Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Live Action Superheroes and Settling for Less

It's a classic!
I put up a post about the new Flash series yesterday and after watching the first couple of episodes I started thinking about the terrible record of live action superheroes on TV and the signs of a bad show. That's today's post...

My introduction to superheroes was through the live-action batman series when it was on re-runs in the early 70's on TV. Some of my earliest memories are watching that and Speed Racer and then going and playing with toys and friends and talking about what we had seen. I saw this stuff before I ever picked up a comic book or saw a movie or watched a cartoon with caped heroes. That makes it important to me.

In some ways the Adam West Batman started the whole idea off on a peak it has never been able to match again: Costumes! Sets! Villains! Vehicles! Gadgets! Narration! It looked remarkably like a comic book on-screen. Sure there was some camp to it, but they played it with an amazing mix of straight yet sly and it worked.

I later saw the 50's Superman series and looking back it was pretty decent too. The effects worked. the actors and characters were decent, and though most of the plots were (again) thugs and gangsters there was enough super-stuff to keep it interesting.

Later in the 70's it looked like we were headed for an amazing run: Captain America, Spiderman, and Hulk, and Wonder Woman all had live action shows in prime time.

  • Captain America was terrible - look it up on youtube if you're in a bad mood. The costume looked cheap, there were no supervillains, and the actor just didn't do it for me. It's a guy in a costume fighting thugs every week.
  • Spiderman was similar but I thought the actor was a better fit. The effects were limited by the time but I can forgive that, and the costume looked better. It still tended to be costumed guy vs. thugs, no supervillains in sight.
  • Incredible Hulk was a step up from these first two, I suspect largely because of Bill Bixby and an effort to treat it as a more adult show. It still didn't really live up to comic book expectations - no supervillains, lots of thugs and anti-corruption fights - but it was interesting in some ways. The effects were better too.
  • Wonder Woman looked far more like a comic book show, even approaching the old Batman in  a lot of ways. It wasn't turned into a sci-fi story, she kept the magic lasso, and she kept the invisible jet! The costume looked right! The actress fit the part! There was at least one storyline involving aliens - hey something like a real superhero plot! To me this is the high point of the 70's live action shows. 
This would work today
The 80's didn't have much in the way of straight-up superhero shows. Knight Rider was sort of a comic book show but still suffered from the "thugs & crooks" problem until Garth, KARR, and Goliath showed up. There was also a syndicated Superboy series that was just a mess though it does have some fans and did get into supervillains and more comic book style plots. I still rate it below Batman and Wonder Woman.

The 90's seemed hopeful as well as pretty early on we had Lois and Clark and a Flash series. 
  • I loved that Flash series as it took come cues from the Tim Burton Batman movies and made the setting a timeless environment with (for example) 50's cars next to 90's cars, all of them bright and shiny. It also was unabashedly a comic-book show with costumes, supervillains, and plots right out of a superhero story. It was great for the whole one season it lasted.    
  • Lois and Clark was the show that your parents thought was cool to watch. It was fun in many ways, but it wasn't very comic-book focused. There were some elements, but it always felt to me more like a romance novel with some super-color, rather than a full-on superhero show.
  • There were some syndicated shows like Superforce and Viper that were super-ish but never really achieved enough of an audience, or enough quality, to make a big impresison
So much potential
The new millennium brought us Smallville, among others. 
  • I wanted to like Smallville - hey it had powers and villains and interesting characters -but it had no costumes and a heaping helping of teen angst drama. Despite that the episode where Clark gets his heat vision for the first time remains a favorite.
  • Birds of Prey - well half a season looked like it might turn into something. Then it didn't. Oh well.
No, it's not the passage of time - it looked bad in the 70's too.
Having experienced most of these shows for most of their runs I thought I would share some pointers on How To Tell You're Being Fed A Crappy Superhero Show:
  • The costume looks cheap. This is one of the centerpieces of your show! It should look as good as you can make it!
    Even Worse: No costume! You're not even trying at this point! 
  • The only superhero in the universe - no other heroes, no other villains. The hero is always fighting thugs, crimelords, corrupt corporate types, or "agents".
  • Mundanity - everything else in the setting is perfectly, boringly, normal. No mutants, no aliens, no super-science, no magic, no time-travel - none of the weird stuff that sends comic books into overdrive
  • Name-dropping, references, and hints alluding to a bunch of characters, places, events, or organizations from the comic book but no actual appearance of those things in a meaningful way. It's a visual medium, remember? Show, don't tell. Allusions without a payoff are pointless and cheap. Hi "Gotham".
  • "It's a kid's show!" - the last defense of poor quality productions for decades. Know how to make a good kids show? Don't present it a a kids show. Just make a good show with the material you have and the kids will find it.
Not a bad show and it got a lot right
Beyond this, here are some signs that it might actually be trying to get things right:
  • One or more Super Vehicles
  • Superhero (or supervillain) base or lair
  • Storylines that are recognizably comic book stories and not something that could show up on a half-dozen cop series that are on the air at the same time. 
  • Usage of other elements from the comic book universe - STAR labs, Wayne Enterprises, SHIELD - in meaningful ways and not just name-dropped.
  • Humor beyond winks at the camera. If it looks like they're having fun making the show, they probably are.
I suppose one of my main points in all this is that so very many of these shows have been bad - really bad, apparently with the assumption that putting a superhero in it makes that OK. It doesn't, as the short runs of most of the worst shows proves. Especially nowadays when people are used to seeing decent superhero movies on the big screen. People like this stuff when it's done well. If you're going to spend the money and make the effort, how about making a good one - it could pay off big time.

That's probably enough for one post. I'll look at the shows on-air right now in a future post but these are the concepts I like and dislike when it comes to them.

This almost looks like a costume ... maybe I should give it another chance


WQRobb said...

You should absolutely give Arrow a second look. There's so many "easter eggs" for comic book fans, not to mention a lot of Batman-level villains who aren't from Gotham (Count Vertigo, the Huntress, Bronze Tiger) to keep things interesting. They upgrade things to superhuman level in second two.

I think the Incredible Hulk worked so well not because it was a superhero show, but more of a pathos/horror TV series. The Hulk was a modern-day Frankenstein, forever unable to live in human company because of the peril from something every human feels: rage, pain, suffering. Bixby/Banner's humanity meant he was forever wandering down that road at the end of each episode.

One TV series you didn't mention from the 1980's was the too-brief "Sable" series, based on a comic book. I just remember that the main character had a cell phone, and how that kept the authorities from being able to locate him by phone. Those were the days...

Adam Dickstein said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adam Dickstein said...

You left out my favoritest, most favorite Superhero TV show of all time! The Greatest American Hero!

OK, awesome costume? Check. Humor? Check. Actual superpowers? Check. Dude had super strength, speed, flight, psycho-telemetry, heat vision, could turn invisible, shrink...who knows what else?

While the vast majority of his opponents were the 'guys in suits' variety, he starts out with an encounter with aliens.

The latter seasons of the series saw him encounter the aliens that gave him the suit again, and you learn of the suits purpose and origin (and the implication that there are other suits with other wearers a la Green Lantern). One episode has a supernatural entity haunting a house that could tear the invulnerable costume (Superman is similarly weak against magic remember). There's even one where they discover there'd been a Golden Age Greatest American Hero who went bad (kinda).

Best. Superhero. Show. Ever.