For fans of comic book adaptations, 2021 proved to be a banner year, even if we were mostly stuck at home. First, the Marvel Cinematic Universe came to the small screen with an abundance of Disney+ shows like WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki all breaking records for the streamer. DC fans also had plenty to choose from with the premiere of Superman and Lois and the continuing sagas of Stargirl, Doom Patrol, and more. But which superhero shows reigned supreme? Here are some of our favorites.
The first of the Marvel Studios shows to arrive on Disney+ (and the very first of the superhero TV shows to debut or return this year), WandaVision set an extremely high bar. By blending genres, styles, aesthetics, and just about every other defining feature, the Emmy-winning saga broke new ground for the comic book genre and proved that no feat was too large for the MCU. And it was all held together by Elizabeth Olsen’s remarkable, career-defining performance.
2. Superman and Lois
Superman and Lois debuted in February 2021 to universal acclaim, with its high-quality production value, blockbuster CGI, and mature writing that set it apart from the rest of The CW's offerings. Its best quality, however, is its heart. Stars Tyler Hoechlin and Elizabeth Tulloch shine as Clark Kent and Lois Lane, two DC Comics icons struggling to balance being parents with saving the world.
An animated series based on the groundbreaking comic book series of the same name, Invincible brought Robert Kirkman, Cory Walker, and Ryan Ottley’s vision to the screen in a way that was both loyal to the source material while still appealing to a new legion of TV viewers. The result was incredibly successful, with Invincible receiving critical acclaim and quick calls for a second season, which was, of course, confirmed right before the season finale. Much like Amazon Prime Video’s other series, The Boys, boundaries mean nothing to Invincible as the show boasted mature writing, thought-provoking character journeys, and often gruesome visuals that upended the norms of both animation and the superhero genre.
4. DC’s Stargirl
Stargirl was arguably the biggest surprise hit of 2020, and its second season didn’t rest on its laurels. Whereas season 1 was breezy, cheery, and full of heart, the writers decided to take things in a drastically different direction for the series' sophomore outing, giving us a story that was moody, frightening, and, for lack of a better term, dark. Very dark, in fact. It was a risk, for sure, but one that definitely paid off.
Tom Hiddleston’s mischievous Loki is undoubtedly one of the MCU's most popular characters, which is particularly impressive when you consider that he achieved that status by playing a supporting role in every single one of his big-screen appearances. So the prospect of Hiddleston leading his own superhero adventure via a six-part Disney+ series was very exciting. And while Loki did occasionally feel like its attempts to outsmart itself impacted the pacing, its star-studded cast—including Hiddleston, Owen Wilson, Sophia Di Martino, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw—made the time-jumping series an unforgettable adventure.
Fans of the MCU’s resident archer have been calling for the character to headline his own project for a decade now. In 2021 it finally happened in the form of a six-part series on Disney+. The beauty of Hawkeye—starring Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton and Hailee Steinfeld as the new archer, Kate Bishop—is that it’s a holiday-themed offering and captures the mood of some of the best Christmas movies and TV shows to ever hit the screen. The series ticks all of those boxes and more, delivering an outrageously fun, meaningful, and ambitious adventure that's much more lighthearted than any project starring the MCU’s broody archer had any right to be.
Supergirl returned to screens in 2021 for its sixth and final season, and while there was some Kryptonite along the way, this time the Woman of Steel had to face her other greatest weakness: Magic. A period trapped in the Phantom Zone saw the show’s hero accidentally bring back a troublemaking imp from the Fifth Dimension, and Nyxly certainly seemed like a fitting villain for the finale. The show's final season also paired Supergirl with the Super Friends’ archenemy, Lex Luthor, for a final battle for the ages.
8. DC’s Titans
Titans got off to a murky start due to a surprisingly violent first season that alienated some viewers. Fortunately, season 3 rectified all that and turned its earlier troubles into an all but forgotten memory.
Placing the focus on Jason Todd's much-anticipated transformation from Robin to Red Hood, Titans has finally become justifiably dark—and for the most part, it was a success, with higher stakes and a greater sense of urgency. Moreover, having a story that focused on a Titan outside of Dick Grayson allowed for a different approach to its familiar conventions, and the introduction of new characters such as Tim Drake and Blackfire created fresh dynamics.
Batwoman had a reinvention forced upon it after former lead Ruby Rose departed the series. So when it returned from that lengthy 2020 hiatus for its second season, fans were essentially seeing a whole new series debut. But what a reinvention it ultimately proved to be. Actress Javicia Leslie put on the cape and cowl as newcomer Ryan Wilder, who decides to use the Batwoman mantle to dish out some justice of her own. But when that directly puts her in the crosshairs of the Bat Family, she decides to really make a go of being Gotham City’s new hero. With that, she soon finds herself taking on threats such as Black Mask, Circe Sionis, and even some zombies, all while trying to uncover what happened to the original Batwoman.
10. DC’s Legends of Tomorrow
Legends of Tomorrow, the long-running Arrowverse offshoot, took on its most ambitious and outlandish storyline yet in season 6 as the endearingly ragtag group of time-traveling misfits battled a group of equally bizarre aliens. While the series seemed to go a little too far off the wall sometimes, it also contained a handful of memorable episodes and ultimately ended on a high.
11. What If…?
Anything is possible in What If…?, an animated series that gives fans an alternate look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe where the events of the movies played out just a bit differently. With superb animation and entertaining rewrites of the MCU, fans got to see what would happen if Peggy Carter became the world’s first super-soldier, if Doctor Strange lost his heart instead of his hands, and if the world was overrun by zombies (and Avenger zombies!). More than that, though, it was an enlightening introduction to the multiverse for fans of the franchise and a solid starting point for what’s to come from it on the big screen.
12. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier brought back Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan in their respective roles as Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes—but how do Captain America’s best friends live in a world without Captain America? What The Falcon and the Winter Soldier does is highlight how difficult it is for both heroes to move out of Cap's shadow as they deal with a brand-new threat. It could have gone the buddy comedy route, but it goes for a more powerful story that tackles a number of weightier issues and raises some important questions.
13. Doom Patrol
Doom Patrol is getting more and more bonkers as it goes on, and the third season was a clear example of that, with time-hopping and even death on the menu for the eponymous superhero team. While some fans weren’t quite as sold on season 3 as they were on its first two seasons, it was still a resounding success with critics, securing a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
14. The Flash
The long-running CW series is widely regarded as one of the greatest superhero TV shows of all time, even if many fans deemed its seventh season—which premiered in March 2021—as easily one of its weakest (if not the weakest) thus far. That said, The Flash managed to turn things around with its eighth season, which premiered in November.
“Armageddon,” a five-episode event, kicked season 8 off on a real high, bringing together heroes from the Arrowverse for the closest thing we’ve seen to a crossover since "Crisis On Infinite Earths" in 2019 and 2020. These episodes have high stakes and tighter writing than years past, and the return of the Reverse-Flash was a welcome development.