TAGGED AS: comics, Comics on TV, Disney+ Disney Plus, FOX, streaming, Superheroes, The CW
Traditionally, comic book characters suffer from a staggering amount of missing parents. They are shot in alleys or destroyed along with the rest of their world, or they abandon their children for a long-term deep cover spy mission. But when characters like Kamala Khan and Barry Allen made their way to television, the issue of their parents became fuel for plot lines. And with Mother’s Day upon us, we thought we would take a look at some of the best and worst TV moms to emerge out of the places where television and comics collide.
When Rotten Tomatoes published this list in 2018, we talked with Riverdale‘s Nathalie Boltt about some of the best (and worst) qualities of that CW series’ matriarchs. She described ideal mothers as people who listen, respect their children as emerging adults, and also support them utterly. She said that they definitely do not “take their own issues out on their child.”
This is the model for good parenting that we used as we looked at some of the more recent mothers in TV shows based on comic characters. Some of them excel at those metrics while others… Well, what’s the right word for someone who plots their own child’s destruction?
One could argue that the Scarlet Witch of the movie Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a very bad mother. But that takes place after the events of the Disney+ series WandaVision, so we’re looking exclusively at the version of Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) before she read The Darkhold or even realized she kidnapped an entire New Jersey town because she was in such deep grief. We’re still touched by how much she cared for her twin sons, Billy (Julian Hilliard) and Tommy (Jett Klyne). From that perspective, Wanda is both fiercely protective of their safety – even when she briefly becomes the Scarlet Witch to warn S.W.O.R.D. about entering the Hex – and understanding of their needs as they became verbal. She talks and listens to them both. That’s hard to do considering they are figments of her imagination (or, perhaps, a Multiversal echo of children some Wandas in other realities birth in a very real way).
These best qualities of Wanda as a mother also stay when she fully witched out in MoM. Once she noticed the abject fear she inspired in those totally real versions of Billy and Tommy, it was game over for the Scarlet Witch and whatever The Darkhold expected her to do.
Sure, the entire city abduction factor of WandaVision could be interpreted as a parent taking out her own issues on her children. But, considering how quickly Wanda shatters the Hex after coming to understand what she’s actually done, we’re still inclined to call her a good mother. And from the standpoint of the way she actually cares for her sons in WandaVision, it floats into best quality.
Hawkeye‘s Eleanor Bishop (Vera Farmiga) exemplifies the inverse of Boltt’s requirements for a good mother. Forever countermanding daughter Kate’s (Hailee Steinfeld) desires, ambitions, and autonomy (for all the good it does her), she only really ever has one goal for her child: to become a second Eleanor Bishop. She presents Kate with a job she does not want and derails the case that Kate is investigating with mentor Clint (Jeremy Renner). And, while most parents would be happy that their kids have hobbies, she even disregards Kate’s passion for archery.
These acts may seem like protection, as Eleanor’s motivations are frequently about keeping Kate far from her own dealings with crime lord Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’onofrio) or understanding how Eleanor’s business became successful. But it also reveals a lack of understanding, support, or even an acknowledgment of her child becoming a separate entity. We suspect those things would be true no matter how on-the-level her business turned out to be. So that earns Eleanor a poor mark.
Years after Supergirl ended its run on The CW, Dr. Eliza Danvers (Helen Slater) still easily earns a spot on the best moms list for one of the key qualities of Boltt’s ideal parent: she listens. She listened to daughter Alex (Chyler Leigh) when she came out and also heard Alex when she spoke of feeling unsupported while she was growing up. Eliza was also ready to listen to other child Kara’s (Melissa Benoist) troubles, even if Kara was less inclined to engage with her adoptive mother.
Eliza is also brilliant — remember when she aided Alex in finding a cure to the Medusa Virus? — and she has perceptive. Plus, she’s always happy to meet boyfriends, girlfriends, alien mentors, and anyone else her kids bring into the fold.
One of Eliza’s best mom moments came when her daughters returned home to their town of Midvale after each was recovering from a tough break-up. Kara was still smarting from Mon-El’s (Chris Wood) forced departure from the planet, while Alex was facing the extremely hard end of her relationship with Maggie Sawyer (Floriana Lima). Eliza welcomed them with a room that hadn’t changed in 20 years, a traditional breakfast, and the ever-so-slightest bit of advice. It managed to help both Kara and Alex move on, even if Kara soon after had to face a seven-years-older version of Mon-El.
Lillian Luthor (Brenda Strong) will never get flowers on Mother’s Day unless her son Lex (Jon Cryer) orders them from the penitentiary he sits in that’s three or four realities away from the Prime Arrowverse.
