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Critics Pick the Most Underrated TV Superheroes — IndieWire Survey

These characters have been fighting the good fight but aren't recognized for their efforts enough.

"Black Lightning"

The CW

IWCriticsPick

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: Who is an underrated TV superhero that deserves more respect/attention? (Old and current shows are fair game.)

Allison Keene (@KeeneTV), Collider

This is tough because my outlet puts a premium on superheroes, so really none are overlooked as far as we’re concerned. However, I haven’t seen as much general love for “Black Lightning” as the show deserves. Maybe people are burned out by the deluge of DCTV, much of which is past its prime (“Arrow,” “The Flash”), though others are exceptionally innovative and increasingly great (“Legends of Tomorrow”). But “Black Lightning” provides something that we aren’t seeing elsewhere in superhero series. For one thing, Black Lightning himself, Jefferson Pierce, is older than all the current supers on TV — the show starts with him coming out of retirement, essentially. For another, he actually has a day job that matters. He’s also only the second black character to lead a superhero show, which is significant and something the series leans into, but it’s also very much about family and fighting together as family — not just literal punching, which they do (as his daughters also gain powers), but fighting to stay together. The series is exceptionally smart, too, and absolutely has something to say about community, our current political landscape, and a black superhero’s place in it. “Black Lightning” deserves to be talked about, and not enough people are.

Erik Adams (@ErikMAdams), A.V. Club

Space Ghost, which is kind of a cheap answer because the disrespect and lack of attention paid to Tad Ghostal is “Space Ghost Coast To Coast’s” entire schtick. But the character is underrated in both his incarnations as slumming talk-show host and defender of the Ghost Planet: We don’t talk enough about how there would be no Adult Swim without “Space Ghost Coast To Coast” (I’ll always be a little sad that the block’s in-house production arm no longer calls itself Ghost Planet Industries), while an Alex Toth-designed superhero who uses invisibility and lasers to fight giant mantises, lava men, and space cats deserves better than a corny Saturday-morning cartoon. Space Ghost has been a beneficiary of DC’s attempts to revitalize various Hanna-Barbera properties, but those are still only giving us one side of his personality. Why not revive the character as a mid-tier hero whom everyone dumps on because of his late-night days, but is still tasked with saving the universe now and again? Swirl in some Man Or Astro-man?, and you’ve got a show whose capacities for non sequitur and adventure are as infinite as the cosmos themselves.

"Space Ghost Future Quest"

Clint Worthington (@alcohollywood), Consequence of Sound, Freelance

Long before “Black Lightning” and “Luke Cage,” the ‘90s gave us the real first black superhero show – the one-season wonder “M.A.N.T.I.S.” Developed by Sam Raimi and Sam Hamm, “M.A.N.T.I.S.” followed a paraplegic scientist named Miles Hawkins (Carl Lumbly) who develops an exoskeletal suit that not only allows him to walk, but fight crime. Sure, it was deeply goofy, and the season ended with the main character getting unceremoniously eaten by an invisible dinosaur (don’t ask), but it was great fun, and Raimi’s sensibility (along with an entertaining supporting turn from Roger Rees as the Alfred to Hawkins’ Bruce Wayne) made it a passable companion to the Bruce Timm Flash TV series from a couple years prior.

Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire

Some crazy stuff happened in the 1990s, but hey, remember when Carl Lumbly starred in the hit Fox drama “M.A.N.T.I.S.”? Well, I say hit, but of course it only lasted one season before being summarily canceled, and if you dig up clips it doesn’t necessarily hold up that great.

But still, it’s insane to remember that 24 years ago a major broadcast network — years before nearly half of The CW’s programming involved someone in tights — invested a lot of money in a show about a black doctor who uses a wheelchair when not using his exo-suit to fight crime. It’s a solid premise! Also, it was produced by Sam Raimi and created by Sam Hamm! I feel like I’ve said this more than once: Remake “M.A.N.T.I.S.” Maybe one day someone will hear my pleas.

