Have we reached peak comic book shows?
We’re living in the heyday of shows based on comic book properties. There was a time when live action shows came out every couple years and the quality was always questionable. Shows like Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk, and Smallville were few and far between. We’d gnaw on every little morsel thrown our way in hopes it would boost ratings leading to more adaptations. Remember Ultraverse’s Night Man? Or The Crow: Stairway to Heaven?
How the times have changed. In the first half of 2018, there are were nearly 30 shows based on comic books. It isn’t slowing down. The already long list will be joined this fall by Titans (please be good enough to justify a “Titans Hunt” storyline), Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and possibly Umbrella Academy. 2019’s new comic book shows include Doom Patrol, Deadly Class, and The Boys. If we want to keep our sanity (and have a social life) we need to now make sacrifices of shows instead of sacrificing our free time for questionable quality.
With impending comic book show doom on the horizon, I thought it might be a good time to take stock of what’s out there and what brings me joy. Below is a list of live action comic books shows I’m currently watching and what I think about each one. At the end are shows I stopped watching and shows I’ve yet to watch.
Note: This article about comic book shows is full of spoilers about every single one of these shows.
Note II: Updated November 28, 2018 to include The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. December 26, 2018 to include Titans. February 23, 2019 to include Happy! season one, The Punisher season two, and Daredevil season three.
To put it simply: Gotham is mad as a hatter.
Gotham had a rough season one and, unfortunately, a large contingent of loud fans who didn’t stick with the show are still critiquing it based on that first impression. This show really came into its own when it realized it wasn’t the story of the Gotham PD or the evolution of Batman, but instead was the origin of the villains who necessitated the rise of Batman. This is why this show is so perfect because it isn’t afraid of walking right up to the line of absurdist madcap villainy and stepping right over while maniacally laughing.
There are few shows that make me audibly gasp or squeal, but Gotham somehow manages to pull off a moment like that in every episode. This personal anecdote is brought to you by my wife who once said she knows when I’m watching Gotham because of the sounds I make. The Gotham showrunners and actors manage to make us care about most of these characters while not taking itself too seriously.
After the first two seasons, I’ve even come around on David Mazouz’s Bruce Wayne. Originally, I felt the show would have been better served with Bruce Wayne going off to boarding school and not even being in the show. His character was a drag on season one and it felt shoe-horned into the show. However, by the end of season three, I was happy to have him around (although the lack of schooling thing still bugs me. Can we get one scene of Bruce studying forensics?).
This show is all about the evolution of these Batman characters and, predominantly, Jim Gordon and Oswald Cobblepot. The future Gotham PD Commissioner always wanted to do the right thing but that isn’t easy in a city as rotten to the core as Gotham. Gordon needed to find how he could put himself in a position of change while working within this corrupt system. Unfortunately, he had to define his own moral compass, and ride the edge of it, in order to get there. He’s flawed, just like all of us, but he learns from his mistakes and we get to see him build his personal moral code around decisions he’s had to make during his career.
Penguin, on the other hand, takes the opposite path. He tries to learn from his lessons but he craves power and recognition at any cost. Even when he sort of tries to go legit as Mayor he can’t help but screw it up because his moral code leaves room to betray loose allies for personal gain. He’s a terrible person but we’re occasionally forced to cheer for him because he isn’t the worst of the worst.
I could go on and on and on about this show, and perhaps I will in the future, but there are more shows to cover…
Gotham season five is currently broadcasting on FOX.
Congratulations to Legion for being unafraid of taking the mold of a superhero show and smashing it into little bits. Season one of Legion is perfection. It easily holds its own against similarly engaging artistic boundary-breaking shows like Hannibal, season three of Twin Peaks, and American Horror Story: Asylum. Dan Stevens phenomenal performance as the psychically tortured David Haller is enhanced by the equally pitch-perfect performance of Aubrey Plaza as Lenny.
The only reason Legion isn’t number one on this list is due to a slightly weaker season two. It occasionally felt like the show was going over much of the same ground as season one and in the middle started to feel redundant. Season two stuck the landing but season three will need to figure out a way to leave the Shadow King in the past.
*cough* Mojo *cough*
Legion season three arrives in 2019.
