DC Universe is the streaming service specifically oriented around all things DC Comics. In a pop culture landscape dominated by superheroes, it’s living its best life by being the one-stop shop for the Justice League and all its various members, enemies, and weird spandex-clad friends. For loyalists only—or those looking for a more targeted experience than Disney+’s MCU offerings—DC Universe drenches fans in the Dark Knight, saturates them with Superman, and allows them to dig deep into the history of Wonder Woman.
Cost: $7.99/mo or $74.99/year
Available On: DC Universe
What Makes It Unique: If you’re a comics fan, this is far and away the best streaming option for you. It has all the perks of Marvel Unlimited (its comic competitors literary streaming service), allowing access to thousands of comics readable on desktop and mobile applications, alongside tons of media—including an ever-growing roster of original series. The community-focused aspect of the service, with its own forums and encyclopedia, make DC Universe stand out for more than its exclusive content offerings.
What You’ll Find on This List: DC Universe currently only offers a handful of exclusive shows and its film library is an always-shifting, variously originating collection of live-action, animated, theatrical, and VOD-only films that this list will focus solely on its exclusive series output. That means Young Justice, which appeared first as a Cartoon Network series, then continued in its rebranded third season only on DC Universe, counts—as will Stargirl and BizarroTV when they premiere—but the direct-to-video film Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox does not. This list’s rankings will change as the shows grow and change over their runs. For example, while Doom Patrol was initially rated lower than Swamp Thing, the rest of the former’s first season solidified the Patrol’s high ranking.
The long-coming live-action show about the Teen Titans—and the backbone of streaming service DC Universe—Titans has the unwieldy, unenviable job of establishing a tone separate from the DCEU movies, the Arrowverse TV shows, and the DC cartoons. This ain’t Teen Titans Go! This isn’t even Teen Titans. These are some capital-S Serious teens out to prove that they matter. And honestly, I’m not convinced they do. At least, not like this.
Dick Grayson (Brenton Thwaites), a detective, has transferred from Gotham to Detroit. The psychically empowered blue-haired punk, Rachel (Teagan Croft, sadly the worst part of the show), is battling her inner demons out in the ‘burbs. Rachel AKA Raven’s powers manifest as a ghoulish, black-eyed version of herself zooming around like the janky-necked Nun or another twitchy horror monster. And yet it’s not meant to be silly. In fact, the overwhelming, comically dour mood of Titans—from its Nine Inch Nails-lite theme to the corpse-like color pallette—overpowers even its twisty narrative and myriad characters. The show is the mood, and the mood is ridiculous.
And that’s too bad, because the central relationship of the show, with Rachel emoting as hard as she can and Dick taking on the gruff patriarchal mantle left for him by Batman, is emotionally solid. But everything’s too drenched in grey to matter. When Starfire (Anna Diop) wakes up as some kind of alien Jason Bourne—slapping fools around with instinctual skills while trying to solve a plot that would be much more engaging if we didn’t already know who she is—she adds a dash of color to the proceedings and some more fights, which are the best part of the show. The quick-cut violence is just nasty enough that it’s hard to look away, while it’s also excessive enough to question the line between antihero and supervillain. As far as I’m concerned, I’d much rather my superheroes be cringey showboats than utter downers. The ludicrous cruelty might appall me, but at least it doesn’t bore me and appall me. [Full Review ]
4. Young Justice: Outsiders
While technically the third season of Young Justice, an animated series that began on Cartoon Network, Outsiders is a thematically cohesive unit that’s only available on DC Universe. Tackling such heavy subjects as human trafficking, political jockeying, and the refugee crisis, Outsiders is much more than its star-studded cast which includes recognizable actors (Mae Whitman, Jesse McCartney) and voice acting legends (Khary Payton, Troy Baker, Nolan North, Phil LaMarr, Tara Strong) alike.
While it can certainly be hammy at times (and have so many superheroes that it doesn’t hurt to have a wiki up while you watch) and visually stifled outside of fight scenes, the overarching ragtag nature of the show and its central, growing team of young superheroes is both optimistic and easy to watch. Finding humor in some of its characters’ self-seriousness (looking at you, Nightwing), Outsiders is always working to deepen its characters and the interconnected web between them all that’s unmatched in complexity outside of the physical comics.
That said, this probably isn’t a show for meta-human neophytes. If you can name at least two Robins, you’re the target audience. Otherwise, you may want to start off with a superhero offering that’s a little less intimidating even though, if you put the work in, Young Justice has plenty to enjoy—and a tone you won’t find anywhere else on the DC streaming service.
