Holy comic book heroes!
Not since the late 1970s has there been as many network TV shows based on the super-powered characters from the colorful pages of comic books.
Joining the already established “Arrow” on the CW and “Marvel’s Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” on ABC on the fall network TV schedule, are these comic-book inspired shows:
“Gotham,” begins Sept. 22 on FOX
“The Flash,” launches Oct. 7 on CW
“Constantine,” starts Oct. 24. on NBC
“Agent Carter,” is waiting in the wings as a mid-season replacement for ABC.
And, it’s not just the networks who have cape-and-cowl fever.
Netflix will produce five series based on Marvel Comics characters: Daredevil, Jessica Jones. Luke Cage, Iron Fist and the Defenders.
The genre is booming, in part, because of the massive success of comic book movies. It’s also a way for networks to lure back young viewers with shows that have a darker tone, a reflection of the dark changes to the comics over the decades.
The CW Network saw a big drop in male viewers — 18 to 34 year olds—when “Smallville” ended in 2011. CW President Mark Pedowitz sees “The Flash” and “Arrow” as a way to tempt those viewers to come back.
The challenge is making the special-effects heavy shows financially feasible.
Greg Berlanti, executive producer of “The Flash,” says advancement in technology makes it easier—and cheaper—to mimic the live-action version of superpowers.
He also suggests this renewed interest in comics is the latest example of Hollywood understanding the attraction of heroes vs. villains.
“When I was kid on Saturday afternoon I would go over to my grandparent’s house and there were all these Westerns that were on,” Berlanti says. “I think it’s a similar kind of thing. There were these classic kind of universes where there were bad guys, good guys, good gals, bad gals, right and wrong.”
Comic book-inspired TV shows have always embraced the good vs. evil concept, but the new shows have a far darker tone and approach.
“Gotham” is a completely different look at Batman than the 1966-68 “Batman” series, which was presented as a bright, pop art kind of world where everything was played tongue-in-cheek. In “Gotham,” the Caped Crusader is still a pre-teen Bruce Wayne trying to come to grips with the murder of his parents.
It doesn’t worry Bruno Heller, an executive producer on “Gotham,” that the series will focus more on the creation of some of Batman’s greatest foes—Penguin, Catwoman, Riddler—than the caped crimefighter. He believes the city of Gotham will provide the larger than life character that will be a central part of the show.
“This is about people, and it’s about people trying to overcome real problems as opposed to trying to learn how to fly,” Heller says. “Will the fanboys back away from it? I don’t think so, because I think, certainly for me, the really interesting parts of these stories is the origin stories. As soon as you’re into the capes and costumes, it’s less interesting than seeing how they got there. And this is about how all these people got there.”
Heller says the show won’t change the long accepted mythology of the heroes.
“What we won’t do is break the kind of canonical iron truths of the Batman story,” he says. “But issues of chronology and who was there when and how, we will play with. In a fun way, not in a disrespectful way or a sort of iconoclastic way.”
It was “Smallville” that brought a new approach to telling superhero stories.
Instead of rushing to get Clark Kent (Tom Welling) into his bright Superman crimefighting suit, the series launched as a family drama with Clark being a special needs kid. The show dealt with dark issues of greed, anger, revenge, hatred and fear as Clark grew into his super role.
That trend continued with “Arrow.” Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) is still a billionaire playboy, but he’s carrying a lot more baggage after honing his archery skills while fighting for survival on a desolate island. In two seasons, he’s already had to deal with the death of his best friend and mother.
Green Arrow had plenty of problems in the comic books—especially in the early ‘70s run by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams—but the series creators took major liberties with the character when bringing him to TV.
“One of the nice things about Green Arrow is unlike Batman or Spider-Man or Superman where everyone knows about Batman’s parents dying or Krypton blowing up or getting bit by a radioactive spider, Green Arrow has an origin that is subject to a lot of interpretation,” says executive producer Marc Guggenheim . “In fact, it’s been interpreted and reinterpreted in the comics over many, many years. So there’s not as much canon that’s precious, so we can play around. We always start with the comic as our source of inspiration.”
