Following a big screen superhero renaissance in the last decade, where DC and Marvel characters are earning billions for the respective studios, TV networks have wasted no time in attempting to cash-in on comic book adaptations for the small screen audience. Superheroes are no stranger to network and cable TV, with William Dozier’s Batman series running for 120 episodes on ABC back in the 1960s, and more recently, Smallville racked up 218 episodes on the WB/CW. Yet there’s no denying that with over ten comic book adaptations airing or on the way, superhero shows are more popular and profitable than ever.
For every Constantine – recently put down by NBC – there’s a Flash, Arrow, or Agents of SHIELD (not to mention Daredevil) which will each run for multiple seasons, pull in millions of viewers, and secure prime advertising revenue (specifically the 18- to 49-year-old range). Lucrative prospect or not – especially for networks looking to diversify their offerings and tempt viewers away from competing programming – as the number of superhero TV shows increases, so does the danger of market saturation – especially with mounting expectations for crossovers and team-ups.
To that end, producers have been faced with a delicate balancing act: develop shows around notable comic heroes – characters that might not be suited for a film adaptation – while creating a series capable of pleasing longtime fans and casual TV viewers alike. To cover their bases, most networks have relied heavily on the dark and moody tone of procedural crime/court house dramas, melding episodic storytelling (approachable for fickle channel-changers) with super-powered stars (around whom younger viewers and comic fans will rally).
Recognizing that there were enough brooding superheroes on TV, Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg introduced a refreshing blend of heart, humor, and heroics into their Arrow spinoff, The Flash. Now, just one year later, the pair are delivering another colorful piece of counter-programming, this time on CBS: Supergirl.
For a full rundown of network superhero TV shows, here are the programs currently scheduled to air in the upcoming year (not including Netflix and other premium providers):
- Agents of SHIELD season 3 will air on ABC this fall.
- Arrow season 4 will air on The CW this fall.
- The Flash season 2 will air on The CW this fall.
- Gotham season 2 will air on Fox this fall.
- Supergirl season 1 will air on CBS this fall.
- Agent Carter season 2 will air on ABC during the 2015-2016 midseason.
- Legends of Tomorrow will air on The CW during the 2015-2016 midseason.
When it was first announced that Berlanti and Kreisberg intended to bring Kara Zor-El (cousin to Man of Steel, Kal-El) to the small screen, plenty of fans, online journalists, and industry insiders balked at the idea. After all, Smallville maneuvered around the troubles of a weekly TV show about a character with god-like abilities by chronicling Kal’s discovery of his powers, “nerfing” the less cost-effective ones (most notably, flight). Since Warner Bros. had struggled to relaunch Superman for years (and Man of Steel is still a divisive topic among moviegoers), why should viewers be optimistic that CBS could portray a satisfying version of Supergirl on a small screen budget? Especially since the Supergirl plot synopsis made it clear that Kara is well-aware of her powers, having hidden them from the outside world for years.
How could CBS make viewers believe a girl can fly on a TV budget if it took this long for Warner Bros. to make audiences believe that a man (other than Christopher Reeve) can fly on the big screen?
Fortunately, the Supergirl first look trailer, released at network upfronts, shows CBS isn’t resting on their laurels and, in spite of initial skepticism, may have delivered a worthy entry in the superhero TV genre – one that, more than any other series before it, stands the chance of drawing in new viewers while also servicing longtime fans.
It’s impossible to judge the entire quality of Supergirl’s upcoming series based on a 6-minute trailer alone, but news that CBS has ordered a full season indicates the network is confident in Berlanti’s guiding hand, star Melissa Benoist, and the show’s overall place among competing superhero programs (evidenced by the fact they’ve scheduled the show for a head-to-head showdown with Fox’s Gotham). The trailer has its share of (arguably) cheesy moments, and Kara Zor-El’s choice of skirted crimefighting attire (while faithful) is already drawing criticisms from select fans; yet, initial reactions to the teaser on social media indicate that a lot of viewers are interested and, more importantly, excited to share the series with friends and loved ones that aren’t already on the superhero train.
