Superheroes are all the rage today. With both the DCEU and MCU off and running, quite a few box-office hits under the belt and sprawling, star-studded ensembles on the way, the genre is raking in the billions. But as the Justice League and Avengers prepare to take the theatre near you by storm, don’t forget the renaissance of superhero shows currently happening on your TV. While the cinema history of the superhero genre has a lot of classics to looks back to, superhero TV shows had rare hits and a lot of misses till they truly came of age in the 90s, when DC’s ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ and Marvel’s ‘X-Men’ kept kids glued to their idiot boxes. Naturally, you’ll find only two pre-1990 shows in here.
While the stream of legendary animated superhero shows continued well into the early 2000s with shows like ‘Justice League’, this decade has seen a meteoric rise of live-action TV adaptations of the lives of some of our most beloved superheroes. And unlike the shows of yore, they enjoy high production values, peddle much more mature content and for the most part, are parts of an extended universe like their movies. The CW’s Arrowverse has 5 shows under its belt, which frequently intersperse with each other, while Marvel and Netflix have formed a formidable alliance to launch four shows leading up to an ensemble ‘The Defenders’ which released on 18th August to sterling reviews. Although no current show is yet quite as superlative as the animated adventures of the decades gone by, the golden age of TV has been kind to superheroes.
But out of the glut of great superhero shows available (especially, Netflix superhero shows), which ones are the worthiest of your attention? I’ll tell you. Here is the list of best superhero TV shows since the dawn of time. The list includes superhero shows for kids.
13. Preacher (2016-Present)
Plot Summary: Jesse, a Texan priest with a sordid past and a drinking problem suddenly becomes ‘The Preacher’ when he is inhabited by Genesis, an entity which makes his word the word of god. He enlists the help of a vampire to find god.
This grotesquely violent and darkly humourous show is unlike anything known to the superhero genre, on TV or the silver screen. The highlights which set ‘Preacher’ apart from the run-of-the-mill swill are the pulp elements and run-down western feel of everything, which are otherwise alien to the superhero genre. It is reverent to the brooding, yet funny tone of its source material and despite tweaking a lot of things from the DC Comics, passes as a faithful adaptation to boot. As is with so many iconic cinematic adaptations of superheroes, perfect casting of the lead elevates the show considerably. A rugged Dominic Cooper as the titular preacher battles his own demons along with everything else, giving a nuanced, restrained yet charismatic act. Currently in its sophomore season, the show has hit its stride well, continuing the gory insanity while sharpening the storytelling. Not your usual cup of superhero tea; a swig of alternative comic whiskey instead.
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12. Arrow (2012-Present)
Plot Summary: Billionaire playboy Oliver Queen returns home after being stranded on an island named Lian Yu for 5 years, with a mission to fulfill his father’s dying wish. The mission leads him on a journey of becoming a vigilante. We witness two stories simultaneously – one of Oliver’s adventures in Star City and the other a flashback showing how he became the person he is.
This is where the revival of the new-look live-action superhero adaptations began. The cinematic action sequences, Batman-esque dark tone, iconic villains like Ra’s Al Ghul and Deathstroke, the show’s attempt at delving into the Arrow’s morality and emotions, a perfect balance and correlation between the past and the present timelines and Stephen Amell’s stoic, machismo act as Ollie made up for an exciting couple of seasons. But somewhere around the third Season the show started turning into a typical CW rom-com with some action on the side. A contrived, at times ridiculous and bland Season 4 made many a fan (myself included) swear off the show. Fortunately, the ongoing season has once again gone back to its roots, and grants the show a spot on this list, albeit lower than where I would have liked it to be. ‘Arrow’ is worth sticking through the rough patch (but skip Season 4, for your own good!)
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11. Batman (1966-68)
Plot Summary: ‘The Caped Crusader’ and ‘The Boy Wonder’ are the beacons of Gotham City in its fight against a bevy of flamboyant villains.
What does the word ‘Batman’ bring to your mind? Perhaps a brooding, lonely shadow fighting the most gruesome of villains. Well, get ready to have that image replaced with an image of a campy Batman (Adam West) in the midst of a whole lot of other camp, with “BAM!”,”POW!” and “Crrr-Rash!” which flashed up just before he slugged a villain or knocked over a prop, but forever keeping a straight face in the most ridiculous of situations, making them seem funnier. But the show, which seems like a silly parody of the modern Dark Knight now, was actually based on the eariler comics of Batman and was a household affair in its time. Such was the show’s popularity that many renowned stars clamored to play supporting characters in the show. Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, Julie Newmar as Catwoman, Cesar Romero as the Joker and Burgess Meredith as the Penguin are now legendary. Watch it for the heck of it and you’ll have a riot!
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10. Marvel’s Jessica Jones (2016-Present)
Plot Summary: After her brief stint as a superhero comes to a tragic end, Jessica Jones, a sassy, sardonic, hot-tempered superhuman, tries to deal with nasty PTSD and make a living as a Private Investigator. But Kilgrave, another superhuman whose body exudes pheromones which help him hypnotise anyone to do as he instructs, resurfaces after a year to re-pursue his obsession with her and drags an innocent girl named Hope into the fray, who Jessica must try to save.
