We Can’t Let Superheroes Take Over Television

By  · Published on April 22nd, 2014

American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.

While doing press for the Fargo series, Billy Bob Thornton was asked over and over again why he decided to give TV a try. His answers tend to sum up two main thoughts that he has about the small screen right now: this new wave of great television mirrors the 1990s independent film movement, and currently this is really the only place for adult dramas and comedies. He’s right, and he’s certainly not the first person to say it. Movies for grown-ups are hard to come by at the multiplex, and when they do arrive they don’t do very well (a lot of them don’t deserve to do well, either). Meanwhile, we’ve got smart and sexy programming up the wazoo on cable and occasionally network TV. Fargo is yet another in the pile that has included True Detective, Top of the Lake, Game of Thrones, Louie, Veep, House of Cards, Girls, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, etc. Everyone knows all about all that.

Even though they’re nothing new, Thornton’s comments had me thinking about why those kinds of movies for adults disappeared from theaters. The easy answer is that fewer adults were going to the movies and the lack of a large audience made those kinds of releases unprofitable. And that’s made more room for superhero movies, which are all over the place these days. I don’t think the superheroes chased out the serious drama stuff, which hasn’t completely left movie theaters, and of course each type still has its own season – superheroes in the summertime; awards fodder in the fall. But if we’re going to note the trend of adult programming on the small screen, it’s worth noting that it’s increased as the trend of superhero movies on the big screen has simultaneously increased.

Now superheroes are also crowding into the television market, though, and that I’m curious if fans of the grown-up stuff should be worried.

Fortunately, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. hasn’t been a ratings bonanza, which possibly means fewer immediate copycats, but already Marvel is following that ABC series with another for the same network (Agent Carter) and five others planned for Netflix (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and The Defenders). Meanwhile, adaptations of DC Comics titles on the way include Gotham, The Flash, Constantine, Preacher and Hourman, all of which join The CW’s Arrow, currently in its second season. Add to those a reboot of Heroes, and if the bunch is mostly successful, every network will want one.

It won’t be surprising when HBO and Showtime call for their own, maybe something grittier, less for kids. Comic book adaptations are already heading in some more grown-up directions with Preacher going to AMC, the channel of such adult hits as Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Walking Dead, while SyFy’s DMZ series will be from former executive producers of Mad Men. Should it matter? Many of the zeitgeist series right now are already genre programs, so it doesn’t seem that different if we get various sorts of superheroes instead of a fantasy show with dragons and another about zombies and others involving detectives, spies and, if we go back a few years, humanoid robots in outer space.

If the writing is quality, it definitely shouldn’t be an issue, but even though I’m a former comic book nerd who regularly tunes in for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and will likely be giving all the other Marvel shows a shot, and who thinks the serial medium of television is better suited to the genre, I like to think that superheroes should get their time on the big screen for now and come back to TV later. Live-action superheroes on the small screen have in the past become popular during eras when the genre wasn’t so big at the movies, though many of these waves saw the film adaptations follow – for instance, the ’70s saw Wonder Woman, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk hit on TV just before Superman hit at the box office. A decade later, Superboy arrived just ahead of Batman’s big screen blockbuster. Now it’s the movies that are leading the TV pack.

I admit the either/or data doesn’t completely pan out. If superheroes belong on the big screen while adult dramas get their moment on TV, then more than just Lois & Clark should have been on the small screen while independent cinema was flourishing in the ’90s. And Smallville shouldn’t have been so successful throughout the decade that also saw the rise of comic book movies dominating the multiplex, especially when some of those movies were based on DC characters, including Superman. Also easily defeating the one medium or the other argument is the fact that there are so many channels and non-traditional outlets (like Netflix, Amazon, etc.) that there’s plenty of room in television for everything.

So maybe it’s not about superhero shows threatening stuff like Fargo and True Detective and Veep so much as it’s just looking like an overwhelming glut, more series of its kind at the same time than ever before. It might not initially look as dominant within the broader expanse of TV programming as the movies do in their market, but if it continues to fill in slots at those networks counted on for prestige programming, the feeling and concern will grow that the genre is taking over. Even as someone who likes a good helping of superheroes, I’d rather not see them everywhere I look. There has to be more interesting, more original and less easy ideas out there.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.