Here at Screen Rant, we love us some superhero TV. You may have noticed. If you’ve watched a fair chunk of the comic book shows out there, it’s easy to see some trends popping up again and again, sometimes for narrative convenience, and sometimes for absolutely no reason at all. These are the most frustrating tropes and cliches of the genre that some shows can’t seem to live without, but we wish they’d try. Sometimes it’s just tedious, boring television; other times, it’s the potential downfall of an entire series.
Because we genuinely care about these shows being good, here are 12 Things Superhero TV Really Needs To Stop Doing, along with some choice, refreshing exceptions.
12. Relying on the Omni-Genius
There pretty much always has to a tech genius. Writing, especially for a serialized sci-fi, is really hard, so it’s vital to have someone hanging around the hero who can hack/build a thing/babble away plot points using tech jargon.
Shows start to fall into what could be referred to as ‘the Rodney McKay problem’, where the entire fictional universe bends itself to the subconscious whims of the omni-genius. This would be the one who seems to specialise in any field the episode needs them to, the one who solves all problems with hair’s-breadth solutions and can cobble together plot magic from spare parts in a garage. In other words, they become a writer’s magic wand that allows them to fill in all those pesky script holes.
That’s why we have Cisco Ramon introduced as a fairly competent tech genius, but later he’s slapping together literally anything anyone could possibly need, including super-suits that he just had lying around. Felicity Smoak started off as an activist hacker but is later able to break into top-secret government systems and track anyone who so much as sneezes in Star City. Winn from Supergirl is a weird example, as he’s your typical omnipotent computer whiz with any tech he touches, but they also gave him the job of designing Supergirl’s inexplicably perfect, indestructible outfit. Legends of Tomorrow is another one, as it gave ordinary mechanic Jax the ability to fix the Waverider, an actual time-travel machine. That makes about as much sense as someone going from building paper airplanes to servicing a military jet fighter.
It’s a fairly lazy trope, but with fantastical plots comes the challenge of solving them. It’d just be nice if the solution wasn’t ‘Cisco builds a thing’ for the umpteenth time.
11. The Stubborn, Self-Loathing Hero
Just once, once, it’d be gratifying to watch as the hero sees a busload of children a mile in the distance, about to tip over a bridge. There’s no chance of saving them. The bus goes over.
Then the hero shrugs and says, “Well, that sucks, but there’s absolutely nothing I could’ve done. Whaddya gonna do, am I right? Better get back to things I actually have some control over!”
Unfortunately we don’t get much of that, since most shows with an actual superhero headlining the action have to give us constantly self-loathing bundle of angst that they morph into whenever anything bad happens. Even sunny Barry Allen is renowned for blaming himself for everything that went wrong ever, from Watergate to that one time Jitters ran out of croissants. Between the three of them, The Flash, Green Arrow and Daredevil have saved more lives than their entire city police department in recorded history, but they’re still all the type to see a newspaper article about a puppy born with only three legs and declare “I should’ve done something. I’M NO HERO.”
Tied into this is the certain heroic stubbornness that seems to come packaged with the job. It’s supposed to come off as heroic determination, but when these people set their minds to a terrible idea, it’s always the same adage: “once *insert name* sets their mind to something, there’s no talking them out of it!”
What about when it’s a really awful idea that’ll get loads of people killed? Well, no stoppin’ ‘em! At least they’ll learn a life lesson, before collapsing into angst for an episode or two.
The Exception: Once again, this one fortunately isn’t universal, but Rip Hunter stands out. He’s a pretty good guy, but if something can’t be helped, it takes a good half-episode of nagging from his do-gooder crew before he finally relents. And even then, he’s just doing it to shut them up.
10. The Fake-Out Love Interests
Most iconic heroes have ‘the one’ they’re meant to be with, which is usually their most persistent love interest from the comics. Superman has Lois Lane, Spider-Man has Mary-Jane, Batman has Alfred. Naturally, this potential partner is often brought into the TV adaptation as a supporting character, and often they debut pretty early.
