Even superheros who battle impossibly powerful villains on a regular basis need to slow down every now and then, especially around the December holidays. That’s why, beginning with Wonder Woman in the mid-1970s, superhero shows on television have a longstanding of tradition of celebrating the season with Christmas episodes.
We’ve compiled a list of our five favorite superhero Christmas episodes. These installments can revolve around Yuletide cheer, or simply provide a festive backdrop for general superhero action. We happen to think they are the best overall, but opinions can and will diverge. For instance: you may notice all but one of the episodes we love are from shows based on DC Comics characters. As it happens, those superhero shows put more of an emphasis on Christmas with only the animated Guardians of the Galaxy series and Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H. representing the notion of a Marvel holiday season. Considering the trouble characters like Daredevil (Charlie Cox) and Dagger (Olivia Holt) get up to on their programs (Marvel’s Daredevil and Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger, respectively), it is probably no accident they never stop to dress a Christmas tree.
With that out of the way, here are our five picks for the best superhero Christmas episodes ever.
Television shows often lean on one of three stories for their Christmas episode inspirations: O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. In Smallville’s fifth season, it chose to mix up the latter two and give Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) the life he always wanted.
After getting shot in the back, Lex awakens to find himself in a world where he gave up the Luthor ambitions — and wealth — for a “happily ever after.” Seven years later, he’s married to Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk) and good friends with both Clark and Jonathan Kent (Tom Welling and John Schneider). He also has a son, with another child on the way. An image of his mother tells him this can all be his if he makes the “right decision.” Back in the real world, Lex’s father Lionel (John Glover) volunteers him for a dangerous operation to preserve his ability to walk. It’s successful, but it ruptures the sanctity of Lex’s dream state, leaving his Dream Lana dead after she gives birth to their daughter. Traumatized by watching another person he loves die, Lex devotes himself to the way of power.
The episode, while also serving as a play on the Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons Superman story “For the Man who has Everything,” uses It’s A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol in the most twisted and wonderful way. The lights in Lex’s Christmas future are omnipresent and just too bright, giving that dreamland a sickly sweetness despite Lex’s fondest wish to be a man more like Clark. In the end, he learns the wrong lesson — or perhaps the right one if you are a Luthor — and awakens from his post-shooting trauma denying his desire to be a good man. It’s a surprisingly dark Christmas story counterpointed by Clark’s weird encounter with a drunken Santa (Kenneth Welsh) who believes the Christmas spirit has been lost. Lex would certainly agree with that sentiment.
The Flash made it a tradition to counter the Christmas season with dark developments in its ongoing plotlines, but the concept never worked as well as it did during the show’s first-season Christmas episode. Dr. Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker) spots her presumed-dead fiancee, Ronnie Raymond (Robbie Amell), wandering the streets. It is also the first anniversary of the accelerator explosion, which seemingly has Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh) down in the dumps when Barry (Grant Gustin) races to the lab full of Christmas cheer.
The most important aspect of the episode is, of course, Team Flash’s first confrontation with the Reverse-Flash. Lured into a trap by Wells and Cisco (Carlos Valdes), the titular Man in the Yellow Suit exudes a rare menace he will not have again until he kills Cisco in an alternate timeline. And while cornered, his dialogue proves him to be the most worthy of the Flash’s speedster foes. Then there comes the moment when he escapes, kills the anti-Flash task force, and yet spares Eddie Thawne (Rick Cosnett), suggesting for a moment that Eddie may be under the mask.
The sequence was genuinely thrilling the night it aired and continues to possess the kind of power and confidence the show often tries to reclaim, whether in big character reveals or Barry’s first confrontation with each season-long big bad. But none of the subsequent episodes contain a scene quite like the moment Wells reveals himself as the Reverse-Flash by offering the audience at home a terrifying “Merry Christmas” wish. The episode may not revolve around Christmas, but it uses the trappings of the season to give this key Flash character a proper introduction.
High on the Christmas spirit, the Tick (Townsend Coleman) mistakes a lowly hood (Jim Cummings) for jolly old St. Nick. When our hero interferes with the cops’ pursuit, the bank robber ends up electrocuted on a neon sign — leaving Arthur (Rob Paulsen) to explain to the Tick that there is, in fact, no Santa. The hood later awakens with a new ability to make duplicates of himself, and continues his crime spree with a new gang of Santa Clones. They inevitably interrupt the superhero community’s night of Christmas caroling, but the Tick finds he cannot fight any of the rogue Santas. He is admonished for his continued belief in Santa and almost comes to doubt Kris Kringle’s existence when Santa’s Little Secret Service appear at the Tick and Arthur’s apartment to prepare them for Santa’s arrival. He attempts to convince the Tick that it is okay to hit the false Santas in this particular instance.
