The lack of recent TV shows and movies could be its Kryptonite.
DC Universe officially launched on September 15 (aka Batman Day), and the new subscription service aims to be your exclusive hub for the best of DC Entertainment’s comics, TV shows, movies, and merchandise.
We got a chance to test drive the app while it was in beta (albeit without the full lineup of comics and movies available at launch), to get a hands-on experience of the service, which is arguably in the vanguard of an incoming wave of platforms that will attempt to draw fans further away from traditional cable subscriptions and broadcast TV.
With Disney also planning to launch its own subscription service that will combine the might of its most popular properties (including Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars) all in one place, Netflix branching out into creating comics alongside their original shows and movies, Amazon distributing new comics through comiXology, and content providers like CBS All Access, HBO Now, and WWE Network already offering members a deep well of current programming and classic titles for one monthly fee, it’s becoming increasingly clear that networks and studios will need to find ways to own and distribute a broad swath of their content direct to consumers in order to stay relevant, rather than relying on being bundled in expensive cable packages and hoping that viewers will find them.
In that way, DC Universe is undoubtedly ahead of the curve; by giving fans a place to get their comics fix alongside their movies and exclusive original shows – combining storytelling mediums in a way we haven’t seen before – we may be witnessing the opening salvo in an upcoming digital content war. That’s a double-edged sword for DC, since it brings a lot of scrutiny to the platform right out of the gate, and will allow other content creators to learn from the company’s mistakes when launching their own services.
And while DC Universe definitely deserves credit for innovating in a space that’s inevitably going to get pretty crowded in the next decade, delivering a well-designed and user-friendly service that should be a treasure trove of content for DC fans, there are a few kinks that still need to be worked out before the big dogs like Disney, Amazon and Apple get into the yard and start competing for your subscription dollars.
Let’s break it down:
A subscription service lives and dies on its layout and ease of use – if you can’t find the content you want, or get useful new suggestions if you’re feeling indecisive, you’re not likely to come back. Thankfully, DC Universe has a clear and accessible interface that takes a page from Netflix and Hulu, with the top of the homepage dedicated to a banner that cycles through a series of recommended comics, movies, shows, and originals.
Next up is a “Dive Back In” section that lets you pick up where you left off in the shows and movies you were watching or the comics you were reading – a handy way for you to get right back to the series you were in the middle of without having to search around in the various sections. Then there are “trending” sections for Movies & TV, comics, and discussions in the community forum, letting you know what other users are most interested in. The homepage also features curated lists of “essential” storylines and characters: On launch weekend, it’s “Essential Batman Storylines” such as Batman: Year One, A Death in the Family, Under the Hood, and The Dark Knight Returns. Clicking on each storyline brings you to a hub page that features all the movies and comics (and hopefully when relevant, also TV episodes) related to those story arcs, highlighting one of the most appealing aspects of DC Universe – the ability to track your favorite characters or plotlines across mediums.
Along the bottom of every page is a stationary navigation bar with tabs leading to each section of the DC Universe app: Home, Movies & TV, Comics, My DC (which is basically DCU’s version of Netflix’s watchlist, featuring all of your recently watched or read titles; any movies, episodes or comics you’ve downloaded for offline viewing; and your personally curated lists of content), Community (a message board that lets you interact with other members), News, Encyclopedia, and Shop (which right now takes you off the app to an external website, but presumably will someday live in DC Universe proper for in-app purchases).
There are some shortcomings in the design thus far, though – while we were testing, there was no ability to download an entire comics run at once, only each issue individually, which is a little tedious for users hoping to be able to burn through a specific story arc in one sitting. When you reach the end of an issue, there is an option to download the next book in the series, but if fans know what they want, it would be more useful to download the entirety of Nightwing: Year One or A Death in the Family rather than each issue one by one.
As of launch, there’s also no ability to access and purchase comics that aren’t currently available on the service, although when you search for a title that’s missing, there is a note that “the full DC Comics digital library will be available for purchase in October,” so at least that functionality is coming. Hopefully that will also be true for movies and TV shows that aren’t represented (more on that later).
Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity at launch (although DC says it will be implemented at a later date) is the lack of interconnectivity between the sections. This is especially evident in the Encyclopedia: There, you can get a full breakdown on a character’s publishing history that highlights their most iconic tales, but even though many comics are referenced throughout, as of now there are no links to tap so you can easily go read that comic or watch a related show or movie. Users are left to manually search for any given title and hope that it’s in the library.
The library itself has the tendency to become a confusing quagmire — a search for Nightwing pulls up four comic series, but there’s nothing educating the user on the difference between them or where newcomers should start to find the best stories. The News section of the app has some curated lists of must-read comics, TV episodes episodes and films, but if the character you want to learn more about about doesn’t have a list, then you’re on your own.
Likewise, users might be curious to see more work by a particular writer or artist, but on the download page for each comic (which offers information on who wrote, penciled, inked and created the cover for the issue), there’s no hyperlinking that might allow you to click on Frank Miller or Carmine Infantino’s name and see all the other comics or properties they worked on – or even a bio highlighting their careers. For a service that probably primarily appeals to diehard fans rather than newcomers, it seems like a missed opportunity not to offer insight into some of the creative minds that brought these characters to life. The app feels like it has plenty of room grow in this area, but at launch it remains underutilized.
TV & Movies
DC Universe is launching with a number of beloved film titles, including Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight; Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns (plus the lesser-loved but still appreciated Joel Schumacher monstrosities Batman Forever and Batman & Robin); all four Christopher Reeve Superman movies; animated classics like Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker; and more recent releases like Batman Ninja and Batman: Gotham By Gaslight. On the TV front, there’s Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, the original Teen Titans animated show, Justice League, Young Justice, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Static Shock, John Wesley Shipp’s iteration of The Flash, and Constantine, among many others, along with documentary specials and DC Nation shorts.
But of course, many fans were likely hoping for more recent releases like Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, Man of Steel, Justice League, or The CW’s Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow. Unfortunately, many of those live-action properties are tied up in existing distribution deals that predate the conception of DC Universe – most studio movies have to be windowed through pay cable and basic cable runs before they can come to streaming services, which means it could be a couple of years before those movies make it to the service. (Even Disney is running into the same difficulty – it’s currently trying to buy back the TV rights for the Star Wars movies from Turner so that they can be included on Disney’s own streaming service, but talks have reportedly stalled.)
Things are even trickier for The CW’s shows, which are part of a lucrative streaming deal with Netflix, giving the digital streaming network the rights to all of the CW’s shows in the US just eight days after a season concludes on broadcast. When the pact was made back in 2016, Variety reported “the deal is believed to run five years, with a tail that gives Netflix access to the CW library for several years after each series ends its run on the network,” meaning it could be a long time until we see the Arrowverse in its entirety on DC Universe. It’s feasible that movies and new TV episodes may be available for purchase in the app as they are on iTunes and Amazon, or that DC Universe could utilize the same kind of in-season access to the most recent five episodes as seen on CWTV.com, but that’s all speculation at this point.
And then there are the deeper cuts or less popular movies that it would still be nice to see represented, if the service is touting itself as an entire universe of DC content – the likes of V for Vendetta or Zack Snyder’s Watchmen. It would also be great to get access to special features – like deleted scenes, gag reels or commentaries – usually relegated to a DVD or Blu-ray release, to really allow fans to dive down the rabbit hole of their favorite properties. Another notable omission is Adam West’s beloved ’60s Batman series, which we’re sure will end up on the service eventually, but would’ve been nice to have at launch.
Of course, the main selling point of DC Universe’s TV section will be its original programming, which kicks off on October 12 with the premiere of Titans (get an exclusive look at Dick Grayson facing off with Jason Todd from our preview of Titans here). New episodes will roll out every week exclusively on DC Universe in the US, and last we heard when the service was demoed at Comic-Con, the plan was for DC Universe to offer continuous weekly original content once their originals debut, meaning that once Titans ends, DC will debut Young Justice: Outsiders, which will then roll into another original series, and so on – giving fans 52 weeks of fresh programming to look forward to. The service has already announced Titans spinoff Doom Patrol, Swamp Thing, a Harley Quinn animated series, and Stargirl, all reported to debut in 2019. The service may not be able to compete with Netflix’s scale, but that’s still an impressive lineup of content for the service’s first year.
