What’s on the Box?: Superheroes on Television

Whatson the BoxOkay, I’ll admit: I’ve never been a big fan of superhero properties on television. Growing up, I never watched The Incredible Hulk as it was never on television when I was a kid – the closest I got were the three made-for-television movies that came out of it (which, incidentally, I liked as a kid). Similarly, the only exposure I had to the old Spider-Man television show was from the three “movies” that came out of it. In fact, probably the only superhero television show I was regularly exposed to as a kid was, of course, the 1960’s Batman show and even that was primarily through the movie.

No, as a kid, I grew up watching superheroes in animation: Batman: The Animated Series, the ‘90’s Spider-Man, basically all of the Marvel properties at the time. That was where it was at; animation was much, much closer to the comic books than anything in live action at the time, even compared to the live action movies that were coming out as I grew up. When Smallville first started airing, I pretty much gave it the pass by. I watched a few of the early episodes, but not much more. This really came out at a time when I was in my mid-teens, I believe, when loads of teen-centric shows were on E4 and the like (One Tree Hill, Dawson’s Creek, all that stuff) and I didn’t have time for any of it. Smallville easily fit into those categories, which was enough for me to ignore it, but when I did flick on to it over the years I became increasingly turned off by the deviations from the source material and the creative licensing taking place on the show.

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Smallville got way more interesting once it included more comic book elements.

Ironically, I believe that Smallville actually did improve over time, especially by referencing and including more comic book-related stuff, but when I realised it had hit the ninth series and Clark Kent (Tom Welling) was no longer living in Smallville, was working at the Daily Planet, basically married to Lois Lane (Erica Durance), and saving lives daily in multiple variations of his eventual Superman costume, and yet despite all this he was not Superman, I was irked, to be frank. I never quite understood the logic of making a show that is about a young Clark Kent, that charts his journey from an unsure teen to the eventual saviour of humanity, and yet never actually evolved into a Superman show for the last season even though it practically was given that Clark was battling Doomsday (Samuel Witwer), of all people, and chumming around with Green Arrow (Justin Hartley). The final episode finally capitalised on this and had Clark assume his birthright to defeat Darkseid, but many were disappointed that we never got a decent shot of him as Superman. I guess they were trying to avoid degenerating into Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman but, surprisingly, I enjoyed that show as a kid – it struck a very similar balance between drama and superheroics and didn’t have half of the comic book inclusions as Smallville and, if I’m not mistaken, was pretty popular and successful at the time.

Anyway, after Smallville ended, I watched a few re-runs and my 50/50 split of the show only increased. Simultaneously, there were persistent rumours that Warner Bros. were trying to fill the gap with a potential Batman prequel show, following a young Bruce Wayne (apparently this was even the initial pitch for Smallville but Batman was toxic at the time due to Joel Schumacher), one that charted a pre-Robin Dick Grayson, an attempt at an Aquaman and Flash spin-off, and even a Green Arrow series!  Ultimately, only one came to fruition but, rather than a spin-off featuring Hartley’s Green Arrow, we got an entirely new, unconnected series depicting the origin and evolution of the Emerald Archer.

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It’s only recently that I’ve started following Arrow.

Again, I don’t recall actually watching much of Arrow when it first aired as it conflicted with work and my life and such, but I did watch the first episode at least, an a few episodes here and there. My resistance to Arrow stems from the fact that Warner Bros. seem to desperately want to make a Batman television show but were unable to due to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films, so they used Green Arrow as a substitute. This rubbed me the wrong way, as Green Arrow – or “The Hood”, or “The Arrow”, or “The Archer”, or “Steve” – (Stephen Amell) would frequently clash not with classic Green Arrow villains but with Batman villains – Deathstroke (Manu Bennett) was a prominent villain in the fist season, just as he had been in Smallville and Teen Titans. Now, in the comics, Green Arrow initially did start out as a rip off of Batman – he had an Arrow-Cave, an Arrow-Mobile, a kid sidekick, and even an Arrow-Signal. However, for far longer, Green Arrow has been portrayed as a street-level vigilante who targets the corrupt and those untouchable by law, frequently killing them, and protecting the “little people”. This has existed alongside the more adventurous version that was a member of the Justice League; Green Arrow’s right-wing sensibilities and strong moral beliefs often clashed with other, more conservative superheroes, and his everyday life as Oliver Queen, multi-millionaire, often facilitated his vigilante actions through urban renewals and the like. Arrow follows some of this tangent, with Queen returning to “Starling City” after being marooned on an island (and, later, in Hong Kong) and surviving against nature and a clandestine organisation using the impractical weaponry of a simple bow and arrow. Queen’s mission is to take down the corrupt of the city and avenge his father’s death, which means he kills a great deal of people in the name of the greater good, which I agree with and like – Green Arrow has often been portrayed as a slightly more morally-unhinged version of Batman and, for all their similarities, they have often clashed because of this.

