The state of broadcast TV's superheroes
2017 was some kind of golden age for TV superheroes. Marvel released three new series on Netflix. Legion brought ’70s-style psychedelia to FX. The genre earned its own meticulous satire, Amazon’s rebooted The Tick. (Amazon is too hip for numbers, but it feels like not enough people watched The Tick, which in fairness is true of everything that has ever been named The Tick.) In the land of Stuff Not Based On Comics Books, I thought Stranger Things 2 was a bore, but Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven confirmed her status as a generational icon, a Dark Phoenix fiery enough to fly above the horrors of The Episode With the Hot Topic Punks. And out of cable TV’s art-cult shadows came a glorious beacon of hope: garden-gloved Freddie (Jake Sykes), holding back Twin Peaks‘ eternal evil with his green-fisted punches of justice.
All this while Logan and Wonder Woman and Thor: Ragnarok set new critical-commercial benchmarks for their big-screen universes, respectively sorrowful and empowering and funny as hell. Where does this leave the superheroes of broadcast television, with their old-fashioned weekly release patterns and their various Vancouver-y super-cities? Cards on the table: I gave up on most of them years ago, but not because they were bad. Watching The Flash series premiere in 2014, I felt how completely Arrowverse producer Greg Berlanti had captured the bouncy spirit of the comic books I grew up reading. The problem was, I grew up reading these comic books. I’d seen it all before, the Reverse-Flash, the Crisis, Vandal Savage. Don’t get me wrong: It made me happy knowing a new generation would grow up freaking out about words like “Reverse-Flash” and “Crisis.” But you reach a point where you want to chase new highs.
So I dipped back into the DC/Marvel current just in time to catch the finale of ABC’s Inhumans. When I reviewed the premiere, I thought it was merely mediocre, a lot of bad money blown on lame characters and lovely Hawaiian location photography. The final episode was almost an enjoyable travesty — every character said the word “dome” at least four times — but it remained a terminal bore, more proof that Marvel’s TV division hasn’t figured out how to deliver big-adventure grandiosity on the small screen.
But the moon kingdom flop shares intriguing DNA with The Gifted, Fox’s better-by-default X-Men riff. They’re both about secret societies adrift in a cruel modern world. The Gifted starts with Caitlin (Amy Acker) and Reed (Stephen Moyer) discovering their kids are mutants, and joining them on the run with a crew of fellow mutants who get treated by the American government the way some actual politicians would like to treat immigrants and refugees. That subtext is pretty much all The Gifted has going for it. Compared to Legion or Hulu’s new Runaways, it’s a bit of a diet beverage, all gray henleys and evil functionaries slowly plotting. Caitlin and Reed aren’t particularly interesting — no one on The Gifted is — but there’s something clever in how the show positions them. “We were blind to so much,” Caitlin tells her husband. “About the world. About our family.” The family drama resonates. Mutants have been a hated Other, but here, they’re specifically the Youth, persecuted by the very society that their parents fought to build.
When I was the Youth, the superpowered life seemed like a lonely road, with identities kept secret. They could exchange occasional shop talk with other heroes during crossover team-ups. But mostly, they talked to themselves, and to us, the reader, via long-winded thought-balloon expositions. Compare that to the social lives of the CW’s superheroes: Supergirl, the Flash, and whoever’s playing Green Arrow this week are surrounded by friend/family support squads, who prop up their costumed hero with the adoration of a Comic-Con crowd. You suspect a cost-saving angle here: It’s easier to show Team Flash swapping banter at Expository HQ than to show the Flash doing that thing where he runs fast. (You know, Expository HQ: The Room with the big computer screens, where every CW hero receives their thrice-weekly package of plot points.)
I don’t want to be a budget nag. When Deathstroke (Manu Bennett) invaded a bad-guy hideout on Arrow, the ensuing massacre flowed with stabby-shooty dexterity worthy of The Raid. That scene blew away anything on The Punisher. The other CW shows have more metahumans — which means more superpowers, and superpowers can look silly even with a huge special effects budget. The brighter Arrowverse shows benefit from a chintzy self-awareness, letting you in on the joke, as if to say, “Of course Plastic Man looks ridiculous! Isn’t that the fun part?” Take Legends of Tomorrow, simultaneously the best- and worst-looking of the bunch. A recent episode saw the team travel to Golden Age Hollywood to rescue Helen of Troy, which involved everyone getting dressed up in old-timey clothes, and going to a backlot, and I think there was a shootout between studio bosses and gangsters, and Hedy Lamarr said the words “quantum entanglement,” and there was a sword duel? It’s like a whole show of holodeck episodes, maybe the best kids’ show ever made about quantum entanglements. On a more sincere dramatic level, the character focus of the CW shows reaps unique rewards. A recent Supergirl episode ended with Kara (Melissa Benoist) and her sister (Chyler Leigh) on a road trip, singing Gwen Stefani’s “The Sweet Escape.” It was a lovely little pop moment, more intimate and unexpected and alive than anything in, like, Justice League, which cost a kabillion times more and was a kabillion times worse. Being a superhero used to be as solitary as reading a comic book. On the CW, it’s a communal activity — like tweeting through a TV show.
The community extends off screen. When Andrew Kreisberg, an Arrowverse executive producer, was suspended following sexual harassment allegations, Benoist, Stephen Amell, Grant Gustin, and Caity Lotz voiced support for the accusers in a true-life superhero team-up. (Kreisberg didn’t respond to EW’s request for comment.) A more old-fashioned crossover plays out this week with “Crisis on Earth-X,” the umpteenth “Crisis” of our age. There’s a frustrating dissonance. On social media, the CW heroes are making history. On TV, they’re remixing it. You could say this is not a problem. There is a younger generation experiencing these stories for the first time — and a couple older generations (including my own) that seem perfectly fine with pop culture becoming a strange kind of cosplay, a Medieval Times for millennial nostalgia, with familiar stories forever playing out in familiar ways. (I hear this new Star Wars is gonna be really dark, guys!)
Gotham used to feel like a particularly tone-deaf remix. Fox’s prequel started as a square take on the Dark Knight. Now everyone has an elaborate haircut, wears decopunk clothes, talks like they’re flirting with the prey they’re hunting. Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) is still a force for bland order. But the show gets riotous energy from Penguin, played by Robin Lord Taylor with Seussian grandeur. The ratings are declining, true of most broadcast TV, but that’s encouraged Gotham’s most why-not instincts. Limb-amputating death matches in a nightclub styled like a Bob Fosse Fury Road? Holy high camp, Kid Batman! Next to the location-shot humanism of Marvel’s Netflix shows, Gotham’s bloody vaudeville feels synthetic, uncontrolled — and genuinely new. Here’s a superhero show that barely cares about its superhero: a sign, maybe, that the golden age is ending, so the fun stuff can really begin.