Although superheroes were once relegated to Saturday morning cartoons, the popular comic book heroes are no longer confined to terrestrial TV or even cable. The streaming era has led to the rise of several new shows, as well as the chance to see nearly forgotten classic animated and live-action series that might otherwise have only been available as bootleg DVDs at comic conventions. But with so many programs to keep track of, it can be difficult to determine which ones are worth your time. Fortunately, we’ve already made those selections for you in our list of the best superhero TV shows of all time.
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Trust us, you don’t want your very young kids watching Invincible. It’s a terrific show and one of the most comic-book-accurate TV series to date. However, it really earns its TV-MA rating with absolutely brutal depictions of violence which are not for the faint of heart. But it works so well because the title character, Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun), is very earnest about his desire to be a hero like his father, Omni-Man (J. K. Simmons). As Invincible, Mark makes a lot of mistakes and pays a high physical price for his shortcomings. Yet his spirit is pure, and he may be the only thing standing between our world and an unstoppable alien force that hits close to home.
Twenty-five years ago, the creative team behind Batman: The Animated Series reunited to see if they could capture lightning in a bottle twice with DC’s Man of Steel. Superman: The Animated Series stands as a testament to their success. For the first time since the Christopher Reeve movies, Superman was distilled down to his core essence while also embracing his comic book roots. Tim Daly provided the voice of Superman and his alter ego, Clark Kent, while Dana Delany was an appropriately feisty and independent Lois Lane. The great Clancy Brown brought a real sense of menace to Lex Luthor as both a businessman and Superman’s greatest rival. Even Lauren Tom’s Supergirl proved to be a wonderful addition to the show.
But this show’s greatest accomplishment is that it actually has a slow-burn story with Darkseid (Michael Ironside) and the New Gods that plays out all the way through the series until the two-part series finale. In short, Superman got to face his greatest nemesis, and the animated series had a satisfying conclusion that still resonates.
A lot of viewers didn’t know what to make of WandaVision when it was released on Disney+ in January 2021. As the first of the streaming service’s miniseries to feature the heroes from Marvel Studios’ big-screen adventures, the first couple of episodes WandaVision transplant Avengers Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and the android Vision (Paul Bettany) to the corny world of TV sitcom without bothering to explain why these two superheroes are suddenly making like the leads of Bewitched and The Brady Bunch. Dropping as many sitcom Easter eggs as they do references to the comic book source material, the makers of WandaVision take precious care to leave you off-balance enough with this bizarre mystery while not leaving you so stranded that you lose interest.
Feeling at times more like Twin Peaks than any of the movies the heroes come from, WandaVision pushes the boundaries of what a superhero story can be. While it’s a delicious mystery that rightly inspires tons of fan theories, it also hits the kind of emotional core that none of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have dared to get close to before. It may have plenty of superhumans and synthezoids, but WandaVision is ultimately a story about a woman struggling to recover from trauma and soul-crushing grief.
The disturbingly familiar world of The Boys is one in which superheroes are the property of the powerful corporation Vought International, and those costumed “supes” spend more time tweeting, making commercials, music videos, and movies than they ever do fighting crime or saving innocents. Not to mention the dark appetites of some of the most powerful supes, including the show’s twisted Superman stand-in, Homelander (Anthony Starr). Harboring his own personal vendettas, the brutal Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) leads the titular squad of fugitives — the only group with the backbone to stand up against Vought and its super-powered employees.
Perhaps the highest praise a comic book adaptation can receive is to learn that a large chunk of the source material’s fan base prefers the reimagined version. That the Amazon Prime original The Boys has received such acclaim is a testament both to the show’s creators and to the initial concept. In the comic book created by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, the supes are meant to be embarrassing caricatures of popular superheroes. But its adaptation gives both the supes and the vigilantes pursuing them more dimension while still making it clear how twisted and ridiculous the supes can be.
If you’ve seen the embarrassing Ben Affleck Daredevil flick from 2003, then you can be forgiven for feeling hesitant about giving the hero Marvel calls the “Man Without Fear” another shot. But unlike that earlier, poor echo of Tim Burton’s Batman, Netflix’s Daredevil feels less like a story about a superhero and more like a crime story that just happens to feature a guy with powers.
Largely influenced by the work of game-changing writer and artist Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns, Sin City), the Daredevil series unfolds as a suspenseful action thriller with Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) as a determined but deeply flawed hero facing impossible odds. The show is perfectly cast, including Vincent D’Onofrio as the obsessed crime lord Wilson Fisk and Scott Glen as Murdock’s cruel mentor Stick. The second of its three seasons is generally considered its weakest, but “weak” for Daredevil is better than the best most other shows have to offer. Not to mention one of the highlights of that season is the introduction of Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle, better known as The Punisher.