Like many of The Tick’s best episodes in its animated run from 1994 to 1996, the madness inherent in Coleman’s voice keeps the story electric. Serving as contrast, though, are Cummings’ no-nonsense Multiple Santas and a pair of deadpan security guards who openly question their holiday malaise while The City becomes the Santa Clones’ toy box. And just when you think the story is going in a conventional direction with the Tick learning the sad truth of St. Nicholas, the real Santa appears to offer gifts and serve as a hilarious deus ex machina. It all culminates with the Tick’s improbable Christmas speech, with Arthur joining in the madness as both have visions of sugarplums dancing around their heads.
Still smarting from their recent losses, the Legends find a new time anomaly to keep their minds of their grief. They arrive in 1000 A.D. Newfoundland, where Leif Erikson (Thor Knai) and his sister Freydis Eriksdottir (Katia Winter) have made landfall. In the original history, Leif’s convention to Christanity led to his group going back to Greenland. But in the altered timeline, the Erik siblings remained and conquered all of what would become New Valhalla — all thanks to the new god Freydis discovered just before the Yuletide: Cuddle Me Beebo, the number one holiday gift in 1992.
When Legends finally catch up to the anomaly, they discover the Beebo doll was in the possession of the younger Dr. Martin Stein (Graeme McComb), whose 2017 self recently died in their timeline. Once they free the younger Stein, they discover Christmas is no more. It has been replaced with Beebo Day, and their attempts to fix the timeline only make things worse.
Coming off the “Crisis on Earth-X” crossover with Supergirl, The Flash, and Arrow, the team faced their most serious blow in the loss of Victor Garber’s Stein and the impending departure of Franz Drameh as Jefferson Jackson, the other half of Firestorm. Understanding this, Legends secured the brief return of original cast member Wentworth Miller (as the Earth-X Leonard Snart) and for the silliest episode of the series to that point. It proved to be a defining episode for the show, as it couched the the characters’ trauma in a patently ridiculous predicament, tried tricks like Sara’s (Caity Lotz) multiple plans for getting Beebo back from Damien Darhk (Neal McDonough), and offered an early indication that Ava Sharpe (Jes Macallan) would be a permanent fixture.
And then there’s Beebo. The throwaway parody of hot Christmas toys like Teddy Ruxpin, Tickle Me Elmo, and Furby proved to strike a chord with fans — many of whom are still waiting for official Beebo merchandise.
After saving a planet of crab-like aliens from certain destruction, the League takes a holiday recess. John Stewart (Phil LaMarr) convinces Shayera Hol (Maria Canals) to enjoy the snow on a nearby winter planet, but she suggests a subsequent celebration. The Flash’s (Michael Rosenbaum) plans to deliver a rapping and farting toy called Rubber Ducky to a group of orphans gets waylayed by the Ultra-Humanite (Ian Buchanan). Superman (George Newbern) convinces J’onn (Carl Lumbly) to come home with him to the Kent farm, where he observes Christmas in Smallville.
As the Flash says late in the episode, it’s “kinda cheesy,” but it is also Justice League’s most experimental episode. While the rest of the series was built around two-part tales of high stakes action, “Comfort and Joy” is a single episode with no central villain or conflict. Even Wally’s tussle with the Ultra-Humanite is more of a joke that leads to an emotional end.
Instead, the entire episode revolves around the characters as they navigate the holiday. J’onn silently confronts his isolation even as he discovers the magic of sandwich cookies — an in-joke from the Justice League International comic book — while Clark turns into a kid again with his insistence that Santa wrapped his presents in lead-lined paper. John enjoys the snow, while Shayera figures out a completely different way of expressing a similar joy. Then there’s Flash’s Christmas spirit speech, which inspires the Ultra-Humanite to fix the Rubber Ducky toy he destroyed. It should be as cheesy as the aluminum Christmas tree he gives the criminal genius when he returns him to prison, but the situation is just so absurd that it works.
Of course, the whole thing is aided by top-notch vocal talent, like Buchanan’s erudite take on the Ultra-Humanite and Lumbly’s definitive performance as J’onn J’onzz. His curious Martian song reminds you that this is still Justice League, even if it is taking a holiday pause. It is heartfelt and kind of corny, but its dedication to the characters makes for a magical 21 minutes of heroes at the holidays.