A Fan's Guide to the Top Superhero Series

The best superhero series of all time might not be what you expect.
Odin Odin (62)
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Superheroes entertain and inspire us and give us a way to see the best in ourselves. The superhero archetype (the psychological mold that it inhabits in our society’s collective unconscious), is an ancient one that once was filled with mythical heroes of a bygone age. Now, with the hidden edges of our maps almost uniformly brought into the world of the known, we turn toward the same mythic stories within another guise.

Superhero television series have been gaining traction in the last few years largely due to the Marvel franchise turning screen superheroes into something believable. In days of yore, we had to rely on the artwork of brilliant graphic artists to provide a sense of wonder with the feats of superheroes and the super-villains that they face. But, with CGI technology, a new gateway has opened that allows us to fairly live within our imaginative heights; we get to experience superheroes, with all their awesomeness rendered by computers, in a way never before possible.

However, that doesn’t mean that earlier super hero series didn’t have some excellent fast tricks to pull with our imaginations, nor did the lack of our modern special effects make writing, acting, and directing any less important. Much of our modern television writing has become obsessed with tension for tension’s sake, bad plot-hooks designed to tug at an audience’s heart-strings, and lackluster emotional interactions between the main characters. A good show is one that transcends limitations of special effects and invites the viewer to experience an almost theatre-like engagement with the action, to become willfully immersed within the play. In this way, sometimes it’s maybe even better not to have too much CGI, because then the audience forgets that watching a television series is a participatory experience.

What makes a superhero series, anyway? Is it really the powers of the fantastic that some wield, or is it something deeper: could it be their ability to act as the best side of humanity, their ability to undertake terrific feats of daring for the greater good or some magnanimous cause? I think so.

I’ve assembled some of the best superhero television series here for you today, shows that kick butt and take names, but also shows that introspect, shows that ask you to engage, and shows that aren’t afraid to take risks for art’s own sake.

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Batman (1966)
Batman (1966)

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Batman was the most bat-tastic version of the iconic superhero to ever exist, connected deeply to the classic comics and resplendent with enough puns to drive you batty. It was the most light-hearted and fun of all Batman’s incarnations, designed to be silly and refreshing.

Hot take

Batman’s gotten darker over the years, as the United States zeitgeist likewise dove toward a heavier worldview. A lot about society changed in the years after 1996 when Batman was released—some for the better, some for the worse, and the superhero characters of the early years changed as well. However, Batman, as a character, is fundamentally a product of an earlier generation of superheroes, linked more to radio detective dramas than superpowered shenanigans. Batman loses something when he becomes too realized, and gains something when we allow him to exist in the realm of archetypes and myth.

The Green Hornet (1966)
The Green Hornet (1966)

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The Green Hornet started out as a character in 1930s radio dramas, a masked hero of the night who used his mysterious alter-ego to fight crime from within. When the 1966 series was introduced, with martial arts expert Bruce Lee coming in to showcase his skills as the Green Hornet’s sidekick, Kato, the iconic story was reintroduced into a new generation.

Hot take

It’s iconic in so many ways, and became a cult classic with ease. There are also so fun crossover episodes with Batman, as well, which makes sense since the series ran concurrently. The Asian references in the series are extraordinarily painful to modern eyes, but Bruce Lee is incredible as Kato and, frankly, drives the show in several ways (something the not-terrible 2011 film leaned into heavily, putting all of the heroism onto the Kato character).

Wonder Woman (1976)
Wonder Woman (1976)

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The New Adventures of Wonder Woman featured the Amazonian princess Diana as she heads to 1940s America to battle threats to the world and Democracy, taking on Nazis left and right and proving that the male foes she faced were no match for her strength, compassion, and intelligence.

Hot take

A smashing hit that had major implications for superhero material to come, it also finally offered girls a chance to see a superhero icon they could look up to, and provided enough humor to be enjoyable to adults as well. It’s very 1970s in aesthetic, but still manages to be a lot of fun for viewers today.

The Incredible Hulk (1978)
The Incredible Hulk (1978)

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The Incredible Hulk took the original comic book hero Hulk and gave him new on-screen life in best late-1970s style, playing up the Jekyl and Hyde aspects of the character as Dr. Bruce Banner wars with himself to outwit police, reports, and the agents of crime… without losing himself to his animal alter ego in the process!

