DC Universe Review: Superhero Streaming Service Is a Good Start

DC Universe is a slick blend of comics reader and superhero movie and TV streaming service, but still has room to grow.

DC Universe Logo
Photo: DC Universe

Now that it’s finally here, there’s a lot to like about DC Universe, the combination comics service and superhero-centric streaming service from DC Entertainment. The platform itself is attractive, as is the reasonable price point, and it offers a few things that its chief competitors, namely Marvel Unlimited and ComiXology Unlimited simply don’t do.

The mission statement of DC Universe is right there in its name. It really does want fans to look at it as the primary portal into, well, the DC Universe, and it makes no distinction between comics, movies, TV, or animated interpretations of its characters. DC has always traded on the concept of its Multiverse as a key point of difference in its mythology. While most of their comics take place in one prime timeline, DC long ago embraced string theory, postulating that alternate versions of their characters, contradictory continuity elements, and more can all be explained by the existence of a Multiverse in which all things are possible. If Grant Morrison were writing this review, he would say that DC Universe turns you into a Monitor, with an Orrery of Worlds of your very own that you can access and observe from assorted devices. He’s not, though, so you should probably forget I said anything like that.

I’m not going to get to deep into the weeds dealing with expected launch bugs such as the occasional crash or glitch. Having spent time with DC Universe on Android and Apple devices, as well as a Roku, I can confirm this is a top notch platform, and any minor issues should be resolved fairly quickly. Right now, my main issue seems to be getting the “lists” feature to work as anything other than “favorites.” DC Universe allows you to create reading lists, much the same way you would a Spotify playlist, something missing from its competitors, and a potentially fun way for users to share with each other. I’ve also noticed that you can’t seem to access the full library of movies from the home screen when using Roku, which also lacks the “browse all” feature for both comics and video that is present on other devices. Again, these seem like hiccups, and I expect they’ll be resolved soon enough, and so far it’s less buggy than chief competitor Marvel Unlimited is…and that launched six years ago.

For $7.99 a month (or $6.25 if you go for the annual subscription), there’s enough hours of superhero programming to make this worthwhile for fans. There’s the expected titles like Batman: The Animated Series (which really looks great), Young Justice, and Justice League Unlimited, as well as all nine seasons of Super Friends and a nicely remastered Wonder Woman TV series. The Christopher Reeve Superman movies are there (I certainly hope you’ve all seen Superman: The Movie by now…the sequels, however, are a mixed bag), as are the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher Batman films. There are no DCEU movies (yet), and only the first two movies of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, with Dark Knight Rises currently absent. I suspect the absence of that film is a revealing one. Something tells me that the omissions of more recent blockbusters and current TV shows has something to do with assorted cable TV rights that still need to expire before they can all be herded under the DC Universe umbrella. I expect they’ll get here eventually, but it will take some time.

That TV and movie selection includes some hidden gems, too. The dreadful but strangely compelling Legends of the Superheroes is here, which contains (among other things) the first live action versions of Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and other Justice League members. The Spirit TV movie is here, too, which stars former Flash Gordon star Sam J. Jones as Will Eisner’s most famous creation. Any Batman: The Animated Series fan would do well to check out the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons from the 1940s, which were a tremendous visual influence. The inclusion of the generally underrated Superman and the Legion of Super Heroes animated series is a nice surprise, too. It’s a nice enough library, and should hold everyone over until the original programming starts to arrive in October with Titans.

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As a comics reader, DC Universe is a smooth, visually pleasing experience. When reading on a tablet, I still prefer the “traditional” full page to a panel by panel guided view, but the guided view works well for those who want it, and it can be set to autoplay on the TV version, for those who want to try comics reading as a communal experience…or who just want a cool assortment of comic art playing on their TV in the background.

But it’s the selection of comics itself where DC Universe shows its first real weakness. Boasting 2,500 “curated” titles at launch, DC Universe has plenty to offer fans who may only know these characters through movies or TV, and who just want to poke around and read some of the stories that inspired them. But more serious readers will likely be disappointed by the number of comics available.

2,500 may seem like a lot, but to a hardcore fan, it isn’t. I do still think that at its current price point, DC Universe is a bargain for superhero fans, and will justify itself even more once original programming like Titans, Doom PatrolYoung Justice: Outsiders, Swamp Thing, and others start to land. But comic fans are greedy, and we’ve been spoiled by the expansive Marvel Unlimited library. DC’s chief competitor offers virtually everything they’ve ever published for $9.99 a month, albeit without any kind of streaming video, social, or reading list components. But what that Marvel Unlimited selection facilitates is the comic book equivalent of a binge watch. You can get lost in the library, and burn through issue after issue for hours on end, and there’s little danger that you won’t find what you’re looking for. There are barriers to that here.