It feels a little wrong putting a show so high on the list when it’s only had one season under its belt. However, here I am giving Happy! season one what would be the number three slot if I actually numbered this list (my methodology is all the way at the bottom).
Why? Because Happy! season one beat my expectations on two fronts.
On one hand, Happy! is fairly low on my list of favorite Grant Morrison comic properties. The miniseries was fine but it felt like Morrison and artist Darick Robertson had crafted the comic for the specific purpose of trying to land a television deal. I was sort of “cool but meh” when I saw it was coming out. The show took a four issue mini-series and managed to explode the universe and bring incredible character depth.
On the other hand, it gave me what I expected but didn’t get from Preacher season one. Happy!‘s first season made Preacher season one look as if it had on training wheels (ftr, Preacher has significantly improved).
Happy! showrunner Brian Taylor has shown an impressive understanding of not only the source material but also how to translate a comic book to television. It is one of thee most comic bookish feeling live-action comic book shows on the boob tube. At this point, I’d trust Taylor with other Morrison properties like The Filth or Seaguy (give me my Seaguy show, please). It’s nice to see he’s continuing to work with Morrison on an adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
Creators aside, we can’t ignore the acting powerhouse of Christopher Meloni as Nick Sax. Sax is a complicated character because he’s not a great person in the beginning. If you’re going to keep the viewers they need to believe there’s someone better buried under the tough, asshole exterior. Meloni masters that difficult balance. He ends up being that Uncle who keeps screwing up his life but everyone knows he does so with the best intentions.
And, of course, there’s the world of imaginary friends. This is where the show could have fallen flat on its face. When you’re mixing cartoons with live-action you never know if you’ll end up with Cool World or Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (hint, you want to be in the same class as the latter). The Happy! team manages to get it right and the imaginary friends feel weirdly natural. It probably helps that the rest of the show is so freakin’ over the top that throwing in a bunch of cartoon characters seems tame in comparison. Plus, Patton Oswald’s gives a masterclass in voiceover emoting.
Updated 2/23/2019 to include Daredevil Season 3.
After season two this show found itself leading the bottom four on my list. You can read my thoughts on why that was below. Season three brought a healthy dose of redemption not only for our main character but also for the show itself. It was powerful, well-crafted, and didn’t pull any punches. In fact, every single punch landed perfectly.
After season two I was uninterested in slogging through the third season. It took me three months to finally get around to watching the new season. Now I’ve fully engaged again and hungry for more, but we aren’t going to get more. Wah–wah. That’s okay, because, much like The Punisher‘s finale, I could see more stories for Charlie Cox and the crew but it also ends on a light positive note. Matt Murdock understands who he wants to be as a hero and now we can imagine the character running off and being that sort of hero. The Defenders shows ended up being a bit like Batman: Year One. They showed us how the heroes and villains we know so well in the comics became who they are today. They weren’t born fully formed and understanding what it meant to superhero. They had to learn. I’m content with it ending here.
Below is what I said about seasons one and two:
Hoo-boy, if you look up a definition of mixed bag you’ll find Daredevil season two. If felt like the showrunners were smashing together a Daredevil show and a Punisher show without any sense of rhythm. The Punisher storyline was distracting from everything that was going on with the Hand and Elektra. This isn’t intended as a knock on The Punisher because John Bernthal is pitch-perfect in the role, but we spent way too much time introducing this character.
On the flipside, constipated emo Matt Murdock just didn’t do it for me. Murdock can be a jerk to his friends in the comic but more often than not he’s loyal to a fault and, when necessary, has a wicked sense of humor. Season two’s Matt Murdock didn’t show that. Instead, it gave us Matt Murjerk….Matt Jerkdock? Jerkdevil? Anyway, as we learned in season one and relearned during The Defenders, Daredevil needs a foil because left to his own devices he apparently becomes an ass.
That said, the end of The Defenders left Daredevil in an interesting place. Netflix has been teasing a “Where’s Matt Murdock campaign?” which suggests the Man Without Fear may have chosen to temporarily abandon his alias and is now on a path to find himself. Maybe he realized he was Matt Jerkdock. Side note, in the comics, whenever Matt Murdock disappears he typically goes to San Francisco.
