When Arrow premiered on The CW in 2012 it marked an important turning point and expansion for the broadcast network.
The DC Comics-inspired drama centers on wealthy vigilante Oliver Queen (played by Stephen Amell), who returns after years of being presumed dead in a shipwreck. Once a partying playboy, Oliver is changed by his time away, during which he secretly trained in martial arts and took up a mission to right the corrupt wrongs of other wealthy and powerful individuals in his hometown.
The series, which went on to run for eight seasons, is the first of what became a long list of DC-on-The-CW dramas, which is why they fall under the umbrella term "Arrowverse."
The Flash became the second series under this umbrella, with Grant Gustin in the titular superhero role actually being introduced on an episode of Arrow before getting a series of his own. That premiered in 2014 and is still airing new episodes today. But beyond The Flash, there have been several other hourlong dramas to follow, including Supergirl, DC's Legends of Tomorrow, and Batwoman, which share an onscreen universe and often see characters crossover and take part in multiple-episode arcs where they have to form a massive superhero team to save the universe(s).
Not all of the DC series took part in crossovers, however. Black Lightning, which ran for a memorable four seasons and starred Cress Williams as the eponymous hero, made it a point to say the characters did not share the same universe as those in the aforementioned shows. The same was said about the one-season Naomi, and so far that is the plan for the latest DC series to come to The CW too: Gotham Knights, which follows Batman's adopted son and the children of some infamous Gotham supervillains as they work together to find out who killed the Caped Crusader.
Still, these shows share a lot of similar themes and the DNA of DC, which is why they all often get lumped together under the Arrowverse terminology. There are even a couple of animated digital series that get that treatment, starting with Vixen in 2015, Freedom Fighters: The Ray in 2017, and Constantine: City of Demons in 2018.
Here, Metacritic focuses on the broadcast dramas to rank the Arrowverse properties by Metascore.
Best for: Fans of multigenerational heroes, family dramas, and social commentary
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In this 2018 series, mild-mannered high school principal Jefferson Pierce (Williams) suits up as Black Lightning years after claiming he retired as a superhero. He gets back into saving the day because a gang is threatening to take over the city in which he lives, works, and is raising his daughters. However, it isn't just Jefferson who picks up the cause, as both of his daughters (played by Nafessa Williams and China Anne McClain) quickly begin showing signs of having their own powers, which are very similar to his. The show follows the young women as they gain control of those powers to do their own form of good in the city, while also struggling with having their abilities known by the wrong entities, all while gang leader Tobias Whale (Marvin "Krondon" Jones III) inches closer to his own control, and the city comes under additional threats, including martial law, the weaponization of metahumans, and a virus outbreak.
"This show's race-forward sensibility and its older protagonist, conflicted about getting back into the game, give Black Lightning its spark." — James Poniewozik, The New York Times
Best for: Fans of humor-filled superhero stories and alternate versions of characters and events
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The Flash began in 2014, when crime-scene investigator Barry Allen (Gustin) gains superhuman speed after an explosion in the lab where he works. Although the early days of his new ability still see him not quite mastering it, he masks up to become the titular superhero in Central City and come into his own while on the job, so to speak. Working alongside friends and colleagues Cisco (Carlos Valdes) and Caitlin (Danielle Panabaker), who later get superhero abilities and identities of their own, Barry takes out a variety of bad guys in present day, but also tries to change the past to stop Eobard Thawne (Tom Cavanagh) from killing his mother, a crime for which his father ends up framed. In trying to change the past, though, he creates an alternate timeline, and fixing changes to timelines becomes an integral part of his mission across seasons.
"It vibrates with big-picture vision and has smart fun with its premise." — Jeff Jensen, Entertainment Weekly
Best for: Fans of female-led superhero dramas and complicated family dramas
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In the third Arrowverse series, which began in 2015, Melissa Benoist is Kara Zor-El, a.k.a. Supergirl, who was supposed to come down to Earth as a teenager to protect her baby cousin, Superman. Unfortunately, her ship was knocked off course, and by the time she did arrive, he was already grown up and flying around saving people left and right. When the series begins, she is just embracing her own powers, while living in his shadow but also trying to keep her abilities secret, and juggling a job as a reporter. Things get more complicated when she learns that hundreds of criminals with a grudge against her family are hiding on Earth, but she gets a little help from her adoptive sister (played by Chyler Leigh) and J'onn J'onzz (David Harewood), among others, to fight these criminals, and others that get revealed later in the series.
