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The best HBO Max originals and where to watch them – News Opener

HBO Max has undergone a lot of changes in the two-ish years since it launched in May 2020. At launch, the service struggled to distinguish itself for many consumers from HBO (an understandable point of confusion), and it’s been a long road to its current status as one of the better streaming libraries available.

In 2021, all Warner Bros. movies premiered on HBO Max on the same day as their theatrical debut. That changed in 2022 to a 45-day window — movies like The Batman needed to wait at least 45 days before coming to the streaming platform.

Now, even more changes are on the way. One of the first signs was the cancellation of the in-progress Batgirl movie, which was slated to be an HBO Max original. After Warner Bros. merged with Discovery, new CEO David Zaslav has made it very clear he wants to deemphasize scripted content that goes straight to streaming, leaning instead on non-scripted programming like reality television (something Discovery makes a lot of) for streaming services and instead going for big theatrical projects for scripted movies.

That’s also meant quite a few HBO Max originals have been removed from the service to reduce costs (even though they are HBO Max originals, they still have licensing fees to remain on the platform). But unlike Netflix, HBO Max does not restrict those originals to only their platform. Fortunately, even after being removed from HBO Max, they are available to watch elsewhere, through digital rental or other means. For contrast, when Netflix removes original programming (which is a thing they do!), it is straight up gone.

That’s where we come in! We’ve collected our favorite HBO Max original movies and series, as well as where you can watch them now. This does not include HBO shows like Westworld or Barry, because those are not HBO Max originals. Some of these selections are still on HBO Max, while some of them are not, and we will update this list as that changes.

The best HBO Max original series


Our Flag Means Death

Photo: Aaron Epstein/HBO Max

These days, “It gets good later” is practically a kiss of death; who could possibly have time and stamina these days to wait anything out for a vague promise of goodness? [Ed. note: TV editors do! Don’t @ me.] And yet, Our Flag Means Death was the little pirate boat that could, not only bearing out a supremely sweet show, but recruiting legions of fans in the process. Best of all, it was good. The story of a gentleman turned pirate (Rhys Darby) teaming up with Captain Blackbeard (Taika Waititi) as part engaging comedy and part emotionally intricate love story, Our Flag found genuine poignancy while also just being straight-up delightful. There are a million reasons someone might not give the show the time of day, and with one season under our belts we can all collectively agree they are bullshit. This is exactly the kind of charmer that streamers were born to keep floating — long may it reign on HBO Max. —Zosha Millman

Our Flag Means Death is still available to watch on HBO Max.

Peacemaker

A shot the end of the Peacemaker opening credits, with the whole cast posing

Image: HBO Max

As himbos continue to make their cultural importance known, it is with the utmost pride and sincerity that we continue to acknowledge how good John Cena is at playing Peacemaker. A preeminent himbo of our times, the titular character (of the show Peacemaker, in case you’re a himbo reading this) had to handle a lot: being a comic book hero no one really thought much about; coming off a villainous turn in The Suicide Squad; making a dumb jock a compelling lead character who had to deal with his cruel father and being a team player, while also still being kind of a tool and helping ensure peace across the planet.

But Cena lands them all with aplomb, maneuvering Peacemaker’s character through tricky terrain like an angry, soaring eagle. The show went above the usual comic book show delights — though it had its fair share of cameos and Easter eggs and what-have-yous — but the main reason a second season on HBO Max is so exciting is because Cena’s performance can clearly handle anything the show throws at him. Be it aliens or alienated emotions, Peacemaker is up to the task. —ZM

Peacemaker is still available to watch on HBO Max.

Aquaman: King of Atlantis

Aquaman and Mero in Aquaman: King of Atlantis

Image: HBO Max

Despite the fantastical stories they tell, animated superhero shows like Batman: The Animated series or Invincible have typically tried to ground their characters in some level of realism. That is not what Aquaman: King of Atlantis set out to do. The show is a frenetic explosion of exuberant, over the top animation awash in a neon kaleidoscope of color. It’s kinetic and slapstick in the best ways animation can be, pushing the 12 principles of animation to their very limits. Characters liquify and contort their bodies as the action and punchlines demand it and their faces frequently fill the frame with over the top expressions. Sure it’s family friendly, but it shares the same universal appeal of classic Looney Tunes shenanigans.

