From capes and cowls to dystopian futures and sitcoms run amok, 2021 had no shortage of high profile comic book adaptations on the small screen. Once upon a time, TV-scale comic book inspired stories had to settle for budgets and comic book fidelity that were comically dwarfed by their big screen counterparts. Now, however, the small screen and the big screen are commingling and interconnecting in ways nerd boys and girls only ever dreamed of, which leads one to wonder, “Are any of them any good, though?”
Well, good news, folks, because today I will be counting down the top 15 comic book adaptations for television from the year that was, as we also gather our strength for a new year with even more promise in 2022. Believe it or not, even with 15 ranked choices, several series didn’t make the cut, such as my once beloved Supergirl and The Flash (who both have lost a step or two in their old age), and there were several series that I could not catch up on to include, specifically any series related to and including The Walking Dead and The CW’s hit teen drama Riverdale. So, with all that throat clearing out of the way, let’s dive straight into the list!
15. Titans, HBO MAX
Just sneaking onto the list at fifteen is Titans, which aired its third season in the fall of 2021, This adaption of the legendary DC comics team comics Teen Titans, which focuses on a rotating group of young sidekicks of DC Comics’ most famous heroes, such as Batman’s Robin and Wonder Woman’s Wonder Girl, stars Brenden Thwaites’ Dick Greyson (a.k.a. Nightwing a.k.a. the original Robin) as the leader of a group of twenty-something peers and a handful of younger protegès as they take on some of their most prodigious foes and reckon with their dysfunctional childhoods.
This season took on the ambitious task of adapting Under The Red Hood, a comic storyline where Jason Todd, the second Robin, is murdered by the Joker only to return as the mysterious and maniacal Red Hood. Newcomer Jay Lycurgo, as the canonical third Robin, Tim Drake, stands out as an excellent find, turning himself into the heart of the season with a surprisingly small amount of screen time, and Curran Walters brings a pathos and menace in equal measure to his Jason Todd.
- The Falcon & The Winter Soldier, Disney Plus
In many ways, this year in comics television feels most defined by the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on Disney Plus, and while this series did not exactly kick that cultural moment off, it was once supposed to. This Avengers: Endgame sequel, originally set to debut in Fall of 2020, follows an assortment of secondary and tertiary characters from the Captain America film franchise, including titular heroes Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), reckoning with a world that has been forever changed by “The Blip” and must now go on without Steve Rogers’ Captain America.
Showrunner Malcom Spellman and his team attempted to craft a story that confronted the traumatic history of race in America, the persistent political crisis around refugees and political extremism, and a sincere consideration of the legacy of one of the MCU’s most popular heroes all while servicing a large ensemble featuring newcomers like Wyatt Russell’s John Walker, Danny Ramirez’s Joaquin Torres, and Erin Kellerman’s Karli Morgenthau, and returning tertiary characters such as Emily VanCamp’s Sharon Carter and Daniel Brühl’s Baron Zemo. All of which is to say that, despite their admirable ambition, they simply bit off way more than they could chew. However, despite the overstuffed nature of the series, some standout moments remain, such as several of the action sequences and a titanic guest performance by Carl Lumbly as the second American super soldier, Isaiah Bradley.
- Doom Patrol, HBOMAX
Surprisingly not the strangest superhero series to make the cut, HBO Max’s Doom Patrol aired its third season in 2021, its first without mentor figure Nigel Caulder (Timothy Dalton) at the center, as his extremely long life finally came to a tragic end in the season two finale last year. Left behind are his ragtag group of super-powered misfits, including the disembodied voices of famous leading men Brendan Fraser (Robotman) and Matt Bomer (Negative Man), Justice League wannabe Joivan Wade (Cyborg), neurotically brillant April Bowlby (Rita Farr), and scene stealer Diane Guerrero (Jane, et al.).
This season ends up falling a bit lower in my personal rankings than last year, as much of the character development of the first two seasons began to feel rehashed here. However, Michelle Gomez does join the cast as an enigmatic time traveler whose story features several satisfying turns and reveals, pushing Rita into the spotlight in a way the character greatly benefited from. Gomez’s deft command of tone in her performance, jumping from broad comedy to quiet tragedy and back again while maintaining the integrity of her character is quite impressive and worth the price of admission, as is the way that Bowlby’s Rita bounces off her.