"A by-the-numbers affair that offers the character's origin story up front, introduces the villain at just the right moment, throws in the requisite unexpected complication at the three-quarter mark and saves one twist for the final moment." — Robert Rorke, New York Post
Best for: Fans of brooding heroes and vigilantes who target the privileged and corrupt
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The series that started it all centers on a vigilante who returns to Starling City after years of training in martial arts while his family presumed him dead. Armed with a lot of new skills and his father's notebook, which lists some people who are "failing this city," he sets out to take down the corrupt. The show often flashes back to his time on the mysterious island of Lian Yu, where he underwent his training, to emphasize emotions or themes in the present-day story. But vigilante work is only one piece of the puzzle: As the Queen heir, Oliver has to balance his nighttime activities with his day job as CEO of the family corporation. Things get trickier as another presumed dead individual returns, a cryptic government agency comes to the city, friends and allies are killed, a secret son is revealed, and Oliver gets romantically involved with IT professional Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards).
"Arrow proves to be both on-brand and entertaining — if you turn off the snark detector and downplay the need for plausibility or logic." — Tim Goodman, The Hollywood Reporter
Best for: Fans of coming-of-age dramas
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Ava DuVernay steps into the comic book world with this 2022 drama that centers on the titular teen, played by Kaci Walfall. Naomi is a high school student who loves comic books, specifically Superman, and even runs a fan website for the caped hero. But after a supernatural stunt takes place in her small town, she gets even more embroiled in the superhero world, learning she has more of a connection to her favorite one as she could have ever dreamed. Thus starts a journey of learning to accept, let alone control, out-of-this-world powers and juggle her new responsibilities with her everyday life.
"Naomi is mighty wholesome, with its pansexual flirtations and warmly supportive, non-competitive central female friendship. But that also makes Naomi feel a bit too perfect to be real." — Tasha Robinson, Polygon
Best for: Fans of family dramas and those who want an update on beloved characters from Smallville
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Tyler Hoechlin's Superman and Bitsie Tulloch's Lois Lane were first introduced on Supergirl because he is Kara's cousin, but in 2021 they got their own show, centered on their family. That show begins with them uprooting themselves and their sons (played by Jordan Elsass and Alex Garfin) to move to his hometown of Smallville. As if adjusting to life on a farm isn't complicated enough, it doesn't take long for seemingly unexplained phenomena to begin, including the reveal that Superman's powers are, in fact, genetic; the arrival of The Stranger, a.k.a a new version of Lex Luthor (Wolé Parks); and the introduction of Bizarro World. On the slightly more human side, there is also a cult to contend with, although that entity crosses with Bizarro quite quickly for how fast it is conquering that world.
"Adding a family/coming-of-age component to the Man of Steel's mythology, the show cleverly ties into the deep roots of the franchise, at least initially proving you can go home again." — Brian Lowry, CNN
Best for: Fans of female-led superhero dramas and those who don't mind different people picking up the superhero mantle
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When Batwoman first premiered in 2019, Ruby Rose played the eponymous vigilante in Gotham City, but Seasons 2 and 3 saw Javicia Leslie slip on the suit. Rose's character is Kate Kane, Bruce Wayne's cousin who follows in the family footsteps, while Leslie's character is Ryan Wilder, a stranger to the world (and someone who does not come from wealth or privilege) who finds the bat-suit after Kate's plane crashes. Ryan is most interested in avenging her mother's death, a crime that happened because of the failings of the actual police department.
"[Batwoman] has a generic quality — sufficiently well executed, with touches of quiet wit, but tinny and lacking in personality or excitement overall. It's a superheroics delivery system, most notable for its efficiency." — Mike Hale, The New York Times
Best for: Those who don't want to take their superheroes too seriously
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Premiering in 2016, this fourth Arrowverse series mixes characters who were first introduced on previous series (such as Caity Lotz' Sara Lance, a.k.a White Canary, and Brandon Routh's Ray Palmer, a.k.a. The Atom) with newer faces to formulate a team of heroes who travel through space and time to fight threats across decades. Naturally, they cause many anachronisms as they do this, which becomes a problem to be solved later. As the seasons go on, the show increasingly has fun with breaking its genre boundaries in order to play in animated and musical formats, as well as to have characters experience body swaps, rotating team members (including the addition of Matt Ryan as John Constantine), and meet everyone's now-beloved toy Beebo (Benjamin Diskin).
"Action is nicely balanced with sense of humor, and characters (most of whom have been seen in other contexts, including Arrow and The Flash) are developed well from the beginning." — Gail Pennington, St. Louis Post-Dispatch