First Impressions of HBO Max

After months of anticipation, HBO Max has finally arrived. And while we’re still a year out from Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the latest entrant into the Streaming Wars has a lot to offer, and a few things to work out. Granted, it’s only been available for a few hours, but many of the bells and whistles promised during a WarnerMedia event in October — such as the ability to combine viewing profiles and celebrity-curated recommendations — were not ready at launch.

On first blush, the user interface seems to be more in the Disney+ vein, with a side-scrolling banner of recommendations at the top of the screen and various curated groupings of content laid out below. Also like Disney+, HBO Max has special “hubs” that gather some of Warner’s beloved brands and acquisitions (like the Studio Ghibli library) in easy-to-locate sub-sites. However, while Disney places their mega franchises like Star Wars and Marvel at the very top of the screen, you have to scroll a bit before you can find these branded hubs.

While I like the concept of the hubs, I found the brands Warner decided to group together kind of odd. While it includes hubs for the HBO and DC brands (plus the aforementioned Ghibli), the remaining badges are odd choices to start with. Of the nine hubs available, six are dedicated to animated and/or kids content. Though having the entire Ghibli library available to stream for the first time remains one of the biggest coups of the service.

Other than Ghibli, though, the content within many of those hubs are a little anemic since a lot of titles are still caught up in rights-sharing at other platforms — including Warner’s own DC Universe, which prevents the DC hub from being as robust as it should be. But I’ll get into that more later. And the one hub that isn’t animated or for kids, Turner Classic Movies, is less a curated list of classic films than just “all the movies we have that came out before 2010.”

Considering WarnerMedia has access to the libraries of its feature film division, decades of television, and is the home of media brands like Turner and CNN, I’d rather have hubs with that content collected and easier to find. Right now, if I want to watch CNN shows like Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown or Lisa Ling’s This is Life, there isn’t a centralized location to browse that content. Side note: when browsing HBO Max under a kids profile, the hubs are largely the same minus HBO, TCM, Adult Swim, and shockingly, DC. I know there’s mature stuff on the DC page like Doom Patrol, but it saddens me that DC Comics doesn’t get its own page for kids.

Speaking of DC, while everyone’s waiting for the Snyder Cut next year, what we have from Warner’s flagship superhero brand is also a little disappointing. The only Superman-adjacent movies on the service are 1984’s Supergirl and the Shaquille O’Neal classic, Steel. But there is no Man of Steel or any of the Christopher Reeve movies. None of the CW shows save for Batwoman are on the service yet — because Netflix has the rights for now — nor are any animated series other than (the excellent) Beware the Batman. Again, because Warner has a competing streaming service just for DC content, many of the shows available there, like Batman the Animated Series or Justice League Unlimited, are not available here. This is going to get annoying real soon, and spells doom for DC Universe to exist for much longer.

By the way, both Burton Batman movies are on HBO Max and DC Universe, so who even knows anymore? It’s also interesting to note that many titles, including most of the Batman movies, are filed under the “Last Chance” category which means they will be leaving the service soon — similar to how many movies and shows cycle in and out of Netflix’s library. This is baffling to me because the whole reason streaming services have become so bifurcated is because studios wanted to hold on to their libraries for themselves. So what’s the point of Warner owning the entire catalog of Batman movies if it has to take them off the service eventually?

One thing that was a surprise when opening the app for the first time was the inclusion of all eight Harry Potter films.

The thinking prior to the launch of HBO Max was that because Universal held the television rights to the Harry Potter movies, they would be off-limits to the streamer. That’s the reason Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint weren’t on any of the marketing materials. Turns out that Universal’s rights are only for broadcast and cable. Maybe that’s something that was hammered out last minute, because it stands to reason Harry Potter is a bigger draw than Newt Scamander (who was actually on the marketing).

This brings me back to the hubs issue. Why isn’t there a “Wizarding World” hub to house these films, plus the Fantastic Beasts ones? How about a Tolkien-centered hub for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films — both the live action as well as the animated Bashki-ones? You have these brands that are as recognizable as Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars, so why not put them to good use?

This has been my issue with HBO Max from jump. While I love the idea of a WarnerMedia streaming service (and am more than happy to shell out $14.99 for it), I will never understand the decision to label the whole service after one of its sub-brands. Sure, HBO is a globally recognized brand in its own right, but that’s the problem. HBO is known for very specific content: prestige shows like Game of Thrones, The Wire, The Sopranos. It’s not exactly the place most viewers think of for watching Friends or Looney Tunes. HBO dilutes its own branding when it has to account for “so much more.” It’s not like the WB shield isn’t iconic in its own right.

Had they gone with WarnerMax or even WB+, I’d be 100% behind this service.

As it stands, the existence of multiple HBO apps means Vox has to write explainers and consumers are left confused about which service does what. Still, there’s a lot of potential, and it is definitely a worthy challenger to both Netflix and Disney in this new streaming reality.