Let’s get down to it. Time for the rankings.
13. Iron Fist
Oh lawdy, did they bollocks up this one.
Strengths: …um… David Wenham seemed to be having fun? And Ward Meachum somehow went from “irredeemable asshole” to “most fascinating character.” Not positive how that happened.
Weaknesses: I believe I have spoken on this in no small detail. But to recap… it’s a bland, scattered, cautionary tale about corporate edict steering the creative side. Iron Fist wasn’t made because someone was passionate about bringing Iron Fist to the screen. At least I assume not, because it’s impossible to guess what their dream Iron Fist story might have been from this mishmash of conflicting story threads. No, they needed an Iron Fist show to finish setting up The Defenders, so they hired people to film one. And given the amount of time we waste on Rand Enterprises corporate drama, and how little kung fu superheroing takes place, it doesn’t seem like any of the writers actually wanted to be doing Iron Fist. The entire season has the feel of everyone involved saying “Eh, it’ll do.”
And you only gave the lead 15 minutes to learn his fights? No wonder they look like you filmed a rehearsal. Jesus, people.
High point: Episode 12, “Bar the Big Boss,” could have been the most satisfying Marvel Netflix season finale since Jessica Jones, save for two things. 1) The plotlines it wrapped up (in decent fashion) had only started two episodes ago; 2) It was not, in fact, the season finale. It’s like they wrapped the show, put a nice bow on it, and suddenly remembered they needed to do one more. But, you know… everything before that moment was as good as Iron Fist got.
Low Point: The joke would be “With the entire season this bland, it’s hard to pick,” but it’s episode two, “Shadow Hawk Takes Flight.” Nothing of merit happens in this episode that couldn’t have happened in episode one. Two episodes in, and the show was already spinning its wheels.
MVP: Tom Pelphrey as Ward Meachum. In my 10,000 or so words tearing Iron Fist apart back in March, I took many a shot at Ward, and how cartoonishly dickish he was from word one. What I didn’t find time to get into is how well Tom Pelphrey nailed it. In a show that didn’t so much have “character arcs” as “a bunch of largely random and often self-contradictory so-called ‘character beats,'” Tom Pelphrey made Ward’s journey from “utter tool” to “drug addict on the verge of a nervous breakdown” to “legit friend and ally to Danny” actually feel like a somewhat natural progression. Sure I’ve complained that the Meachum plots were often dead air, and will continue to do so, but still, props to Tom for managing that much with a character I was ready to write off by the end of the first hour.
Advice for next season: You did everything badly. Everything. Every single thing about your show was on the spectrum from “flawed” to “terrible.” And until you grasp that, maybe a second season isn’t the best idea. But since it seems inevitable, start here: Danny Rand is a superhero with magical kung fu powers. Anything that is not serving that concept, drop it. If that’s not what you want to write for, quit.
And schedule time to rehearse some decent fight scenes, damn your eyes.
12. Luke Cage
After two years of Marvel Netflix topping the list, we have arrived, readers, at The Year When Marvel Netflix Got Its Ass Kicked by the CW.
And it’s not because everyone on the CW was trying their best.
Strengths: The soundtrack is pretty killer. The “battle for the soul of Harlem” between Luke and Cottonmouth had promise. As did Detective Misty Knight. And not enough good things can be said about Mahershala Ali (who doesn’t seem to know how to give less than a great performance) and Alfre Woodard as Cottonmouth and Black Mariah. Mariah and her henchman /mentor Shades have a fascinating relationship in the back half. Also, given how gleamingly white most superhero properties are (13 shows covered here, 11 with white protagonists), it’s refreshing to have a show so unapologetically black, and invested in the history of Harlem.
Weaknesses: Hoo boy.