3. Swamp Thing
Swamp Thing adapts dual sides of its comic character’s mythos. Some of the darker, stranger, more horrific elements of Alan Moore’s take on the character meet the supporting cast that preceded the writer’s tackling of the tragic mossy monster. The result is a fully-established community flecked with lurking evil, more akin to the supernatural “gravitational pull” (as one local puts it) of Castle Rock than most superhero TV. But Dr. Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed) is concerned first with more worldly threats. She links up with out-of-town biologist Alec Holland (Andy Bean) to look into the same problem and some weird, accelerated plant growth.
The series is rife with sweaty swamp-town politics, a stark class divide, and some seriously grotesque effect work. With a lot of practical vine monsters and committed acting, exciting scenes (like one of Abby and Alec escaping a morgue) are delightfully gross and tangible—almost as tangible is the bad blood and old relationships between Abby and the rest of town. Abby’s position in the town is almost as important as the mysterious swamp illness plaguing it, which means her relationships (even her single day spent with Alec before he becomes Swamp Thing) are all given ample screen time. The cast of weirdos is begging for very weird, very Annihilation-style deaths. Ian Ziering’s cocky actor, Jennifer Beals’ snarky sheriff, Henderson Wade’s earnest cop, and Kevin Durand’s eccentric soon-to-be Floronic Man all steal scenes like horror movie victims can, making their marks early … in case they don’t stay late. Because the early kills we do get to see will make gorehounds proud, it’s worth watching alone for the promise of bigger, better, and more tendril-filled deaths. [Full Review ]
2. Doom Patrol
The third-tier answer to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Doom Patrol has learned plenty from its scrappy counterpart, taking as much away from that franchise’s ragtag group of space pirates/superheroes as it does the DC series with a senses of humor. The CW’s Legends of Tomorrow and Cartoon Network’s hyper, strange, and hyper-strange Teen Titans Go! have been dark horse TV success stories, with the latter earning its own (very fun!) movie and the former improving consistently over the course of its four seasons. Doom Patrol carves its own tonal niche, balancing the self-referentiality of Go!, the tragedy of Titans, and the ridiculousness of Legends.
Bolstered by Fraser’s easy charm and some knockout acting by Dalton, Doom Patrol stakes its claim as DC’s best live-action streaming option—simply because it understands and subverts expectations with its unique mix: It’s not just funny, it’s not just sweet, and it isn’t afraid to push the boundaries on either.
Elasti-Woman has gross-out slapstick thanks to her malleable physiology and at the expense of her vanity. Negative Man can stop functioning any time the mysterious force within him decides, leading to plenty of limp, full-body flops. Robotman can’t even move his mouth as profane reactions stream from his stoic face. Robotman and Negative Man’s physical actors—Riley Shanahan and Matthew Zuk, respectively—do plenty of fun pantomime to help out the famous voices behind the tragic bodies. And it’s all funny—even funny at the expense of its characters’ tragedies, which are handled so well that the show may even squeeze out a few unexpected tears. [Full Review ]
1. Harley Quinn
The rambunctious DC Universe animated show Harley Quinn is all about Harley (Kaley Cuoco) freeing herself from the Joker’s clutches and becoming her own villain. For anyone who wanted Harley to get her own nasty, bonkers, profane carnival of heists, full of pettiness and imperfect self-discovery, Harley Quinn delivers in spades. Spades full of unadulterated batshit hilarity, that is.
With an R-rated, The Venture Bros.-esque spin on familiar characters, Harley Quinn is truly a comic adaptation for those of us who’ve grown up with comics and had discussions about their more absurd elements. What if superheroes and villains got to be depressed and stupid? What if henchmen chatted about new local dining options? What if Kite Man’s ridiculousness rattled him to his core? Harley Quinn feels like the show that the teams behind every DC animated series have wanted to make in their free time, a show that allows its characters to do and say the kinds of things that don’t make it into four-quadrant movies.
Harley Quinn is funny, ballsy, and willing to take risks for better characters. Comedies usually don’t hit that point until a few seasons in, while Harley and her douchey Legion of Doom have already started laying intense groundwork over a dozen mostly-great episodes. And remember, it’s fucking funny with two capital F-bombs. DC Universe subscribers will be thrilled by its comedy amusement park while casual fans of Harley or smart animation may find themselves with a new reason to subscribe. [Full Review ]
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.
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