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 the best superhero on TV?
(The character must have at least appeared on TV sometime within the last two years, and their show has not been canceled yet.)
As someone who watches every superhero show on TV, there are certainly a few different ways to define “best.” Best character work? “Jessica Jones.” Best powers? Barry Allen (“The Flash”). Best at failing this city? Oliver Queen (“Arrow”). Best visual mindboggle? David Haller (“Legion”). Best dad/hero/community leader? Jefferson Pierce (“Black Lightning”). Best humor? “The Tick.” Best hodgepodge of insanity that’s also incredibly charming? “Legends of Tomorrow.”
But the superhero who really embodies everything that a superhero should is Kara Danvers, a.k.a. Supergirl. She lives by a strict moral code, has a life outside of her powers that really matters, and isn’t afraid of personal sacrifice in the service of a greater good. It’s why her cousin Superman has endured as such a beloved comic character — he’s a true hero, and so is she.
Though “Supergirl” has struggled at times (particularly in its first season) with leaning too heavily into the “inspiration” aspect with schmaltz (for a better example of how to do it well, watch “Black Lightning”), and wanting to make a statements, the show is at its best when Kara just gets to be a hero. She’s the true embodiment of living a life committed to good, which is really the essence of what being the “best” superhero should be.
How are we defining “best” this week? If it’s the most powerful and/or competent superhero, the answer’s probably “Supergirl.” If it’s the main character on the best current superhero show, it’d be David Haller from “Legion.” But if it’s the character who’s most compelling, regardless of power level, actual skill at saving people, and overall quality of the show, it’d be Jessica Jones, whose return to Netflix on Thursday no doubt prompted this question. The show is kind of a mess, particularly in this new season, and suffers from a lot of the issues of all the Marvel Netflix shows most notably having too many episodes and not enough story with which to interestingly fill them. And Jessica herself is even more of a trainwreck — drinking too much, retreating from the world, unable to let go of the rage and self-loathing that’s come from the terrible things that have happened to her. Even when she’s actively trying to be a hero, she stumbles into victory more often than not. But that’s what makes her so interesting to watch — and what makes the periodic sluggishness of her show’s pacing mostly worth sitting through. Krysten Ritter’s performance, the dialogue, and the characterization all make Jessica the best current hero, in terms of someone whose story I want to keep following.
Peak TV has brought us Peak TV Superheroes. At this point, there are more than a dozen traditional superhero shows — be it “Gotham,” “Arrow,” or “Marvel’s Jessica Jones” — and when you start factoring in the nontraditional shows (like “iZombie”), the number easily doubles.
It’s probably not a surprise that I watch most of these shows; I’m a nerd! But I’ve also always been most drawn to human superheroes, who are just trying to do their best in extraordinary circumstances. That leads me to “The X-Files”‘s Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson).
Sure, she doesn’t have traditional superpowers. But she’s saved the world (and may save it again if her Season 10 finale premonitions come true), on both the larger and smaller scale. Scully is a medical doctor, FBI agent, and an all-around badass. She’s faced unspeakable horrors and, somehow, keeps moving forward, trying to make a difference. And perhaps, most importantly, a recent study (by 21st Century Fox, partnered with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media, showed that nearly two-thirds of the women surveyed who work in STEM cited Scully as a role model. What’s more powerful than having an off-screen legacy like that?
Look, I love so many great superheroes despite the fact that their shows aren’t great, but this question basically demands that I pick Jessica Jones, and given that I’ve been a fan since the original comics, selecting her isn’t a trial. That said, I’m writing this a few days before the full release of Season 2, and I wasn’t blown away by the first five episodes, so I’m worried to some degree. But I feel good about that being silly on this level, at least.
Sam Fox on “Better Things,” because in these chaotic times, mothers are the true superheroes.
Since I cover so many of the superhero shows for TV Guide Magazine, this is a total Sophie’s Choice situation. I love all of my costumed children! So instead of picking one of the shows over any of the others, my vote goes to Tyler Hoechlin’s Superman on “Supergirl.” Because of the many incarnations we’ve already seen of the guy, this has got to be one of the toughest characters to pull off – he has to be optimistic but imposing; nerdy as Clark yet heroic as Kal-El; approachable but handsome as hell because, you know, it’s Superman; and he has to make us believe in truth, justice and the American way, while pulling off one of the most iconic outfits on the (daily) planet! For my comic-book money, Hoechlin nails it every time he suits up for a guest appearance. It helps that he shares a tremendous amount of familial chemistry with supercousin Kara (the perpetually delightful Melissa Benoist) and has a keen sense of what makes Krypton’s favorite son a true hero. There is a reason why the Twitterverse immediately called for a Superman series after seeing this guy in action.
