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The Best Superhero TV Shows of All Time | Digital Trends

For the last two decades, superheroes have dominated the box office. Even in 2021, the biggest movies all involve superheroes in some way. But the good news is that you never have to leave your home if you want to enjoy some of the best superhero content ever made. Before live-action comic book adaptations were all the rage, it was the cartoons that came the closest to matching the source material. Now, even live-action TV and streaming shows can come pretty close to delivering the thrills and colorful action that inspired them in the first place. There’s never been a better time to enjoy these adaptations, especially since many of them are readily available to stream.

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Superman: The Animated Series

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 as 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.

Created by: Alan Burnett, Bruce Timm
Cast: Tim Daly, Dana Delany, David Kaufman, Clancy Brown, Corey Burton
Number of seasons: 3

The cast of Green Lantern: The Animated Series.

Green Lantern: The Animated Series

While the Green Lantern movie failed to set the box office on fire, the animated series really captured the essence of the comic book. Green Lantern: The Animated Series also had the distinction of being the first DC series to fully utilize CGI animation. This show embraced serialization with two different arcs that played out over 13 episodes each. Josh Keaton headlined the series as Green Lantern Hal Jordan, with Kevin Michael Richardson as Kilowog, Jason Spisak as Razer, and Grey DeLisle as Aya. Razer and Aya were both created for the show, and they proved to be the heart of the series as a remorseful Red Lantern and a living machine developed romantic feelings for each other. Triumph and tragedy followed, but this is a series that went out on a hopeful note despite its relatively short run.

Created by: Bruce Timm, Giancarlo Volpe, Jim Krieg
Cast: Josh Keaton, Kevin Michael Richardson, Jason Spisak, Grey DeLisle
Number of seasons: 1

The superheroes of Young Justice stand as a group.

Young Justice

Don’t call them sidekicks! In Young Justice, Robin, Aqualad, and Kid Flash refused to be considered second-string heroes. That’s why they formed their own team along with Superboy, Miss Martian, and the enigmatic Artemis. Under the instruction of Batman, Black Canary, and other Justice League heroes, the Young Justice squad proved that they were ready for the big leagues. This series embraced mature storytelling and allowed the characters to visibly age and mature over the course of the show. And as the heroes became adults, a new generation of younger heroes kept their tradition alive. This is also the best-written DC Comics-inspired series to date.

Created by: Brandon Vietti, Greg Weisman
Cast: Jesse McCartney, Khary Payton, Jason Spisak, Nolan North, Danica McKellar
Number of seasons: 3

Professor Xavier and sone of the X-Man in X-Men: The Animated Series.

X-Men: The Animated Series

Believe it or not, superheroes were considered risky before Fox took a chance on X-Men: The Animated Series. It took a lot to bring Marvel’s mutant heroes to the small screen in a relatively faithful incarnation, but kids were immediately taken by the X-Men. This group of outcasts and misfits fought for a world that hated and feared them, and the show actually allowed them to have conflicted emotions about that. Heroes lived, loved, and even occasionally died, which elevated the show beyond previously watered-down stories. The animated series arguably paved the way for the live-action movie eight years later, and it remains one of Marvel’s best adaptations.

Created by: Eric Lewald, Sidney Iwanter, Mark Edens
Cast: Norm Spencer, Cathal J. Dodd, Lenore Zann, Alison Sealy-Smith, George Buza
Number of seasons: 5

Paul Bettany as Vision in WandaVision.

WandaVision

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.

Created by: Jac Shaeffer
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Kathryn Hahn
Number of seasons: 1

The Boys, the best superhero TV shows of all time

The Boys

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.

