The superhero genre exploded on TV this decade, which has led to some truly terrific shows. Superheroes are bigger than ever before, on both the big and the small screen. The popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been mirrored by the rise of superhero TV, and now every network and streaming service wants to get in on the action. The future looks even brighter, with the dedicated DC Universe streaming service and the rise of Disney+ and its Marvel Studios-created miniseries. Even Sony is reportedly working on some Spider-Man shows.
The majority of superhero TV shows are based on DC and Marvel comic book characters. In both cases, the A-list characters are prioritized for the movies, with the companies wary of over-exposure by having two versions at once. As a result, superhero TV series tend to be quite creative, often using Z-list characters who are completely new to viewers. Meanwhile, Netflix and Amazon have recently struck gold with comic book adaptations of their own, proving that less well-known comic books can resonate as well.
With the decade coming to an end, and a new era about to begin with Disney+ shaking the whole market, this is the perfect time to look back and celebrate everything that's happened. Here are our picks for the best superhero TV shows of the decade.
Starring Melissa Benoist as its titular superhero, Supergirl is a bold and politically-aware superhero TV show that faces social issues head on. The first series aired on CBS, but the show then made the jump to The CW, and since then has participated in the annual Arrowverse crossovers. Plots and character-work are generally strong, although sometimes a little too on-the-nose, and unfortunately Supergirl has a tendency of drawing out its plots a little too long. For all that's the case, though, Benoist is a skilled actress who effectively portrays the unshakable morality and sheer sense of optimism that is Supergirl's true super-power. She's supported by tremendous secondary cast, including Chyler Leigh as her adopted sister Alex, Mehcad Brooks as Jimmy Olsen, and David Harewood as the alien Martian Manhunter.
10. Jessica Jones
The first season of Jessica Jones was a cultural milestone, with Krysten Ritter's skillful portrayal gaining popular and critical acclaim. Jessica Jones is essentially the story of a trauma victim, a superhero who has fallen prey to a monster and is attempting to rebuild her life, and the dysfunctional relationships that surround her. Unfortunately, Jessica Jones season 2 was a lot weaker than the first season, with a mid-season twist that just didn't quite pay off, and as a result this superhero TV show is a lot lower down this list than it would be otherwise. Season 3 almost matched the first season in quality, thankfully.
9. The Flash
The Flash has established itself as the Arrowverse's most popular superhero TV show, with Grant Gustin's Barry Allen coming to define the role of the scarlet speedster. As with all the Arrowverse series, The Flash's true magic lies in the interpersonal dynamic between the characters, with Gustin working well with the likes of Candice Patton, Danielle Panabaker, and Carlos Valdes. The show does tend to draw out its plots a little, though, with the characters never seeming to realize that keeping secrets only makes things worse. Plus, The Flash's constant time travel has pretty much stopped making sense.
Stephen Amell embodies the Green Arrow for an entire generation of viewers. Launched in 2012, Arrow is the story of a billionaire who was lost at sea, and unexpectedly returned as a trained warrior with an insatiable hunger for justice. The Green Arrow is, by nature, a solitary hero; and yet Arrow's genius lay in forcing him to become part of a team, something bigger than himself, meaning he had to face his own responsibilities and ethical code head-on. Arrow became the foundation for an entire shared universe of superhero TV shows, which explains why it ranks higher than the rest of the Arrowverse, due to sheer cultural significance.
Misfits is unique in that it's an entirely original superhero TV show; typically, comic book shows and movies are adaptations of some form. The British TV series revolves around five criminals who are caught up in a freak lightning storm. It launched in 2009, and ran for five seasons, gaining an ardent and devoted fanbase. Critics were particularly impressed by the ease with which Misfits blended a dark edge with an equally sharp sense of humor.
6. Agents of SHIELD
Marvel Television's flagship TV series, Agents of SHIELD was launched in 2013 as the MCU's official tie-in superhero TV show. As the years have passed, the TV series and the movies have gradually diverged, but that's proved to be an unexpected strength for Agents of SHIELD. By now, the series has developed its own mythology, embracing concepts and ideas that are completely absent on the big screen MCU. It stars Clark Gregg as a resurrected Agent Coulson and Chloe Bennet as Quake, a superhero who's surely as potent as any Avenger.
5. The Boys
Based on the comics by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, The Boys is a searing critique of the superhero genre, imagining just how the world would really work if superheroes walked among us. The viewpoint characters are Jack Quaid's Hugh Campbell, a man whose lover is killed by an unwitting superhero, and the naive and hopeful Starlight, played by Erin Moriarty. The Boys has become one of the most in-demand superhero TV shows around, outstripping even The Umbrella Academy, and Amazon Prime Video has renewed it for a second season.
4. The Punisher
Introduced in Daredevil season 2, Jon Bernthal's modern iteration of Marvel's Punisher has become the definitive take. Where most superheroes pull their punches, the Punisher has a far more simple approach; criminals who cross Frank Castle are very lucky to survive. The Marvel Netflix series expanded beyond simple themes of retributive justice and bloody vengeance, portraying the Punisher as a wounded man who struggles with PTSD and the pain of his family's death, and shining a fascinating light on the cultural issues surrounding America's gun culture. Although both seasons had pacing problems - a constant issue for Marvel Netflix - they were strong and character-driven. Unfortunately, the relationship between Marvel Television and Netflix came to an end after just the two seasons.
Noah Hawley's Legion is a superhero TV show unlike any other. In the comics, David Haller is Legion, the son of Charles Xavier, a young mutant who suffers from a multiple personality disorder. Hawley chose to make this unlikely hero the star of his series, using David's psychological problems to explore the nature of reality itself. Legion is intense, trippy, and incredibly cerebral; the scripts cleverly subvert viewer expectations, and every episode benefits from more than one rewatch. Dan Stevens stars as the infinitely powerful mutant, and his portrayal is top-rate.
2. The Umbrella Academy
The success of The Umbrella Academy proves that Netflix doesn't need Marvel Television to make top-rate superhero TV shows. Based on the popular comics by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá, The Umbrella Academy is the story of a dysfunctional family of superheroes who gradually learn that they've been manipulated and lied to for their entire lives. It's unique and stylish, with a tremendous and off-beat soundtrack and some stunning character moments. The first season was a hit, becoming the biggest digital show in the United States, and it came to a cliffhanger ending. Hopefully it won't be long before Netflix release The Umbrella Academy season 2.
The best superhero TV show of the past decade can only be Daredevil. Dark and atmospheric, brutally violent yet never needlessly so, Daredevil is a dark psychological journey into a superhero's soul. Charlie Cox stars as Matt Murdock, the Devil of Hell's Kitchen, who's sworn to do good and yet pays a terrible price for his heroism; he's supported by a strong secondary cast, including Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page and Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson. Vincent D'Onofrio is almost a co-star rather than a mere supervillain, portraying Daredevil's recurring nemesis the Kingpin. All three seasons have those customary Marvel Netflix pacing problems, but the quality of the character-work shines through despite that. Daredevil is a worthy winner, and it's a shame the series came to an end when Marvel Television and Netflix parted ways.