Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
The Netflix Marvel series, ranked by season

The Netflix Marvel series, ranked by season

Photo: Punisher (Netflix), Luke Cage (Myles Aronowitz/Netflix), Iron Fist (Netflix), The Defenders (Jessica Miglio/Netflix), Jessica Jones (Netflix), Daredevil (Netflix), Graphic: Jimmy Hasse

After one very powerful, very bejeweled finger snap, the fate of many of Earth’s mightiest heroes—along with about half of all living things, human and otherwise—remains uncertain (though the outlook is not good). But the future of the street-level crimefighters who comprise the Netflix corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has already been settled, thanks to the end of a licensing deal between the streaming platform and comics-entertainment giant. Don’t worry, there’s still time to stream the shows on Netflix; and of course, we can also look forward to new seasons Marvel’s Jessica Jones and The Punisher. But with the small-screen MCU about to wink out of existence after four individual Defenders series—Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist—one stellar spin-off, and one not-quite-super showdown, The A.V. Club ordered one of everything off the Royal Dragon menu and rounded up its resident Marvel fans to rank the shows by season. Behold our list, which is sure to give you something to fight about at your upcoming family gatherings (but not because our rankings are impeachable).

11. Iron Fist season one

Before Iron Fist’s first season stumbled onto the scene, viewers could readily rattle off the weaknesses of the Netflix-Marvel collaborations: fitful pacing and narrative loose ends (found in every single entry on this list); boring supporting characters (in Daredevil and Jessica Jones); a wooden protagonist (sorry, Luke Cage; though at least Mike Colter’s performance gets better as the show goes on); uninspired fight choreography (only Daredevil is mostly free of it). Former showrunner Scott Buck also seemed to have taken an inventory of these failings—particularly the lackluster lead and meandering direction—and, rather than see them as a cautionary tale, he made them the cornerstones of Iron Fist season one. Finn Jones never looked anything but petulant and lost as Danny Rand, the prodigal billionaire and immortal handful of sobriquets. Beyond the introduction of Jessica Henwick as the far more interesting (and worthy of her own series) Colleen Wing, Iron Fist offered little beyond formulaic corporate intrigue and workmanlike fight scenes. At their best, the Netflix Marvel series rose above the street-level action to explore what it means to be a survivor (of what, take your pick). But the only question Iron Fist season one ever posed was why it was ever green-lit. [Danette Chavez]

10. Iron Fist season two

While they might appear next to each other on this list, it’s worth pointing out that there’s a pretty astronomical difference in quality between Iron Fist’s first and second season. New showrunner Raven Metzner clearly took criticisms of the show’s debut season into consideration, downplaying Danny Rand’s annoyingness, beefing up Colleen Wing’s role, and adding some interesting new antagonists, all within the confines of a shortened season. Alas, those improvements weren’t quite enough to make up for the very shaky ground on which Iron Fist was built. Finn Jones remains the weakest lead of the Marvel Netflix universe and Danny Rand its least interesting character. What could’ve been a transitional season to a genuinely great third outing now stands as a so-so ending to a lackluster series. Oh well, at least season two kinda, sorta gave us that Colleen Wing/Misty Knight Daughters of the Dragon storyline we’ve been begging for. [Caroline Siede]

9. Jessica Jones season two

After raising the bar for Marvel’s Netflix offerings with its acclaimed debut, expectations were understandably high for Jessica Jones’ return, which makes its mixed bag of a second season all the more disappointing. Out of the gate, season two lacked the momentum and focus of the first, slogging through the opening half of the season by spending too much time on storylines that ultimately went nowhere, like Simpson’s return or Trish’s relationship with Griffin. Fortunately, somewhere around the sixth episode, the show finally found a sense of urgency, wisely centering the back-half of the season on the traumatic relationship between Jessica and this season’s antagonist, Alisa, which is partly what made the first season so successful. In addition, the finale teased some interesting new developments—Jessica and Trish being estranged, Malcolm smartly removing himself from either of their orbits—that will be explored when the show returns for its third (and final?) season, but they can’t quite make up for what ended up being a unsatisfying sophomore season. [Baraka Kaseko]

