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Today's live-action superhero television programs are soaring to new heights with the help of advanced special effects. In comparison with their late 90s counterparts, these shows are doing far better among mainstream audiences. From the feel-good enthusiasm of The Flash to the grounded and gritty realism of Daredevil, today's offerings have something for everyone.
Today's superhero TV shows do more than just entertain—they often inspire us and remind us of the good in the world. Each night we look forward to the shows that continue to capture our imaginations. There might be all kinds of crazy villains out there, but in the end, good always triumphs over evil.
Thanks to the power of mega producer Greg Berlanti, Superman’s cousin Kara Zor-El has come to save the day. Supergirl is the first female-led superhero show to premiere on network television. Family-friendly for all ages, Supergirl is more playful and light than other DC universe television shows. Often hopeful instead of grim and gritty, the show presents a world where superheroes are more kindhearted and civil. It’s no wonder Supergirl has become the breakout hit on CBS. Fanboys are eager for a crossover between Greg Berlanti's other DC heroes, Green Arrow and the Flash.
Famed comic book writer Brian Michael Bendis’ Powers had been in development hell for years. Sony pictures finally brought Bendis’s tale to life, which features a cop trying to keep law and order in a world populated by superheroes. Powers has many distinctions, chief among them being the first original TV series ever to premiere on a video game console. Sharlto Copley plays Christian Walker, an ex-superhero turned homicide detective, who aids police investigations of homicides committed by super-powered individuals, colloquially known as powers.
The Batman prequel TV series Gotham had a rough start during its first season. In 2015, Gotham began to find success by introducing Shameless’s Cameron Monaghan as Jerome Valeska, Gotham’s prototype for the Joker. Jerome brought the perfect balance between humor and horror, becoming everyone's favorite onscreen psychopath. His scenes are the most compelling moments in the series thus far. Even previously insufferable characters like the Riddler and the Penguin managed to find mainstream success.
Ahead of its time, Tim Kring's Heroes was the first superhero series featured on television. Heroes premiered just before today's superhero boom. In spite of its initial success, critical acclaim dwindled after the program's first season. Its loss of popularity may be attributed to Marvel's The Avengers, as the superhero powerhouse elevated audience's expectations beyond the show's scope. In 2015, Kring returned with an all-new cast on Heroes Reborn to remind reluctant audience members why they originally fell in love with Heroes.
Agent Carter is a real treat for Captain America fans. Marvel aficionados are transported to the roaring 40s to witness the top-secret origins of S.H.I.E.L.D. Dominic Cooper reprises his role as Howard Stark, Tony Stark's father. This makes Agent Carter a direct sequel to Captain America. Agent Carter even teams up with Howard’s Butler, Jervis, who would later become the inspiration for Tony's AI butler of the same name. The show's balance between action-packed spy drama and plot-heavy dedication to the Marvel Universe is admirable. Agent Carter has turned spunky Peggy Carter into one of the most beloved characters to grace both big and small screens.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
As the first TV show connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. struggled to find its own identity upon initial release. This program in particular had trouble balancing the elements of the larger Marvel Universe and the archaic conventions of spy programs. Through no fault of their own, the creators of this show were forced to stick with D-list superheroes and villains to keep from conflicting with the recent Marvel cinematic releases. But in 2015, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. things began to get more exciting with the introducing of the inhumans. This was a big victory for the show, as the characters were introduced before the upcoming Inhumans film even began preproduction. Inhumans is set for release in 2019.
Arrow serves as the center of the Greg Berlanti DC universe. Laying the foundation for The Flash, the Vixen animated series, and Legends of Tomorrow, Berlandi has turned a C-list hero into the beating heart of the live-action DC universe. Berlanti managed to include diverse allies in the program in an effort to appeal to a wider audience. Mr. Terrific, a new gay, African-American superhero has been added to the cast. If Berlanti keeps things up, we might get the best version of a live-action Justice League since Smallville. While DC struggles at the hands of Marvel in the box office, Berlanti continues to deliver quality programming on television.
It is no surprise that Berlanti brought The Flash to the small screen. Using the Arrow TV series as a launching point to introduce his version of Barry Allen, Berlanti, the Flash became a well-established character before his own show even aired. The Flash and Arrow have since delighted fans with several crossover episodes. The Flash is a breath of fresh air within the DC universe, as it tends to stray from the darker, grittier angle. The goofier scenes in The Flash poke fun at the silly aspects of the silver age of comics, making things fun for devoted fans. No one ever expected to see characters like Gorilla Grod or King Shark come to life in live-action programming, but thanks to The Flash, one of the best villains on TV is a psychic talking gorilla.
Marvel made the move to Netflix with Daredevil. Darker in both tone and subject matter, the series follows Matt Murdock, everyone’s favorite blind lawyer from Hell’s Kitchen. Daredevil took the world by storm thanks to its expertly-choreographed fight scenes and standout performances by Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk ("the Kingpin"). Daredevil managed to take a less bombastic perspective of superheroes, giving audiences an idea of how average citizens deal with problems when an Avenger isn’t around. Even without the tights and capes, Daredevil delivers a gripping drama more intimate and intense than most of the major studio releases of Marvel films.
