3 reasons why overexposure is the comic superhero’s biggest enemy

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.

Saturation

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.

Repetition

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.

Cannibalism

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.

Overexposure

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.

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12 thoughts on “3 reasons why overexposure is the comic superhero’s biggest enemy

  1. I can only say that I am glad for every show out there which isn’t either a police procedural or a lawyer show. I also don’t see the issue with the Netflix shows. You can bingewatch them or not, it’s not like they take away a TV slot. With the other shows…well, some of them will survive, other won’t. I intend to enjoy it as long as it lasts and watch the shows which work for me.

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    1. I can see your sentiment. The best thing about TV nowadays is that there are so many great choices, so if someone is not into the superhero genre, he or she can simply watch another (great) show and not be worse off. There’s a show for everyone, so they say, but this is outdated – there’s probably ten shows for everyone nowadays.

      However, your mention of police procedurals and lawyer shows brings me back to my point – these genres were once fresh (“Hill Street Blues”, for one), but years and years of saturation have made them as dull and inspiring as they seem today. With so many superhero shows and movies, what’s to stop viewers 5,10, or 20 years from now from rolling their eyes and saying “ugh, another superhero show”?

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      1. And despite the fact they are still going strong. Just look how many seasons Castle already has. And Lawyer shows now have found a new trend by moving away from the “good lawyer” to the “we win no matter what the cost” lawyer.
        The Superheroes show are still pretty new, plus, there is a big different between the Arrow/Flash verse, the Netflix shows and ABC’s offer. Never mind things like IZombie or The Walking Death, which might be based on comics but are not superhero shows at all. Comic book based show will never go out of style, because shows based on books in general will always exist, too. The Superhero genre in particular will have its up and downs, just like every other genre.

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      2. I do agree that police procedurals and lawyer shows are still going strong. Cases in point: “Limitless”, “Minority Report”, “The Blacklist”, and “Castle” as you mentioned, and many more.

        However, are they inventive? They are… just there. Solid choices for any TV viewer, of course, but nobody’s clamouring for “Castle” or “NCIS” to win an Emmy for Best Drama. They are the McDonalds of TV; you know what they are, and they fill your stomach, but you’re not going to see them in a Michelin food guide.

        And you’re right, the Arrow/Flash universe and the Defenders universe are different. However, they all employ the same formula, which is the problem. If I’ve seen “Arrow”, then “The Flash”, then “Daredevil”, I’ll see the same devices in a different setting. That’s the problem for me.

        The comic superhero genre will have its surge and ebb in popularity, that I agree with you. However, as I’ve mentioned with the police procedurals, popularity does not always equate to “freshness”.

        So what’s the key to keeping this genre fresh? There’s one good way: Tweak the genre, use the genre to tell a deeper story.

        Take “True Detective”. It’s a cop show at heart, but season 1 infused elements of the supernatural, philosophy, and gothic horror along with a fantastic setting. All these factors made the season much more critically loved then if the main characters were two NYPD cops solving a murder after lunch.

        So, yes, the comic superhero genre looks to be here to stay, but will the genre remain as it is? Or will it evolve? We’ll find out in due time.

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      3. I wouldn’t worry….well, at least not outside of CW. CW does what they always do, it is always the same tropes, no matter which genre they tackle. But that’s more a CW problem. In general, you can combine Comic book shows with every genre. And that’s what will keep it fresh. There is certainly a huge difference between the grittiness of Daredevil (which, to a certain degree, actually is a lawyer show), and the fun of Agent Carter (which is a mixture between period piece and spy show).

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      4. I do enjoy shows based on comic books (“The Walking Dead” and “Agent Carter”), but I would hesitate to call “Agent Carter” a comic superhero show. Rather, I’ll call it a period spy show like what you said. What I’ve mentioned so far is strictly in regards to the comic superhero genre.

        The tone of the show can, to some extent, contribute to its “freshness”. I’ve read plenty of praise for “Daredevil” for its gritty tone, because this grittiness has not been explored in this genre yet. This brings me to a point I made in my article – if the different shows in a franchise can be differentiated somehow (be it tone or new elements), perfect. Based on what has been said about “Jessica Jones”, it looks to be different from “Daredevil”. And that’s great news.

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      5. Well, I think Jessica Jones will have a similar tone but a different theme…after all, the Netflix shows are supposed to cross over in the Defender series. I am really curious how Jessica Jones plays out because she will effectively the first Superheroine with powers leading a show (well, she or Supergirl, but I saw the pilot and am not hopeful for that particular show at all).
        I don’t necessarily disagree with the points you made in your article…but I think it is kind of a thing which will work out on its own. Some shows will convince the audience, others won’t, and there will always be fresh material because comics move forward too.

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      6. Well, I’ll be watching “Jessica Jones” to see how it plays out too! I understand what you mean by letting things work out on their own. For all we know, the Defenders series will flop and scare off Marvel and DC, ensuring that no other comic superhero show will be made. (As if, but you get my idea.) It’s all about waiting and seeing. And watching.

        In a broader perspective, what drove me to write this article was the rapid rise of the comic superhero movie. Remember when “The Dark Knight” and “The Avengers” were game-changers? Now, the comic superhero movie is the new normal. When will the audience decide enough is enough? Nobody really knows.

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      7. Well, I have my private little game..since Marvel announced its slate, I have been betting on “which movie gets cancelled first”. My guess was that Sony would drop most of their slate (which already happened), that the Fantastic 4 sequel won’t happen (I think that is now a safe bet) and I am very, very much doubting that the Cyborg movie will actually happen. It’s the next on my list. But we’ll see. The only slate I am pretty sure will happen is Marvel’s.

        I am sure that most of the audience will pick, though.

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      8. Indeed. I think we can also safely say that even if the audience rejects the new Fantastic 4 movie, for example, there’s a fantastic (pun intended) chance that there’ll be a reboot in a couple of years. Just like Spider-man, Batman, Superman, etc.

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      9. Well, depends. If Fox wants to keep the rights they have to start production in seven years. Otherwise they will loose the rights to Marvel. And Marvel, should they get the rights back, might eventually do a F4 movie, but I think they are mostly interested in The Silver Surfer, Galactus, Kahn, Dr. Doom aso.

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