The year was 2013. A year and change after The Avengers changed the game for the film industry. Marvel Studios had gone from uppity newcomers to the juggernaut of Hollywood, and it seemed like they were announcing their intention to conquer TV as well, starting with the unexpected return of recently deceased fan-favourite character Phil Coulson in Agents of SHIELD, created by Avengers writer/director and nerd icon Joss Whedon.
We did not yet know that Marvel Studios and Marvel TV were very different entities, and once Joss Whedon stopped working for either, the connections between the two would suddenly and irrevocably cease. Or that Joss’ ex-wife would publicly air his infidelities, and Ray Fisher would openly complain about his behaviour during the Justice League reshoots, leading to some shit from Buffy coming up, and now liking Joss Whedon is a problem…
So to get past that, we’ll instead credit Agents of SHIELD to its true showrunners, the husband and wife team of Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen.
Agents of SHIELD was Marvel TV That Was’ first salvo, and it was nearly the last show standing, with its final season airing after Cloak and Dagger, Runaways, and all of Marvel Netflix wrapped up, knowingly or otherwise. So they’d be first in/last out… except that similar to Fox’s X-Men franchise limping across the finish line withthe long, long delayed New Mutants, apparently Marvel decided to film and release supernatural series Helstrom despite the fact that the shows based on better known characters it was supposed to be paired with were all cancelled when Kevin Feige shut down Marvel TV. Seriously, everything got shut down, but they still said “Go ahead, do a season of Helstrom.” That show had better not end on a cliffhanger.
In any event, Agents of SHIELD had its work cut out for it. Other than Coulson, the show starred no familiar Marvel names, just a bunch of original characters. The most notable name in the cast had to be Street Fighter and Mulan’s Ming-Na Wen, who is not the household name she goddamn deserves to be. People expected weekly crossovers to the movies, but the movies never ever acknowledged them back. Other than a couple of appearances each from Thor’s Lady Sif, Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill, and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, for known Marvel characters they were mostly restricted to at best C or D-list villains for the first three years. And because they debuted seven months before Captain America: The Winter Soldier, they weren’t allowed to have a plot until episode 16 or so, meaning that the first season moved at the glacial pace of early Lost and played more like NCIS: Fringe Science than something connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not only wouldn’t the movies recognize or acknowledge them, neither would other Marvel TV shows, not even the ones on the same network. You were NOT good enough to pretend to be above AOS, Inhumans.
Somehow despite all of this, despite everything working against them, they managed to be Marvel TV’s longest running and, according to studies, most popular series. And there are reasons for that, and also reasons why it’s always been a middle-of-the-pack show in this blog’s annual rankings… save for the one year it came last because the bar was much higher and their “Oh crap we’re still on the air now what” sixth season couldn’t compete.
The final season of Agents of SHIELD wrapped up recently, in which the Agents found themselves jumping through history, trying to stop a race of robots called Chronicoms from wiping out SHIELD in the past to facilitate their invasion in 2019. And much like The Punisher’s final season allowed us to examine Marvel Netflix as a whole, the final season of Agents of SHIELD shines a light on everything the series did well, and all the places they struggled.
Let’s begin with our core cast, the nobodies who became fan-favourites.
Apparently YouTube videos whose ads donate to BLM charities are a moving target, as YouTube pulled the last one right after I posted it. I’ve replaced it with this one, which hopefully also works, so give it a spin, and while you’re doing that, check out this list of ways you can help fight racism. Find something that works for you, then meet me in the next paragraph.
No, really, I’ll wait, go do that. Done? Okay, let’s get going.
Alright nerds, we’re through the technicals, into the performances. Some of the most brutal, hard to call categories coming at you, ’cause there was some talent this season.
Let’s see if I can do them in a sensible order for once.
The Wentworth Miller Award For Best Guest Star
Putting aside series regulars and major recurring characters, who brought something special to their limited appearances, as Wentworth Miller did on The Flash as Captain Cold?
These people did!
Honourable mentions: Haley Joel Osment as a formerly famous child hero on The Boys was just perfect casting; Neal McDonough made one last appearance as Damien Darhk on Legends of Tomorrow, and was delightful as always; and of all the alumni they brought back for Arrow’s final season (damn near all of them), the one who most reminded us what they brought to the show, and how much they’re missed, was Paul Blackthorne as Quentin Lance. His brief reunion with Oliver and Earth-2’s Laurel Lance was particularly emotional.