Jessica Jones has become a show for the ages. Picking up where Daredevil left off, Jessica Jones' titular character serves as private eye working on the mean streets of New York. Jones faces off against the mind-controlling Killgrave, played by former Doctor Who star David Tennant. While Daredevil was dark, Jessica Jones took things to the next level by tackling difficult subject matter like rape, abortion, and the longterm ramifications of physical and psychological abuse. Jessica Jones provided a nuanced narrative that tackled darker material without losing the audience's interest. The show also featured the most provocative sex scenes seen in any superhero TV show. Jones became the first leading lady with her own series in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, laying the framework for other Marvel superheroines like The Wasp and Captain Marvel. We can’t help but count down the days until Netflix unleashes their defenders crossover series where Jessica will team up with Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist.
Legends of Tomorrow
Developed by Greg Berlanti for CW, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow features a team of heroes and villains headed by Time Master Rip Hunter. He has traveled back in time to create the group in an attempt to prevent Vandal Savage from destroying the world. Most of these team members hail from The Flash or Arrow universes. The team travels through time to find information about Rip Hunter's plans in an effort to stop him and secure the future for innocent people around the world.
Originally adapted from Hellblazer, this show focuses on demon hunter and master of the occult, John Constantine. Constantine had long since given up demon hunting only to be called out of retirement when his friend’s daughter was targeted by demons. Another DC title, this show ran for one season before its unfortunate cancellation. Its creepy atmosphere, action, and special effects mixed with unconventional humor made the show resemble the original comic.
Birds of Prey
Another DC-inspired WB show, Birds of Prey featured a female superhero trio in a Gotham city abandoned by Batman. When The Joker killed Catwoman and paralyzed Batgirl, Batman left Gotham without a hero. The Oracle, Huntress, and, Dinah (a “metahuman” with special powers) join forces and protect Gotham City together. The series had potential but was short-lived, as it was cancelled during its first season back in 2003. Viewers never got to see the Birds of Prey save their favorite fictional city.
Smallville was a hit show originally produced by the WB before the broadcasting company merged with UPN and became the CW. Running from 2001 to 2011, Smallville followed Clark Kent before the adoption of his superhero alter ego Superman. The show was wildly successful and generated a resurgence in popularity for the original superhero. It was this reinterpretation of Superman mythology that breathed a new life into the comic, intriguing new fans across the globe.
The X-Men-inspired show of the early 2000s, Mutant X originally ran from 2001 to 2004. It was abruptly cancelled after one of the program's production companies dismantled. The series was about a team of “New Mutants” with extraordinary powers thanks to genetic engineering. Unfortunately, the show sounded too similar to X-Men, causing both fan-based and legal controversy. Several court cases were raised and settled regarding the similarity of the material, which ultimately led to the show's cancellation.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
If you grew up in the 90s or early 2000s, you most likely have seen at least one episode of this particular show. Buffy the Vampire Slayer features a young girl trying to live a normal life. However, her search for normalcy goes haywire once she becomes the chosen one of her generation to fight the vampires, demons, and other infernal creatures that walk the Earth. A smash hit helmed by Joss Whedon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a beloved show that boosted the careers of Sarah Michelle Gellar and Seth Green. The program also led to a spin-off called Angel.
Perhaps the most successful show on the list, Heroes features a group of people who suddenly acquire powers after an eclipse. Each person has a unique ability—one girl is capable of regenerating, while a male character can bend space and time. The group tries to figure out why they have these powers, and work together to save humanity. Unfortunately, the writer’s strike from 2007 to 2008 greatly affected the show—all of its spinoffs were cancelled.
Based on the Viper Comics series, The Middleman was developed for the ABC Family channel. It ran for one season in 2008. The show features Wendy Watson, a struggling-artist-turned-secret-agent, and the Middleman, a freelance fixer of exotic problems. They fight crime and protect innocent people from the random goings-on of super villains, aliens, and various supernatural threats.
Dark Angel had everything it needed to succeed—produced by James Cameron and starring Jessica Alba, Dark Angel was centered on a genetically-enhanced superhuman prototype named Max in post-apocalyptic America. The gritty series was critically acclaimed and won several awards, and Alba received many positive reviews for her portrayal of Max. It was, however, perhaps a bit ahead of its time. Dark Angel only aired for two seasons between 2000 and 2002 before its cancellation due to poor ratings.
The Tick was a live-action comedy that ran for one season in 2001. Starring Patrick Warburton as The Tick, the series was meant to focus more on the characters behind the mask rather than their superhero accomplishments. Creator Ben Edlund's vision “painted a superheroic portrait over genuine human lameness.” Despite its short run, the show featured many famous guest stars, including Ron Perlman, Christopher Lloyd, Kurt Fuller, Armin Shimerman, and Dave Foley. The Tick fans shouldn’t get too discouraged by the cancellation, however—Amazon announced in 2016 that it has a pilot order for the series with Warburton as an executive producer.