Hate Superheroes? Maybe You Just Haven’t Met the Right One
Even if Avengers and Justice Leagues leave you cold, there’s probably some superpowered champion out there for you. Here’s a guide to the best nontraditional superhero stories available to stream.
By Maya Phillips April 2, 2021
We get it: Superheroes have overrun pop culture. Even though last summer’s blockbusters were thwarted by the coronavirus, Warner Bros. still brought an Amazon warrior to our TVs and laptops in December, and Disney+ has shrunk the Marvel Cinematic Universe to fit the smaller screens as well, with “WandaVision” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.” If you thought the capesters’ reign was irksome back when Avengers were dominating multiplexes, you’re probably even more exasperated now. You’ve seen one guy in a mask and cape, you’ve seen them all, am I right?
Well, not exactly. The surprisingly meta, genre-bending “WandaVision” was one example of a superhero show that tried something different, delivering knowing sitcom parodies and, in the process, offering something for people besides M.C.U. fans.
And “WandaVision” isn’t alone. For years, superhero stories have branched beyond action-hero conventions, within many different genres. Whether you like noir, horror, spy thrillers or teen dramas, we’ve got a TV or movie pick for you — that just also happens to be about heroes.
I’m really into film noir …
An abrasive private investigator with a checkered past and questionable motives? This could easily be Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade, but no, it’s Jessica Jones, a Marvel antihero armed with super strength, expert sleuthing skills and alcohol dependency. Part of Netflix’s batch of gritty, stylized Marvel shows from a few years ago, “Jessica Jones” tapped into the dark atmosphere and cynicism of noir, with Krysten Ritter giving Jones all the appeal of the bad girl in a leather jacket chain-smoking in a school parking lot. The girl’s got spunk. Streaming on Netflix.
This 2005 film doesn’t often come up in conversations about superhero movies, perhaps because, although it keeps the premise of the Hellblazer comic book series, it changes many of the details. These include the setting and the style of its protagonist, a chain-smoking paranormal detective named John Constantine (Keanu Reeves), who tracks down demons in an attempt to bribe his way into a heavenly afterlife. And yet the movie creates an ambient hellishness that is embodied in not just the bitterness and hopelessness of Constantine himself but also in the grim facade of Los Angeles, which becomes a home for angels, yes, but also devils. Streaming on HBO Max.
I’m obsessed with horror movies …
There have been many recent examples of superhero movies and shows that cross over into the horror genre: “Brightburn” (2019), which inverted the Superman story; the “Swamp Thing” TV series from that same year; “Helstrom,” from last fall; and the forthcoming “Morbius,” starring Jared Leto as the sometimes villain, sometimes antihero vampire from the Marvel universe. “Chronicle,” from 2012, doesn’t fit as squarely into the horror category — there are no monsters here. And yet the film, which stars Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell and Michael B. Jordan as high schoolers who gain supernatural powers, uses the superhero angle to delve into the horrors of adolescence. And I do mean horrors: Not only does the film use a shaky found-footage style and take place in the gloomy city of Seattle, but it also explodes in a violent finale that refigures what the audience may define as monstrous. Streaming on HBO Max.
It’s no surprise that the director Guillermo del Toro has a movie in this category; he has a love for monsters, yes, but also a more nuanced understanding of the genre, wherein monstrous characters aren’t always the bad guys they might seem to be, and the real antagonists can be found elsewhere. This movie got a recent reboot starring David Harbour. But it’s this 2004 original, starring Ron Perlman as the lovable demon outcast who leads a team of paranormal agents, that provides the more engaging mix of horror, sci-fi and fantasy. Streaming on Amazon Prime Video and Starz.
Already seen those? Try the “Blade” trilogy (rent it on YouTube or Amazon), “The Crow” (HBO Max), “The New Mutants” (rent it on YouTube or Amazon), “Van Helsing” (Starz, Amazon) and “Spawn” (rent it on YouTube or Amazon).
I prefer to watch Westerns …
This pick could have easily fit in the previous category because Garth Ennis, the creator of the comic book series on which this AMC series is based, is known for his brutal horror-movie approach to violence, sex and basically any gratuitous act or speech that could be captured in print. Consequently, the faithfully depraved TV adaptation, created by Sam Catlin, Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, is loaded with demons and angels, vampires, maimings and blood by the buckets. But the series, about a preacher with a newly discovered superpower, takes place in the fictional dusty small town of Annville, Texas, so it also draws upon elements of the western genre for its setting and tone. Streaming on Hulu.
