The Dilemma of Superhero Shows

The official artwork for the otherwise average 3rd season of Gotham.

Ask someone right now, tell them to describe what ‘Legion’ is, to you.

They will most certainly not resort to the almost immediate answer that any geek will tell you, which is that he’s the infamous son of Charles Xavier, Professor X, adapted into the FX produced, FOX owned Legion TV show. And what is almost certain, is that they won’t refer to the story as a ‘superhero’ tale, to which I give full credence to, not for the simple fact that both descriptions are applicable, but because “Superhero” is yet to be defined.

Our sense of heroism is somewhat defined by what we know most, but truly, the medium is understood from the audience perspective based on what framing devices we use, for all we know, Nikita could well have been a take on an anti-hero that originally belonged to a comic book publishing company, but because it’s not, we see it as ‘action’, and not as ‘superhero’. ‘Dishonored’ published by Bethesda could very well have been defined as an RPG as it has all the traits of an RPG (albeit, a badly designed one) could ask for, but we don’t go around labeling it as such solely for the fact it’s published by Bethesda; a publisher notorious for their Elder Scrolls and Fallout franchises, which both integrate many elements of gameplay outside of RPG mechanics, but by framing them as such, they limit the scope of the critique; thus making it almost impossible to categorize their games, or put them under relatively low or high amounts of scrutiny depending on what you think demands more effort and dedication. That’s of course if you fully disregard authoritarial intent.

If we really examine the past history of comic book adaptations on TV, or even the big screen, we notice that it follows the path of many trends, except only this time, it’s different; what makes Smallville and 90s Flash distinct is that they were premature attempts at capitalizing on an industry that just bursted into the wide-open. Now whether that was a sustainable strategy -which it wasn’t- is up for debate, but what is certain, is that the ‘superhero’ genre is here to stay and solidify itself as a separate entity, not just by mere presence, but also through story traits, and tropes that we’ve seen established, used, and reused many times in the span of the five years we’ve had to see modern superhero TV evolve.

Now most people are oblivious to this, but the only show that refuses to adamantly associate itself with a character is Gotham, originally wishing to dissociate itself from the Batman character; but we’ll get back into that and why it might be the saving grace for a notoriously hated show by comic book fans. There‘s no “Starling City”, there’s “Arrow”, short for the much cooler Green Arrow name, a legacy helmed by one of the most socially involved DC characters in their publishing history. This was something I noticed, but then started to take for granted as the show progresses: Oliver Queen will never die. There’s really no tension surrounding the fact he’d be murdered throughout any of his tribulations.

The conceit for all superhero shows is that however hard the hero is hurt, the angel of death will never come looking for their soul (unless they’re a speedster). And that’s not exclusive to Arrow, nor is it limited to DC’s properties. Every single hero in Marvel’s Netflix shows makes it alive, which makes you ultimately question: If there are no stakes for the hero, why am I watching?

You could make the same argument for commercial comic books. You know there will be always a Batman book in publication somewhere, and should he die, it’ll be very temporary, restricted to an alternate timeline, reality, or explained through the magical wand that is “retconning”. That’s a luxury TV can’t afford because the episodic format inherently relies on “continuity”. If you watch from the first episode, the first season, you are rewarded by having better comprehension of the entailments of the story. Viewers aren’t used to being told that what they’ve seen portrayed on camera didn’t happen. (you might recall the scene where Earth-2 Flash is portrayed as being chased by Zoom. At first we thought it was true, until it turned out to be Zoom’s retelling of his fictional scenario.) It is a given, that x and y as seen, did happen, and by nature of their placement within some given episode, they have actual ramifications on the progression of the on-going storyline, or otherwise, shooting, producing and cutting it wouldn’t have made much sense, since you know… What you see on-screen isn’t real. It is merely the perspective of the director, and the executive producer to an extent.

In that vein, there is no emotion felt outside of the abstract whenever the hero’s life is threatened. Those are quite simply the tingles of our socially shaped reactions to film. If and when you happen to watch that shit alone, don’t tell me that for a *second* you felt something for a hero that you know is going to live and fulfill his duty as a money maker for a TV network. That’s ultimately the superhero’s most substantial act: Generating profit.