Perhaps a tiered pricing system, that would allow hardcore fans (like myself) to pay an extra few bucks for a more expansive library, would do the trick. I would certainly pay more for the opportunity to binge read even more relatively obscure pieces of DC history, like Roger Stern and Tom Lyle’s Starman or the original Max Allan Collins, Terry Beatty, Dick Giordano Wild Dog. On the other hand, I can’t help but feel that the current system will leave even casual fans frustrated. Many key series offer less than the equivalent of the first trade paperback worth of issues. Darwyn Cooke’s essential, flawless The New Frontier only offers the first of its six issues, which is kind of like if you sat down to watch a movie on Netflix and it cut you off after the first 15 minutes. Little things like this make the comics end of DC Universe feel like more of a tease than a gateway drug and I fear it will help further the impression that comics are an impenetrable morass of never-ending, soap opera-esque storytelling.

I also find, as I find in pop culture in general, a distinct Batman bias in the selection, but I guess that’s to be expected, since everybody loves that mopey, pointy-eared rich kid so much. But Superman books are woefully underrepresented, as are heavy hitters like Wonder Woman and Flash. The fact that they only offer the first issue of volume 1 of Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s New Teen Titans, mere weeks before the show launches, seems particularly counterproductive. The service will use a typical streaming service model, so expect things to become less Batman-heavy at some point (they did choose Batman Day as launch day, after all), and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see an influx of Shazam books (and hopefully video, as both the live action TV series and the Filmation animated cartoon are both currently absent) as we get into 2019 and that character’s movie debut looms.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of gems within that selection. Steve Ditko’s Hawk and Dove, 13 issues of All-Star Squadron, all of Peter David’s Aquaman, the entirety of the Legends of the Dark Knight anthology, a solid chunk of the Jon Ostrander Suicide Squad…there’s certainly stuff to keep you occupied. But there are also some puzzling decisions that I can only assume are errors. There are 36 issues of James Robinson’s brilliant Starman series on here, and it’s tough to imagine a better binge read, or the kind of thing that a fan of deep DC lore would enthusiastically recommend to a newbie. The problem is, the first four issues are there, then #5 is missing, and then it picks up again with #6. Two of Chuck Dixon and Tom Lyle’s excellent Robin minis are available…but not the original, only the sequels. And in the case of Robin III: Cry of the Huntress, it starts with issue #2.

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I even have to question why DC Universe remains so beholden to the single issue model, especially for comics published in the last decade or so. Sorting a library by single issue rather than story or volume is great for utilizing the “reading list” feature of the service, and certainly makes sense for comics published prior to the early 2000s, but for those interested in curating a large, personal library of binge-worthy reads, it quickly becomes unwieldy. The single issue format also means DC Universe falls prey to some of the least endearing quirks of Marvel Unlimited. Annuals are treated as separate series, rather than sorted into publication order with the rest of their series, and DC’s frequent zero issues are always sorted at the start of a run…despite the fact that they rarely are the appropriate starting point for any given series and take place in the middle of other stories. Instead of putting all of the Rebirth run of Batgirl and the Birds of Prey under one umbrella, for example, there is Batgirl and the Birds of Prey: Rebirth (the one-shot that kicked off the series), and then a separate entry for Batgirl and the Birds of Prey (whose #1 is really the 2nd issue of the series). ComiXology Unlimited has wisely abandoned the single issue format for a vast chunk of its “Unlimited” selections, which makes for a cleaner navigation experience and an easier sort when browsing, and I’m surprised to see that hasn’t been adopted for DC Universe. Titles like Paul Pope’s Batman: Year 100, the inescapable Dark Knight Returns, the gorgeous Atlantis Chronicles, and others would be better served if offered as large serving collected edition style reading experiences, not single issues

It’s far too early to tell how some of the more ambitious features, notably the forums and social components will play out, although to be fair, I spent by far the least amount of time exploring these. While the idea of a DC-focused social network is certainly appealing on its surface, as someone who spends far too much time on the internet already (please note what I do for a living), I’m skeptical that this will become anything other than another platform for trolls and Snyder Cut truthers. DC plans to use this to break news, as well, but the first episode of their DC Daily show feels, at best, like an overstuffed infomercial. All this stuff is easy enough to avoid if you don’t want it, though, as it’s still the video and comics that will get people in the door.

Overall, the platform itself is certainly a step ahead of both Marvel Unlimited and ComiXology Unlimited, but there are definitely things it can learn from both in terms of selection (from Marvel), and presentation/organization (from ComiXology). I do think they may have to work a little harder to really hook the serious comics readers in. I can think of countless titles that either aren’t due for a physical collection any time soon, or are out of print and/or not exactly burning up anyone’s order sheets, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be permanent fixtures on here. Whether at the monthly rate of $7.99 or the annual of $74.99, DC Universe is a solid value, and as more original programming is added, and should they decide to treat comics as less an appetizer and more a main course, that should only improve.

Mike Cecchini is the Editor in Chief of Den of Geek. You can read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @wayoutstuff.