The day has finally arrived, and AT&T’s answer to Netflix and Disney+ is here! HBO Max is the communication giant’s big foray into streaming, and it’s a monolith of an effort tying in all of their media brands, HBO, WB, Turner Classic Movies, DC Entertainment, Crunchyroll, Cartoon Network and more, under one umbrella.
But with so many streaming options out there, an overwhelming amount nowadays, there’s a real question of the overall cost-benefit ratio for the discerning consumer. And so this morning, I dug into what HBO Max had to offer, and here’s what I uncovered, in a pro/con fashion:
- Harry Potter – I’m no fan of J.K. Rowling’s signature creation (Tim Hunter or Luke Kirby on the other hand…), but it’s hard to deny that this might be one of the biggest coups of the entire package. AT&T surely paid a pretty penny to get their hands back on the streaming rights for the world’s favorite boy wizard, and it was one of the big surprises this morning when many of us collectively logged into the new service. They have their ups and downs, but one of the biggest franchises in the world is now at your fingertips. Speaking of British magic men, they also have all of the new iteration of Doctor Who, starting with the Russell T. Davies relaunch up through Season 11. Not a bad pair for the anglophiles in the crowd!
- The entire HBO catalog – There was some confusion at the outset, not particularly aided by HBO’s unclear marketing, just how HBO Max would differ from HBO Now, the network direct subscription service…but the answer is: they’re the exact same thing, and HBO Now is getting fully phased out. So, if you’ve got a hankering for Game of Thrones, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Deadwood, or whatever HBO original (or film they may have in their lineup) suits your fancy, you’ll be able to access the full slate.
- Doom Patrol and the recent DC Films – To be honest, there isn’t a ton of DC related content as of yet. The key word that I keep hearing in regard to Max: curation, which admittedly was also the approach the DC Universe offered, so there’s not a lot new under the sun here. But you do get access to the best DC Universe Original in Doom Patrol as well as all the recent DC shared universe films like Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (the theatrical cut, rather than the stronger extended edition), Suicide Squad, and Shazam! The Joss Whedon version of Justice League is also available, so at the very least you get a chance to play the same game I enjoyed of picking out what was directed by Zack Snyder and what was inserted by Whedon ahead of the release of next year’s fully Snyder directed version. Oh, and if you go into the “Blockbuster Franchises” page, it’s officially called the DC Extended Universe. That’s it! It’s canonized now!
- The Turner Classic Movies hub: With one exception, this might be the jewel of the entire crown here. HBO Max has pulled together a metric ton of the TCM library and its great opportunity for viewers to expand their cinematic vocabulary, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to City Lights to Ikiru to Casablanca and every genre between and beyond, this is basically cinephile catnip and restores to streaming a lot of the content that disappeared when FilmStruck shut down.
- Studio Ghibli – This was the above-mentioned exception. AT&T/Time Warner made waves when it was announced that they had acquired the exclusive rights to stream the Studio Ghibli catalog for the first time, and now it’s here for an entire new generation of viewers to be enchanted by the works of Miyazaki and Takahata. And it’s almost all here with one exception, as The Grave of the Fireflies is still streaming on Hulu, possibly because of its distribution agreement with Sentai Filmworks. Pro-tip: If you want to check out one of the wildest, yet most heart-wrenching, animated films ever made, give Pom Poko a spin. (note: both Dubbed and Subtitled versions of all the films are available, except Ocean Waves, which never received a dub as far as I know)
- Looney Tunes – There is a shocking amount of Looney Tunes content on the service, including some of WB’s earliest forays into animation, stretching all the way back to 1931. It’s arranged a little oddly, trying to graft these shorts into an arbitrary season model, but nevertheless they are arranged chronologically and are easy to navigate through, so it’s a small quibble.
- Space Ghost: Coast to Coast – There’s a small but potent set of hubs for Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, and they mostly play the hits – Adventure Time, Rick & Morty, Steven Universe, Samurai Jack, etc…but I got a special thrill out of the fact that the entirety of Space Ghost: Coast to Coast was available for my viewing pleasure. There are so many awkwardly edited mid-90s interview segments I can’t wait to watch, like Space Ghost chatting it up with The Ramones and Michael Stipe.
- An attractive UI – It doesn’t surprise me, given the bankroll behind it, but I’m happy to note that the interface is really clean and nicely put together. I’m particularly fond of the hub page, which lays out all the logos of each of its respective “channels” in a really eye-appealing fashion.
- Access: The biggest problem? It’s generally a pain to get HBO Max to work on devices you probably have (Apple and Chrome products excepted). For example, they only just today announced a deal with Comcast for Xfinity customers to be able to access Max’s catalog. And if you happen to be using Amazon’s FireTV or a Roku box, you’re totally out of luck, as there are no apps for these devices. For my part, I’m streaming it through the PS4 app, which is workable, but the PS4’s outdated technology can’t take advantage of faster wireless speeds (such as those available through Google Fiber). But the lack of access on Amazon and Roku devices are a real problem for AT&T, particularly with a launch that’s this high profile.
- Bugs, Bugs, Bugs: and I don’t mean Bunny. On just the first film I queued up, in my attempt to utilize the players functions, the app crashed. This happened a few times, probably when you try to do something they haven’t quite QA’d. Hopefully these are just day one jitters and a patch is on its way, but I’d hate to be engrossed in a longer film and have this happen.
- The Crunchyroll Collection: While it’s impossible to expect HBO Max to contain the depth and breadth of Crunchyroll, still the premiere anime streaming service, the current curated (there’s that word again) selection is really quite paltry – with only 17 series to choose from. That might be enough for the anime newbie, and they have a number of the hits already up like Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Bungo Stray Dogs, and Your Lie in April, with more coming in the next few months, but I wouldn’t drop your Crunchyroll subscription for this anytime soon if you thought you might be able save a few bucks.
- Original Content: At this point there’s barely any, with shows like the Anna Kendrick starring Love Life and the competition show Legendary leading the charge, but it’s actually the kids focused content that is more of note currently, such as the new Looney Tunes series and the show everyone is talking about, if my feed is any indication, The Not-Too-Late Show with Elmo. Still, it’s hardly The Mandalorian in terms of must-see tv.
- Confusing messaging: Returning to one of the above Pros, in the lead-up to this week’s launch, it was incredibly unclear what HBO material would be available to those who subscribed to HBO Max directly, and many were left wondering: “can I drop HBO with my cable provider and still access everything with HBO Max?” It didn’t seem that way at first, but based on today’s lineup, it does indeed seem like HBO Now and HBO Max will be one and the same…but will that always be the case?
On balance, if you put aside the big question of access, which is going to be a HUGE stumbling block for those with limited device options, it’s actually one of the best streaming options out there. It’s got a better film selection than any service outside of the Criterion Channel, the animation options – while thin in some hubs – are deep enough to keep even the most avid cartoon fan riveted, particularly the Ghiblis, which remain a massive draw, and I didn’t even mention the Sesame Workshop, which includes every classic episode of the beloved staple of children’s afternoon television. During a quarantine you’ve gotta find new ways to entertain the kids after all!
Basically, if you can get it, you definitely should. But if you can’t, I wouldn’t be surprised.