Turning the Pages – the comic book renaissance on film and television

With the release schedule of 2015 brimming with Kingsman: The Secret Service, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant Man and Fantastic Four to be followed by Superman v Batman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse in only the first half of 2016, it seems unfathomable that the renaissance of geek culture truly began less than seven years ago in the spring of 2008.

There were a handful of successful superhero movies in the preceding years, most notably Bryan Singer’s X-Men and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogies (2000–06 and 2002–07), and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) was lauded almost universally, whilst despite making more box office revenue than Nolan’s dark and brooding caped crusader Singer’s Superman Returns (2006) is not fondly remembered by many. Jon Favreau’s Iron Man changed the game, however, as the first step in the mega-franchise that has become the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

As the tally currently stands, ten movies based in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” shared by the ensemble who make up the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy have been released, though so far the connection between them has only been the peripheral character of the “Collector” Taneleer Tivan (Benicio del Toro). Although Age of Ultron and Ant Man signal the end of Phase Two of the MCU, Phase Three is already in preparation, with a further nine films in preparation to be unleashed between 2015 and 2019, concluding with the second part of Avengers: Infinity War.

Such has been the success of the MCU that almost every other major studio is developing their own version of the mega-franchise: 20th Century Fox are developing their existing X-Men universe and rebooting the Fantastic Four, while Sony are fleshing out the world of Spider-Man to include the Sinister Six and Venom. Warner Bros. are building on the performance of Man of Steel (2013) to launch the Justice League, with seemingly everyone apart from Krypto the Superdog cast to appear in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.

But whilst the adventures of superheroes has dominated the multiplexes they haven’t managed to replicate that success on the small screen. All of that, however, is in the process of change.

There have been a number of live action television series based on comic books over the decades, dating back to Reeves’ Adventures of Superman (1951-58) Adam West’s Batman (1966-68), Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman (1975-79), Nicholas Hammond’s Amazing Spider-Man (1977-79), but their success has been short lived: even the mid-nineties “classic” Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman with Dean Cain and Terri Hatcher’s Lois and Clark achieved a scant four seasons of decreasing quality from 1993 to 1997.

Other attempts survived for only a single year before being cancelled, such as The Flash (1990), Human Target (1992) and Birds of Prey (2002), all cancelled after their first season. Human Target was given a second chance in 2010 but only managed two seasons before the plug was pulled again, but one thing has been clear: of the two major publishers, DC have been noticeably more prolific in the medium than Marvel.

The standout success of the last twenty-five years has been Smallville (2001-2011), which cleared 218 episodes over ten seasons. It would seem that the last son of Krypton is the defining superhero of the small screen and the only one who ensures at least moderate success. Starting with the six seasons of Adventures of Superman, across the incarnations there have been twenty-four televised seasons of Superman, including a four year run for first John Haymes Newton then Gerard Christopher as Superboy (1988-92).

On the Marvel side of the comic store aisle there hasn’t been a true success since The Incredible Hulk launched in 1977 and ran for eighty-two episodes over five seasons with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno in the dual title roles. The only other notable series has been Mutant X, running for three seasons from 2001 to 2004 and starring John Shea, previously Lex Luthor on Lois and Clark. Despite the success of the Blade movie trilogy (1998-2004), with Wesley Snipes replaced by Kirk “Sticky Fingaz” Jones the series could only muster thirteen episodes before being cancelled in the face of harsh criticism and viewer indifference.

It would seem that with the exception of Smallville, prior to 2008 viewers were either unaccustomed to or simply not willing to invest in shows based on comic book characters, and even original superhero series that had no comic book counterparts quickly sank, with No Ordinary Family (2010-11) and The Cape (2011) both cancelled after their first year. The sole exception to this rule was the four seasons of Heroes (2006-10), a show which in its first year captured the zeitgeist and could do no wrong, but which was catastrophically derailed by the 2007–2008 Writers Guild of America strike, a blow from which it never recovered. While a revival was announced almost a year ago, Heroes: Reborn, supposedly to premiere this year, no further details have emerged.