Maybe Marvel Netflix should try shorter seasons. They are having real trouble filling 13 episodes. Luke Cage starts slow, gets interesting in the middle, then falls apart at the end. And it’s not just [spoiler title=” style=’default’ collapse_link=’true’]the death of Cottonmouth,[/spoiler] it’s the fact that it’s followed by absolute garbage. They had two strong villains, but they throw them both aside in favour of Diamondback, who is just dull and empty. And he comes out of nowhere! Not Diamondback the gun dealer, no, but how did they spend an entire hour on Luke Cage’s origin and they still couldn’t set up this supposed childhood best friend of Luke’s until he bursts out of the shadows, with zero context, screaming “It was me all along!” I get, I get that if they introduced him earlier we’d have guessed he was a villain, but just because the twist is obvious doesn’t mean you get to just skip the build-up and go straight to the reveal. The twists on The Flash aren’t exactly hard to spot, but they make them work. Moving on.
No, I’m not. Because the other thing that sucks about Diamondback is that the whole “battle for the soul of Harlem” goes right out the window. Diamondback ain’t give a fuck about the soul of Harlem, he just wants to destroy Luke for reasons we didn’t even know were a thing ten minutes ago.
Remember back when I wrote about hard truths for geek media, and listed a bunch of plot holes between all of the Marvel Netflix shows? Well, all of them were from Luke Cage. (Iron Fist not having dropped yet.) Again, I get not wanting to have all the Defenders meet before the big show, but in this case? The absence of Daredevil and Jessica Jones only makes sense if you assume Manhattan is the size of greater metropolitan Los Angeles. If Luke were in Compton, and Jessica in Burbank, and Daredevil broodily guarding Anaheim, then sure they wouldn’t cross paths much. But as it stands, they’re all a ten dollar cab ride away from each other, so a highly publicised hostage situation involving Luke should have drawn everyone else’s attention.
And Misty Knight would have been a contender for female lead, except for this… she’s set up as this master detective, able to rebuild a crime in her mind just by examining the scene. But a) she can’t tell her partner’s on the take, b) she can’t tell Luke’s a good guy, and c) she falls for the laziest frame-up I’ve ever seen. Diamondback throws on a hoodie, kills a cop, and runs off shouting “Luke Cage! I’m Luke CAAAAAAGE! Argle bargle bargle Luke CAAAAAAAGE!” and everyone falls for it! If it’s that easy to frame a guy, then I’m off to New York to shoot at bankers while shouting “MITCH MCCONNELL, MOTHERFUCKERS!”
High point: Probably “Manifest,” where shit gets serious and Mariah makes her big play.
Low Point: “You Know My Steez” provides a perfunctory-at-best final battle between Luke and Diamondback while they desperately try to pretend that the “battle for the soul of Harlem” didn’t end six episodes earlier. And then they end on a cliffhanger that will have to resolve, and be resolved quickly, on The Defenders. Because if Luke spends more than an episode in a different city than the other three, that will suck. Iron Fist’s cliffhanger wasn’t great, but at least they can put a pin in it for a while.
MVP: Mahershala Ali as Cottonmouth. Was a time I wanted to give this to Claire Temple, who usually ends up a highlight of each Marvel Netflix show, but every highlight of this show you could name revolves around Cottonmouth somehow. Could’ve been Mariah if Diamondback hadn’t sucked the air out of her plot the second it got its sails up.
Advice for next season: Look, I’m not saying don’t have a third act plot twist. I’m just saying don’t throw out your only interesting plotline for something lame and hackneyed. Actually avoid “lame and hackneyed” altogether if you could. Just… just do better. Do significantly better.
And try to make The Defenders a little bit fun? “Invasion!” set the bar pretty high.
Powerless put a lot of work into being as funny as it was, from binning their original concept as an insurance company to firing the showrunner who pitched it being about an insurance company to spending a few episodes experimenting on the best way to write this new idea. And don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed their approach of being Better Off Ted with DC references, but the problem with being similar to Better Off Ted is that that is a damned hard show to live up to.
Look, you should probably just go watch Better Off Ted and come back. I can’t promise I’m done referencing it and it’ll just get confusing if you haven’t seen it, and it was so good you guys.
