Ah, youth. The ups, the downs. The loves, the hates. The burgeoning friendships, the roiling hormones. The deep emotional and psychic growth. The superpowers.
Oh, did your teenage years not also come with superpowers? That’s weird, because to hear TV today tell it, it is nearly as universal a teenage experience as sweating profusely at the sound of one’s crush saying their name, or rebelling against one’s parents’ unreasonable expectations. It’s basically 1) text your crush inscrutable emoji chains, 2) stomp down the stairs to help your parental unit with a hideous chore, and 3) sneak out with your talisman of ancient magical power to kick ass and save the world (or at least, the neighborhood).
I joke, of course. But as Paste’s Kathryn Porter underscored in her review of The CW’s Naomi, “superhero narratives thrive when the person getting powers is already in the middle of their own coming-of-age story.” The drama! The pathos! The natural constraints of being a teenager stuck in the same town, at the same school, with the same people all trying to make your life hell, day in and day out! In a media landscape overstuffed with superhero stories on the literal cosmic scale, that right there is a recipe for satisfyingly small-scale success.
To that end, we’ve curated a list of the best explicitly superheroic Teen TV out there. That is to say, if a show’s teenage characters have superpowers and they put on spandex leotards, capes, or identity-obscuring masks before zipping off to wield them in the support of good, it’s likely to have made the list. This also means that if a show’s teens just have superpowers—we’re talking your Buffy the Vampire Slayers, your Impulses, your Legacies, your Teen Wolfs—then they likely won’t appear. It’s not to say those superpowered teens aren’t worth watching, it’s just that, living as we are in the golden age of superheroic TV, there are more than enough teen superhero shows that we can dedicate a list just to them.
DC Super Hero Girls (2019)
Created by: Lauren Faust
Stars: Grey Griffin, Tara Strong, Nicole Sullivan, Kimberly Brooks, Myrna Velasco, and Kari Wahlgren
Original Network: Cartoon Network
Watch on Netflix
If you’ve spent any time at all on Tumblr these last few years, you’ll know that the kids *love* Cartoon Network’s DC Super Hero Girls (2019). This is not to be confused with Cartoon Network’s DC Super Hero Girls (2015), which featured an entirely different voice cast (though I’m pretty sure the Tumblr kids love that one, too).
Reimagined by Lauren Faust (previously of Super Best Friends Forever), the new series opens on a superhero-loving, frenetically excitable Barbara Gordon/Batgirl (Tara Strong) starting her first day at Metropolis High and discovering, to her delight, that no fewer than four other girls in her class are also secret superheroes. They are Supergirl (Nicole Sullivan), Zatanna (Kahri Walgren), Green Lantern (Myrna Velasco), and Bumblebee (Kimberly Brooks). Spurred into begrudging fellowship by the whiz-bang arrival of a young, justice-obsessed Wonder Woman (Grey Griffin), whom Barbara cons into trading the group “normal teen girl” lessons for effective superheroing ones, the girls eventually form the perfect superhero girl squad of Babs’ dreams. —Alexis Gunderson
As teen shows go, DC Super Hero Girls is light on drama, but with sub-20-minute episodes and a boisterously textured animation style, it makes up for that with pure fun.
Created by: Jonathan Igla
Stars: Jeremy Renner, Hailee Steinfeld, Florence Pugh, Vera Farmiga, Tony Dalton, and Alaqua Cox
Original Network: Disney+
Watch on Disney+
Say what you will about Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) and his place within the MCU films, Hawkeye is a gift. The show successfully merges the larger world of the MCU with the Netflix Marvel shows while introducing viewers to a member of the next generation of heroes: Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld). Her energy and stubbornness are the perfect match for Renner’s dryness as a tired Avenger who just wants to go home (for Christmas). It’s the mismatched buddy comedy The Falcon and The Winter Soldier was not. The show also features Rogers: The Musical, Lucky the Pizza Dog, and Clint LARPing, which gives it a fun and lighthearted quality. This counterbalances the emotionality of Clint still trying to get over Nat’s death; the arrival of Yelena (Florence Pugh), who wants to kill Clint for what happened to her sister; and the fact Echo (Alaqua Cox), the Tracksuit Mafia, and Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio) aren’t always satisfying villains.
