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Exploring Superheroes on TV: Why Superhero Television Shows Are So Popular

Nora Dominick ‘17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

In the past several years, superhero movies and television shows have exploded. Superheroes and adapting beloved comic book characters for the big screen and television seems to be the latest craze. In just the past three years, superhero television shows have become the biggest hits. So, what is the fascination with superhero television shows? And will the trend continue? Emertainment Monthly explores this recent phenomenon.

In the last few years, Hollywood has begun to see the true potential for superheroes. The main example of this is Marvel’s recent success with movies like Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel has already scheduled close to ten upcoming Marvel movies to be released from 2015 to 2019. DC Comics has also capitalized on this phenomenon by creating very lucrative television programs. Although this trend has boomed in recent years, superhero television shows as a genre has existed for quite some time. In order to truly understand the current explosion of the genre, you first must look at their evolution.

Stephen Amell in the Arrow episode "Draw Back Your Bow." Photo Credit: Diyah Pera/The CW.
Stephen Amell in the Arrow episode “Draw Back Your Bow.” Photo Credit: Diyah Pera/The CW.

Comic books as an entity has existed for quite some time. Marvel comics started in 1939 and was known as Timely Publications it then transitioned to be known as Atlas Comics in the early 1950s. The modern incarnation of Marvel started roughly around 1961 when the company launched The Fantastic Four and other superheroes created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and many others. Marvel is known for numerous other characters such as Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Daredevil, the Hulk and teams like The Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy and X-Men.

DC Comics has also been part of the superhero game for a while. It is a publishing unit of DC Entertainment that is a part of Warner Brothers. DC owns several notable characters that have made their marks in the comic book universe. Some DC comic characters include Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, Superman, Green Arrow and Captain Marvel along with teams like the Justice League, Watchmen and Teen Titans.

DC Comics has capitalized greatly on turning their hit comic book characters into live action television series. Adventures of Superman was one of the first televisions series developed by DC Entertainment. Adventures of Superman was created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The show starred George Reeves as Clark Kent/Superman, Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen, Robert Shayne as Inspector Henderson and Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane in the first season with Noel Neill stepping into the role after that. The series followed Superman as he battles gangsters, felons and other villains in the fictional city of Metropolis while maintaining his identity as Daily Planet reporter, Clark Kent. The successful show ran for six seasons from 1952 to 1958. Adventures of Superman can now be seen on several television channels in syndication and remains one of the most lucrative superhero television shows.

Ben McKenzie and Donal Logue in the series premiere of Gotham. Photo Credit: Jessica Miglio/FOX.
Ben McKenzie and Donal Logue in the series premiere of Gotham. Photo Credit: Jessica Miglio/FOX.

Following the success of Adventures of Superman, DC Entertainment developed Batman, a 1960s live-action television series based on the comic book character. The television series starred Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin. The series followed Batman and Robin as they defended their beloved city of Gotham. Batman aired on ABC for three seasons from 1966 until 1968. The show was such a success, it aired twice a week for its first two seasons and reached a total of 120 episodes. The television show was known for being a family-friendly show that helped teach children moral lessons like doing homework and eating your vegetables. Batman continues to run in syndication and is still beloved by numerous generations.

DC comic book characters have also lept into the world of animated series. One of the most successful and well known animated series DC has produced is Batman: The Animated Series. The television show was based on the DC Comics superhero Batman and was produced by Warner Brothers Animation. Batman: The Animated Series originally aired on FOX from 1992 until 1995. The animated series received high praise from critics. The thematic complexity, the darker tone, modernization and artistic quality of Batman: The Animated Series was amazing.  The show earned several Emmy Awards including Outstanding Animated Program.

Another successful animated series that helped propel superhero television to new levels was the children/teen program Teen Titans. The animated series premiered on Cartoon Network in 2003. It was based on the run of stories by Marv Wolfman and George Perez who wrote the New Teen Titans comic books in the early 1980s. Teen Titans ran from 2003 to 2006 and received praise for its child/teen programming. A comic book series stemmed off of the series called Teen Titans Go! that was based on the TV series. In 2012, the series was revived and was re-titled Teen Titans Go!

