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Are there too many superhero shows? It’s a question that has been raised frequently in recent years, with the premiere of Supergirl on October 26 once again starting the debate. But too often the discussion centers on the idea of a superhero bubble that must eventually pop. People don’t have the money, or the interest, to keep watching all of the content being produced etc., etc. While I agree that the growth of the superhero genre, in both TV and film, has been explosive and will eventually slow down, I’m not as interested in that as I am in the quality of the series and what they’re trying to do differently from their predecessors and contemporaries. As a whole, how has the genre improved? And how can it continue to develop?
(SPOILERS for Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and Daredevil.)
The DC animated universe (DCAU) was an incredible network of compelling and interrelated stories well ahead of its time. Despite its enormous cast of characters, it was able to give everyone a sense of importance and provide characterization that made what could have been carbon copies (Stargirl and Supergirl, for example) into separate characters with their own relationships and desires. Unsurprisingly, this vast architecture has many lessons for the various series on air and in development, with their take on origin stories being the most prominent of these. I remember watching the first episode of Batman: The Animated Series, “On Leather Wings,” and wondering if I was watching the right one. It didn’t showcase a young Bruce Wayne stepping into Crime Alley with his parents, or a Bruce Wayne deciding to become Batman; it started out with Batman in his prime, on the case of a mysterious bat-like creature in Gotham City. Batman’s origin was already so well-known at that point that the creators decided to not show something they thought the audience wouldn’t be interested in. With its pilot episode ignoring what led to the destruction of Krypton, and shifting perspective from Kal-El to Kara Zor-El, Supergirl has showed echoes of this lesson. But the premiere definitely suffered for trying to shoehorn so many story elements into the character’s introduction. The nature of Batman was much more episodic, and a lot of Kara’s backstory had to be explained because of her character existing in the shadow of Superman, but Supergirl could’ve done with acknowledging that there are a lot of things the audience will buy into without having them explained immediately. One of the reasons I’m so interested in watching Jessica Jones is that we’re not going to be starting out at square one. Jones is a former superhero whose relationship with Kilgrave looks like it will define the season. Off the top of my head, the short-lived Blade: The Series is the only “superhero” show that began its narrative after the hero-ing had begun, meaning there’s a lot of potential to enter our protagonist’s stories at places we haven’t seen before.
The DCAU could also inform a spinoff team-up series like Legends of Tomorrow. The need for Martin Stein to pair with a compatible individual to form Firestorm appeared in three episodes of The Flash this season, and while that was pulled off in a mostly organic and interesting way, the same cannot be said for Sara Lance’s poorly executed resurrection on Arrow. One could argue that part of the excitement of Legends of Tomorrow is seeing its characters appear on the two aforementioned shows, but you have to take into account that only Batman and Superman were established characters in the first episode of Justice League, “Secret Origins: Part 1,” which managed to give partial origin stories to Martian Manhunter and Wonder Woman, and throw in the Flash (even though he had previously appeared on Superman: The Animated Series). Almost more impressively, the next episode, appropriately titled “Secret Origins: Part 2,” introduced audiences to Hawkgirl and John Stewart as Green Lantern. Lines like “Sorry I’m late – there was an uprising near Rigel 9” and “Hawkgirl? What’s she doing here?” immediately imply previous relationships between the characters, a narrative shorthand current viewers could benefit from if it means avoiding forced storylines and poor characterization. Of course, Sara coming back from the dead is something more than can be accounted for by a, “Nice of you to drop by,” but why couldn’t Rip Hunter be the one to put her into the Lazarus Pit (with the series making a big deal out of the reveal that she’s still alive)? Perhaps a little too much emotional territory to navigate through in the first episode of such an ambitious series, but not everyone has to be a known quantity by the time a team-up show kicks off.