- Black Lightning, The CW
No CW show came out of the box stronger and with more sense of direction and purpose than season one of Black Lightning. However, the story of Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) and his super-powered family has since struggled to feel as vital as it did in that first season, burdened by overly complicated plots that drift from the core purpose of the series and a tight production budget that hampers the aesthetics of the series and makes for a lot of visual repetition.
This final season continues to suffer from many of those drawbacks, but what it has going for it are core characters who are richly realized four seasons in. Williams anchors the cast with a truly standout performance as Jefferson contemplates his legacy, on his community and his family, while getting ready to finally face off against his archnemesis Tobias Whale (Marvin “Krondon” Jones III) for the last time. A cast shake up also brings a few wild, comic book flourishes to the series, which don’t entirely work, but I admire the ambition.
- Y: The Last Man, FX on Hulu
Sometimes things should just stay in development hell. That was the thought that ran through my mind when Y: The Last Man, about a global pandemic that kills every biological male of every species on earth in an instant (aside from our protagonist Youric, played by Ben Schnetzer, and his pet monkey Ampersand), finally made it to the screen in the middle of a global pandemic after over a decade of failed adaptation attempts. Much to my surprise, however, this series wasn’t quite as poorly timed as expected.
At its best, it spoke to the emotional chaos and trauma of the real world of 2021, wrapped inside comic tropes like super spies and roving social factions across a ravaged apocalyptic landscape. Diane Lane, as the President, anchors the political intrigue corner of the series, where Amber Tamblyn’s riff on Meghan McCain truly steals the show, but the real standout of the series is Marin Ireland, whose character transformation over the length of the season feels so earned, in large part due to Ireland’s Emmy-worthy performance.
- Batwoman, The CW
In the year 2021, The CW’s Batwoman aired the second half of its second season and the first half of its third, making it a bit tough to quantify for a list like this. Listeners of my podcast TV Break will know that I was very high on the entire second season of the series. Taking the contentious removal of it’s season one lead, Ruby Rose, as an opportunity to reinvent the series on the fly, season two drove home a fun balance of soapy melodrama and tropes and grounded social justice storylines, organized around the series great new lead Javicia Leslie and returning favorites Rachel Starsten, Nicole Kang, Meagan Tandy, and Camrus Johnson. Season 3 took its first seven episodes to slowly set up a new status quo that should be quite fun when the series returns next week, but it was not the smoothest pathway to that destination, pushing it down this list a bit as a result.
- Legends of Tomorrow, The CW
The highest ranked super-team on the list, Legends of Tomorrow has the benefit of airing the entirety of its sixth season and half of its seventh season during the 2021 calendar year. That’s certainly quite a lot of Caty Lotz’ Sara Lance and co. traveling through space and time on one zany adventure after another. Season six was labeled their series’ “Alien Season” and featured Sara’s team, led by her fiancèe Ava Sharpe (Jes Macallan), scouring time and space to rescue her after an abduction. It also features scene stealer Matt Ryan’s final arc as the DC hero Constantine (as an HBO Max series involving the character but unrelated to this continuity is expected in 2022) as he balances a magic addiction and a romance with wind-wielding social media influencer Zari (Tala Ashe).
The quality here is more of what you’d expect from the series, and you probably know by now if it works for you. However, season seven takes things up a notch in quality, as the show, for the first time ever, attempts an extended, serialized story in one far flung past time period, as the team has to travel cross country in 1930s America in order to rebuild their time machine and try not to do too much damage to the timeline along the way. This new narrative purpose brought more stakes and excitement to the series, while allowing our heroes the chance to reckon with the past a bit more seriously then the show usually is interested in doing. Recent addition Olivia Swan is a particular standout.
