Superhero shows haven’t always had the best reception from fans and critics over the years. Series creators have to walk a fine line between adapting various beloved source materials and keeping things fresh with new ideas. However, just within the past few years, superheroes are a virtual gold mine when it comes to television and movies (when done properly, at least). In fact, four out of the top ten highest-grossing movies of all-time are about superheroes, specially Marvel’s Avengers trilogy and Black Panther. These types of record-breaking scenarios have made studios pay attention to the several decades worth of comic books and graphic novels from a variety of publishers, mining them for live-action projects. However, not all superhero television series are created equally.
From the campy ’70s-era Batman and Wonder Woman to today’s gritty Netflix Marvel Cinematic Universe, television series have always been either hit or miss with fans of the original comic books. The success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe expanded the worlds created in their movies by launching several television series that would coincide with events happening in feature films, a first in television history. While DC has had some good movies the past few years, it’s actually their collective television series on the CW network that are the strongest when it comes to character development and in-depth storylines. CBR takes a look at our favorite superhero television shows from the past 25 years and ranked them based on duration, characterization and popularity among fans.
Debuting in September of 2017, Inhumans was a much-anticipated project that focused on the Royal Family of Inhumans, including Black Bolt, Medusa and Crystal. Although the Inhumans had first been introduced in season two of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the series had no ties to this previous incarnation. Television veterans like Anson Mount and Serinda Swan were paired with newcomers like Isabelle Cornish and Eme Ikwaukor to comprise the ensemble cast.
Originally launched as an IMAX movie that would turn into a series for ABC, fans were unimpressed with this messy flop. It seemed like the creators were going for a mix between Game of Thrones and X-Men, but ended up falling flat thanks to tone-deaf performances and a lack of cohesive storytelling.
THE TICK (FOX)
The Tick was part of a rare line of superhero comedies that some studios tried to use to showcase a different side of crime-fighting. It debuted in November 2001 and only lasted one season of nine episodes. Comedic actors of the ’90s such as Patrick Warburton, Nestor Carbonell and Liz Vassey comprised the main cast of bumbling heroes.
Based off of the successful comic and animated series of the same name, The Tick started out with a strong audience but quickly lost viewers with its somewhat ridiculous storylines and over the top acting. On the upside, Amazon rebooted the series in the fall of 2016, which has been well-received among critics and fans alike with a second season slated for 2019.
NO ORDINARY FAMILY (ABC)
No Ordinary Family was also a foray into the superhero comedy space and ran for one season starting in September 2010. It revolved around a family of four who developed superpowers after their plane crashes in the Amazon. Veteran television actors Michael Chiklis and Julie Benz played the parents with newcomers Jimmy Bennett and Kay Panabaker as their kids.
While this light-hearted take on Marvel’s “family of superheroes” Fantastic Four had its moments, but it failed to reel in both family comedy viewers and action/superhero audiences. The show ended up spreading itself too thin, which started showing in the writing causing a decline in viewers altogether.
Based on the popular ’90s comic book of the same name, Witchblade debuted as a pilot movie in 2000 that was then turned into a series program, one of TNT’s first scripted television shows. The series followed a female police detective who comes into possession of the Witchblade, a supernatural gauntlet created to fight demonic forces of evil. The cast included Yancy Butler in the title role, as well as David Chokachi and John Hensley.
Popular with both critics and fans alike, the series only lasted for two seasons with a suspected trip to rehab for Butler the cause of the premature cancellation. Fans have been clamoring for a reboot for years, so fingers crossed another network picks up this gem.
Based on the DC Comics character John Constantine, this television series was developed at NBC but only lasted for one season. It followed Matt Ryan as Constantine, a British exorcist and occult detective who actively hunted supernatural entities. The cast was rounded out with the addition of Harold Perrineau and Charles Harlford.
A surprise choice for NBC, this stylistic thriller failed to capture mainstream audiences. Swapping out leading ladies, Lucy Griffiths’ character was written for the show but was later replaced by Angelica Celaya’s Zed (a character from the comics) after the pilot. However, Ryan’s portrayal of Constantine was resurrected, appearing in the CW’s Arrowverse and will be a series regular on the upcoming season of Legends of Tomorrow.