Everyone from famous video game developers to optimistic stepfathers took to Twitter to express their enthusiasm – and see the show as an opportunity to bond over their love for superheroes with a whole new group of TV watchers.
Holy cow- really digging the Supergirl trailer! Can't wait to watch with my kids this fall! https://t.co/YdQF27Kmx3— davidscottjaffe (@davidscottjaffe) May 13, 2015
@andrewbdyce I already can't wait to show it to my 11-year-old stepdaughter. And the 16 and 20 year old if they will sit for it. Haha.— 2 Broke Geeks (@2BGPod) May 13, 2015
While hardcore fans debate whether or not the series will be connected to the DC Movie Universe or the Arrow/Flash/Legends of Tomorrow TV Universe, Warner Bros. is busy tailoring a property for a previously-untapped audience, as a way into DC universe brands. Marvel has developed its network TV format as an extension of an established “house style” (where humor is in the DNA of every single film), but DC’s latest venture could be the first superhero program to genuinely cull a wide cross-demographic viewership – bringing women and younger viewers under the DC umbrella just in time for a Batman V Superman movie (that also features Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman). The return is even more poignant if the series succeeds in cross-promotion with established DC properties (either on TV or as a Agents of SHIELD-like offshoot of the Justice League movie slate).
Evolving from the Smallville formula, CBS isn’t holding anything back – placing a fully-powered Kara Zor-El in the National City spotlight. As a result, the character is poised to present an exciting hero (regardless of gender) but one that stands to reflect feminist struggles through the lens of a female superhero origin story.
Speaking about the show – and what Supergirl is really about, Benoist stated:
“What’s so wonderful about her is that she is such a relatable character, amongst her powers… What I’m the most excited about is telling a story about a human being really realizing their potential and their strength, and I think that’s something that everyone will root for and want in their own lives – I’m really excited about that.”
Following controversy around the depiction of Black Widow in Avengers: Age of Ultron, made all the more contentious by a lack of merchandise for female Marvel fans, a TV show featuring a heroine that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with DC Comics’ mega-powerful Kryptonian hero is a welcome addition to the superhero entertainment landscape – especially if that heroine can reflect the struggles of her TV audience.
The Strength to Inspire
Similarly, just as Daredevil needed a gloomy and violent tone to properly depict the Man Without Fear, and subsequently found success at Netflix, Supergirl‘s source material is, comparatively, much lighter fare. That isn’t to say that Supergirl shouldn’t be taken seriously, or hasn’t been instrumental in powerful (and incredibly dark) comic storylines, but much like The Flash, Supergirl is at her best when blending self (and female) empowerment with a sense of wonderment, playfulness, and adventure often ignored by fellow DC heroes Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, and Batman, to name a few.
In an industry (and world) that has become dominated by doom and gloom, a Supergirl TV series is arriving at the perfect time, with a timely message: we don’t have to grit our teeth and push loved ones away in the face of difficulty. It’ll be awhile before we know what to expect from Supergirl, but the trailer and interviews with cast and producers indicate that Kara Zor-El isn’t going to be racked with self-loathing. She’s on a journey of self-discovery – that just happens to include super-strength and laser vision.
The point is hammered home by the conversation between Supergirl and Superman-confidant Jimmy– James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks), who explains to Kara that her famous cousin hoped she’d choose to be a hero one day but, ultimately, wanted it to be her choice (as it was his years before). It’s a relatable story for viewers from all backgrounds, regardless of gender, age, or ethnicity – we don’t choose the cards we’ve been dealt, but we can choose how to face them.
Should Berlanti succeed, Supergirl has the potential to remind audiences that long before it was trendy to be dark and gritty, superpowers and saving the day were supposed to be fun – and inspire us all to be our best. Let’s just hope that Warner Bros. has the foresight to ensure Supergirl capes are available in stores, so a whole new generation of super-kids can fall in love with a superhero, look to the sky and say: “Up, up, and away!”
After all, that’s why we’re fans of these heroes in the first place.
Supergirl season 1 premieres this fall on CBS.