Tom Welling and Jensen Ackles in Smallville. Photo Credit: CW.
Tom Welling and Jensen Ackles in Smallville. Photo Credit: CW.

One of the most recent characters to be revived for television prior to the recent re-emergence of superhero programming was Superman in the CW live action series, Smallville. The series was developed by writers/producers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar and was based on the DC comic character, Superman. The series aimed to show the origin story of Superman. Although Superman already received a lucrative television series Adventures of Superman, Smallville aimed to modernize the tale and did not want to replace the beloved 1950s series. The show ran for a very successful ten seasons from 2001 to 2011. Smallville followed the adventures of Clark Kent (Tom Welling), who resided in the fictional town of Smallville, Kansas. It followed Clark and his years before he becomes known as Superman. The first four seasons followed Clark and his friends in high school and after season five, the show began to venture into more adult settings and focused on his career at the Daily Planet. The series also introduced numerous other DC comic book superheroes and villains including The Justice League which was made up of Bart Allen, Oliver Queen, Arthur Curry, Victor Stone and Clark Kent. Smallville also won several awards including Emmy Awards for Outstanding Sound Editing for a Series.

Although all of these television shows were successful in their own right, the recent resurgence of superhero television has proven to be the most successful. With Marvel dominating the blockbuster movie circuit, DC Comics began to develop their television unit into one that resembled the one in the 1960s. One vigilante began to spark the biggest television superhero craze to date.

In 2012, DC Comics in partnership with the CW, rolled out the red, or should we say green, carpet for the masked vigilante, the Green Arrow. Arrow premiered in 2012 with rave reviews. The show became the CW’s highest-rated new series in five years. Arrow follows Oliver Queen, a billionaire playboy who has returned home to Starling City after being shipwrecked on an island for five years. He has returned with only one goal, to save his city. He fights crime and corruption as a secret vigilante with his weapon of choice, a bow and arrow.

Stephen Amell in the Arrow episode "Draw Back Your Bow." Photo Credit: Diyah Pera/The CW.
Stephen Amell in the Arrow episode “Draw Back Your Bow.” Photo Credit: Diyah Pera/The CW.

Although the Oliver Queen/Green Arrow was recently portrayed in Smallville, Arrow decided to recast the role and give it to a relatively unknown actor, Stephen Amell. The show has done extremely well for the network and has created a resurgence of the television superhero industry. Arrow not only portrays classic DC comic book characters such as Slade Wilson, Cupid, Black Canary and Arsenal, but it also has created beloved new characters such as IT nerd (and Oliver Queen’s love interest) Felicity Smoak and John Diggle, an ex-military agent and Oliver’s right hand man. Arrow is currently in its third season and continues to be a smash hit for DC and the CW. It helped usher in the latest era of superhero television.

Out of the success of Arrow came another hit for the CW, The Flash. After being featured in two episodes of Arrow, Barry Allen/Flash received his own television show. The series stars Grant Gustin as The Flash, Danielle Panabaker as Caitlin Snow, Candice Patton as Iris, Carlos Valdes as Cisco and Tom Cavanagh as Dr. Harrison Wells. The Flash follows Barry Allen as he discovers his new power of lightning quick speed after a lightning bolt struck him following a particle accelerator explosion at S.T.A.R Labs. Barry is now using his speed for good as he helps rid Central City of crime caused by metahumans, people who have been given super abilities due to the particle accelerator explosion. The Flash has become one of the biggest successes for the CW and is riding off of the success of Arrow and the recent obsession with superheros.

Although Marvel has created some of the biggest blockbuster superhero movies, it never really dove into the television market, until today that is. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., created for ABC by Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, is based on the Marvel Comics organization  S.H.I.E.L.D (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division). The show follows this fictional peacekeeping and spy agency in a world that is populated with superheroes and other supernatural phenomenon. The series revolves around Phil Coulson, a character brought to life in the Marvel movies by Clark Gregg who reprises his role. Several of the characters from the Marvel universe appear throughout the series and a lot of the storylines and characters crossover with the films. The show has proven to be very lucrative for Marvel and continues to have a growing fan base.

