The definitive Marvel/Netflix ranking
EW’s Chancellor Agard and Christian Holub have watched every single Marvel/Netflix superhero series, and recapped most of them. Now, an era has come to an end. In recent months, every Marvel/Netflix show has been canceled: Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Daredevil, and finally, The Punisher and Jessica Jones.
Season 3 of Jessica Jones is still on the way, but its release will mark the last installment of this project. To celebrate the good and bad of what the Defenders-verse created, we present our ranking of every season so far.
12. Iron Fist season 1
At this point, it’s rather clichéd to call the first season of Iron Fist limp, but that’s what it was. Our introduction to Finn Jones’ Danny Rand was lethargic. Part of the problem was that it carried the burden of having to explain the mythology of the Hand in anticipation of The Defenders, but it also ended up spending way too much time on the corporate drama at Rand Enterprises and had lackluster fight scenes, which are kind of a must for a show based on a kung-fu superhero. The one good thing to come out of Iron Fist was that we got Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing, the least frustrating character in the first season. —Chancellor Agard
11. Iron Fist season 2
Sure, the martial arts drama’s second season was an improvement on the first, thanks to Colleen’s dynamic with Luke Cage’s Misty Knight (Simone Missick) and Alice Eve’s chilling turn as Mary Walker; however, the season was still bogged down by terrible pacing, overly expository dialogue, a lack of subtext, and a general inability to build tension. That said, it’s a shame we won’t get to see a third season, as season 2 ended with Colleen assuming the Iron Fist and Danny displaying new gun-fu powers. —Chancellor Agard
10. Daredevil season 2
Daredevil has had a different showrunner each season, which explains why they all differ in terms of tone and storytelling. This one got the weak draw. Jon Bernthal’s Punisher and Elodie Yung’s Elektra made great additions to the Marvel/Netflix universe (and both would go on to headline better seasons on this list), but this story really went off the rails after the first five or six episodes. After Punisher’s compelling introduction forced Daredevil (Charlie Cox) to confront the complicated morality of killing in the service of justice, his story ballooned into what felt like a bad parody of The People vs. O.J. Simpson. Elektra made for a cool femme fatale, until her storyline was subsumed by the need to set up The Defenders’ goofy story about Hydra-esque vampires and that big hole in the ground. The Man Without Fear always did work better on his own. —Christian Holub
9. Luke Cage season 1
After charming everyone with his debut in Jessica Jones season 1, Mike Colter took center stage as Power Man in this Harlem-set drama. There was plenty to love about Luke Cage when it premiered: the initial joy of seeing a bulletproof black man in a hoodie; the geographic specificity that felt more real than Daredevil’s dated version of Hell’s Kitchen; the use of music; and of course, Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard’s compelling turns as Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and Mariah Dillard, two people who went about loving Harlem in all the wrong ways, and whose villainy couldn’t just be punched away. Unfortunately, the entire season went downhill after [SPOILER ALERT] Cornell’s death in episode 7 and the introduction of the villainous arms dealer Diamonback (Erik LaRay Harvey), who couldn’t come close to filling the hole left by Ali. —Chancellor Agard
8. The Defenders
Eight episodes goes a long way! Most of the seasons on this list suffered at one point or another from pacing problems brought about by the need to fill 13 episodes. That’s not to say The Defenders didn’t also struggle with pacing issues, just that the five-episode difference made its flaws a lot easier to swallow. It also had real strengths. Even so many years after The Avengers, it’s hard to deny the lizard-brain cool factor of seeing your favorite superheroes share the screen for the first time. On top of that, watching Sigourney Weaver break bad is always a nerdy delight. But hopefully the Marvel/Netflix creators learned an important lesson from this series: Even though Daredevil and Iron Fist were the crux of the plot, Krysten Ritter and Mike Colter stole every scene they were in. —Christian Holub
7. The Punisher season 2
Having finally achieved vengeance for his murdered family, Frank Castle found himself a little direction-less in his second outing. That’s where Amy Bendix (Giorgia Whigham) came in. This teenage runaway was able to give Frank a new sense of purpose, and a new enemy to fight in the form of the religious zealot assassin John Pilgrim (Josh Stewart).