A Watchful Protector
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy is commonly lauded as one of the greatest comic book movie series of all time – and for good reason. It was able to take what had turned into a pretty goofy film franchise into something that resonated with filmgoers, myself included. However, the success of the series is one of the reasons why the term “grounded” is overused in relation to pretty much any superhero project – more often meaning “dark” than “rooted in strong and nuanced characters” – and as with any success, it has born a number of copycats. So let’s talk about Arrow. The series pretty unabashedly incorporated the tone of Nolan’s movies, a shame considering his charmingly humorous portrayal on Justice League Unlimited, and has more recently added core elements of Batman’s mythology; most notably, putting Oliver Queen in the Bruce Wayne role of protégé to Ra’s al Ghul. Obviously, there are audiences who haven’t seen Batman Begins or heard of these characters before, but swapping Bruce for Ollie came across as incredibly lazy, something the show has recently repeated by giving Damien Darhk almost the exact same motivation as Ra’s (even if this makes sense).
On the flip side of this, producers are starting to notice that dark doesn’t always sell. The much more lighthearted and colorful Flash has, according to an article posted in April by Den of Geek, “consistently pulled in roughly one million more viewers than Arrow every week since its debut,” demonstrating there is pushback against only one flavor of superhero and opportunities for the TV landscape to adapt. Supergirl, which not only premiered with the highest ratings of any new fall series but had the highest ratings of any comic book TV adaptation that premiered this century, is a particularly reassuring sign of this, as it has a gender diverse cast and focuses on a female hero. The struggles of female heroes have certainly not been seen on TV as much as their male counterparts, not to mention the stories of heroes from minority groups, transgender heroes, gender fluid heroes, gay heroes… Keeping that (and the fact that the number of individuals in all of these groups are increasing their presence in Hollywood) in mind, there’s definitely room for the superhero genre to continue expanding.
Super Knows Best
In addition to the reuse of the Ra’s al Ghul “slash and burn” ideology, superhero shows are pretty guilty of going over well-worn territory. Arrow and Daredevil have both extensively covered the “I have to protect the people I love by keeping my secret from them” trope, with Daredevil even using the episode “Nelson V. Murdock” to show the fallout from Foggie learning Matt’s secret. Luckily, again there have been attempts to move past this, as Supergirl’s Kara Zor-El immediately tells Winn about her powers, James already knows, her sister saw her save the plane she was on, and Hank knew through his association with her sister. The Flash also suffered from keeping a character out of the loop in Season 1, but Iris having a substantial role on Team Flash has been one of the strongest aspects of Season 2. Perhaps this is only because I had been waiting so long for her to have her time in the sun, and it might be more indicative of the showrunners wanting to prolong the longevity of the series, but it illustrates there is room to move away from these tendencies to the benefit of the genre, especially where female characters are concerned.
A big problem with the genre (and others, naturally) is the way the writers underestimate the audience’s intelligence. Take Daredevil, for instance. Wesley has been a consistently well-spoken character on the show, with never a moment where his vernacular is called into question. But during his confrontation with Karen Page in “The Path of the Righteous,” he supposedly goes all out. “You’ve proven yourself resourceful, tenacious, with a commendable ability to convince others that your way is the right one, the way that needs to be followed, pursued despite the obvious repercussions such actions may incur,” he says, causing Karen to ask, “Is that even English?” I imagine this was something said to spite Wesley, question the need for any kind of advanced vocabulary during such an encounter, and to allow Karen to act as an audience surrogate, but I remember immediately thinking that Karen’s smart enough to know what all of those words mean. More than that, they’re not exactly the most advanced words to begin with. A bigger and more significant moment of this issue to the superhero genre was seen in The Flash episode, “The Flash of Two Worlds.” As superhero shows have a tendency to introduce outlandish concepts and technology, they often go to great lengths to ensure the audience is with them before moving on. With The Flash, a big set up for Season 2 is the fact that the multiverse exists, but instead of trusting viewers to buy into the concept quickly (something even Family Guy managed to do), they belabor the point like it hasn’t been seen on television before and throw Joe West under the bus so the other characters can explain what’s going on. As with tropes of the superhero genre, writers should realize that the audience is starting to grow wise to the crazy concepts of superhero shows and not use poor barometers for viewer confusion.
