I’m sort of piggybacking this onto a recent post by Thaddeus Howze about the news that the CW, following the success of the Supergirl TV series, is working on a new Superman series for TV. Thaddeus is opposed to the idea, and bases his opinion on the fact that Superman is already the most-exposed superhero in television history, and after all these years, writers have essentially lost the ability to write new and interesting stories for him.
I tend to agree: Superman has been over-exposed on TV, and there’s nothing left that can be done to him that hasn’t already been done. And if you ask me, CW is being incredibly short-sighted in deciding to make a Superman TV series; Supes might be the most well-known superhero in the world, but television can be so much better served by steering away from the Big Blue Boy Scout in favor of other characters.
Consider first that Superman is only one of an incredible roster of characters owned by DC comics… literally hundreds of heroes of every age, sex, color and creed, and with an incredible variety of powers and abilities. Then consider that a television series needs extended stories, something good but not big, epic and quickly over… which is what you tend to get with super-powered heroes like Superman. And you start to realize that you need a different level of hero for television.
Marvel comics understood this, when they developed their various MCU TV series… and which is why their series revolved, not around the powerful major characters that populated The Avengers, but with lesser, “street-level” characters like Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and the Agents of SHIELD. These heroes still had powers, but they were more vulnerable, more dependent on others to support and sustain them. Their villains were equally “street-level,” which made their conflicts more even, their victories less assured and often limited in satisfaction. And because they were less invulnerable, their stories were more compelling, their stakes were higher, and their victories were sweeter. Applying the standard TV storytelling methods of using complex and layered relationships, personal drama and more grounded stakes, contributed to their success significantly.
The series these characters shared had another advantage: Being less “superpowered” meant the series could be made with less spent on costly and time-consuming special effects. So the series were more sustainable productions for television budgets and schedules. When combined with clever storytelling, accomplished actors and quality production crews, the Marvel series were very successful and popular.
This is what the DC producers should be keeping in mind for future TV series. They chose wisely when they decided on Arrow, for instance: Oliver Queen, a skilled but not super-powered archer, was a great character for multi-season episodic television. Black Lightning, another more “street-level” powered hero, has attained similar success on the small screen. And there are plenty of other individual characters that would support a series. Choosing characters that can be believable in well-grounded stories with good supporting characters and comparable villains/threats is key, and the writing and production needs to be equal to the task of selling the concept.
DC should be following that strategy and thinking smaller for television, using characters that might not make a splash in big budget movies, but are better scaled for TV. In fact, the bulk of DC’s characters fit this bill, most of them being much less powerful than Superman, and many skilled but non-powered heroes. They should also consider smaller groups or individual heroes, as lesser numbers are easier to cultivate audience interest than large groups. Their Legends of Tomorrow is an excellent example, in many ways mirroring Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD in its ability to delve into the corners of the DC universe and its many compelling characters and storylines.
DC’s comics have successfully featured small groups, especially duos, in their Brave and Bold series and other effective pairings. Green Arrow had an off-and-on relationship with Black Canary, aka Diana Lance, which would have made an excellent superhero partnership for a series. DC has also paired up complimentary characters Blue Beetle and Booster Gold, or Green Fire and Ice Princess. And other characters, like the Atom, the Question and the Elongated Man, have thrived in interesting pairings with various other heroes. Pairings like these would be ideal for TV series.
TV audiences are currently split on superhero shows, displaying a fondness for the shows at the same time as the beginnings of burnout for the many series competing for their time. The only way to prevent burnout is to be highly creative in storytelling and quality in acting, to make sure the content is as compelling as possible, while being clever about giving the audiences the WOW moments they expect from superhero fare and modern effects productions. Time will tell if the show creators can maintain those elements well enough to build audiences, or at least maintain them. But they have a clear blueprint for success; they just need to follow it.