1970s ‘Wonder Woman’ and the ongoing ‘Supergirl’ were also tough contenders for the ‘Grl Power’ spot n the list, but the smart-ass PI from Hell’s kitchen edges the DC girls out due to Jessica’s humanely flawed and broken characterisation, and the chilling portrayal of its baddie Kilgrave by David Tennant. Jessica Jones is currently the most badass female superhero across film or TV. Period (Although Wonder Woman is a close second). With a gritty, noir feel to it, ‘Jessica Jones’ gives the world a flawed, anti-social, broken but butt-whipping female superhero for once. It isn’t the everyday superhero tale. Jessica isn’t saving the world; she’s barely saving herself and anyone else she can. Her fight with Kilgrave while constantly fighting her own demons is a thrill to watch.
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9. The Flash (2014-Present)
Plot Summary: Barry, a goofy, lovable Central City police forensic scientist, gets struck by lightening after a particle accelerator explosion, which grants him superhuman speed. He along with his friends in STAR Labs, which housed the exploded accelerator, dedicate their life to fighting other threats created by the explosion. But soon bigger secrets involving Barry’s past surface, thickening the plot.
Envisioned as a new show in 2014 after cameos in ‘Arrow’, ‘The Flash’ became a perfect contrast to the former’s brooding tone by adopting a lighter atmosphere as its source material demanded, and adding a dash of colours to the pale palette. The format of introducing new metahumans every episode while also having an overarching storyline ensured that the show had enough fuel for a fast-paced first season, also helped by the restrained menace of Tom Cavanagh as baddie Harrison Wells. The second season hit its stride from the get-go. It adapted some of the most popular storylines from the comics and brought the multiverse into the mix, upping the ante. Although the show became a little repetitive in Season 3, its mix of Grant Gustin’s dorky take on the persona of Barry and reverent treatment of its source material by doing storylines like ‘Flashpoint’ justice, is more than one can ask for. I just hope to god Barry stop screwing with the timelines!
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8. Misfits (2009-2013)
Plot Summary: Nathan, Kelly, Simon, Alisha and Curtis are juvenile delinquents in the middle of community service when a freak thunderstorm grants these different teens distinct superpowers. They must now survive the remaining duration of the service.
A true ‘misfit’ on the list, this show is the only one up here which doesn’t belong to either DC or Marvel stables. While it originates on cliche (thunderstorm granting superpowers), it soon develops into an engaging tussle between snarky, unsympathetic but grounded, realistic characters who do not run off to save the world as soon as they discover their powers but focus on surviving the drudgery of their community service without accidentally killing someone. As it is a British show, foul-mouthing, vile behaviour and sexual tension are more uninhibited than ever, making the punk sensibility more evident. The actors grab their meaty roles and devour them with glee, doing complete justice to their crisp, snarky dialogue. Sans even a shred of campiness, this irreverent gang is unlike any ensemble of superhumans you have seen, or probably shall see.
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7. Adventures Of Superman (1952-1958)
Plot Summary: Superman battles crooks, gangsters, and other villains in the fictional city of Metropolis while masquerading “off-duty” as Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent.
This is the OG. The very first live-action superhero show, ‘The Adventures Of Superman’ was one of the most popular shows of the 50s and paved the way towards him becoming America’s greatest hero, thanks to a towering performance by George Reeves. He was the model that all actors playing Superman are attempting to live up to, including Henry Cavill. Obviously, the special effects are rudimentary and the first two seasons are in black and white, but the show’s warm, simple, good-over-evil stories, albeit corny, are full of heart, and would make any kid want to fight for “truth, justice, and the American way.”. With 184 episodes over six seasons, the show features the man of steel in his fullest glory.
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6. Legion (2017-Present)
Plot Summary: David Haller was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age and has been a patient in various psychiatric hospitals since. After Haller has an encounter with a fellow psychiatric patient named Syd, he is confronted with the possibility that there may be more to him than mental illness.
Diving inside the head of one of the weirder and less ‘mainstream’ X-Men, The distorted ‘Legion’ could make Deadpool look sane. The show takes the road less trodden by plunging headfirst into a narrative as fractured as the protagonist’s confused brain. While it takes some moments for the viewer to become steady, the journey thereon is of sheer imaginative, surreal and visually arresting. As Haller is an ‘unreliable narrator’, we can never be sure of whether what we see is real or a figment of imagination. The visuals and the production design are a wonderfully weird mix of 1960s retro and modern elements, which fit David’s distorted perception of time and reality like a glove. David’s helpless meandering to clear his head will keep you allured, glued and guessing.
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5. Spider-Man (1994-96)
Plot Summary: After being bitten by a radioactive spider, Peter Parker fights crime in New York as ‘Spider-Man’ while trying to lead a normal life, which includes his girlfriend Mary Jane and his job as a photographer.
