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DC’s Superman

Greg Berlanti’s superhero TV shows are exactly what the genre needs

Kristian Hammerstad
Kristian Hammerstad

We talk about TV all the time, but we hardly talk about all the TV. This week, we’re looking at the shows, people, and networks that we know people love — that we love — but typically fall outside of the critical hivemind. This is TV Airing in Plain Sight.

“There are certain things in your life you remember very vividly,” explains producer Andrew Kreisberg. A cocreator and executive producer on Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow, Kreisberg is one of the chief architects and primary lieutenants of the so-called Arrowverse, the four-show CW block of comics-adjacent series presided over by TV veteran Greg Berlanti. “I remember Greg and I were working on Arrow Episode 11 or 12 in that first year, and Greg said, ‘We should do a spinoff.’ … I literally said out loud, ‘You want to do another show? We can’t even do this show!’”

That spinoff became The Flash, now heading into its third season.

It’s an endearingly cheesy origin story worthy of, well, a comic book. But it speaks to a key distinction, in scale as well as tone, between DC Comics’ Arrowverse and its big-screen counterparts.

DC’s movies are massively popular and critically beleaguered, permanently stranded in the shadow of Christopher Nolan and chained to Zack Snyder’s charcoal-gray boom-crash. The television shows are something very different. Comparatively sunny and modestly popular, they’ve quietly gelled into a mini-empire in less than five years.

The parallel universe is a staple of comic book lore, a ward against continuity errors and an easy way out of the confines of precedent. It’s fitting, then, that as comics have taken over popular culture, one of the genre’s two major players has split into two fiefdoms on almost perfectly opposite trajectories. Under Berlanti’s guidance, the DC shows offer an alternative roadmap for would-be franchise builders: less epic, more organic. If DC films are tentpoles, DC TV is a really big tent.

As of the upcoming TV season, Berlanti will have six shows on the air, a number that puts him in a rarefied class of exactly two. His only true contemporary is Shonda Rhimes; even Dick Wolf’s Chicago triptych (with a fourth coming midseason) is a distant third. And yet Berlanti is less of a name brand than Rhimes — possibly because his work is less revolutionary in the context of an industry that hadn’t seen a black female lead in primetime since the 1970s, possibly because he’s working with characters and property he’s inherited from other creators, and possibly because he hasn’t yet published his own Year of Yes.

Even if you don’t know Berlanti by name, though, you know his work. Blindspot, his only show off the CW — Supergirl began on CBS, but joins its peers on the sibling network this fall — was NBC’s lone new hit last fall. Riverdale, his only CW show outside the world of DC, will unveil its Twin Peaks–ian take on the Archie comics in October. (I know, but he’s earned the benefit of the doubt.) What remains is the Arrowverse, that quartet of interconnected series named for the seed from which it grew: Arrow, the 2012 series that follows a billionaire playboy’s trauma-motivated turn to vigilantism. (No, not that one — it’s about the comparatively lesser-known DC hero Green Arrow.) Notched in between the complete Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the beginnings of DC’s, Arrow was perfectly positioned to ride the rising tide of comics fever.

As Kreisberg notes, there were no plans to spin Arrow off at all. Instead, its follow-up came about the old-fashioned way: a combination of solid ratings — more than 3.5 million viewers per episode averaged across its debut season — and enthusiasm from Berlanti and his fellow producers, all lifelong comic book fans and occasionally even authors. “Whenever there’s success in something like this, people want more of it,” Kreisberg says. “The fans want more of it, the studio wants more of it, the network wants more of it.”

Compare that with DC and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which often feel like they’re working backward from a preordained Event: Something will hit theaters on the third weekend in July of 2021; we’ll just figure out what it is later. It’s not in the nature of network TV to get too far ahead of itself — pickups and renewals are handed down year by year based on relatively strict criteria. Nielsen numbers may no longer be what they once were, but nobody’s committing to a spinoff if nobody’s watching the flagship. (And as Pretty Little Liars learned the hard way, not even a seven-season juggernaut can protect its offspring from cancellation.) On TV, there are no five-year plans — just a series of independent, and independently successful, experiments.

All four Arrowverse shows take place within the same narrative universe, but their creators are careful to maintain their separate identities as self-contained stories with varying appeals. Arrow is a darker show, and the one most directly influenced by Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy; Kreisberg describes The Flash as “funnier, lighter, bluer-sky,” but with an emotional backbone provided by the relationship between hero Barry Allen and his father. Legends of Tomorrow is bigger and more fantastical, featuring a whole team of heroes hop-scotching through time; Supergirl is a female-led coming-of-age story that arrived years before the Wonder Woman movie finally made its way out of development hell and down the pipeline. “Everything we’re doing is in reaction to what we’ve already done, so that we’re not replicating ourselves,” Kreisberg says.

