June 4, 2020

Streaming service review: HBO Max

My thoughts on HBO Max, WarnerMedia's new streaming service.

Streaming service review: HBO Max

HBO Max launched in late May 2020. It’s AT&T and WarnerMedia’s attempt to compete with Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ in the streaming service wars.

I gave HBO Max‘s free trial a go; below are my thoughts on the new service.

Features

HBO Max is basically an expansion on the pre-existing HBO Now streaming service. For the same price ($14.99/month), HBO Max offers the same material on HBO/HBO Now. Max also offers various originals, Warner’s back catalog material (“Friends,” “Fresh Prince of Bel Air”), and programming from the following WarnerMedia subsidiaries (added under their own sections of the service):

  • HBO
  • DC (as in DC Comics)
  • Sesame Workshop
  • Turner Classic Movies (TCM)
  • Studio Ghibli
  • Cartoon Network (CN)
  • Adult Swim
  • Crunchyroll
  • Looney Tunes

There’s also what basically amounts to Boomerang‘s material. However, for some reason, it’s not in its own dedicated section (but more on that below).

HBO Max by category

HBO Max categories
HBO Max categories. (HBO Max / screenshot by author)

Given HBO Max reflects WarnerMedia’s federated attitude toward its properties/company divisions (versus Disney’s more united branding/approach), I’ll give my thoughts on each section of the service.

Note my stronger interest in animation and comics as a factor. I was never big on regular-HBO, even when I received it for free before I cancelled cable.

And yes, I’m well aware some of the following issues might be due to TV show and movie rights tied up with other services.

HBO

HBO is, well, HBO. If you’re looking for “Game of Thrones,” HBO’s movies, and everything else that made regular HBO worth the $15 a month, it’s here. HBO fans won’t be disappointed.

DC

HBO Max's DC category
HBO Max’s DC category. (HBO Max / screenshot by author)

A section dedicated to TV shows and movies featuring the DC superheroes. Unfortunately, this is one of the biggest disappointments of Max.

HBO Max should offer DCU material featuring the most popular/familiar DC TV shows and movies as far as the general public’s concerned. The Reeve “Superman” movies, “Batman: The Animated Series,” the 70s “Wonder Woman” TV show, their recent output, and so forth. Instead, HBO Max offers:

  • The 90s Batman movies.
  • “Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker,” the only DCAU item here.
  • All of the recent DCEU films save “Man of Steel.”
  • Only “Batwoman” and “Supergirl” from the CW.
  • “Teen Titans”; however, the only “Teen Titans Go” is its theatrical film.
  • Several of the “DC Super Hero Girls” films.

The DC category also has “Jonah Hex,” “Catwoman,” “Steel,” “Green Lantern,” “Lego Batman,” and to my surprise, “Beware the Batman.” That last one even has its own section highlighting its villains. There’s also some items borrowed from DC Universe (“Doom Patrol”).

But otherwise, that’s it. Not a single solo Superman film or TV show on HBO Max; only a few DC superhero cartoons; and not even all of the CW’s shows. Out of all the aspects of HBO Max, the DC selection is one of its biggest disappointments. While a hardcore fan might also pay for DC Universe, the general public (HBO Max’s presumed target audience) isn’t going to shell out an extra $8/month on top of Max’s cost just to get Batman cartoons or Superman, well, anything.

The approach should’ve been to put the most popular/classic DC material on HBO Max, while leaving the “deep dive” stuff like “Beware the Batman” or “Super Friends” on DC Universe. Assuming that DC Universe’s role post-HBO Max is to cater to DC fans, of course.

But at least HBO Max is bringing… the “Snyder cut” of “Justice League.” No “Batman: The Animated Series” or “Smallville,” but at least Max customers will get a director’s cut of a critically panned sequel to two alsopanned films. Yay?

Sesame Workshop

“Sesame Street” is the featured show here, with archives of material going back to the very first season back in 1969. However, most of the earlier seasons (up to the mid-aughts) only have several episodes per season represented.

There’s also a Max original here: “The Not-Too-Late Show With Elmo,” a talk show.

Turner Classic Movies (TCM)

HBO Max's Turner Classic Movies category
HBO Max’s Turner Classic Movies category. (HBO Max / screenshot by author)

The selection of classic movies under the TCM section is one of HBO Max’s strongest points. There’s a large variety of classic films here: “The Wizard of Oz”? “Casablanca?” Plus Charlie Chaplin’s films, Westerns, “Godzilla” films, “King Kong,” the original “Hairspray,” and more.

Studio Ghibli

Fans of “Kiki’s Delivery Service” will be pleased to know that nearly all of Studio Ghibli’s films are available on HBO Max.

Cartoon Network (CN)

The Cartoon Network section offers most of the channel’s most popular classic and modern shows. Among the shows here: “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “The Powerpuff Girls” (both the reboot and classic versions), the numerous versions of “Ben 10,” “Steven Universe,” “Regular Show,” and others.

While much of this is (or was) available on Hulu, having it here means one less service HBO Max customers will need to enjoy Cartoon Network fare.

Adult Swim

Adult Swim’s section on HBO Max is fairly sparse. It’s basically what’s considered the “best of” Adult Swim: “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” “The Boondocks,” “Rick and Morty,” “Samurai Jack,” “Robot Chicken,” and a few other shows. No “Harvey Birdman,” but the block’s biggest names are otherwise here.

Crunchyroll

I’m guessing anime fans won’t be pleased with the Crunchyroll category. Despite the size of the Crunchyroll service’s library, only a dozen or show of its shows are featured here. Paying for Crunchyroll would be an additional $8/month for that service.