I want some sci-fi, perhaps a space odyssey or two …
‘Guardians of the Galaxy’
The M.C.U. has several movies that are grounded on planets that are far more exciting than Earth, including the wonderfully goofy “Thor: Ragnarok.” “Guardians of the Galaxy” is another. In “Guardians,” a gaggle of morally questionable outcasts, led by the human Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) band together, travel through space and become the heroes; it plays like a more antic version of the Avengers, with a funkier soundtrack. The second “Guardians” is mostly a two-hour dive into Peter’s daddy issues, but the first holds up as one of the most enjoyable films in the M.C.U. Streaming on Disney+.
This Amazon series made it through only one short season, but if you want some apocalyptic sci-fi (more apocalyptic than the sci-fi reality we’re in, that is), then this is your pick. Adapted from the 2013 British TV show of the same name, this “Utopia,” about a group of avid fans in search of a supposedly prophetic comic book, was written by Gillian Flynn, whose signature flair for dense, dark thrillers gives this version its suspenseful edge. Streaming on Amazon.
I want something funny, self-aware and family-friendly …
‘The Lego Batman Movie’
We’ve had enough Batmen in the past 30 years to fill a secret underground cave. But even if you think you’ve had enough of the angstiest rich boy the comic book world has ever known (yes, topping even Oliver Queen), I still wholeheartedly recommend “The Lego Batman Movie.” Will Arnett returns as Batman from “The Lego Movie,” and here the Gotham City hero must learn how to be less self-obsessed and work as part of a team. “Lego Batman” uses all the previous incarnations of the hero as joke fodder, which makes it both a treat for longtime Batman fans and accessible to audiences who aren’t in the know. Rent it on Amazon.
‘Teen Titans Go! To the Movies’
First, let me say that the butt jokes eventually get old. Still, “Teen Titans Go!,” from the Cartoon Network series, is charming even at its most juvenile. Mostly because the film, about the teen heroes’ attempt to be famous enough to get their own big-budget superhero movie, has so much fun mocking the superhero industry while also embracing it — all while being totally self-aware. Rent it on Amazon.
I want irreverent, R-rated meta humor …
If you’re sick of the wholesome, hopeful tone of most superhero shows and movies, “Harley Quinn” will grab you by the shoulders and shake you out of it. This hilariously crude and rude adult animated series has the Joker’s paramour (voiced by Kaley Cuoco) trying to come into her own as a Gotham City villain, in story lines spiked with violence and curse-a-minute dialogue rife with black humor. Streaming on HBO Max.
Ryan Reynolds had a rough run in the world of superheroes — his “Green Lantern” tanked, and his clowning in the “Blade” and “X-Men” movies was tedious. But he was finally allowed to shine in the “Deadpool” movies as the fourth-wall-breaking mercenary antihero. The movies’ gruesome yet playful action sequences pair well with the witty dialogue and Reynolds’ comic delivery — and the meta references to superhero movie themes and clichés will delight anyone who needs a more adult take on the genre. Streaming on Hulu.
I prefer more pointed superhero satire …
“Ready for a story about superheroes? Ha! More TV superheroes, just what the world needs. Be honest: Have you hung yourself yet?” So says the voice of Alan Tudyk, as the reality-twisting villain Mr. Nobody and narrator of “Doom Patrol” in the first few seconds of Episode 1. In this parody of superhero narratives, the racecar driver and professional dirt bag Cliff Steele (a hilariously foul-mouthed Brendan Fraser) gets into a fatal accident but regains consciousness to find that his brain has been installed within a metal body, thanks to a doctor known as the Chief. A wheelchair-using doctor who adopts and mentors people trying to harness their powers? Sounds a bit like a B-team version of the X-Men. But that’s the point — after all, as Mr. Nobody says, this is a story of “super-zeroes.” Streaming on HBO Max.
Sometimes a hero just isn’t the brightest bulb in the bat signal. The Tick, a dimwitted, Lyme-disease risk of a crime-fighter who forces a neurotic young man named Arthur to be his sidekick, falls into that category. Endearingly kooky and campy, “The Tick,” from 2016, aims for the ridiculous and bizarre and arrives at both with ease, mining clichés of the hero origin story for some wink-and-nudge laughs. Streaming on Amazon.