While it’s understandable that DC wants users to be able to get to grips with the service before debuting its big guns, it’s admittedly disappointing not to have any original scripted shows available at launch – or at least a 10-minute preview of Titans, just to give fans a taste of what they can expect – but hopefully that will give the service some time to work out any bugs before a new wave of subscribers sign up on October 12. In the meantime, the service will present a DC Daily news show that will air five days a week with all the latest happenings from across the DC multiverse.
As for the experience of watching TV shows and movies on DC Universe, playback was smooth during our demo, and the service comes loaded with English closed-captioning for users who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, although subtitles in other languages would be a welcome addition for true accessibility. The service autoplays the next episode at the conclusion of the one you’re watching, but in our beta test it didn’t give any indication that it would automatically do that (or an option to pause the autoplay function), which can make it a little jarring if you’re not expecting it.
There’s also no option to skip the intro on episodes, and as fun as the Wonder Woman theme song is, you probably don’t want to listen to it multiple times during a binge, so here’s hoping that option is added fairly quickly. Casting episodes or movies to Chromecast on our TV worked fine from iPad and iPhone, although you have to remember to hit the Chromecast button from the Home or Movies & TV pages, since there’s currently no option in to cast something you’re watching in the player itself, although the player does have Apple TV functionality. So far, there’s no way to use Chromecast or Apple TV to view comics on your TV, although this should theoretically be possible through the Roku and Amazon Fire apps.
When it comes to the digital comics portion of the service, DC Universe has a strong presentation on par with comiXology that runs like a dream, with plenty of options that allow you to read DC’s comics according to your personal preference, including the ability to autoplay a title on a timer, or switch to panel view. It’s easy to create reading lists and jump back in where you left off. The real deciding factor for many will be the selection of available titles, especially compared to the likes of Marvel Unlimited. After inquiring with a rep for the service, IGN was told that the comics library will have around 2,000 to 3,000 comics at launch that include classics, relatively recent releases, first appearances of popular characters, and lesser-known gems, and that the library will be continuously curated with numerous comics rotating in and out.
The sheer number of available comics makes it a good deal for someone new to comics looking to dive into DC’s catalog, but if you’re a DC fan who has been reading for years or if you’re just looking for a specific comic, then it’s a roll of the dice as to whether you’ll be disappointed or not. The selection of titles leans toward being more of a sampler of DC’s greatest hits for beginners than a robust collection for comic veterans who want to read entire runs or new releases, although as the catalog evolves it certainly could become the latter.
The comics portion of the service seems to work best as a tool to learn more about characters featured in DC’s shows and films. For example, after the heroic duo Hawk and Dove appear in their first episode of Titans, instead of heading to the internet to find out who they are, DC Universe will allow users to stay in the app and pull up their comics to learn about them firsthand. This ability to watch a show and then do a deeper dive on intriguing characters all in one place is where DC Universe has the most potential to shine.
The service costs $7.99 a month or $74.99 a year, comparable to Hulu’s limited commercials plan and Netflix’s basic plan, but cheaper than the likes of HBO Now or Showtime Anytime. Whether you think the price is worth the cost is probably dependent on what you’ll be using the service for and how many other digital subscription services you’re shelling out for already; there’s certainly a wealth of content (and the promise of new titles being added on a regular basis), but if you’re after the latest comics, TV shows and movies outside of DC Universe’s originals, you might be frustrated by the lineup.
Perhaps the biggest mark against the service – at least for international fans – is that it’s currently not available outside the US, which seems a little shortsighted considering the global popularity of DC’s characters. This isn’t an issue that’s limited to DC, as streaming services like Hulu, HBO Now, and CBS All Access also don’t cater to fans worldwide, but when there’s such emphasis on networks and studios owning and distributing their content themselves, it seems like a mistake for DC Universe to potentially be licensing its original shows to outside distributors in other countries and boosting their subscriber base, rather than its own.
One of the reasons Netflix has gained such dominance so quickly is that users across the world can watch a new season of Daredevil or Orange is the New Black on the same day, making their original programming the topic of global conversation. The decision probably stems from existing licensing deals, but if the service wants to grow and truly compete on a similar playing field to Disney and Amazon, DC Universe will have to be accessible to fans across the planet, not just the continent.