We are living in a Golden Age of the Superhero, especially on television. Superheroes are the hottest commodity in pop culture, in both film and TV, as well as the “mainstream” commercial spheres of things like clothing, school supplies, cosplay for Halloween and other areas such as theme parks and such.
The two largest sources of superheroes are the pantheon of characters from the multiverses of Marvel Comics and DC Comics. I will report on the current state of live broadcast television projects about Marvel and DC characters and properties. I won’t address the animated ones or those only available online, such as Netflix’s Daredevil and Jessica Jones (although I loved Jessica Jones!).
In general terms, let’s set the stage for exactly which programs are in play for this discussion, that got started in 2012. For Marvel, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013-present) and Agent Carter (2015-16) have been on ABC. For DC, Arrow (2012-present), The Flash (2014-present), and Legends of Tomorrow (Jan 2016-present) are on The CW, while Gotham (2014-present) is on FOX. Supergirl premiered to great acclaim on CBS for the 2015-16 season, and will now air on The CW.
I have not been a regular reader of comic books / graphic novels since I was a teenager, so I will not focus on their faithfulness to canon. Also, this discussion will be essentially spoiler-free, so as to not ruin the surprises for future viewers, while those who are caught up will recognize the references.
As a general rule, each of these shows follows the graphic novel model of basically telling a long-form story over each season with a “Big Bad” — a villain who usually gets it near or at the end of the season, and a major cliffhanger then, as well.
My overall perspective is guided by a reverence for the Marvel Silver Age, during which the concept of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. originated under Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. Nick Fury crossed over from his World War II Howling Commandos origins to the arena of espionage during the heyday of the Cold War in the 1960s when pop culture was dominated by the likes of James Bond and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
The spectacular Jim Steranko immortalized the Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. in his run as writer and artist in Strange Tales and other titles for Marvel.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been called the glue that holds the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) together, and we can start there. When Joss Whedon and company designed the show, it was known that certain events would occur in the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the decision was made to keep the television show consistent and coherently aligned with the film series, which also was was a unique and clearly coordinated massive effort that has paid off with splendid results. The show was created for ABC by Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon, and Maurissa Tancharoen, with Jed Whedon, Tancharoen, and Jeffrey Bell serving as showrunners.
The first season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. initially met with criticism from folks who didn’t understand the overall plan. Recall that ABC is a corporate part of the Disney empire, so it was natural that there would be synergy with the Marvel films (also part of the Disney empire). Without spoilers, just know that the Winter Soldier film opened in April 2014 just before the final six episodes of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the entire season bookended the Marvel tentpole film exquisitely.
For a more extensive and complete look back at the first season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I refer you to this note.
In terms of actors, character development and storyline, S.H.I.E.L.D. introduced us to a few Joss favorites, along with other characters whose arcs would be revealed over the next seasons of the series as the story gradually and deliberately addressed the origins of HYDRA and the Inhumans. As a Joss Whedon joint, it laid Easter Eggs early and paid them off in due time, with ample foreshadowing and call backs to satisfy attentive and receptive viewers.
In terms of music, the phenomenal Bear McCreary works with a full symphonic orchestra on S.H.I.E.L.D., typically featuring 50 or 70 players and McCreary composes on average 30 minutes of music per episode.
McCreary is also known for scoring Battlestar Galactica, Caprica and The Walking Dead; hands down he is my favorite TV music composer. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns September 20 to begin its fourth season.
One of the most satisfying elements of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been the girl power trope so familiar to Whedon’s works, especially with May, Mockingbird and Daisy. Introduced to the series as “Skye,” the character played by Chloe Bennet has had an awesome arc through three seasons so far, and is now a truly badass, kickass heroine. And speaking of a badass, kickass heroine, let’s turn to Peggy Carter.
Marvel’s Agent Carter was introduced in January of 2015 as a mid-season filler for the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. show, while giving viewers more of the delightful Hayley Atwell in the title role. It was set in 1946 just after the end of WWII and dealt with Peggy Carter’s coming to grips with a world without Steve Rogers, while fleshing out the origins of of S.H.I.E.L.D. from the S.S.R. and Howard Stark’s backstory.
Essentially, where S.H.I.E.L.D. was an outgrowth and extension of Marvel’s The Avengers film, Agent Carter was that for Captain America: The First Avenger.
The elder Stark and Miss Carter are known as the co-founders of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Howard’s son, Tony Stark / Iron Man is the core around which S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Avengers revolve in the present-day Marvel MCU multiverse. We also learn more about the original Jarvis, the namesake for Iron Man’s omnipresent AI.