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Arrow has become much more of a team-based affair.

As Arrow went on, I largely ignored it because I didn’t agree with the seeming lack of faith Warner Bros. had in the character or the series. Like Smallville before it, the show avoids naming its titular hero even though he was popularly known as Green Arrow in Smallville. I’m sure there’s the case for this, that the show is meant to show Queen’s progression from a simple vigilante to the city’s hero (things like him upgrading his tech, adopting an actual mask, and renouncing killing support this) but why not just call him Green Arrow?  Ironically, I actually dislike the Green Arrow moniker as it’s kind of redundant – he wears green and shoots arrows, no shit!  Much like Green Lantern, I have an aversion to superheroes who preface their name with a colour and much prefer the show’s moniker of “The Hood” as it’s far more fitting. I got more into Arrow as the second season drew to a close due to the inclusion of Arsenal/Roy Harper (Colton Haynes) and the series-changing events initiated by Deathstroke. With Deathstroke having practically levelled the city and Queen basically poor, the show had raised its stakes for season three. Additionally, Queen had built a tight-knit group of allies, with Roy actually adopting the suit and outfit of Arsenal to become his sidekick! After years of Batman movies dodging, avoiding, criticising, and suppressing Robin, we finally had a depiction of a young teen sidekick that fit and actually made sense. My hope is that Arsenal’s inclusion and increased exposure will relax the embargo surrounding Robin and Nightwing at Warner Bros. and allow for their inclusion in their stupidly-unconnected series of DC films.

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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is still tenuously related to the larger MCU.

Now, a big part of the reason I avoided Arrow was also because of the growing Marvel Cinematic Universe, which eventually spread into television with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. After the events of Marvel’s Avengers Assemble, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) is revealed to be alive and builds a team of agents to investigate supernatural, paranormal, extraterrestrial, and superhuman incidents across the globe. The main thrust of the first series was the team coming together, leaning to trust each other, and the quest for answers regarding Coulson’s resurrection. However, this soon overlapped with the emergence of HYDRA agents within S.H.I.E.LD., which crossed over with the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which saw the destruction of S.H.I.E.LD. Many supporting characters, and main character Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), were revealed to have been HYDRA agents, and the unlimited resources available to Coulson were stripped away by the end of season one. Simultaneously, it is revealed that Direct Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) used an experimental serum and procedure, derived from an as-yet-unnamed alien source (it was recently revealed to be of Kree origin), to facilitate Coulson’s resurrection – this same serum drove HYDRA double agent Dan Garrett (Bill Paxton) mad and gave him superhuman abilities. Season one also included a side plot detailing the origin of a version of Deathlok (J. August Richards), a cyborg created to assist Garrett who eventually overcame his programming. Season two features a smaller team, with new characters, who are attempting to rebuild S.H.I.E.L.D. and uncover further truths behind their pasts, and future, as Coulson continually suffers from episodes induced by the alien serum that lead him, like Garrett, to scrawl strange alien symbols.

Truthfully, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is far from perfect, or great. The best things about the show are the dialogue, which is witty and clever and full of Whedon-isms, the references and inclusion of lesser-known comic books characters (again, Deathlok…Deathlok, of all people!), and the fact that it ties directly in to the largely Marvel Cinematic Universe. Events from the films are often referenced directly in the show, supporting characters often appear, and it really feels as though the show is helping to build and expand upon the Marvel Cinematic Universe even though it is highly unlikely that any of the characters featured on the show will appear in the films. As a result, the show doesn’t feel “pointless”, unlike Warner Bros.’ efforts. After guest starring in Arrow, Grant Gustin returned as Barry Allen in his own spin-off, The Flash, which I initially decided to watch over Arrow as I was pretty sure there was no way they could shoe-horn in unfitting Batman elements into the show.

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The Flash has become my favourite of the DC TV projects.

The Flash is, in many ways, a carbon copy of Arrow; very quickly (hah!), Barry has established a base of operations in S.T.A.R. Labs (like Queen’s base at Verdant) and has a team of specialists and supporting characters helping him that are analogous to Team Arrow and Oliver’s associates. The principal difference is The Flash’s inclusion and portrayal of metahumans. Barry gained superhuman speed after being struck by lightning during an explosion at S.T.A.R. Labs, which resulted in a wave of radiation emanating out from Dr. Harrison Wells’ (Tom Cavanagh) particle accelerator. The wave affected many members of Central City, bestowing them with superhuman abilities, and it is up to Barry and his team to subdue or assist all of them. This is in contrast to Arrow, which largely avoids metahumans for corrupt officials, ninjas, and grounded, street-level threats. Exceptions are usually the case of serums and scientific experiments, or clandestine organisations like the League of Assassins (another Batman-orientated organisation!). The Flash aired alongside Arrow’s third season, and the two frequently overlap and interact – characters often appear on both shows, which has increased my stake in both and, alongside the fact that they both air on days I can watch them, means I can now follow both.