With their cinematic domination unmatched, it was inevitable that Marvel would expand their horizons. Why settle for just the revenue from their big screen outings (and the all-important merchandising) when they could dip their mutated toes into the irradiated waters of network television? In 2010, after the purchase of Marvel by Disney, it was announced that Marvel Television was being created to produce original programming. At first it was indicated that The Incredible Hulk was under developmen
t by Guillermo del Toro, then that The Punisher would bring a no doubt diluted version of that character into American homes on a weekly basis, but neither got further than being talked about; instead, it was time for the hero support to step out of the shadows of the mutants and demi-gods.

The success of The Avengers in 2012 had sealed writer/director Joss Whedon’s reputation as The Man Who Can Do No Wrong, and consequently he was given free rein to create a show based in the world he had so recently conquered. The resulting show was Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which saw the return of Agent Phil Coulson, a much loved supporting character who had linked the earlier Marvel films and whom Whedon had (apparently) only just killed off in his major role.

Despite an extraordinary premiere which brought in twelve million viewers, the series immediately struggled, caught in a narrative cul-de-sac of being forced to tread water, unable to define itself or even explain why it so steadfastly refused to be as good as it should have been, even in an episode tied with the November 2013 release of Thor: The Dark World.

That reason was revealed in April 2014 to be the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which in two and a quarter hours changed the landscape of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and everything connected with it, unshackling Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and allowing it to complete its metamorphosis, as had been the master plan all along.

In an astonishing turn of the tide considering their chequered history, confidence in superhero series is at an all time high. Marvel has a total of six additional television series in some form of development beginning with Agent Carter with Hayley Atwell reprising her title role and also starring Cloud Atlas‘ James D’Arcy and Dollhouse‘s Enver Gjokaj a period piece spun off from Captain America: The First Avenger, launching this week on ABC during the mid-season break of the second season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Further afield, Powers, starring Sharlto Copley of District 9 and Elysium and Michelle Forbes of Battlestar Galactica and True Blood will air on Playstation Network in late 2015, although it doesn’t appear to be a part of the larger Marvel Universe. Based on an Image Comics title by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming later moved to Marvel, the show will focus on the police detectives who investigate crime in a world that is populated by people with super powers.

Not content with traditional television habits, Marvel also seek the rapidly expanding audience who stream their entertainment through sources like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video. This year should see the shows Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist debut on Netflix before culminating in a crossover event called Defenders, the televisual equivalent of Iron Man, Thor and Captain America teaming up for The Avengers.

By releasing these shows exclusively through Netflix they are demonstrating awareness of the growing desire for on-demand viewing. More and more people prefer to access entertainment on their terms rather than be drip fed by the networks on a weekly basis and inevitably having to suffer the now inevitable mid-season hiatus which plagues so many series. Original dramatic programming such House of Cards and Orange is the New Black or first run imports such as Lillyhammer exploit the habit of “binge viewing” sessions by releasing a full season in a single batch.

Instead of watching a series over a period of months (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., for example, took eight months to complete its first season), viewers can delve in and out as they desire, often watching an entire season in no more than a couple of weeks, if not considerably less if stamina and time available allow. The result is that writers and producers can offer more complex storylines which can play out over a longer screen period and be more satisfying for a viewer who is fully engaged and has made the commitment to the show.

Whilst Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. struggled critically in its first year it now receives more favourable praise with the new direction it has taken, but one series which hasn’t had this problem is Arrow, starring Stephen Amell as the titular DC Comics character, which has enjoyed huge acclaim since its debut in 2012.

Though still too early to say whether the series will have the longevity of a true hit, the first two seasons have been lauded as excellent and the third is currently airing. As with most live action products from DC, Arrow is a “darker” take on the superhero genre, more in keeping with Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy than Smallville, taking a more realistic sometimes ambiguous approach to the heroes and villains and casting aside some of the fantastical elements to make the show more grounded as it charts the efforts of Oliver Queen to move from vigilante to fully fledged hero.