It’s a show that both demands and grabs your attention with its ferocious creativity. The animation has such clearly communicated emotions and action that scenes lasting only a few frames still land their punchlines. It also helps that the voice acting cast nails the madcap tone of the animation while giving the show a touching emotional core. This Aquaman is, much like Jason Momoa’s portrayal, a “fish out of water” who is still trying to understand his place in the world. And find a comfortable chair for his big butt. —Clayton Ashley

Aquaman: King of Atlantis is available for digital rental or purchase on VOD platforms.

Hacks

Deborah and Ava stand in the desert in the second season of HBO Max’s Hacks.

Image: HBO Max

Hacks wasn’t a part of its launch, but HBO Max couldn’t have asked for a better ambassador for its originals than this acidic, poignant, Emmy-winning dramedy. The series could just as easily have fallen under the HBO banner, but, as a Max original, it’s set a new bar for streaming comedies, avoiding the usual bloat and pacing issues. Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder have made the series an exceptionally compelling two-hander, as their characters remain locked in a relationship (yes, despite that season 2 finale) that defies categorization. Legendary comedian Deborah Vance (Smart) and temporarily disgraced writer Ava Daniels (Einbinder) have been exploitative boss and resentful employee, grudging mentor and mentee. Now, after the success of Deborah’s comedy special, they’re closer to being contemporaries, but that doesn’t mean their dynamic will be harmonious — or equitable. Series creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky know their way around a season closer, and the latest finale has only whet the appetite for a third season. —Danette Chavez

Hacks is still available to watch on HBO Max.

FBoy Island

Peter Park and Niko Pilalis lounge in FBoy Island.

Photo: Hassen Salum/HBO Max

Out of all the picks on this list, Fboy Island is the one that is likely in the least danger of disappearing. Reality shows are famously cheap to produce, and this one has a humdinger of a premise that could easily get sold to another network. Rather than describe said premise, I’m going to quote my friend and Polygon contributor Cameron Kunzelman, who described the show as follows (during an episode of his podcast Homestuck Made This World):

“Three women are on an island, like an island resort, with — oh, let’s say 20 men. I don’t know how many, exactly. And everyone is super hot. It’s a dating show, kind of like The Bachelorette or something like that, you know — they’re all gonna go on dates, and people are gonna get voted off one by one. So, it’s half The Bachelorette, half a game of Mafia. Okay? Like, the online forum game. Or, Among Us, for example. Because half of the men are there to really find love, blah blah blah — The Bachelor, Bachelorette kind of thing. Half of the men are there — they’re just fboys.”

The most fun part of The Bachelor/ette franchise is trying to figure out which contestants are there for “the right reasons,” and which ones are fuckboys. What if that were the entire point of the show? This is, presumably, how former Bachelor co-executive producer Elan Gale came up with the idea for Fboy Island.

The only problem is that it will make you start saying “fboy” instead of “fuckboy” in your regular vocabulary, because the show doesn’t drop the f-bomb, and over time, “fboy” starts to sound like an actual normal word. Which it’s not. —Maddy Myers

FBoy Island is still available to watch on HBO Max.

Station Eleven

Jeevan and Kirsten (as a kid) holding hands, walking in the snow

Photo: Parrish Lewis/HBO Max

The adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s award-winning novel follows a decimating pandemic and the changed society that grows out of it. An intimate, human story that takes great care with the characters it follows, Station Eleven is at times difficult, at times hopeful, and always worthwhile. —Pete Volk

From our review:

Station Eleven is that rare piece of pandemic media that dwells less on the heroism of a solution, or the thrill of a core cause, and more on the idea of the persistence of community and the creation of art. Even as the show forges numerous circuitous connections between its characters, much of its plot is left open-ended. The show’s vignettes work out more like a collage that convey emotional tones. “Survival is insufficient” is more than a mantra painted on the side of the troupe’s wagon. It’s a thread that binds episodes together; it’s a reason to stay alive at all.

Station Eleven is still available to watch on HBO Max.

