the Marvel shows are very content to stick to the "procedural with action beats" formula, and it's usually to their detriment.
Who knows. Maybe Avengers: Endgame will feature a big scene with every TV character taking part in some impossible battle against a threat that's too big for the Avengers to handle themselves. (I wonder how many of them lived through Thanos's Infinity Gauntlet snap? It never came up.) But as it stands right now, the MCU shows are a lot of sound and fury without much payoff, and to watch them all requires an inordinate time investment.
Credit: Marvel Television/ABC Studios
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Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.