Welcome to the latest in a series of articles examining how the different streamers are fighting for your money in 2021. We've already asked whether you should cancel Netflix in 2021, or ditch Amazon Prime Video, or end your Disney Plus subscription. Now, it's the turn of HBO Max, which turns a year old on May 27, 2021.
HBO Max is almost a year old. Launching mid-pandemic, this attempt to replace HBO's existing streaming services broadened it beyond high-end premium cable shows and a big movie library, making it more of an all-round competitor to Netflix. The service has been supercharged by a few key decisions – like bringing new movies Wonder Woman 1984 and Godzilla Vs Kong to the service at a time when we're all hungry for new blockbusters, or giving Zack Snyder the opportunity to finish his cut of Justice League.
I'm fond of HBO Max as a streamer. I love high-end TV dramas, and HBO is still a great outlet for those. I also appreciate that I can watch crisp-looking episodes of Batman Beyond without digging out my fancy Blu-ray set, or that I can always find something to enjoy from its vast movie selection. The strategy of going big with new blockbusters seems to have been controversial in Hollywood's creative industry, which is reliant on box office returns for a few reasons – but as a consumer, what's not to like about watching Godzilla Vs Kong on a Friday night? We've missed the theatrical experience, but it's been a terrific way to make this service stand out.
For a service that costs a hefty $14.99 a month, that's what you want, really – though as of June, you'll be able to enjoy an ad-supported $9.99 tier, only without the benefit of all those 2021 blockbusters.
While Netflix is dependent on making its own intellectual properties to get you excited, HBO Max has the advantage of being able to lean on more familiarity – it's why it's made such a big deal about Game of Thrones spin-off House of the Dragon, which has only just begun filming. It's also why so many shows based on the DC universe are in the works, including a Green Lantern series and two spin-offs from upcoming movies The Batman and The Suicide Squad.
$15 a month is still a big ask in 2021, though, even with its generous library. So: should you cancel your HBO Max subscription in 2021? Below, we'll examine how the service is doing, then give you our answer.
HBO Max's originals are pretty strong overall
There's no doubt that HBO Max has plenty of originals to enjoy. The HBO side of the service funnels in high-end, prestigious original shows with a high hit rate – most recently Mare of Easttown starring Kate Winslet, and The Nevers, a more divisive supernatural drama.
Considering HBO's previous streaming service HBO Now cost the same $14.99 per month, there's an argument that the service is still worth it for these originals alone.
As for HBO Max's own originals, those seem to be filling the gaps in helping the service seem more Netflix-like – and broadening the appeal of the platform, particularly to women. HBO has a reputation as a high-end media brand, but the whole point of HBO Max is to take a bigger slice of the pie in the streaming market, hence why it launched with the complete run of Friends and The Big Bang Theory to stream. That's about as un-HBO as it gets.
That means the strategy for original content is a little harder to discern, at least across its first year of shows. Some stuff in there, like sci-fi drama Raised By Wolves and mystery series The Flight Attendant, sits quite nicely alongside the types of shows HBO already makes. But then there's a whole range of reality shows that are pretty un-HBO: dog grooming show Haute Dog, or the well-reviewed Craftopia. HBO Max seems to think that it needs a bit of everything to compete with Netflix.
Alongside that, there's a whole DC Comics strand of HBO Max, which is a smart play. Original shows that were previously limited to the DC Universe app now live on the service as originals – Doom Patrol, Titans and the acclaimed Harley Quinn animated series, for example. Warner has many more shows set in this universe to come, too, including a just-announced Batman animated series with JJ Abrams' name attached.
On paper, it's harder to work out what HBO Max's 'identity' is compared to other services, but that's compensated for by its library of amazing stuff. And, of course, the fact it's been rolling out big movies day-and-date with their theatrical releases for a limited time, which underlines HBO Max's true strength – that it's simply an amazing service for movies.
Releasing Godzilla vs Kong, Mortal Kombat, The Little Things and Those Who Wish Me Dead has put the service at the center of the pop culture conversation – at massive expense, of course. But these Warner releases feel like 'real' movies in a way that Netflix's films sometimes don't. The best is arguably yet to come, too, with The Suicide Squad landing on the streamer in August, and The Matrix 4 coming in late 2021.
