In recent years, the superhero genre has received a massive revitalisation thanks to numerous outings on the big screen. Films like The Avengers, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy, and numerous attempts at the Spiderman franchise have turned names like Steve Rogers, Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne into household names. Superheroes are becoming more and more prevalent, whether it is through other mediums (Lego, Disney etc…) or through their own independent franchises. The top grossing movie lists are now populated with movies of people in constumes fighting crime.
What is often ignored, however, is the presence of the superhero genre on the small screen. Television, in my opinion, is in fact a better outlet for superheroes than film could ever be, for one very simple reason. With film one has two choices. Either tell the story you want to tell in only a couple of hours but maintain the attention of the viewers, or split the film into several parts allowing the story to be told, albeit by breaking the flow. Television shows are serial, allowing for self-contained story arcs, or month long epics. This is the closest that live action media can come to replicating the sorts of superhero stories seen in comic books.
Television currently has a plethora of so called superhero shows on at the moment, with the epics of Arrow and The Flash, the espionage stories of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D., and the deeply human stories from Heroes. Whilst it is no means a new genre, with shows like Smallville and previous seasons of Heroes being around in the early 2000s, it is now entering its golden age. In the past, superhero shows were never honest with themselves in terms of their own identity.
Smallville for instance, whilst marketing itself as a story about the early years of Clark Kent (Superman), does so through varying different (and often strange) mediums. It bounced from thriller to sci-fi to high school drama to grand epic to workplace drama and back to thriller. Whilst the intent would have been to show variety and diversity in super powered characters, the end product ended up being all over the shop. Iconic comic book characters were portrayed in terrible ways to give more screen time to a contrived three-season long love story. At some point it forgot what it wanted to be. Heroes was a bit more focused at least, but this was both a success and a failure.
television is a better outlet for superheroes than film ever could be
Throughout its original run, Heroes identified as, and consistently portrayed, a show about the human reaction to superpowers. Its first season tackled this incredibly well, and remains one of my favourite openings of any TV series ever. As time went on though, it seemed parts of the plot were neglected to focus on individual characters. Two characters with completely opposing ideals, who we expect to fight off in an eventually epic fight, actually ended up on the same side at the end (despite one killing the others brother). It also tried to achieve scope with a plethora of different characters, but never really took any of their plots anywhere. There were at least five different possible futures at one point, some just explained away with a sentence, and some leading nowhere. With the success of early Heroes, the Nolan-Bale Batman films and eventually the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), it became clear that the public were open to superheroes again.
So in 2012 when the CW channel released Arrow, the gritty superhero thriller, it was an instant success. And yes, whilst this iteration is more of a vigilante, I still classify it as a superhero show. Following on from the gritty Nolan Batman, the CW re-imagined the robin-hood like character of Green Arrow on the small screen. Whilst somewhat grittier than the comics, it was still faithful to the antics in the source material. Following this in 2013 came Marvel’s Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D, a spy thriller built around the shared MCU films. It set the ground for later shows such as Daredevil and the upcoming Jessica Jones.
DC then later rounded out the back and forth with The Flash, arguably the best superhero program out there at the moment. Perfectly straddling the flare of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with the down to earth grittiness of Arrow. Furthermore, it is both honest as to what it is, and loyal to the source material. The Flash perfectly captures the light hearted nature of Barry Allen from the comics whilst, as previously mentioned, channelling the gritty nature of the genre. To conclude, with new seasons of Arrow, The Flash and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and a reboot of sorts for Heroes, it seems that the genre has firmly entrenched itself. All the superhero shows on television at the moment have shed the awkwardness of their first seasons, and established themselves in their own identity. So, for the most part, I would highly recommend that you check out all the shows that I’ve mentioned here.
the flash is arguably the best superhero programme out there
The last show on our list is, cyclically, our first. Heroes has recently received a ‘revival’, for better or for worse. Yes, it has rebooted itself with fresh characters and new plots, but it reuses a lot of the old tropes. The new characters do serve as a breath of fresh air, but a lot of them are functional ‘clones’ of the original cast (some of them even repeat old lines word for word). All of this is somewhat overshadowed however, by the fact that for all intents and purposes, the current protagonist is a reused character from the original show. Time will tell whether or not Heroes Reborn embraces its new innovation, or becomes too reliant on its past.
Regardless of the problems that these shows possess, its clear that superhero TV shows are entering a new era of quality. As both Marvel and DC’s universes expand with an ever greater cast of characters, I expect to see a lot more on my television screen. And I am very happy about that.