Gotham and the comic book shows taking over TV

Just what's behind the rise in superhero television, asks Huw Fullerton

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You may have noticed that there are a few of those superhero types around these days. For the last few years barely a summer has gone by without the looming presence of some musclebound gallant saving the world and trading barbs with his arch nemesis. Gone are the days when comic book characters were the preserve of the geeks and downtrodden – and now they’re coming to TV.

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From Gotham (on Channel 5 tonight) to The Flash to Agents of SHIELD (returning to Channel 4 on Friday), comics have caught up with the small screen in a big way. Marvel’s blind superhero character Daredevil, once stuck in an unsuccessful film starring Ben Affleck in 2003, now has a second chance as an original series for current barometer of good taste Netflix. Overall there are more comic book characters coming to TV than ever before, three more on Netflix alone but more coming to various US networks and on-demand services as well.

So what’s caused the change? Well, there’s no doubt that technology has gotten better at rendering the fantastical and the fun. Just a few years ago superhero-inspired series Heroes (which was broadcast on BBC Two in the UK) often struggled with the effects needed to realize its broad ideas, but now it’s a lot easier to believe a man can fly (notably, a reboot called Heroes: Reborn is on the cards four years after the series was cancelled).

“The special effects are at a place now that they’re meeting people’s expectations and imaginations,” says Grant Gustin, who plays super-fast hero Flash on the American TV series of the same name (coming to Sky1 in the UK later this month). “It’s not a letdown for anybody, it’s what they want to see and more. And even on TV now, we’re able to do this.”

Robin Lord Taylor, who plays future villain The Penguin/Oswald Cobblepot on Gotham (showing Mondays on Channel 5), agrees.

“The scope of things which we’re able to achieve on television have grown exponentially since the Adam West Batman [in the 1960s]. We’re able to create a world that looks real, that almost feels like you could touch it, or exist in it physically.”

Outside of the visual trickery, it’s also true that major comic book houses Marvel and DC are taking good care of their brand – Agents of SHIELD benefits from occasional crossovers with the big Marvel films, and Gotham’s association to probably the most well-known superhero around can’t but help its chances.

“The machine of marketing behind us has been massive, the amount of support it’s been giving,” says Donal Logue, who plays sleazy cop Harvey Bullock in Gotham. “That’s a little bit of pressure, but for me I’ve never been the recipient of it so it was amazing.”

In a recent interview, Marvel Television President Jeph Loeb talked about using the popularity of their films to boost the prospects of their TV properties. “I think the easiest way [to think about it is] to embrace the idea that it’s all connected,” he told Forbes, “and that the Marvel Universe is and incredibly wonderful, expansive place that can go cosmic with Guardians of the Galaxy, and be very down to earth with Agents of SHIELD.”

He added: “When I grew up reading comics, the part… that was so exciting was that you could have a battle going on in Iron Man and then, suddenly, Thor would fly overhead and you realized, ‘Oh, it’s all one place.’”

Perhaps most crucially, people are enjoying the various series – even the notoriously hard-to-please comic book fans. “The popular and critical reception seemed great [for the first episode of Gotham]” says Logue.

“There was definitely some trepidation because obviously we’re the beneficiaries of 75 years of collective unconscious and conscious Gotham/Batman love. So we felt under pressure, in a way.”

He added: “The comic world – that’s a certain kind of audience, and clearly there can be a lot of contempt prior to investigation.”

Arguably, part of this success with die-hards has come from catering to them as well as average viewers, flying actors to comic conventions around the globe to interact with fans.

“I’d never been to comic-con before,” says Logue, “but it’s kind of the Woodstock of this world, of people kind of flying their freak flag and going for it, and being thrust into the middle of that was amazing.”

All very convincing; still, despite the importance of these factors it’s hard to say why producers have chosen to adapt these stories and characters in particular. Visual effects could just as well augment any science-fiction or fantasy series, and decent marketing is hardly new. 

You could argue that the TV series are able to piggyback on established comic book properties in film like Batman or the Marvel films – but then that doesn’t explain series like Powers (coming to VOD service Playstation Network in December as its first original series) or Constantine (coming to American network NBC on 24 October) which are based on relatively unknown comics and characters without the brand recognition of big heroes like Batman. And even those series that do trade on big names can’t coast – Gotham doesn’t have Batman in it, and Agents of SHIELD has yet to see Captain America or Hulk put in an appearance.

But maybe the reason for all these shows being made is simpler than we realize. Maybe comics are coming to TV because they’re just…good. There’s a reason why some people love Ant-man as much as others love Arsenal – comic book stories and characters give something to their readers that traditional media can’t. And if the raft of upcoming TV shows are capturing just a small piece of that magic, they can’t go wrong.

“It’s an endless trove of material that people are just very fascinated by,” agrees Gotham’s Robin Lord Taylor.

“The escape is welcome. It’s almost cleansing to be able to watch a show that is not reality, but is just one step removed, so you still relate, but there’s hope and there’s something to aspire to there. Which is part of why I think people are drawn to these stories. It’s popular culture mythology.”

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Gotham is on Channel 5 at 9.00pm on Mondays