Hot take

Honestly, the idea to cast Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk was pure genius, and it created one of the Hulk’s best iterations. Lou even appeared as a minor character in the excellent 2008 film The Incredible Hulk which starred Edward Norton as Bruce Banner. The writing for this show was rather clever at times, and built itself frequently around a sort of morality-play aspect that worked well with the character.

The Greatest American Hero (1981)
The Greatest American Hero (1981)

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The Greatest American Hero offered the viewers of television what they wanted from superhero shows in the 1980s—namely, comedy. The series revolves around a rather dweeby man who discovers an alien supersuit that grants him the ability to become a hero… much to the chagrin of the hardboiled cop he ends up working alongside.

Hot take

Actually a huge amount of fun and definitely a cult classic.

Automan (1983)
Automan (1983)

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Automan capitalized on the hit stylization of the film Tron and threw it into a superhero format of incredibly cheesy proportions. Following a sentient crime-fighting computer program that emerges at night as a hologram, and the computer programmer and police officer who created him.

Hot take

Cheese… so much cheese. It’s possibly the most aesthetically early-1980s thing in existence, though.

Batman: The Animated Series (1992)
Batman: The Animated Series (1992)

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Batman: The Animated Series gave us the batman of the comics in a whole new way; with a classic noir aesthetic art style that was actually just gorgeous, fun writing, and plenty of action to go around, this was a lot more intense than the comedic 1966 version, but ultimately still maintained good roots in the world of superhero detective comics from which the character was derived.

Hot take

Really, really fun! Lately, most animated series feature incredibly awful animation styles—styles with little to no artistic depth. Batman went for something different in its art style and direction, and succeeded massively.

Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993)
Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993)

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Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman is, first and foremost a romance. And that’s great! When Clark Kent (Superman) shows up in the big city, he meets Lois Lane… and the highjinks continue from there.

Hot take

It leaned into the comedic side of things pretty heavily, as well as the cheesy romance—but it ended up being a lot of fun.

Spider-Man (1994)
Spider-Man (1994)

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Spider-Man grabbed hold of the 1990s vibe and ran with it, while faithfully reproducing the artistic style of the comics of the time. It’s the whole story of Spiderman, beginning with his transformation due to an irradiated spider, and containing some great arcs like his fights with Venom and Carnage.

Hot take

Pure 1990s classic animated gold. If you want to enjoy a great bit of nostalgia, this is the perfect way to do it. Next Saturday, get a bowl of cereal, turn the lights down low, and enjoy.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997)
Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997)

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Buffy The Vampire Slaye is one of Joss Whedon’s greatest creations. An absolute masterpiece. A new girl in town just happens to be the inheritor of an ancient power: the strength and skill to fight vampires. And it just so happens that her new hometown is rife with vampires, ghouls, and all sorts of evil creatures.

Hot take

What, Buffy? Sure, I included her in my fantasy television series guide as well but she’s over here for good reason. Superhero, science fiction, and fantasy all share common elements. Ultimately, I push superheros into their own bracket, but sometimes the lines are too blurry to ignore. With Buffy, though the roots are fantasy, some elements are pure stereotypes of the superhero genre. Anyway, it’s such a good show that it deserves to be in two places at once.

The Tick (2001)
The Tick (2001)

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The Tick was one season of pure comedy gold, a series that leaned into the depths of pure absurdism as the titular character (a rather dumb and possibly insane superhero) teams up with a fresh superhero ex-accountant to take on all manner of super strange enemies.

Hot take

It’s delightfully weird, and does “weird” much better than its more modern predecessor. Honestly, it’s all largely due to Patrick Warburton’s incredible acting chops.

Mutant X (2001)
Mutant X (2001)

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Mutant X tells the story of genetically modified “mutants” who travel around trying to locate and protect other mutants. It’s actually licensed through Marvel Comics even though it doesn’t directly tie to any Marvel franchise.

Hot take

Warning, it ends of a cliffhanger because the company behind it ended up dying, largely due to both Fox Studios and Marvel being stuck in a grubby and greedy profit war at the time. Still fun if you need a superhero fix, though.

