Remember when Smallville was TV’s lone superhero show? (And hell, it didn’t even let Clark Kent have flights or tights.) Now, seven years after that Superman origin story wrapped its run, TV is home to nearly 20 comic book-based series about specially abled heroes, with another batch in the pipeline.
Could it be that Luke Cage and Iron Fist, which both got powered down this month, are the first casualties of simply too much super going on?
Netflix famously doesn’t release viewership numbers, so there’s no knowing if these two of its five Marvel hero titles simply weren’t pulling their weight. (A recent Vulture piece reported that Netflix largely makes renew/cancel decisions based on “completion rates,” i.e. the number of people who started a binge and saw it through to the end.) But both Luke Cage and Iron First were handed Season 2 pickups within a few months after their debuts, so it stands to reason that consumption wound up on some sort of decline. Plus, in the case of Luke Cage, which had already opened its Season 3 writers room, there are reports that “creative differences” with Netflix led to a stalemate and eventually cancellation.
The CW meanwhile has churned out 22 cumulative seasons of its five superhero shows, and there are no signs of stopping. Fox’s Gotham, similarly, managed to eke out a five-season run despite never-quite-super ratings. And with the DC Universe digital service now in the mix, you have Titans, Doom Patrol and Stargirl either on your screens or on the way. In other words, Marvel may dominate at the movieplex, but DC’s heroes enjoy far greater small-screen success.
Whenever I delve into any MNU (“Marvel/Netflix Universe”) binge, I do wonder if Matt, Jessica, Luke and Danny operate at a disadvantage. Because whereas their big-screen brethren get to face off against visually thrilling and often out-of-this-world adversaries, Netflix’s “street-level heroes” tend to battle decidedly human, albeit eeeeevil, humans. (In fact, that has been a knock against the MNU this year: It’s Luke Cage against… another bulletproof dude! Danny Rand against… another bro with an Iron First! Daredevil against… another Daredevil!)
Grodd knows, The Flash has battled several sinister speedsters and Green Arrow has often faced other leather-clad vigilantes. But there also have been creepy brainiacs in floating thrones, entire leagues of assassins, a magic-wielding Machiavellian and whatever that horned thing that Beebo kicked the crap out of was. Similarly, Gotham may only have a teen who can throw a punch and a do-right lawman as its main protagonists, but the Batman prequel went all in with its rogues gallery, leaving almost no card unturned (save for a Joker).
Along those same lines, the Arrowverse, Gotham and now Titans lets their players explore much of the DC sandbox — and the aversion to “crossing streams” with the movies, made infamous during Smallville‘s run, seems to be falling by the wayside, given the usage of Superman and soon Lex Luthor. The MNU, meanwhile, is at best a companion piece theoretically set in the same city where “The Attack on New York” from The Avengers took place, but letting the occasional framed newspaper speak to that shared, thin strand of DNA.
Factor in the lighter moments that The Flash, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow regularly serve up (whereas Jessica Jones’ snark is the sole deviation from the MNU’s veddy serious mode) and the fact that DCTV’s heroes fly, run fast, travel through time, stretch, shrink and shoot allll manner of ray guns, and it could be argued that the former is simply having — and thus offering — more fun. That Hulu’s Runaways and Freeform’s Cloak & Dagger got positive (meaning: non-damning) receptions from a famously persnickety target audience suggests that audiences want more whiz-bang from their Marvel properties.
Lastly, there is the matter of what some call “Netflix bloat,” where stories that could be told in a lean-and-mean eight episodes are instead inflated into 13 installments that are truly 60 minutes long. Mind you, a full season of, say, Supergirl actually totals 16 hours, but it feels less arduous because 1) the writers must write to act/commercial breaks, meaning episodes don’t suffer the “Death by 1,000 Six-Minute Scenes” that curses a typical MNU show, plus 2) you’re forced to wait a week between installments.
It is a great time to be a fan of comic book crimefighters, given the steady stream of fare on screens big and small. But with that escalation of omnipresence comes that fact that it’s harder than ever for a hero to seem super, to stand out in the crowd. (Remember how we oohed and ahhed when The Blur took his first flying leap? Ah, simpler times.) The MNU’s core four was comprised of two heroes who could hit hard while being hit hard, and two martial artists. I have to suspect that in at least some small way, someone saw the redundancies, and cuts were made.
Do you think/fear that TV is suffering from too many superhero shows?