The comic-book superhero is making a home on television. Over the past few years, we’ve seen an explosion of superhero shows, in addition to the many movies featuring comic superheroes.
While many comic-book fans may be pleased with this gush of new shows, I’m not that positive. Here’s three reasons why.
Before the recent advent of the superhero TV show, the closest thing to one in the last decade was Smallville, which focused on a teenage Clark Kent before he became Superman. Now, here’s a look at the comic superhero shows that have (mostly) started airing recently:
- Arrow (since 2012)
- Gotham (since 2014)
- The Flash (since 2014)
- Supergirl (debuting 2015)
- DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (debuting 2016)
That’s quite a bit of superhero to take in. You’ll notice that of all these shows, only Arrow has aired more than one season – we’re just beginning the modern comic book superhero craze.
Now, these shows are based on DC Comics characters, which is because DC Entertainment has been making a heavy push into creating a “multiverse” for its superhero characters. No doubt they are envious of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
However, Marvel did take notice, and thus announced its plans to expand its MCU to a new slate of television series. Just like The Avengers, these series would each focus on one superhero and lead up to these superheroes together in one series:
- Marvel’s Daredevil (since 2015)
- Marvel’s Jessica Jones (debuting 2015)
- Marvel’s Luke Cage (debuting 2016)
- Marvel’s Iron Fist (debut TBA)
- Marvel’s The Defenders (debut TBA)
When you consider all the Marvel and DC shows, that’s a lot of superhero coming in the next year.
That’s not all! There are plenty of shows that are based on comic book characters, just not superheroes:
- Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (since 2013)
- Marvel’s Agent Carter (since 2015)
- Constantine (2015)
- iZombie (since 2015)
- Lucifer (debuts 2016)
- Preacher (debuts 2016)
All these shows add up. A comic superhero movie lasts for perhaps two hours, and we’ve had 10-15 of those (12 movies in the MCU so far, and counting DC’s efforts too). That’s 30 hours at maximum. Compare this to the total amount of runtime in a television season. Arrow and The Flash typically have 22-episode seasons, which adds to about 15 hours of runtime per season; even a Marvel show, with a 13-episode run per season, will add up to 8-10 hours per season. And we will have 5 of those!
What’s more, these shows can run for months if aired on a broadcast network, which means viewers get bombarded with comic superheroes for months and months every year. A movie-goer can watch a MCU movie and wait a year for Marvel’s next offering, TV viewers get to watch superheroes all year, and that’s a bad thing, because you never want to be watching the same thing again and again.
Marvel is fully aware of its different offerings sounding the same, which is why they have been trying to differentiate their MCU offerings. It’s also doing the same thing for its television shows – Agent Carter was more of a procedural while Jessica Jones has been promised to be a “psychological thriller first, superhero show second.”
If Marvel succeeds, and each of their shows occupy a different niche, that could make the saturation of superhero TV shows palatable, as there will still be something different to all these shows.
However, regardless of what each superhero show is branded as, it cannot escape its inevitable first season, where it has to set up the protagonist and his or her origin.
I experienced what I would call origin-fatigue recently when I watched Daredevil, which had its first season released on Netflix a few months ago. Sure, the cinematography was great at times, Charlie Cox and Vincent D’Onofrio were outstanding, and the action well-choreographed. But, was I bored.
Technically, the show was solid. It charted Daredevil’s origins well. I’m just tired of origin stories. If not for the numerous superhero origin stories I’ve watched over the recent years in the cinema or on TV, I may have felt more invested in Daredevil. And with so many upcoming shows, I can’t see my indifference going away.
I’m not hating on superhero shows, mind you. There is a possibility that Daredevil, or Jessica Jones, or any other upcoming superhero show, will grow into its distinct entity in its later seasons. But for now, all these shows have the same character in different costumes.
We’ve seen this with Arrow and The Flash. Arrow, the older show, was developed by three people: Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim, and Andrew Kreisberg. After Arrow‘s very successful second season which featured the Barry Allen character, The Flash was announced as a spin-off, with Berlanti and Kreisberg running the show.
Arrow‘s third and most recent season has run alongside The Flash, with the latter show winning critical praise for a solid first season. However, Arrow has suffered in its third season, and I suspect the absence of Berlanti and Kreisberg contributed to its dip in quality.
But wait, there’s more! A second spin-off, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, will premiere next year and feature characters that have featured in both Arrow and The Flash. And it will be executive-produced by… you guessed it, Berlanti, Guggenheim, and Kreisberg.
Now, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow will be run by Phil Klemmer, which means that Berlanti and company should not have their hands full with this show, but with two other shows to oversee, I fear that quality will be sacrificed for quantity. I hope I’m wrong, but we’ll see.
We’re in the infancy of the comic superhero show craze, so this problem may or may not surface in future shows. However, in a genre where spin-offs are so regular, making sure a spin-off matches up to its predecessor may be problematic. Once again, scheduling is a problem: movies in a franchise are often produced on a staggered scale, but in television, shows in a franchise are likely to be produced at the same time. There’s plenty of talent in the industry to go around, but people with the correct vision for the franchise are much harder to spread out among a host of shows.
I don’t hate the comic superhero show – it’s a genre that is equal to fantasy, drama, sci-fi, or any other genre out there.
However, what these other genres out there don’t have is a massive rush of movies over the past few years which have capitalised on, and fueled, the comic superhero craze. Overexposure breeds saturation; Saturation breeds repetition; repetition breeds familiarity; familiarity breeds boredom.
On paper, extending movie franchises to the television medium is a great idea, as you get the advantage of developing characters and deepening audience engagement over a longer period of time than a length of a movie. However, if you fail to do that throughout the course of a show, you just create something that people have already seen in a much shorter period of time. And that’s literally a waste of their time.
I do not know if the comic superhero genre will sustain its popularity in the future. What I can say is that as these shows populate the television landscape, the challenge of differentiating one show from another will become much harder. A “universe” of interconnected shows was previously seen as a way to cut through the clutter of competition, but now this tactic must evolve. Let’s see what happens.