HBO Max finally launched today. While it’s too early yet for a full review (stay tuned) it’s not hard to get a quick look at what’s on offer and make a decision or two if you have very specific streaming needs. What’s clear is that if you are a fan of the decades of content made from the DC Comics universe, you should not subscribe to HBO Max, and if you were hoping to drop your subscription to Crunchyroll or finally sell off your Studio Ghibli DVDs, maybe you should hold on for a second. Because this service is a mess.
AT&T, which merged with HBO’s parent company Warner last year and immediately laid waste to some excellent streaming platforms while calling into question the existence of others, launched HBO Max today. Ostensibly, the new service was created out of a desire to snatch up a piece of the streaming pie and put a near-century of content all in one service—the exact same thing Disney has done with tremendous success via Disney+. But ahead of the launch, there was a lot of confusion. For a DC nerd such as myself, an unhealthy amount of that confusion was related to what we’d actually see of the DC universe on AT&T’s crown jewel of a streaming service.
The first thing I did when I finally managed to log in via my Apple subscription (you’re required to create an HBO Max account if logging in as a subscriber) was to seek out the DC splash page to see exactly what I would get. The answer is not very much at all, particularly compared to AT&T and Warner’s DC-exclusive service, DC Universe. Out of the hundreds of episodes created for the CW’s Arrowverse, HBO Max has the sole season of Batwoman. It has the 1984 film Supergirl, which shares a universe with Christopher Reeve’s Superman, but none of the Superman films.
Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and George Clooney all get highlighted as Batmen. As does Lil Lego Batman. But Christian Bale’s version is nowhere to be found. In fact, the Batman offerings overall are paltry. There’s a handful of Batman animated films from DC’s initiative to churn out animated adaptations of popular comics, and the excellent Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, but otherwise Batman: The Animated Series and the rest of the DC universe created by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini is absent.
Doom Patrol, which is produced for DC Universe, has its single season on the service while season two will arrive on both services June 25. (Bizarrely, Doom Patrol actually looks better on DC Universe where it streams in 4K HDR; HBO Max caps out HD SDR.) When its arrival on HBO Max was announced last year I’ll admit to concern for its original home. With HBO Max existing, DC Universe didn’t seem like it would be as necessary. AT&T already killed Filmstruck so it could put TCM films on HBO Max, so it seems a sure thing that DC Universe would suffer the same fate. Yet DC Universe feels more warranted than ever now—at least for DC fans.
That aforementioned Timm/Dini animated series is there, as are Max Fleisher’s original Superman shorts, Greg Weisman’s Young Justice, and the new and very superb Harley Quinn—a raunchy animated comedy that’s sort of like if Batman: The Animated Series grew up with its original 1992 audience. Plus, there’s a much larger library of those animated adaptations of comics, and the Supermen played by both Christopher Reeve and George Reeves. There are also new shows like Stargirl and the single season of Swamp Thing (both also airing on the CW), plus old series like Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Add in the fact that you get a gargantuan library of comic books and the $8 a month DC Universe feels like a no-brainer compared to the $15 a month HBO Max.
But the half-ass spread of content isn’t just limited to HBO Max’s DC offering. Navigate to the Crunchyroll tab, where you should theoretically see a massive array of anime the service has licensed over the last 14 years, and you will find...exactly 17 shows. If you wanted to catch up on pretty violent offerings like Beserk, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Kill la Kill, or Rurouni Kenshin? Fantastic. But if you’re looking for a softer slice of life show, romances, or comedies, than get thee to Crunchyroll itself. Also, oddly, the anime is offered in both subtitled and dubbed format, but you have to choose which one you want before you hit play and there are no closed captions on the dubbed version.
As for the Studio Ghibli offerings—after seeing only English versions this morning, the original Japanese is now available. But at least one Ghibli film is not; Grave of the Fireflies is totally absent from the service (we reached out to learn why). Yet, and I will admit this is deeply nerdy to say, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is classified as a Studio Ghibli film despite predating the founding of the studio by a year.
However, the most concerning element of HBO Max’s nerdiest content offerings is they feel more like advertisements for other services rather than genuine offerings that make HBO Max unique (original DC content is still a while down the road). If you want superhero stuff just get DC Universe; its UI and app experience may be more unwieldy, but the content is superior. If you want anime...stop playing around and get Crunchyroll already. And if you want HBO, well, generally you get HBO Max gratis if you already have an HBO, HBO Go, or HBO Now subscription.
For those who do not fall in the weebish Venn diagram of superhero nerds, anime nerds, and premium cable channel nerds, there does seem to be some reasons to invest in the service. Friends and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air are both there, plus nearly 500 older films typically found on TCM—a boon given how poor the old movie offerings of other services are. Yet “Old Movies and ‘90s Sitcoms” is a very weird central identity for a streaming service to present in 2020. Right now HBO Max feels garishly like some high-up execs looked at Disney+, rubbed their bellies, and shouted “us too!” And that’s a terrible reason to spend $15 a month.
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