Strengths: When they really steered into the “Life in the DC Universe” angle, it worked well. When lead character Emily accidentally started dating a henchman of the Riddler (played by iZombie’s Robert Buckley, whose comedy skills are sorely underrated), for instance. That episode was hilarious. Danny Pudi and Alan Tudyk were reliably funny, and I came to enjoy Ron Funches (even if he’s no Donald Glover, Danny Pudi’s former partner in crime from Community). Natalie Morales made a good Green Fury, which is not a character I expected to see a live action version of any time soon.
Weaknesses: Sure the show is set in the DC Universe, but it also weirdly avoided it, or misinterpreted it. Charm City? DC comics doesn’t have enough made up cities? Do we need to keep inventing new ones? Couldn’t this have just taken place in, like, Sacramento or something? Also, their depiction of Crimson Fox and Jack-o-Lantern were way, way off.
Beyond that… Emily never really found her stride as a lead. I get what they were going for, but it never fully clicked. And I never fully warmed to Wendy, the annoying co-worker. She didn’t turn me completely off the show like Mimi from Drew Carrey, but I didn’t love her like Danny Pudi’s Teddy or Alan Tudyk’s boastful yet insecure Van Wayne.
High point: Either “Sinking Day,” where the staff has to host a delegation from Atlantis to win their business, or “Emily Dates a Henchman,” in… which… well, you can probably guess.
Low point: The pilot, “Wayne or Lose.” While undoubtedly an improvement over the original pilot, they had not fully found the fun yet. Might explain why they didn’t really find an audience.
MVP: Gonna go with Danny Pudi as Teddy. Reliably funny with a more likeable character than Alan Tudyk’s Van Wayne.
Advice for next season: Sadly this won’t be necessary. I guess it’s too much to hope that Emily and her team could find work in Star City at… whatever Queen Consolidated is these days. Palmer Technologies? They’re still around, right? Yeah. Yeah, that’s too much to hope.
10. The Flash
Okay, so, remember when I said not everyone at the CW was trying super hard?
I mean, don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy The Flash, and would rewatch all 23 episodes of season three in one sitting before reliving the back third of Luke Cage or episode two of Iron Fist, but… From tied for first two years ago to tenth. That certainly looks like an alarming slide. How did it happen? The same reason Ocean’s 11 is one of my absolute favourite movies but I would break from shackles to avoid Ocean’s 12: they lost the fun. At first Arrow was the brooding one and Flash was the fun one, but then last year Supergirl was the fun one, and this year it’s Legends of Tomorrow, and each time The Flash gets sulkier, but you know what? You’re allowed to have more than one fun one, CW.
Strengths: Still the most unapologetically comic-booky show on the air, and after Iron Fist, I am officially calling “refusal to be comic booky” a weakness, not an equally valid choice. The cast is still quite solid, even if their characters were on the sulky side this year. And while the season arc wasn’t particularly well paced, they stuck the landing better than last year with a more satisfying finale. The long-awaited Killer Frost arc worked out to be everything we’d hoped.
Tom Felton turned out to be a great addition to the cast. His Julien Albert was a reliably well-done character, his arc from Barry/Flash’s rival/enemy to genuine friend was well done, and I’m glad he appears to be sticking around for another year. I do wonder… did he officially request no “Harry Potter” jokes? Because Julien name-dropped Planet of the Apes but Cisco made zero Potter references.
Two words… Jesse Quick. More of her next year? (Fine, seven words.)
There was never much doubt who Alchemy was going to be, but they went somewhere interesting with it. The Alchemy reveal was so much more than “Well of course it was that guy.”
The reveal of Savitar’s true identity wasn’t a surprise, as they drew it out long enough for the internet to have guessed it months earlier, but it did have one interesting twist. And the best part is?
[spoiler title=’Giving away the ending, if you care.’ style=’default’ collapse_link=’true’]After “Barry messing with time” was the metaphorical big bad of half of the season, the literal Big Bad actually was “Barry messing with time.” If this is the end of Barry messing with time (and please let it be), that’s a good way to end it.[/spoiler]
Weaknesses: After threatening to destroy the entire multiverse last season (if there is such a thing as “too comic booky,” it is the line “You’re using the magnetar to destroy the multiverse”), they went far more personal this year… the big threat turned out to be “Iris is going to be killed and then Barry will be sad.” A more personal arc isn’t the bad part, but devoting over half the season to Iris being refrigerated isn’t great.