- Stargirl, The CW
Yes, this is the fourth CW series to make the list, and, believe or not, it won’t be the last. This series, adapting executive producer Geoff Johns’ comic book partially based on his own sister, found itself in network limbo in its first season, like several of the other DC series on the list. However, for season two, the series about a fledgling teen superhero, with questionable ties to the once great Justice Society of America, and her fantastical friends is firmly in The CW stable of heroes, and she is, to no one’s surprise, one of their best. Brec Bessinger and Luke Wilson anchor the series as Courtney Whitmore (a.k.a. Stargirl) and her stepdad Pat Dugan (a.k.a. Stripesy), respectively.
The series attempted to get darker in its summer-school-set second season, as Courtney and friends face off against a mischievous evil force who wants to corrupt our heroes’ souls before plunging the earth into darkness. While the series sometimes struggled to balance its plucky teen optimism with the dark fantasies of its villain, ultimately they smartly chose to center that as the primary conflict of the season, building to a great finale just in time for the new school year.
- Hit-Monkey, Hulu
This animated series, the final production from the now defunct Marvel Studio-free Marvel TV banner, is maybe the most under the radar addition to this list. Based on a little known Deadpool antagonist, Hit-Monkey stars Ted Lasso’s Jason Sudeikis as the ghost-sidekick of an actual Japanese snow monkey. This monkey is on a mission of vengeance following the slaughter of his mountain tribe by shadowy forces from the Japanese underworld who were out to kill Sudeikis’ Bryce after he successfully assassinated a top contender in the Japanese Prime Minister election.
It must be understood, at this point, that this monkey, while eventually sporting a suit and toting a small arsenal of weapons, is not anthropomorphized. Bryce, thanks to his spectral state, can comprehend his monkey utterances, but no one in the world he’s interacting with is able to engage with him beyond how any human would engage with a monkey carrying a gun, out for revenge. Its core concept is obviously quite silly, but the show balances the absurdism at its center with a sincere concern for its characters’ emotional journeys, creating one of the most inexplicable viewing experiences of last year.
- Loki, DisneyPlus
Speaking of animal characters with a deadly appetite, falling just outside of the top five is Marvel’s latest attempt to keep Tom Hiddleston’s Loki relevant despite his brutal death in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War. This series, when it was first announced, seemed like the most cynical and creatively bankrupt of projects coming to Disney Plus. “Loki…again? How many times is this character going to return from the dead!” many likely exclaimed when they first heard the news. However, what we didn’t know then was that this series was going to leverage Hiddleston’s effervescent charisma as the titular antihero into a multidimensional sci-fi spectacle about the very essence of fate and freewill, while introducing the endless opportunities of the multiverse into the MCU.
If that sounds like a bunch of “nerd ass shit,” how do six episodes of Owen Wilson quips sound? The series also features standout performances from underutilized actors like Wunmi Mosaku and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, an animated clock that is up to no good, the introduction of Sylvie (an exciting new hero played by the excellent Sophia di Martino), and one of the best finales of any comic book series ever, thanks in large part to a dynamite guest performance.
- Superman & Lois, CW
Executive Producer Todd Helbing and co. do an excellent job giving this new iteration of Superman, played by the Teen Wolf vet Tyler Hoechlin, a clear modus operandi that sets it apart from anything we’ve seen in the past. With pumped up production values and cinematography, Superman & Lois feels genuinely different from any of the other Arrowverse series from minute one. Instead of leaning on a Scooby Team vs. The Monster of the Week format that most of its peers serve up, this series is genuinely interested in building slow burn, character-focused stories about family, life in a small town, and superheroics.
That is helped by Hoechlin’s excellent on screen partner, Elizabeth Tulloch, who more than earns her co-billing status as the formidable Lois Lane, along with the married couple’s twin teen sons played by Jordan Elsass and Alex Garfin. Garfin, in particular, really impresses with a raw but well crafted performance of a teen struggling with his sense of self throughout the season. Inde Navarette as Sarah Cushing, the daughter of Clark Kent’s high school girlfriend Lana Lang (Emmanuelle Chriqui), helps round out the teen side of the series, while Wolé Parks plays a dynamic new character.