Eric Deggans (@deggans), NPR

As a longtime comics fan – as in, owner of original printings of the classic “Watchmen” comic book series from 1986 – my connection to this question goes deep. I remember, as a youngster, watching TV versions of Lou Ferrigno’s The Hulk and Spider Man and feeling that curious mixture of excitement (that there was a superhero on my TV screen!) with disappointment that the effects were so bad and the storytelling so amateurish. I mean, changing Dr. Banner’s name to David so he would sound more masculine? Really?

Anyway, I write that to simply note that TV has a long history of disappointing comic book fans of a certain age. My choice for this category is something of a deep cut; Blade, from the Spike TV series aired in 2006 starring former rapper Kirk “Sticky Fingaz” Jones as Blade. To be fair, this is a character that’s been punked over by both the film and TV worlds, trapping a compelling, powerful, cool-looking character in a series of increasingly worse movies and a TV show that went nowhere fast. What really bothered me was the series decision to share space in the series’ story with another character instead of focusing on Blade, who could be this awesome combination of a heroic Dracula, a black Batman and a modern Van Helsing. Netflix – you’ve rescued Daredevil, Luke Cage and The Punisher; time to do the same for Blade! (with, if we’re shooting for the moon, Idris Elba as Blade).

Kaitlin Thomas (@thekaitling), TVGuide.com

I would never be so brave as to call Wynonna Earp a superhero to her face — she would probably kick my ass for it — but she is the protector of the Ghost River Triangle, tasked with sending demons and all kinds of supernatural baddies straight to hell. So yeah, she’s kind of a badass superhero. But what makes Wynonna particularly special is the fact she’s not actually special. With the exception of a family curse that makes her a reluctant Chosen One, Wynonna is no different from the next hot mess shooting whiskey at the bar. She doesn’t have super strength. She has no special skills. She’s not even a great shot at the beginning of the show, and that’s important to note because Wynonna Earp is a Western. Honestly, she does what she does because it’s the right thing to do. So if Wynonna, who likes to drink and regularly makes questionable life choices, can be a damn superhero in this day and age, anyone can be a superhero. And that’s why everyone should be singing her praises and watching this amazing, weird, hilarious, badass show. Season 3 premieres Friday (Seasons 1 and 2 are on Netflix). Do yourself a favor and check it out.

"Wynonna Earp"

“Wynonna Earp”

Syfy

Diane Gordon (@thesurfreport), Freelance

My gut response: Mary Richards of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Though Mary Richards didn’t wear a cape or save humanity in every episode, she played a major role in changing the way women were depicted on television. Mary Tyler Moore’s superpowers were making Mary Richards accessible, quirky, and vulnerable – but never weak. Watching Mary Richards navigate the male-dominated world of WJM was inspiring as well as entertaining. It’s important to include the show’s supporting characters of Rhoda Morgenstern and Sue Ann Nivens as well, as both characters were anything but standard issue and both were incredibly funny, focused and big-hearted. When I first watched the show, I had no idea how strongly it influenced me but the older I get, the more I know how important it was for me to see these intelligent, funny, feisty women. My independent spirit and my comedy brain owe them a debt.

Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine

Oh, I can’t wait to see The Middleman get some love. But for me, I am throwing my vote behind Chloe King from “The Nine Lives of Chloe King.” The ABC Family series only ran 10 episodes, but I am sure that, given more time, our girl (Skyler Samuels) would have used the cat-like abilities she’d been granted as the descendant of an ancient race called The Mai to become a legit superhero. After all, with extra lives, retractable claws, enhanced night vision and crazy strength, she was already shaping up to be quite the warrior — which is good, because a centuries-old prophecy had deemed her mankind’s savior. Because it was aimed at teens (and Dan Fienberg, who totally stanned for Chloe’s bff, Amy), most non-mythology storylines revolved around Chloe being torn between hunky Brian (Grey Damon), the guy she couldn’t kiss without paralyzing him with, and Alek (Benjamin Stone), the fellow Mai who wouldn’t die if she got touchy. There were some action sequences and Big Bads who wanted to kill Chloe but we were robbed of the chance to see her evolve into a full-blown Buffy-Dark Angel sort of heroine by the show’s premature cancelation and the network’s failure to deliver the TV-movie wrap-up that was originally promised. Maybe it’s time to float the idea of an “edgy” reboot so Fienberg can finally get his Chlamy wishes granted.

