Why superheroes work best on TV

Barry Quinn
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Marvel is practically dominating the big screen at the moment and DC Comics are building their own rival franchise. This year alone we had Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, X-Men: Days of Future Past and Guardians of the Galaxy, with another three to be released next year. Most superhero movies of late have been accepted rather well, but I believe superheroes work best on the smaller screen.

Origin stories are a hard thing to accomplish. Spider-Man has had two very similar geneses in the space of 10 years, both Superman and Batman have been rebooted countless times, and the Incredible Hulk had two attempts before the character successfully became established, even if his latter birth still wasn’t received particularly well. For the most part this is due to the constraints running time places upon a story – it is hard to fully establish a character with an incredibly rich comic-counterpart history in only two hours. That is where TV shows come in.


Superhero television is receiving a resurgence of late. Arrow has received acclaim of its realistic portrayal of Oliver Queen, being named the highest rated series on its airing channel CW in the five years preceding its release. Smallville ran for 10 incredible years and churned out over 200 episodes. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D began in 2013 to varying reviews, which whilst crossing over several times with the respective big screen counterparts, failed to capture the same magic. New releases include The Flash (premiering on 7 October 2014 in America), a spinoff from Arrow which will crossover several times with its parent-show, Gotham (airing from 22 September 2014) which will chronicle the origin of several of Batman’s friends and enemies and Marvel’s Agent Carter (beginning January 2015) which will fill in the midseason gap for S.H.I.E.L.D.’s second season.

Clearly superhero TV is here to stay.

There are many positives of crafting a television show around a superhero character. The season length (often 20+ episodes) means that the characters’ origins don’t have to be rushed – it took almost nine years before Clark Kent adopted the ‘Superman’ moniker – during which time Clark was fully fleshed out with his identity mapped out before him. This is where I believe S.H.I.E.L.D. failed. Agent Coulson and the S.H.I.E.L.D. organisation were introduced on the big screen, meaning their origin was rushed somewhat as Coulson was always secondary to the otherwise destructive plot. Yes, Coulson appeared in four of the six films which made up Phase One of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe but had S.H.I.E.L.D. started before Iron Man, or had Coulson been introduced in the first season of S.H.I.E.L.D. rather than 2008’s Iron Man, I think the TV show would have been better received.

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Airing in the shadow of the big screen adaptions, S.H.I.E.L.D. was always going to be compared to what came before it. Fans had already seen what the Marvel Cinematic Universe could achieve and ultimately this didn’t manifest in the show, so much that I switched off after only a couple of episodes.

Both Arrow and The Flash exist within the same universe, but away from any big screen films (thus far) and that is why they have prospered. The characters are given ample time to develop, and as such a universe to rival Marvel’s can (and likely will) develop on the small screen. Film spinoffs will succeed, because of the dedicated fan base the shows will have generated by then.

Another reason why these shows work whilst S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t is due to their cast. Marvel’s Avengers Assemble included an all-star cast including some of Hollywood’s greatest living actors. S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t. It featured mostly unknown stars as the central cast, most of whom weren’t very good. As such Marvel’s Agent Carter is doomed to meet a similar fate. And anyway – who particularly wants to see a show revolved around the nonentity that is Agent Carter? Marvel works well on the big screen, but not so much on the small screen.

That said, their upcoming Netflix series do show some promise. Daredevil, a reboot on the abysmal film of the same name, will star Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock and Deborah Ann Woll as his love interest Karen Page. Already that had me interested. Following Daredevil will be Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Luke Cage, all of which will lead to a miniseries titled The Defenders. A small-screen universe will likely excite filmgoers, and if the right actors are cast this will work incredibly well. Netflix do have a history of creating stunning television after all (see: Orange is the new Black).

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So what lies in the future of superhero television? S.H.I.E.L.D. will likely get a third and final season unless viewing figures rise dramatically (they won’t), Arrow will spawn another spinoff to exist in a shared universe; a Daredevil movie reboot will occur if the series is a success, and Gotham will (hopefully) succeed for many years to come. Its premise is extremely promising and one which I look forward to.

Ultimately, I want a small-screen adaption of the X-Men comics, perhaps set in Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. If this aired on The CW, it would combine the perfect blend of school drama, hot young actors, and superpowers. What’s not to love?

About Barry Quinn

Barry Quinn is an English Language and Literature graduate and a Creative Writer MA studier. He is an aspiring creative and professional writer and is currently in the process of writing his first novel. His writing blog can be viewed here: https://barrygjquinn.wordpress.com You can follow him on Twitter at: @mrbarryquinn