SuperTVGothamAlongside The Flash, Warner Bros. finally got their Batman-prequel series underway with Gotham, which follows a young James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) in a pre-Batman Gotham City. This series is completely unrelated to The Flash and Arrow, however, and the three do not occupy the same continuity. Like The Flash, however, Gotham has numerous problems with pace, particularly in the first episode. Both debut episodes threw so much at the viewer, introduced so many characters, plot lines, and comic book references that even I, an avid comic book fan, felt overwhelmed and actually a little insulted.

Arrow took its time establishing Queen, his city, and his crusade – despite how much it annoys me that he isn’t known by the right name and constantly feels like a Batman substitute, I can’t fault Arrow for pace. Like Smallville before it, the show has been around a while now and has established a tone, pace, and atmosphere and can now afford to become more “comic book” and introduce more comic book elements – Ray Palmer (Brandon Routh) debuted in season three, hinting at the possibility of The Atom appearing at some point. The Flash, however, opened by throwing everything at us all at once: Barry’s mother was killed by a mysterious man-in-lightning when he was a boy, his father (John Wesley Shipp, from the old Flash TV series!) was arrested for it, Barry was raised by Detective Joe West (Jesse L. Martin) alongside his daughter, Iris (Candice Patton), whom Barry has been in love with for years. Barry grew up to become a forensic scientist, he was struck by the lightning, went into a coma, and when he woke up, Iris was dating Joe’s partner, Eddie Thawne (Rick Cosnett), and Barry secretly began working with Dr. Wells and his team to subdue metahumans…oh and, also, there’s all the mystery surrounding Wells’ true motivations.

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Gotham‘s Penguin doesn’t really do it for me.

Think that’s a lot to take in in one episode? Try Gotham, which debuted with the murder of Bruce Wayne’s (David Mazouz) parents, Gordon’s initial partnership with the corrupt detective Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), the tension between Gordon and his girlfriend regarding both his police work and her past as a lesbian, the suspicious of the Major Crimes Unit about Gordon, the length and breadth of Gotham’s corruption, the introduction of Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) as a cat-like street urchin, Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) as a riddle-spouting forensic scientist, Oswald Cobblepott (Robin Lord Taylor) as a limping “Penguin” who angers his mob bosses, and Wayne’s stern-yet-protective butler Alfred (Sean Pertwee). Gordon, moved by Bruce’s plight, pledges to find his killer and is set up to kill a patsy, the father of a girl who greatly resembles Pamela Isley/Poison Ivy, by the mob. The mob consists of Carmine Falcone (John Doman) and Salvatore Maroni (David Zayas), who have both the police department and the mayor on the payroll, but is principally represented by “Penguin’s” boss, Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), who is scheming to usurp Falcone’s power. “Penguin” learns of this, snitches to the M.C.U., and Gordon is forced to kill him to prove his loyalty. Gordon fakes the act, leaving “Penguin” to embark on a revenge plot and casting doubt on Gordon’s stature as a police officer. Meanwhile, young Bruce has decided to turn detective and investigate his parent’s killing, believing it to be a conspiracy, and also begin to train himself not to feel fear.

Damn, that is a lot to take in in one episode!

Thankfully, The Flash calmed it down after an episode or two and has established a comfortable routine: Barry acts awkward with Iris and has come kind of self-doubt, a metahuman emerges, fight, Wells acts suspicious, the end. This “monster-of-the-week” formula dominates the show even to this day, but the show mixes it up with side-plots concerning the mysterious death of Barry’s mother, Iris’s obsession with “The Streak” (the show took quite a while to brand Barry as the Flash yet…despite all of his metahuman villains have carried their names) and their later romance, Wells’ suspicious nature, the presence of mysterious evil speedsters, exploring the Multiverse, etc. Gotham, on the other hand, is far more violent and apparently attempting to channel police-procedural shows like C.S.I., only with multiple references to Batman and Batman villains thrown at us in the most unsubtle way possible every episode. My continuation with the show is based on Sean Pertwee, whose presence as Alfred makes the show.

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Man, screw this show!

