Super Hero Battle for TV

Every summer tells the same story: superheroes reign supreme at the global box office, with studios churning out sequel after reboot after prequel to capitalize on pop culture’s hottest trend. This year’s undisputed champion is Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which has raked in over $300 million domestically to date.

But while Marvel continues to dominate the big screen, rival publisher DC Comics is poised for a small screen coup. This fall, DC and Warner Bros. Television have three hotly anticipated comicbook properties slated to hit the air: the CW’s “Arrow” spinoff “The Flash”; NBC’s darker “Constantine” and Fox’s Batman prequel series “Gotham,” with CW procedural “iZombie” on deck for midseason. Looking ahead to next season, TNT is also nearing a pilot production order for “Titans,” a one-hour drama that will focus on DC’s younger heroes, while Fox just gave a put pilot production order to DC’s Vertigo property “Lucifer,” another hourlong drama which features the Lord of Hell resigning his post to open a piano bar in Los Angeles.

Last week, the Television Critics Association named “Gotham” the most promising new show of the fall. The series also joins “The Flash” as a permanent fixture atop Variety’s Digital Audience Ratings chart, which measures the entertainment properties that are resonating most across social media and Wikipedia each week.

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“In looking at all freshman broadcast programming, it’s clear that ‘The Flash’ and ‘Gotham’ are on a different order of magnitude in terms of their DAR compared to the rest of the new broadcast shows premiering this fall,” says Jason Klein, co-founder of ListenFirst Media. “Thanks to rabid viewing of promos on YouTube and heavy engagement on each show’s Facebook page, these shows are clearly driving significant fan engagement across multiple digital and social platforms.”

Illustration by Patrick Leger for Variety

Over at ABC, Marvel’s first foray into live-action television, “Agents of SHIELD,” couldn’t quite replicate the blockbuster success the studio has enjoyed on the big screen. While the series’ freshman season ratings were solid — it averaged a 3.1 rating in adults 18-49 and 8.5 million viewers overall, in addition to being ABC’s top-rated drama among men — executive producer Jed Whedon acknowledges that the show encountered “a couple bumps in the road” early on as the series struggled to establish its original characters.

But Marvel has no intention of ceding TV to DC. “Captain America” spinoff (and “SHIELD” prequel) “Agent Carter” is set to debut at midseason, and four Netflix shows — featuring “street-level” heroes like Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Luke Cage — are scheduled to begin rolling out in 2015, culminating in a fan-friendly crossover miniseries.

“I think DC does better on TV with live action and animation, while Marvel has had a lot of success in film,” observes author Joe Lansdale, who has written comics for both companies. “Marvel, at least to this point, has seemed more willing to put its characters in film, where DC has dragged its feet a bit, comparatively. ‘Arrow,’ if it doesn’t drown in the expanding angst and soap opera of the show, can continue for some time. ‘SHIELD’ seemed pretty damn hokey for the first few episodes to me… I thought it actually got better as time went on.”

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Some of the problems faced by “SHIELD” were due to Marvel’s propensity to link its projects across its multiplatform universe. While that may be an asset in film, the producers concede it limited the show in some ways. They couldn’t reveal a major plot point until after “Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s” theatrical release on April 4, more than two-thirds of the way through “SHIELD’s” first season.

In April, Variety TV critic Brian Lowry wrote that “the series has to do a lot of business between the movies. And trying to keep working the show into that broader framework occasionally left ‘SHIELD’ feeling like the writers were killing time between whatever second- or third-tier Marvel characters they were able to borrow.”

Having to negotiate an interconnected Marvel universe is both “a blessing and a curse,” says exec producer Maurissa Tancharoen, but it’s also a “privilege. As much as it was this very challenging game of chess to play, we were also very excited to finally be able to reveal a number of things, including the fact that we had a traitor in our midst the entire time. And once that happened, it was very liberating. I do think you can feel the momentum that took off towards the end.”

Whedon thinks that the benefits outweigh the costs when it comes to being a puzzle piece in a larger tableau: “The fact that it is one universe means that when something occurs on our show or a character makes a turn, it ripples through the entire universe, which gives it much more weight. It adds the seal of approval of all those other cinematic franchises.”

Conversely, DC chief creative officer Geoff Johns is adamant that their projects should remain separate, with no crossover between mediums. “We want to give freedom to creators… so that they can take their passion [and make] the best show, the best film, the best game without having to tie it into other things,” he says.

He believes the secret to “Arrow’s” success (the series is No. 1 for the CW in all key male demos, a major victory for the network, which lost male viewers when “Smallville” went off the air) — and the potential appeal of DC’s other series — lies in how little they alter the characters. “Yes, it’s got to be adapted and expanded, whether it goes from TV to comics or comics to film,” he says, “but the DNA of it is always true.”