Looney Tunes

HBO Max's Looney Tunes category
HBO Max’s Looney Tunes category. (HBO Max / screenshot by author)

HBO Max has a fairly large amount of Looney Tunes shorts. Many of the classics are here: the Bugs Bunny vs. Cecil Turtle races; “Super-Rabbit” (and “Stupor Duck”); “Duck Amuck”; the Road Runner (including those weird 60s shorts like “The Solid Tin Coyote” and “Boulder Wham!”); and so forth.

Also available are “The Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries” and “The Looney Tunes Show,” plus “Looney Tunes: Back in Action.” Oddly, no “Space Jam,” despite Warner pulling it off of Netflix recently.

“Boomerang”

Not an official section, but I’m discussing it here anyway. HBO Max also has the most popular Boomerang cartoons. Besides the Looney Tunes, Max carries:

  • “The Flintstones”: the original series, plus the theatrical live-action films.
  • “The Jetsons”: the original series, plus the 80s revival and “Jetsons: The Movie.”
  • “Scooby-Doo”: the original “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?,” “The Scooby-Doo Show,” and the early 80s “Scooby and Scrappy-Doo” incarnations. Also the two theatrical live-action films.
  • “Tom and Jerry”: what looks like all the original theatrical shorts in syndication, including the Deitch and Chuck Jones ones.
  • “Yogi Bear”: the original series.
  • “Popeye”: a large number of Fleischer shorts, plus a few Famous ones.
  • “Josie and the Pussycats”: the original series and the “Outer Space” version. Likely here since the CW airs “Katy Keene” (also on HBO Max).

The above along with Looney Tunes covers the most popular Warner-owned pre-90s cartoons. Bugs Bunny? Fred Flintstone? Tom and Jerry? Yogi? They’re all on HBO Max. They even threw in Josie and Popeye, which I wasn’t expecting, but a pleasant surprise.

The stand-alone Boomerang service still exists (for $5/month); it still functions as a “deep dive” service for harder core cartoon fans. However, unless the average person really wants “Atom Ant” episodes, they’ll be satisfied with the classic cartoons on HBO Max, and won’t need Boomerang.

Pros of HBO Max

A broad range of material

Thanks to the size of WarnerMedia’s holdings, HBO Max comes with a pretty broad range of material. Besides HBO’s own stuff, everything from 90s sitcoms to popular cartoons is available.

A strong selection of Western animation (plus Studio Ghibli)

Despite the hype for the DC material on HBO Max, instead, it’s the variety of animation that’s one of Max’s actual strengths. Basically a “best of Boomerang and Cartoon Network.” It’s also nice to see Studio Ghibli’s films available.

Cons of HBO Max

HBO Max playing "Boulder Wham!"
“Boulder Wham!” on HBO Max. (HBO Max / screenshot by author)

Aside from the criticisms I listed above, here’s my nitpicks of the service overall.

It’s expensive

At $15 a month, HBO Max is the most expensive on-demand streaming service. Even with the content available, it’s a hard sell against Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc., especially during a pandemic/major economic downturn. And that’s not counting if one really wants more DC superhero or anime content; WarnerMedia didn’t think to offer a discounted bundle of their multiple services (similar to Disney’s Disney+ and Hulu bundle).

Poor branding

Numerous articles have had to explain the difference between regular HBO (the cable TV version), HBO Go (the app cable TV-HBO subscribers can use), HBO Now (the on-demand streaming service Max basically replaces), and HBO Max. WarnerMedia itself didn’t do a very good job explaining such.

There’s also that HBO doesn’t convey Looney Tunes, “Sesame Street” or “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” to the general public. Thanks to years of R-rated/mature programming, the image of HBO among the public is “the Game of Thrones channel.” Perhaps naming the service “Warner Max” or some variant including the Warner name would’ve been better.

Content badly organized

Similar to Disney+ at launch, some content is poorly organized on HBO Max:

  • The above “Boomerang” classic cartoons don’t have their own section. Instead, they’re listed under the “Kids’ series” section.
  • Said “Kids’ series” section also has a few adult oriented shows under it, including “Adam Ruins Everything,” “The OC,” “Katy Keene,” and the newest season of “Doctor Who.”
  • I saw a few “Scooby and Scrappy Doo” episodes had the wrong episode description.

No Roku or Fire TV app

HBO Max was announced a year ago; however, there’s no app for it on Roku or Fire TV devices, despite those two platforms’ dominance. I had to test HBO Max out on my Xbox; using it with a controller made for a less-than-ideal experience.

No 4K availability

HBO Max doesn’t offer a 4K streaming option for those interested in such. Disney+ and Netflix do, despite the former’s cheaper cost (Netflix charges $16/month for its 4K tier).

Several bugs

I ran into a few bugs while trying HBO Max out.

An episode of “Dexter’s Lab” played the show’s introduction twice for some reason.

For some reason, HBO Max doesn’t play in Microsoft’s Edge browser, which I’ve been trying lately.

Who should use HBO Max? And is it worth using?

Overall, I find HBO a mixed bag or hodgepodge as a streaming service. At this point, I’d say it’s worth using for the following people:

  • HBO fans, including existing subscribers and those wanting Max originals.
  • Turner Classic Movies fans.
  • Fans of either of the above who also want popular Warner-owned cartoons (plus Studio Ghibli content).

HBO Max might¬†also work as a generic “catch all” service like Netflix or Hulu. However, the price of Max and its numerous current flaws (as of this writing) makes me hesitant to recommend it for such.

Hardcore fans of Boomerang cartoons, Crunchyroll anime, or DC’s superheroes will want to look instead to Boomerang, Crunchyroll, and DC Universe instead of HBO Max. Again, I was hoping HBO Max would mean the ability to pay for a single service (versus multiple ones) that carries Superman and Scooby-Doo, but at this time, that’s not the case.

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