Bronze: The Crisis Cameos, Crisis On Infinite Earths
Really all I can do here is present a complete list, except for the dozen and change that were pretty clearly recycled footage from DC Universe streaming shows.
Robert Wuhl reprising Knox the reporter from 1989’s Batman; Burt goddamn Ward reprising Adam West’s sidekick Dick Grayson; Wil Wheaton as a doomsayer; The Tick’s Griffin Newman hosting a trivia night; Erica Durance as both Supergirl’s Alura and Smallville’s Lois Lane; Johnathon Schaech reprising Jonah Hex; Tom Welling back as Smallville’s Clark Kent (punching out Lex Luthor, no less); Kevin Conroy from Batman: The Animated Series bringing his iconic Batman voice to live-action for the first time; patron saint of this category, Wentworth Miller, as the voice of Leonard Snart on an alternate-Earth Waverider; Tom Ellis bringing Lucifer Morningstar to the Arrowverse, face to face with John Constantine; Ashley Scott back in costume as the Huntress from the short-lived Birds of Prey series; John Wesley Shipp reprising his 1990 Flash one last time; Black Lightning finally joining the crew; Ezra Miller giving us a brief meeting of the cinematic and television Flashes; and original Crisis author Marv Wolfman hitting Flash and Supergirl up for autographs (he loves the team-ups, you see).
Is that everyone? I think so? And each one delightful.
(If I had to pick one, it’d be Tom Ellis by a nose, but I don’t so I won’t.)
Silver: Thomas Lennon as Mr. Mxyzptlk, Supergirl
A quick lampshade-hang about why they’ve swapped out the original actor for someone less dreamy, and Mr. Mxyzptlk came back to Supergirl, and he came back doing what Mxy does best… being an adorable trickster and screwing with the fourth wall. And Thomas Lennon excelled, always finding the humour in Supergirl’s 100th-episode trip backwards through the past four seasons, as Mxy and Kara tried to find a moment to tell Lena Luthor the truth about Kara that maybe wouldn’t destroy either their relationship or the world. Some of them destroyed the world.
I could really go for an annual Mxyzptlk appearance, if that’s an option.
Gold: Jemaine Clement and Jason Mantzoukis as Oliver Bird and the Big Bad Wolf, Legion
I feel like we discussed this episode and it’s rhythmic climax plenty last time. So for now I’ll just say that it was an immense delight seeing Jemaine Clement back, and the only thing that improved it was having Jason Manzoukis show up as the (symbolic) Big Bad Wolf, shouting to Oliver not to wait before teaching the baby about syphilis.
And then they rap battled. Come on.
Such a great episode, and these two (with help from Jean Smart) really anchored it.
The Tricia Helfer Award for Rookie of the Year
What new characters on an established show really brought something special, like the way Tricia Helfer’s Goddess Charlotte kicked Lucifer up to the next level?
Honourable mentions: Switch on Legion made the entire season three story possible, but she sometimes felt like more of a device than a character; Connor/Superboy was a fun addition to Titans, but he more created his own subplot than added to what had been the main story; Natalie Dreyfuss was great fun as Ralph Dibny’s long-awaited true-love-to-be Sue Dearbon on The Flash, but was only in three episodes, and due to reasons probably won’t be back.
Bronze: Iain Glen as Bruce Wayne, Titans
I’m not a big fan of “middle-aged Batman” in general, and I’m not sure what Glen was going for with that Brooklyn accent… sometimes it seems “neutral American” is too tricky an accent, so actors from, in this case, Scotland, aim for something more regional… but damn having Bruce Wayne around was a good and necessary addition to this show. Given how much of Titans revolves around Dick’s difficult history with his complicated surrogate father, never seeing him throughout season one was kind of awkward. Whether Bruce was there in person, or an illusion created by Raven, or a hallucination brought on by Dick’s guilty conscience*, Bruce added a lot to the season, and if you could roll with the accent, Glen was kinda killing it.
*That last one was actually pretty great, and involved Bruce Wayne doing the Batusi with burlesque dancers, and it was amazing.
Silver: Naomi Ackie as Bonnie, The End of the F***ing World
Series one of The End of the F***ing World was about James and Alyssa running from their traumas; series two was about having to confront the consequences. And so it made sense to have the consequences of their crime-ridden road trip personified in Bonnie.
The End of the F***ing World has always been about broken people finding inadvisable ways to face their traumas, and series two brought a new style of trauma to the mix in angry, confused, vengeful Bonnie. “I learned about punishment from a young age,” she tells us. Bonnie was raised with abuse and discipline instead of love, and now she has them mixed up in her head. Led astray by what she thought was love, she was personally wronged by the events of series one, and has come to deliver punishment to James and Alyssa. Poorly thought-out, at times hilariously inept punishment. Bonnie makes our road-tripping duo into a trio, and was a welcome addition.
