Best year of superhero TV ever? Best year of superhero TV ever. While not every show was perfect, there was a plethora of excellent comic TV series this past season, and they’ve provided four clear lessons for the future. So, next season’s show? Listen up.
Warning: May include spoilers for the most recent seasons of Agent Carter, Agents of SHIELD, Arrow, Constantine, Daredevil, The Flash, Gotham, and iZombie.
1) It’s Finally Time to Embrace the Comic Book.
There have been plenty of comic book TV shows over the past few decades, but common sense — and limited budgets — usually dictated that the shows would have some kind of veneer of realism. The thinking was that mass audiences could handle people with superpowers, but not much else. It kept Superman out of his iconic costume on Smallville, and it kept the first season of Agents of SHIELD from introducing anything much weirder than Deathlok.
But last fall The Flash debuted, and decided to bring practically every insane bit of the character’s mythos to the screen, and made it work. The show managed to make reasonable foes out of the Flash’s extensively ridiculous rogue’s gallery. It debuted Grodd, a giant evil telepathic gorilla, and made him genuinely menacing. Hell, it somehow included all of The Flash’s time-travel shenanigans, and not only has it not lost audiences, it’s beating Arrow, the show it spun off from!
But The Flash hasn’t been alone in feeling free to explore superhero comics more out-there aspects. Agents of SHIELD not only introduced the Inhumans this spring, but also gave one of their own members superpowers — making SHIELD more than just a spy-show set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Arrow, after trying to stick somewhat to the realm of possibility, went ahead and brought in the Atom as a faux Iron Man and the Lazarus pits of Ra’s Al-Ghul in order to resurrect one of its characters. And Daredevil, which is probably the best “realistic” superhero show ever made, still manages to include Stick, Matt Murdock’s elderly, blind, terrifyingly deadly sensei/life coach/scout for some bizarre organization, and a fight with a ninja. Daredevil has fought ninjas pretty constantly in the comics — ceaselessly, one might say — but I definitely did not expect a ninja to pop up during Daredevil’s war with Kingpin. However, the show was definitely more entertaining for it.
I’m not sure whether you can credit the increased popularity of live-action superhero entertainment for audiences’ greater acceptance of seeing comic’s more fantastic elements on TV, or if audience have always been more receptive to this sort of thing than networks have suspected. Either way, I’m extremely glad superhero shows are being allowed to be wilder (and more authentic) than ever.
2) But You Still Need to Take It Seriously.
This is not contradictory with Lesson #1. Yes, you should feel empowered to utilize the strangest, goofiest, most absurd characters and plot devices and storylines your source material includes in your primetime TV show. But the reason comic books have been popular isn’t just because they’re so fantastic — it’s because even during alien invasions and clone sagas and demon possessions, these stories still have real emotional stakes. These heroes and characters aren’t just battling evil and calling it a day. They have issues and problems and conflicts even beyond demons, ninjas, and evil telepathic gorillas, and that’s what make audiences keep watching.
And the season’s best comic book have used the wild, impossible events and to provide real character drama. For instance, Barry’s ability to run into the past is time travel nonsense, but it becomes incredibly compelled when Barry has to choose between the life he’s had and the life he could have had, and what he’d lose in order to save his mother. In Agents of SHIELD, the introduction of the race of superpowered Inhumans is mainly a vehicle for the family drama of Skye, her mother and her father. iZombie has taken the basic tenets of zombies — that they eat brains — in a fascinating direction by making the zombies aware of the fact that they’re eating people, and the horror and revulsion that comes with that, even as they’re compelled to eat them. Constantine was basically a supernatural procedural, as he battles a different demon each week, but the show was always at its best when it showed him wrestling with his inner demons instead of all those outer demons.
Despite Daredevil’s stab at realism, its overall plot — of saving Hell’s Kitchen from the Kingpin’s redevelopment plans — is both nebulous and hard to get too excited about. But Daredevil battles this (no pun intended) by giving real stakes to Matt Murdock’s choice to fight bad guys. Actually, these constant fight scenes seems to have nothing but stakes, as they take a massive, constant toll on his body, his relationships, and even Hell’s Kitchen, as opposed to all the other series, where someone can fight a supervillain to near death, but be in perfect shape on next week’s episode. If nothing else, Daredevil reminds audiences that Matt Murdock is paying a steep price for his mission.
Obviously, having emotional stakes isn’t just a lesson for superhero series, but any work of fiction. But many times superhero shows can over-rely on the comic book-iness, or even just a plethora of easter eggs in an attempt to distract audiences from the lack of a compelling story. Gotham is the worst offender in this regard, as the only character who seems to even have a goal is the Penguin. Which is pretty ridiculous, seeing as the show had to completely forget about the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents to make this possible.
