Will 2016 go down as the year the world finally got sick of superhero movies? Put aside the grudging thumbs-up for Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War and things are looking shaky for studios that have invested heavily in superhero futures. Attempts by Warner Bros to jumpstart its own Marvel-style shared cinematic universe have been critical Kryptonite. Batman V Superman? A false dawn. Suicide Squad? Dead on arrival. Things aren’t much better over at Fox, with the surprise success of ultraviolent whoopee cushion Deadpool cancelled out by the tepid reaction to X-Men: Apocalypse. When it comes to superheroes, it feels like there has been a tangible shift in power. The most exciting, emotional and surprising storytelling is now happening on TV, where the genre has been rising, diversifying and thriving.
Superhero TV is nothing new. Lynda Carter’s glamazon and Lou Ferrigno’s green monster helped cement Wonder Woman and the Hulk’s place in pop culture, while Adam West’s 1960s Batman lives on in every news headline that features the word “Kapow!”. The demands of crafting a weekly show have always chimed with the serialised source material: stories designed to go on indefinitely, but with enough intrigue to make sure that audiences came back for the next instalment. Now, the 21st-century approach has added new levels of sophistication to this combustible mix.
It helps, of course, that TV can move quickly. The kickass introduction of African warrior-king Black Panther in Civil War was well received, but he won’t get his own movie until summer 2018. Instead, the first Marvel headliner of colour is Luke Cage, a benevolent beefcake with impenetrable skin, who is the latest superhero to be granted their own Netflix series. Set and shot in Harlem, Luke Cage is a superhero narrative where the good guy is a fugitive, holds down two menial jobs and hides out in a barbershop rather than a Batcave. Sensitive, soulful and strapping, Cage (played The Good Wife’s Mike Colter) confronts use of the N-word head on and duffs up gangbangers in a hoodie rather than spandex, all to a soundtrack jammed with classic hip-hop. At a time when young black men are being gunned down weekly in the US, having a lead character who is literally bulletproof also carries serious symbolic heft.
Luke Cage could arguably have worked as a movie, but a lot of its textural pleasures come during downtime: with 13 hours to tell its story, it can dig much deeper than the exposition dumps and smart one-liners that constitute blockbuster screenwriting. Indeed, the difference between The Avengers and Netflix’s slate of comic-book shows is night and day; literally, since the streaming service’s antiheroes are generally nocturnal. The first of these, Daredevil – about a blind vigilante with uncanny super-senses – was proof that this patient narrative approach could work. It spent as much time building up its baddie, the brutal Kingpin, as its title character, and even withheld the traditional pleasure of seeing its hero in a proper costume until the final moments of season one.
Jessica Jones – the Netflix show that featured Luke Cage among its ensemble – was even more of an experiment, spotlighting a female character with zero brand recognition but turning that into an advantage. Here was a superhero series that even people who didn’t like superheroes could enjoy. It refashioned the ancient comic-book trope of mind control into a serious exploration of surviving sexual abuse, as private-eye Jones (Krysten Ritter) struggled to cope with the emotional aftershocks of her treatment at the hands of brainwashing sadist Kilgrave (David Tennant), despite her physical super-strength. No tights, no flights: Jessica Jones was a psychological thriller comparable to The Fall, and thanks to widespread critical attention, attracted a whole new audience to the genre.
Next on Netflix’s list is a standalone series for Iron Fist, a mystic-but-minor kung-fu character who would never realistically be considered for a movie. In 2017, all four of Netflix’s heroes will come together for an Avengers-sounding team-up called The Defenders; hopefully that series won’t smooth off the edges that make these shows so intriguing in the first place.
It’s not just Marvel supes who are thriving on TV. While DC characters such as Superman and Batman are being ill-served at the multiplex, multitasking showrunner Greg Berlanti has quietly built his own DC Comics universe entirely separate from the Warners movies. Berlanti – a veteran of Dawson’s Creek and primetime soaps including Dirty Sexy Money – has launched four TV series in the past few years that, as well as delivering muscular action, have championed diverse casting and LGBT themes, while interrogating what being a hero actually means in the 21st century.
Arrow is gritty and redemptive, as archer Oliver Queen evolves from a vigilante murderer into something more recognisably noble. The Flash is effects-heavy and fun, with a hero who, refreshingly, finds his super-speed powers to be exhilarating rather than a drag. Supergirl explores a young woman’s relatable struggle to find a work-life balance while trying to escape the shadow of a more successful relative. And while Legends Of Tomorrow – about a misfit team bouncing through time to save the cosmos – initially felt like a clearing house for minor characters left over from Arrow and Flash, even that thrifty setup had a tragic edge. These “legends” were selected precisely because if they died it would have no lasting effect on history. So among the bickering team banter and historical dress-up there is an existential question: why do the right thing when the universe has already decided you’re irrelevant? While these shows exist in a heightened reality where gods walk among us and time portals are real, they still see the importance of remaining grounded in human emotion.