Smallville (2001)
Smallville (2001)

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Smallville really transformed the world of superhero television, offering a whole new ensemble drama experience. It was a show focused more on emotionality and character relationships than superhero stuff, but managed to weave this into a pretty great coming-of-age teen superhero show. With Clark Kent learning that he has powers he can’t understand (and frequently cant control), he also learns to be the sort of man who chooses to be better than he believes he can be.

Hot take

It eventually lost me in later seasons, but it was overall a great mix of cheese and drama.

Birds of Prey (2002)
Birds of Prey (2002)

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Birds of Prey took a great premise and ran with it. Batman’s daughter, the hero formerly known as Batgirl, and a young woman with mysterious powers team up to save Gotham from a new wave of crime. It was destined to be a hit series… unfortunately, it got canceled after one season.

Hot take

There are flaws with the execution and the writing, for sure, but this series had some charm and grit that I think made it special. I’d say it ended too soon.

Teen Titans (2003)
Teen Titans (2003)

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Teen Titans manages to be delightfully clever and fun, with a mixture of classic comicbook themes and some great voice acting. The premise (several teenage superheroes learn to be real superheroes while also trying to figure teenage life out) was simple and made for plenty of action-packed and funny episodes.

Hot take

Infinitely better than the creepy new version called “Teen Titans Go!” I might let a kid of around age ten watch this series, but I’d never let them watch the new one, yikes.

Heroes (2006)
Heroes (2006)

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Heroes proved that a new type of superhero series, one unlinked to the classic franchises, could take the whole viewing world by storm. It became an instant hit known for good writing and sharp acting, providing deep drama in the form of a deep and dark comic-book tale. When a number of people around the world suddenly discover that they have supernatural abilities, they learn that they have one chance to save the world: by saving a cheerleader.

Hot take

This was a surprisingly great series and I think it did a good job. Sometimes, it felt like the characters were just doing things because the writers wanted more drama, but ultimately it was a hit. There were problems with the show and, eventually, the series started to falter especially when the writing went down hill and the consistency of the vision. I would say: watch season one. The later seasons aren’t too hot, but season one is self-contained enough to make it a great watch.

Misfits (2009)
Misfits (2009)

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Misfits focuses on a group of British teens sentenced to community service who mysteriously gain superpowers and have to keep their new abilities on the down-low whilst simultaneously trying to live their somewhat messed-up lives.

Hot take

It’s dark superhero comedy, not usually the sort of thing I go in for, but the dry Britishness of it really works in its favor.

Arrow (2012)
Arrow (2012)

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Arrow gave audiences in 2012 something fantastic: the start of a superhero series that would go on to field a whole universe. When a self-centered young man who is heir to a huge fortune comes home after being supposed dead for several years, he harbors a secret: muscles. Lots and lots of muscles. And the ability to shoot arrows with startling accuracy.

Hot take

It’s basically Batman but with arrows. I would say that there are a lot of the usual flaws in the writing that modern series suffer from (drama for drama’s sake), but it ultimately was flashy and fun. I just really think that his whole “I’m wearing a hood to protect my identity” thing should have been rethought.

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013)
Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013)

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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. took the massive success of the early Marvel films and gave it a new life on the small screen. It brought back Agent Coulson, a fan favorite, and featured tons of tie-ins to the main Marvel films, providing background information for the bigger stories, while simultaneously filling in more of the Marvel universe in the background.

Hot take

Another of Joss Whedon’s creations, it’s… not bad. It fun and I honestly think it’s one of the better modern shows, and a rare modern show that features a 20+ episode season structure (which helps to build characters and the world). Some of the seasons are better than others, but form together a whole fun Marvel experience.

The Flash (2014)
The Flash (2014)

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The Flash offered one of DCs greatest heroes in new form, creating great re-imagined version of his classic form. Flash, who gains the ability to move faster than anything else alive.

Hot take

Actually pretty great. Simple, fun, and really elevated DC to the master of the small screen superhero form.

Gotham (2014)
Gotham (2014)

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Gotham is a precursor to the Batman story, concentrating on police detective Jim Gordon who ends up connecting with a young Bruce Wayne as well as a number of younger versions of Batman villains —and new (old?) villains who came to their power before the modern age.

