Television networks have attempted to tap into the comic book superhero genre many times over the past 60 years, finding hits in the 1960s Batman as well as Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk in the ’70s, then The Flash in the ’90s and Smallville in the early 2000s. Now we’re in another age of comic book superhero popularity, largely launched by Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and hit team-up film, The Avengers, which has ushered in a resurgence of shared universe storytelling both on the big and small screens.
This newest comic book superhero trend in movies and television has caused another boom in TV shows based on characters from both DC and Marvel comics. In recent years, The CW launched a shared universe with Arrow and its spinoff The Flash, ABC and Marvel created a cinematic universe tie-in with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Fox launched the Batman prequel drama Gotham, and NBC tried their hand at the character of Constantine, though the series only lasted for one season.
In 2015, superhero TV continued to expand as Marvel added another ABC series in the form of Agent Carter, which aired during Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s midseason break. Additionally, the studio teamed with Netflix to launch their own corner of the MCU that included standalone series Daredevil and Jessica Jones. CBS entered into the game with their first superhero offering in the genre’s newest era of popularity, Supergirl. But, comic book-based superhero TV hasn’t simply expanded in 2015, this year saw a marked improvement in a number of aspects in the networks’ television ventures.
Ambitious Storytelling & World Building
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has continually upped its game every season, dealing with the fallout from Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s reveal of Hydra’s infiltration in season 1, then introducing and developing the mythos of Inhumans in season 2 as well as season 3. But, the show’s standout moment of 2015 was their season 3 bottle episode ‘4,722 Hours’ which followed what happened to Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) after she was sucked through a portal in the alien Monolith in the season 2 finale and deposited on a strange planet for more than six months. ‘4,722 Hours’ was a definite risk for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. since it was such a divergence from its usual episodes, but it paid off and became the strongest episode of the third season so far, and arguably of the series to date.
‘4,722 Hours’ managed capitalize on the ambitious storytelling of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s writers by telling a dramatic, well-paced story with only two human characters – a first for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which primarily depends on its large cast and their various relationships to carry the episodes. In addition to the compelling storyline, we now know that ‘4,722 Hours’ helped to establish the mythos of the alien planet, Maveth, which played a big part in the show’s midseason finale, and set up the antagonist for the second half of the third season. So while this episode played a key role in the storyline of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 3, it also offered viewers a hint of what the writers are capable of if given the room to explore their creativity, which could help the show improve even more in its upcoming episodes and seasons.
As for The CW’s Arrowverse, both The Flash and Arrow have taken on larger world-building story threads in their seasons two and four, respectively. Earlier this year, in the second half of The Flash season 1, the show introduced time travel as an element that came back for the season 1 finale. Now in season 2 The Flash is exploring alternate realities with the wormholes between Earth-1 and Earth-2. Arrow, meanwhile, has delved into mysticism with the introduction of The Lazarus Pit – which played a pivotal role in bringing Sara Lance (Caity Lotz) back from the dead – and Damien Dahrk (Neal McDonough). Additionally, both shows worked to set up the third series in The CW’s Arrowverse, the upcoming Legends of Tomorrow, by introducing characters that will later star in the spinoff or making sure previously introduced characters were in a state where they could appear.
Although Arrow and The Flash’s time spent setting up Legends of Tomorrow has arguably detracted from their own respective story lines, both shows can be applauded for tackling more ambitious world-building than in previous seasons. Arrow’s mysticism has added a new element to a show that had primarily stayed rooted in crime drama, and allowed the series to feature a guest role for John Constantine (Matt Ryan), which spawned a new resurgence in the #SaveConstantine fan movement. On the other hand, The Flash’s introduction of Earth-2 has helped the show usher in an even bigger, badder villain for season 2 in the form of Zoom, which led to the series’ most chilling sequence of the evil speedster defeating Barry Allen (Grant Gustin). Still, though these world-building efforts of Arrow and The Flash have seemingly paid off in a fashion, whether their time spent setting up Legends of Tomorrow was put to good use remains to be seen when the show debuts early in 2016 – though it should be noted that they pulled off the feat more effectively than viewers could have predicted at this time last year.
Widespread & Dramatic Appeal
When it first premiered in 2013, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. attracted 11.9 million viewers and a 4.9 rating among the 18 to 49 demographic for its pilot episode. Although that was successful at the time for a comic book series, Supergirl’s premiere garnered 14 million viewers – though only a 3.2 rating – and became the most-watched new show of the Fall 2015 season, placing it ahead of all non-comic-based series. The number of weekly viewers for Supergirl has dropped off since its premiere, but is holding steady with 7-8 million each week. Plus, critical reception of the series has been strong, maintaining a 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and continues to grow as Supergirl delivers compelling character moments mixed with major reveals in its ongoing story threads.
Although Supergirl is the highest rated new show of the 2015 fall season, the Marvel and Netflix shows that premiered this year have drawn their fair share of critical acclaim, with Daredevil holding a Rotten Tomatoes score of 98 percent and Jessica Jones a 93 percent. Screen Rant named Jessica Jones “Marvel’s most compelling series yet” and Daredevil was part of making Marvel TV stronger than the film side of the MCU in the studio’s Phase 2. Additionally, both shows’ adult-skewing drama garnered praise, specifically Daredevil’s handling of the character’s darker side and Jessica Jones’s dealing with the subjects of rape, abuse, and post-traumatic stress.
All this is to say, 2015 saw a number of comic book superhero shows draw in viewers in large numbers outside of the fan demographic. Supergirl has been applauded for appealing to a wide range of ages due to the show’s positive portrayal of a female superhero as well as ongoing themes of family and being empowered by stay true to yourself. Although Daredevil and Jessica Jones don’t appeal to the exact same audience as Supergirl, the Marvel Netflix shows have managed to tap into television fans that skew more toward dark, dramatic, slow-burn series, as well as drawing in audiences that may not have seen every film in the MCU library or picked up a Jessica Jones or Daredevil comic.
With the diversification of comic book superhero stories on television, the audiences for those different stories have grown as well. Additionally, with even more comic book heroes planned to be adapted to TV in the coming years, we may see even more widespread interest in these stories.
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