HBO Max is finally here. WarnerMedia’s streaming service—which was first announced in late 2018, though it feels so much longer that that—has launched in association with various big name studios. Under the ambitious HBO umbrella, these studios’ catalogs are offered as ‘channels’ of sorts, a list of which you can below with a few recommended titles for those willing to take the plunge:
Obviously, HBO originals serve as the central pillar of HBO Max, but don’t let the much-ballyhooed final season of Game of Thrones fool you; the network is still creating game-changing original series, and no other show on television captures their idiosyncratic approach to programming quite like Watchmen. Whereas most comic book adaptations are rushing to create interconnected continuities, Damon Lindelof and co. go out of their way to separate their story from its own source material. While there are plenty of hidden Easter eggs for fans of the acclaimed graphic novel to parse through, newcomers needn’t worry about catching up on nearly forty years of pre-written history. Sharp, smart, and alarmingly poignant, there’s a lot more to Watchmen than masks and capes.
BARRY (2018 – Current)
Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader usually pulls quadruple-duty on Barry, serving as the show’s co-creator and star and often writing and directing many of the series’ best episodes. His work does not go unnoticed however, with its first two seasons having been nominated for 30 Primetime Emmy Award nominations and Hader winning Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series twice in a row. Yet, it’s co-star Henry Winkler who manages to steal every scene he’s in, elevating the comedy about an assassin-tuned-actor to “Must-See” TV.
At the time of writing, the world is in the midst of an international pandemic, so maybe this isn’t the best time to start a drama series hinged on mass destruction and human error. Yet, when you do check out Chernobyl, you’ll be in for a wickedly abhorrent treat. The Golden Globe-winning show recounts the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in just five episodes, but each one is as captivating as it is grievous. Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård turn in career-high performances, portraying shattered spirits that will stick with you long after you finish the finale.
BATMAN RETURNS (1992)
With Robert Pattinson’s highly anticipated turn as Batman hitting the big screens (hopefully) late next year, now would be a good time to start brushing up on your Dark Knights from eras passed. And even though he stands at a modest 5’9”, Michael Keaton just is Bruce Wayne to a certain generation of superhero movie fan. In the hands of Tim Burton, 1989’s Batman revolutionized the Hollywood blockbuster, and its massive box office haul paved way to a darker and more controversial sequel that’s worth revisiting today. In a tale that plays over a snowy holiday season, Keaton is almost entirely sidelined by Danny DeVito’s bile-vomiting Penguin and a vinyl-stitched Catwoman, perfectly portrayed by Michelle Pfeiffer. Both actors are at the top of their comedic game, and yet despite all the humor, Christmas in Gotham has never looked bleaker.
With all of the commotion surrounding the release of Zach Snyder’s cut of Justice League, and the critical revilement held toward The Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it’s easy to forget there are plenty of outright gems contained within the DCEU. While Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is an all-out grand slam, James Wan’s underrated Aqauaman takes a massive swing at bat; whether or not it makes contact is up to you. If you can look past the inherent goofiness of a superhero movie with Point Break-stylings, then you will find a fun fantasy throwback featuring a half-crab-half-man called the Brine King, a giant Kraken voiced by Julie Andrews, and a ten-minute action scene ripped straight out of a Cloverfield movie. In a world full of dark and gritty reboots, one can do worse than spend two hours under a brightly lit sea.
TEEN TITANS (2003-2006)
Cartoon Network’s Teen Titans series from the early-aughts delved deep into its characters in a way many cartoons at the time did not. Based primarily on Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s run of comics from the 1980s, the show found Cyborg, Beast Boy, Starfire, Raven and Robin going head-to-head with various nefarious foes, many of whom were given a season-long arcs, if not an entire series-worth of story. These include the dastardly organizations H.I.V.E. and the Brotherhood of Evil, the demon Trigon, hero-turned-villain-turned-hero Terra, and the dangerous assassin Slade (played by Hellboy’s Ron Perlman). Not unlike Nickelodeon’s critically-acclaimed Avatar: the Last Airbender, Teen Titans is worth revisiting for its perfectly balanced-structure, which relied just as much on humor and it did on its immense stakes.
TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES
Somehow, someway, HBO Max has compiled a catalog of more classic film titles than any other streaming service aside of, well, the Criterion Channel. This includes many works from Ingmar Bergman and Agnes Varda, to Jim Jarmusch and Nick Cassavetes. To say HBO Max is like a stay-at-home film school is to invoke a fairly common streaming cliché, but it’s worth pointing out how many canonically important films are now just ready to play from one’s PlayStation. If you’re ever in the mood to check out an older classic, you can’t go wrong Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece M. An early sound-picture, Lang utilizes a dense soundtrack to heighten one of the most haunting thrillers of that era.
GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH (1971)
That being said, maybe you’re just in the mood to watch men in giant rubber monster suits beating the living daylights out of each other. Many of the Showa-Era Godzilla films are available to stream on the service right now, including the pièce de ré·sis·tance Godzilla vs. Hedorah. Despite being shot in just 35 days and panned by critics upon release, the 11th film in the franchise is regarded today as one of the best. Featuring an outdated psychedelic style and ever-timely environmentalist themes, Godzilla vs. Hedorah is the perfect mix of camp fun and thoughtful commentary.
A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (1964)
Made on a budget of about £200,000, Richard Lesters’s 1964 meta-comedy explored the height of Beatlemania through the eyes of the Fab Four themselves. Part-Jukebox Musical, part-cinéma vérité look at the a day in the life of the Beatles (pardon the pun), A Hard Day’s Night is considered one the most influential films of its era, with its style seeping into everything from ’60s spy thrillers to MTV. But beyond its music roots, A Hard Day’s Night is first and foremost a comedy anchored to a gut-busting script that went on to receive an Academy Awards nomination for Best Screenplay .
DEXTER’S LABORATORY (1996-1998, 2001- 2003)
There’s a lot to unpack in Dexter’s Laboratory, Genndy Tartakovsky’s animated series about a blocky boy genius and his free-spirited sister. Sometimes, the show’s a family-oriented sitcom about a child with a secret; other times, the show’s a pitch perfect Marvel Comics parody filled to the brim with heroes like Major Glory and the Infraggable Krunk. Then there the segments dedicated to secret agent monkeys, live-action puppet pals, and DIY popsicles recipes. For many tykes growing up in the pop-culture saturated ‘90s, Dexter’s Lab served as an introduction to Star Trek, Dungeons and Dragons, Tron and the like, yet the show never feels overstuffed, just a product of an overactive imagination.
REGULAR SHOW (2009-2017)
A cartoon for the young working-class, Regular Show is centered around two 20-something anthropomorphic animals that work at a local park. Based around creator J. G. Quintel’s college experience, much of the show would probably sail right over younger viewers heads, yet land perfectly on laps of disgruntled menials who are just trying to catch a break. Inspired by British television and often utilizing songs by The Replacements, David Bowie, and the Velvet Underground, Regular Show has no issue whipping from plots about coffee consumption and Laserdisc players to cosmic gods and time travel, always with stellar effect.
STEVEN UNIVERSE (2013-2019)
There isn’t a single other show on Earth quite like Steven Universe, which was created by Rebecca Sugar, who worked on Cartoon Network’s seismic hit Adventure Time. Its story is simple enough: Steven is a half-Earthling raised by the “Crystal Gems,” three humanoid aliens who are given special powers through gemstones embedded in their bodies. Despite presenting as female, the Crystal Gems are nonbinary, opening the door for the series to explore various topics related to identity and healthy relationships, both romantic and interpersonal. On top of the dense mythology and LGBTQ themes, the series is buoyed by breathtaking pastel-hued art and a slow pace that sets it apart from any of contemporary cartoon at the moment.
Metalocalpyse is a tricky show to break down into a blurb, so imagine it this way: Metalocalpyse is to Dethklok, as the aforementioned A Hard Day’s Night is to the Beatles, if A Hard Day’s Night underscored its jokes with more violence, gore, and destruction. Apt then, that creator Brandon Smalls likens the mostly fictional metal band to Ringo and co., “just a thousand times more dangerous and a billion times more stupid.” The show, which ran for seven years, featured a murderers’ row of guest stars, from Dave Grohl to Marc Maron to Werner Herzog. A notable feat, sure, but it’s not nearly as impressive as the fact that the animators carefully sync all of the music featured in the show to real-life chord positions and guitar fingering.