3) You’re Only as Good as Your Bad Guys.
Perhaps this isn’t the newest lesson of all time, but man this season proved the hell out of it. Imagine Daredevil without Vincent D’Onofrio as the Kingpin. It’s hard, isn’t it? There’s no way that show would have reached its popularity and acclaim if it had just focused on Matt Murdock.
Just look at The Flash and iZombie, two shows that both began with random bad guys of the week, and suffered because they quickly became repetitive and predictable. But when The Flash revealed Harrison Wells as the Flash’s archenemy (from the future!) the Reverse-Flash, and once Liv discovered Blaine’s brain-racketeering scheme on iZombie and he became the Big Bad, both shows improved considerably, because now they have a worthy antagonist for their heroes to fight against.
Another great example: In its first season, Agents of SHIELD floundered when it had a vague, unknown, and not particularly interesting foe called Centipede. When Captain America: The Winter Soldier came out, allowing SHIELD to be destroyed from within by the capable and powerful organization HYDRA, well, that was an organization we wanted to see SHIELD take down. This carried us through most of the first season, but it was with the addition of Kyle MacLachlan as Skye’s father Cal that Agents of SHIELD was at its best. Without a clear enemy to fight against, it seemed like the Agents mostly fought each other, which wasn’t nearly as interesting — and indeed, when HYDRA was defeated and Cal taken prisoner by the Inhumans, AoS lost its focus. The Inhumans weren’t an enemy like HYDRA as much as someone the Agents weren’t sure about, and thus the conflict wasn’t particularly compelling… until Skye’s mom turned out to be evil and insane, but that was a last-minute reveal which 1) came out of nowhere and 2) didn’t somehow make all the episodes of the Agents and Inhumans refusing to get along for no purpose other than to drag out the plot suddenly compelling.
But maybe the best example of the problem that occurs when you don’t give your superhero a decent enemy to battle is Constantine, which only revealed in the last minute of its finale that Manny, Constantine’s angelic guide and companion, was secretly the Big Bad of the entire series. Before that, Constantine had basically fought a demon per episode, like a supernatural procedural — fine, but not particularly compelling. Revealing this compelling twist in the middle of the season may have kept more people watching, giving the show a better chance at season 2.
4) Seriously, You Don’t Have to Have Terrible Female Characters
This might seems obvious, but somehow it still isn’t, despite the fact this past season of TV gave us textbooks examples of female characters written well and female characters written poorly. So many — too many — female characters on the year’s comic shows were terrible, and they were all terrible in the same way.
Seriously, it’s not that difficult a problem: All you have to do is make sure they’re more than just a love interest and let them in on the main plot. The Flash’s Iris was the most grievous example of the former type of female character, existing for no other reason than to be Barry’s unattainable, mostly oblivious love interest (she had a small story where she was trying to figure out Barry’s identity and Harrison Wells’ secrets, but because the main cast already knew the answers, this was just busy work for her character). But when Iris learned the Flash’s identity and joined the show’s heroes, she instantly — almost literally — became a welcome member of the team and an interesting character. And not just because she could actually be part of the main storyline finally, but also as a love interest; it was only after Barry and Iris could have conversations based on the truth of their situation that they had any actual emotional connection, and that’s no coincidence. It sucks that this is a lesson Arrow learned last season, with Laurel Lance, but it still it took this season for Laurel and Oliver’s sister Thea to become full-fledged, fully informed protagonists. Still, better late than never.
It’s also annoying that this shoddy writing invariably happens to female characters more than male ones. For example, Liv is the female zombie protagonist of iZombie, and her ex-fiance Major was treated exactly like Iris in The Flash — someone to whom the truth could never be told because of never-convincingly-explained reasons. But while Iris was relegated to following a trail of breadcrumbs to learn what the audience knew (and thus were bored by), iZombie’s Major had his own investigation that ended up dovetailing into the main plot, as both Liv and Major discovered a zombie conspiracy from two different ends. Why couldn’t Iris have been given the same?
Really, anyone trying to understand how to do female characters correctly needs to look no further than Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter. Audiences may have complained about Skye’s character in SHIELD’s inaugural season, but that was because her character seemed superfluous, not because she was female. And still SHIELD has always done a great job at having female characters that aren’t defined solely by romantic relationships. The same is true in Agent Carter, with the addition that Peggy Carter not only anchors her own series, but the fact that she has to combat the sexism of the late ‘40s make her even more thematically appropriate an icon for how to do female characters right.
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