Also working in the show’s favor is the fact it deals with Kate’s experience in a world changed by the Battle of New York and Clint’s history as the violent Ronin and not a universe-level or mythology-changing threat. This allows it to stand on its own, while the fact it’s structured like a TV show makes it one of the better Disney+ products in terms of its effectiveness as television. It’s also an emotionally satisfying end to one chapter in the MCU and the beginning of another. —Kaitlin Thomas
Legend of Korra
Created by: Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino
Stars: Janet Varney, Seychelle Gabriel, David Daustino, P.J. Byrne, J.K. Simmons, Mindy Sterling, Kiernan Shipka, Dee Bradley Baker
Original Network: Nickelodeon
Watch on Netflix
When Avatar: The Last Airbender creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino first announced Legend of Korra—a sequel series set 70 or so years after the events of the beloved original show—they certainly were subjected to no shortage of high expectations. And despite a few bumps in the road here and there, Legend of Korra more than met these expectations, crafting a relentlessly engaging series of stories that married the whimsy and imagination of Hayao Miyazaki with the kind of complex political intrigue one might find in a typical episode of Game of Thrones. Moreover, the show also gave us an incredible female protagonist in the form of its titular character—a kickass teenage girl who must save the world, all the while going through that all-too-familiar adolescent journey to discover her own inner self. —Mark Rozeman
Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger
Created by: Joe Pokaski
Stars:Olivia Holt, Aubrey Joseph, Gloria Reuben, Andrea Roth, J. D. Evermore, Miles Mussenden, Carl Lundstedt, Emma Lahana, and Jaime Zevallos
Original Network: Freeform
Watch on Hulu
As one of the two big swings that aimed to bring Marvel to the Teen TV space, Cloak & Dagger tells the story of a Tyrone (Aubrey Joseph), a Black boy, and Tandy (Olivia Holt), a white girl, whose emotionally entwined powers work best when used together. Running on Freeform for two seasons, the thoughtfully developed young adult series tackles everything from anti-Black racism and police brutality to opioid addiction and generational trauma (and its concomitant poverty). But rest assured, this isn’t just bleakness for bleakness’ sake. The city of New Orleans, in which the series is set, is as much a character as Tandy or Tyrone, and it was chosen by creator Joe Pokaski (of Paste favorite Underground) with care and a gimlet eye for compelling storytelling.
The bleak visual styling of the series is just as effectively intentional: As superheroes, Cloak and Dagger wield the powers of shadow and light. In this adaptation, those powers are not just about aesthetics. Rather, they’re about the tension of opposing ideologies, of agendas pulling souls in opposite directions, of the impossibility of trying to see the world as all good or all evil, all black or all white. Everything about the visual world of Cloak & Dagger reflects this, and all while managing to build a convincing serialized superhero story with a classic corporate eco-villain set to ruin New Orleanians’ lives! That Tandy and Tyrone only got two seasons to learn to trust each other (and themselves) and start doing their part to save the world is an enormous bummer, but at least Disney’s scary vertical integration meant they got to cameo on Hulu’s Runaways before they said adieu. —Alexis Gunderson [Full Season 1 review]
Created by:Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage
Stars: Rhenzy Feliz, Lyrica Okano, Virginia Gardner, Ariela Barer, Gregg Sulkin, Allegra Acosta, Angel Parker, Ryan Sands, Annie Wersching, Kip Pardue, Ever Carradine, James Marsters, Brigid Brannagh, Kevin Weisman, Brittany Ishibashi, James Yaegashi, Julian McMahon, and Clarissa Thibeaux
Original Network: Hulu
Watch on Hulu
The second of Marvel’s two big pre-Disney+ teen superhero swings, Marvel’s Runaways, which was based on the Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona comic of the same name and ran on Hulu from 2017-2019, plays more with the cartoon-ish elements of the Marvelverse than its Freeform counterpart. As an ensemble drama that featured a magical scepter, a telepathic T. Rex, and a Scientology-adjacent cult of celestial immortality, it could hardly have done otherwise. Still, for all that Runaways spent three (admittedly too short) seasons reveling in its own blatant goofiness, it never lost sight of the fact that the teens at its core—played by Rhenzy Feliz, Lyrica Okano, Virginia Gardner, Ariela Barer, Allegra Acosta, and Gregg Sulkin—were put through some real bullshit. Filled with secrets, young love, betrayal, young love, family angst, young love, and frank explorations of race, gender, and sexuality (with, obviously, one last dose of young love mixed in), the super-powered adventures of these on-the-run L.A. teens are proof that Marvel had the teen TV formula down long before Disney+ became the only game in town. —Alexis Gunderson [Full Season 1 review]
Created by: Bisha K. Ali
Stars: Iman Vellani, Matt Lintz, Yasmeen Fletcher, Zenobia Shroff, Mohan Kapur, Saagar Shaikh, Laurel Marsden, Rish Shah, Arian Moayed, and Alysia Reiner
Original Network: Disney+
Watch on Disney+
Ms. Marvel is probably going to end up being the best of Marvel’s Disney+ shows. Iman Vellani shines as Kamala, and it is without question that she’ll be able to make the jump to the big screen when The Marvels comes out in summer 2023. There is no way to explain how great she is in the show other than to say that she embodies the true spirit of Kamala Khan. Vellani’s real-life status as a Marvel superfan serves to enhance her performance, because Kamala is the exact same. But it doesn’t rest on that, either. She excels in hitting every single emotional note with aplomb.