The best HBO Max original movies


An American Pickle

Beardless Seth Rogen faces beardy Seth Rogen in a dual role in American Pickle

Photo: Hopper Stone/HBO Max

A warm, funny tale of family connection across generations and what is gained and lost over time, An American Pickle is a very different kind of Seth Rogen comedy (although it certainly has its moments of slapstick humor). Rogen is Herschel Greenbaum, a poor Jewish worker from a country in Eastern Europe who moves to America in 1919 with his wife, Sarah (Sarah Snook). After he gets a job at a pickle factory, Herschel falls into one of the pickling containers. One hundred years later, he wakes up in a very different Brooklyn, and connects with his great-grandson, Ben Greenbaum (also Rogen), a somewhat directionless young man who develops apps.

American Pickle’s strongest moments are when the two Greenbaums reflect on what their different relationships with Judaism mean to them, and the ways in which generations of assimilation in another culture can change your relationship with your heritage. The movie suffers a bit when it turns into a more conventional Rogen comedy of errors halfway through, as the two Greenbaums’ relationship changes into something more like a rivalry, but the heart of this generational fish-out-of-water comedy remains true.

The movie is the solo directorial debut of cinematographer Brandon Trost, who co-directed the Dance Dance Revolution-style comedy The FP with his brother Jason. —PV

An American Pickle is available for digital rental or purchase on VOD platforms.

Kimi

In Kimi, Zoë Kravitz sits at her desk and works at her computer.

Photo: Claudette Barius/Warner Bros.

Steven Soderbergh’s crime thriller takes intentional inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, in which Jimmy Stewart plays a bored man with a broken leg who passes his time spent healing by watching his neighbors and soon discovering that one of them is a murderer who must be brought to justice. Rear Window has been parodied and readapted so many times that it may come as a surprise to hear that Kimi delivers a fresh take on the concept, proving it’s not overdone — or at least, not yet.

Zoë Kravitz stars as an agoraphobic tech worker who works remotely; in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone is staying home and social distancing, so our heroine has as many neighbors to watch as the hero of Rear Window. However, since she’s an agoraphobe, she’s not quite able to head outside even with the aid of a mask, and that limits her ability to do anything about it when she discovers a murder.

She doesn’t witness this murder through a neighbor’s window — not quite. In her job as a tech worker, she runs diagnostics for an in-home device called Kimi that functions similarly to Amazon’s Alexa, recording its owners’ voices and obeying simple commands. Or, in the case of Kimi, unwittingly recording a murder in progress. It’s the perfect modern twist with a high-octane denouement during which our heroine not only has to brave the outdoors but also the accused. —MM

Kimi is still available to watch on HBO Max.

No Sudden Move

Benicio del Toro and Don Cheadle stand in a dark room with bright curtains behind them in No Sudden Move

Photo: Claudette Barius/Warner Bros.

There’s a lot going on in No Sudden Move, because of course there is; it’s a Steven Soderbergh movie, after all. What seems like a crime caper ends up as anything but, and not just because of all the double-crossing and back-stabbing at play. The first characters we meet are a bunch of small-time crooks, gangsters involved with Detroit’s underworld in the mid-1950s. Most of those foot soldiers don’t make it to the end alive, by which point Soderbergh has revealed the true criminals and malevolent forces pulling the strings behind the scenes: big business, politicians, and other monied interests, all acting with casual, careless racism. If that sounds like a slog, don’t worry — No Sudden Move’s twisty plot may be hard to follow, but its crackerjack dialogue and the uniformly terrific performances from its large ensemble cast make this film a very fun ride as well as a history lesson with plenty of modern-day relevance. —Samit Sarkar

No Sudden Move is still available to watch on HBO Max.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League

the Justice League assembled on the edge of a cliff in Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Image: HBO Max

I get why a lot of people don’t like this movie or don’t want to engage with it. The controversy, discourse, and warring fan groups are enough to keep anyone away. But if you’re able to wade through those murky waters, on the other side you’ll see one of the best superhero movies ever made, a four-hour space opera epic (in the correct usage of that word, not the bacon one) from a filmmaker who cares deeply about the subject matter and was finally able to finish a project interrupted by personal tragedy. —PV

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is still available to watch on HBO Max.



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