Streaming Wars

An ode to DC Universe, a streaming service too good for this world

Stubbornly niche in a competitive field full of broad content, DC Universe was something special.

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The announcement of a Swamp Thing television show sold me on DC Universe. Two long years later, I'm still waiting for that promise.

Though it came of little surprise, WarnerMedia announced on September 18 that the streaming service DC Universe is scaling from streaming the DC television and film library to become a comics-only platform. The service is getting a new name too, DC Universe Infinite, and will maintain its subscription price at $75 a year. Fans who still want to watch the DC shows and movies will need to get HBO Max, for an additional $4.99 in a bundle package.

In a statement, DC Publisher and Chief Creative Officer Jim Lee confirmed DC Universe Infinite will provide an online and offline reading experience, as well as some members-only events yet to be revealed. “Our fans love the platform’s robust library of comic books," he said. "And, with the transformation, we will not disappoint."

In a press release, DC confirmed that the DC Universe video library will stream on HBO Max, though it did not specify if that means all of the DC shows and movies. But exclusives like Titans, Doom Patrol, and the cult hit Harley Quinn, which is also renewed for a third season, will have a new home at HBO Max.

While DC Universe is sticking around in some fashion, the grand experiment of an all-in-one platform has, unfortunately, failed. Unlike Netflix and Amazon, DC Universe had a unique brand identity and history that catered to a specific fandom. It offered a deeper experience than Marvel or Star Wars fans can find on Disney+.

It was a novel experience that only DC — and maybe its arch-rival Marvel — could pull off.

'Titans,' the first DC Universe exclusive, launched with the platform in fall 2018.

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Launched in the fall of 2018, DC Universe promised an experience like no other. A platform for fans of both the DC movies, TV shows, and the comics, DC Universe took advantage of DC's history as a comic book publisher whose original characters have captured imaginations for decades. Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu don't have that, and DC Universe was on the precipice of something truly unique.

DC launched in 2018 with a respectable, but by no means complete, library of DC comics. There were also DC movies and shows from deep in the Warner archives. There were the Batman and Superman movies of course, as well as gems and oddities like the Shazam! TV series. And there was the all-time classic Batman: The Animated Series in glorious high definition.

Glaring omissions, like the DC "Extended Universe" movies and the Arrowverse shows, were made up for with exclusives like the gritty (and foul-mouthed) Titans. The platform later streamed Doom Patrol and Harley Quinn, two original shows that felt impossibly provocative in a mainstream superhero landscape.

But none of this was enough to give the streamer its legs, and it's a shame DC Universe didn't work out in the way it was clearly meant to. It’s tempting to write this off as yet another casualty of the streaming wars or corporate consolidation, but DC Universe was more than just another Netflix knockoff. In its short lifespan, the service had three things that are lacking from the rest of the superhero-industrial complex today.

'Harley Quinn,' the cult adult animated series, premiered its first two seasons on DC Universe. Its third season will stream exclusively on HBO Max.

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1. Comics still mattered and deserved the same space as the movies and TV shows based on them. For all the lip service Disney/Marvel pays to Stan Lee, you can’t read anything by Lee, or Jack Kirby, or any Marvel comics written by anyone at all on Disney+. On DC Universe, you could read the greatest Batman stories ever and then watch a Batman movie inspired by those stories. It was a strong statement that the comic book medium isn’t just fodder for adaptation. Though its digital reader was a clunky experience, the platform celebrated the medium where everything came from. (Reading comics on your TV via the DC Universe app was also a cool feature.)

2. DC Universe celebrated DC history, allowing works like Adventures of Superman, the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman, and the Emmy-winning Batman: The Animated Series to stream alongside new stuff. To its detriment, DC Universe didn’t have everything — the absence of the Adam West Batman and the DC Extended Universe films were glaring — but it still lived up to its aim to be a one-stop-shop for the hardest of hardcore fans.

3. DC Universe proved originality can still thrive in both the superhero and the streaming age. It was notable that DC Universe wasn't making yet another Batman show. DC Universe was a chance for off-the-beaten-path characters to get star treatment. It was DC Universe that gave us Harley Quinn, Doom Patrol, and Stargirl, easily some of the most original TV shows to emerge in the 20-year-strong “superhero boom.”

'Swamp Thing,' a superhero horror series produced by Len Wiseman and James Wan, was a DC Universe exclusive that was canceled before it finished its first season. It has a critic's rating of 94% on Rotten Tomatoes.

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How DC Universe became must-see TV

Make no mistake, the shows on DC Universe were commercial products using established intellectual property. The animated Harley Quinn, for example, was a visible attempt to capitalize on Margot Robbie's popular portrayal. (Kaley Cuoco of Big Bang Theory fame voices the character in the series.)

But the show rose above expectations to rival other prestige adult animation like BoJack Horseman and Rick and Morty. Watch any episode of Harley Quinn and take notice of its intelligent vulgarity, its exploration of abusive power dynamics, and its championing of positive support systems for personal growth. Harley Quinn has a mouth dirtier than old school South Park, yet it’s perhaps the most emotionally sophisticated show anywhere on television.

Doom Patrol and Stargirl were reasons to subscribe to DC Universe (even if the latter also aired on The CW). Like Harley Quinn, Doom Patrol’s depiction of a misfit family of freaks resonated with anyone who ever felt anything but super. Cursed with powers that remind them of their worst mistakes, the Doom Patrol are an equally foul-mouthed bunch whose unusual, dreamlike escapades contain difficult moments of pain and uplifting moments of bittersweetness (with all-around gorgeous production design and cinematography). And in a marketplace full of morose superheroes, Geoff Johns’ Stargirl is an uplifting adventure that proudly throws it back to the Golden Age of comics.

And then there was Swamp Thing. Of all the exclusives, Swamp Thing was the most exciting. A monstrous anti-hero who dwells in polluted swampland, Swamp Thing is a cult character best known through a psychologically complex comic book series by Watchmen co-creator Alan Moore. That DC Universe promised a live-action TV show from horror auteur James Wan (The Conjuring) demonstrated how much "for the fans" DC Universe was meant to be.

Quite literally as soon as it arrived, Swamp Thing was canceled, for reasons that baffle even those who made the show. It was apparently very good, according to the 94% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but that wasn't enough to give Swamp Thing another season.

In the pandemic, which has put a freeze on most live-action productions, Swamp Thing is finding a temporary second life syndicating on The CW this October. It's unlikely CW's tepid ratings will allow Swamp Thing to live again. But it's not harmful to see it as a glimpse into another Earth in the multiverse where Swamp Thing is already promoting its next season.

DC Universe was too good for this world. Though it was a for-profit endeavor backed by a major telecommunications company, it was also special, a vision of fandom where the superhero boom pays tribute to its origins while reaching for something new. Even in its more middling offerings, the theme across DC Universe's programming was an acceptance of each other and ourselves. DC Universe was never going to out-muscle Netflix, Hulu, or Disney+. But with the help of the World’s Finest, it tried, and that alone was worth a monthly subscription.

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