Tonal Variety in Superhero Television, or, why are we all goofy crime procedurals?

There was a time when comic book superhero movies threatened to be a nonstop parade of leather-bound black & grey affairs with nary a pastel pocket square or red cape in sight. Even heroes with no business living ashen lives in monochrome hell (hey Man of Steel!) have been reformulated to fit a gritty and depressing cinematic world over the last decade or so. That trend, arguably started by the Blade and the X-Men films (with influence from The Matrix), was a prevailing design choice right up to, and through, Nolan’s Batmen films, before being somewhat offset by the aesthetic diversity of the recent Marvel movies. In the world of TV we are regularly offered an opposite monotone.


Jeepers Superman, this looks like a fun movie! 

The majority of recent comic book adaptations (with the notable exception of The Walking Dead) have trodden a route of bold colours, goofy side kicks, and campy hijinks. Even the yet to premiere adaptation-in-name-only iZombie looks set to take this approach (with added objectionable puns – a zombie called Liv Moore, oh brilliant). Arrow, The Flash, Agents of SHIELD, Constantine, and Gotham have all taken a procedural case of the week structure and thrown in some melodramatic and comedic elements. Perhaps the least similar current superhero show is Agent Carter although this may be a result of its restrictive setting (both time period and place in predefined MCU history) and the fact that the show is a limited 8 episode single arc run.


Solving quirky zombie crimes, as long as they don’t include were-terriers or ghosts!

Some of these series are well made, fun, and definitely worth watching (I certainly tune in), and it is hard to deny this being a golden age for comic book characters in live action. That said, in recent conversation every fan I have spoken to has felt the need to caveat their enjoyment of these shows “if you can accept the cheesiness/goofiness/special effects you’ll enjoy them too”. It may be that this approach to superhero and comic book television shows is a direct response to that decade of darkness at the cinema, as well as offering an easy to write/follow structure that audiences are familiar with from police shows, but I do wonder if we can look forward to a great superhero show that is also a great TV show, period. No caveats.

Does superhero television need its own Breaking Bad or The Wire? A show that is critically lauded, culturally significant, and that transcends the frequent perception of superheroes as candy-floss disposable entertainment.  If you like, a televisual equivalent of the comic book milestone The Dark Knight Returns? Maybe existing shows will evolve into this, or perhaps upcoming shows (Powers, Daredevil, AKA Jessica Jones, etc.) will fill this need. Or maybe there is no need for such a show at all and I am looking a gift horse right in the mouth. With the slate of new superheroes shows scheduled, and the success of those currently airing, it seems like comic book TV is here to stay. Over the next decade we will see all kinds of superhero and comic book television, maybe I should just grab some popcorn and enjoy the ride?

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