…and that can be a problem. Most shows seem to be taking steps to match the hero up with their comic-book betrothed, eventually. The problem seems to be in getting there. We had to sit through Lana and Clark making come-hither eyes at each other for four seasons before Lois Lane even came on the scene in Smallville. Even then, Clana (Lanark?) got together and un-together a dozen times before Kristin Kreuk finally left the show. Iris West was one of the very first characters we ever saw in The Flash pilot, yet we’ve now sat through a carousel of fake-out love interests that we knew were doomed to fail. Anyone remember Iris’ brief flirtations with her boss? Were they trying to convince us that it’d be a long and fulfilling romance?
Meanwhile, Supergirl and Jimmy Olsen aren’t exactly a comic book star couple, but we knew from the very first episode that they were going to hook up. Hope you enjoyed a season of doomed relationships!
The Exception: Green Arrow and Black Canary are one of DC’s power couples. The show decided to subvert that in grand fashion by sticking Laurel on the wrong end of a shiv. Though, there was still that fling Oliver had with a police officer way back in season one that you’ve definitely forgotten about.
9. The Fake Series Ending
Remember when Oliver got impaled, fell fifty feet off a cliff and was left for a few hours exposed to the elements, and that was the series finale because he definitely died? Or how Barry Allen lost his powers, and the series came to an abrupt end as he sadly went back to his ordinary life?
Except those things didn’t happen, because obviously they didn’t. There’s nothing wrong with a good death fake-out, provided it isn’t dragged out too long, but you can’t spend an entire episode convincing us that Oliver is TOTALLY DEAD YOU GUYS when he’s the main character and his superhero name is in the title. Don’t forget that the actor has been contracted for the next season. The Flash losing his powers works for the space of an episode, but it drains all the tension when he loses them for any longer and we’re left drumming our fingers and wondering when he’s getting them back, so the plot can resume.
Related is the five-minute retirement syndrome, which has a hero giving up heroics to live an ordinary life…which works as a finale for a show, but definitely not a season. This worked in, say, Spider-Man 2, where Peter had a brief, sunny stint as an ordinary fellow before he realised that he was shirking his responsibility. On the other hand, no one was left with their mouth gaping wide when Melinda May returned to S.H.I.E.L.D. after a short period of being a housewife. That’s not how you write a character out of the show, and it’s not how you finish a person’s story, and the showrunners can’t possibly have thought they were fooling anyone. Now Arrow Season 4 has ended with everyone except Oliver and Felicity ditching the team. Yep, that’s gonna last.
The Exception: Matt Murdock might sometimes lapse into a mopey angst-ball, but the issue of him quitting has never come up; or at least, he’s never truly considered it. The man is married to his job, clearly.
8. Do These People Actually Have Lives?
As a watcher of superhero shows, you have to come into it understanding certain tropes. Families can either be crucial to the plot or almost entirely forgotten, with not much middle ground. The characters might occasionally mention a job, but they still seem to spend 24/7 hanging around hero HQ and ready to fight injustice at a moment’s notice.
But then, like everything on this list, it can be stretched too far. Laurel Lance is supposedly an assistant district attorney, an incredibly involved and vital job in the community, but once she gets herself a few martial arts lesson and a leather outfit, it all goes down the drain. She still has her job, a piecemeal scene every now and then shows that she’s still employed, but the amount of time she has to leap across rooftops and scream at bad guys is astounding. When does she find time to sleep? Arrow is a serial offender here, as Felicity is supposedly a CEO yet manages to flub her way through entire seasons toiling away in the Arrow-Cave. What does John Diggle actually do during the day? How do Oliver and Thea afford anything if their family is bankrupt? Is Felicity embezzling company funds to pay for all those trick arrows? That might just be illegal.
Meanwhile, Iris and Joe apparently have enough time to zip back and forth between their jobs and Star Labs for all the important events, with no one wondering where they are. Star Labs itself manages to host several people, keep the electricity running on their science projects (including a machine that makes black holes) and afford any piece of equipment, despite being shut down and pretty much bankrupt. Cisco and Caitlin might still be technically employed there, but there’s no explanation as to who’s paying them, how they afford rent or what the government even thinks they do with their time.