Over the two all-too-short seasons of Agent Carter, we were gifted with marvelous period pieces that explored the open blatant misogyny and racism of the era, while playfully exploring the dangers of misused technology, the influence of secret societies, bureaucratic b.s., and the dichotomies of life in America on the East and West Coasts.
Peggy Carter / Hayley Atwell has inspired massive fan loyalty and devotion for her beauty, her smarts, her fashion sense, her tenacity, her dedication to the truth and her overall badassery.
The DC multiverse (also called the Arrowverse) began in 2012 with a reimagining of the Green Arrow. While Justin Hartley had ably portrayed the character during the 10-year run of Smallville on the WB and The CW, he was replaced along with all of the Smallville actors in the new DC stories on The CW.
Much like Marvel is part of the Disney corporate empire, DC Comics is a division of Warner Brothers, the W in CW; the C is CBS, and that will figure in the discussion about Supergirl.
DC has opted to separate their television and film ‘verses, while Marvel has incorporated and integrated their ABC television series into their Cinematic Universe. On one hand, this can be confusing and frustrating for fans trying to find consistency in their DC TV viewer experiences. On the other hand, it allows the DC TV ‘verse to create and mold its own canon. As an aside, Marvel is totally kicking DC’s a$$ all over the multiverses in the film world — just sayin’.
“Flash” back to August, 2012. I was in Toronto for Fan Expo and The CW arranged a preview screening of the Arrow pilot in conjunction with a panel discussion afterward featuring stars Stephen Amell, Willa Holland, Colin Donnell and Katie Cassidy.
The episode wowed the crowd, including me, and the show went on to become the CW’s biggest hit to date. John Barrowman played a big role on the show.
That is, until two years later, when its spin-off, The Flash, captivated audiences and became the best-received superhero show since Batman of the 1960s. Its success spawned a third show in the same “Arrowverse,” with characters common across all three entitled DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. Arrow was developed by writer/producers Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim, and Andrew Kreisberg.
Arrow flew onto the screen like gangbusters, telling us about the travails of a billionaire playboy who had been lost at sea for five years and returned to his hometown, Starling City, seeking to save his city from the evil and corrupt forces that threatened it. In flashbacks, it also told the backstory of what went down during the years he was missing. In present day, he created the persona of a vigilante known as the Arrow and went up against a series of villains by night, while negotiating family life and romances and corporate intrigue with Queen Industries by day.
Arrow really was and is still fun to watch, especially the frequent well-choreographed fight scenes, but overall, the tone was a little dark and somewhat brooding. If you feel parallels to Bruce Wayne / Batman, you must remember that both heroes are cut from the DC brand. In fact, the dark brooding nature informed a lighter tone and brighter palette for its first spin-off.
While Arrow was taking place in Starling City, a freakish combination of events occurred in Central City that resulted in the creation of a character with genuine superpowers. Note that Arrow was basically a highly skilled but still (relatively) normal guy. Barry Allen got a heavy dose of “speed force” and became The Fastest Man Alive and in his show, superpowers were the norm for the “metahumans” created all over the city in the accident.
By day, Barry labors as a forensic scientist; a bright, optimistic kind of fellow with fairly mundane interests, although his dad was framed for the murder of his mom and falsely imprisoned. Raised by a police detective foster dad, Barry’s career path is about seeking justice, primarily for his father, played by John Wesley Shipp, who played the Flash on TV in the 1990s. Flash was developed by Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg and Geoff Johns.
While Arrow cleanly jumps back in time through flashbacks as a narrative device, The Flash gives me headaches by using actual time travel as a relatively frequent plot device. Also, they play with the idea of multiple timelines and the effect of tampering with a given timeline, creating alternate / parallel universes.
A shitstorm erupts when Barry uses his speed to travel back in time, in an attempt to save his mother. To be honest, I still can’t figure out just exactly what the frak happened when he did… I told you that DC time travel stuff gives me headaches.
To make matters worse, that is the whole friggin’ premise of the third show in the Arrowverse, Legends of Tomorrow, introduced in January. Taking the premise of time travel and altering history intentionally, Legends of Tomorrow is an epically (f)rollicking mess of a show about … hell, I can never really tell what it’s really about.
And the worst part is they use the marvelous actor Arthur Darvill, who played Rory on Doctor Who, as the star of this cracked-up fable about time travel and Time Masters. Legends of Tomorrow was developed by Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim, Andrew Kreisberg and Phil Klemmer.
