Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Elizabeth Olsen in WandaVision

From Heroes to WandaVision: How superheroes learned to meet TV halfway

Elizabeth Olsen in WandaVision
Screenshot: YouTube

From the beginning of the modern era of cinematic superheroes—the launch of the X-Men film franchise—the struggle for viable live-action TV incarnations of these same heroes was an uphill battle. Following the blockbuster success of Iron Man and the subsequent development of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there was a natural expectation that audiences’ appetite for larger-than-life stories of mutant powers and struggles between good and evil would translate smoothly to the small screen. Instead both network and cable television struggled for years with how to integrate superhero storytelling into the medium. With Heroes’ creative collapse after a single season, TV continually tried and failed to replicate the model of cinematic superhero narratives.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the multiverse: Marvel’s primary rival, DC, cracked the code for how to transfer characters with flashy powers into a medium not known for its visual fireworks. Arrow, followed by The Flash and more, constructed a structure and house style that became a blueprint of sorts, leading to a resurgence in attempts to craft TV superhero shows, even as Marvel kept swinging for the fences and missing. (Ironically, only Marvel’s former flagship series-turned-ignored-afterthought, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., was able to right its course, airing for seven seasons.) DC’s trick? Rejecting the multimedia synergy of its rival, and forcing superheroes into preexisting molds of televised storytelling, rather than the other way around. Freed from the expectation of delivering the same pyrotechnics as its big-screen brethren, superheroes finally flourished on television. And now, as demonstrated by WandaVision, those making superhero TV have realized Marshall McLuhan was at least partly right: The medium is—to varying degrees—the message, and the most recent crop of shows are tailoring their output accordingly.

The pre-MCU success of NBC’s hit Heroes had initially suggested a template for TV superhero narratives. In fall 2006, the show premiered to massive numbers and critical acclaim, in large part because it seemed to successfully follow the beats of a traditional comic book style of superhero storytelling: A disparate group of troubled individuals all discover they have unusual powers and must band together to save the world. Unfortunately, while other networks may have enviously wanted their own hit superhero series, that didn’t last long, as it quickly became clear that even Heroes couldn’t successfully replicate Heroes’ first-season popularity. By having the second season simply redo the same format and arc as the first, only slower and less compelling, the show quickly shed audience goodwill, declining steadily in ratings and reviews over the course of three subsequent (and increasingly messy) seasons.

But amid that spiral, the MCU was born. Iron Man was a genuine cultural phenomenon, a wildly entertaining film that also set up Marvel’s ambitious plans for an interconnected universe on the big screen, where a variety of heroes and movies would share space in the same fictional world, thereby allowing for precisely the kinds of fun crossover narratives and event titles that populate the company’s comic book realm. Plans for other MCU Phase 1 films were already underway when Iron Man became a colossal hit, but it wasn’t long before the company also turned its eye toward television, with an announcement in 2010 that Marvel would begin developing shows for its fellow Disney-owned network, ABC. The possibility of a weekly dose of MCU excitement sounded irresistible.

But at almost exactly the same time, other networks were already attempting to capitalize on the latest cultural obsession with superheroes. Whereas previous film hits like the X-Men franchise had largely remained in the world of kid-friendly animation when it came to television (and indeed, an X-Men cartoon has been on the air in some form since 1992), the new appetite for equally outsized mythos among adults—in tandem with the equally important evolution of special effects, such that making someone fly onscreen would no longer break the bank—meant that live-action superheroics could now be practically translated to the smaller medium.

True, they had never really gone away, not since George Reeves first slipped on Superman’s signature tights back in 1952, as a cursory glance at the list of superhero-related shows throughout the previous few decades demonstrates. But these experiments were generally short-lived (anyone remember the 1987 ABC show Once A Hero, which aired all of three episodes about a comic book artist whose creation comes to life?), or banished to the world of cheaply produced basic-cable syndication, where the lack of worthy effects was expected—almost as expected as the niche audience such material attracted. Many a Marvel or DC comic book reader remembers the trade-off in quality exchanged for the base pleasures of seeing superheroes on TV; shows like Highlander: The Series were generally the closest we would get to the stories that thrilled us on the pages of our comics. And when a superhero show did manage to stick around for awhile, like Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman, the action and spectacle was decidedly second-rate, and often marginalized to better emphasize the traditional romantic drama found in soap operas. (Even arguably the biggest exception proving the rule, Smallville, wasn’t on a major network.)

But first with Heroes, and then in the wake of the MCU’s success, special effects had evolved to the point where it was actually possible to craft a weekly superhero series that could deliver dazzling visuals on a regular basis—or at least, dazzling-enough visuals on a semi-regular basis. A new era of TV superheroes began. Enter No Ordinary Family and The Cape, two shows that attempted to deliver on the promise of small-screen heroics that could compete with their cinematic brethren. Or rather, that was the plan: Once more, both fizzled and died after one season. But this time around, the failure was in execution, not in format. As we noted at the time, the two series approached the genre from opposite directions. ABC’s No Ordinary Family was an attempt to take the traditional hour-long network family dramedy and graft a superhero frame atop that sunny foundation. The Powells were a sitcom-ready family who suddenly developed superpowers after their plane crashed in the Amazon, and the stories that followed centered around the various family members figuring out how and when to use their enhanced abilities in the everyday world of their fictional California city. (Yes, it was partly inspired by The Incredibles.) The Cape, in contrast, went the Dark Knight route, pitting a gloomy solitary hero in grimdark costuming against a larger-than-life villain.