Unfortunately, the show couldn’t focus on Pilgrim’s interesting backstory or the entertaining Frank/Amy dynamic because it was still too caught up in Billy Russo (Ben Barnes). Having survived season 1 (with barely-noticeable scars!), Billy teamed up with his Lady Macbeth-like therapist (Floriana Lima) to execute a series of anti-Frank revenge schemes that just felt increasingly implausible. Worst of all, he didn’t even take the name Jigsaw! —Christian Holub
6. Luke Cage season 2
Harlem’s Hero got a new lease on life after The Defenders. Finally done with prison time, Luke became the toast of the town. He rocketed to viral fame like a basketball prodigy, and the show peppered in cameos from real-life sports journalists like Jemele Hill and Stephen A. Smith to cement the analogy. As with most athletes, though, Luke eventually took a dive in public opinion. Luke Cage season 2 struggled with themes of fame, forgiveness, redemption, and how to process the past, but it was also entertaining pulp fiction powered by vivid performances. Mustafa Shakir’s rum-drinking, voodoo-powered Bushmaster was a worthy foe for the unbreakable Luke, while Alfre Woodard compellingly portrayed Mariah Dillard’s descent into madness as she was finally crushed under the weight of her family’s dark history. The season also featured one of Reg E. Cathey’s final performances, as Luke’s powerfully eloquent and deeply flawed father, James Lucas. —Christian Holub
5. Daredevil season 3
After the entertaining messiness of Daredevil season 2, it was unclear what we’d be getting when season 3 finally premiered. Thankfully, new showrunner Erik Oleson (Arrow) ignored the rest of the MCU, brought the focus back to the show’s core characters, and told a timely story about tyrannical figures who use money and the media to sow fear. While the finale whiffs at the end because the show suddenly remembers that it has to be a superhero show and jumps to a three-way fight between Bullseye (Wilson Bethel), Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), and Daredevil, it’s hard not to ignore some of the season’s impactful images, like Bullseye-as-Fakedevil attacking a newsroom and a church, and pretty much every shot of Fisk towering over, well, anything. Plus, season 3 looked at the now-iconic hallway fight scene from Daredevil season 1, said “hold my bag,” and gave us a masterful 11-minute, one-take fight scene that has to be seen to be believed. —Chancellor Agard
4. Jessica Jones season 2
Here we have the inverse of Luke Cage season 1, which started strong and ended poorly. The first half of Jessica Jones season 2 is unbearably slow, and it’s hard to tell what the show’s plan is, but then the twist comes in episode 6 — [SPOILER ALERT] Janet McTeer’s rage monster is actually Jessica’s mother, Alisa — and suddenly the season transforms into a poignant and powerful exploration of the origins and expressions of female rage, particularly after trauma, that’s built around this complicated mother-daughter dynamic. Sure, there was some messiness along the way, but the season didn’t come down to a generic battle between good and evil, which is all too rare for superhero shows. —Chancellor Agard
3. Daredevil season 1
The one that started it all. Since the first four shows were all ordered to series by Netflix as a package deal, the other three would have come out even if Daredevil had sucked. Thankfully, it didn’t. Our first glimpse of the Defenders’ universe eschewed the colorful camp of the Ben Affleck movie version to tell a Daredevil story that felt grounded and engaging. The MCU is notorious for featuring weak villains, a trend for which Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk was a powerful antidote. Marvel superheroes like Daredevil are always fighting to save New York, and Kingpin’s master plan to gentrify Hell’s Kitchen by pushing out the neighborhood’s traditionally working-class inhabitants gave this fight a topical edge. —Christian Holub
2. The Punisher
Surprise! This one wasn’t part of the plan. The only show on this list that wasn’t included in the original Marvel/Netflix deal, The Punisher was ordered to series after Jon Bernthal’s portrayal of the character in Daredevil season 2 struck a chord with fans.
At first, the idea felt totally redundant: There had already been three separate Punisher movies over the years, and Zack Snyder’s DC movies seemed to have cornered the market on violent superheroes. Frank Castle, after all, is known for meting out merciless retribution to criminals who “deserve” it, a trait that has endeared him to some police officers and military members. But Bernthal and showrunner Steven Lightfoot instead aimed Castle’s vengeance at shadowy national security officials who send soldiers on assassination missions across the globe without rhyme or reason. In this show, violence is not fun or easy; it is instead toxic and soul-crushing, as seen in the extremely traumatic flashback to an Afghanistan raid, or the story of Lewis Wilson (Daniel Webber), a veteran driven to madness by the lack of support for veterans after they escape the thresher of active military service.
When Frank finally does exact his violent revenge on the men who have wronged him, it’s cathartic, but also disgusting, and the season ends with Frank in group therapy, where the real struggle begins. —Christian Holub
1. Jessica Jones season 1
It took the Marvel Cinematic Universe a full decade to release a superhero movie with a female character as co-lead, and those who want a solo superheroine movie still have to wait until next March for Captain Marvel. Meanwhile, in the second season of the Marvel/Netflix franchise, showrunner Melissa Rosenberg and star Krysten Ritter created a definitive female superhero for the 21st century. Private investigator Jessica Jones had her own personal struggles to deal with (including alcoholism, a crappy apartment, and wearing the same pair of jeans over and over), but she also channeled the anger of every woman struggling against the oppressive control of the patriarchy.
Never has the patriarchy had a more fitting avatar than the purple man himself: Kilgrave, a man who exercises effortless domination over everyone simply by talking over them, was a doubly horrifying villain for the way David Tennant inverted the nerdy charm of his Doctor Who run into a dark, poisonous version of male entitlement.
With Luke Cage and Iron Fist now canceled, the future of the Marvel/Netflix universe remains up in the air. But if one thing is certain, it’s that Jessica Jones is a character who should endure. —Christian Holub