While Ms. Marvel would be nothing without Vellani’s glittering show of talent, it would also be lost without the way art is used in the series. While Kamala writes Avengers fanfiction in the comics, her fandom work is expanded into her being an artist as well. Kamala’s drawings are integrated into the visuals of the show, sometimes becoming animated to add a little flair. There is a lot of street art that is seen as well, often supplemented by the same type of animation that we see with Kamala’s art. That, plus all of the lighting work and the needle drops make for a really well-rounded and lighthearted coming-of-age story. Anyone who has a problem with Marvel movies looking like muddy concrete will be greeted with a vibrant show that isn’t afraid to use color to its advantage. —Kathryn Porter [Full Review]
Created by: Ava DuVernay and Jill Blankenship
Stars: Kaci Walfall, Cranston Johnson, Alexander Wraith, Mary-Charles Jones, Mouzam Makkar, Daniel Puig, Camila Moreno, Will Meyers, Aidan Gemme, Barry Watson
Original Network: The CW
Watch on HBO Max
Ava DuVernay’s first foray into the teen and superhero television spaces ended up lasting a single season, but what Naomi gave us in its brief time on The CW is worth shining a spotlight on. Based on the DC Comics 2019 comic run of the same name, the adaptation follows skateboarding cool girl and Superman superfan Naomi McDuffie (luminous newcomer Kaci Walfall) as she discovers that her background may not be so different from that of her favorite superhero when an unexplained supernatural event triggers latent power in her very atoms. Set in a quiet Pacific Northwest town called Port Oswego and packed to the gills with many, many potential love interests (a field made excitingly wide-ranging due to Naomi’s bisexuality), the show gives viewers the chance to tag along as Naomi and her friends work to unpack the mysteries shrouding her birth and adoption. This ends up getting Naomi tangled up with both a mysterious used car salesman and a brooding local tattoo shop owner/undercover winged alien, so, you know, the series is not afraid to go big. Nevertheless, as with all these teen superhero shows, it’s everywhere the story goes small—with her friends, with her parents, with her (so very many) crushes—that Naomi quite literally shines. —Alexis Gunderson [Full Season 1 Review]
Created by: Toei Animation, based on Naoko Takeuchi’s manga of the same name
Stars: Stephanie Sheh (English dub)/Kotono Mitsuishi (original Japanese), Kate Higgins/Aya Hisakawa, Cristina Valenzuela/Michie Tomizawa, Amanda Céline Miller/Emi Shinohara, Cherami Leigh/Rica Fukami, Robbie Daymond/Tôru Furuya, Michelle Ruff/Keiko Han, Johnny Yong Bosch/Yasuhiro Takato
Original Network: TV Asahi (Japan)/Cartoon Network (U.S.)