SAMURAI JACK (2001-2004, 2017)
The second Genndy Tartakovsky’s series to make the list, Samurai Jack replaces the explosive volume of Dexter’s Lab with deafening stillness. In fact, the show’s very first episode has nine and half minutes of silence wherein not a single character speaks. Throughout its original four year run, Samurai Jack utilized varying genre pastiches to examine the loneliness and longing of an ancient warrior thrust into the future, themes that have become more relevant now that ever. So it’s only fitting that Adult Swim revived the show in 2017 for a more mature final season that wraps up the dangling threads of its overarching storyline.
SPACE GHOST: COAST TO COAST (1994-2004, 2006-2008)
The first fully original series to be completely produced by Cartoon Network isn’t even that original. In fact, Mike Lazzo’s Space Ghost: Coast to Coast is a reimagining of a 1960s Hanna-Barbera superhero cartoon as a talk show-turned-surrealist spoof. Over 108 episodes, Lazzo and his team of who’s who animators threw the concept of celebrity under the bus with awkwardly antagonistic interviews and surreal humor, impressive in and of itself until you realize that this wasn’t even its main goal. The show’s intent was to be flat-out silly, with not a care in the world for any concepts caught in the crosshairs of its fun. Of course it’s perfectly-stilted animation and non-sequitur devices paved way for the two-plus decades of Adult Swim content that followed, including Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and The Eric Andre Show.
NAUSICAÄ OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND (1984)
HBO Max sent shockwaves through the online media circuit by announcing that nearly every Studio Gihibli film was headed to streaming, a feat many considered impossible given founder Hayao Miyazaki’s firm stance against digital home media. Miyazaki’s well-respected—if not financially viable—emphasis on making art, not selling a product, has lead to creation of numerous flat-out masterpieces, including My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away, and The Wind Rises. While those films are all available on the streaming service—seriously, check them out!—it’s the under-appreciated gems like 1984’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind that will benefit most from being a click away on your AppleTV. Though it was made before Studio Ghibli was founded, Miyazaki’s careful consideration of craft can be found in Nausicaä, as well as what would become the director’s trademarks: young heroines and airships, environmental themes, and conflict removed from the simplicities of just “good vs. evil.”
WHISPER OF THE HEART (1995)
The only film directed by the late Yoshifumi Kondō, who was viewed as Miyazaki’s eventual successor prior to his death. Unlike many Ghibli films, Whipser of the Heart is rooted in natural realism, aside from select moments wherein we catch a glimpse inside our teenage protagonist’s active imagination. These beautifully animated segments underline the central subject of the movie, which examines the desire to create and the uncertainty that follows every artist. It’s a feeling many are familiar with, and Whisper of the Heart doesn’t attempt to quell it, just honor its universality.
THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA (2013)
Though he is often overshadowed by Hayao Miyazaki, Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata is just as imperative to the studio’s success. Yet, whereas Miyazaki is consistent in his artistry, Takahata is a risk-taker; the watercolor styling of The Tale of Princess Kaguya, the director’s last film before his passing in 2018, took animators eight years to animate. Yet the film is an unquestionable masterpiece, worthy of its nearly two and half hour runtime. Based on the 10th-Century “proto-Sci-Fi” Japanese novel The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, Princess Kaguya explores family, class, and most importantly, the unforgiving nature of time.
THE BEST OF THE REST:
WarnerMedia has also tapped Crunchy Roll, Sesame Workshop, and WB’s Looney Tunes to pad out the streaming service’s dense catalog. On top of originals shows like The Not-Too-Late Show with Elmo, one can take a deep dive into decades worth of Sesame Street and Looney Tunes episodes, or broaden your cultural horizons with the award-winning anime like Kill la Kill and ERASED.
Will you be subscribing to HBO Max? What hidden gems would you recommend on the streaming service? Let us know in the comments below!