BIRDS OF PREY (THE WB)
Based on the comic book of the same name, Birds of Prey debuted garnered one of the largest in The WB’s history but ratings fell sharply in the following weeks. Taking up the crime-fighting reigns from Batman, his daughter Huntress, Barbara Gordon’s Oracle and Dinah Lance (daughter of the Black Canary) faced off with various villains of the week. Dina Meyer, Ashley Scott and Rachel Skarsten were cast as the show’s leading ladies.
While the show was set up like Smallville, the multiple changes from the source material, mediocre writing and lack of general direction all sabotaged the show. Despite Meyer’s portrayal of Oracle being universally praised, this series only lasted 13 episodes.
MUTANT X (SYNDICATION)
Not based on the comic book of the same name, Mutant X debuted in 2001 and brought a slew of controversy with it. Developed by former Marvel exec Avi Arad, the show was basically the X-Men without actually calling them X-Men. It followed a group of genetically engineered individuals who gained superpowers through government experiments.
Despite the lawsuit between Marvel and 20th Century Fox over its X-Men-likeness, the show ran for three seasons and was one of the highest rated syndicated shows at the time. Smith and Webster’s portrayals as telepathic Emma and electric Brennan, respectively, were particular highlights. The series ended on a cliffhanger, following the dismantling of most of its production companies.
IRON FIST (NETFLIX)
Premiering in March 2017, Iron Fist was the last of the four original Marvel solo shows to be released on Netflix. Following the origin of playboy Danny Rand as he became the immortal Iron Fist, the series was heavy on the action and light on plot.
While the character itself is rich in comic book lore, the story of a poor rich guy losing his parents and becoming a superhero had been done so many times that viewers were often bored with the series. Despite universal praise of Henwick’s performance, even the fight scenes were lackluster. Here’s hoping the show redeems itself in its second season.
THE DEFENDERS (NETFLIX)
Following three years of culmination, The Defenders was meant to be a “street-level Avengers,” bringing together Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist, all of whom had previous solo outings in their own self-titled series. The heroes came together to stop the Hand from resurrecting a dragon and destroying New York City.
Jessica and Matt’s surprising friendship is one of the highlights of the show, along with laying the foundation for a Luke Cage and Iron Fist team-up, as well as the Daughters of the Dragon. Sadly, the show’s plot was extremely hard to follow and the squandering of Sigourney Weaver’s talent takes away from the overall success of the show.
BLACK LIGHTNING (THE CW)
Premiering earlier this year, Black Lightning follows the titular character who comes out of hero retirement to once again fight crime and how this decision effects his family life, as he is now married with two young daughters. Cress Williams plays the lead character rather well and is joined by Nafessa Williams, China Anne McClain and James Remar.
While the series has been well-received by critics and viewers alike for its portrayal of an African-American super family, it has yet to capture the popularity of it’s fellow CW superhero shows. Possibly because it has yet to be linked to their universe, as Black Lightning was not involved in this past season’s Earth-X crossover. Here’s hoping they remedy that in the upcoming second season.
WYNONNA EARP (SYFY)
Based on the comic book of the same name, Wynonna Earp premiere in April of 2016. It follows the story of Wynonna, who discovers she’s the descendant of a long line of demon-hunters and is now charged with defending a small town from evil. The cast includes Melanie Scrofano as Wynonna, Dominique Provost-Chalkley, Shamier Anderson and Tim Rozon.
Part Buffy, part Spaghetti Western, Wynonna Earp is equally dark and heartwarming. Scofano and Provost-Chalkley’s relationship as on-screen sisters has been universally praised, along with the shows witty writing and realistic portrayal of same-sex couples (Wynonna’s sister comes out and starts dating a local female police officer). The series just had it’s season three premiere earlier this month and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.
CLOAK AND DAGGER (FREEFORM)
Based on the comic book characters of the same name and also set in the MCU, Cloak and Dagger debuted in June of 2018. The series stars Olivia Holt as Tandy Bowen and Aubrey Joseph as Tyrone Johnson, two teenagers who gain superpowers and are forever linked to one another following the discovery of them.