Watch on Hulu
One of those classics that defined at least a few formative years for numerous Millennials, Sailor Moon is one of the rare series on this list that doesn’t hail from either the Marvel or the DC world. The show follows a spacey, boy-obsessed teen named Usagi Tsukino (or Serena, in the English-language adaptations) who just so happens to also be the reincarnated form of the Princess of the Moon Kingdom (Princess Serenity) and who thus has the supernaturally moon-charged power to transform into a magic-wielding superhero named Sailor Moon. The animated series ran for a mind-boggling 200 episodes between 1992 and 1997. That said, Serena/Sailor Moon/Princess Serenity had enough teenage drama to fill all 200 episodes and then some as she was armed with a magical scepter, a pair of talking cats, a tuxedo-wearing mystery man she both loved and hated, and a whole solar system full of similarly powered celestial Sailor Girls (Sailor Mercury stans rise up!). And with recent superhero-adjacent animated hits like Star vs. the Forces of Evil and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power paying homage to both her magical and aesthetic legacy, that’s a flex worth memorializing. —Alexis Gunderson
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
Created by: Noelle Stevenson
Stars: Aimee Carrero, Karen Fukuhara, AJ Michalka, Marcus Scribner, Reshma Shetty, Lorraine Toussaint
Original Network: Netflix
Watch on Netflix
The original She-Ra: Princess of Power of the 1980s may have flipped the gender ratio on cartoons of its time, but it didn’t exactly change the world. It was still a toy tie-in show, and when the merch didn’t sell, She-Ra got the axe. That history is partly what makes the revival so special. Showrunner Noelle Stevenson took the elements that made She-Ra great—butt-kicking girl power, an LGBTQ subtext, and deep female relationships—into the 21st century with all the resources of DreamWorks and Netflix. She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is a beautifully animated, thematically confident product that’s as willing to tackle action set pieces as it is the dark conflicts of its characters’ upbringings and heroic destinies. The revival hasn’t changed the real world yet, either, but it’s given us plenty of fascinating, flawed, badass ladies to appreciate. —Eric Vilas-Boas
Created by: Alfred Gough, Miles Millar
Stars: Tom Welling, Kristin Kreuk, Michael Rosenbaum, Eric Johnson, Sam Jones III, Allison Mack
Watch on Hulu
Now that pop culture is so saturated with superhero media, it’s hard to imagine what a sensation Smallville was when it first aired in 2001. While the series debuted on the now-defunct WB, its long run and ultimate end on The CW marks it as belonging to both networks. Starring Tom Welling as Clark Kent, who carried the show for a decade, Smallville worked both as an origin story for Superman and, eventually, a full fledged DC series about the beloved character. It may have started as a villain-of-the-week show, but it evolved into a much grander story connecting all aspects of the DC mythos. The exploration of Clark Kent as a character still makes for a fascinating journey that even holds up two decades later. The show always held fast to its roots, and even when Smallville became bigger in scope, it always kept Kansas in its heart. While newer and older iterations of the Superman characters may supersede Smallville’s depictions in the collective consciousness, it remains an impressive feat and one of the most inspired takes on creating a live-action superhero show. Even though the Arrowverse, shows like Gotham, and even aspects of the MCU, have all set out to create grand origin stories and watch characters become legends, Smallville remains one of the first great achievements in superhero media in the 21st century. —Leila Jordan
Created by: Geoff Johns
Stars: Brec Bassinger, Yvette Monreal, Anjelika Washington, Cameron Gellman, Trae Romano, Jake Austin Walker, Meg DeLacy, Neil Jackson, Christopher James Baker, Amy Smart, Luke Wilson, Hunter Sansone, Nick Tarabay, and Joel McHale
Original Network: DC Universe (Season 1) and The CW (Season 2)
Watch on HBO Max
Watch on The CW
First things first: Stargirl is brutal. Featuring a peppy teen gymnastics phenom named Courtney Whitmore (Brec Bassinger) who finds a cosmically powered staff that gives her not just Superman-like powers but the overzealous confidence to immediately go out and use them, the DC Universe-turned-CW series doesn’t shy away from showing the visceral trauma inherent to a superpowered world. In the first few episodes alone a psychotic adult with mind-control powers terrorizes his son and nearly kills Courtney, another psychotic adult with ice powers does kill an innocent teen boy, and a third psychotic adult with an underground lair of tortured monsters and an above-ground lair with a mind-controlled trophy wife grooms his nightmare of a daughter into following in his just as murderous footsteps. And that’s not even getting into the regular old domestic abuse, alcoholism, and parental abandonment that all plague Courtney’s new Blue Valley friends (and future superheroic teammates) in their everyday lives.