Here’s the setup: First they introduce Kendra, a really cute barista on The Flash, who turns out to be a 4,000-year-old Egyptian priestess who’s actually Hawk Girl. Then Rip Hunter, a rogue Time Master from 150 years in the future, comes to 2016 to get her and her 40-century-old sometime fiance / sometime husband Carter Hall to help hunt down the couple’s nemesis, Vandal Savage, another immortal bent on world destruction, who has the hots for Kendra.
The trouble is that Savage has killed Hunter’s wife and son, and Hunter wants to somehow stop it from happening in the future and save the world in direct defiance of the Time Masters who want to preserve the timeline. So, in Legends of Tomorrow, Hunter recruits Kendra, Hall and a few other characters from The Arrow and The Flash to take off, traveling through time, both to the past and the future, to thwart Savage.
As the series unwinds (or unravels), people die, Savage is found to be more than he seems, and Rip has to make hard choices. Does my contempt for the show show? The special effects are nifty and I love Ray’s space/time ship, the Waverunner, but the show is the worst of the seven. And the cast is the weakest, especially the guests.
Supergirl is the fourth DC property to join the fun on The CW this fall, and will air on Mondays beginning on October 10, while The Flash returns to Tuesdays on October 4, Arrow to Wednesdays on October 5, and Legends to Thursdays on October 13, all at 7 pm Central Time. Supergirl premiered on CBS last November and made a big splash as the first live-action superhero show on network TV in 40 years with a female lead character, since Wonder Woman in the 1970s. And while its ratings were low for CBS standards, if they hold up on The CW, it will be a big hit. I absolutely love this show. Period.
Melissa Benoist is the perfect choice for Supergirl the way this version of Kara Zor-El should be played. The cast around her is excellent, including Calista Flockhart, Mehcad Brooks, Jenna Dewan Tatum, David Harewood, Chyler Leigh, Helen Slater (the Supergirl in the 1984 movie), Dean Cain (Superman on Lois and Clark), Laura Benanti and Peter Facinelli. There are twists, turns and action that will amaze, along with some real cool interactions between the main characters. Supergirl was developed by Ali Adler, Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg. If you want to binge one show from these DC choices, do this one!
Gotham is on FOX on Mondays and has been similar to Smallville in that it is slowly introducing us to the young man who will eventually become the Batman. This show stars David Mazouz in the lead role, a phenomenal young actor who was last seen on the show, Touch, with Kiefer Sutherland. Keifer and I briefly talked about how amazing he is when we chatted a few weeks ago. I had met and talked with David earlier this year at Walker Stalker Con and was blown away at how astute he is, how personable and wise for his years. Another lead on the show is Robin Lord Taylor, and he is killing it as Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot. Taylor told me he thinks it is so cool “that Robin is playing the Penguin on Batman” — his words!
Gotham is a noir thriller that has a unique, bleak grey palette and narrative style. It is a depressing world not unlike Ben Kenobi’s unforgettable description of Mos Eisley on Star Wars: A New Hope, “a wretched hive of scum and villainy” played out like a gangster / mob story with Jim Gordon’s rise through the police ranks, the emergence of Catwoman and other colorful characters throughout. Gotham returns for a third season on September 19.
Like Supergirl, the cast of Gotham is outstanding, including Ben McKenzie, Morena Baccarin, Sean Pertwee, Donal Logue, Michael Chiklis, Camren Bicondova, and Jada Pinkett Smith. The recent addition of the exquisite Jessica Lucas as Tabitha totally makes this must-see TV for me, even though I do watch all seven of the shows I am writing about, and have seen every episode of each at least once.
Marvel’s TV shows are tops because they are consistent with each other and the MCU. The music on S.H.I.E.L.D. is the best in the business. Marvel presents themes that are allegorical to topics in the real world. The guest stars never cease to satisfy, and best of all, the show is set in the real world, in cities we know. The color palette is perfect, and the season structures makes sense and always deliver.
This also applies to Agent Carter.
DC tries, but just can’t deliver consistently coherent stories for their shows on The CW. The characters on Flash and Legends are all over the place and their use of time-travel is just downright confusing and doesn’t ring true. Additionally, they all set their shows in fake places like Star City, National City and others like that. We all recognize that Gotham City is an allegory for New York, so why can’t they just call it that… ’cause DC don’t roll like that.
As I watch a Marvel show, I think “This could happen,” but when I watch a DC show, I think, “This could never happen.” To me, it’s like Star Trek vs. Star Wars, in that one is a speculation and extrapolation of our reality (Marvel / Star Trek), while the other is completely fantasy with human (and alien) characters (DC / Star Wars).
Make mine Marvel!