The best villains have understandable, even relatable motivations. Savitar wanted “to be a god.” To what end, exactly? I mean… does he want to remake the world, or… what’s the end game here, guy? And why was killing Iris at one exact moment, no earlier or, it turns out, no later so important to that?
Brooding Barry and sulky Cisco got old.
The time travel mechanics on The Flash don’t make tons of sense and clash with how time travel works on Legends of Tomorrow and there’s never going to be an explanation besides “speedforce, bitches,” and if that bothers you I can’t help you.
After a season of anticipation, the Flash/Supergirl musical was kind of a let down. The songs didn’t drive the story like they should in a musical, and… who exactly is the Music Meister and why did he do all of this? I don’t know. I don’t think they know.
The filler villains-of-the-week are just getting thin.
High point: “Infantino Street” is a close second for having Barry and Captain Cold work together on a heist that involves King Shark, and if you don’t love every part of that you don’t get me. But I’ll say it’s “Attack on Gorilla City/Attack on Central City.” Could they afford a two-part episode involving Barry fighting an army of gorillas? Not entirely. Was it great? Yes. Certainly the best Grodd episodes yet. Plus two Harrison Wellses, Jesse Quick working with Kid Flash, Julien excited for a field trip to Earth 2, and a great Wells mentor moment, as “Harry” Wells of Earth 2 helps Barry turn away from killing. That’s how that’s done, Iron Fist.
Low point: “Untouchable.” A half-assed meta-of-the-week, “How could you keep this secret from me,” Iris in danger as plot point, and “I wasn’t fast enough!” It’s all of Flash’s worst or most tired narrative devices in one big slurry.
Advice for next season: You’ve leaked that next year’s big bad won’t be a speedster. That’s good. Evil speedsters were getting played out. Some other things you could move on from… 1) Villains from the future who know everything about Barry and the team because from his perspective they’ve been fighting for years. 2) The Big Bad being Barry’s fault. Maybe the opening monologue could not involve “I did a thing and exposed our world to new threats” next year. 3) “We have to keep this secret from the team.” Come on, guys, that has worked out zero times.
And above all… your filler villains are getting weak. I know the Big Bad can’t carry every episode, because the pacing can’t handle it, and I know you can only afford so much Gorilla Grodd, but this is what the Rogues should be for. You need better filler villains, you need the Rogues to unite… short version? You need Captain Cold back. In just the worst way.
I mean what the hell. What the hell. I started watching this as a lark, expecting to hate-watch it for a month, have a good laugh, and move on, and now I’m legit hooked on it. Sure, it’s soapy trash with a familiar brand slapped on top of it, but it’s the best kind of soapy trash with a weirdly appropriate brand slapped on top of it. The teen characters are decently complex, to the point where even uber-mean girl Cheryl Blossom has her moments of humanity. The parents can be a bit more straight-up-evil, especially the gothic horror parents that are Cliff and Penelope Blossom and the vicious, judgmental, often cruel Alice Cooper.
Alice Cooper as in Betty’s mother, not the heavily made-up 70s rocker of the same name. Though what a show that would be…
Strengths: I kind of love the Betty/Veronica friendship that springs up in the opening episodes. And by episode two, they steer away from the Archie/Betty/Veronica triangle as hard as they can. Okay, there’s a hint still there, and probably always will be, but Betty and Veronica refuse to allow it to come between them, nor allow Archie to define them. They’re too clever, too strong, too independent to allow some redheaded wannabe-singer’s affection to rule their lives. (One of them gets with Archie eventually, but it’s earned.)
“Emo crime novelist/narrator” doesn’t sound like Jughead, but it works better than you’d think.
Luke Perry is surprisingly good as Archie’s dad, well-meaning construction company owner Fred Andrews. He’s the only good parent on this show, but not so glowingly good that he becomes some sort of saint.
