With the announcement of Supergirl changing networks from CBS to join its sister shows on the CW, there comes a timely moment to discuss the sudden explosion of superheroes on television. Cynics often complain that the genre has taken over the box office at the expense of smaller, more mature films--not to mention movies that would actually be cheaper to make. Now it appears television has wandered into the same peril. Though the Marvel shows have barely scratched the surface of the zeitgeist, at least as far as network TV goes, the DC heroes have assembled a juggernaut franchise which, thus far, has expanded much faster than its Marvel counterparts.
The DC heroes, in general, have much greater name recognition than their Marvel rivals. After all, prior to the MCU, how many people on the street had even heard of Hawkeye or Black Widow? Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman are among the most iconic characters in all human history, on par with Zeus, Odysseus and even Jesus (No, I'm not saying Batman is as influential as Jesus, or that Superman is some kind of religious figure. Keep your pipe bombs to yourself for goodness sake.). Their pop culture status and serialized origins make them a natural fit for television.
That doesn't make the shows actually good, however. On the contrary, while Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Vixen and now Legends of Tomorrow boast strong fanbases, this writer and avowed fan of superhero comics can't stand to look at a single frame. Why, you ask? Don't I love "fun," colorful, silly, inconsequential tripe with pretty people? Sit down, and let me explain...
Yes, it's TV, and yes, they're on the CW...but does everyone have to be so damned pretty on these shows? The creative clan behind this show must make way too much money, because they clearly haven't been to the DMV or flown on a commercial flight in years! The actors on these shows look less like people off the street than models out of an index at Central Casting. Nobody has any skin problems, gray hair, crooked teeth or any other blemish that would otherwise keep them from showing up on the cover of the JC Penny catalog (which isn't a good thing). The first step to believing in a character is believing that he is a real person with real problems. Grant Gustin, Stephen Amell, Brandon Routh and the like don't look like people, they look like actors, as does just about anybody else who wanders into camera range. Can't somebody look like he didn't win the genetic jackpot?
It's also fairly apparent that the casts of any CW show aren't hired for their acting ability, they're hired for their looks! This, also, might have something to do with the reason none of the CW cast members turn up in any related DC film project: in order to carry a movie, screen charisma is a must. Tom Welling, Amell, Melissa Benoist--they don't have any. Actors on television at least need personality, and while it's true they do have a bit, there's a reason none of them have scored an Emmy nomination. Just like their overly-pretty looks, the CW actors pose their way through their shows like dead eyed models on a runway. They're not playing a character, nor are they even acting. At most, the CW actors model costumes and show off their bodies. Print ads give better performances! Even great actors like Jesse L. Martin and Calista Flockhart get reduced to wooden performances in supporting roles.
Then comes the issue of plotting. The CW shows have at least shown some ambition, adapting some classic story arcs from the comics and discarded ideas from cancelled or cut superhero films. The big problem: no actions have real consequences. Characters don't have nuance or dimension, and never does a threat seem like it really could harm the world at large. Movies like X-Men find an audience not just because of the action, performers or special effects. They also have subtext and metaphor, in the case of the X-movies, about being in a minority. The Dark Knight trilogy supplied a world that could exist outside a viewer's window, and the sense that the Joker or Ra's Al Ghul could really threaten the security of the entire world. The CW shows are more like cartoons: they self renew, face a minor crisis, and move on. Now consider Oliver Queen's duel with Ra's on Arrow. Queen gets lanced with a sword and thrown off a cliff, but then not only does he live, he gets better with some basic treatment. Couldn't he have at least lost an eye or something?
Speaking of the X-Men movies, contrasting them with the CW superhero dreck illustrates another point: some things are better in moderation. Both the X-movies and the Star Trek films before them adopted a soapy, almost serialized form of storytelling. Recently, the MCU has taken a similar approach (though much less effectively). Diabolical villains emerge, drama ensues, relationships get tested, and then the story moves on and the cycle repeats. The "Arrowverse" has taken a soapy approach to their shows too, but that creates a problem: with more installments a show has, the more ridiculous the plot twists become, and the less impact they can have. That goes for love interests too, and how many has Oliver Queen had just four seasons into the show? That all these women are basically interchangeable also speaks to the weakness of the writing.
Ok, so Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow are new, and Arrow and The Flash have less than five seasons apiece under their utility belts. Still, if precedent is any indicator, the CW will try to milk every last possible episode out of every title, just as they did with Smallville.