Allow me to pull a Brodie Bruce here: What do I gauge my response on? Do I choose the person who I think is legitimately the best at being a superhero? Or is it the person whose show is the best superhero show? To be honest, I’ve checked out of every superhero show on The CW at this point, I never got around to “The Gifted,” and I ignored both “Iron Fist” and “The Defenders” for obvious reasons. Jessica Jones doesn’t want to be a hero even though she sometimes does heroic things, and the Punisher is a violent antihero who destroyed Ben Barnes’ face.
So, I guess I’m just going to go with David Haller of “Legion” and the teens of “Marvel’s Runaways.” Are they great superheroes? Not even close. But that is to be expected given where they all are in their respective stories. Also that’s what makes their characters and their shows so exciting to watch. They’re all coming into their own and attempting to discover who they are in a pretty screwed-up environment, and that’s more interesting to me than watching someone like Supergirl save the world from another alien threat. Honestly, I have no idea if I’ve answered the question. Also, Liv Moore on “iZombie.”
This feels like a trick question. Because it can be answered two ways: by looking at the best superhero CHARACTER on TV, or the best superhero SERIES (this is how a comic book nerd’s brain works, folks). The character question is easier and a bit simpler. There’s lots of great superhero characters on TV, but I’d name two right now: Mr. Spock and Batman. Spock is the superhero of “Star Trek,” always ready with perfect calculations and logic, gifted with great strength, psychic powers and a great heart that he deftly hid from his teammates. Batman tops my list because the character has remained compelling across decades of reinvention, from the classic, campy ‘60s show, to the more somber guy in the animated series on Fox Kids.
But the best superhero TV SERIES, for my money, is “Marvel’s Jessica Jones” on Netflix. I love the way this show combines a straight-up superhero yarn – super strong woman tackles her perfect villain, a man who can make anyone do anything he says – with a story that has larger resonance. Jessica is a damaged woman, suffering from PTSD, who faces the ultimate abusive ex-partner in David Tennant’s Kilgrave. In one show, we have a deeply perceptive allegory about surviving rape and confronting abusers. But we also have a compelling story about a character who faces the quintessential superhero’s dilemma; damaged as she is, as much as she wants to crawl into a bottle and stay there, she can’t. Because something in her drives her to be heroic, despite all reason. And that’s the essence of a great superhero.
It feels rather like TV is going through a dry spell of great superheroes. I loved “Jessica Jones” season 1, but season 2’s a tougher nut. The same goes for just about every CW superhero. (I haven’t watched “Legends of Tomorrow,” which I am assured is bonkers fun. But can we really call those kids “superheroes”?) I could answer somebody from “Legion,” maybe, but that show doesn’t feel particularly devoted to straightforward superhero moments in a way that makes it both a good show and not a great answer to this question.
So I’m going to say “Twin Peaks’” Freddie Sykes, who gained superhuman strength from wearing a green gardening glove. I would watch an entire series about the kid. Greenlight it, Showtime!
The Punisher! I’m going with Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle, a well-trained force of nature we met in “Daredevil‘s” second season. Motivated by the murders of his wife and two children, Castle was a great energetic foil to Charlie Cox‘s more subtle Daredevil. Played with a soulful humanity, Bernthal is one of the best actors around, case closed baby! Even if you dislike the superhero genre, “The Punisher,” like “Daredevil,” were both watchable and gripping yarns. I got lost in the action, acting and story and forgot I was watching comic book sourced material.
If I adhered to the spirit of the question, my answer would likely be David Haller (“Legion”), Jessica Jones (“Marvel’s Jessica Jones”), or even James Gordon (“Gotham”), but I typically like to look beyond the various comic book universes for my superheroes, so I’m going with Michael (Ted Danson) in “The Good Place.” I know what you’re thinking: “He’s a demon! How can he be a hero?” Well, let’s look at the facts. His power is nearly unlimited. His uniform is a snappy suit with an even snappier bow tie. And, after a couple of reversals, he’s permanently made it his mission to protect human beings. Not only can the demon-in-crisis change anything and everything with the snap of his fingers — from transporting people onto a deadly trolley to erasing their memories more than 800 times — but to get Eleanor (Kristen Bell) and her friends into The Good Place, he was willing to “die” (or, to get technical, be “retired” by the Eternal Shriek). Michael proved his pure intentions, new perspective, and ultimate heroism by sacrificing himself for the good of others. That’s a superhero if I’ve ever seen one. If only he could snap his fingers so Season 3 can start right… now!
Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*
Other contenders: “The Magicians” (two votes), “The Alienist,” “Counterpart,” “iZombie,” “Mozart in the Jungle,” “Seven Seconds,” and “Superstore” (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.