- Hawkeye, DisneyPlus
This may be recency bias, but Marvel’s fourth live-action Disney Plus series jumped to the near top of the list right at the last minute this year, thanks to its tonally buoyant, character-driven tale of holiday redemption centering on Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. This series manages to blend a murder mystery, a couple of revenge quests, a dark redemption arc, and a story about meeting your hero all into a cup of holiday cheer and serve it with a Kingpin sized marshmallow on top. What comes of it may not be everyone’s beverage of choice, but by grounding the series in the emotional realities of its characters first and foremost, the series never felt overburdened in the way some of the other comic book stories of 2021 did. Instead, it felt like a rich character introduction to the, at least by season’s end, titular role, Hailee Stienfeld’s Kate Bishop, aka Hawkeye.
- Invincible, Prime Video
It may have seemed like the market for R-Rated superheroes was fully saturated by 2021, but it turned out that we needed one last bloody reinvention of the superhero genre. Amazon’s animated sensation, Invincible is best understood as a reinvention of the canonical superhero origin story for a new decade. Based on the Robert Kirkman comic book series, Invincible follows Oscar-nominee Steven Yeun’s teen hero Mark (a.k.a. Invincible) as he comes into his own as a hero in the possibly sinister shadow of his Superman-esque father Omniman, voiced by Oscar-winner JK Simmons.
The story borrows elements from Spider-Man & Superman mythos while injecting a tremendous amount of fresh ideas into the proceedings, leading to familiar ideas being executed in a fashion we’ve never seen before. The star studded supporting cast anchor secondary plot lines around romantic entanglements, clones, superhero murder mysteries, the criminal underworld, and dysfunctional super-teams. However, all roads eventually lead back to Mark and his dad, for a finale as emotionally brutal as it was physically brutal.
- Sweet Tooth, Netflix
Yet another pandemic-related comic book adaptation found its way to the small screen this year in Netflix’s Robert Downey Jr.-produced series Sweet Tooth. However, unlike with Y: The Last Man, enduring another pandemic-related dystopia in Sweet Tooth felt positively cathartic most of the time. The series follows a young boy of about ten named Gus, a.k.a. Sweet Tooth, (Christian Convery) who happens to be a deer/human hybrid living in a secluded portion of Yosemite National Park with his doting father, played by the always excellent Will Forte.
When tragedy strikes, Gus is forced into a journey of discovery (in every sense of the term), leaving the forest with new companion Tommy Jeppard, a.k.a. Big Man, played by Game of Thrones’ Nonso Anozie. The pair help the audience orient to this strange new world of fear and paranoia over a virus, which, a decade on, is still a lethal threat, and an assortment of animal/human hybrids who, like Gus, first came about right around the time the outbreak began. The world is drenched in past trauma, but the indomitable spirit of Gus helps prevent the series from swerving into overwrought miserablism. Instead, a tightly held mission statement of empathy and compassion oozes from every poor of the series about found families, which marries exciting and harrowing genre tropes with an earnest belief in humanity that could rally the spirit of the most depressed of souls.
- WandaVision, Disney Plus
We all remember where we were in 2021 when the internet positively lost its mind over Marvel’s WandaVision, Disney Plus’ first original MCU television series. Thanks in large part to its mystery box nature and the magical possibilities of its protagonist Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), this series spawned a million blog posts and YouTube videos over its eight week run. But beyond all the “101 easter eggs you probably missed” videos and Mephisto-mania was a series exploding with creativity and invention, celebrating the medium of television while circling a profound sense of loss and grief to which many in the winter of 2021 could deeply relate.
Olsen and onscreen partner Paul Bettany’s (as Wanda’s loving robo-beau Vision) Emmy-nominated performances spanned six decades of distinct sitcom styles while maintaining the integrity of the characters we knew for half a dozen MCU films, while Kathryn Hahn rocked the internet with her devilishly delight of a “nosy neighbor.” Outside of the sitcom pastiche was a brand new heroine to the MCU, Teyonah Parris’ Monica Rambeau, who followed in her Aunt Carol’s (a.k.a. Captain Marvel) footsteps by coming into her own as a tireless crusader of truth and compassion, two worthwhile traits in a hero. The finale may have frustrated many fans with its perfunctory CGI fights and underdeveloped subplots hampered by COVID-related shut downs and reshoots, but for the ride alone, this one has to be number one on any list.