Superheroes are now network superstars

Above: Grant Gustin as the title hero in The CW series “The Flash.”
Nino Munoz/the CW
Grant Gustin as the title hero in The CW series “The Flash.”

“We don’t need another hero,” Tina Turner sang in the 1980s, decked in a chain-mail gown that would have sunk a weaker soul. The song, from the third “Mad Max” movie, was about resisting the lure of saviors; they’ll inevitably disappoint us.

Well, Tina, TV took your advice, despite your fake-foreheaded blond haystack wig, and, simultaneously, TV completely rejected it. On the one hand, cable has become the home of fierce, charismatic antiheroes in recent decades, men and, to a far lesser extent, women who aren’t trying to rescue us — or themselves. They’re creatures of pathology, narcissism, violence, and self-destruction, presented for our analysis, not to stimulate hope for mankind. You know the list, from Tony Soprano to Walter White to Nucky Thompson.

On the other hand, network TV is undergoing a golden era of superhero shows, with newcomers “Gotham,” “The Flash,” and “Constantine” joining “Arrow” and “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” We’re looking to these fearless figures, from both Marvel and DC Comics, as if the whole antihero movement hadn’t turned TV morality into a gorgeous gray muddle. Tight unitards have been showing up in movie theaters for years, evolving into A-list ventures with, occasionally, Oscar talk. And now, partly thanks to TV’s growing sophistication with digital effects, they’re bringing the promise of safety into our homes, too, with none of the cockeyed camera angles and clunky costumes of 1966’s brilliantly awful “Batman.”


And, whether or not the current batch of shows succeeds, TV producers are already creating a flock of new superhero dramas to be ready in the next year or two: “Supergirl,” from Greg Berlanti, maker of “The Flash” and “Arrow”; an ABC “Captain America” spinoff called “Agent Carter”; a TNT drama called “Titans” that will focus on some of DC’s younger superheroes; three Syfy shows, including “Pax Romana”; and four Marvel series — “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones,” “Iron Fist,” and “Luke Cage” — due to drop on Netflix. That’s a whole lot of spandex.

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So we do indeed still need and want heroes, who represent good and battle evil, who are guardians of a morally simplistic galaxy. Their journeys have become our American myths, our Greek gods, manifestations of our values and beliefs since the early 20th century. American superheroes aren’t cops, lawyers, or doctors; they aren’t limited by the shaky institutions, complex social systems, and physical handicaps that restrict mere humans. They are the more powerful vigilante keepers of decency and optimism. Oliver Queen, also known as “Arrow,” may be a broody fellow, but when it comes to justice he always hits the bull’s eye, telling villains, “You have failed this city,” before killing them.

Network TV isn’t quite equipped to take the antihero route; it needs to respect standards regarding language and violence, and it wants to please advertisers that prefer more comforting mainstream fare. Nope, we’re not going to see Walter White on the broadcast networks soon, except, perhaps, as a bad-guy-of-the-week on a “CSI” show. Superhero stories offer the likes of ABC and the CW a way to feature brand-name characters and straightforward heroics, and attract younger-skewing Comic-Con audiences. While TV writers can and do give superheroes character depth and complexity to fit the narrative sensibilities of these times, still the superheroes essentially fight for truth, justice, and — it’s true — the American way.

As myths, these superhero stories change with each new generation. They are reinterpreted to suit the moment, not unlike Shakespeare’s plays and biblical sagas. It’s fascinating to see how the various iterations of “Batman,” for example, reflect their time periods, from the subversive camp of the 1960s to Tim Burton’s dark vision in 1989’s “Batman.” What’s most distinctive right now, aside from the advancements in special effects, is the way the new TV adaptations go deep on origin story. With the benefit of the time afforded by series TV, they can explore what made Batman Batman — something “Gotham” is doing, as Bruce Wayne is only a tween in the show, having lost his parents in the premiere. If the show lasts, we will see Bruce evolve into his superhero self in great detail.

Arrow -- "Sara" -- Image AR302b_0431b -- Pictured (L-R): Emily Bett Rickards as Felicity Smoak and Stephen Amell as Oliver Queen -- Photo: Cate Cameron/The CW -- Ì?å© 2014 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved. 12buzzsaw
Cate Cameron/The CW
Stephen Amell (with Emily Bett Rickards) as Oliver Queen in The CW’s “Arrow.”

Just as memoir is hugely popular in the book world, we like to get inside our TV characters — even those who can fly. Privacy has disappeared, to some extent, in our society, and so it has disappeared on TV. We want warts and all, for Arrow as much as for Tony Soprano. We want to know about the doubts and fears of our superheroes before they proceed to save us from the latest monster.


But ultimately, we want to see how each of them has transformed their suffering and hardship into something altruistic and positive. We need more heroes, and network TV is happy to provide us with them.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.