For a show based around a grimmer, darker version of Riverdale and its denizens, Archie is still unflinchingly good. Sure, he makes mistakes and hurts people now and again, but not because he’s malicious, because he’s a 16-year-old boy and thus is statistically likely to be an idiot. He’s no boy scout, but Archie Andrews always wants to do right by his friends. And even his enemies.
There are some interesting and twisted turns on the road to finding out the who and why of Jason Blossom’s murder.
The producers really take “But does this character need to be white” to heart. Josie and the Pussycats went from one-third to entirely black, Reggie’s Asian, Veronica Lodge and her mother (and, based on the recently announced casting, her father) are Hispanic, and it all works. If characters with the aggressively white names “Hiram and Hermione Lodge” work as Hispanics, ain’t nobody got an excuse to keep whitewashing everything.
As hinted earlier, there is a scene in the finale with Archie and a frozen river that might be in the top three but is still one of the most moving scenes of any show on this list. Way better than anything in Iron Fist.
Weaknesses: For the supposed main character, Archie surely spends a lot of the season in the least interesting stories. Everyone else has murder, intrigue, an evil father figure manipulating the town from prison, a secret asylum, teen homelessness, a brewing clash between the rich and poor sides of town… and while all of that is happening, Archie just wants to sing and play football! Truly, nobody suffers like Archie Andrews.
Perhaps this happened because while all of the other stuff was being established, Archie was busy in their one real misstep: young, sexy Miss Grundy having an affair with Archie. It was gross and weird. Thankfully it didn’t last long.
Sometimes the dialogue, especially Veronica’s, can be a little too hip and self aware. From trying to decide which Truman Capote book Riverdale reminds her of in the pilot to saying “At the risk of failing the Bechdel Test” before asking Betty a question about Archie in the finale, it’s sometimes a little much.
I get why people think that Jughead liking girls is a step backward for asexual representation, since that just recently officially became comic canon. I don’t mind it, but I do mind his blasé attitude towards hamburgers.
Colour-blind casting is good, but a point was raised to me not long ago… with the exception of one scene in which Josie informs Archie that he can’t possibly understand the realities of life as a black woman, there’s not really any insight into race. The fact that the Lodges are Hispanic and Reggie is Asian is never brought up, so what their racial experiences would be like is unexamined. Look, guys, I’m very, very white, so I don’t know what to tell you here. I honestly don’t know which outweighs which, colourblind casting or having something to say about what challenges football star Reggie would have being Asian in a small town. A topic for people with more experience than I have.
High Point: Chapter Six: Faster, Pussycats, Kill! Kill! has a few major revelations in the Jason Blossom case, a good showcase for the most underrated character, Val (my favourite of Josie’s Pussycats), and really shows us exactly why Josie is the way she is. And some decent songs.
Low Point: Chapter Ten: The Lost Weekend. Betty ignores Jughead’s negative views towards birthday parties, Archie is a dick about Val, Cheryl Blossom loses what humanity she’d gained, and a revelation about Alice Cooper’s past doesn’t go anywhere. There is a key moment between Archie and Veronica, though.
MVP: Lili Reinhart and Camilla Mendes as Betty and Veronica. This is not a show about Archie and his Pals and Gals. This is Betty and Veronica’s show, which they graciously allow Archie and Jughead to be in. Betty and Veronica are forces of nature when challenged, and Lili and Camilla are crushing it.
Advice for next season: I’d hoped for an exciting casting announcement for next season’s probable main villain, Hiram Lodge, but they went ahead and cast someone I’d never heard of and have never seen in anything. Damn shame. Grabbing a Lou Diamond Phillips or even a Richard Grieco would have been fun and on-brand given how many 80s/90s icons are playing parents on this show. So you let me down there, but you do have a way to make it up to me. Four words… Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Do it. Make it happen. I don’t care if it doesn’t make sense, I want this more than anything.
And as to how the finale ended? Undo it. Undo it. UN. DO. IT.
I thought I could fit all 13 rankings into two posts. How naive I was. Turns out I had a lot to say about Riverdale.
I’ll try to speed this up and spend less time slamming Iron Fist. It’s just, it’s just, it’s a cautionary tale for nearly every instance.