Well, we’ve got to the end of another season of superhero television dramas.
(That’s something that you’d never imagine anyone saying a few years ago).
Actually, I don’t know if we’re completely at the end of it or not. I’m not watching Gotham, so I don’t know if that’s still going, or if there are any other less mainstream shows that are still plugging along.
What I have been watching is Supergirl, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and Agents of SHIELD. No Arrow. I probably would have watched Arrow if I could only have accessed it for free. But oh well.
So on one hand, as we’ve known for a while, we may be in the halcyon days of mainstream superhero adaptations, at least in terms of quantity and potential choice.
On the other hand, having lots of comic book superheroes on TV (and in the movies) is no guarantee of it all being good.
Back on the first hand, we’re more likely to have a good comic book superhero TV show if there actually are comic book superhero TV shows than if there aren’t any.
So were any of the shows I was following any good?
Supergirl finished its inaugural season of 20 episodes, and is the only one of these programs that did not end with one of the major characters being killed off. It’s the most light-hearted of all of these offerings, and is by far the most upbeat and hopeful of the lot. Indeed, the victory in the final episode is built all around the idea of “hope”.
Unbridled optimism doesn’t mean there’s an absence of drama, of course. It just means that the series doesn’t leave you feeling depressed, and doesn’t try to trick you into thinking you should be depressed because of the trials the characters are going through. It’s this ultimately positive view of life that is the show’s biggest selling point.
Because there are certainly a lot of negatives. Often there is awkward plotting and juvenile dialogue. Kara, in her secret identity, gets kidnapped by some super-villain, and when she returns, instead of asking her if she needs medical attention or whatever, everybody just breezes over her unexplained survival and they get onto the business her breaking up with her boyfriend.
But what the show lacks in brains, it makes up for in heart. Melissa Benoist is excellent as the show’s lead, and the supporting cast works well, especially Calista Flockhart is the unexpectedly compelling as Cat Grant.
Plus, you know, it features J’Onn J’Onzz on a regular basis, which is sort of awesome.
The last moments of the season finale featured an unexpected arrival of another spaceship, like the one Kara arrived in originally, and presumably also from Krypton. Supergirl opens it and is stunned at who she sees inside. For a while, there seemed to be some doubt whether Supergirl was going to be renewed, and I was concerned that my daughters, who love the show, would never have their curiosity satisfied.
Hope for next season: A major storyline about the White Martians. A visit from the Legion of Super-Heroes. And maybe Streaky the Super-Cat.
This is my favorite show out of this lot.
At the same time…it’s kind of stupid.
I’m big enough to admit that. I love the show, but it’s kind of stupid. It’s kind of how I feel about early Doctor Who.
Maybe the biggest problem the show has been how unintelligent Barry is in the use of his powers. I mean, this guy has super-speed. Super-duper-speed. Really, this should be enough for him to deal with most problems that come his way. I mean, uh-oh, here comes Weather Wizard to kill someone, or Heat Wave to burn something, or Black Siren to make some building fall down. If only there was some way to stop them before they cause these problems? If only there was someone fast enough to knock them unconscious and tie them up before they could use their powers or weapons?
But no, Barry is often just fast enough to show up and posture at them from five meters away, becoming a sitting duck target for whatever evil attack they want to lay on him, while not actually doing anything to stop them. Aargh! Weak attempts to build tension = irritated superhero fan! Of course, I’ve been feeling this ever since the days of Lois and Clark.
Supergirl falls victim to this as well, but somehow it’s more egregious on The Flash, since it positions itself as a bit more of a “grown up” show.
The other big confusion on The Flash is its absolutely chaotic approach to time travel. This season, it made up some nonsense about “Time Remnants” in order to justify why the first season’s futuristic villain could be simultaneously both erased from existence and still around to do everything necessary to set up the status quo of the series. As one can imagine, it doesn’t make any sense. That would be okay, except as the season went along it became increasingly dependent on the concept to explain its big twists, and even to build its climax upon.
Still, I like to the show. I love the Flash as a character, I like the high speed adventures of Barry Allen, zipping around Central City and stopping metahumans, dealing with parallel earths and all other sorts of comic book nonsense. And again, I like the cast. Grant Gustin does an outstanding job as the young Barry Allen, and again he’s surrounded by a (mostly) great supporting cast, including Carlos Valdes, Tom Cavanaugh, Jesse L. Martin, and the who-knew-he’d-be-that-good John Wesley Shipp.
Shipp’s character–Barry Allen’s father–was killed off at the end of the season, an emotionally manipulative narrative maneuver that is sold on the strength of Gustin’s performance. And fan’s of John Wesley Shipp don’t have to worry–the actor is back in the finale playing the legendary “original” Flash of the comics, Jay Garrick. Shipp of course played the Flash himself in the short-lived 1990’s TV series, so seeing him “suit up” again was sort of awesome.