Gold: Shayan Sobhian as Behrad Tarazi, Legends of Tomorrow
In the third season finale, hacker and freedom fighter from the future Zari Tomaz finally altered her past/our present enough that her dystopia never happens… which means that her family was never hunted by a government that hated metahumans and also Muslims (I think we know any fascist American regime, fictional or currently-in-progress, is gonna come at Muslims), so her brother Behrad was never killed by ARGUS agents, so she never inherited the Zambesi air totem from him… and never joined the Legends. And also her last name is Tarazi now? Don’t fully get that last bit. But anyway, the last moments of the previous finale saw Zari erased from the team’s history… and replaced by Behrad.
So that left Shayan Sobhian with a bit of a trick to pull off… make this new character feel like a long term part of the team, make his relationships with the other Legends feel lived-in, and make us like him enough that we’d be invested in him sticking around instead of checking our watches wondering when “Internet Celebrity Zari” was going to blow over and things would go back to the way they were last season.
And damned if he didn’t nail it.
Behrad instantly felt like an old friend. Whether he was being best bros with Nate and Ray, or revealing that he’d had a secret tryst with Charlie the shapeshifter (which they probably kept on the DL since her primary form looks exactly like Nate’s ex), or dealing with his vain, shallow older sister Zari finding out he’s a time traveller, Behrad was a welcome addition from episode one, and I was quickly frightened something bad was gonna happen to him since he was only credited as a guest star.
And his presence let them do something fun and new with Zari, which was neat.
So we’re still doing this, huh? Well, glad that the closest I’ve come to self-harm is a very strong urge to give myself what would no doubt be a disastrous haircut. My shaggy-ass hair is legit driving me crazy.
While society has begun to tentatively reopen enough for me to see friends in open spaces while two metres apart, 90% of Lockdown Life is still finding stuff to watch, and I, your Pop Culture Sin Eater (why isn’t that the name of my blog…), am here with recommendations and maybe some cautionary tales.
Keeping it a little shorter this time. And once again, here’s a Table of Contents, in case you want to pick and choose.
Okay! Let’s get into the best superheroes, supervillains, and other comic-related characters of the season!
Honourable Mention: Real talk… few of these characters delighted me like the one character who defies every single category I have: Doom Patrol’s Danny the Street.
Danny’s a sentient, teleporting, genderqueer street that houses a community of misfits and outcasts, and they’re delightful, and I was so happy the writers embraced the Grant Morrison weirdness of the Doom Patrol franchise enough to include Danny. Their debut episode, “Danny Patrol,” was a blast.
(I may eventually need more non-gendered categories, especially if one of these shows casts Liv Hewson or Asia Kate Dillon or another non-binary actor of their caliber… but not today.)
Anyway, on to characters a little easier to categorize. So easy they don’t even need introductory paragraphs to explain the categories.
Best Female Supporting Character!
Honourable mentions: Carrie-Anne Moss and Rachel Taylor had some good spirals into self-destruction on Jessica Jones; Yara Martinez remained fun as Miss Lint on The Tick; Julie Ann Emery had great edge as Featherstone on Preacher.
Bronze: Rachel Taylor as Trish Walker, Jessica Jones
For the first two seasons of Jessica Jones, and a bit of The Defenders, Jessica’s best friend and adoptive sister Trish pushed Jessica to be a better hero, to use her gifts to help people and fight evil. But after the events of season two, Trish finally has powers of her own. She can finally be the hero she’s always wanted Jess to be. Sure the process that gave her powers has a slight history of also causing homicidal rage, and yes, her need to feel powerful caused all sorts of bad choices in season two, but this should be easy! Right?
Trish’s journey over season three is a rollercoaster, I tell you what, and Rachel Taylor came to play.
Silver: Tala Ashe as Zari Tomaz, Legends of Tomorrow
Playing a character whose classic hero name they can’t really use anymore, Tala Ashe’s dry wit was a welcome addition to Legends last season, and it remained so this year. But we also got to watch Zari’s tough shell begin to crack, as her survival instincts from the ARGUS police state future she came from began to relax. Her gradual, mutually awkward flirtation with fellow Legend Nate Heywood (spurred by something simple: pretending to be a couple for a heist and then thinking “Huh, we’re both hot, we could just do this”) was consistently adorable, and led to both one of the year’s best musical numbers (see last entry) and an emotional finale where she has to risk having her entire history rewritten to save Nate.