Created by: Eric Kripke
Cast: Karl Urban, Jack Quaid, Antony Starr, Erin Moriarty
Number of seasons: 2

Harley Quinn, best superhero TV shows of all time

Harley Quinn

For Harley Quinn, breaking up with the Joker means more than just changing her relationship status on social media. In the Harley Quinn animated series splitting with the Clown Prince of Crime means the world doesn’t take her seriously anymore. Not willing to accept being defined as a Joker spinoff, Harley forms her own crew to show Gotham City, the Legion of Doom, and everyone else that she’s a force to be reckoned with. Free from content restrictions, Harley Quinn is bloody, filled with exceptionally creative profanity, and hilarious. The series includes parodies of just about everyone from DC Comics you can think of, including not only the pillars of Batman’s rogue’s gallery but obscure has-beens and never-weres like Kite Man and Condiment King. Harley’s crew includes a version of the shapeshifting Clayface, who cares more about discovering the motivations for his characters than committing crime, and a King Shark who initially just wants to do tech support. The most pathetically funny of them all is Harley Quinn‘s alcoholic Commissioner Gordon, who doesn’t understand why Batman doesn’t want to hang out socially.

Created by: Justin Halpern, Dean Lorey, Patrick Schumacker
Cast: Kaley Cuoco, Lake Bell, Alan Tudyk
Number of seasons: 2

Daredevil, best superhero TV shows of all time

Daredevil

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 ReturnsSin 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.

Created by: Drew Goddard
Cast: Charlie Cox, Vincent D’Onofrio, Deborah Ann Woll
Number of seasons: 3

Batman, the best superhero TV shows of all time

Batman

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.

Created by: Lorenzo Semple Jr., William Dozier
Cast: Adam West, Burt Ward
Number of seasons: 3

Watchmen on HBO

Watchmen

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.

Created by: Damon Lindelof
Cast: Regina King, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Tom Mison, Jean Smart, Jeremy Irons, Louis Gossett Jr.
Number of seasons: 1

Shot from The Tick

The Tick

There have been two live-action adaptations of The Tick — the dumb-as-rocks, lantern-chinned superhero created by Ben Edlund. But the character’s first crack at television — in the mid-’90s animated series — remains the most hilarious and fun and introduced a generation of fans to superhero parody. Find a crowd of Gen Xers and yell the Tick’s famous catchphrase “Spoon!” and you’ll see the proof for yourself. The Tick wasn’t alone in his exploits. The series introduced viewers to a whole host of The City’s heroes like Die Fledermaus, American Maid, and Feral Boy, all of whom prove mostly as useless as the titular hero. Thankfully, the physically unimpressive and largely unsung sidekick Arthur is usually around to provide some of the only available brain cells to the forces of good.

Created by: Ben Edlund
Cast:  Townsend Coleman, Micky Dolenz, Rob Paulsen
Number of seasons: 3

Jessica Jones, on Netflix

Jessica Jones

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.

Created by: Melissa Rosenberg
Cast: Krysten Ritter, David Tennant, Carrie-Anne Moss, Rachael Taylor, Eka Darville
Number of seasons: 2

Doom Patrol on HBO Max

Doom Patrol

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 by: Jeremy Carver
Cast:  Diane Guerrero, April Bowlby, Matt Bomer, Brendan Fraser, Timothy Dalton
Number of seasons: 2

Justice League Unlimited

Justice League Unlimited

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.

Created by: Jack Kirby
Cast: George Newbern, Kevin Conroy, Phil LaMarr
Number of seasons: 3

Batman: The Animated Series

Batman: The Animated Series

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’ mindsalong 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.

Created by: Bob Kane, Eric Radomski, Bruce Timm
Cast: Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Loren Lester, Efrem Zimbalist Jr.
Number of seasons: 4

Legion

Legion

Created by Noah Hawley — the same brilliant mind behind the anthology crime series Fargo — Legion is unlike any other superhero show you’re going to find. Based on the troubled son of Marvel Comics’ iconic telepath Charles Xavier, Legion‘s David Haller is a diagnosed schizophrenic with mutant powers similar to those of his famous father. Unfortunately, Haller doesn’t assimilate as well or as early as Professor X does with his burgeoning psychic abilities. Much of the series deals with Haller trying to adjust to his powers, as well as his struggles against Amahl Farouk, aka the Shadow King (Navid Negahban), a parasitic mutant who battles Haller on the astral plane. Throughout the show, viewers are treated to bizarre, trippy, and wildly imaginative visuals.

Created by: Noah Hawley
Cast:  Dan Stevens, Rachel Keller, Aubrey Plaza, Jean Smart, Navid Negahban
Number of seasons: 3

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