Already seen it? The 1994 animated version of “The Tick” is charming, too (Amazon). For even more super satire, check out the series adaptation of Garth Ennis’s brutal “The Boys” (Amazon), “The Awesomes” (Hulu), “Drawn Together” (Amazon) and “Supermansion” (Apple TV+).
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I want everybody to be kung fu fighting …
The ’70s martial arts series “Kung Fu,” starring David Carradine, crossed martial-arts movie action with the themes and tone of a superhero show. The CW’s “Kung Fu” reboot isn’t set to premiere until early April, and the M.C.U.’s first kung fu film, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” doesn’t arrive until September. Until then, you can satisfy your appetite for flips and sidekicks with the Netflix Marvel series “Iron Fist.” Fair warning: Finn Jones’s Danny Rand, a white rich kid from Manhattan who became the chosen one to bear the mighty iron fist, is the least likable of the Defenders — the casting of him instead of an Asian actor inspired plenty of controversy — and the series doesn’t have the same finesse as other Netflix Marvel shows. Still, Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing and the machinations of the evil ninja mafia, the Hand, should be enough to sate a martial arts lover until “Shang-Chi” and “Kung Fu” come along. Streaming on Netflix.
I need a spy action-drama …
‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’
Let’s say you’re more interested in the new James Bond movie than whatever Marvel or DC are putting out. That’s fair: There’s nothing wrong with preferring pizazz over powers, and one thing missing from most superhero movies is good ol’ human ingenuity. The S.H.I.E.L.D. team is in the background of every M.C.U. film. But here, the group, fronted by Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), gets to be in the spotlight while the narrative becomes explicitly interwoven with the developments of the M.C.U. films.
Already seen it? “Black Widow” will be the next big superhero-spy genre crossover when it comes out. Until then, you can watch “Marvel’s Agent Carter” (Disney+) and the “Kingsman” films. (Rent them on YouTube and Amazon.)
I miss classic blaxploitation films …
The original Luke Cage, who appeared in comics in the 1970s, wore a short fro, a chain belt and a shirt with large lapels and a plunging neckline. He was a hero straight out of a blaxploitation movie. The Netflix take on the character, played by Mike Colter, updated him into someone less “right on, funkadelic” but maintained his tether to Black culture, Black history and Black life in Harlem. Streaming on Netflix.
I can’t get enough buddy-cop shows …
Satan doesn’t always hang out in hell, contrary to popular belief. Sometimes he shows up in comics, as in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, where this suave interpretation of the fallen angel first appeared. Lucifer got his own spinoff comic and popped up in other corners of the comic book world before landing his own TV series. Tom Ellis is devilish charm incarnate as the protagonist in “Lucifer,” who gets bored with all the fire and brimstone, as one does, and moves to Los Angeles, where he opens a swanky club. In typical buddy-cop-TV fashion, he tags along with Detective Chloe Decker (Lauren German), who is both the straight (wo)man and love interest to the irresistible fiend. Streaming on Netflix.
I like mind-bending psychological thrillers …
Years before Wanda Maximoff twisted reality in Westview, N.J., the powerful mutant David Haller — the son of the X-Men leader Professor Charles Xavier — was conducting his own psychic contortions. Dan Stevens delivers an entrancing performance as David, a man who has spent his whole life being told he is mentally ill but discovers he is a psychic tormented by an ancient parasite. Noah Hawley’s series has a bold, anachronistic aesthetic that fuses modern styles with 1960s mod. The narrative is uneven but the first two seasons are strong thanks to the great performances and expert execution. Streaming on Hulu.
Already seen it? Check out the M. Night Shyamalan’s Eastrail 177 Trilogy, including the films “Unbreakable” (Amazon), “Split” (rent it on YouTube and Amazon) and “Glass” (rent it on YouTube and Amazon).
I need a juicy teen drama …
A group of delinquents who fit neatly into high-school stereotypes are doing community service when a storm strikes and grants them supernatural abilities linked to their personalities and emotional states. Think “The Breakfast Club” with powers, along with all of the high-school drama of relationships and betrayals (exacerbated by their newfound strengths). This British series has both comedy and drama, and it ventures into increasingly sci-fi terrain involving time travel and power swapping. Streaming on Hulu.