Like Lex, the now-incarcerated Lillian is both wickedly smart and just plain wicked. She shares her son’s xenophobic tendencies and his affinity for power suits. But Lillian’s greatest black mark is her treatment of her step-daughter, Lena (Katie McGrath). Forever trying to push her toward mad science, Lillian raised her with a big heaping of cold shoulder as she obviously had a preference for her biological child.
When Lena took over the family’s company, L-Corp, Lillian’s idea of mothering went from callous indifference to twisted sweetness. She kidnapped Lena on a couple of occasions and threatened her constantly. But she did attempt to kill Lena’s foe, Morgan Edge (Adrian Pasdar), as a peace gesture. Even after the events of the Anti-Monitor Crisis warped her memories and we saw a slightly different Lillian, she still egged on Lex and treated Lena as an also-ran.
Perhaps the worst part of Lillian’s attempts at parentage is the shadow she left over Lena for much of her life. Despite earning the trust of Kara, Alex, and James (Mehcad Brooks), there was always just a little fear that Lena would adopt Lillian’s worst qualities. This is one of the reasons why Lena worked tirelessly to do good in the world.
Elizabeth Tulloch not only greatly resembles the modern Lois of the comics (inspired, of course, by the late Margot Kidder), but she embodies the part with a lot of the right tenacity and ferocity. This comes in handy when she’s raising sons like Jonathan (Jordan Elsass in Seasons 1 &2, Michael Bishop in Season 3) and Jordan (Alex Garfin). At one point in the second season, Lois finally had enough of their antics and let’s her cool façade down. Even her co-parent Clark (Tyler Hoechlin) looked for cover as she ordered her boys to straighten up.
We highlight this moment for a very specific reason: Although Jonathan and Jordan had worn down her patience, her anger is never used as an opportunity to take her own issues out on the boys. This is also noteworthy because Lois, like a lot of people on this list, did not grow up in a traditional, two-parent household. Her mother abandoned her and her sister, Lucy (Jenna Dewan), while her father, Sam (Dylan Walsh), buried his disillusionment in his work in the U.S. military. Left to raise herself and Lucy, Lois somehow found a sound moral center.
At the same time Lois was proving how to discipline wayward sons, Batwoman introduced a complicated, yet terrible, parent: Jada Jet (Robin Givens). Initially presented as a cool, calculated businesswoman who gave away her daughter, Ryan Wilder (Javicia Leslie) because she believed that parenting would get in the way of her career goals, a fuller picture ultimately emerged.
And the truth only compounded the complexities of Jada’s mothering: She gave Ryan away to protect her from Ryan’s own brother, Marquis Jet (Nick Creegan), whose psychotic tendencies were exacerbated after a run-in with the Joker. (This was the same accident that killed the mother of original Batwoman Kate Kane, who was played by Ruby Rose, and made Kate’s twin sister Beth, played by Rachel Skarsten, go MIA).
Jada’s choice may have sounded reasonable in the moment. But the consequences displayed a severe lack of understanding of the depths of Marquis’s problem (Jada threw herself into finding a cure that might not exist) or to what might happen to Ryan if her mother abandoned her (after years in the foster system, Ryan finally found a woman kind enough to take her in. Then Beth killed her. Ryan was living in a van when she stumbled upon the Batwoman suit that Kate left behind when she gave up the gig).
Just because parents divorce doesn’t mean they don’t still love their kids.
A gifted neurologist and researcher, Black Lightning’s Lynn Pierce (Christine Adams) may have no longer been married to the series’ titular superhero (Cress Williams’ Jefferson) when the series began. But she was there for family meals and was quick to arrive at the house whenever there was trouble with the kids. Smart, loving and dedicated, Lynn brought humor and confidence to her relationships with daughters Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain). She also knew when they needed to be reminded of reality, like her constant insistence that Jennifer find a new extracurricular activity once she quit track.
Anissa presented a new challenge for Lynn. When her older daughter’s powers manifested in the middle of the first season, Lynn was forced to deal with two superheroes in her family and address why these powers scared her. But she treated Anissa as an adult when the child asked if Jefferson’s activities as Black Lightning were the reason the couple broke up. And, in listening to Anissa, Lynn made a startling realization that actually healed the strained bonds in the Jefferson family — a good thing since, soon, Jefferson, Anissa, and Jennifer all had powers. As the series drew to a close, the ruptures in their family were slowly repaired.
Where Lynn was able to progress through four seasons of adversity on Black Lightning, May Bennett (Franka Potente) from HBO Max’s Titans was unable to do much else but stick to her one ambition: make sure her son, Sebastian (Joseph Morgan), became the one true heir to the inter-dimensional demon Trigon. It was a big ask considering her organization, which was only ever referred to as The Organization, worked from a prophecy that stated that Trigon’s daughter would be the one necessary for him to incorporate on the Earthly plane and dominate it.
