Ten years ago, Marvel Comics was limping out of bankruptcy. Now, they’re arguably the defining entertainment brand of the decade. They’ve taken characters like Iron Man, Thor, and Black Widow, who not too long ago were total unknowns outside of comics fandom, and turned them into ubiquitous and insanely profitable household names. They’ve redefined the concept of a film franchise, and have every other movie studio racing to copy their formula. So if you’re competitor DC Entertainment, home of the only superheroes who used to matter, Batman and Superman, you have to be going out of your damn mind. While parent company Warner Bros. recently announced an ambitious slate of films starring members of the Justice League, DC has yet to develop the kind of brand recognition and strength that helped Marvel spin an unknown property like Guardians of the Galaxy into box office gold. They’re going to be fighting an uphill battle for cinematic superhero dominance for years before they have a chance of catching up. But while they may not have the advantage in getting audiences out to the theaters to see their characters, they’re doing a fantastic job when it comes to getting their characters into audiences’ homes, through a growing variety of television shows.
This fall, there are four different live-action television dramas based on DC Comics characters, airing on three different networks. The CW has returning superhero show Arrow, back for its third season, plus its new spin-off The Flash. FOX has new series Gotham, a stylized police drama set in Batman’s city when Bruce Wayne is still just a kid. Finally, next week NBC will launch Constantine, a dark supernatural thriller based on the character co-created by Watchmen and V for Vendetta writer Alan Moore. Once all four are running, there will be a new hour of DC Comics-based television on every night of the working week except for Thursday. (Marvel, on the other hand, currently has one: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC.)
While DC’s film offerings are threatening to be homogeneously dark and humorless in an attempt to ape the tone of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, their television line-up is delivering a decent amount of variety by comparison. Yes, all four shows are still network procedurals starring white men, so variety is a relative term, but each show feels like it brings something a little different to the table and caters to a slightly different audience. Rather than attempting to build one cohesive universe and the DC brand itself the product, the way Marvel does, each show seems concerned with just being a show, like any other, rather than a part of some larger transmedia entity. (For the most part. We’ll get to Gotham‘s prequel problem in a bit.)
Branching out to sell their series to different television networks has turned out to be an excellent decision on the part of Warner Bros., as it helps each series feel a little different. The CW, being a youth-oriented network that’s already been the home of Smallville and the equally comic book-y Supernatural, is the perfect place for the DC series that are closest to their superhero roots, Arrow and The Flash. Both these shows are essentially soap operas starring extremely attractive and often half-dressed young people (which is basically the description for every CW series ever), but since The CW is also typically unconcerned with being taken seriously by “adults,” they have zero qualms about letting their superhero characters wear colorful costumes or use goofy codenames. (Gone are the days of Smallville‘s “no tights, no flights” policy, thank goodness.) Both these series, The Flash in particular, are about as close to the source material as we’re ever likely to see on broadcast television.
What’s especially refreshing, though, is how different Arrow and The Flash, despite sharing a universe, are from one another. Arrow, though it’s grown out of its early compulsion to be a Dark Knight-like grimfest, is still a dark, dimly-lit affair with high drama and a fair share of blood. The Flash, on the other hand, is a bright, delightfully silly adventure series starring a hero who actually smiles, both in and out of costume. While The Flash is only two episodes in, the two shows already seem as if they could settle into the same kind of playful dark/light contrast of the concurrent Batman and Superman animated series of the late nineties. They’re not the same show, but they have enough in common that it feels natural for them to cross over from time to time.
Constantine, which begins October 24th on NBC, takes over Hannibal‘s Friday at 10pm slot, and while at first glance (so far I only have an advance NYCC screening of the pilot to go on) it doesn’t seem to have the same level of stunning visuals and depth of character of that show, it definitely seems like it could appeal to that same audience. Like Hannibal, Constantine is stylish, dark, and violent, and stars a leading man who’s likable despite being essentially amoral. The pilot already demonstrates a macabre sense of humor, and that the show isn’t taking itself too seriously. Constantine has shades of The CW’s Supernatural, with its angels and demons and dark magic, and might have also found a home there, but selling it to NBC promises that not only will it likely strive to deeper depths of adult storytelling, but that someone over thirty might watch it.