8. Daredevil season two

People understandably get down on the second season of Daredevil for meandering in its story and lacking a compelling villain in the faceless ninjas of The Hand (a problem it then bequeathed to The Defenders), but it did two things very well: First, it gave us Jon Bernthal’s Punisher, for which we should be grateful. And second, it finally loosened Matt Murdock the hell up. The stiff upper lip nobility of Charlie Cox’s hero in season one was too stolid by half, neutering his rougher edges, so getting Elektra Natchios back into his life—and letting Matt start to become a more interesting character as a result—was a step in the right direction. Everything with the Punisher was pretty great, meaning you’ve got at least half of a strong season on television, and even when it was having Karen write atrocious newspaper articles or saddling Elektra with burdensome additional twists that pried her character in half a dozen directions, the actors were delivering performances that anchored the sometimes-silly narrative decisions. It may have been occasionally maddening, but the second season of Daredevil still rose above a lot of MCU TV storytelling. [Alex McLevy]

7. Daredevil season three

There is plenty to like in the third season of Marvel’s flagship Defenders series: new showrunner Erik Oleson continuing Daredevil’s legacy as a premier purveyor of bad-ass fight sequences (including the stellar prison one-take), Wilson Bethel’s compelling turn as Benjamin Poindexter, a.k.a. Bullseye, an angsty Matt wallowing in self-pity, succumbing to darkness. But there are a few stumbles that turn what could have been a comeback season for Daredevil into something more middling. For one, Fisk’s seeming omnipotence was a bit too convenient and failed to give the character’s arc any sort of dramatic weight—Kingpin gaining control over the FBI purely through intimidation from inside his prison cell seems… unlikely. On top of that, the clumsily directed finale (where a female character is literally and figuratively “fridged”) lacked a satisfying conclusion to Matt’s story arc, transforming a character riddled with internal conflict into Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky in an instant. Unfortunately, those missteps prevent Daredevil’s third season from being higher on this list. [Baraka Kaseko]

6. The Defenders 

It may not have been able to live up to the outsized expectations generated (especially after news broke that Sigourney Weaver was cast as the villain), but there’s a lot to like in the all-star team-up between the four leads of the initial individual Netflix MCU shows. Just the chance to watch Jessica Jones deliver withering put-downs of her fellow heroes made it worth it, but the show contributed some other notable strengths: Well-coordinated fights that took advantage of pairing up their various powers; transforming Danny Rand from his nigh-unbearable self in season one of Iron Fist to a more comic-relief figure; and—in its best moments—a smart fusion of wisecracking superhero quips and compelling bad-guy beatdowns. It spent too much time clearing its throat and hemming and hawing over its various personalities, but in the end it delivered enough flash and fun to merit our time. Did we mention it made Danny Rand bearable? That’s accomplishment aplenty. [Alex McLevy]

5. Luke Cage season two

After the ill-timed demise of Cottonmouth (a perfectly dapper and menacing Mahershala Ali) almost cratered the back half of Luke Cage’s first season, showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker applied a holistic approach to what was ailing his series while continuing his exploration of U.S. blackness, social inequities, and reclamation. He traded Mariah’s (Alfre Woodard, at her most imperious) moral equivocating for a devious heel turn, rightly elevated Misty Knight (Simone Missick) to co-lead status, and strengthened Luke’s connection to Harlem while also venturing into Brooklyn, where the patient and cunning Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir) lay in wait—all of which came close to justifying the 13-episode count. (There are just some walls that just can’t be punched through.) And in addressing the villain void, Luke Cage also dealt with its hero problem. In season two, Mike Colter moved better (that “church dad” dab notwithstanding), conveyed greater emotional depth, and otherwise provided a solid core for the series. Of course, as this list attests, a more compelling and fleshed-out Luke Cage doesn’t necessarily make for a better season of Luke Cage. But it does make us feel the loss of the show much more keenly. [Danette Chavez]