Grant Gustin in The Flash episode "Flash vs. Arrow." Photo Credit: Diyah Pera /The CW.
Grant Gustin in The Flash episode “Flash vs. Arrow.” Photo Credit: Diyah Pera /The CW.

In the 2014-2015 season alone, three other superhero television shows besides The Flash have been put on the small screen. Gotham, Constantine and Agent Carter have premiered or are scheduled to premiere during this television season. These three shows are further expanding their comic book and film universes as it creates an outlet for fans to explore the characters on a deeper level. With close to 22 episodes of Gotham scheduled to air, fans of Batman can explore the backstory of Bruce Wayne, James Gordon and Gotham City before Bruce becomes Batman. Agent Carter is scheduled to premiere in January 2015 on ABC and is expected be another smash hit for the network and ABC. With these new shows joining forces with Arrow and The Flash, superheroes are seen everywhere on television.

So, why has superhero television become so popular in recent years? With everything going on in the world, escaping into a universe where superheroes rule and villains are easily vanquished allows viewers to imagine a better future. A future where they can be the hero and save the day. The moral values superheroes stand for are items that viewers love to connect with. Another possible reason for superheroes migrating to television? Viewers these days want to get to know characters inside and out and television allows them to do so. With major networks allowing television series to have close to 22 episodes, show-runners and writers can flesh out the characters and devote entire episodes to their backstory. For example, Arrow uses flashbacks almost every episode to showcase Oliver Queen and his time spent on the island, Lian Yu and Hong Kong prior to returning to Starling City. Oliver Queen has been fleshed out as a character and his slow return to humanity is very satisfying to long time or new fans of the masked vigilante.

Ming-Na Wen, Chloe Bennet, Elizabeth Henstridge, Brett Dalton, Clark Gregg and Iain De Caestecker in the Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode "F.Z.Z.T." Photo Credit: ABC/Justin Lubin.
Ming-Na Wen, Chloe Bennet, Elizabeth Henstridge, Brett Dalton, Clark Gregg and Iain De Caestecker in the Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode “F.Z.Z.T.” Photo Credit: ABC/Justin Lubin.

Another possible reason for the massive return of superhero television could be social media and the dominance of the internet. With Twitter being at the top of social media, most television shows take up the opportunity to live tweet. By putting superheroes on television, networks can also gain a following by utilizing social media to reach new audiences. Although blockbuster movies also use social media campaigns, television tends to lead in this area because of the immediate and constant conversation between the series and their fans. Another aspect of the internet that could have caused superhero television to command is the role of Netflix and other streaming services.  With viewer’s ability to catch up on television seasons after they have aired live, more fans can become part of the experience. If a hit comic book character can be placed into a television world, there is bound to be a longer lasting run on television or on streaming services that will be very lucrative for the company.

As television continues to grow, it looks like the superhero television genre is here to stay. With a long history in television, adapting classic comic book characters to beloved television series tends to be a trend that will continue.  By combining social media and universal themes, television may have finally found the perfect balance to make smash hits. The obsession with superheroes is here to stay however, will it continue to be successful? That’s for you to figure out.

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4 Comments

  1. The basis of the article is entirely wrong: those shows are NOT popular.

    Every comic book show has flopped mightily.

    The real question should be “why are network executives making more comic book-based shows when they keep flopping?”

  2. @Rena Moretti, almost all theses shows are doing amazing right now. Tons of new ones coming out. The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, daredevil. More and more each season.

    I also love the way the part about Marvel and DC’s history is obviously written by a Marvel Fanboy. He mentions Superman and Batman like they aren’t the most iconic superheroes of the 20th century.

  3. If by “doing amazing” you mean “failed to get a decent audience”, then you’re right.

    There isn’t one super-hero-type TV doing well on TV today.

    Just look at their actual audience instead of the spin.

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