Spinning off from Arrow is The Flash, but rather than make a clone in terms of style and production this is an entirely different creature. Where Oliver Queen is dark and brooding, unwilling to let anyone (even his associates) get too close, operating like Batman in the dark, Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) is in many ways the complete opposite of Queen. He relishes the challenge of being a hero and zips around the city in broad daylight rather than hiding in the shadows. Despite the odds being against him, with Smallville remaining the only successful series featuring a comic book character with actual super powers since The Incredible Hulk left the airwaves in 1982, the pilot received positive feedback and the ratings have been consistent.

Gotham has already aired to generally strong reviews and ratings, delving into the history of the Batman mythos and, much like Arrow (who in turn took their cue from the Dark Knight trilogy) producers are grounding the show in realism, which means viewers are unlikely to be seeing characters such as Clayface show up any time soon.

The creative minds at Marvel seem comfortable using characters from their main catalogue of heroes to develop shows but the remaining series from DC are from their Vertigo imprint. Created for mature audiences, these comics feature more gore, violence and adult themes than could be found in the average Comics Code Authority approved issue.

Constantine arrived at the end of October, a character first brought to life in the film of the same name starring Keanu Reeves. Ostensibly a more faithful adaptation of the source material Hellblazer, which has pleased fans of the comics no end, news that the female lead had been replaced before the series even debuted indicated problems within the production but also a willingness to address them, though ratings for the episodes broadcast so far have not been encouraging.

The CW network is becoming home to DC Comics series, with Arrow and The Flash soon to be joined by the standalone show iZombie. Loosely based on a comic by Chris Roberson and Michael Allred which ran for only 28 issues it will tell the tale of Olivia Moore (former Power Ranger Rose McIver) who becomes a zombie and discovers that she has to eat human brains in order to retain her mental faculties. Developed by Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero, the tasty minds behind Veronica Mars this is, despite the synopsis, intended to be a comedy drama.

Development of Garth Ennis’ Preacher has been ongoing since 1998. The saga of Jesse Custer, the titular man of the cloth who also happens to be infused with the love child of an angel and a demon (and is hunting down God for abandoning humanity), through a combination of religious controversy and budgetary concerns over a risky proposition, multiple attempts at adaptation have failed, both as a film series or television show, but a pilot has now been commissioned by AMC, the home of The Walking Dead, and signs and portents are that it will air at some point in the latter half of 2015.

Recent additions to the list of comic book characters proposed for the small screen are Supergirl and the Teen Titans, which increases an already significant number of shows are due to air over the next twelve months, indicating that networks and producers are confident that the time has come for the genre to transfer from the multiplex to the living room, but historically such shows have struggled to find an audience. Even with the might of Marvel behind them, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. lost 55% of its audience over the course of the first season. Having once been given a reprieve from the axe, if the ratings do not improve there’s a chance that there will not be a season three, though all involved would be aware of the ripple that negative message would send to the audience were their flagship show to be cancelled before the raft of shows hoping to follow in its wake have even debuted.

Through the X-Men, the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Batman, Superman, Thor and untried (on the silver screen) characters such as Wonder Woman and Doctor Strange, comic book movies will dominate cinema screens for the next few years, and the audience has been primed to make them succeed (at least until the bubble bursts; the term “franchise fatigue” was frequently heard on the lips of Paramount executives following the failure of Star Trek Nemesis and Enterprise, never once pausing to blame their own poor product rather than the audience for ignoring it), but that success is difficult to predict or replicate on television on a week to week basis.

A vast number of new shows air each year and a comparatively small number survive, and the little leeway is given for a show to “find its audience.” Few shows are given a second chance to succeed if they start off slowly so all need to hit the ground running and maintain momentum. The question is whether sufficient audience exists to watch multiple comic book characters on a weekly basis or whether only the greatest heroes will survive, the rest falling to those twin supervillains who operate hand in hand, the ratings and the demographics, unforgiving, ever vigilant, cold, ruthless, and efficient in the execution of their duties.



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