Hardcore comic book fans may understandably do an angry spit-take at the idea of honoring the ’60s Batman show, but if you set aside your well-earned preference for the darker and grittier Batman and his love affair with perching from stone gargoyles, you may find yourself appreciating the camp classic.
With their punny dialogue, ridiculous costumes, and penchant for taking their sweet time climbing up the sides of buildings, Adam West and Burt Ward turned Batman and Robin into household names. No, they didn’t even mention the tragic deaths of Bruce Wayne or Dick Grayson’s parents, and yes, Cesar Romero famously refused to shave his mustache for the role of the Joker. But this wonderfully silly show introduced the vocabulary of Batman and Robin to most of America. All the non-print media featuring the Dark Knight and his villains continue to take inspiration from Batman, no matter how gravelly the vigilante’s voice gets.
If you know anything about the bad blood between Watchmen (the graphic novel) writer Alan Moore and DC Comics, then you probably find it tough to blame the author for foregoing all of the various media adapted from his comic book work, including the HBO original series Watchmen. But it is impossible to experience this series and not want to desperately plead to Moore to give it a shot and share his thoughts. Unlike Zack Snyder’s 2009 big-screen adaptation of the graphic novel, HBO’s Watchmen continues the story that Moore and Dave Gibbons began.
The series is set mostly in modern-day Oklahoma, where the police wear masks and a hate group — inspired by the journal of the late vigilante Rorschach — is gaining ground. Using similar strategies to what Moore and Gibbons used to explore ’80s America, sexuality, and the comic book medium, Watchmen series creator Damon Lindelof focuses on race. The first episode opens with the real-life 1921 Tulsa race massacre and, to highlight how important the series was at that moment in time, many Americans would later confess they’d never heard of the massacre before Watchmen.
Starring Krysten Ritter as the eponymous super-powered private eye, Netflix’s Jessica Jones achieves more than most would have suspected a superhero television show capable of. When we first meet Jones, all we know for sure is that she’s a P.I., she possesses superhuman strength, and she’s seldom sober. Eventually, we learn Jones is more than just an irresponsible drunk — she’s the victim of the sadistic Kilgrave (David Tennant), a man with the ability to make anyone do what he says.
Not only did Kilgrave use his talent to make Jones his unwilling plaything in the bedroom, but he manipulated her into committing murder. While the ways Jessica chooses to cope probably won’t make it to a top-10 list of healthy choices in Psychology Today, they’re the only tools she has. Jessica Jones is a suspenseful and powerful crime thriller, but it’s also an affecting depiction of the aftermath of horrific trauma.
The heroes of Doom Patrol rarely fight crime, and when they do, it doesn’t go well. They don’t fight armies of robots on floating cities or alien warlords looking for magical rocks. When they do act like superheroes in the sense of fighting evil, the threat is always incredibly bizarre — like teaming up with the SeX-Men to stop a world-threatening sex demon or trying to find their mentor, The Chief (Timothy Dalton), by journeying into another dimension whose doorway is the mouth of a donkey.
Ironically, while the series is certainly the strangest superhero show you’re likely to find, it’s also one of the most relatable. Its heroes include an experimental pilot burned beyond recognition, the brain of a race car driver trapped in a robot body, and a traumatized woman with dozens of splintered personalities. These self-styled freaks don’t care so much about justice or the battle between good and evil — they’re just trying to figure out how to live in the world.
Created as a follow-up to the popular animated Justice League that premiered in 2001, Justice League Unlimited is a love letter to the DC Comics superhero mythos. While its predecessor focused on the core League members with rare guest appearances by the likes of Doctor Fate or the New Gods, Justice League Unlimited expands the team’s roster to include dozens of new and old DC crime fighters — some reaching far back to Golden Age obscurity.
Early episodes, for example, focus on heroes like Green Arrow and Stargirl, long before either were headed for their own live-action series on the CW. Marquee heroes like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are still regular features, but fans also get to see Huntress date The Question and Green Arrow begin a romance with Black Canary while they’re caught in a deadly underground arena. One of JLU‘s most impressive accomplishments comes as early as its second episode — For the Man Who Has Everything — when the series adapts the classic 1985 Superman Annual #11 by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, the same creative team that made Watchmen.
The success of 1989’s Batman and its 1992 sequel Batman Returns led to the influential cartoon Batman: The Animated Series. While its content is decidedly family-friendly, the series is surprisingly cinematic and sometimes even emotionally powerful. The show was influential enough to inspire companion series like Batman Beyond as well as similarly styled animated shows for other DC Comics characters.
The voice work of Kevin Conroy as the Dark Knight and Mark Hamill as the Joker forever married their talents to the Batman mythos in many fans’ minds, along with the writing and art of Bruce Timm and Paul Dini. Along with adapting many of the comics’ characters, Batman: The Animated Series spawned some of its own — most famously the Joker’s girlfriend Harley Quinn, who has since become one of DC’s most popular creations.
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