Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Agents of SHIELD, Daredevil, Gotham. We are inundated with superhero TV shows at the moment (I'm not saying this is a bad thing!) and the great thing about it is - they're all really good. But what makes it work so well?
Originally, if a superhero show was televised it would be seen as a kids show or it would be very campy - see the 1960s Batman series starring Adam West. Today, after the success of the MCU, it seems superheroes are finally getting the respect they deserve from the wider public. Whereas before they were seen as something only "geeks" would like, now they make up some of the most popular programmes on television. I have only named a few in the opening line, but there are many more.
Though DC may be lagging behind in its Cinematic Universe, the same cannot be argued for its TV universe. Since Arrow began in 2012, The Flash has spun off from it to great success and early next year, we will have DC's Legends of Tomorrow starring a motley crew of heroes and villains from both shows. It seems that the DC TV universe is going from strength to strength. Yes, the writing and production values are excellent, but I think there is another reason these shows continue to thrive...
The Clue is in Their Original Form: Comic Books
The procedural nature of television is the key. Each season has an overarching storyline, but within each episode there is a procedure. Usually, the stories are self-contained and settled by the end of each episode to allow casual viewers to understand what is happening. The reason I feel this works for superhero tv shows is that this is the way superhero stories have been told for over 50 years. In the comic books, the heroes would face a villain and defeat him in one issue. This remains true to this day, though stories have often become more sophisticated, with writers favouring long-form storytelling. However, there will always be "done in one" issues that require no prior knowledge of the story. The very same tactic is used in television.
It is not quite like the 1960s Batman series which was so formulaic that you could time each event in the episode. For example,
- The villain robs a bank
- Commissioner Gordon calls Batman
- Batman arrives at police HQ
- Batman goes to the villain's lair and is captured
- Batman escapes capture
- The villain sets out with his plan to take over Gotham
- Batman figures out the villain's plan
- Batman defeats the villain
- Bruce Wayne etc have a drink and make a bad joke.
As with the comic book writing, the storytelling on TV has also become more sophisticated.
The production values are also very high on superhero shows and the majority have great special effects that are much higher quality than most television shows. The Flash is a good example of this. In Arrow, the hero uses a bow and arrow and his physical strength to defeat his enemies, The Flash introduced the concept of Metahumans to the world. This obviously requires more than a simple bow and arrow to realise and the special effects are very good. The quality of the special effects comes down to the backing from the networks. 20 years ago, making a live action superhero show would have been (almost) unthinkable, but thanks to Marvel's success (as well as shows such as Smallville), networks have finally begun to get excited about superhero shows.
That is not to say that live action superhero tv shows were not around 20 years ago - The New Adventures of Superman is certainly an example of this. A more modern (at the time) adaptation of the Superman mythology, the series was an introduction to the character for many viewers during the 90s. It ran for 4 seasons and featured a more romantic tone, the ongoing love triangle between Lois Lane, Clark Kent and Superman featured very heavily. Unlike many of today's shows, the series was self-contained, Superman did not interact with any other heroes throughout the show's run. Imagine what it would be like if it was made today. The costume would certainly be a lot better than the dodgy spandex one the series had and it is probably fair to say that there would be crossovers with other DC series. The upcoming Supergirl series has not officially announced a crossover with Arrow and The Flash yet, but there is certainly scope for it to do so.
We truly are living in a golden age of superhero TV and films. With the MCU ever expanding with more films announced and upcoming shows such as Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, I feel that this will continue for a long time to come. DC will finally get involved with next year's Batman VS Superman: Dawn of Justice and the many films spinning off from that. Who's to say that we don't end up with the same competition they have in the comics happening with the films?