Why are superhero shows on television so lousy?
In elementary school, I woke up every morning at 6am to watch the classic sixties Batman series on the black and white TV in our kitchen. I loved Batman, and I loved Batman on television. On Saturday mornings I was up early to watch SuperFriends. I loved that as well. But I wanted more, and I wanted better. I preferred live-action over cartoons, but the vintage Batman series, while live-action, was, well, a touch ‘out-of-date’.
In 1978 I got my first wish — Richard Donner’s first Superman film. It was incredible. Transformative. I remember actually crying with excitement, my chest bursting, when Superman flew in his costume for the first time.
Superman was good. And Superman II was pretty good too to my kid taste. But my favorite hero was Batman. Now that my appetite had been whetted, I wanted a Batman film. I had to wait almost a decade for that. I was in college when Tim Burton’s Batman came out and it didn’t disappoint. Later films did though. And as Joel Schumacher took a huge shit all over the franchise, I once again felt abandoned.
Superman had been on TV several times, but I wasn’t into any of them. Not the black and white classics. And not Lois and Clark. Smallville arrived, and I watched it. At first it was acceptable. I kept watching through multiple seasons having to hold my nose with each progressive season getting more and more ridiculous. And then I got depressed. I wondered, why is this stuff such garbage? Why can’t the superhero characters be treated seriously?
In 1999 The Sopranos was one of the first programs to usher in the new era of television. The one that included Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and of course, The Wire. Many of these programs share some key characteristics: they are patient – taking their time to tell a story, they have many fewer episodes per season than a traditional network show, they are incredibly well written and beautifully acted, have gorgeous production values, tell stories span multiple episodes and multiple seasons, and maybe most importantly, they have an ending.
A decade after the first episode of the Sopranos aired, someone finally took a serious, long-term storytelling approach to a superhero – Christopher Nolan made The Dark Knight. But it wasn’t on television. It was the first of three films. I was in heaven. The approach I had dreamed about since highs school had finally been taken. And it was glorious. The only downside of it not being on television was that I was only going to get seven hours of storytelling instead of the sixty or so of The Wire. But I couldn’t complain.
And then came Marvel. Marvel had a vision. Marvel had focus. And Marvel had the other thing I had always hoped for. My favorite instance of the classic Batman TV series wasn’t one of the television episodes at all which were constantly being rerun. It was the feature film they made based on the TV series. Not only did it have Bat-vehicles that I had never seen before, but it was a crossover in that only one villain would appear at a time in the tv episodes, but in the film Penguin, The Joker, The Riddler and Catwoman (the big four of Batman villains) all appeared. (Let’s ignore for the moment that this might have been the moment that catalyzed modern film-makers desperate desire to cram as many villains as they can into each superhero film.) What I loved about it was not that there were multiple villains. What I loved was that characters who had never met on screen were meeting for the first time. That was exciting. Marvel knew this. Hence, their vision not just for superhero films, but for a connected universe of films and eventually television shows. A universe where what happens in one corner, affects what happens in another – just like the real world.
Marvel didn’t have the seriousness of the Nolan films, but they were far enough along the seriousness spectrum to make me happy. And since Marvel’s movies were pretty damn good, I had very high hopes for their television shows. I waited eagerly for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and sat down to watch the first several episodes. There was only so much of it I could watch. It wasn’t Smallville horrible, but it wasn’t good exactly either. By the fourth episode, I’d had enough. It felt like a bad Law and Order clone. Like the Hawaii Five-O reboot, but worse. Less interesting. Less serious. Less relevant.
The premier of Arrow was around that time. I lasted two episodes there. It was like a better Smallville. That’s not a compliment. The Flash came out and it was Smallville.
But Gotham was coming. Gotham had a terrific concept. The prequel to Batman. It had at least one of the actors from the Wire. The actor playing the Penguin had a touch of Heath Ledger’s crazy as the Joker. The budget was large. I tuned in. When I want something to happen I can be incredibly positive, giving the situation a chance to develop. I’m patient, and encouraging, and hopeful. I lasted longer with Gotham than any of the others since it was the DC Universe, it wasn’t connected to Arrow and the Flash, and it was part of the Batman universe. But even I couldn’t last.
I had given up. I decided not to watch Daredevil on Netflix. I just couldn’t deal with any more disappointment. But of course, I’m such a sucker. I saw an article saying that Daredevil was as close as Marvel could get to making The Wire. I watched. It was ok. I might even watch a second episode. But it was most certainly not The Wire.
Soon there DC will offer a Teen Titans show, and a Supergirl show (starring one of the replacement actors from Glee), and Netflix will provide Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Defenders via Netflix. If past performance is any indication of future results, I am not hopeful.
Why can’t I get a Marvel or DC superhero show, that’s part of a connected universe, that rocks? Why can’t I get the drama and texture and subtlety of Mad Men in a superhero show? And before you say it, don’t kid yourself. Mad Men is a superhero show. Don is a superhero drinker, womanizer, and ad pitch man. I’m not glorfying it. But like the best superheroes, Don Draper is complicated.
Budget might be part of the issue but less than you may think. Mad Men costs 2.5 million per episode. Breaking Bad was 3 million. Expensive right? But by some estimates Gotham costs around 3.5 million per episode. The guesstimate on the Marvel shows on Netflix is about 3.5 million per episode as well. Gotham will have over 20 episodes in its first season, while Breaking Bad had a dozen. Which is more expensive to produce? I wonder, would Fox rather have Breaking Bad or Gotham on its schedule? Based on their actions, I can only assume the networks would rather have Gotham. But I’ll confess, I wouldn’t. I’d rather have the patient storytelling of a Breaking Bad than the silly flirty cutesy cutesy of the Flash or the two-dimensional characters in Agents of Shield.
Does anyone who has responsibility for putting these shows on television give a crap?