I Didn’t Want it to End
After Daredevil tapered off toward the end of the season, I’m admittedly less excited about the rest of the Marvel-Netflix lineup than I was before. However, the format itself shows a lot of promise. By making each season 13 episodes, it allows them to craft a tighter narrative, and I imagine it decreases the chance of each show outstaying its welcome (something I’m starting to feel with Arrow). If the rumors about an Iron Fist TV movie are true, the field could be wide open for other briefer, but still robust, interpretations of superhero material.
Test Your Might
When Arrow first started, I thought it had pretty cool fight scenes. Not as hard-hitting as those from Human Target Season 1, perhaps, but a step in the right direction. As the show continued, however, the action became kind of busy and more of a means to an end than something entertaining in and of itself, which is why I was so excited by the early descriptions of Daredevil’s “[brutal]” fight scenes. Again, though, I ended up being disappointed. To its credit, the show delivers fight scenes significantly better than the moving pieces that Arrow reduces its physical confrontations to, but Matt Murdock sometimes performs unnecessary moves and flips (ostensibly to point out that he is a good fighter), and there is something to the sound design or stuntwork that makes his hits seem to land too softly. Series like Person of Interest, and the previously mentioned Human Target, are able to cross the divide that superhero shows aren’t able to yet, which makes me wonder why this is. Is it the divided budget between special effects and fight scenes, or are the writers banking on more of the enjoyment coming from seeing these characters on screen at all? For my part, I’m hopeful that the rest of the Marvel-Netflix lineup is able to show improvement on this front, especially if Iron Fist happens.
Looking elsewhere in the Arrowverse, The Flash consistently struggles to give Barry Allen a challenge that couldn’t be taken out with a high speed punch and often forces him to go to unnecessary measures to take out the villain. I see this as a problem that a shortened season might take care of, as I imagine the writers sometimes have to “save” methods of limiting him (or threats powerful enough to take him on) for later in the season. Coming at it from another angle, this may simply be a problem with the show’s construction. The anime One Punch Man focuses on the fact that Saitama can’t find an enemy strong enough to actually fight him, detailing the boredom that results from never facing an enemy that can touch him and Saitama’s search for ever more powerful foes. Not exactly standard superhero fare, but trying to make the power differential part of the story for overpowered heroes like the Flash might help avoid such poorly executed fight scenes.
Time Travel, Wormholes, and King Shark
I’ve said this before, but TV has really come a long way in showcasing visual effects that rival those seen on the silver screen. Some of the things realized visually on The Flash would be inconceivable to the me that watched Smallville, and I’m excited to see the divide between VFX on TV and film continue to close.
When people think of superhero shows, they think of people in spandex flying around the city. And in some ways, that’s how I’ve decided which shows (of the ones I watch) to talk about in my discussion. Thankfully, this is not the sole metric by which TV executives decide which projects to greenlight, as there are a number of superhero shows in development that don’t exactly conform with genre expectations. The Boys, which is being shopped around from what we last heard, is a series by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson that follows a superpowered CIA team that keeps the reckless superheroes of the world in check. A series like this would almost be the antithesis of the traditional superhero trend that TV is engaging with right now. And even if we’re talking about more traditional good guy heroes, there’s the entire Valiant universe on the way, with stories that a lot more TV viewers are unfamiliar with than anything from Marvel or DC’s stable.
In short, though there has been a decent amount of misguided or lazy overlap between the superhero shows we have (or have gotten), there’s clearly still room for the genre to develop. As TV and film become more and more inclusive, the stories of underrepresented groups will have a chance to be told. And as shows like The Flash play around with their more comic book-y storylines and concepts, TV developers will hopefully realize that the average viewer is more attune to these ideas and plots than they were before. If the pantheon of heroes from the Valiant universe are taken into account, and the potential for a series with an anti-hero sentiment like The Boys, moves are certainly being made to prevent superhero shows from stagnating and to continue diversifying the genre.
Featured image via YouTube.