Wednesday 15 October 2014

Superhero Show Saturation (VOR #27)

If hadn't already noticed, let me spell this out for you - superheroes, are freaking everywhere right now. They're inescapable. From the Hulk-smashing success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe all the way down to cutesy Funko Pop vinyl figures, those guys in tight tights dominate screens big and small. 

And it's the with the latter that this shift is most evident. This (northern) autumn, a new wave of superhero shows are hitting airwaves as TV networks race to hook audiences on weekly daring-dos from our favourite lycra-clad heroes. So, is this trend here to stay, or just a 'flash' in the pan?

ABC's Agents of SHIELD
10 years ago, weekly superhero shows simply weren't on the radar - other than Smallville, which ran for a whopping 10 seasons, and Heroes, which never sustained its initial hype, shows the focused on comic book characters simply didn't generate much interest.

Since then, we've seen a whole raft of new shows step up to the plate - ever since directors like Sam Raimi (Spider-man 1, 2 and 3) and Bryan Singer (X-Men, X2 and Days of Future Past) made superheroes cool again, TV networks have been scrambling to green-light adaptations left right and centre.

Whilst there have been some misfires over the years (The Aquaman pilot in 2006, Joss Whedon's much-discussed Wonder Woman non-starter, and Community running-joke, The Cape), the growth of this sub-genre has been massive. In the last few years, they have exploded across primetime TV - shows like Arrow and Agents of Shield are just the first few drops in an increasingly large rainstorm of superhero shows.

This autumn, the deluge begins - in the space of a few short weeks, US audiences will be treated to not one, but three pilots centred on comic book characters - The Flash, Constantine and Gotham. Further into the future, Agent Carter (you know, Hayley Atwell from Captain America) receives her own spin-off show next January, whilst Netflix will enter the market with not one, but four shows leaving the starting blocks over time. First up is Daredevil, followed by Luke Cage, Iron Fist and Jessica Jones, all of which will culminate in the now customary, team-up. Wowzers, that's a lot of lycra.

Will they all succeed? I doubt it. The sheer amount of competition will no doubt see the weakest fall by the wayside in a few short months - which one that is is up for debate (my money is on Constantine). We're already seeing signs that these new shows are facing an uphill struggle. Initial reviews of Gotham have been mixed - after all, who wants to watch all the interesting Batman characters before they were interesting? - whilst Agents of Shield, which returns for its second season this year, has seen a dramatic drop in ratings.

The CW's Arrow...
The most successful show from this crop is without a doubt Arrow. A show which started out fairly poorly, Arrow has really started to hit its stride over the last year, with the second season generating much more buzz than the first. With a hot young cast and some great writing, Arrow proves that weekly superhero fare doesn't have to be super gritty or super cheesy - it's a great blend of both.

And I think that's the key to understanding the popularity of this recent wave of superhero shows - they offer an authentic, cinematic superhero experience with familiar characters on a regular basis. In the case of Arrow, they offer a blend of Batman-esque grime and grittiness with CW-level tweeny actors and humour. Initial reviews of The Flash say the same thing - that the show is fun, frothy and a refreshing change of pace from overly gloomy Men of Steel, capturing a hopeful Silver Age comic-book vibe.

Like at the movies, we relate with comicbook characters because they aim to do good, and make a difference. Whatever age you are, superheroes embody the best and boldest of our society, as well as providing commentary on heroism, law and order and conflict. Furthermore, they provide an avenue for escapism, and allow us to pursue wild fantasies of saving the day and doing good. They're modern day icons, and even when they're dark and grimy (thanks Nolan), they pose questions on what it means to be a good person, or a hero fighting evil.

This has been the case for a long time, from the first incarnations of comicbook characters in the 30's through the first wave of superhero shows during the 70's and 80's. The less said about the 90's (we're looking at you, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) the better...

...and it's spin-off, The Flash
Anyway, for all their positives, it's kind of worrying that we're going to reach a point of superhero show saturation. Surely, there will come a point where audiences simply can't juggle watching everything from Arrow, The Flash, Agents of Shield, Gotham, Constantine and whatever else networks dream up next. I really like that they're a big thing right now, and I'd hate to see this trend become just a flash in the pan.

But, if the past proves anything, it's this - superhero shows come and go. Just as Adam West and Lou Ferrigno became stars of the past, so to will the stars of the current crop of shows. This trend will no doubt fizzle away just as it did 30 years ago - but the ideals that the characters stand for will remain.

In a TV landscape dominated by the hyperreal and the complex, I feel that superhero shows offer a light respite into the radically fantastical realm of billionaire archers and light-speed scientists, where the morally grey Walter White's are displaced by some good ol' fashioned good vs. evil. So put down your pitch forks and flick on some fun TV. Let's just enjoy it while it lasts, shall we?


  1. Great post! I'm already struggling to keep up with it all, and as you've pointed out, there's still more to come! I'm sticking with Arrow after a simply fantastic second season, and I'll happily pick up Flash too. I saw the premiere of Gotham last night and wasn't blown away, but I'll stick it out for a few more episodes before I really make my mind up.
    - Allie

    1. I'm looking forward to sitting down and racing through Arrow S2, stupid Australia gets it so late! Flash looks awesome too, we get the premiere in December. Gotham has been kinda meh, and I'm like you - going to stick it our for a bit before I make up my mind :) Thanks for commenting Allie!

  2. Nice post here, Rhys. Yeah, keeping up with movies can be overwhelming enough, trying to squeeze in time for TV shows is just asking too much. I gave SHIELD a chance, but man, that's just too much of an investment of time for something that starts out so mundane. As for the rest, I really can't be bothered. I did watch Heroes, however, after it had already hit DVD. That one did fall apart quite a bit after the first season, but it's a bit of a shame that it ended when it did, because they appeared to have pulled themselves back together with the last season that, of course, ends in a cliffhanger that'll never be concluded. :P

    1. Duuude, if you're not watching Arrow - watch Arrow! It's so much better than SHIELD, and I've read it gets even better during Season 2 :)



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