The series was met with largely positive reviews, praising the chemistry between Holt and Joseph, the use of New Orleans as a backdrop and socially-relevant story. However, the show suffered from slow pacing in the beginning which may have turned off viewers. The series has been renewed for a second season.
THE PUNISHER (NETFLIX)
A spin-off from the second season of Marvel’s Daredevil, the series debuted in November of 2017 and follows Frank Castle who uses lethal force to fight crime as the vigilante “the Punisher.”
Although the show got off to a rocky start, this comics-derived action thriller was often criticized for its overly violent nature during a very sesitive time in the world. However, Bernthal has been praised for his realistic depiction of a former soldier suffering from PTSD following his time in battle paired with the loss of his family.
Based on the Marvel comic of the same name, Runaways follows the story of a group of super-powered teens who find out their parents make up a team of villains known as the Pride. The series stars young actors such as Gregg Sulkin, Lyrica Okano and Virginia Gardner, along with veteran actors such as Ever Carradine and James Marsters.
With its diverse cast, positive LGBT representation and faithfulness of the comics, Runaways has received mostly favorable reviews, although the show was slightly adjusted by focusing just as much on the parents as well as the main teens. The show has been renewed for a second season schedule for 2019, with a possible crossover with Cloak and Dagger.
LEGENDS OF TOMORROW (THE CW)
Developed as yet another spin-off in the Arrowverse, Legends of Tomorrow debuted in January of 2016. It centered on a group of rag-tag heroes and former villains who team up to travel through time to defeat the evil Vandal Savage.
Despite a rocky first season, Legends seemed to find it’s footing in the second season with a freer creative arc and the removable of problematic characters. The show embraced it’s wacky time-travelling capers with aplomb, showcasing standout performances from Lotz, as Sara Lance, and Garber, as father figure Prof. Martin Stein, particularly. The series has been renewed for an upcoming fourth season.
THE GIFTED (FOX)
The first live-action television series that actually references the X-Men, The Gifted debuted in October of 2017 to mostly positive reviews. The show follows a family that includes two mutant teenagers who go on the run with the help of the Mutant Underground to avoid apprehension from a bigoted government.
Although the first season had some pacing issues, it was exciting to see a spotlight shined on some of the less-famous X-Men characters and telling the story from a family’s perspective keeps it fresh. Season one featured characters such as Blink, Polaris, Thunderbird and the Stepford Cuckoos with season two set to introduce more mutants including the Morlocks.
THE FLASH (THE CW)
Based on the comic book of the same name, The Flash debuted in 2014 as the first spin-off from Arrow with a premiere that ranks as the second-most watched pilot episode in the network’s history. The story follows Barry Allen’s origin as he becomes The Flash and fights crime with the help of his friends and allies.
After a rough first season, the show seemed to find it’s groove in season two by balancing Barry’s heroic identity with his civilian persona. Panabaker’s transformation into Killer Frost and Cisco assuming the Vibe mantle also won big points with the show’s fanbase. The fifth season is scheduled to premiere in October of this year.
Legion debuted in early 2017 as a psychological thriller set in the ’60s from the perspective of a schizophrenic mutant with diverse abilities. The complex series revolves around David Haller’s (also known as Legion, Charles Xavier’s son) early life in a mental institution. The cast includes Dan Stevens, Aubrey Plaza and Jean Smart.
With its trippy special effects and smart writing, the show took a while to catch on with viewers, but once they did it became addictive. While the connection to the X-Men has been sketchy at best, it was revealed towards the end of the season that David’s villain in the series is indeed the Shadow King. Plaza also earned rave reviews for her portrayal of Lenny Busker.
SUPERGIRL (THE CW)
Supergirl debuted in October of 2015 on CBS but move to The CW network starting with the second season. The series follows Kara Zor-El as she begins her journey as a superhero while working with her sister’s employer, the DEO, a government organization created to defend the Earth from alien threats. The cast includes Melissa Benoist, Chyler Leigh and David Harewood.
