3 Series That Are Raising the Bar for Comic Book TV

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With San Diego Comic-Con barely wrapped up, comic book media is fresh in our collective mind. We’re in a Golden Age, with recent hits like Guardians of the Galaxy and Winter Soldier proving that there is a market for trying new avenues of storytelling, themes, and visuals. Superhero television shows are no different, with many of today’s current slate pushing the genre forward. With the influx of comic book adaptations in development, it’s more important then ever to take a look at how three current shows are raising the bar for what superhero shows can accomplish.

Gotham

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Fox’s Gotham seems to have found an answer to the prequel problem by disregarding established comic continuity. Instead of using the source material as a road map, the show uses it as a guideline, while also shattering the audience’s preconceptions about the Batman mythos. In the show’s continuity, the Riddler hardly seems capable of anything criminal, the Penguin is an anti-hero, and Alfred Pennyworth is a semi-contained violent sociopath.

comic book, TV shows, series, the flash, gotham, agents of shield, marvel, DC, ABC, CW, Fox, Laser TimeOther staples, such as the crazed super villains of Arkham Asylum being a direct result of Bruce Wayne putting on the tights, are instead decried as a natural evolution of the city’s corruption. Alone, these small changes amount to little beyond audience confusion, but together they paint an exciting new picture that nothing is pre-established. True, the showrunners have so far only made small changes to the mythos, but each one has begun to slowly snowball, and there’s no way it doesn’t end with a character death or two.

While individual episode quality varies wildly, Gotham still stands as a refreshing breath of air in today’s wiki- and continuity-obsessed age. It’s impossible to know where things will end up — not because there’s some giant mystery, but because the tale being told is completely unique.

The Flash

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The CW’s The Flash, a superhero drama that chronicles Barry Allen’s adventures as the fastest man alive, should be awful. Audiences are bored to death of young men getting into accidents, waking up with superpowers, and fighting crime. Even having the girl he loves date someone else or his mentor hiding a dark secret are the highlights of Superhero 101. Yet The Flash is easily the best show on this list because of these overdone moments, and how it organically incorporates them into the mix. Nothing feels forced, and everything from the characters to the source material to the audience’s intelligence is treated with the utmost respect.

Case in point, the previously mentioned love interest with a boyfriend who isn’t the protagonist. Often times characters like this are hated because they feel blueprinted: once the hero can finally confess his feelings to this girl, she’ll instantly jump into his arms regardless. In The Flash, Barry Allen does this exact thing. He confesses to his best friend, Iris West, that he is in love with her and has been since they were children. But instead of jumping into his arms as expected, Iris is in tears throughout the entire speech. She’s upset that her best friend betrayed her trust and lied to her for years, while also pained from being told the truth while she’s already in a happy relationship with someone else. You know, how real human beings react to that sort of thing.

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Even the trope episodes where the protagonist is infected with a virus, de-powered, framed, facing a demon from childhood, or being mind-controlled into evil acts all feel like natural extensions of the world. Instead of trying to spread these episodes out over several seasons, The Flash does almost all of them within the first nine episodes while also tying up the origin story.

It’s a brilliant move that treats the audience and source material with respect, acknowledging that people dread those types of episodes, while making them essential to the character rather than the filler they usually are. As a result, The Flash does something different; it tries to refine the superhero genre rather then add to it. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when the bar of quality can still be raised.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

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As an Avengers spinoff television series, ABC’s Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. did not do what many hoped. Instead of translating the action and scale of its movie counterparts to the smaller screen, the series became a routine procedural comic book show more akin to X-Files than to Iron Man.

But that doesn’t mean Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson and his plucky investigative band of misfits aren’t changing the rules regarding what superhero television shows are allowed to do. Firstly, S.H.I.E.L.D. demonstrates that protagonists don’t have to be limited to extremely attractive white men in their mid-twenties. While there’s still elements of that here, the fact that two of the main cast members above the age of fifty see far more than their fair share of action is crazy compared to other shows out there.