Paradoxically, you might’ve watched ‘Legends of Tomorrow’ and went like “Hold on a minute Lys, so you say that superhero storytelling is dependant on one character, and if that one character dies, viewership is in deep shit?”. Well not exactly, allow me to explain.

‘DC’s Legends of Tomorrow’ can be described as their attempt at making the Defenders before it was ever a reality. The original concept showed what was most likely a team-up superhero show between the Flash, Green Arrow, and their most prominent side-characters; what it ended up being is a concurrent show comprising of everyone besides the Flash and Arrow main cast so both shows can be sustained with future crossover potential.

The show’s placement in the DC slate is a bit weird… last year was a disastrous year for the CW-esque TV shows. Arrow was experiencing a dire need for creativity, Flash was dragging a great villain against a pretty contrived storyline, Supergirl turned out to be a teen drama and ‘Legends of Tomorrow’ used the original pitch in the outright most boring way imaginable.

Here’s an interesting observation: Why does ‘Legends’ keep tanking in ratings despite having a team of many fan-favorites on-board, all as permanent cast members ? The answer is nobody truly cares. And that’s the epitome of superhero storytelling: It doesn’t matter so long as the heroes win.

The closest counterpart to that of which it is comparable is chronic disease. Those who have it *know* that they might have to live with that burden for the rest of their lives (so does yours truly) but they wish there was a way for them to confront it and at least *attempt* to end it. That’s the core of superhero stories: Hope.

It is about hope of defeating the seemingly impossible to defeat. How many times have you seen in a movie a destined-to-be-hero so weak that he wouldn’t stand a fighting chance against the main villain had he appeared in his full glory in the first act? Plenty; being a superhero isn’t so much about saving lives or closing blue portals shooting beams from the sky anymore, it’s about surmounting the insurmountable. Knowing that by the end of that span, the protagonist will come out victorious, and that the nemesis will be punished in some way or the other. Destroyed mentally, physically, or both.

So, with all the tension of ever seeing the main player of events get killed… how is it humanly possible to entice the viewer? Make them long for more? The answer is quite simple; it is THE events.

It’s not like Stephen Amell’s mind was wiped during his bad run on Season 3 and 4 of Arrow and suddenly everything came back to its normal state on Season 5. Actors are bounded by what’s given to them from a creative standpoint, and that extends well beyond their character, and well within the happenings of the story.

Truth be told, many of CW’s characters are well-rounded, interesting and all fulfilling in different ways, but if whatever ‘event’ they’re participating in doesn’t quite service the story of the hero coming out victorious at the end, then it’s just bad writing. And who would know bad writing from good one if there weren’t already subconsciously set standards? Exactly. And that’s why Guardian, Laurel “Black Canary” Lance, Mon-El and more than enough characters to form a thesis are frowned upon as being “bad choices”. They don’t service the journey of the hero in the triumph of evil. At the beginning of Arrow Season 5, a lot of people criticized the sudden change of characters, and the ‘Legends of Tomorrow-ization’ of Arrow; the main arguing point is that all the CW has ever done with side-characters is either kill them, or dispose of their presence for atrociously bad reasons. It is based on precedent of betrayal to the show’s core fanbase, but what “they” didn’t realize too is that ‘expectations’ are also a key weakness in this complex chain of factors that make a TV show what it is. That’s why Flash has shot the shit recently by resting on its own laurels *cough* yesmen everywhere kept dry-humping the show as a coping mechanism for Arrow’s averageness, what they ended up with is by far the worst season of any superhero show the CW has ever produced.

A non-spoilery, befittingly dull Flash Season 3 poster.

Flashpoint on Flash proved to be a disappointment because it was stripped of that very factor: The Triumph of the Good Will. The original storyline served merely as a subtext for Barry Allen butting heads with Eobard Thawne whilst dealing with the grief of his mom’s loss. Now that’s impactful. That gives us a villain, a succession of events, a hero initially unfit to beat the villain, and then comes the final moment where the story is resolved.

