The 5 Best DC Comics TV Shows
I’m a DC Comics freak. Batman and Superman are my absolute favorite super heroes, with the Dark Knight only barely edging out the Man of Steel for my personal affections. My pull list every month is packed with DC titles like Detective Comics, Justice League, Wonder Woman, and yes, even Aquaman. The stories and characters of the DC Universe have always held a special place in my heart and mind, and I’m pretty sure I’ll always be a nut for DC.
I’m also a big fan of the history of the company’s media adaptations across multiple mediums. Batman and Superman extend from film all the way back to a very popular radio show from the 1940’s, in addition to video games, serials, prose books, board games, and basically every other property under the sun.
DC has also had a pretty steady legacy on television beginning in the medium’s golden age of the 1950’s, and pretty much each successive decade has brought about at least one prominent DC Comics TV series since then. As a DC fan, I’m very, very aware that most DC media exploitations tend to revolve around the big two of Batman and Superman, so if I don’t include a particular show that you think should be in this list, I hope I can properly explain its absence. I’m going to limit the animated shows to one, simply because if I don’t, I think I’d fill all five spots with them! Either way, here are the five TV shows that I think best encapsulate the characters of DC Comics and their legacies.
5) Smallville (2001-2011)
I have a lot of fond memories of Smallville. It came out at the beginning of my eighth grade year and ended right before I graduated from college, so in a lot of ways the journeys Clark had while he was growing up were strangely in sync with my own. For a while it hit a lull for me personally, because my very high familiarity with the origin of Superman (I started the Wikipedia article on that very topic) made it really easy for me to get impatient with the show after belaboring Clark’s destiny in becoming the world’s greatest hero.
Even taking that into account, though, it’s hard to deny that 10 years of television with some of the most enduring characters in the DC pantheon is quite an achievement. While the novelty of seeing a young pre-Superman Clark Kent kind of wore off by the 5th or 6th season, the inclusion of Lex Luthor (played brilliantly for seven years by Michael Rosenbaum) and the degeneration of the Clark/Lex friendship made for fascinating TV, especially since most people and their mothers are very aware of the legendary rivalry between Luthor and Superman.
Tom Welling is to be commended for sticking with the show for so long, and there were some genuinely great episodes especially written by comic book writers (like Jeph Loeb, Mark Verheiden, and Geoff Johns), but Smallville is short of being great because it seemed timid throughout the entirety of its run for fully embracing the legend and mythology of Superman himself, and it felt like that embrace was missing through all 10 seasons of the show.
Even taking that into account, though, it’s hard to argue with some truly exceptional casting. The aforementioned Rosenbaum as Lex, John Glover as his father Lionel, John Schneider as a pitch-perfect Jonathan Kent (one of my all-time favorite characters in comics), and Erica Durance as Lois Lane all come to mind as truly wonderful characters and performances to watch each week. Episodes like “Onyx,” “Red,” “Absolute Justice,” “Legion,” and the unforgettable “Rosetta” all help to add to the lasting legacy of the show especially with its ability to, as Man of Steel director Zack Snyder put it, keep the idea of Superman alive. Perhaps that was Smallville’s greatest accomplishment.
4) Wonder Woman (1976-1979)
Yes, it had cheese. Yes, it had bad episodes. Yes, it got a little silly. But you know what it also had? It had the standard-bearing performance of grace and confidence that has defined the character of Wonder Woman for nearly 40 years. Lynda Carter’s turn as the Amazon Princess is memorable and still talked about because of the truth with which she played the role. Does the show itself hold up very well? Not exactly. Does Carter’s performance? Definitely!
Most people who watched the show at the time it was on-the-air consistently talk about the high levels of fun that oozed from every episode, and for me as a fan that largely grew up in what is currently considered the “Modern Age” of comics, early episodes of the show have a surprising conformance to the established origin of Diana (even with today’s pre-New 52 standards) and what compels her to leave her home. The 1940’s setting of the first season was also very interesting for the time, and allowed the show to have a bit of a grander scale in those episodes than what would follow in years 2 and 3.
All in all, 34 years after it went off the air, the Wonder Woman series continues to remain a cultural phenomenon that is as-yet unmatched in the character’s history. Will a new feature film change that? An eventual appearance in a Justice League film, perhaps? Time will tell, but until then, it’s still surprisingly easy to enjoy Carter’s pretty definitive portrayal of the feminine icon in DC’s “Trinity.”
3) The Flash (1990-1991)
This was actually a show I didn’t really discover until it came out on DVD. I remember vaguely watching it once or twice while it was on the air, but I was so young that the substance of those memories is pretty much gone. When it was finally released in full on DVD, though, I was ready to earnestly jump in. And even with a few points of contention, I found this show very highly enjoyable.
Coming off of the success of the 1989 Batman film directed by Tim Burton, The Flash was developed by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, who also wrote a fair amount of the show’s episodes. The Batman influence is pretty blatant: Central City looks a little too dark in comparison with its comic book counterpart, but the most blatant element is probably the theme song that was created by Batman composer Danny Elfman. There were some strange strokes that it decided to implement. Captain Cold and the Mirror Master, two classic Flash rogues, were altered beyond the point of recognition and made for some kind of bizarre episodes. The show didn’t really embrace it’s comic book origins until about halfway through the run, which also saw a fantastic performance by Mark Hamill as the villainous Trickster.