Luke Cage rises to the top of Netflix’s Marvel shows thanks to two solid seasons of gripping storytelling and powerhouse acting. Mike Colter as Luke Cage is, of course, a well-built house, but he’s held up by the strongest foundation of all of these shows. Who knew after watching season one that Shades would become one of the most sympathetic characters in season two? And who wouldn’t consider Alfre Woodard the co-star of the show? Of course, we can’t forget the continuing development of Misty Knight and Claire Temple.
Legends of Tomorrow
If you’re looking for ridiculous comic book joycore you don’t need to look much farther than Legends of Tomorrow. Legends of Tomorrow, unlike Arrow and Flash, ditches the depressing high drama and instead revels in absurdist Silver Age-era inspired storylines. It does have its fair share of imperfect episodes but that hardly matters when the cast is clearly having so much fun. The tone of Legends is what Flash should be.
The big bonus of season four? We get John Constantine in a nude scene.
Updated 2/23/2019 to include The Punisher Season 2.
The Punisher continued to be a pleasant surprise with season two. The new season managed to avoid the sophomore slump while bringing some closure to Frank Castle. Although it was unfortunate Netflix had to cancel the show it was a tidy ending.
Below is what I said about season one:
Marvel and Netflix could have simply given us a 13-episode 80s revenge flick but instead, they chose to dissect the epidemic of hypermasculinity. And, for the most part, it works. In this case, don’t take my word for it.Dr. NerdLove has the best breakdown of why The Punisher caught so many people off guard. Here’s a choice paragraph:
“What makes The Punisher so amazing is that, unlike previous incarnations, this isn’t a joyride of violence and wanton slaughter. What we got instead was a surprisingly thoughtful and blistering look at the damage that war does and the toll we’ve come to accept for the people we call our heroes. Just as importantly, it rips away all of the supposed glory of being a bad-ass. At the end, we don’t see The Punisher as the ultimate alpha, the lone man capable of taking justice into his own hands and doing what the government can’t or won’t. At the end of the day, he’s not a force for justice or the spirit of vengeance, he’s a man who is afraid to not have a war any more.”
The first season of Jessica Jones was near perfection. Expectations going into season two were understandably high and, unfortunately, it nearly missed the mark. Much of the problem with season two comes from familiarity. Once again, we’re exploring Jessica’s past (which, if I think about it, is the theme of nearly all of these Netflix superhero shows) and it doesn’t feel like she has the chance to grow. It wasn’t until the last five or so episodes that I truly felt engaged with again and cared about where the characters were going. Still, Krysten Ritter, much like Mike Colter, has enough charisma to keep the show above water for another season.
Bonus: I’d watch 13 episodes of Carrie-Anne Moss as Jeri Hogarth running a firm like a badass.
Jessica Jones season three will arrive in 2019. It will be the final season.
Preacher is one of my top five favorite comic series of all time. I wasn’t optimistic about the comic being translated into a television show. The first season definitely let me down. The high points included DeBlanc, Fiore, and the Saint of Killers. While Ruth Negga and Joe Gilgun are perfect in their respective roles of Tulip and Cassidy.
However, the season felt like a show that stalled getting out of the gates. Annville was just kinda boring to spend time in. It wasn’t until our main cast headed to New Orleans in season two that Preacher finally figured out what it wanted to be. It was helped significantly by the introduction of Herr Starr and the Grail. Season three struggles to square the southern gothic of Gran’ma and Angelville with the high tech blasphemy of The Grail. Some of the seasons best moments are Cassidy flirting with becoming a stereotypical vampire, Tulip and Agent Featherstone (can we just get a Tulip/Featherstone spin-off?), Jesse’s complicated relationship with Jody, and, of course, everything Herr Starr.
Like most people, I didn’t know what to expect from Krypton. How can you build an entire series around the planet of Krypton 200 years before Superman? Will it be a new Caprica (which I didn’t entirely hate)? If it wasn’t for the promise of Brainiac at the end of the end of the first episode (who should really have made it to a big screen Superman film by now) I’m not sure I would have stuck around for the first three episodes. I’m thankful I did because that last half of the season was completely worth the time investment. And can I talk about the cliffhangers? Seg and Brainiac getting sucked into the Phantom Zone like Dracula and Van Helsing at the end of Monster Squad. Doomsday. The Zod family emblem on Superman’s cape. Zod mobilizing for Kryptonian domination of the galaxy. Season two has a promising setup.
