Comic Books in Television

Comic books are ideal source material for adaptation to TV. Having been around for a very long time, they are a deep treasure trove of stories, which means that adapters have a lot of choice in what they do. At the time of writing this article, the comic book TV shows that have aired at least a season are Arrow, The Flash, Gotham, Daredevil, Constantine, iZombie and Agents of Shield. Of these, I’ve watched only watched the first 4, so I’ll only talk about them.

Warning: Possible spoilers ahead, though I’ve gone out of my way to avoid them

While Arrow has aired for three seasons, the other three have aired for one season each.

Arrow

Arrow is the show that kick-started the comic-book-on-TV craze. Three seasons have been out, of varying quality. The first season was very good for relatively unexplored territory, though it was arguably somewhat repetitive (it was the same formula of finding a name on the list, and threatening them into paying up or executing them), setting the tone of a dark vigilante show. Of all the characters introduced during this time, the Dark Archer and Deadshot are by far the ones who stand out (and *possible spoilers* Slade Wilson). Many characters come and go, often lasting but an episode. The Dark Archer is particularly memorable as he brings to the table one of the great things about comic books: amazing villains. It has been said that a superhero is only as great as his villains, and indeed, he is probably a big contributor to why people like the show.

The second season lightened up ever so slightly, in that the titular vigilante swears off killing after the events of season one. There are still some mostly “filler” episodes(in the sense that one-off characters appear), though the story is a lot tighter than season one, with a more fleshed out villain. This season also sees the appearance of Barry Allen, a name that is sure to light a bulb in anyone who has knowledge of comic books. The mid-season finale finally reveals the big villain of the season: Deathstroke. Deathstroke is another example of a good villain. He’s very strong, yes (the flashbacks to the island amply show this), but like the Dark Archer before him, he’s also not just brute muscle (despite some of his more…questionable actions), systematically attempting to destroy Oliver Queen’s life. The Roy Harper Mirakuru arc is a somewhat interesting subplot, though it started to become quite boring due to its repetitiveness of Roy simply “losing control”.

The season is quite infamous for Laurel Lance’s character arc, which can be summarised mostly by crying and complaining. However, it also introduced the Suicide Squad (yes, the thing they’re making a movie about), and the final battle was excellent, playing out both in the present and the flashbacks.

The third season is where most people agree the show has gone a bit awry. While the comic book Green Arrow is certainly not a brooding creature, the show seemed to go out of its way to promote its pairing for the lead character. The leading lady becomes a bit of a Mary Sue, with the entire universe seemingly bending over backwards to portray her positively (this was influenced by the feedback the show’s writer Marc Guggenheim got from a…rather rabid minority of the fan-base). The early part of the season plays out as a whodunit crossed with season one, with Oliver continuing his crime fighting duties while also trying to solve the murder in the first episode of the season. However, once the villains: The League of Assassins, led by Ra’s al Ghul appear, the season shifts to revolve around the conflict between the Arrow and the League. The superhero the Atom appears during this season, though he feels more like an Iron Man rip-off than anything over here (yes I know about Legends of Tomorrow, that doesn’t retroactively wipe him clean). The Suicide Squad appears once more, though thanks to DC’s meddling, they won’t be showing up again for a while. Not that in their state after the episode, a lot of people would particularly want it anyway. The last few episodes revolve around the season’s overarching conflict, though I found it quite difficult to take seriously at times, especially when Ra’s al Ghul on one occasion actually gives relationship advice. The season finale ending left a very bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths (mine included), and it remains to be seen if season four will recover from the train wreck that season three turned into.

The Flash

The Flash is set in the same universe as Arrow, and in my opinion(and the opinion of a lot of comic book TV watchers) far outclassed it. It ran in parallel with season three of Arrow, and as Arrow tumbled downwards, it seemed like the Flash could do no wrong.

Fan boying aside, the Flash does start a little slowly, with the same “bad guy of the week” formula, though the bigger overarching storyline is put in place right from the get-go. While many villains come and go, the one who stands out(leaving the big villain aside) is Captain Cold. The big villain of the show is Flash’s most iconic villain from the comics, the Reverse Flash (no he doesn’t move very slowly). In fact, I’d argue that the Reverse Flash is probably the best villain among all the four shows I’m talking about here, simply because of his power and his incredible intelligence. The Flash’s iconic rogues gallery (Captain Cold, Heat Wave, Trickster, Weather Wizard) all appear through the season, though the bombshells that get dropped around two-thirds of the way through the season (especially if you’re like me, and knew nothing of the Flash mythos before watching) are incredible and will tend to push them out of your mind. The last few episodes are where The Flash really shows its greatness, with a tight plot revolving around Flash’s attempts to get the better of his arch-rival, culminating in an epic battle at the end of…the season penultimate episode.