The series build up to one major crossover per year with dozens of smaller ones in between, like supporting characters popping into a non-native habitat for a week or two at a time. In between, though, they’re kept carefully distinct, run by separate creative teams and even cultivating separate audiences. “When we looked at the ratings for the first crossover we did two years ago,” says Marc Guggenheim, another Berlanti deputy who works largely on Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow, “we discovered that the overlap between the Arrow and Flash audiences is not as great as you might imagine. People who watch Arrow watch Arrow, and people who watch Flash watch Flash.” The Arrowverse shows are designed to be enjoyed separately, a welcome reprieve from the endless torrent of setups that turned the latest Captain America into Avengers 3. And they are, creating a unified world with a diverse audience.

It’s often said that the rise of the cinematic universe, particularly the superhero kind, has made movies more like TV. Continuous stories are broken up into increments that assume you’ve seen what comes before and will see what comes after. But the Arrowverse raises the possibility that TV still does TV best. The uniformity that turns into monotony (stylistic, narrative, even musical) on the big screen is basic consistency on the small one, and consistency is one of television’s chief virtues. The Arrowverse is good, old-fashioned, unabashedly earnest network fare, delivering weekly, almost procedural doses of straightforward heroism. The shows have season-long arcs, but it’s no coincidence the Flash’s day job is as a crime scene investigator.

Here, it’s worth drawing a contrast with the small-screen efforts of comics’ other major player. Except for ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Marvel has opted entirely for a prestige-ier approach, with a quartet of noirish Netflix series (Daredevil and Jessica Jones down, Luke Cage and Iron Fist soon to come) and surreal-looking Noah Hawley FX series Legion coming next year. Ironically, the bright-and-cheery vs. doom-and-gloom divide between Marvel and DC’s movies is reversed on their television shows; so are their perks and limitations. At their best, Marvel shows are sobering, adult treatments of figures who sometimes beg for nuance; at their worst, they’re just as much a slog as any three-hour blockbuster. DC shows are youthful, minimally taxing, and built to last.

The morally ambiguous, ultraviolent approach certainly has its merits, shading heroes with a realism that renders them less abstract and more human. But it’s also overextended. The lighter, more idealistic approach feels truer to the escapism that attracts people to comics (as opposed to, say, The Sopranos) in the first place, a fact Berlanti has explicitly referenced in interviews. “Hope and optimism have always been a part of who these characters are,” he told New York Magazine last month. “They’re beacons of hope in scary times, and that’s perhaps why they’re resonating again.” Berlanti is staying faithful to what made these figures icons in the first place — and his zippy tone on television (along with Marvel’s on the big screen) proves that audiences will go for breezy, lighthearted superhero fare. In the Arrowverse, the world isn’t ending. That’s what makes it so much fun.

Television is also more like comics, period. “Television shares more DNA with comic books than features [film] does,” Guggenheim explains. “Comic books [have] always existed in this longform, serialized storytelling, much the same way television does,” releasing issues month by month just as television broadcasts episodes week by week. That quantity and regularity allows for experimentation, character development, and room to breathe. Every movie has to be an event. Every episode, or issue, can be its own thing, even while it comfortably resides within a larger whole; The Flash can bring in Kevin Smith to guest direct before going back to business as usual just as comics can with guest artists.

Shared universes, too, aren’t new to television. Even if Law & Order predates that particular bit of jargon, it’s a perfect description of the “these are their stories” ecosystem, and the crossover episode is a decades-old institution. “Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy were all in the same universe,” Guggenheim argues. “Even X-Files and Picket Fences had a quasi-crossover back in the day, and were established to have taken place in the same universe. That’s something that television just does naturally that comic books also happens to do.”

Film obviously has its own virtues in telling superhero stories, chief among them potential profit and the investment in spectacle and star power that potential justifies. But even though superhero television has its own hallowed history, it’s less celebrated, even in the context of the Great IP Boom of the 2010s. Berlanti’s shows may regularly pull in 3 million to 4 million viewers a week, beyond-respectable numbers for genre series on a non-Big Four network, but they’ll never match the cultural prominence of even an embattled property like Suicide Squad. Which is by design! Less money on the line means less wall-to-wall Technicolor marketing — and a lower bar for success. The Arrowverse clears it easily, if less publicly. But unsung dependability is where the bulk of successful television resides.

What’s true of the cultural conversation is especially true of the critical one: CW’s earned amazing publicity for oddball Golden Globe winners Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, even as the Arrowverse keeps the lights on in breezily entertaining fashion. Its fans don’t necessarily come to the shows through the comic books; Kreisberg told me many of the test audiences for Arrow’s pilot didn’t even recognize the character. Fans are there for the fun and heartfelt emotion of television, not a beat-for-beat homage to another medium, or an ultragritty reboot. And yet they stick around for the same reasons that comics fans do, forming communities of similar enthusiasm and, relative to the movies, lowered visibility. The Arrowverse exists under the radar, and that allows it to have some fun with superheroes. Remember that?

It’s part of the shows’ genius, and therefore their fate. The serial suits the superhero because it’s lower-stakes, and therefore lower-key. In the process, it’s restored something that’s often lost when beloved figures become flagship cultural properties — something that’s the unique byproduct of spending hours and hours with characters in our own private living spaces: intimacy.