Still, what Stargirl lacks in psychological (or physical) subtlety, it makes up for in its kitschy All American aesthetic. Ostensibly set in the modern day—as in, everyone has smart phones and working knowledge of the same Top 40 hits as Americans in 2022—Stargirl nevertheless looks like Pleasantville’s superpowered cousin. From Pat’s (Luke Wilson) classic car garage and Barbara’s (Amy Smart) mid-century modern working lady wardrobe to the layered primary colors and overly saturated sunshine palette, Stargirl is ready to give its audience period-piece whiplash. Thankfully, it’s so engaging that not even that will keep you from coming back for more. —Alexis Gunderson
Created by: Glen Murakami, Sam Register
Stars: Greg Cipes, Scott Menville, Khary Payton, Tara Strong, and Hynden Walch
Original Network: Cartoon Network
Watch on HBO Max
Recently returned in cutesier chibi form as Teen Titans Go!, the original Teen Titans ran on Cartoon Network for five seasons from 2003 to 2006 and remains one of the most critically beloved series in the network’s history. Adapted from the 1980s run of Teen Titans comics by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez, the series follows the adventures of a team of West Coast-based teenage superheroes who live together in Titans Tower: self-serious gadget kid Robin (Scott Menville), weirdo magic alien Starfire (Hynden Walch), tech wiz Cyborg (Khary Payton), psionic-powered goth girl Raven (Tara Strong), and goofball shapeshifter Beast Boy (Greg Cipes). In between arguing over chores, obsessing over percolating romances, and working together through the growing pains of becoming adults, they occasionally also fight some bad guys. Having had five seasons through which to explore these characters, Teen Titans was able to go deeper than a lot of live-action superhero series ever get to (ahem, Disney+). And while that might have made the series’ eventual cancellation all the bitterer, the stories it did get to tell are worth celebrating. —Alexis Gunderson
Created by: Akiva Goldsman, Geoff Johns, Greg Berlanti
Stars: Brenton Thwaites, Teagan Croft, Anna Diop, Ryan Potter, Curran Walters, Conor Leslie, Minka Kelly, Alan Ritchson, Esai Morales, Chelsea Zhang, Joshua Orpin, Savannah Welch, Vincent Kartheiser, and Damaris Lewis
Original Network: DC Universe (Seasons 1-2), HBO Max (Season 3)
Watch on HBO Max
Titans, the live-action show about the Teen Titans, had the unwieldy, unenviable job of establishing a tone separate from the DCEU movies, the Arrowverse TV shows, and the DC cartoons. It ain’t Teen Titans Go! It isn’t even Teen Titans. These are some capital-S Serious teens out to prove that they matter.
Detective Dick Grayson (Brenton Thwaites) has transferred from Gotham to Detroit. The psychically empowered blue-haired punk Rachel (Teagan Croft) is battling her inner demons out in the ‘burbs. After she suffers a loss, she hops a bus to Detroit and links up with the vigilante as her inner demons threaten to become outer ones. But it’s in the fight scenes where the show gets closest to its obvious inspiration: Watchmen. With stylish, whirling choreography taking place with plenty of flashy camera moves, the combat is where Titans finds a little fun. The quick-cut violence is just nasty enough that it’s hard to look away, while it’s also excessive enough to question the line between antihero and supervillain. —Jacob Oller
Created by: Brandon Vietti, Greg Weisman
Stars: Jesse McCartney, Khary Payton, Jason Spisak, Nolan North, Danica McKellar, Stephanie Lemelin, Greg Cipes, Kelly Hu, Lacey Chabert, Denise Bouette, and Zehra Fazal
Original Network: Cartoon Network (Seasons 1-2), HBO Max (Seasons 3-4)
Watch on HBO Max
Back in 2010, Young Justice didn’t have quite as much competition as shows like Stargirl, Titans and Ms. Marvel do now, if for no other reason than because it was airing on Cartoon Network rather than streaming alongside umpteen thousand other cape shows. But it stood out from its genre for a few reasons: soapy serialized plots, deeper than usual character work, and a fresh take on characters who often play second fiddle to the big names. The show followed Robin (Jesse McCartney), Miss Martian (Danica McKellar!!!), Aqualad (Khary Payton), Speedy (Crispin Freeman), Artemis (Stephanie Lemelin), Kid Flash (Jason Spisak), and Superboy (Nolan North) as they ran world-saving super-missions and became engrossed in devastating teen drama.
Then, after just two seasons, Cartoon Network canceled the show. Fans wept, petitions were signed, and then the years marched forward. But luckily, the show’s third season finally dropped on HBO Max in 2019—six years after it had gone off the air. Nearly all of the principal voice cast returned, with the addition of Greg Cipes as Beast Boy (he was also behind the mic for the character in Teen Titans Go!). A fourth season wrapped in June 2022, and what’s incredible is how expansive and of-the-moment the now-HBO Max show feels even as it simultaneously seems exactly like an uninterrupted continuation of the show’s first season. The Season 4 finale was proof that it is as great a time as ever to be a fan of the show. —Kenneth Lowe and Alexis Gunderson [Full Season 4 review]
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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