The library is genuinely great
Originals aside, HBO Max is a genuine treat to pick through if you've never had access to HBO before. Even if you've seen a number of the biggest shows like Game of Thrones, The Sopranos or The Wire, there's so much more to dig into: cult sketch comedy series Mr Show, for example, the Spawn animated series, or innumerable great miniseries like Show Me a Hero with Oscar Isaac or The Night Of with Riz Ahmed.
That's just the HBO shows, too. On top of that, it really is fantastic to see the Batman, Superman and Batman Beyond animated series from the '90s make their home on HBO Max – these are all-time classics that have long deserved a permanent streaming home.
Then, as mentioned, the service has a suite of broad sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory and Friends – you can bet that Netflix is jealous it doesn't have any comedies with that same level of recognition, that also happen to be extremely rewatchable. This stuff is the bedrock of a successful streamer, so the core of HBO Max is incredibly strong.
HBO Max is just a brilliant service for cinema. We actually assembled a list of the best HBO Max movies this week – and only really scratched the surface in what's on offer here. Having TCM as a channel within the app means that the service offers a suite of classic Hollywood movies that lean into Warner's heritage as a movie studio. On the other end of the spectrum, the number of superhero movies is really impressive – arguably as impressive as Disney Plus's MCU library. Everything from 1989's Batman movie to Joker and Wonder Woman 1984 is served here. For movie lovers, it's a deep, exciting library.
Is HBO Max's price an issue?
HBO Max's price is a drawback of the service – and makes it a harder sell than sub-$10 services like Disney Plus, Hulu (with ads) or Apple TV Plus. As discussed at the top of this page, the launch of an ad-supported monthly tier for $9.99 – albeit one that lacks access to new movie premieres like The Suicide Squad – will no doubt help encourage people to try out the service in the absence of a free trial.
HBO Max has overcome one big drawback, by finally becoming available for Roku devices back in December. Having broader support for 4K content is something that the service still lacks compared to Netflix (which costs $3 more per month than HBO Max if you want the 4K tier) – though the new movie premieres have been available at a higher resolution. Wonder Woman 1984, Zack Snyder's Justice League, Mortal Kombat and Those Who Wish Me Dead are all available in 4K on compatible devices.
This week, it was announced that Warner Media and Discovery would merge to form a single entity – what it means for HBO Max subscribers is yet to be clarified, though some experts have speculated the service will be bundled with fellow service Discovery+ in future.
Either way, $14.99 is not an impulse purchase price, really – even with loads of great programming, it's a big ask. The ad tier might just give us an idea of whether HBO Max will be capable of capturing a Netflix-sized audience in future or not.
Should you cancel HBO Max in 2021?
If HBO Max is the one subscription service in your life, or you enjoy it in tandem with one other cheaper service, like Disney Plus, we think the streamer is worth keeping. The library of movies, the growing roster of shows and rollout of new blockbusters have made it increasingly exciting over the past year. It's successful enough as a standalone general entertainment service that you could viably enjoy it as an alternative to Netflix.
If you're looking at a monthly bill for four or five services, though, it's a candidate for the chop – simply because it costs so much. Standard Netflix and HBO Max is a combined monthly cost of $28.98. Add Disney Plus, and that goes up to $36.97. And at that point, will you even have time to watch everything releasing on the services?
For now, then, just because of the cost, HBO Max is easy to recommend if you think its lineup of content will make it your main streamer. If not, then you might want to consider only signing up when there's something you're desperate to watch – like when The Suicide Squad drops in August. But the bold swings taken with this service to date have made it much more than just an also-ran to its older competitors.
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Samuel is a PR Manager at game developer Frontier. Formerly TechRadar's Senior Entertainment Editor, he's an expert in Marvel, Star Wars, Netflix shows and general streaming stuff. Before his stint at TechRadar, he spent six years at PC Gamer. Samuel is also the co-host of the popular Back Page podcast, in which he details the trials and tribulations of being a games magazine editor – and attempts to justify his impulsive eBay games buying binges.