Plus she cut loose on some witch hunters (emotional), impersonated a 70s DJ (funny), and got turned into both a cat and a puppet (legendary). And if all of that weren’t enough, she opened the season with a powerful monologue on how fear took over her society, ending with one small but killer line. Lots of shows tackled fear and hate this season, but few managed as simple and powerful a moment as Zari watching her hijab-wearing mother smiling and laughing with young Zari in a playground, and asking “How could anyone be afraid of her?”
This season may have had slightly too little time for all of its character arcs, but Zari always shines.
Gold: Katie McGrath as Lena Luthor, Supergirl
There is a marvellous subtlety to Katie McGrath’s performance as Lena Luthor. She went through a lot of unpleasantness this season, loss and heartbreak and betrayal and more betrayal and a global hunt for her brother, and Katie McGrath managed to convey all the pain and sorrow Lena went through without dropping the cold, hard exterior she’s had to develop as both a successful businesswoman and a Luthor. Not the most open and loving family. Katie handled Lena’s bleak year with incredible nuance.
Katie is masterful at this role. Lena’s heading to a dark place, but I’m hoping she doesn’t go full-villain, because I don’t think I can bring myself to root against her.
Best Male Supporting Character!
Honourable mention: Jay Ali’s take as the tortured Agent Nadeem on Daredevil; most if not all of the male cast of The Umbrella Academy. Unless you consider all the Hargreeves kids to be leads, in which case just Hazel and Hargreeves Sr, I guess.
Bronze: Jesse Rath as Brainiac-5, Supergirl
Last season, Jesse Rath swiftly won me and others over as Querl Dox, aka Brainiac-5, the Legion of Superheroes’ resident super genius. In season four, he takes the departed Winn Schott’s place at the DEO, working as both a DEO agent and secret superhero ally to Supergirl and her band of alien do-gooders when relations between the two groups deteriorate.
Rath’s always done a good and amusing job at portraying Brainy’s alien, calculating nature, existing somewhere between and to the left of Data and Spock, but as he began an awkward flirtation with Nia Nal, who he swiftly recognized as an ancestor of his old teammate Dream Girl, Brainy found new levels of cute.
But what really gets him on the podium came late in the season, as the alien-hating Children of Liberty accidentally unleashed Brainy’s dark side. As anyone familiar with Superman’s rogues gallery knows, the Brainiac line is not filled with pleasant people, and under torture, Brainy lost control of his ancestral memories. After an emotional moment, a darker, crueler Brainiac was unleashed, and Brainy went from cute to chilling.
I miss Winn sometimes, but damn Brainy’s fun to have around.
Silver: Robin Lord Taylor & Corey Michael Smith as Penguin & Riddler, Gotham
There were definitely a few things Gotham did well, in the sea of things they did poorly. The art design, cinematography, at least half of their villain creations. But if I were to point to one thing that kept me going through all 100 episodes, one facet of the show that made coming back worthwhile through all the Mad Hatters and Jeromes and Jim Gordon never bringing backup, it was Robin Lord Taylor’s performance as Oswald Cobblepot. There is a time and place for restraint in acting, and Taylor understood that Gotham is not it, throwing every inch of himself into every scene he had. But he worked best when part of an unexpectedly great double-act.
Because when Penguin’s plots linked up with Ed Nygma’s? Magic. As begrudging allies, best of friends, or sworn enemies, their scenes together routinely popped. As we bid farewell to Gotham, it seemed fitting to give a final tip of the hat to their two best and most consistently entertaining villains.
Gold: Pip Torrens & Joseph Gilgun as Herr Starr & Cassidy, Preacher
Last year I talked about how perfectly Pip Torrens captures the cold, vicious, and utterly captivating Herr Starr, chief enforcer for the Grail, Earth’s secret rulers. Well, I’m not going to do that this year.
Because if anything he is surpassing his comics counterpart.
The chilling calmness with which Starr goes through his bloody business is always riveting to watch, and often hilarious. It’s at the point where I’ll be sad to see his joust with Jesse come to an end. And not just because I wasn’t ready for the show to be over after next season.
Meanwhile, Cassidy had some big moments this year, from fighting his best pal Jesse (a few times) over Tulip, even taping himself back together to go an extra round; to a quiet, sad, moment of choice where he realizes there are lines he can’t cross to keep Tulip; to his discovery of Les Enfants du Sang, a group of vampire wannabes led by the first fellow vampire Cassidy’s met in decades. Gilgun found new depths to Cassidy this season, and nailed them all. And he keeps the humour of the character, if his debate with the Enfants over how to kill a Grail infiltrator proves anything.