That series stared innocently enough, not unlike Arrow. The first couple seasons were "Mutant of the Week" episodes, focusing on the effects of Krypton's destruction on Earth. Clark struggled with his powers, which, in the beginning, had only granted him super-speed abilities as a way to keep tension in the stories and the effects budget low. Then the show went on and started introducing every other damn DC hero to the mix. And it went on, and on, and on, edging closer to the Superman stories fans know and love, but without the gratification of actually telling a Superman story. Not only did the stories become ridiculous, the character of Clark became insufferable, weak and redundant.
Ok, so it's television, and despite the recent advances in computer technology that allowed shows like Battlestar Galactica to have near-feature level quality special effects, most shows can't hold a proverbial candle to visual effects on the big screen. Moreover, budgeting twenty-some-odd episodes spread out over 20 hours to have major effects is very, very different than allotting funds for a two hour film. That explains the poor effects of the Arrowverse, but doesn't excuse them.
Like the godawful effects on Smallville before, the effects on The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow look fairly ridiculous. They don't blend with the live action footage, and in no way do they look real. Each time a character uses his powers requiring some big effect, the contrast between the effects and the actors glares so bright it takes the audience right out of the action. Cartoons look more credible!
Even the die-hardest of fans of the Arrowverse sometimes admit the shows want to be about other characters rather than their title heroes. Arrow has taken the brunt of this criticism: the CW's Oliver Queen is not a representation of the beloved comic hero, but rather a watered down version of Batman. Hell, the show has even resorted to introducing Batman's gallery of rogues just to keep things interesting! The same goes for the TV incarnations of the Flash and Supergirl: the writers draw the characters in such a way so as to suggest to the audience "hey, ignore the costumes! They're really Superman and Wonder Woman!" The same dynamic becomes even more obvious when the shows cross over, as in the much hyped meet up of the Flash and Arrow. Their character conflicts do not resemble their interactions from the comics at all. Rather, they more echo the dark vs. light/vigilante vs. boy scout dynamic of Batman and Superman. The Flash and Green Arrow have great comic stories, and great established characters. Why only use their names, and substitute the Batman-Superman relationship? Easy. The Flash and Arrow are second tier characters, even within the DC comics universe. To attract viewers, the producers feel a need to inject the stories with recognizable characters like Talia Al Ghul and the Suicide Squad. On that note...
Once upon a time in the 90s, TV got the Flash right: John Wesley Shipp played speedster Barry Allen, a criminologist who used his speedy powers to track down criminals and solve crimes, occasionally dueling the odd supervillain like Trickster or Mirror Master. Hell, he even had a team-up with another hero, Nightshade, a retired 1950s vigilante! The 1990s Flash may have only run one season owing to an ever-changing timeslot, expensive budget and constant preemption owing to the first Gulf War, but at least it got its title character right! The CW Flash is a weird mix of the comic Flash and Superman; his characterization is far too light hearted and campy. Ditto the incarnation of Green Arrow, who owes more to Batman than his comic book counterpart. The Oliver Queen of the comics isn't quite so brooding, nor is he as likable. When translating the character to series, the writers should have shown some courage and kept his flaws! That would make for great TV drama!
And then...then there are the hormones. Way back when the CW began as the WB network, the first hit show the channel had foreshadowed what every damn show the network and its successor would try to emulate: horny teenagers. Dawson's Creek introduced a new level of sexuality to popular TV teen melodramas like Degrassi High and Beverly Hills 90210 (which also devolved into who's screwing whom , but that's another story). When audiences got tired of the pretty teenagers fighting, breaking up, having sex, getting back together and the like, the network introduced Smallville to keep audiences titillated. Arrow and its spin offs continue that trend, with Ollie Queen becoming an oversexed Lothario who somehow manages to bed every woman on the show and keep his archery skills in pique shape. Maybe the CW should avoid temptation, and just introduce a superpowered nun instead.
Pretty people, hormones, soap opera plots and lots of T&A. What's the difference between the CW Arrowverse and softcore adult entertainment? No, really, tell me. I'm asking.
Maybe the only real difference is pretense: CW "dramas" purport to tell stories, while softcore entertainment nakedly displays its intent to provide a warm hand to viewers on lonely nights. Apart from the dramatic lighting and near-constant posing, both Grant Gustin and Stephen Amell have a bad habit of going shirtless for few good reasons. For that matter, with Supergirl taking up residence on the CW, too, it is probably only a matter of time before Melissa Benoist starts sporting a bikini. Much like fellow CW series Supernatural and The Vampire Diaries, the Arrowverse gravitates more toward T&A rather than true drama. That may attract viewers for a time, but in the long run will diminish the value of each show. After all, how many viewers who didn't grow up watching Charlie's Angels or Baywatch get into those series today?