The final episode is another story altogether. I won’t spoil what happens here, but be assured that it is a far better conclusion to the first season than Arrow’s finale was to its third season.

Gotham

The previous two shows exist together, playing off of each other with quite a few crossovers and related plots. Gotham, while still a “DCTV” show, is on another network and as such inhabits its own universe. It is ostensibly the story of Jim Gordon’s rise in Gotham, though a more accurate description would be “Batman without Batman”.

The show from the get-go runs multiple stories in parallel – the tales of Jim Gordon, Oswald Cobblepot, Fish Mooney and Bruce Wayne. While Arrow’s flashbacks were at the very least tolerable even at their worst, the constant jumping between story lines can get particularly grating at times. Fish Mooney in particular is quite unpopular among the fan base for her over-the-top drama.

The central thread of the show is the work of Jim Gordon in the police, investigating cases about various “villains of the week”. This is often cited as Gotham’s weak point – the show isn’t very good at being a detective procedural. Perhaps if it allotted all of its time to this thread it could do it better, but as such, it seems like a formality every episode due to how relatively quickly cases get solved. However, the show does a great job “foreshadowing” prominent Batman villains such as Scarecrow, the Riddler, and *the* Joker, though it also does a questionable job at times, such as with Poison Ivy.

The low point of the series is the Ogre arc, which only existed because of the season getting extended partway through. It was stretched out much longer than it needed to be. Ok, it’s either that, or Fish Mooney’s arc. I actually liked Fish a little at the beginning of the season, as a decent female villainous character, though she overstayed her welcome pretty quickly. Bruce Wayne’s arc of coming to terms with his parent’s deaths (SPOILERS – even though that is always Batman’s origin story) followed by his own idealism is interesting to watch, particularly in how it interacts with future Catwoman Selina Kyle(which the show can be quite heavy-handed about at times, taking every single opportunity to make feline references around her).

Arguably the best part of the series is the arc of Oswald Cobblepot, aka the Penguin. His ruthless rise through the ranks of the mafia is the highest point of the show, and he is arguably the most intelligent character in the entire show(though he does overestimate himself a lot), which makes him such a joy to watch. His rise from shoe-cleaner to where he is at the season finale is what saves the show in my opinion, from being yet another terrible piece of TV programming.

Daredevil

In many ways, Daredevil is the outlier in this group. He’s Marvel, not DC, and the show’s a Netflix production rather than a TV show as such. However, Daredevil blows both Arrow and Gotham out of the water, with The Flash being its only real rival (mostly because of the richness of the story). Set in the same universe as all of Marvel’s other recent (read: Iron Man and later) productions, the show teases several elements of the Marvel universe, but still stands alone as a great watch. I thought Arrow’s first season, with its abundance of action scenes, was a good example of what a vigilante show ought to be about. Then Daredevil taught me better.

The one season of the show tells the tale of blind lawyer Matt Murdock, and his fight against the criminal underworld of Hell’s Kitchen(which is actually a real locality in New York!). The most famous Daredevil villain, the Kingpin, is his biggest enemy, and the whole show is either by proxy or directly, about their fight, a drastic departure from the other TV shows and their filler. Daredevil is happy to be a Netflix show(which are designed for binge watching), and tells one focused story rather than a fragmented thread across several episodes. Well, it covers two threads – that of the Daredevil, and of the Kingpin, but it is still about their war, only diverting to tell their back stories. At thirteen episodes in length, it doesn’t have much time to dawdle.

Daredevil goes out of its way to be realistic, much like how Marvel is usually reputed to be more realistic than DC (*cough cough* I’m looking at you, man scared of green rock). Fights don’t end with Matt coming out like he was in a beauty salon – he ends up just as bloodied and injured as the men who puts down. Interestingly, despite all this, unlike in Arrow, Daredevil is very strict from the very beginning on his no-killing policy. It can be a bit jarring when it is mentioned, primarily because to someone who comes to the show after watching Arrow, it can seem like a bunch of people are being killed rather than seriously injured.

The story begins with multiple players on the villain’s side, and Daredevil does conflict which them, but by the end, it’s a head-on match between our big good and big bad(see what I did there?). Admittedly, in the latter half of the season, there are points where I found the story meandering a little, but it was definitely not as bad as the other TV shows I mentioned. It keeps your attention throughout.

And that’s a wrap!

Narayanan Venkat

Editor’s Note: Yes. This is what happens when you decide to conclude an article with “That’s a wrap!”. You get your featured image as a wrap. Know me. Fear me.

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