Other than Christopher Nolan‘s Batman Trilogy and the recent Wonder Woman film, DC has struggled to find their feet on the big screen. Films like Batman V. Superman, and The Justice League have definitely not met studio (or fan) expectations. Each Marvel film seems to have a bigger following than previous films while DC films seem to get more complaints. The discussion on Marvel films is the meaning and characters, while discussion of DC films is about their failures. But one area that DC has not only done well but has full saturation is TV. There are many live-action DC shows on TV now with more on the way.
It all started with Arrow.
Arrow is based on the DC Comics character Green Arrow, a costumed crime-fighter whose weapon of choice is a bow and arrow. The series follows billionaire playboy Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell), who, five years after being stranded on a hostile island, returns home to fight crime and corruption as a secret vigilante.
The series takes a new look at the Green Arrow character, as well as other characters from the DC Comics universe. Although Oliver Queen/Green Arrow had been featured in the television series Smallville from 2006 to 2011, on the CW, the producers decided to start clean and find a new actor to portray the character. Arrow focuses on the humanity of Oliver Queen, and how he was changed by time spent shipwrecked on an island.
The strength of the show lies in the fact that it boasts cinematic action sequences, strong plotting, and intriguing characters. It honors the comics that inspired it but doesn’t try to copy them. That was an important lesson for DC to learn.
The success of Arrow opened the door for The CW to greenlight another series from DC, The Flash.
Based on the DC Comics character Barry Allen / Flash, a costumed superhero crime-fighter with the power to move at superhuman speeds. It is a spin-off from Arrow, existing in the same fictional universe. The series follows Allen, portrayed by Grant Gustin, a crime scene investigator who gains super-human speed, which he uses to fight criminals, including others who have also gained superhuman abilities.
Initially envisioned as a backdoor pilot, the positive reception Gustin received during two appearances as Barry on Arrow led to executives choosing to develop a full pilot to make use of a larger budget and help flesh out Barry’s world in more detail. The show improved dramatically when they started downplaying Barry’s social awkwardness and moved toward a focus on the science.
The lesson learned was that over time characterization can be improved so that a ridiculous set of interactions become more believable and enjoyable.
Premiering at roughly the same time as The Flash, Gotham took one of the best known DC franchises and flipped it on its head.
Gotham is based on characters published by DC Comics and appearing in the Batman franchise, primarily those of James Gordon and Bruce Wayne. The series stars Ben McKenzie as the young Jim Gordon and David Mazouz as the even younger Bruce Wayne.
Originally the series told the story of Gordon’s early days with the Gotham City Police Department, but the series subsequently included the Wayne character and the origin stories of several Batman villains, including Penguin, Riddler, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Scarecrow, Mr. Freeze, Hugo Strange, Ra’s al Ghul, and Solomon Grundy.
If Arrow proved that DC didn’t have to be beholden to the source material, Gotham proved that high production values and great casting could recreate the Batman legend and make it fresh again. Stand out casting of Sean Pertwee (son of the 3rd Doctor on Doctor Who), Jada Pinkett-Smith, Donal Logue, and Robin Lord Taylor (and many others) gave the show a strong start. The recently ended 4th season has been rolling full tilt toward revealing the final genesis of the Batman character and Gotham’s villains that each episode seems too short.
The serial nature of the show has allowed each storyline time to be a much deeper dive into the machinations and mental state of each character.
2015 saw two new series join the stable at DC. Both had female leads.
iZombie is a loose adaptation of the comic book series of the same name published by DC Comics under their Vertigo imprint.
iZombie is the story of a Seattle medical resident Olivia Moore (Rose McIver) is turned into a zombie while attending a boat party. She abandons her career and breaks up with her fiancé, much to the disappointment and puzzlement of her family. She discovers that if she does not periodically satisfy her new appetite for brains, she starts turning into a stereotypical zombie. Instead of feeding by killing innocent people, Liv decides to take a job at the King County morgue and eat the brains of the corpses she autopsies. Her secret is guessed by her boss, Dr. Ravi Chakrabarti (Rahul Kohli).
Liv finds out that whenever she eats a dead person’s brain, she temporarily inherits some of their personality traits and skills, and she experiences flashbacks of that person’s life. Those visions are generally triggered by sights (events or objects) or sounds (repeated sentences). In the case of murder victims, the flashbacks offer clues about the killer. Liv decides to use this new ability to help Police Detective Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin) solve crimes. Though she initially passes herself off as a psychic, Clive eventually learns the truth about her and zombies. Meanwhile, Ravi works to develop a cure for Liv’s affliction, in the hope that one day she will be able to resume her former life.
Building off the success of the unrelated Walking Dead franchise, DC got an unexpected success with this show. The lesson with this show was that lesser known properties could bring new fans to the properties. It also proved that a DC show didn’t have to be as serious as Gotham to find an audience.