Related Article: Which DC Characters Should We See in Krypton Season Two?
Cloak and Dagger
I’m a Cloak and Dagger fanboy but I had fairly low expectations for this new series. I thought this was going to be one of those shows I’d throw on in the background and sort of eyeball while I did other things around the house. Damn, did it grab me and make me sit down and watch. This is the sort of show I would have wanted to see on television when I was a teenager. It talks about serious issues while treating teenagers like humans with their own emotions. Some of the topics addressed in the first season include death, grief, social pressure, living up to expectations, overcoming self-loathing, domestic abuse, and racial profiling. Tyrone’s subplot with the basketball team is relatable to any kid dealing with tragedy but is still expected to rise to the occasion. Tandy’s subplot about her inability to connect with her mother reflects real struggles experienced by families when a parent is killed.
Where the show really clicks is when Tyrone and Tandy start overcoming their trust issues. Episode 7, “The Lotus Eaters,” while a bit of a self-contained episode, is probably the most important for the relationship of the duo. It provided Tandy an opportunity to grow emotionally by dealing with unresolved issues following the death of her father. Cleverly, by having her stuck in a time loop that moved faster than real time the writers were able to help Tandy gain greater mastery of her powers. The first moment she throws her light daggers is iconic.
We’ve watched Tandy’s powers evolve at an accelerated pace during this season but Tyrone takes a bit longer to come into his superheroic own. His big moments finally arrive in the last episode which suggests more action for season two. First, we have the scene where he manages to herd the infected like sheep by teleporting around the room. Second, and most importantly, Cloak absorbs Connors into the Darkforce dimension. It’s been fun to read how people unfamiliar with Cloak’s powers responded to this moment. It made me wish I could have experienced this show without any knowledge of what these characters can do. I mean, it was sort of weird that Tyrone was like “oh, I just swallowed a guy into my body. Huh. Weird. Oh well, back to fighting the bad guys.” I feel like I would have gone catatonic. Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see how the showrunners address where Connors went and if this is what unlocks Cloak’s infamous hunger. The only thing stopping me from saying this is the perfect Cloak and Dagger show is the fact that we haven’t yet witnessed a ravenous Cloak or an overpowered Dagger.
Have you watched Supergirl Season 3, Episode 9 “Reign”? No? Go watch it right now. It will explain why Supergirl has become the best DC superhero show (Gotham is the best DC detective show, Krypton is the best DC sci-fi show, Legends is the best time travel show) on television. It took a while for Supergirl to climb up this list, mostly due to the lack of Supergirl action we’ve seen on the screen episode-to-episode, but in season three, the show has finally balanced the development of relationships with the action. It lands above Flash and Arrow because it understands how to deliver camp while sometimes beating up our characters and getting a little bit dark and gritty. Kara Danvers occasionally has mopey and brooding moments, but unlike Barry Allen and Oliver Queen, it isn’t a fulltime job.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
I feel a little bad reviewing The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina when I haven’t even finished Riverdale, but it is what it is. Sabrina was a nice change of pace from the rest of the comic book based shows on this list. Although occasionally uneven, the show seemed to thrive best when it leaned into the monster of the week format, it knew exactly what it wanted to be starting with episode one. The Spellman family was perfectly cast with a perfect balance between Lucy Davis and Miranda Otto. The show still has room to grow, not only in plot but also in world building.
See the comment above about Legends of Tomorrow. Flash doesn’t need to be a wise-cracking goofball all of the time but I do expect it most of the time. This Flash is too much like a less experienced Oliver Queen with speed powers. He’s often sad, he has trust issues and his friends have trust issues, and he spends way too much time dealing with speedsters. I mean, yes, it makes sense because he is a speedster, but if it wasn’t for the fact that season four gave us the Thinker I might have completely walked away. The Thinker was a nice break from speed force villainy and it left me cautiously excited about the next season.