Batman v. Superman didn't quite set the world on fire when it hit theatres earlier this year. While the movie did have problems, the wise choice to not rely on the CW superhero universe as a jumping off point to begin a cinematic universe probably alienated some viewers. The choice of casting actor Ezra Miller as the big-screen incarnation of the Flash makes perfect sense: besides having feature film experience and a being better actor than Grant Gustin, using a new actor divorces the DC films from any obligation to follow Arrowverse continuity, freeing the movies to follow the stories of their choice. Still, fans of The Flash continue to resist the DC movie version...and he hasn't even filmed anything yet! Fans of the dumbed-down, inconsequential, softcore Arrowverse refuse to accept film reincarnations of their favorite characters, not to mention the more thoughtful approach the movies try to take. Love or hate it, at least Batman v. Superman tries to confront the real question of how the world would react to having a population of superpowered beings. Arrow, The Flash and Supergirl--they just feel smaller, not to mention emptier.
Jesse L. Martin is a fine actor. Besides highly acclaimed work on stage in the original production of Rent, he spent nine years playing cop Ed Green on Law & Order, becoming one of the signature characters of the long-running show. Adding him to the cast of The Flash seemed like a good idea, except for one thing: he's basically playing the same character again! Even worse, Martin's Detective Joe West, while a variation on Ed Green, comes off boring on the CW series.
Supergirl commits the same sin by casting Calista Flockhart as newspaper mogul Cat Grant, and giving her next to nothing to do. It's almost as though the producers of the Arrowverse want actors like Martin and Flockhart around for name value, but don't want their considerable talent upstaging the show's leads. Instead, they get relegated to playing boring, unoriginal secondary characters and sit around going unused.
Ah, the bane of all television viewers: commercials. They cut into the screen time of every show (ok, HBO and Showtime notwithstanding) pairing the runtime down from a full hour to just under 40 minutes. Consider that figure a moment: more than a third of a TV show's length is actually taken up by ads. That figure becomes all the more infuriating considering the almost nonstop product placement in the CW superhero shows. Count how often Microsoft technology shows up on Arrow, or how frequently the company logo pops up on screen. Notice how Legends of Tomorrow always seems to have plenty of great-looking, brand new cars on hand, each one made by Ford Motors. Or consider how often the AT&T corporate name shows up in The Flash. Superhero shows are expensive, and using tie-in product placement helps reduce the cost, but come on! The glaring product placement ruins the spell of the series!
An Intermission: while at a recent cocktail party I struck up a conversation with a big fan of the MCU and CW Arrowverse. He whined and complained about the DC films being so dark, and wondered aloud why they couldn't just be fun like the Marvel films. Why did superheroes have to be so mopey?
If I have a truly dire point to make in this essay, let it be this: heroes shouldn't be fun. Real heroes experience the worst the universe has to offer--they witness death, destruction and tragedy. Being a hero is not fun. It's a serious responsibility. Movies and TV series that purport to be about super heroes--heroes that face even more danger and adversity than the heroes of our world--should do both their characters and the real heroes in the audience the respect of taking them seriously. The best superhero screen adaptations like Superman, The Dark Knight Trilogy and the X-Men movies know that, and don't have their characters making lame jokes the whole time. Superman, Batman and Professor X are heroes because they have witnessed horror and lived to tell about it. They've worked and sacrificed to earn their hero status. They don't don their tights because they want to have a good time, they do it to make the world a better place.
The formula approach of the CW Arrowverse has granted it superratings for sure, but couldn't they stand to do something original? Do they always have to have the same format? Credit Greg Berlanti for at least trying out some tonal differences, letting Arrow take a darker approach while Supergirl and The Flash aspire to be Saturday Morning Cartoons. Couldn't the next CW superhero show try something new? Why not cast an older lead, and have a middle-aged hero for once? The shows could also try a new setting, a 1940s-set Green Lantern for example, or a live-action Vixen at least partially set in Africa. Not everything should look and feel the same, in particular, that it was shot in Toronto and employs a bunch of pretty former models. Do something of substance for a change. In 2016, writer T Campbell over at ScreenRant named once hot Smallville as one of the worst Superman stories ever told. Unless the folks behind the Arrowverse can do something fresh and bold, their hit shows too will fade to black, forgotten relics of another time.