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.
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.
Other 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
There 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.