It might be time to go on a season-long road trip while leaving two-thirds of the cast behind. It was fun to watch Team Arrow grow but they just kept growing and growing and growing…and they also kept not trusting Ollie or Ollie didn’t want to endanger them or Ollie didn’t trust them or…. While the show still has a fair share of outstanding moments this isn’t the show it used to be. That said, the end of the last season did leave me excited to see where things go for season seven. Having Oliver unmasked and in Super Max opens a number of new opportunities for the show.
Iron Fist would be way higher on this list if season two was season one and the season one never happened. I mean, there were some good spots in season one, the Drunken Master fight in episode six was one standout moment, but for a show about Kung-Fu, it had shockingly little Kung-Fu. Season two made up for all of that by showing us everyone in New York City has a moderate understanding of martial arts.
More fights was only one area where Netflix showed it was listening to criticism. Where Iron Fist season two excelled was by turning the “white savior” narrative trope When Danny proposed giving Colleen Wing the Iron Fist I didn’t think they’d really go there. My assumption was that something would happen that would force the fist to transfer back to Danny. Nope, they went there and it was beautiful. That stinger with Colleen holding her sword imbued with the power of Iron Fist was an absolute delight.
Even putting the “white savior” trope aside, Danny of season one was a terrible Iron Fist underserving of the Iron Fist. The viewer couldn’t understand why this entitled white dude who couldn’t even fight and abandoned his mission (resulting in K’un Lun falling to the Hand, I mean, that was absolutely his fault) should wield that power.
Marvel deserves a great deal of credit for realizing they need more time to develop Finn Jones as Danny Rand and allowing the stronger character to take the spotlight. Let Luke manage his club and Danny trot the globe looking for Orson Welles for a year (or possibly go off for season three and fight in the tournament of the “Capital Cities of Heaven”). In the meantime, give us a Heroes for Hire or Daughters of the Dragon spinoff with Misty and Colleen.
I want to put Titans higher, but let’s be honest, season one was incomplete and unfinished. That wasn’t an end of season cliffhanger, that was a “we filmed this show for a different network but it didn’t get picked up so we stopped mid-production and now that it’s on DC Universe we need to finish it” episode. A second drawback for me was the dark and gritty tone hits the viewer over the head like a hammer. I’m all for dark and gritty because it fits the tone of the Wolfman-era Teen Titans, however, this often felt like violence for the sake of violence. I hope when season two (a.k.a. the second half of season one) arrives they’ll learn to be a bit more elegant in the execution of violence. Perhaps take a page from Gotham which manages to make violence an art form.
Thankfully, I’m certain this show will move way up the list once it does return. The characters are nearly pitch-perfect. Dick (Brenton Thwaites) and Gar (Ryan Potter) are currently, in my opinion, the weakest links. However, unlike Starfire, Robin, and Raven, Beast Boy hasn’t received many opportunities to carve out his own space on the show. He’s geekily charming, for sure, and that’s important for the character, so I think he’ll shine in season two.
Thwaites, for his part, probably has the biggest burden to carry on the show. It isn’t easy to fill Burt Ward’s slippers! Joking aside, I think the biggest problem with the show is it’s leaning a bit too heavily on being “The Robin Show.” He sort of sucks all of the air out of the room and makes it difficult for the other characters to spread their wings. If the show can start moving away from homicidal Robin-centric show toward a more mature and well-balanced Nightwing with the Titans show it’ll start to hit the mark. I already have enough Batman to last a lifetime, so let the other characters flex.
As noted above, Starfire (Anna Diop) and Raven (Tegan Croft) are nearly perfections in their roles. I’m looking forward to seeing how they evolve in the coming season.
As for the ancillary characters, Hawk and Dove are definitely highlights. I hope we get more in the future. Donna Troy’s screen time was limited but is promising. And that stinger? No spoilers, but yes, please. Woof!