These three series are all doing a terrific job so far of utilizing the source material without alienating audiences who are unfamiliar with the comics. On Arrow, The Flash, and Constantine, many characters and concepts from the comics are introduced and played with, but in the same way that any new character or concept would be introduced or played with. For example, in last week’s season premiere of Arrow, Dr. Ray Palmer (who comics fans know as shrinking hero The Atom) was introduced, but there were no nods or jokes about size or shrinking or costumes or being a superhero at all. His role in the episode was to be a scientist and entrepreneur vying for Oliver Queen’s business and for Felicity Smoak’s affections–his ultimate fate as a superhero was not alluded to in any way, and why should it be? On the show, it hasn’t happened yet. It may never happen. (There were also no winks to actor Brandon Routh’s previous role as the Man of Steel in Superman Returns, but the season is young.) The show never assumes that the viewer has a preconceived notion of who Ray Palmer is, and just tells the story.
FOX’s Gotham, on the other hand, has a unique problem, because unlike Constantine or Arrow, Gotham is based on a property that’s actually very well known to the mass, non-comics-reading audience. DC’s other three current series are all their own show, but Gotham lives in the shadow of the Bat and constantly works to remind the audience that it’s a prequel to the Batman story that everyone already knows. The cast of Gotham is populated primarily by characters who will eventually play a role in Batman’s war on crime, like Detective (later Commissioner) James Gordon, Alfred Pennyworth, and young Bruce Wayne himself. As each character is introduced, the producers of Gotham both assume you know who these characters are going to eventually be, but also that you can’t recognize them without being prompted.
In the pilot episode, character after character introduces him or herself by their full name, and had their eventual fate rammed down the audience’s throats. The first character we meet is Selina Kyle, who will eventually become Catwoman, so of course she must be seen feeding milk to an alley cat. In the following episode, she demands to be called “Cat” rather than her birth name, in case you forgot who she was eventually going to be. When police consultant Edward Nygma is introduced, he is immediately accused of “speaking in riddles.” Oswald Cobblepot, the awkward assistant to mob boss Fish Mooney, is nicknamed “Penguin” from the outset for basically no reason other than to remind an audience who saw Batman Returns once in 1992 what that guy’s real name is. (Oswald acquires a limp after the first episode that makes him waddle, after which an entirely separate group of characters nicknames him “Penguin” as well, but at least now there’s a reason.) The series seems to have no trust that viewers will care about these characters unless they’re already invested in them because of their role in Batman’s story.
In other respects, though, Gotham feels in keeping with other oddball FOX procedurals like Sleepy Hollow, which airs the same night, or last season’s Almost Human. One would be unlikely to mistake Gotham for a show on another network, least of all The CW. Gotham would be better off embracing the Sleepy Hollow side of its nature and jumping off the rails to become a weirder, hammier series, less concerned with its image or honoring the Batman legacy. After all, the show’s most entertaining characters aren’t Gordon or Wayne, but Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot, whose interpretation is a far cry from the comics character, and Fish Mooney, who isn’t from the comics at all. Gotham will come into its own when it stops screaming “LIKE IN BATMAN, GET IT?” in its audience’s ear and acting more like DC’s CW shows, only in FOX’s idiom, and to make up its mind as to whether or not it wants to have a sense of humor about itself.
DC’s proliferation on television is only just beginning. Not only has Gotham been picked up for a full season, but there are three additional series in various stages of development. iZombie, based on the comics series by Chris Roberson and Mike Allred, is coming to The CW, CBS has greenlit a Supergirl show, and a Titans pilot is in the works from TNT. For decades, Warner Bros. has gone years between movies and had a small live-action TV stable, rarely putting forward any projects starring characters other than Batman and Superman. But between these shows and the ten theatrical films coming between now and 2020, DC Comics characters will soon be everywhere. Whether or not they’ll be as exciting or successful as Marvel’s offerings is yet to be seen, but one thing’s for certain: DC’s days of being timid with its characters in mass media are over.
Watch Gotham Mondays at 8/9c PM on FOX, The Flash Tuesdays at 8/9c PM and Arrow Wednesdays at 8/9c PM on The CW, and Constantine Fridays at 10/11c PM on NBC, beginning on October 24th.