Neither one worked. No Ordinary Family kept spinning its wheels, failing to make its family dynamics compelling outside of the issue of their abilities, while telling the same variation on a tired “Should I use my powers this time?” framing device nearly every installment. (Our own Rowan Kaiser put it well: “The answer to the question was always going to be ‘yes,’ so why waste viewers’ time?”) And The Cape, to put it tactfully, tended to fall into the realm of the cartoonishly portentous, as likely to elicit unintentional chuckles as anything else. And most important, both series failed to develop their world and mythos beyond the original pitch and origin story; powers aren’t interesting in and of themselves, and that’s what the early attempts at post-MCU superheroics on network TV failed to understand.

Not that Marvel itself was any more successful, at least in the early going. The newly ascendant box office champ stumbled badly in its first attempt at a TV show, largely thanks to the very “interconnected universe” that supposedly made it a draw in the first place. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. resurrected beloved MCU character Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and gave him a new team of agents to help fight enhanced villainy, but made the almost fatal mistake of forcing nearly the entire first season of the show to tread water, narratively speaking. There’s a lot of reasons the show went from pop culture behemoth to an also-ran barely scraping by, but forcing the creative team to twiddle their thumbs until the show could catch up to the big reveal in Captain America: The Winter Soldier—that Hydra had infiltrated and brought down the institution—was a primary culprit. When the far superior Agent Carter premiered more than two years later, the audience had already moved on.

S.H.I.E.L.D. eventually righted itself, but by then all the small-screen MCU attention had shifted to Netflix, where a highly publicized (and parental ratings exempt) deal found Marvel handing over the rights to four of its New York-set heroes—Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist—to the streaming giant. And while each of those series had their highs and lows (some very low lows, in the case of season one of Iron Fist), they all, to varying degrees, did their best to ignore the structure and nature of TV storytelling, instead opting to try and copy the DNA of the big-screen counterparts that had birthed them. In practice, this meant delivering seasons of TV that were more like 13-hour movies than serialized narratives optimized to suit the medium. That meant the execution tended to be wobbly when it came to sustaining quality across all the episodes—almost as though the refusal to bend to the dictates of the medium hampered superheroes more effectively than the villains with which they exchanged so many enhanced punches.

But while Marvel kept struggling to consistently deliver with its high-profile offerings, the company’s competition was steadily building a small-screen empire. DC launched its live-action slate of TV series with Arrow, a variation on the Batman concept of a reclusive billionaire who secretly fights crime, in this case one Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) who moonlights as the bow-and-arrow-wielding vigilante Green Arrow. Right from the start, the series had a strong sense of structure and consistency that far outstripped Marvel’s early fumbling efforts. It may not have achieved greatness all that often, but it was reliable—and just as important, it understood the restraints of the televised format.

Rather than trying to shoehorn the square peg of cinematic superhero storytelling into the round hole of the TV broadcast structure, Arrow flipped the script, adjusting its super-powered narratives to fit the conventions of television. In this, it followed the lead of so many genre shows that had come before it, from Buffy The Vampire Slayer to Smallville to Charmed, but now fitted to meet the needs of modern superhero tropes. By finally getting the superhero cart out from in front of the televised horse, DC found the recipe for long-term success on the small screen. It’s no coincidence that showrunner and eventual overseer of DC’s entire Arrowverse on The CW, Greg Berlanti, had learned some hard lessons with his first botched attempt at TV superheroes. That show? No Ordinary Family.

By realizing that the medium is, at least in part, the message, DC has managed to create its own TV equivalent of the MCU’s cinematic “house style,” in which nothing strays too far from a proven formula, but still leaves plenty of room to play around creatively within the possibilities of that format. It’s no coincidence this is happening on The CW, rather than one of the Big Three; the youth-skewing demographic—and attendant scaled-down expectations for what constitutes a “hit”—means there’s less executive meddling, and more chance for these series to develop organically without the need to deliver blockbuster ratings. (The fact that Supergirl quickly moved from CBS to The CW at the end of its first season is testament to this.) And yet deliver, they have: The Flash brought in the second-highest-rated premiere in the history of The CW, and even DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow, which struggled creatively in the early going, has become not only a consistent player in the CW-verse (née the Arrowverse) lineup, but also occasionally one of the best shows on TV.

That lesson hasn’t been lost on DC’s competitors. The final season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. resembled nothing so much as a free-spirited twist on the Legends Of Tomorrow formula, hopping through time while maintaining a distinct story-of-the-week flavor to the proceedings. And before the dissolution of the Marvel TV wing of the company (a separate section of the company from the film department, now combined under the aegis of MCU creative head Kevin Feige), shows like Cloak & Dagger were demonstrating a newfound embrace of the TV format, abandoning misguided efforts to replicate the big-screen thrills by focusing on the more complicated and serialized potential offered by its chosen medium. In other words, the new age of TV superheroes finally evolved into its best self by accepting the strictures of TV, rather than trying to transfer its cinematic inspirations wholesale.

This tendency may have reached its zenith with WandaVision, a series that not only embraces the episodic nature of its medium, but bakes it into the very DNA of its story. Nearly every week, the first new show of the united MCU TV/film arrangement takes on a different style of sitcom from history, starting with the black-and-white Dick Van Dyke emulations of the premiere on through the Modern Family send-up presented in its seventh episode. Wanda Maximoff is reimagining an idyllic life for herself, as seen through the rubric of the TV shows she presumably grew up watching. It’s not entirely clear yet how much of this is her doing and how much is a potentially sinister force pulling the strings, but either way, it’s given the TV show an opportunity to play with the structures (and strictures) of its existence. It’s a very meta creative choice—one would be hard-pressed to come up with a narrative that more fully bathes in the aesthetics and tropes of its forebears—but it’s the logical outcome of a new age of superheroes on TV, one where the smaller screen, with all its history and possibility, is part of the draw.