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In addition, female characters aren’t unnecessarily sexualized and are allowed to have superpowers. That’s right, it only took about ten films and a full season, but women now have powers beyond kicking and punching someone — a first for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While Agent Carter can be considered more empowering for women, there’s no denying that having women powered up in S.H.I.E.L.D. is a big deal.

comic book, TV shows, series, the flash, gotham, agents of shield, marvel, DC, ABC, CW, Fox, Laser TimeThere is no blueprint for how to properly do a spinoff like this because, frankly, no one else does it. As a result, major studios are actively studying the successes and failures of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. so as to better inform their creative decisions. While the first season felt relegated to filler status while waiting for larger events to occur in the MCU films, the second season has done the opposite, creating major plot points that will play into future movies.

The decisions made by the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. showrunners may indeed be studied by future studio execs. The fact that a show can have that effect is basically a mic drop of what superhero shows, and in fact, the medium of television can do.

Article by contributor Byron Letourneau-Duynstee.

7 thoughts on “3 Series That Are Raising the Bar for Comic Book TV

  1. Why did you leave Agent Carter off this list? I feel like that show raised the bar in quality, female empowerment, and overall FUN! that really make Agents of Shield feel like a hollow shell. In fact, I would make the argument that Agent Carter was the best non-Netflix comic book show of last year. Leaving it off this list is a big oversight.

    1. I love Agent Carter, and its definitely a better show then Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. but I left it off the list because I wanted to keep to only one Marvel show, and sadly S.H.I.E.L.D. simply did more. Carter raised the bar in terms of quality, often surpassing even The Flash, but at the end of the day, the show is just a comic book show about a really kick-ass agent. While S.H.I.E.L.D. might have six great episodes a year, in the overall scheme of the Marvel Universe, it’s sadly more important. Having a movie originate from the (albeit kinda of terrible plot points) is such a cool idea that’s going to push others to do try the same. As I said, there’s no precedence for what S.H.I.E.L.D. is doing where as Agent Carter has some (although frankly nowhere near enough).

      1. I concede that Agents tying in with the movies is something that has not been done before and gives it quite a bit of oomph, also true with giving the women powers… But I cannot get away from the fact that most of the women on the show all fit a certain body type, and I just enjoyed that Peggy Carter is far closer to the average viewer when it comes to that. I know my fiancee and mother both appreciated it, and really enjoyed the show as a result. Neither of them can stand Agents. I know that is purely anecdotal and so does not pass as data, but I feel like that matters.

        Well, I will hope then that Agent Carter on its second season gives us a few more tie ins, perhaps with Civil War following in May it will be able to tie into Cap in some way shape or form. I do hope that ABC keeps it at its smaller run rate, as I think that is the smart way to do television, you are less likely to run out of ideas like a certain bow wielder has in his 3rd season.

  2. Meh, Agent Carter is better than Agents of SHIELD and I think that fact that it’s getting renewed shows that it is superior. I understand what why you included Agents of SHIELD, especially since it’s the MCU origins of the Inhumans, but it’s short length 8 Episodes shouldn’t count against it.
    Bored to Death and many other HBO and cable shows are only 8 episodes a season not to mention many BBC shows.

    Also, I’d say that despite cancellation, Constantine is a far superior DC miles above Gotham. And on the topic of DC and CW shows like Flash and Arrow (the later of which had a rough season after two amazing seasons) there’s also iZombie.

    I feel like people only talk about Penguin on Gotham which is a shame because they should be talking about Matt Ryan and Rose McIver on their respective comic book shows. I didn’t like the drastically different universe iZombie presents but it’s still a fun, perfectly watchable police procedural with characters I care about which is everything Gotham isn’t.

    I think iZombie is the big standout for comic book adaptations because unless I tell people that it’s a comic series by Vertigo, people think it’s just a quirky zombie genre show… which is probably going to be it’s downfall but it’s notable because it’s not burdened with everything else that most comic book adaptations are burdened with.

    -Note, I haven’t watched the last two episodes of Gotham and I missed the episode of Arrow about Felicity’s hacker past but caught everything else this season comic related. Oh wait, I only watched that first garbage episode of Powers.

  3. “3 Series That Are Raising the Bar for Comic Book TV

    3. Gotham…”

    Stops reading.

    And Agents of SHIELD is good but it’s hardly Daredevil or Arrow or even The Walking Dead.

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