4. Luke Cage season one

Similar to its comic book counterpart, Luke Cage was the MCU’s first series to center on a black lead, which showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker used to launch an exploration of blackness, one that starts with the setting: the historically black neighborhood of Harlem. Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk may hem and haw about “my city,” but Daredevil and Jessica Jones’ Hell’s Kitchen never felt as characteristic as Luke Cage’s Harlem. The celebrated New York neighborhood has a reputation for being a hotbed for black culture, which Coker used to the show’s advantage, whether highlighting some of the world’s most prominent black artists on the stage of Harlem’s Paradise, reckoning with the realities of gentrification alongside Mariah and Cottonmouth, or fanboying over Method Man in a bodega. The first season understandably gets some flak for taking a left turn three-quarters of the way in, leaning hard into the realms of camp as Diamondback was introduced and the show explored Luke’s origins. But how the show examined the various aspects of blackness, coupled with confident direction and strong performances from Alfre Woodard, Mahershala Ali, and Simone Missick, positioned Luke Cage among the most promising of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s small-screen properties. [Baraka Kaseko]

3. The Punisher season one 

He may have started as an antagonist in season two of Daredevil—and not even the primary villain, at that—but Jon Bernthal’s interpretation of the Punisher was so electric, so raw, and so damn watchable, it wouldn’t be surprising if Netflix was scrambling to sign him up for a solo series before the bodies had stopped twitching on the ground of the prison hallway in his brutally compelling fight sequence. As Frank Castle, Bernthal plays a man obsessed with killing anyone and everyone even indirectly responsible for the death of his wife and child, only to become ensnared in a conspiracy that reaches back to his days as a special forces soldier. The initial season was a triumph of exploring masculine identity, a fierce and unvarnished look at the development of a man’s psyche both before and after family. Better still, for as good as the battle scenes often were, the tense back-and-forth conversations between Frank and Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s David Lieberman, a.k.a. Micro, were some of the most honest and intimate discussions between men yet seen in the MCU. [Alex McLevy]

2. Daredevil season one

Not only did Daredevil’s first season launch the entire Marvel Netflix universe, it established its fundamental DNA—from the street-level superheroism to the on-the-nose thematic dialogue to Rosario Dawson stealing every scene she’s in. Though not quite as emotionally rich as Jessica Jones, Daredevil’s debut season is still gritty, stripped down superhero TV done very right. Vincent D’Onofrio’s flawless portrayal of criminal kingpin Wilson Fisk came at a time when the MCU was in desperate need of compelling villains. And in a less showy role, Charlie Cox brought wonderful earnestness to blind lawyer-by-day vigilante-by-night Matt Murdock. Daredevil’s first season is a fascinating mix of gory, cynical violence and loving, empathetic character work. You’re as likely to remember the bloody head-smashing deaths, as you are the sweet “avocados at law” friendship between Matt and his best friend Foggy. And while many have tried, no other Marvel Netflix show has ever come close to rivaling Daredevil when it comes to action. The brutal but grounded one-take hallway fight in the second episode still stands as the most iconic sequence in the Marvel Netflix universe. [Caroline Siede]

1. Jessica Jones season one

The race to the top was a close one, as the first seasons of Daredevil, The Punisher, and Jessica Jones all offer street justice (or, as the case may be, vengeance), resonant storytelling, and simmering, multifaceted performances from their lead actors. But what sets Jessica Jones season one above all other contenders is its singular vision. Under showrunner Melissa Rosenberg, the series didn’t just nail the look and tone of a superhero show—it reimagined what a superhero show could be. In this case, it’s a “feminist neo-noir” starring Krysten Ritter, who seems to have retained custody of Chloe’s acid tongue, as the hard-drinking detective and abuse survivor. The first season followed Jessica as she initially resisted the “hero” label only to throw herself into helping other survivors and taking down Kilgrave (David Tennant), whose twisted sense of devotion was more monstrous than blatant cruelty. There were gratifying beatdowns, a visit from everyone’s favorite big-hearted nurse Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), as well as the introduction of a neighboring badass and love interest (Mike Colter as Luke Cage). Not even the Marvel Netflix series’ characteristic loss of momentum could derail the show’s pursuit of closure, or undermine its harrowing yet sensitive look at trauma recovery. Rosenberg and Ritter could easily have delivered a solid crimefighting drama, but in addressing some harsh realities, they soared above expectations. [Danette Chavez]