"The NIne Lives of Chloe King"

“The NIne Lives of Chloe King”

ABC FAMILY

Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

OK, so I’ve done the research. If the main character from “Middleman” is really a secret agent and Beebo is really a God and my fellow Gen-Xers have fueled enough “Greatest American Hero” nostalgia to power several large countries, I believe the answer is pretty simple: None. There is no underrated TV superhero that deserves more respect/attention. If forced to give a single answer, though? Manimal. Clearly. He’s a master of the secrets that divide man from animal, animal from man. Manimal!

Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), GoldDerby

I am not a viewer of the Berlanti Cinematic Universe, which is the first thing I thought of when I saw this question, but since I hear not all heroes wear capes, I’ll go with my first favorite TV heroine: Alex Mack from “The Secret World of Alex Mack.” Her “origin story” is basically Daredevil’s, except she doesn’t go blind, but she does get to turn into a puddle, which was all I ever wanted to do at 9 years old. (Sadly, I did not come in contact with any chemical spills.) But the beauty of the show was that Alex Mack was still just a kid. She got these superpowers, but she wasn’t solving crime or kicking a new villain’s ass every episode (Danielle Atron was the only “bad guy”). She dealt with normal teenage stuff and her powers were just a metaphor for adolescence. Also, she had the best hats.

Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox

Maybe it’s the fact that seemingly everybody on my Twitter feed has been watching old episodes of the show, but they’ve got me thinking that Dr. Sam Beckett of “Quantum Leap” really deserves more respect as a superhero. He’s got an amazing power — his ability to take over others’ lives and change the course of history — but his secondary power is his ability to just sit and listen and let everybody’s problems become his problems. In our era of shoutiness, Dr. Sam Beckett lights the way forward, a Superman whose greatest power is his ability to shut up for five seconds.

"Quantum Leap"

“Quantum Leap”

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics

My superhero interest, knowledge and fandom is slim to none at best. having said that, stories like “Daredevil” and my top pick for this question, “The Punisher,” are standout thanks to their lead actors. “Marvel’s “The Punisher” is timely, emotionally resonant, and a violent show featuring Jon Bernthal cast as the dysfunctional antihero. But his exemplary work transcends the tropes of this genre and we get sucked into a profoundly personal journey and the road to redemption as he works through his grief by laying waste to the evil in his civilian life that has ties to the horrific deaths of his family. Bernthal is deserving of every award that can be bestowed upon him. His vigilante Frank Castle is relatable to many people who feel that so much is out of our shared collective control. He and the writers of this broody and dark series show us that evil always overplays its hand and that the veterans and footsoldiers of a flawed and poorly administered society deserve so much more than what they get. They’re [veterans] the real superheroes.

Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

It’s Shaolin Fantastic, of “The Get Down” fame, considering:

a) “The Get Down” was cancelled after one season, making it underrated by virtually any metric, and
b) he’s not often discussed as a superhero, despite being quite accurately described as, “Spinning faster than a speeding bullet, cuttin’ records smoother than silk, able to rock any party, anywhere, anytime — a real-life superhero.”

But I also love Patrick Warburton’s take on The Tick, as well as a certain dimension-traveling ex-DSD agent who can stop a bullet with her chest.

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “Sharp Objects” (six votes)

Other contenders: “GLOW” (three votes), “Hannah Gadsby: Nanette,” “Pose,” “Succession” (one vote each)

*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.

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