It’s that time again! Time to look through a season’s worth of comic book TV shows, look at who did what best, and deliver a conclusive ranking, based on my highly scientific standard of “Which ones I liked more, and also you didn’t watch them all so you don’t know I’m wrong.”
So, here are this years’ competitors, with links to blog posts if posts there do be:
(Why are the two seasons of Cloak and Dagger ranked separately but not Sabrina? Because Netflix ordered twenty episodes of Sabrina then released them in two chunks and a Christmas special, while Cloak and Dagger did ten episodes then had to get renewed before they made ten more.)
TV shows are constantly being released. Krypton and Legion started up new seasons in the past couple of weeks, and The Boys is coming up fast. So I have to draw the line somewhere. As such, I’m only including shows that ended their season between July 1st 2018 and June 30th 2019. This means some personal favourites are off the list this year because their finales are still a few weeks or months out, and Game of Thrones reminds us not to build monuments to the living, for they can still disgrace the stone. Or in other words, any show can trip over its own feet at the finish line.
So this year doesn’t include the latest seasons of Agents of SHIELD or Krypton, the final seasons of iZombie and Legion, or what is apparently the only season of Swamp Thing.
Or Walking Dead because I don’t care and you can’t make me care.
Or anything I hadn’t heard of until it was already cancelled, like whatever Deadly Class was.
This season, because I love nerd stuff more than I apparently like myself, I decided to binge my way through two shows that I had very little reason to suspect I’d enjoy. Very little. But so determined am I to keep up on any and all comic book TV series… based on comics I’ve heard of… that don’t rhyme with “Smocking Smed…” that I dove in anyway.
On the one hand, we have the Runaways.
Their second season hit back in December. Their first season was… okay… (ranked 15th of 22 last year) but sluggishly paced, and didn’t really get anywhere. I described it as a ten-hour pilot, because I can’t really remember any storylines that weren’t just gradually getting pieces in place for the origins of the runaways or storylines from season two. Sure Preacher’s first season (5th of 13, 2017) did kind of the same thing, ending the season at the end-point of the first story arc, but it felt like Preacher had a lot more going on than Runaways did (hint: Preacher almost always has more going on, it’s great). Runaways isn’t the first show I’d name when describing how a slow burn can go wrong, but it’s on the list.
Titans, the first entry from the DC Universe streaming service (available here through Netflix), didn’t have a predecessor to compare to, favourably or otherwise, but it did have a super dark and very baffling trailer that made it look like an impending train wreck.
So we have two shows, based around younger heroes, that I had every expectation of not being good… and both surprised me. Runaways seemed to take my criticisms to heart… which, yes, heavily implies that I wasn’t the only one making them… and Titans managed to be the season’s biggest surprise so far. I came in expecting to make another “Let’s laugh at how bad Iron Fist was” post, and instead it’s… legitimately interesting?
That’s nearly all they have in common. One’s a YA series with occasional mild profanity that’s as grounded as a show with aliens and magic and a dinosaur can rationally be; the other is a hard-R, curse-filled, graphically violent tale of four damaged youths trying to learn to be a team. So I guess they both have “found family is sometimes better than blood family” going on as well, and that’s all I need to justify the joint post. And along the way, I bet we find more. Rock it.
With the last cancelations now announced, Marvel/Netflix’s Defenders franchise is winding down and will end with season three of Jessica Jones.
So it kind of makes sense, at this point, to begin looking back at this sometimes great, sometimes terrible collection of shows… and it makes extra sense, because within Punisher season two, we can see nearly every way they went wrong.
Now, I’m not saying Punisher will show us why Netflix started canceling the whole lineup. We already know why that’s happening. Disney, Marvel’s parent company, is starting their own streaming service, and that soured their relationship with Netflix, which like a white man in Hollywood is probably really annoyed that they’re no longer the only game in town.
No, I’m saying that if we examine all the ways Punisher season two didn’t work, we find nearly all of the routine failings of the five series (and one mini-series) that made up the Defenders-verse.
Including the fact that it’s not connected to the films and it never was. If Kevin Feige reboots Daredevil in three years with new actors, will you all believe it then? Or will you just blame it on the Thanos snap somehow? Probably the latter.
As I go… I’ll slip in the things they did well. Unless I run out.