Hot take

Probably the most intriguing superhero series to come out in a long time, and overall very solid. It lost me after a while when it failed to connect to the younger versions of iconic heroes and villains that we know from the main franchise… basically, I don’t think it went as far as it could it doing something new, too constrained by its police procedural and “gritty drama” stylizing. Still, really excellent in some ways and deserving of a good watch.

Daredevil (2015)
Daredevil (2015)

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Daredevil gave us Marvel’s first attempt at something different for the small screen: a series that would concentrate only on a single character but would use that character to build up the universe as a whole. When a young boy gains supernatural powers even though he looses his sight, he is destined to one day become Daredevil, a superhero of the streets.

Hot take

Definitely dove into things and managed to be pretty groundbreaking in a lot of ways. I felt it devolved over time, but it had some magic that can’t be ignored.

Supergirl (2015)
Supergirl (2015)

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Supergirl soared off the success of DCs new Superman film and the franchise it clawed into existence off of that. It also finally gave us a new superheroine who audiences could love, with Kara—another survivor of the doomed planet Krypton—learning to use her powers and live her life at the same time.

Hot take

Lots of fun even if the writing flails a bit at times.

Agent Carter (2015)
Agent Carter (2015)

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Agent Carter was something special. Introduced in the first Captain America she became a cult favorite, and her 1940s-bsaed series was an instant cult sensation. Sadly, the series was eventually canceled, but the appeal of one of the best Marvel characters lives on.

Hot take

Such a great series, and I would have loved to see more of it. I personally think she should have come back for a whole new series — or at least a few of the films. Why this was canceled while S.H.I.E.L.D. continued is beyond me.

Jessica Jones (2015)
Jessica Jones (2015)

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Jessica Jones is a PI with a secret: super strength. She’s also got a bad attitude and a drinking problem. But this is no comedy. There’s a dark power in the city, a powerful super villain who can control people’s minds, and he’s hunting Jessica down. She’s not going to take it lying down.

Hot take

Easily my favorite of the dark-n-gritty modern Marvel series, Jessica Jones really kicked butt. There are more female superheroes than there were a few years ago, but Jessica Jones definitely offered a great experience of one who could capture the hearts and minds of viewers.

Legends of Tomorrow (2016)
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Legends of Tomorrow was the culmination of a massive push by DC to bring its own (less-shiny than Marvel) superhero series to a modern market. Starting with Arrow, which brought huge viewership for years, and including The Flash, and Supergirl, alongside a number of secondary superheroic characters from the DC universe, Legends created an ensemble action series guaranteed to cement DC’s hold over the silver screen for years to come.

Hot take

DC’s universe just isn’t as consolidated or clever as Marvel’s, and this is partly because, despite decades of Justice League and similar, the roots of many DC superheroes are vastly different than those of their Marvel counterparts. Superman and Batman just don’t naturally coincide in the same universe unless you either dramatically limit one or alter the other into unrecognizable form. The “Arrowverse” solves this to same degree, bringing in lesser-known characters who the audience got a chance to learn about and grow alongside. The universe still feels, for lack a better word, kinda chintzy, but it’s also a lot of fun. If the MCU is a high-end graphic novel, DC’s Arrowverse and Legends is a long-running comicbook series that everyone loves.

Luke Cage (2016)
Luke Cage (2016)

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Luke Cage, especially season one, became quickly one of my favorite shows. It’s the story of the titular Luke Cage, a man transformed into an invulnerable, super-strong, Herculean version of himself… one who just wants to live his life quietly with his head down. But Harlem is filled with hardships and, despite his best efforts, Cage cannot turn a blind eye to suffering for long.

Hot take

Honestly, I think Cage has the oomph to go a lot farther as a Superhero than Marvel’s currently allowed: he’s got the sort of moral center that could lead to a really special character in a time when moral centers aren’t in style. The fact that he’s an invulnerable black man who shrugs off bullets, at a time when there has been mass focus on institutionalized overuse of police violence against young black men, also led to this series’ mass popularity, and I have to give Marvel some kudos for presenting such a hero character a time when one was needed the most.