If no one expected iZombie to be made (or succeed), the next show that was brought to series was a no brainer in both areas, Supergirl.
Supergirl is based on the DC Comics character and stars Melissa Benoist in the title role. Supergirl is a costumed super heroine who is Superman’s cousin and one of the last surviving Kryptonians. The series is set in the Arrowverse, sharing continuity with the other television series of the universe.
When it began the show followed the familiar “monster of the week” formula. Over time it has grown past that trope and uses its heart, humor and natural charm to present a consistently inspirational show. Does it get corny when Supergirl gives a speech about doing the right thing and never hesitates to put herself in harm’s way to save lives? Sure. However, no one can deny that the show follows in the footsteps of the various incarnations of her cousin on TV and in film. Kara practices what she preaches and tries to make the world a better place.
The show ditches the moody darkness and like Superman, the show is about the heart of its central character. DC should remember that sometime a show can be fun and light. Yet still bring the somber consequences of its darker properties.
Along with the acquisition of Supergirl, The CW added another show to the Arrowverse, Legends of Tomorrow.
DC’s Legends of Tomorrow is based on the characters of DC Comics, airs on The CW and is a spin-off featuring characters introduced in Arrow and The Flash, and new characters, set in the same fictional universe.
Time Master Rip Hunter (Arthur Darvill) goes rogue after Vandal Savage (Casper Crump) murders Hunter’s family. Intending to stop Savage, Hunter recruits a team consisting of Ray Palmer / Atom (Brandon Routh), Sara Lance / White Canary (Caity Lotz), Martin Stein (Victor Garber) and Jefferson “Jax” Jackson (Franz Drameh), who combine to form the hero Firestorm, Kendra Saunders / Hawkgirl (Ciara Renée), Carter Hall / Hawkman (Falk Hentschel), Leonard Snart / Captain Cold (Wentworth Miller), and Mick Rory / Heat Wave (Dominic Purcell).
The strength of this series was the fact that it was an ensemble piece from the beginning. Even though many of the characters had appeared in the Arrow-verse on Flash and Arrow, the show spent a lot of its early episodes providing the exposition about who each “Legend” was and why they were picked by Hunter. Once everything was established, the show began to find its feet (and its audience) as it brought in groups like the Legion of Doom and other adversaries that allowed for the expansion beyond that original storyline. The focus here was not placed on one character like The Flash or Supergirl but on a group that each had their own history and reasons for what they do on the show.
Hopefully, DC will learn the lesson from Marvel for any future film team ups. But for TV they got it right, eventually.
Another important lesson DC hopefully learned, not all shows need superheroes. Sometimes it can just be a Preacher with the Word of God at his disposal.
Preacher is an adaptation of the comic book series Preacher published by DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint (like iZombie).
Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), a hard-drinking, chain-smoking preacher who, enduring a crisis of faith, becomes infused with an extraordinary power. He embarks on a quest to better understand his new gift, alongside his trigger-happy ex-girlfriend, Tulip (Ruth Negga), and vampire friend, Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun).
This show is a celebration of the bizarre. The first scene is an African preacher proclaiming he is a new prophet for the people right before a comet crashes into him and splatters his congregation with his remains. The show does many things really well. The over the top violence, pop culture references, and the wonderful cinematography make the show exciting most of the time. The creators of the show wanted to keep the show as close to the source materials tone as possible. They succeeded.
The lesson here is that gruesome humor that sometimes doesn’t make sense still makes for good TV.
The lesson of the next show to join the pantheon, Black Lightning, is that a superhero show can have real-world plots and not be tied to other properties to find success.
Black Lightning is based on the DC Comics character of the same name. It stars Cress Williams as the titular character alongside China Anne McClain, Nafessa Williams, Christine Adams, Marvin Jones III, Damon Gupton, and James Remar.
High school principal Jefferson Pierce (Williams), who retired from his superhero persona Black Lightning nine years ago after seeing the effects it had on his family, is forced to become a vigilante again when the rise of the local gang called the 100 leads to increased crime and corruption in his community of Freeland.
One of DC’s less known superheroes, Black Lightning, brought a new type of story to the genre. The hero is not only African American, he is middle aged. He lives in a real world with real problems. William’s performance in the title role is charming. There is also the fact that he retired and has to come back. He doesn’t need to learn what his powers are, he just needs to use them.
If they can keep the show moving forward it should be a complex and mature action-drama that opens up the demographics for DC shows.
So far this is the only show on The CW that is not part of the Arrowverse.
DC, hopefully, will keep it separate.
The diversity of style and context that DC has created so far on TV helps it stand apart from shows like Agents of Shield that tries to match (and often crosses over with) the rest of the MCU. The strength of casting and plotting across all these shows has helped to build a brand that should keep DC in the TV business for many years to come. If they play their cards right there is only one place they can go…up, up, and away!!!