Why can’t network television get superheroes right?
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There’s money in superheroes. Tights and superpowers are all the rage in Hollywood, thanks to the success of the Batman and Iron Man movies, among others, so is it any surprise that television is trying to grab a piece of the action? But instead of looking to comics for working examples of strong serialized superhero stories, TV has looked to the movies. And with that focus comes an over-reliance on origin stories, and an underappreciation for thematic development, which turns would-be X-Men into Howard The Duck. And the consistent failure of televised superhero shows means that even though superheroes are currently in a boom popularity period, they don’t have a live-action show on a network this season.
Part of the reason is that last year’s two new major-network superhero shows, The Cape and No Ordinary Family, were canceled without much fuss. Combined with Heroes’ rapid collapse in terms of critical acclaim and ratings, it’s apparent that the major networks are currently unable to create a lasting hit superhero show. But are the networks just doing it wrong, or are superhero shows unlikely to work on a major network?
At first, television appears to be an excellent medium for superhero stories, since it’s structurally close to the comic books and radio serials that spawned them. The same benefits and pitfalls of serialization apply to both media, and there are more than half a century of examples from which to draw. And there have been televised successes: The hits include the DC Animated Universe, X-Men cartoons, Smallville, and (stretching the definition of superhero shows somewhat) Buffy The Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel. However, none of these series were on major networks. More recently, Syfy’s Alphas and, in Britain, E4’s Misfits have demonstrated success with smaller ambitions.
Superhero shows’ ratings tend to line up with critical consensus. Heroes was widely praised and watched in its first season, but its ratings and reviews declined consistently over its four seasons. No Ordinary Family started with a solid first episode and equally solid ratings, but as it spun its wheels with dull follow-ups, it lost viewers. A dismal first returning episode after its mid-season break didn’t help, either. Whatever momentum the series carried over the break was gone, as it shed a few million more viewers and plummeted into certain cancellation range. The Cape, meanwhile, debuted poorly, and reviews that declared that, at best, it was “so bad it’s good” further hurt it. It didn’t really improve significantly, either in quality or in ratings.
Part of the reason network executives may look at the failures of NBC’s The Cape and ABC’s No Ordinary Family as proof that live-action superhero shows don’t work is because they appear to be different shows. “Well, it got tried in two different ways, and neither worked,” the argument might go. This is true to an extent, but the shows may actually have more important similarities than differences.
Initially, the aesthetics showed them to be totally different shows. No Ordinary Family was scared of costumes, while The Cape’s name and premise came straight out of the costume. They also looked different, with The Cape’s palette of artificial robust primary colors contrasting with No Ordinary Family’s warmer yellows and browns. In terms of pacing, The Cape seemed fast and exciting, bombarding viewers with crazy new villains and occasionally heroes at every turn, compared to the ABC show’s slower introduction of supervillains alongside the regular human criminal villains. One show was inviting, the other rugged; one seemed fast-paced, the other leisurely. But they made the same mistakes, which at their core are not being able to answer the question “What’s the point?”
The shows’ common mistakes include too-liberal borrowing from Batman. The Cape’s Batman influences—specifically, its copping from Christopher Nolan’s gritty Batman films—are obvious at a glance, and made worse by the two scenes in later episodes that are practically shot-for-shot remakes of scenes from The Dark Knight, but nowhere near as good. No Ordinary Family’s Batman influences are subtler, but during its early, weaker episodes, it relied almost exclusively on Batman-esque storylines about corrupt or lazy cops and a criminal-plagued city.
No Ordinary Family didn’t take all its cues from Batman, whose obsession with fighting crime stems from his parents being killed by a thug. What makes Batman interesting is his unhappiness, bordering on psychological breakdown. No Ordinary Family, by contrast, centers on a happy, functioning family, whose parents have decent jobs, and whose kids go to a decent suburban TV high school.
But family can be a problem too. Part of what makes Batman work is an absence of family; with one, he wouldn’t need his obsession. No Ordinary Family actually went so far as to directly state this when the genre-savvy sidekick played by Autumn Reeser mentioned how few superheroes have normal relationships with their mothers, or even how few have living mothers at all. But both shows failed to make families interesting in the context of superhero stories. The Cape comes to a screeching halt whenever the main character’s wife and child are onscreen. No Ordinary Family is toothless homage to a television version of an ideal nuclear family, but its reliance on conventional television family narratives is rarely integrated into its superhero story, with the exception of increasingly tiresome “should I use my powers?” storylines.
While family has been an effective theme in superhero stories, most famously involving the Fantastic Four, more successful shows like Misfits and Alphas eschew family as the driving motive, focusing instead on the team members’ interpersonal relationships. For Misfits, much of the joy came from the characters’ struggles to understand just how crazy and how human they each were, while Alphas gained power from the straightforward drama of putting markedly different people in positions where they worked toward a common goal.
As a tried-and-true phenomenon throughout all superhero media, the idea of the team seems obvious. But this might be an area where the major networks’ structure prevents them from taking advantage of better storytelling: Family-oriented shows are easier sells.
Both network shows also leaned too heavily on origin stories. Origins have helped drive the superhero movies of the last decade: Each of the major new superhero film series have kicked into gear with origin tales. But what works for a film doesn’t always work on television. Origin stories are a good way to get attention early on, but they can’t sustain a serial on their own. Both The Cape and No Ordinary Family failed to get past their origin stories, and suffered as a result. The Cape started with a cop framed for supervillainy, forced to abandon his family as he sought to bring down the villain who framed him and took over the city. Nine episodes in, it was still telling the same story. No Ordinary Family actually appeared to dispense with the main characters’ origins in reasonably efficient fashion in its pilot, but then it went on to spin its wheels with “Should I use these powers?” plots, all an extension of the origin story. The answer to the question was always going to be “yes,” so why waste viewers’ time?
Part of the reason for the difficulty of maintaining origin stories in a serialized story arc is that they require constant explanation, instead of action. Likewise, if everything “super” is new and original, then the entire world feels artificial. Supervillains pop up all over the place on No Ordinary Family, and the family has superpowers that make school essentially irrelevant, but the show still tries to pretend it takes place in something akin to the real world. Meanwhile, The Cape shows a world where supervillains and a magical cape have existed for at least a century, but minor characters are still surprised by The Cape’s costume. New series need time to develop their stories and mythologies, yes, but both No Ordinary Family and The Cape failed to demonstrate that they could or should have the room to expand those settings.
There may be pathways to successful, critically acclaimed live-action superhero shows on a major network. But those potential series would have to exist beyond the original pitch. The characters’ powers aren’t as important as what those powers mean. Successful shows would have to be about something more than someone discovering they’re super. The superhero serves as a power fantasy and a metaphor for something greater. The more interesting the metaphor, the more interesting the superhero can remain over time.
No Ordinary Family and The Cape fell into the trap of thinking that superpowers alone are inherently interesting. That isn’t the case, and that’s why both shows were canceled. It’s all too easy to see why the major networks seem to have lost their taste for superhero shows. However, the smaller-scale success of Alphas and Misfits indicates that they’re learning the wrong lesson. The family isn’t necessarily the most important component of the superhero story. Origin stories and mythology aren’t what make superheroes interesting, it’s their interactions with society and each other. The problem isn’t that superhero stories don’t work on television—Misfits and Alphas demonstrate otherwise. The problem is that bad superhero stories don’t work on television.