Black Lightning (2017)
Black Lightning (2017)

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Black Lightning is highly notable for being the first black superhero in DC comic history to have his own solo series, now revitalized for the modern age. Concentrating on the character of Jefferson Pierce, a metahuman with the ability to control electricity, who has given up his mantle as a superhero to just live with his family and try to have a good life. But when gang violence threatens those he loves and everything he’s worked for, Black Lightening must rise again.

Hot take

A really impressive series in many ways, and it’s cool to see a writing staff heavily weighted toward black writers. It got overshadowed by Luke Cage, but that’s been the case with all comparisons between Marvel and DC series.

The Gifted (2017)
The Gifted (2017)

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The Gifted tried to bring a new dimension to the Marvel universe, looking into an alternate reality where the X-Men have vanished and mutants are hunted. It’s a great premise and one that really should have taken off, sadly, it flopped pretty hard and was canceled after two seasons.

Hot take

The show had some great moments, definitely, with a wee sense of the tension that such a story should have offered. But it didn’t go far enough. Instead of making the mutants truly hunted, with the whole United States government bent on their destruction, we got yet another evil organization dealio. On top of this, the main cast was just so incredibly white-bread, with deeply trope-filled “dramatic” writing that tried to build tension on the main family’s poor emotional and communication abilities, that the show couldn’t stand. Still fun for a wee bit if you love X-Men, though.

Watchmen (2019)
Watchmen (2019)

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Watchmen is the direct and intertwined continuation of the 1980s graphic novel of the same name, and manages to be just as—if not more—mind-bending and culturally-introspective as its originator. Dealing with rising race tensions, the killing of cops, and a never-ending rain of presumably alien cephalopods, are a new batch of heroes alongside a few old hats, in a dark and satirical take on the superhero genre and life as we know it.

Hot take

There’s a lot that’s really powerful about this series, though it’s ultimately not the sort of show I personally enjoy. That said, it needs to be commended for sharp and savvy writing, storytelling that highlights real-world problems, and some top-notch acting chops by a stellar cast. I wouldn’t say it’s a fun series, but it’s really good.

Swamp Thing (2019)
Swamp Thing (2019)

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Swamp Thing is nature personified, a powerful being of elemental force who fights malevolent forces and (in the original comics, at least) fights to protect the environment from threats both human and alien.

Hot take

Another mildly frustrating example of a show with a lot of potential cut short by high-end financial nonsense, whilst other shows with far less merit continue to be renewed season after season. It’s worthwhile to check out the ten episodes of this series and catch a glimpse of the Swamp Thing.

Doom Patrol (2019)
Doom Patrol (2019)

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Doom Patrol is the darkly comedic tale of a number of misfit people with supernatural abilities and strange technological powers, people who don’t want to be heroes but end up not having a choice in the matter. It’s witty, gritty, fun, and snappy. Check it out now.

Hot take

Best DC series by far, and one of the top modern superhero series. Incredibly clever writing, an amazing cast that includes the likes of Brendan Fraser, Timothy Dalton, and Alan Tudyk.

WandaVision (2021)
WandaVision (2021)

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WandaVision features Wanda Maximoff and Vision, as one might expect from the name. What one might not expect is that this is the tale of their life together inside a sitcom, a sitcom that’s starting to fray around the edges. Between all the laughtracks what could possibly be wrong?

Hot take

This is not only the best superhero television series to ever be released, it’s also one of the best television series of the last fifty years. What it manages to do in such a short time is miraculous and, despite some flaws in the overall plot, is a solid masterpiece of the silver screen.

Loki (2021)
Loki (2021)

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Loki bring Loki back from the dead… sort of. Actually, it’s a varient Loki from the one who dies at the hands of Thanos, a Loki who exists because of a strange branch in time. But Loki is Loki no matter what time he’s from, and this show is all about time. With the timeline fractured, a secretive agency of time regulators brings Loki on to help them set things right again.

Hot take

It’s honestly just a pure joy to watch Tom Hiddleston and Owen Wilson together on screen, and, as one might expect with a Marvel series of this magnitude, it feels more like watching one-hour mini movies than an ordinary show.

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