After a rough first season, Supergirl found its home in the adjacent Arrowverse on The CW, taking part in both crossover events. The relationship between Kara and her sister Alex, along with Alex’s coming out story, have received especially positive reviews from critics and fans alike. The show continues to up the stakes each season with room for Kara and her friends to grow.
LUKE CAGE (NETFLIX)
The third Marvel series to premiere on Netflix, Luke Cage debuted in September 2016 following the lead character’s supporting role in Jessica Jones. The show follows Luke Cage, a man wrongfully incarcerated, rebuilding his life following his release from prison, which includes cleaning up the streets of his hometown, Harlem. The cast includes Mike Colter, Simone Missick and Rosario Dawson.
The first superhero show with an African American male lead, Luke Cage received mostly positive reviews from critics and fans. Timely and socially relevant, Luke’s focus is on rebuilding his life, he just happens to become a hero in the process. In addition to the relationship between Colter’s Luke and Dawson’s Claire, Missick’s turn as Det. Misty Knight has also earned rave reviews.
The first of Marvel’s Netflix shows to debut, Daredevil was released in 2015 and was met with entirely positive reviews. The series focuses on blind lawyer-turned-hero Matt Murdock, as he avenges the taking out of his father while fighting crime in Hell’s Kitchen.
Praised for its pacing and fight scenes, Daredevil made it clear that Marvel wasn’t messing around with it’s new style of shows. The series introduced other fan favorite characters like Kingpin, Elektra and the Punisher, thereby expanding the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The series was renewed for an upcoming third season, which details Daredevil’s journey back to Hell’s Kitchen following the events of The Defenders mini-series.
AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC)
A direct spin-off of the original Avengers, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. debuted in 2013 and is still going strong, entering its sixth season. It follows a team of agents as they travel the globe protecting the people of Earth from heightened threats.
After starting the first season with a high viewership but mixed reviews, AOS just got better with age. The series stepped up its game in season two by introducing the Inhumans, as well Mockingbird and Quake. Praised for its diverse cast, action scenes and intricate storytelling, AOS has traveled into space as well as the future. We can’t wait to see what the next season has in store.
ARROW (THE CW)
The series that established the Arrowverse in the first place debuted in 2012 and was an immediate hit with fans. It tells the origin of how Oliver Queen became the Green Arrow, a playboy turned vigilante who creates a team of heroes to fight crime in Star City.
Gritty and mesmerizing, the show combined flashbacks with modern day stories for the first few seasons, giving viewers a glimpse of Oliver’s life before becoming the Arrow. Multiple DC Comics characters have appeared throughout the series, such as the Huntress, Black Canary, Arsenal, Vixen, Constantine, Prometheus and Speedy. The series has been renewed for a seventh season scheduled for this fall.
JESSICA JONES (NETFLIX)
The second Marvel series to make its debut, Jessica Jones premiered in 2015 to rave reviews. Following the life of a former superhero turned private eye, the show examines topics such as PTSD, consent and assault with a noir tone.
A multifaceted drama centered around a surly anti-hero and her allies, the series has been hailed as being Marvel’s strongest TV franchise to date, even winning the prestigious Peabody Award. The show explores stories directly from the comics, including Jessica and Luke Cage’s relationship, as well as an origin story to the Avenger, Hellcat. The third season is currently in production with a release date of late 2018/early 2019.
SMALLVILLE (THE CW)
The most enduring superhero television show in history, Smallville premiered in 2001 and ran for an entire decade. The series followed a pre-Superman Clark Kent during his high school and young adult years, as he uses his powers to save people and fight evil in the town of Smallville (later, Metropolis). The main cast included Tom Welling, Annette O’Toole, Allison Mack, Erica Durance and Justin Hartley.
Setting the tone for modern-day superhero shows, Smallville was the prototype the Arrowverse followed to be successful. With a combination of character development, imaginative storytelling and great acting, the series was a hit with critics and fans alike. The show would go on to feature additional heroes of the DC Comics Universe such as Zatanna, Impulse, Aquaman and Mera.
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