The Defenders only had eight episodes to tell the story, yet it still somehow felt like a slog through the first half of the season. That’s a feat. The show took too long getting our heroes together but once it does the highlights are, of course, the banter and fight scenes. Yet, in the end, it all seemed surprisingly unnecessary. Matt disappears and everyone else goes back to their corners of New York City. There’s little acknowledgment that this show ever happened until Danny Rand shows up in a season two episode of Luke Cage. In Iron Fist season two, we’re led to believe the reason Danny’s fighting crime every night is because Matt asked him to at the end of The Defenders. Turns out, that’s just the lie he tells Colleen. Other than that, The Defenders never happened.
Do we need more Defenders? I don’t know. At this point, I’m more interested in having Matt Murdock as a loner while the other three heroes somehow collide. Maybe Colleen and Misty team-up as the Daughters of the Dragon to knock some sense into mob boss Luke Cage. Jessica somehow gets involved because she takes on a case that leads her to Harlem. And then Jessica and Luke make a baby for an entire episode.
The vote is still out on Amazon’s The Tick. The first season was tolerable enough and I appreciate that it came in half-hour chunks. However, the entire time I felt like it was missing something that I couldn’t put my finger on. Perhaps it was the lack of additional characters? The comic book Tick lives in a wild world filled with colorful heroes and villains. I think I wanted to see more of that reflected in the show. This was the first season and it has been renewed. Hopefully, it’ll scootch up this list in 2019.
Canceled Comic Books Shows
This is where I’ll put the shows that I was watching and writing about but were canceled. Once Jessica Jones season three airs all of The Defenders shows will be moved into this section.
Comic Books Shows I’ve Stopped Watching
Below are shows currently still on the air but I’ve stopped watching because they didn’t grab me.
The Walking Dead
Fear the Walking Dead
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Comic Books Shows I Haven’t Watched
The following list are shows that I haven’t watched or I started watching and plan to get back to:
The Runaways – Finished both seasons. Working on a write-up.
Happy! – finished season one and working on my write up. Season two arrives on SyFy March 27,
Riverdale – Enjoyed the first season but haven’t watched the second season. Season three arrived October 10, 2018.
iZombie – Saw the first couple of episodes but haven’t had time to get back to it. Season five arrives April 22, 2019.
Black Lightning – Haven’t watched. On my to do list. Season two arrived October 9, 2018.
Outcast – haven’t watched.
Wynonna Earp – haven’t watched. Renewed.
The Gifted – haven’t watched. Season two started September 25, 2018.
Lucifer – haven’t watched. Season four will air on Netflix in 2019.
Comic Book Shows Coming in 2019 or Beyond
Final Class – arriving on SyFy January 15. First episode here.
The Umbrella Academy – coming to Netflix on February 15. Trailer here.
Doom Patrol – landing on DC Universe February 15. Teaser here.
Swamp Thing – expected on DC Universe in May.
Stargirl – expected on DC Universe in August.
Watchmen – release date TBD but rumored for August 2019.
The Boys – will be on Amazon. Release date TBD. Teaser here.
Metropolis – planned for DC Universe. Release date TBD.
Batwoman – newest entry in the Arrowverse. Release date TBD.
Pennyworth – a show about Batman’s butler set for EPIX. Release date TBD.
How I Made This Definitive List of Comic Book Shows
- This list can only include comic book shows that are currently streaming new shows or have been renewed for a new season.
- Shows must have at the least one full season under the belt.
- I can only include comic book shows if I’ve watched every currently existing season. For example, Riverdale doesn’t qualify because I’ve only watched season one.
- Must be live-action (so you won’t see Young Justice on this list).
- Now that this list has been live it can include shows with a new season that I’m in the process of watching.
Why Isn’t This Comic Book Show List Numbered?
Good question! It might include numbers in the future but I felt weird about it. This is more of a comic book show hotlist where the top three or four shows excite me the most, the ones in the middle kinda get all lumped together, and two or three a the bottom make me chilly. Ranking the middle ones felt weird to me because they’re all sort of equal temperature. Should I add numbers?
Will This List Be Updated?
I hope so. I made this comic book show list mostly for my personal sanity. I’m ridiculously excited about The Boys and DC Universe‘s Titans, Doom Patrol, and Swamp Thing. If I want to add new shows to my roster it requires serious contemplation of my time investment. Do I need to quit Arrow? Not yet, but it might be coming.