In a glaring example, the entire crew of the Waverider disappear from their lives for six months, and then just sort of… return. No police investigations, and all their loved ones act like they’ve nipped off to the corner shop. Various accommodations and jobs are probably down the toilet, but hey, time travel is just crazy like that.
The Exception: The Arrowverse is particularly bad for this, but it’s thankfully subverted in elsewhere. Kara Danvers spends enormous amounts of time at her job, we can forgive Matt Murdock since he’s a trained warrior who can exist on very little sleep, and as for the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D… well, that’s their job. It’s a bit hazy where they get the funding for all those wonderful toys, however.
7. Those Paper-Thin Disguises
Members of the Superman family might just get a pass on this one. Yeah, it’s kind of stupid that nobody recognizes Kara Danvers when she takes off her glasses and lets her hair fall down, but it’s a comic book staple.
Then you get to the point where they clearly aren’t even trying to hide someone’s identity, yet it still fools everyone. Sara Lance puts on a blonde wig and hides the area around her eyes, and her own sister doesn’t know who she is when they’re shoulder-to-shoulder. That’s a distance of zero inches. Laurel does it even worse, often not bothering with the straw-blonde wig and fighting crime with nothing but a bit of fabric preventing her entire life from being ruined. Meanwhile, Oliver Queen manages to get away with a season of a smudge mask and a hood that kinda-sorta-covers the top half of his face, but not the distinctive facial markings or stubble.
Somehow with all that technology, they can’t think of anything that covers a person’s eyes? At least The Flash can vibrate his face and vocal chords. Then we have season 1 Daredevil, who leaves the entire lower portion of his face uncovered and doesn’t make any attempt to hide his voice even after slipping into the red jammies. That, and it’s a great way to let everyone know the big secret that he’s supposed to be blind. Maybe just cut some eye holes, and join a judo class so that Karen stops asking where all the injuries are coming from. There are only so many times a person can fall down some stairs.
6. The Secret Identity Crisis
Behind every great hero is a best friend who gets angry all the time. Or at least it seems to be that way. There are a number of reactions to the hero taking off the mask and bringing a friend into their confidence, but most of them seem to be less admiration and more inexplicable apoplexy.
Matt and Foggy reach the point where they can’t go a scene without having a whispered verbal beatdown over Daredevil’s activities. Oliver and Tommy Merlyn (remember him?) spent a good few episodes with a blockade of seething rage between them, before Tommy kicked the bucket and Diggle took up the position of grating moral preacher. In the Supergirl pilot, the first thing Alex does after Kara reveals her powers is chew her out for saving dozens of lives, including her own.
While we’re on the subject of secret identities, a few have dragged out the mystery to the point of head-scratching idiocy. Barry delays telling Iris about his powers for an entire season, because it ‘kept her safe’. Uh, no, it actually just kept her in the dark about why all these villains kept targeting her. Supergirl goes to massive lengths to convince Cat Grant that she and Kara Danvers are not the same person, acting like Cat knowing her secret is the end of the world even when the woman is clearly one of her staunchest and most trustworthy supporters. Kara, you fly around and have photographs taken with your face completely uncovered. You do not have the right to worry about this.
5. Big-Budget False Promises
As the most fantastical of the bunch, The Flash has been hit with this the worst, though it’s not the only one. It seems like sometimes the show is written into a corner where they make grandiose promises while forgetting about that pesky budget problem.
