As the battle for spandex supremacy rages on, the latest gambit comes from DC Entertainment: a subscription streaming service dedicated exclusively to DC content. (Marvel, for now, can rely on a little upstart called Netflix to host much of its original content.) DC Universe debuted last weekend, and thus far its selection of contemporary blockbusters is relatively humble. But the service runs deep with more obscure and retro offerings, with several original scripted series on the way.
At present, the DC Universe library ranges from popular films like “The Dark Knight” and “Superman: The Movie” to lesser-known artifacts like the “Flash” TV series from the early ’90s and the 1987 made-for-TV adaptation of “The Spirit.” The service also offers direct-to-video animated films, including this year’s “The Death of Superman,” but newer live-action hits like “Wonder Woman” — as well as shows from the CW’s “Arrowverse” — are still nowhere to be found.
The service’s first original scripted series, “Titans,” debuts Oct. 12, based on the “Teen Titans” comics. (The trailer suggests a darker, more violent take on the comics, similar to Marvel Netflix series like “Daredevil” and “The Punisher.”) Others will include “Doom Patrol,” “Harley Quinn” and “Swamp Thing,” all scheduled for 2019. Some features, however, set DC Universe apart from competing platforms — notably, a limited selection of digital comics, which subscribers can download to their streaming devices. There’s also a community message board, a character encyclopedia and, of course, a merchandise shop.
Subscriptions start at $7.99 a month, or $74.99 for a year. Not sure whether it’s worth the cost? Here’s a closer look at some of its best current offerings.
Max Fleischer’s ‘Superman’ Cartoons (1941-1943)
Superman made his comics debut in 1938, and he first appeared on the big screen three years later in these animated shorts, most of which were produced by Max Fleischer (a handful at the end of its run were produced by Famous Studios). In these films, Superman and his girlfriend, Lois Lane, encounter a variety of villains like mad scientists, flying robots and mummies, as well as more real-world threats like Nazis. The shorts are very much a product of their time (as with other animated shorts produced during World War II, there are a few cringe-inducing moments of Japanese stereotyping), but the animation still holds up very well. The shorts are notable for their use of rotoscoping, an animation technique that allows animators to trace over live-action footage in order to produce more realistic action. The design also served as a big influence on later DC animation, including “Batman: The Animated Series” and “Superman: The Animated Series.”
‘Super Friends’ (1973-1986)
For a much goofier take on the DC superheroes, check out the animated “Super Friends” (known as “The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians” in its final season). Produced by Hanna-Barbera and originally aired as a Saturday morning cartoon, “Super Friends” features established characters like Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman, who team with then-original characters like the purple-suited Wonder Twins and their pet monkey, Gleek. The show follows the Justice League of America as it confronts classic DC villains like Lex Luthor, Brainiac and Giganta, as well as fight the occasional skirmish against Dracula or the Incredible Crude Oil Monster. We also have the show to thank for that wonderful GIF of Aquaman riding two dolphins as if they were skis. The show has a reputation for being a joke (and it kind of is), but there’s something refreshing about seeing the DC characters let loose and be wacky, especially when considering how dark DC has gone lately.
‘Wonder Woman’ (1975-1978)
Long before Gal Gadot strapped on her bullet-deflecting bracelets, Lynda Carter was beating up German soldiers as the crime-fighting Amazon princess Diana Prince, better known as Wonder Woman. In keeping with her comic book origins, Diana is living on Paradise Island with her fellow Amazons when a pilot named Steve Trevor (Lyle Waggoner) crashes his plane and lands on the island. Steve recruits Diana, and she leaves the island to go fight Nazis. The show flashed forward in time to the 1970s for later seasons, which allowed Carter to wear some truly fantastic costumes. But although the series is campy (Diana basically fights crime in a bathing suit, and the invisible jet is never not hilarious), this earlier Wonder Woman is still a female superhero who doesn’t bow to any man. Look out for Cloris Leachman as Diana’s mother and Debra Winger in an early role as Diana’s sister, Drusilla.
‘Superman: The Movie’ (1978)
Christopher Reeve wasn’t the first live-action Superman, but for many fans, he still defines the role. He manages to capture the awkwardness of Clark Kent while still seeming confident and heroic as Superman, making you almost believe that no one would guess they’re the same person. “Superman: The Movie” retells Superman’s origin story, and while it’s familiar, the sincerity and humor of the film make it a joy. Margot Kidder is excellent as Lois Lane, making the character more than just a girlfriend, and Gene Hackman does great work as Lex Luthor. Add the score by John Williams and Marlon Brando’s appearance as Superman’s dad, and you have a classic comic book adaptation. Reeve starred in three sequels, all of which are available on DC Universe, although “Superman II” (1980) is the only one worth checking out.
Batman Returns (1992)
“Batman Returns” offers a dark, melancholy take on Batman that has grown only more relevant with time. Michael Keaton returns in this sequel to the 1989 “Batman,” and this time he is joined by Christopher Walken, who plays a corrupt businessman named Max Shreck — who, in turn, is trying to get a grotesque monster, Oswald Cobblepot, better known as the Penguin (Danny DeVito), elected as the mayor of Gotham City. Michelle Pfeiffer appears as Selina Kyle, who fashions herself into the crafty and seductive Catwoman in order to seek revenge on Shreck after he tries to murder her. “Batman Returns” portrays Batman and Catwoman as two damaged, lonely people who are drawn together by trauma, and even the Penguin gets a tragic back story that makes him more pitiable than loathsome. It’s Pfeiffer who makes the biggest impression, though; her character gets the best lines, and her transformation from a meek secretary into a wild cat is thrilling.
Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995)
Available in high definition for the first time, “Batman: The Animated Series” is not only the best Batman TV series, it is also one of the best animated series of all time. The show takes a sharply different approach than that of Batman’s previous TV incarnations, offering a noir-inspired aesthetic that takes the character seriously while still being suitable for kids. Classic Batman villains like Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Catwoman and the Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill) are given depth and substance. Elements of the series were so popular that they were later added into the comic books, including the character of Harley Quinn, who has since become one of DC’s most popular characters (and the future recipient of her own animated series). This show is the reason an entire generation fell in love with Batman.
The Dark Knight (2008)
It’s hard to understate what a huge cultural event “The Dark Knight” was upon its release. The death of Heath Ledger at age 28 certainly played a role, but the film itself broke new ground for complex superhero storytelling onscreen. A sequel to “Batman Begins” (2005), this film from Christopher Nolan finds Batman (Christian Bale) struggling against the Joker (Ledger), a psychotic criminal who just wants to see the world burn. District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) tries to handle the Joker in his own way, and both he and Batman suffer losses as they are tested by the Joker’s twisted plans. The film asks how good can succeed in the face of such evil, and what lengths we will pursue in order to achieve justice. Much of the film’s effectiveness is owed to Ledger, who posthumously received an Oscar for his performance. But credit also belongs to the thrilling action sequences, twisty plot and propulsive score by Hans Zimmer.