Some people say that we’re in the golden age of TV, but those people also tell you the small screen is the new novel. The argument is an oversimplification that doesn’t recognize the evolution of the digital landscape, which sees TV as more than what’s available on your 50” plasma. Television, in actuality, is going through its microevolution, the speciation of the medium as we watch TV as we know it divide and isolate itself from its origins. And in its current phase of speciation, TV has developed superpowers.
Or, rather, developed endless superhero series.
There’s a lot to love about superheroes. Their narratives engage a variety of issues, often subversively, making excellent use of metaphor along the way. The characters are well-drawn and patiently constructed, crafted over decades. The villains, vices, and virtues in the universe of the superhero are analogous to real-life evils: big business, corrupt politicians, prejudice, substance abuse, and fighting for the common man. Superheroes can leap tall buildings in single bounds. Superman, as a character, makes sense to us because we can both admire and identify with the themes of love, loss, loneliness, otherness, and good versus evil writ large across his life.
The root of the appeal of the superhero series for networks and digital content providers is obvious: a built in audience that understands the malleability of the property and existing narratives from which to populate a series. Comics tend to have multiple universes, timelines, narratives, and writers, so their audience understands an adaptation may take licence to suit the needs of a new medium, and may have many voices contributing to its construction. Characters may be added or amalgamated, origin stories retold or rebooted, and narratives diverged from expectation or canon.
None of this is new, either. From George Reeves’ Superman of the 1950s and the kitschy Adam West Batman to the questionable appeal of Lois and Clarkand Smallville to the before-its-time genius of The Tick, television has, with varying degrees of success, brought many a superhero universe to the small screen. But with the expansion of television—or what we call television—comes the need for more and more content. And there are only so many Kardashians.
A recent count by Den of Geek put the number of comic book television adaptations—for the most part super- or antiheroes—at no less than forty, adding to the dozen or so currently on TV. What I’ve found interesting is that for the most part they’re not compelling at all. I love superhero narratives. I love the popcorn excursion of a summer Marvel blockbuster. But for some reason, when they venture to TV, I lose interest.
Writer and producer Greg Berlanti has been responsible for bringing four DC Comics properties to TV. Supergirl, Arrow, The Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow were developed for the small screen by the erstwhile formerDawson’s Creek, Jack & Bobby, and Brothers & Sisters writer. And, frankly, all of those productions have the teen soap quality of his former endeavours. They’re dating arcs wrapped around saving-the-world narratives, romcoms with action sequences. Perhaps that’s what happens when big screen ambitions meet small screen realities, but I just can’t bring myself to invest in the series. I made it through two seasons of Arrow before Stephen Amell’s abs proved tiresome, two episodes of The Flash just to take solace in the fact that Tom Cavanagh was still alive and getting work, the pilot of Supergirl before groaning, and I don’t know what Legends of Tomorrow is.
The disappointing adaptations are not limited to Berlanti. Over at ABC, where good projects go to be Disneyfied, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter failed to yield products equal to their promise. Perhaps they should’ve let Shonda Rhimes produce. FOX is doing its best to kill any interest in Batman with Gotham, a show that answers the question no one asked: What was Gotham City like before it was interesting?
Admittedly, I’m being a little harsh. These adaptations aren’t awful. They’re not Dads. The problem is, we’ve simply got too many superheroes doing the same thing, much as we have too many medical and police procedurals, too many white men hosting late night shows, too many sitcoms that don’t make anyone laugh. The problem is that, as with many TV forms, those producing the programming are disinclined to push the limits of the medium. Superheroes are easy, and they’re ultimately forgettable. They’re taking up schedule space, but they lack the enduring longevity and inherent legacy of the literature that birthed them.
The only place where superheroes seem to thrive, at least in terms of presenting interesting and dare I say literary series, is on Netflix. Unrestricted by the network model, the properties they’ve invested in have shone.Daredevil is a gritted, violent twist on the procedural that is a tribute to its source material and rids us the memory of Ben Affleck in tights—until this summer, anyway. Jessica Jones is an intelligent, bold, and creative essay-like dissemination of consent, rape, PTSD, gender stereotypes, sexuality, and patriarchy. Jones uses the format of a noir thriller as a mode for the titular character to confront her, and our, issues.
The streaming service will add Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and Marvel’s The Defenders to its superhero stable by year’s end, and one can only hope that they employ the same formula that made Jessica Jones compelling: ambitious adult television that engages in important contemporary issues that just happen to have characters who have superpowers. Jessica Jones addresses societal concerns that the rest of television either ignores or mocks. Hell, Jessica Jonesaddresses societal concerns that the rest of the western world either ignores or mocks. The series confronts more important issues in 13 episodes than the media can manage in a year.
The challenge content producers have is to keep the viewer from feeling the affects of a saturated market. The medium evolves quickly in a digital universe, and the ever-fickle viewer can only allow a few brief moments of interest before attaching to something new. Look how quickly the sitcom died. Superhero series could be primetime game shows before the calendar bleeds into 2017. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, TV has failed to adapt to its new realities as swiftly as the market has. So how does the superhero series remain a viable TV genre without simply over-producing existing properties?
Like any art form, the best way to adapt to evolution is to disseminate materials in a different way. Music has adapted to technology by introducing new techniques, new genres, and new ways of arranging old chords. Visual art has stumbled sideways into new media and interactive installations. Like any TV genre, the superhero series needs to find new ways to tell old stories. One such ambitious endeavour is NBC’s Powerless (sidenote: this is the first time since 1987 NBC has been referred to by anyone as ambitious), which Varietynotes is “a workplace comedy set at one of the worst insurance companies in America — with the twist being that it also takes place in the universe of DC Comics. The show is about the reality of working life for a normal, powerless person in a world of superheroes and villains.”
Genius. Exploring a universe from the periphery is exactly what the genre needs, not unlike Marvel One-Shots, short films set within the Marvel Cinematic Universe that explore less grand and hero-inclined narratives. In one of the shorts, a couple finds a Chitauri gun left over from the attack on New York seen in The Avengers, which the couple uses to go on a crime spree. It’s a fascinating look into what happens in the margins of the superhero universe. This is the route Gotham should have taken instead of desperately pandering to its source material by featuring villains before they were villains and heroes before origin. But Gotham is victim to a malady that has befallen many TV genres: becoming common, and blending into seemingly endless TV landscape.
With endless source material at the disposal of desperate programmers, the superhero series is now a genre, like comedy or drama or reality TV. Television, as an art form, is better off with its inclusion. It promotes a more diverse schedule. But in order to remain relevant as an art form, it needs to adapt and challenge itself to avoid the descent of the sitcom into recycled and tired concepts or the pandering simplicity of network dramas that refuse to break the tropes of their structure. Truthfully, it needs a hero.
Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJ. He is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author of Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.