That determination didn’t leave space for what Sebastian wanted for his life. And May’s steadfast belief in Sebastian’s destiny meant she would never really respect him as an autonomous adult, listen or support his endeavors. She even held a blood moon ceremony where she made him relive alienating parts of his life to serve as proof that people feared him because they could sense he was Trigon’s heir.
Sure, he ultimately chose the path she laid out for him. But it cost her and Trigon their lives.
Fox’s The Gifted may have only survived two seasons, but that doesn’t mean that Caitlin Strucker (Amy Acker) wasn’t one of the most accomplished TV moms around. Accepting that her children Andy (Percy Hynes White) and Lauren (Natalie Alyn Lind) were Mutants with only a moment’s hesitation, Caitlin moved into gear to help them escape Sentinel Services, the quasi-government agency tasked with investigating and detaining Mutants. She also quickly accepted that her sedate suburban life was over. (Well, she accepted it after a few fits and starts and a particularly illustrative incident at a hospital).
Almost from the moment they walked into the Mutant Underground HQ, Caitlin began inventorying their supplies and set up a school situation for her children and other youngsters waylaid there. She also became a key part of the group’s hierarchy despite her own non-mutant status. And she never lost sight of her children facing their own struggles with mutant powers and the harrowing truth that, combined, they could be a terribly destructive force.
Like Eleanor Bishop, Muneeba Khan (Zenobia Shroff) initially comes off as a woman utterly intolerant of her daughter’s passions and interests (she does not care about these Avengers and their infinite wars). Additionally, Muneeba’s expectations for Kamala (Iman Vellani) to respect Pakistani traditions painted her as much of an adversary as the ones her daughter would face once she manifested superpowers.
A lot of Muneeba’s behavior was motivated by her own life experiences. Kamala is a lot like Muneeba’s mother, whose flights of fancy left Muneeba feeling adrift and undervalued as a child. The shift of acceptance was gradual, but it did happen. And, this being a superhero show, it is shown by Muneeba fashioning Kamala her true Ms. Marvel costume.
Perhaps it’s unfair to portray Elaine Walters (Tess Malis Kincaid) as a bad mother. She’s only in a few scenes of She-Hulk: Attorney at Law (the part’s so small that we couldn’t even find a press photo of just her). But even before daughter Jennifer (Tatiana Maslany) became a Hulk, the two didn’t see eye-to-eye. And once she did get those powers? Elaine only wanted to use them to her advantage.
When Jen loses her job at the DA’s office because she hulked out to stop Titania (Jameela Jamil) from attacking her courtroom, Elaine chocks it up to overreacting. Later in the season, when Jen’s barred from hulking out, Elaine asks her to move heavy items. There’s also the indelicate way she inquires about Jen’s love life, only to then lay in a dig about her being “too old” for someone.
Since She-Hulk is a comedy, Elaine’s apparent failings are only ever played for punchlines. Also, they fall by the wayside in the program’s concluding scene at a family barbecue thanks both to Matt Murdoch (Charlie Cox) appearing to be Jen’s boyfriend and her cousin Bruce (Mark Ruffalo) returning from space with a surprise half-alien son. But, when so many mothers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are attentive of their children, Elaine’s dismissive attitude toward Jen is a form of villainy.
Although Iris (Candice Patton) had her baby just as The Flash was ending its run, the time-travel nature of the show means we already know what sort of mother she will be: the best and the worst.
When Iris and Barry’s (Grant Gustin) daughter Nora (Jessica Parker Kennedy) first arrived from 2049, it became clear her relationship with her mother was frosty at best. She clung to Barry, raced out in costume to help him fight crime whenever possible, and even got to know the others in Team Flash in a way that suggested she was close to everyone except Iris. Iris, being another fine journalist in the DC tradition, perceived the distance between her and her future daughter and sought to learn why.
From Nora’s place in the timeline, Barry disappeared while fighting the Reverse-Flash in 2024, leaving mother and child alone. Knowing that Nora would inherent her father’s super-speed, Iris secretly had a power-dampening chip installed in her daughter. She also refused to engage with Nora about the Team Flash era or her father’s exploits. Future Iris, when confronted about all of this, could only say she didn’t want Nora to be another person she would lose to superhero antics.
Then things got more complicated.
Because The Flash deals in both alternate timelines and alternate realities, Nora was erased from existence only to reappear as a different version of the character. This time around, though, Nora arrived both with a brother named Bart (Jordan Fisher) and a much better relationship with Iris. She even mentions that Iris told her about the other Nora. It would seem Iris took to heart everything the first Nora told her and built a more solid foundation to relate to her daughter.
Did Iris get the best gift a parent could ask for? A chance for a do-over?