Remember the ‘Metapocalypse’ from The Flash, with a total duration of about five minutes? It was a glorious couple of moments… before Barry defeated 99% of them within the space of the opening scenes. It wasn’t the finale, midseason finale or premiere, so the budget for all those special effects was doled out elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Jonn Jones from Supergirl has to be represented with CG, which means he continues to take the form of Hank Henshaw even in times when he’s completely alone, with people who know his secret or in a pitched battle. Because big green alien men aren’t as cheap to animate as a pair of glowing red eyes, despite how much we actually want to see them. Legends of Tomorrow also gets hit with this pretty badly: Jax and Stein merging into Firestorm is clearly dependent on the episode budget and not their actual situation, while it would obviously be too much effort to show Captain Cold and Heatwave’s weapons actually freezing and burning things, turning them into flashy laser guns instead.
The overarching message: don’t promise your viewers something if you don’t have the cash behind you to make it happen.
4. Too Many Copycats
Every great hero has a mirror villain, and this villain is often their arch-enemy. Reverse-Flash and Merlyn made their debuts in the first seasons of The Flash and Arrow respectively, while Supergirl finds herself up against fellow Kryptonians. Even the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. regularly face off against Hydra, their evil counterpart.
There’s often nothing as gratifying as a hero fighting a villain who uses the same tactics and weapons as them. It gets just a bit stale when those same ones keep popping up, over and over until it’s the hero looking like they need to get some new ideas. Same goes for when their allies pick up similar tricks. Supergirl only has one season thus far, but they had to make Kryptonians the main villains, because who else is going to match her?
Green Arrow started off fighting Malcolm Merlyn, but then we got an entire league of mooks who used bows, too. Carrie Cutter came on the scene as Cupid, Oliver picked up two sidekicks who wielded bows and we’re left wondering if the Arrowverse is suffering some sort of crucial gun shortage.
The Flash gets it worse, since Barry Allen harps on about being the fastest man alive at the start of every episode, only to be proved embarrassingly wrong every time an enemy speedster comes along. For the record, we’ve had Barry, Reverse-Flash, Fake Jay Garrick/Zoom, Trajectory and Real Jay Garrick, while Wally West and Jessie Quick recently got zapped with dark matter so it doesn’t take a genius to see where that’s going. The Flash might be a tough superhero to write for, but the antagonist solution doesn’t always have to be ‘a faster speedster’.
An Exception: Jessica Jones and Kilgrave have to be the most mismatched antagonists in that regard, though most of Marvel’s shows manage to subvert this. Daredevil fights the Kingpin; the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fight aliens and superhumans; Agent Carter fights office sexism, and some other things.
3. Why Does Anyone Still Live Here?
Ah, Central City… home of great coffee, the world-renowned Star Labs and prone to partial destruction by black holes. It really says something when your city has a massive billboard out the front that reads ‘DAYS WITHOUT A MAJORLY DESTRUCTIVE SCIENTIFIC INCIDENT’ and it never quite makes it past a few months.
This has been a problem comics have swept under the rug for years, but it’s pretty in your face when the whole thing is in live action. Central City is hounded by metahumans on a weekly basis, got doused in explosive particle accelerator juice, has been terrorized by an evil super-powered army led by an invincible psychopath and, oh yeah, there was the time when it was nearly ripped apart by a black hole. So why is the place still bustling and operating as normal?
Despite not being the subject of quite so many universe-ending events, Star(ling) City is pretty much served up to us as Gotham without quite so many stone gargoyles. Parts of the city are run entirely by crime, an earthquake machine leveled a neighborhood, the streets seems to be regularly overrun with car chases, armed terrorists and incompetent ninjas, and that’s not counting the Mirakuru incident, which caused countless deaths. The issue of why the city isn’t a ghost town has been brought up, but is pretty much forgotten whenever Oliver makes one of his inspiring speeches. Raise your kids in Star City! Only a 20% chance they’ll run into a serial killer!
Meanwhile, you have Supergirl’s National City, which fares better but is still prone to weekly major incidents and that one time when the entire population were turned into brain-dead zombie slaves. Daredevil seems to be fighting a constant uphill battle against gang wars, mass murderers and even more incompetent ninjas, to say nothing of the recent alien invasion. And why anyone still lives in Smallville when half its residents are Kryptonite-crazed villains is anyone’s guess.