Hope for next season: A primary antagonist who doesn’t have the secret goal of making Barry faster for his own nefarious ends, and who isn’t a super-speedster themselves. Maybe a a season-long arc around Gorilla Grodd, or introduce Abra Kadabra. They’d both be different.
Legends of Tomorrow
Speaking of time travel and nonsense, there is the third DC TV series, Legends of Tomorrow. If this whole trend of superhero TV & movies is a bit unbelievable to my child- and teenaged-self, then Legends of Tomorrow is the king of fantasy. I mean, here is a show about Rip Hunter gathering together Hawkman, Hawkwoman, Captain Cold, Heat Wave, the Atom, Firestorm and…uh, Black Canary’s sister to go through time fighting Vandal Savage. It features in guest starring roles Jonah Hex, Connor Hawke, Chronos, Per Degaton and in its final moments, Hourman.
I mean, we’re talking real comic-book geek obscura, here.
Unfortunately, it’s all kind of a mess.
16 episodes, and scarcely a moment of compelling plotting or believable character interaction to be seen. Even though I’ve been reading about most of the characters I mention for a long time, none of them are remotely recognizable to me on the TV set, and most of them are pretty tedious to watch. I am tired of listening to Martin Stein delivering expository techno-nonsense, or Ray Palmer being naive, or Rip Hunter getting all agitated whenever someone breaks a rule of time. It’s tedious.
On the other hand, the show somehow made me interested in Dominic Purcell’s Heat Wave, something I’d never have dreamed was possible. I’m looking forward to seeing him carry on the show next year, ideally encountering the entire JSA, including John Wesley Shipp as Jay Garrick.
I’m also hoping that they will apply some phlebotinum and bring back Wentworth Miller’s Captain Cold, but preferably as a rogue back on The Flash. His death was sort of silly, with it’s double “I punch you out so I can make the ultimate sacrifice rather than you” shtick, but still somehow kind of effecting. I liked hearing him say with his characteristic snark, “There are no strings on me!” just before going kablooey.
Legends also managed to deliver a fairly cool climactic battle scene, with Vandal Savage being fought and bested “simultaneously” in three different time periods at once. It didn’t make any sense, but it was impressively shot and edited.
Hopes for next season: For the Justice Society to be awesome! Let’s have the Golden-Aged Sandman in there, and maybe Dr. Mid-Nite. And could we even hope for Green Lantern? And maybe use a time-traveling Hourman to really develop the idea of legacy super-heroes to DC television – we could have Rex Tyler, his son Rick, the futuristic Matt…it could be an easy way to really go into one of DC’s foundational concepts.
Agents of SHIELD
This, the oldest series that I’m still watching, has just finished its third season, and I’m pretty sure I’m the only person I know who is still watching it. SHIELD, as everyone who was there on the ground floor knows, started off weak and inconsistent, and then got shockingly awesome two-thirds the way through the first season. After that, it struggled to retain its awesomeness, as it began to show signs of weariness and repetition, even as it brought in new elements (How many times could Grant Ward betray everyone and yet stay alive? How many times could we talk about how damaged Coulsen is?)
Now, it’s a show that to its credit, manages to avoid most of the dumb mistakes that the other programs on this list fall into, in that rarely do you see big plot inconsistencies or the characters just acting just plain foolishly. But at the same time, it’s often a little bit boring. It deals mainly with some of the less interesting corners of the Marvel universe–the sorts of spy and super-hero stuff we’ve seen lots of other places–and so the character really depends on us in the audience having a connection with the characters to make it work. And while I like Clark Gregg as Coulsen, and I don’t mind most of the others, I don’t really love any of them. I kind of like Adrianne Palicki’s Bobbi Morse, but I find myself grateful she isn’t getting her own show (as was almost the case) because I don’t want to spend twice as much time keeping up with these characters.
SHIELD actually killed off two main characters in the season finale in a series of dramatic events that was simultaneously both incredibly stupid and quite moving and powerful. The show had been teasing the death of one of our heroes for last few episodes, and doing its best to make us believe it might be Skye / Daisy, one of the central characters from the beginning of the series. It turned out to be Lincoln, her generically nice but boring boyfriend. Somehow, Lincoln, is able to steal a necklace from around Daisy’s neck without her noticing, and then sneak on board a doomed plane that literally everyone else are trying to reach without anyone realizing, all while critically injured.
But then once he had made the ultimate sacrifice and launched both himself and the season’s big villain into space, the show got super-smart and gave the two characters a quiet and dignified exit…even a moving one. Even better is that the villain is the guy played by Brett Dalton, whom the show has really been working hard to keep in the cast when really he should have been written out a long time ago.
Hopes for next season: I don’t really have any in particular. As long as the show keeps airing on Australian TV for free, I’ll probably keep watching, but hopefully it can find some direction that allows it to freshen up a bit.