‘I Am Not Okay With This’
This series, adapted from the short, bleak comic book by Charles Forsman, is about an isolated teen named Syd (Sophia Lillis) who discovers that she has powers that manifest with her emotions. As she tries to manage this new development, she must also navigate her sexuality, her grief about her father’s mysterious suicide and her resentment of her mother. She also must contend with a shadowy figure who seems to be stalking her. It’s a shame this show one got only one season, which ends with a Stephen King-style finale and cliffhanger. Streaming on Netflix.
Already seen those? Check out “Titans” (HBO Max), “Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger” (Hulu), “Marvel’s Runaways” (Disney+, Hulu), “X-Men: Evolution” (Disney+), “Batman Beyond” (HBO Max) and “The Gifted” (Hulu).
I want a family dramedy …
The writer and director Dennis Liu told a version of this story, about a widow raising a son who learns he has superpowers, first in a comic and then a short film. It became an internet favorite. Netflix then adapted it into a short series, which has been renewed for a second season. Although “Raising Dion” is certainly a superhero tale, it is mostly a story about family. In particular, it’s about a Black family and what happens when an innocent, brilliant young Black boy is both elevated and isolated by his abilities. Streaming on Netflix.
Families are complicated enough, but when you add powers, things get out of hand. In this series, adapted from the comics by the former My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way, a group of superpowered children born during a worldwide scientific anomaly are adopted by and raised by an eccentric scientist who turns them into heroes. Now grown, the members of the Umbrella Academy, who are burdened by their eccentricities and psychological issues, must return home for their father’s funeral. Though the series is hit and miss, the characters are endlessly fascinating and the story takes surprising turns. Streaming on Netflix.
Give me a glossy prestige drama …
‘The Old Guard’
Last year, many superhero films were postponed because of Covid-19. But we did get a solid one on Netflix: “The Old Guard” stars Charlize Theron as the leader of a group of immortals who travel the world trying to do good while staying anonymous. The story is tight, the action is tighter, and Theron is a magnetic lead. “The Old Guard” manages to create a superhero movie that doesn’t feel too much like a superhero movie if you, like certain acclaimed filmmakers, are cynical about the possibilities of the genre. Streaming on Netflix.
If you haven’t seen this TV sequel to Alan Moore’s influential comic book series, then take care of that as soon as possible. Created by Damon Lindelof, “Watchmen” has some of the same complex narrative mechanics that he became famous for with “Lost.” It all works to create a drama that enriches, builds on and retroactively fixes some of the blind spots of the otherwise brilliant original. “Watchmen” embraces the fantastical, far-flung mythology of Moore’s books but grounds it in relevant politics. And the performances — including that of a stellar Regina King, who plays a police officer and masked vigilante trying to stop a group of white supremacists and a power-hungry villain — and the high production values place the series among the best of prestige television. Streaming on HBO Max.
I love funny animated series …
What would happen if a hero were too powerful? A really boring story, that’s what. Or at least that’s what you would assume. And yet this anime series, about a crime-fighter so strong that he defeats his enemies with one punch, still manages to keep things interesting while poking fun at many of the conventions of the genre. Saitama, the so-called “one-punch man” with a cue-ball head, blank expression and makeshift costume, saves people mostly because he’s bored. And he keeps getting tangled up in the bureaucracy of the Hero Association, a governing body. Hilarious but still heavy on action, “One-Punch Man” is ideal for anyone in search of a fun animated adventure. Streaming on Netflix and Hulu.
With its pastel palette and cute, cheery tone, this Cartoon Network series may look like bubble-gum entertainment on the surface. But the wildly popular “Steven Universe,” about a young boy who is raised by three superpowered alien women, has plenty of depth, tackling themes of friendship, family and loss. Most impressive, it takes a strong stance on representation for a children’s show, depicting same-sex relationships and gender-fluid characters. The best superhero properties are more than meets the eye. Streaming on Hulu and HBO Max.
Maya Phillips is a New York Times critic at large. She is the author of the poetry collection “Erou” (Four Way Books, 2019) and “NERD: On Navigating Heroes, Magic, and Fandom in the 21st Century,” forthcoming in summer 2022 from Atria Books. @mayabphillips