John Wesley Shipp made for an earnest and very heroic Barry Allen, and for comics fans this would be the last time they’d see Barry on a regular basis for several years due to the character’s comic book death in Crisis on Infinite Earths. Shipp’s Barry also had some elements from his comic book successor Wally West implanted into the dynamic of the series, particularly with his super-fast metabolism that saw Barry humorously shove down tons of food. The inclusion of Amanda Pays as Dr. Tina McGee added a fun scientific element in addition to a possible love interest for Barry, but they didn’t play with it overtly.
Overall, I think The Flash was a respectable show that’s well worth watching, at least once. It was the massive popularity of The Simpsons and the high per-episode price tag that got it cancelled in 1991, but if you’ve ever mulled over whether or not you should watch it, I’m in the camp that thinks you should.
2) The Adventures of Superman (1952-1958)
26 years before the dawn of the modern superhero film, George Reeves vividly burst through walls and into America’s hearts in The Adventures of Superman. Even as a lifelong Superman fan, I was somewhat resistant to the idea of watching this show until only a couple of years ago. I arrogantly thought that this would be a portrayal of a simply perfect paragon; a bygone image so unrelatable in its construction and combination with fifties television that it would be blasé and boring on multiple levels.
Thankfully, I pulled my head out of my ass and actually watched the show, and was proven wrong on practically every level.
While most people have the meek and mild Clark Kent imprinted on their impressions of Superman due to the wonderful multifaceted performance of Christopher Reeve, the version of Clark prevalent in this show is, quite simply, a bad ass. This is a Clark that isn’t afraid to knock a few people around to get to the heart of his latest story for the Daily Planet, a Clark that rushes headlong into danger with virtually no reservations or worries about maintaining his secret identity. And, this is a Clark/Superman combo that has a surprising, if not shocking level of nuance and charm that most people, including someone who qualifies himself as a diehard Superman fan, would not expect. This show is a gem because of the late, great George Reeves, but the supporting cast is filled out equally well.
Being so aware of the longstanding characterizations of Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White in multiple mediums (like comics, film, and later television), watching this show made me realize that this is where those characterizations originated. Reading even a modern comic book featuring them, I can’t help but place the booming, irascible voice of John Hamilton into the word balloons of Perry White. Jack Larson’s Jimmy Olsen was so good that he almost got his own spin-off (which Larson turned down due to the poor taste of how they’d bring the recently-dead Reeves back into it).
Noel Neill’s Lois Lane (who had played the character in the Columbia serials before joining the cast in season 2) is considered the definitive version of the character, so much so that the people of Metropolis, Illinois erected a statue in her honor.
Still, the greatness of the show radiates from Reeves. From his quiet moments contemplating his own effectiveness, to lamenting his inability to have any semblance of a normal life, to maintaining the ideals of the symbolic power Superman has with a great degree of directness and no-nonsense attitude, The Adventures of Superman is one of the greatest examples of early television, and a must-watch show for anyone even remotely interested in the Man of Steel. It had its goofy moments (particularly when the show made its season 3 transition into color), but the best of it always shines through and makes it deserving of its very special place in television, and Superman, history.
1) Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1997)
I had to narrow it down to one, because if I opened the door for the entire DC Animated Universe, then I’m pretty sure it would take the top four or five spots entirely. But really, who can debate the greatness of Batman: The Animated Series? The show presented what many consider to be the definitive portrayal of the Dark Knight and his entire roster of characters, from Alfred, Robin, and Commissioner Gordon to the Joker, Penguin, Mr. Freeze, and the rest of his timeless rogues’ gallery.
BTAS not only revolutionized conceptions about what a cartoon could be, but it also seemed to bring to light the conceptions of what super hero fiction itself could be. After the conclusion of the show, the same production team would go on to tackle Superman, bring Batman into the future with great success, and even bring to life the Justice League in grand fashion. But, it all started here.
Voice director Andrea Romano has a hell of an ear for talent and character, evident in all of her casting choices here. Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. brings Alfred to life with the same singular wit and caring that permeates the comic book incarnation of him, and her choice of Mark Hamill as the Joker is still largely considered the iconic interpretation of the Harlequin of Hate, a debate still active even after the critically-acclaimed portrayal of Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. But of course, the buck stops with the ultimate casting stroke of the show evident in the title character himself.
Kevin Conroy’s turn as both Bruce Wayne and Batman is astonishing to listen to. Particularly in those instances where he changes the complete tenor of his speaking voice to accommodate a more lighthearted, whimsical Bruce Wayne, the depths to which his voice sinks for the Batman makes you believe that it’s the kind of sound that would stop criminals in their tracks. Conroy’s association with Batman thankfully didn’t end with the series’ conclusion. He’s gone on to voice him in unrelated animated adaptations as well as the critically acclaimed Arkham video games, along with Hamill’s Joker. For Batman fans, this is a show that struck gold.
It also still manages to hold up pretty well. While later animated productions are definitely smoother, brighter, and prettier, the production design of the original Batman episodes really seem to be at home with the older style of animation used to bring it to life. The show is still the standard, and still a legend, which is why it demands the top spot in the list. At least, of course, in my humble opinion.
That does it for the list, but honorable mentions that did not make it include the 1966 Batman television series, Super Friends, Superboy, and Lois and Clark. Does your list differ from mine? Sound off in the comments below, and tell me what you think of this list as well as what your picks are!