Tom Holland’s recent outing as the ‘friendly neighborhood Spider-Man’ elated a lot of fans. His upbeat, humourous Peter Parker trumped all the other adaptations (even that of Tobey McGuire) in catching the pulse of Spider-man’s unique wit. But if there is one show which eclipses even Holland in terms of doing absolute justice to Spidey, it is this acclaimed animated series which covers everything from Peter’s origins to him fighting an assortment of iconic villains like Kingpin, the Green Goblin, Vulture and Venom, while also introducing lesser known villains like Spot. Remarkably, it also did pure justice to many storylines including “Black Spiderman” which Spiderman III famously botched. For any future films featuring the young hero, this is the adaptation to beat.
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4. Marvel’s Daredevil (2015-Present)
Plot Summary: A nuclear spill renders Matt Murdock blind at the age of 9, but superhumanly enhances his other senses. He now fights evil in Hell’s Kitchen as a lawyer by day and vigilante called ‘The Devil Of Hell’s Kitchen’ by night.
In 2015, Marvel was already miles ahead of DC in terms of cinematic development of its extended universe, but DC had some consolation as it dominated the small screen with Arrowverse Then came ‘Daredevil’ and began Marvel’s dominion over TV as well. Netflix’s take on the devil without fear is a fast-paced, brutal yet realistic one, unlike the only other visual adaptation in 2003, which was a fiasco to say the least. The show dishes out everything a superhero fan can hope for and more. It has believable action sequences, well-rounded characters arcs, a great cast and yet another of TV’s most terrifying yet layered villains in Wilson Fisk. Charlie Cox aces Daredevil’s dual personality traits, and the addition of Frank Castle (Punisher) and Electra Nachios (Electra) in the sophomore season takes the tempo up a notch. An all-out entertainer without a false beat (yet) and the best live-action superhero adaptation on the idiot box.
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3. X-Men (1992-1997)
Plot Summary: Mutants are humans with special genetic endowments who are persecuted and loathed by society. Professor Xavier’s Academy for Gifted Children shelters such mutants and trains them to control their abilities so they can lead regular lives as well as thwart opposing mutants who seek to force the world to kneel to their perceived superiority.
This is the reason for the maddening popularity of the X-Men in the mainstream, not the mediocre-at-best film series. While the films outdid the animated show in their rendition of Logan, Prof. X and Magneto (thanks to stellar work by Hugh, Patrick and Sir Ian), almost every iconic X-Men storyline – The Phoenix Saga, Onslaught, Dark Phoenix, Days of Future Past, Come The Apocalypse, Angel’s transformation into Archangel and so many more – sees its greatest screen adaptation on this show. It takes its sweet time to ensure fleshed-out character development, and never lays too much focus on a single X-Man, instead showing dynamics between members (like Gambit and Rogue’s love-hate relationship). ‘X-Men’, along with ‘Batman: The Animated Series’, spawned a generation of comic book shows to follow.
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2. Justice League & Justice League Unlimited (2001-2006)
Plot Summary: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, Hawkgirl and Martian Manhunter join forces against evil to form perhaps the most formidable team ever in ‘Justice League’. In ‘Justice League Unlimited’ the original team is joined by dozens of other superheroes to fight even more sinister evils.
After animated series based on the lives of Batman and Superman released to widespread admiration, WB carried on with the mature approach towards its characters in ‘Justice League’. Kevin Conroy who immortalised Batman in our numero uno entry, continued his stint, joined by a full house of stellar voice actors. ‘Justice League Unlimited’ is essentially an extension of the original show, but brings in a lot of original stories and introduces a buttload of new superheroes and supervillains, while taking a more emotionally aware path than predecessor, which was relatively more action-centric. Without any unnecessary fooling around, the shows seem like we’re watching a moving montage of a comic book. They also succeed in bringing out the humanity of its protagonists, something only few animated shows can muster. In ‘Unlmited’, almost each episode is centered round a particular member of the league, providing an interesting insight into their psyche. This duology of superhero shows is probably the best writing the genre has seen on TV.
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1. Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995)
Plot Summary: Heir to the Wayne family fortune, Bruce Wayne lives by day as a seemingly lavish playboy millionaire socialite, but by night, he takes up the crime-fighting alter-ego; the caped crusader known as Batman.
Batman is the most popular superhero of our times, and no small part to this animated show which revamped the Dark Knight and revolutionarised the entire superhero genre with its noir aesthetics, artistic maturity and darker, gothic tone. Everything from the show’s tenacious score to the smallest supporting characters have become pop culture phenomena and benchmarks to be lived up to. Original characters, such as the Joker’s accomplice Harley Quinn, Gotham City police detective Renee Montoya and the vigilante Lock-Up achieved such popularity that they became characters in the comics. Kevin Conroy’s indomitable Batman and Mark Hamill’s maniacal Joker defined the future renditions of the fabled rivalry, the most notable being Bale-Ledger in Nolan’s ‘Dark Knight Trilogy’. The series was also the first in the continuity of the shared DC animated universe, spawning further animated TV series, comic books and video games with most of the same creative talent. The show that literally personified the statement “I am vengeance. I am the Knight. I AM BATMAN!”.
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