Also on the darker side is “Constantine.”
The comic book character spends his days fighting demons in hopes that one day he won’t have to pay a debt he owes to the devil. That’s what appealed to executive producer David Goyer.
“The thing that I always loved about Constantine is he was a smart ass,” Goyer says. “He didn’t have any superpowers. He was just a working class bloke. He had a wicked sense of humor.
“I also felt like it was someone that would sort of translate into television without us having to change the core DNA of the character.”
One comic book hero who isn’t getting the dark treatment is The Flash.
Both the 1990 version starring John Wesley Shipp and the new offering with Grant Gustin playing Barry Allen focus more on the speedster’s battle with super villains than the angst of having the super power.
Berlanti says The Flash will be looked at as being a prodigy whose skills need to be honed.
“I always thought that was a great place to sort of start with the show, because it allows us obviously to sort of examine backwards in time what sort of happened to the character and where he comes from and why he is who he is and how he’s overcome some of the things he’s overcome,” Berlanti says. “And it always allows for, I think, deeper story telling moving forward.”
Geoff Johns, chief creative officer of DC Comics, looks over the way the company’s characters get used on television. He has a close relationship with Flash, having written the comic for years. There were countless discussions about whether to include some of the heavy emotional elements he brought to the comic in the series.
“Flash is such an optimistic character and it’s all about moving forward. When I wrote the comic, it was really about giving him an emotional anchor that would hold him back, something that happened a long time ago …,” Johns says. “The lightning bolt is really something that hits Barry and allows him to literally and emotionally move forward in his life, reconnect with people in a different way and explore that heroic side that is inside him.”
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Superhero TV: A history
Here a look at some of TV series based on comic book characters:
“Adventures of Superman” (1952–58), six seasons: George Reeves played the comic book hero in the syndicated show.
“Batman” (1966–68), three seasons: Adam West and Burt Ward portrayed the dynamic duo on the ABC series.
“Shazam!” (1974–76), three seasons: CBS aired this live-action show on Saturday mornings.
“The Secrets of Isis” (1975–76), one season: JoAnna Cameron starred in the Saturday morning series.
“Wonder Woman” (1975-79), three seasons: Lynda Carter’s series was broadcast on both ABC and CBS.
“The Amazing Spider-Man” (1977-79), two seasons: CBS showed this first live-action TV series based on the comic book, “The Amazing Spider-Man.”
“The Incredible Hulk” (1977–82), five seasons: Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno played The Hulk on the CBS show.
“Superboy” (1988-92), four seasons: John Haymes Newton starred in first season and Gerard Christopher played Superboy starting with the second season on the syndicated offering.
“Swamp Thing: The Series” (1990-93), three seasons: Dick Durock reprised his role from the two films for this USA Network series.
“The Flash” (1990-91), one season: John Wesley Shipp played the scarlet speedster in the CBS series.
“Human Target” (1992), one season: Rick Springfield starred as a war vet who becomes a private investigator in the short-lived ABC series.
“Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” (1993-97) four seasons: Dean Cain put on the cape for the ABC production.
“Smallville” (2001–11), 10 seasons: Tom Welling starred in the show that aired on the WB and CW Networks.
“Mutant X” (2001–04), three seasons: Syndicated series about new mutants.
“Witchblade” (2001-02, two seasons: TNT series starring Yancy Butler.
“Birds of Prey” (2002–03), one season: WB offering featuring three female heroes filling in for Batman.
“Blade: The Series” (2006), one season: Spike TV series starring Kirk “Sticky Fingaz” Jones.
“Human Target” (2010–12), two seasons: Mark Valley handled the title role on the FOX program.
“Arrow” (2012–present), two seasons: Stephen Amell plays the emerald archer on the CW series.
“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” (2013 – present), one season: Clark Gregg made the leap from film to TV with this ABC program.
“Gotham”: New FOX program begins Sept. 22.
“The Flash”: Latest CW super hero show launches Oct. 7.
“Constantine”: New NBC series starts Oct. 24.
By Rick Bentley - The Fresno Bee (MCT)
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