Anyone who reads my blog or follows me on Twitter knows I watch a lot of TV. I love serialized story-telling, sue me. But within my watching schedule are the increasing number of superhero shows. There’s actual academic research out there about storylines and market share correlating with people’s level of optimism — i.e. when things are bleak, they often look to archetype-style storylines where good triumphs over evil, and one person can make a difference — but mostly they’re just plain fun. And while lots of people think they’re all the same, far from it.
Back in the early 80s, I watched reruns of Batman (bif! pow!), for the campy fun. Plus the anti-super-hero story, Greatest American Hero…a suit with special powers given by aliens no less, but the hero couldn’t fly straight, lost the manual, etc. Not exactly a man of steel. Oh, and he was a high school teacher with The Breakfast Club set in tow occasionally. About the only thing going for him was a hot girlfriend (Connie Selleca, rar!).
Later I graduated to other shows. Lois and Clark had potential when it stayed out of the romance realm, but wasn’t a mainstay. The Superman movies were decent (well, except for the Richard Pryor one, blech). Spiderman was awesome, but again, on the big screen.
Then Smallville changed everything. When it debuted, everybody said, “What? An origin story? Who wants that?”. Turns out, a LOT of people. Hugely popular, hugely successful. And while not every storyline was a home run, most were solid singles. Some, particularly in the last season, were stand-up triples. All leading over the 7 years to him becoming Superman. The origin story of how he learned to become Superman. Lots of other franchises were thinking big screen, but not all.
Arrow is into its fourth season, probably one of the natural successors to Smallville for many viewers. With the notable exception that it starts with the Arrow’s first day on the job, the rest of the show deals with how the Scoobie team builds, Arrow goes from “the Hood” to “Arrow” to “Green Arrow”, and if you want backstory, lots of flashbacks to Oliver Queen’s missing five years. Plus, no need to worry about paying the rent when you’re a billionaire. Yet, it is very dark. More “Dark Knight” than “Smallville” (which had a lot of sunlight). The physical mood is quite different, the dark seedy underbelly of life.
Gotham started last year, and I honestly thought it was off the rails. Another origin story, like Smallville, but the focus isn’t on Bruce Wayne becoming Batman but on Jim Gordon trying to clean up the streets of Gotham. It is very dark. Oddly lit. Sometimes it looks like a 70s style cop show more so than the present day. But here’s the problem. Batman emerges because he is needed…to use the mythology, maybe not the hero the city deserves, but the one it needs. Dark. Vigilante justice. Lone wolf fighting back because the criminals are in control. Someone who will break the law because it is the only way to save the city from anarchy. This means, over about 7 seasons, Jim Gordon has to consistently lose battles. The city has to continue to descend into darkness, and conditions have to continue to get worse in order for the Batman role to be born in Bruce Wayne’s heart. Seven years of seeing Gotham sink under the weight of criminals and villainy. This season is even dubbed “Rise of the Villains”. It is way darker than Arrow, and it can only get worse. Yet, for all of that, it’s really compelling watching Gordon. He is a great character to focus on. We’re even seeing other characters like the Riddler, Penguin, Falcone, etc. become the nutbar super villains that Batman must face later on. Love the show.
Marvel Agents of SHIELD is the campy, slightly poke-in-the-ribs superhero show. The clean-up crew deals with the fights that Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, and others can’t get to, the smaller battles. Fighting the humans who want to find alien technology and dominate Earth. Very few people die, lots of bullets get fired, and there is a lot of bright light areas. Hints of darkness, but rare to actually deal with the seedy underbelly. Again, a totally different mood. They had a related “Agent Carter” series, and it didn’t interest me much.
Last year, the Flash came on the scene, courtesy of Arrow’s spinoff/kickstart. Barry Allen, the fastest man alive, is young, idealistic, and haunted by his father’s false imprisonment for the murder of Barry’s mother. Bright, happy, but realistic. Barry has seen the darkness, it’s touched his life, but he doesn’t want to live there.
This season, they released Supergirl. Forget the darkness of Gotham and Arrow. Forget the human downside of fighting evil of SHIELD. Forget even the schoolboy seriousness of hiding his secret as Clarke became Superman on Smallville.
Supergirl is brightly lit, saccharine sweet, with rainbows and unicorn-positivity. Kara is thrilled to be a superhero. She can fly, she can help people, she wants to be “strong together”, working with a team of friends and her military agent sister to bring down the bad guys while maintaining a cover as a slightly ditsy assistant to the editor of a magazine. Sure, there are big baddies lurking in the shadows, including her evil aunt, but hey, let’s take a break to pick up a car with her boss in it and carry her off to do an interview atop a hill.
Clarke Kent was super serious for his young age; Oliver Queen has seen the darkness and now lives there, at whatever cost it takes to save his city; Jim Gordon is worn down by the corruption and Gotham’s descent, but he’s a soldier in the battle and will keep fighting on for his principles; Coulson and his team on SHIELD are amazed at the weird crap that keeps coming their way, but are willing to face it head on, hopefully with some wry humour to help them cope; the Flash has his little band of humans to help him take on everyday criminals turned meta-humans. Kara El, of the house of El? She’s a sunshine yellow superhero and pep rally cheerleader all rolled into one.
All very different shows, but the themes are consistent. Rebirth. New beginnings. Power, responsibility. Duty. Honour. Fighting the good fight. And, if possible, looking really handsome or beautiful doing it.
More of the shows are coming, and I’ll likely tune in for most of them.