Warner Bros. also produces Supergirl and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. Easily the weakest offerings of their television line-up, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow is a direct spin-off of Arrow and The Flash, featuring characters introduced shows. However, the show is largely loud, overly complex, and suffers from even more pacing issues. Not only was the first episode a convoluted mess that rushed through its character introductions to set up the on-going narrative, every episode is a rush of plot conveniences, hammy dialogue, and poor scripting. In the first season, for instance, the team travel through various points of time and space in an effort to save the future from Vandal Savage (Casper Crump) but…if they have a time machine, why bother wasting time going back to various points to prevent him accumulating his power when they could travel back to just before his takeover and kill him then?

Indeed, in the case of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, the only stand-out characters for me were Leonard “Captain Cold” Snart (Wentworth Miller) and Mick “Heat Wave” Rory (Dominic Purcell), whose gruff, anti-hero ways and pre-existing partnership set them apart from the rest of the stilted, awkward group. Both actors chewed the scenery and stole the show at every opportunity, and Mick gained a decent character arc where the heroic sacrifice of his partner made him more accepting of his otherwise more naturally heroic partners.

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Supergirl, however, is a horrific mess. I have times where I can be pretty pro-feminist but this show really grinds my gears. It seems as though Supergirl is incapable of conveying strong, independent female characters without making them soft, overly effeminate, or lesbians. Seriously, this show is rife with explicit lesbianism; even heterosexual female characters carry a lesbian vibe from them. This boggles my mind; Arrow, a show largely aimed more at the male demographic, doesn’t feature a load of gay males or in-your-face sexual tension between the males so why does a female-driven show feel the need to do so? Also, throughout the first season, Kara Zor-El (the titular Supergirl, portrayed by the sweet, cute, and incredibly likeable Melissa Benoist) is constantly playing second fiddle to her more famous cousin (later portrayed in unspectacular fashion by Tyler Hoechlin); Supergirl is constantly having to prove herself and to live up to Superman’s legacy and constantly compared to him, and judged by how much more impressive he is.

I find this quite disturbing, to be honest. Today’s society is much more female-dominated and driven than ever before; woman are in positions of power and have far more equality than ever before, yet Supergirl prefers to send the message to young girls that they will constantly be held down by those around them until they prove that they are just as good, if not better, than males. Plus…she constantly keeps fiddling with her glasses! Even when she is around people who are aware of her duel identity!

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One big happy family.

Additionally, although set on an alternative Earth, Supergirl has crossed over with The Flash (and, by extension, its other shows) by utilising the Multiverse aspects introduced in season two of The Flash , unlike Marvel, whose shows all take place within the larger cinematic universe, none of Warner’s DC properties tie in, or relate in any way, to their own cinematic universe that tentatively began with Man of Steel and continued with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. In fact, Warner Bros. included the Flash in their upcoming cinematic line-up and, as they often have concerning Green Arrow’s inclusion, have consistently gone on record as stating that the character’s will be entirely separate from those on television. Similarly, Gotham does not serve as a prequel to Ben Affleck’s Batman; as a result, we have a situation similar to when Superman Returns came out whilst Smallville was still on the air in that conflicting versions of the same character will co-exist at the same time onscreen. For us comic book fans, this is not a problem: comic book aficionados are well versed in handling multiple, conflicting portrayals of the same characters, but the general audience…not so much. Indeed, Warner Bros. often reference the DC Multiverse when justifying this decision, which is crazy beyond belief as the DC Multiverse is a concept so confusing that they’ve had to destroy and rebuild it about three times in the last five years! Surely Arrow’s popularity alone, which arguably has helped to facilitate a DC Cinematic Universe, justifies its place in the oncoming cinematic canon?

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This ties back in to my early remark about Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. not feeling “pointless”. Sure, the show has flaws. Sure, the characters may not reintegrate with the Marvel Cinematic Universe for some time, if at all. But events matter. What happens in a Marvel Studios movie will impact another character, and those events may often be referenced in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. When Oliver Queen and Barry Allen clash in the upcoming two-part crossovers that I am looking forward to, it will have no baring on the upcoming Justice League movie. Similarly, when Batman and Superman clash, there will be no reference to Gotham’s events in Batman’s backstory. This is what separates my enjoyment of current superhero television shows: continuity. It’s important for consistency, it’s important to maintain audience (especially the generally, non-comic book audience), and it’s important for integrity. It’s why I can forgive Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s flaws, because the show is expanding upon and a direct part of Marvel’s larger cinematic universe, and it’s why I can forgive Arrow constantly portraying “The Arrow” as a bastardised version of Batman, because it’s integrating with The Flash is the closest thing we have to continuity between DC properties at the moment. Whether or not the films will offer an equal alternative remains to be seen.

11 thoughts on “What’s on the Box?: Superheroes on Television

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