That’s something comic book fans and generally people who are fond of superhero tales have to come at terms with, is that reasons for stories to suck can’t and won’t always be exclusively tied to the lore of said story. It has to pertain to the very structure of the story. If we can’t tie it down to a writing issue, then what good does it serve other than stretching the legs of the thermian argument to what basically amounts to fanfiction. The Flash isn’t bad because character x committed y act; it is bad because it doesn’t use any of the good superhero writing cues. For something to have drastically impacted the course of a show long helmed as being the best of CW’s output until tables were flipped lately, something must’ve gone fundamentally wrong, and it’s not like something we can’t solve; it’s an inherent writing issue. Methods aren’t being respected, laws are being broken, ‘genres’ are being disrespected.

Categories in my very humble opinion are reductionist, BUT their creation isn’t the accidental sum of our collective thoughts, it’s also the born baby of our most urging conveniences. Why film fits into Sci-Fi and not Comedy isn’t only a matter of pertaining to certain visual elements or storytelling features, it also taps into the subconscious of the audience when it comes to deciding whether an oeuvre is good or not. The same goes for superhero tales.

If the director sets out to make a movie, or a show about superheroes, there are certain rules to abide by, otherwise that piece of art will simply be discarded as a genre crossover, or a “bad” superhero flick, plain and simple.

Artwork for the incredible Gotham half-season subtitled “Wrath of the Villains”.

Now, some of you might question the Gotham artwork choice at the beginning, and go “Clickbait!”, to which I’ll happily answer “Yes” and also “Boy do Gotham official artworks look fuckin’ awesome”. Seriously. Go to TVDB and have a gander at the Flash artwork/poster section. They’re all the same.

… putting that aside. I do consider Gotham to be a superhero show. Not only does it feature humans with superhuman abilities throughout, but it especially adheres to a feature of storytelling that can very well be interpreted subjectively depending on your perspective; what follows is a dissertation on why and spoilers for the 2nd Season of Gotham, so beware.

In the first half-season of Gotham, we’re given an introduction to Jerome, Barbara’s madness spree and a turmoil in Gordon’s life as a police officer. The most interesting aspect of the story isn’t even Jerome’s parade as proto-Joker, that has already been outdone by his amazing performance in Season 3, what’s most interesting is that the ‘triumph’ comes in the form of gangs standing their ground on Gotham and coming to save the day by rescuing Bruce and Alfred from the superhumanly-powered Azrael. The already shred to pieces little poor soul got resurrected by Dr. Hugo Strange to serve his army in a quest to figure the secrets of defeating death for the Court of Owls… It’s very interesting. And in the midst of it, at the last minute, the indoctrinated Azrael by the words of the Dumaa Order, when he’s two hairs close to slicing Bruce’s throat open, Penguin and Butch come with a rocket launcher destroying him into pieces -again- to save the day.

Were those villains who just saved future Batman? Hell to the fuck yes. And this only adds credence to another point I haven’t gotten into, which is plain ol’ “character depth”. And for as much as clearly defined lines between villains and heroes can serve as an interesting clash, blurred out conflicts can make for a very enjoyable viewing experience as well. The fact that soon-to-be vigilante Bruce Wayne is saved by someone who’d certainly be on the list of goons to be put behind bars (and it’s not like the Commissioner isn’t aware, Gotham is just that corrupt) is a fun thought to entertain, even a more fun one to see play out in live-action. When villains have slivers of good, and good guys have slivers of evil inside them, it makes them interesting and more relatable, as opposed to characters like Zoom who derive all their power from a sense of conflict. He isn’t so much of a good character, as he is a “good villain”.

We still got a sense of accomplishment from a storyline that Gordon was supposed to close of by having the villains save the day (as some would argue as anti-heroes, but that’s way too shallow and broad of a description for me to consider). It shows that superhero tales have a construct, they’ve developed themselves a construct, and that there’s a formula upon which creativity can thrive, and good superhero storytelling can be achieved.

There doesn’t have to be a bad season of any show so long as the makers are realizing that Gotham isn’t a procedural, Flash isn’t Sci-Fi, Arrow isn’t a Thriller… they are superhero shows comprising of elements that could put them in a separate category, but doing so would do them utmost injustice criticism-wise.

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