Superheroes have been a dominant force in Hollywood films for more than a decade. Now the trend has spread to television as well, as evidenced by the nine TV shows currently on-air that are based on DC and Marvel comic book characters. Far from aping their cinematic styles, both studios have managed to use television to expand on the possibilities of superhero storytelling in clever ways.
For all the healthy competition between longtime rival companies DC and Marvel, it now seems as though Marvel is taking the lead in quality comic book television, just as they’ve done with their monumentally successful cinematic universe. DC’s television series, on the other hand, are generally strong but feel limited by their source material — Arrow, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow (to name a few) are all good comic book TV shows, but they still feel like just comic book TV shows.
Take DC’s Arrow, for example, the oldest of the current crop of DC and Marvel series. The show was particularly thrilling during the Deathstroke arc of its second season, but has since declined due to a heavy emphasis on relationship drama and an irritating habit of killing off and resurrecting characters at random. Without a strong focus on character, the show has begun to feel inessential, like an ongoing comic stuck in an uninteresting arc.
Supergirl, meanwhile, has better characters but is generally hobbled by lousy production values that make it look like a superhero series from the ’70s rather than from the modern era of high-production values and sleek CGI. DC’s Gotham and The Flash are both considerably better. Gotham thanks to its novel pre-Batman setting and a cast that includes many of the best villains in comic book history and The Flash because of its pitch-perfect cast and a witty writing style that perfectly fits its fun-loving title character.
Funnily enough, DC’s television universe bears a lot more resemblance to Marvel’s current superhero films than it does to DC’s more dour, brooding releases. Like most Marvel films, DC’s shows are colorful, entertaining, occasionally confused in execution, and wholly familiar. Marvel’s best TV series, meanwhile, have turned heads by departing from tradition.
Sure, Marvel’s network shows, Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter (now canceled) are both heavily indebted to their film counterparts in terms of characters and tone, but the company’s Netflix shows have consciously taken a completely new approach. Helped along by large budgets that allow for more cinematic production value and cinematography, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and now Luke Cage have all created prestige television from pulpy comic book heroes. In doing so, they’ve even nailed the dark tone that DC couldn’t quite manage to do right with Man of Steel or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
All three of Marvel’s Netflix series are unusually small in scope, focusing on heroes whose problems are not intergalactic but limited to embattled New York City neighborhoods. Each season feels like a single story told in chapters, rather than the meandering plotting of something like Arrow, which often feels as though the writers come up with new developments on a week by week basis. Perhaps most crucially, the threats Marvel’s Netflix heroes face are well-developed (almost to a fault in the case of Daredevil, whose Wilson Fisk received almost as much focus as the title character) and even have analogs in the real-world.
Fisk is a predatory real-estate developer committed to “improving” his city by forcing out the less-fortunate. Luke Cage‘s Cottonmouth is a kingpin using violence to gain the power of self-determination so often lacking in inner-city communities, and Jessica Jones‘s Kilgrave is essentially the most effectively manipulative sexual predator ever. In stark contrast to the forgettable baddies in Marvel’s films, these villains give the protagonists a cause for which to fight, providing meaning and rich subtext to their respective series.
None of these shows are flawless and I’m not yet well-versed enough in Luke Cage to criticize it (we’re not all binge watchers, okay?), but Jessica Jones and Daredevil both spend too much time focusing on peripheral characters. It’s to the point that it sometimes feels like they’re padding to fill up 13 episodes without deviating from the main plot line.
But Marvel’s attention to detail in set design (the visibly crummy apartment of Jessica Jones), cinematography (the one-shot fight sequence in Daredevil‘s second episode), timely themes (Luke Cage‘s focus on the far-reaching effects of the criminal justice system on black communities), and even music (the soundtrack curated by Adrian Younge and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad for Luke Cage) has helped these series surpass even Marvel’s best films and show that comic book TV shows can offer more than escapist entertainment.
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