An Exception: Supergirl might have scored a mention up above, but in terms of shows set in one location, it’s by far the sunniest. The superhuman battles generally take place outside the city, and the whole place just feels so shiny and fun that you can see why people would risk the occasional brainwashing to live there.
2. Everyone Has to be ‘Badass’
Speaking of inhospitable places that people still live in for some reason, there’s one business in these places that should be booming: martial arts. No one wants to be the frail human with no fighting skills living in a wasteland of ninja attacks and masked vigilantes, and the same goes for the viewers; characters with no self-defense skills aren’t often well-liked if they choose to keep dabbling in hero affairs. Case in point: Laurel Lance and her abysmal attempt to take up the Black Canary mantle, despite her skill level sitting somewhere between ‘Burt Ward as Robin’ and ‘a sloth with a paper bag stuck on its head’.
However, the inspiring hero aura seems to leak into people’s heads anyway, transforming these simple folks into bona-fide butt-kicking soldiers. Hang around Oliver Queen for long enough, and you’ll eventually get yourself a mask and/or ridiculous helmet. Put two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents together and they’re practically a small army, even if one of them happens to be only qualified in building gadgets or studying biology. Give literally any comic relief character ever a machine gun, and you can guarantee that they’ll employ their complete lack of training and expertise to mow down a handful of highly-trained bad guys, because ain’t that wacky?
The point isn’t that these people are extraordinary. This is superhero television: if you aren’t at least that, you either don’t get to hang out with superheroes or you die pretty quickly. The problem comes from either novices taking on far superior (often multiple) opponents and easily winning, or non-combatants needing those ‘badass’ moments to validate their place on the team. It’s okay to have Caitlin Snow or Jimmy Olsen turning and running from a super-powered threat. In fact, that’s what they absolutely should be doing, every single time.
The Exception: A few dotted around, though while even Karen Page has gunned a man down and sneaks into the homes of convicted killers, we’ve yet to see Foggy Nelson in a real fight. He’s a good enough lawyer and diplomat that he doesn’t need anything else.
1. Enough With the Doomsday Villains
Destroying/ruling the world is a lofty goal. It’d be almost admirable for a supervillain to set their sights on something so grand, if it wasn’t quite so diabolical and pointless. But we get it: some people are just psychopaths.
All of them? Or just… most of them? Okay, then. Relatively few people, even those who are absolutely raving mad, want to destroy the world in real life, but for comic book supervillains it’s almost old hat. Some want to destroy the world and reshape it in their image, or take over the planet, or cleanse the Earth in nuclear fire, but total domination through destruction is a theme. It makes for a tense season finale, but we’re left a bit short-changed when it comes to character drama.
The complex and brilliantly-acted Damien Dahrk was eventually reduced to a generic doomsday villain who wanted to raze the Earth to ashes with nukes because he wasn’t pleased with how things were going. Once his one sanctuary was destroyed… nothing changed. Same plan, only with his death included, despite his daughter still being alive and himself still pretty much sane. Over in Flash Town, Zoom unveiled a plan to annihilate every single alternate Earth by way of a big science machine and running really fast, purely because he was a massive douche. It was a goal whipped pretty much out of nowhere to amp up the tension for the finale, even clashing with Zoom’s previous ambition to conquer alternate Earths.
Supergirl ended with Non trying to mind control the entire Earth, with plans to kill everyone on it once he was done. Evil Zombie Hive Grant Ward wanted to detonate a bomb to convert billions of people into mindless Inhumans, while the plots of previous villains amount to starting world wars and committing global genocide. Meanwhile, Daredevil and the upcoming Defenders keep hinting towards a secret conflict alongside whatever the heck ‘Black Sky’ is, which will apparently be the end of everything. If Thanos doesn’t get there first.
The Exception: Jessica Jones manages to subvert most things on this list, but her villainous, abusive ex Kilgrave really takes the cake here. The guy wasn’t a doomsday villain, but still managed to be both captivating and pure evil.
Anything else these shows need to stop doing? Let us know in the comments!
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