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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Daredevil, The Flash, Gotham: Superhero Shows Rise to the Top

by Brittni Williams

Once the province of a highly localized and insular fanbase, comic book medium has become among the most popular subgenres for almost every other genre in one way or another. This is no more obvious than on television where the successes of superhero movies is helping to build a small screen audience that wants longer plots, more complex characters, and explorations of concepts that can't be covered in two hours. Regardless, from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to Supergirl, there is a superhero show for almost any taste with more on the way.

Superhero shows as a concept are not new. Classic series like Linda Carter's Wonder Woman and the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno The Incredible Hulk still maintain a place of honor on the DVD shelves of many people who either a fan of the comics or who simply love these characters. Further, there are some who would argue that animated series like those in the DC Animated Universe (DCAU), specifically the ones based on Bruce Timm's unique designs, have some of the most true to "life" portrayals of these iconic characters ever put to screen.

However, since 2011's successful completion of the experiment known as Phase I of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, every station has been scrambling to find a toehold in the live-action superhero television show market.

It wasn't long after The Avengers hit theaters that DC, floundering at the box office, decided to try their hand at one of their properties airing on the safe-bet network owned by their parent company: The CW. Arrow became an instant hit despite fan displeasure at the grittier and more murder-happy Oliver Queen than they had been used to in the comics. However, the show gave them an opportunity to witness something that couldn't be done with a movie's constraints: they were able to watch Queen evolve and start to find redemption. In its fourth year now, that process is still ongoing, but it was compelling enough to inspire not just one spin off, the highly successful and much-beloved The Flash, but now a second one starting in January: Legends of Tomorrow.

Of course, NBC and Fox have also found space for DC comics on their networks, airing Supergirl and Gotham (which are also on demand via Xfinity and DirecTV). NBC tried a Constantine series last year but cut it half way through the season, resulting in much fan disappointment and a return of the character and actor as a guest star in Arrow resulting in some of the highest ratings the show has seen.

And of course Marvel has also made its mark, tying their shows into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is doing yeoman's work acclimating viewers to the Inhumans well in advance of the film's 2019 release date, and Agent Carter has managed to explore a supporting character from the first Captain America film, making her into an instant icon. Further, the Netflix original series Daredevil released to rave critical and fan reviews for its ability to tell stories that don't fit into networks in either time or tone. Early looks at Jessica Jones suggest a similar hit.

Best of all, because of the increasing popularity of these films and shows, comic companies are seeing a boom in sales for their print stories, even for characters that haven't been featured on any shows like Ms. Marvel or Harley Quinn. If this keeps up, producers are more than likely going to listen to the fans and continue to create even more shows for characters in the comic book universe. Who knows, perhaps we’ll even see Batman’s sidekick, Robin, become Nightwing, witness Wolverine’s female clone, X-23, assassinate some bad guys, or watch The Runaways in a typical mutant superhero teenage dramedy.

Superheroes speak to a deep human need to be significant. Each speaks to it in their own way, but superheroes are marked, more than anything, by agency. We see them and we like to think, for just a moment, that given the same circumstances that we would do the same. We would take control of a chaotic world and make it better because we had the ability. Whether it's John Constantine searching for redemption, Barry Allen's joyful embrace of his powers, Phil Coulson's dedication to duty, or Matt Murdock's love of justice, these characters are both inspirational and aspirational. They make us want to do better and with so many of them on television we can have that feeling several times a week.
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