David Goyer, “Man of Steel” scribe and “Constantine” exec producer, agrees: “Any time I get involved with one of these properties, I try to ascertain: what are the elements of the character that remain sticky over the decades? I think it’s really important that the network or studio embrace that, because if you try to change it too much, that’s when you get the audience rejecting it,”

“Gotham” showrunner Bruno Heller thinks the key to making an engaging show is to focus on normal people thrust into extreme situations, a strategy also demonstrated by “SHIELD.” “It’s much harder to be a hero than a superhero,” he says. “Superheroes have gifts bestowed on them by magic or by science or the supernatural. Heroes have to create themselves.”

The series has purposefully leaned away from Batman’s journey to center on Ben McKenzie’s Det. James Gordon (fated to become police commissioner), and so runs the risk of frustrating fans. But for Heller, the choice was an obvious one: “We centered the show on Gordon because he’s very much a human with human problems, and there’s less elaborate mythology built up around him as a character.”

A major part of “Gotham’s” draw, says Johns, is in exploring the untold origin stories of other iconic figures in the Batman universe. “We’re going to meet and understand and get to know characters that we don’t know a lot about,” he says. “We don’t know what drives Oswald Cobblepot. How did he become the Penguin? How did Riddler become the Riddler? That’s what’s exciting to me.”

Comicbook shows are also under increasing pressure to keep up with their bigscreen cousins when it comes to set pieces. “People can flip their dial and watch a movie with [expensive] visual effects,” says Greg Berlanti, exec producer of “Arrow” and “The Flash.” “You’re not just competing with other shows that are in that timeslot each night. Everyone has to up their game.”

CW president Mark Pedowitz concedes that “doing effects to the extent that they’re doing it on ‘Flash’ does cause some production nightmares,” but that “each year we do this, it gets better and we’re seeing more feature-like effects being done on television. It’s a little tougher for TV, based on the production schedule and broadcast schedule, but we’re getting to that place where the expertise is all there.”

“We couldn’t have made this show probably even a year ago,” agrees Andrew Kreisberg, who also exec produces “Arrow” and its speedy spinoff. “The technology finally got to a point where you can pull this off.”

Illustration by Patrick Leger for Variety

Berlanti reveals “Flash’s” VFX take 10-15 weeks to complete per episode, with each shot going through roughly 20 to 30 iterations: “We like the challenge; hopefully we can continue to maintain the volume and the quality.”

Even “Gotham,” with no superpowers or high-tech gadgetry to showcase, seems willing to spend big in order to create the show’s gritty, oversaturated visual palette. Executive producer Danny Cannon directed the pilot, and admits that he “spent a lot of time in color, a lot of time in visual effects trying to make [them] invisible. It’s the kind of show that I would want everybody to watch twice. The second viewing, you’ll see a lot more detail.”

Both DC and Marvel have tried to balance brand awareness with creative license in their new shows. The more established a property is, the higher the fan expectations. However, original characters are less of a draw, meaning viewers may have been slower to tune in to “SHIELD” at the outset because of its lack of marquee heroes. “We had a lot of groundwork to lay early in the last season,” says Whedon. “Whereas this season we can hit the ground running with everybody up to date with who these characters are, having developed feelings — either positive or negative — [about them] and you don’t have to spend all that time laying out their bios.”

The producers promise that last season’s world-building will pay dividends this year, now that fans are invested. “In season two we are very much operating within a new paradigm. SHIELD has fallen, we’re well aware that HYDRA is out there and has been operating from within, so our team has been forced to basically go underground. We’ll get to explore what that even means, what that’s like for our team,” says Tancharoen. “And we have quite a few new faces that we’ve brought into the fold. So there are a lot of new elements that we’re presenting as well as addressing all the questions that have been left unanswered at the end of last season.”

Both DC and Marvel have been savvy in balancing stunt casting with comicbook cameos, drafting actors with established fanbases or cult appeal like “Torchwood’s” John Barrowman and “Prison Break” alums Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell to play iconic villains on “Arrow” and “Flash,” and bringing in Bill Paxton and Lucy Lawless for major roles on “SHIELD.”

Marvel has also leaned on recognizable Cinematic Universe characters like Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill to strengthen ties to the movies, but Whedon concedes “SHIELD” has been limited in its ability to use other famous figures from Marvel’s vast literary library. “You’ve seen the Marvel slate,” he says dryly. “They have movies planned for the next two decades, so there’s a process to us approving characters.” Still, that process doesn’t necessarily hinder progress; early season two additions from the comics include SHIELD agent Mockingbird and the villain Kraken.

As superhero properties proliferate, it hasn’t escaped the notice of fans and critics that the studios have been slow to capitalize on their audience’s appetite for strong female and minority leads. That dynamic is shifting, however: “iZombie” and “Agent Carter” both have female stars, and executive producers who value minds over miniskirts to define those characters — “Veronica Mars’” Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero for “iZombie,” and “Dollhouse” scribes Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas for “Carter.” One of Marvel’s Netflix series also centers on a female crimefighter — P.I. and journalist Jessica Jones — and the streaming site’s Luke Cage series looks set to be the only major property with a person of color in the lead role.

Jeph Loeb, Marvel’s head of television, says that “Carter,” set in the aftermath of Marvel’s version of World War II, should provide ample opportunities to address gender politics through a historical lens: “We felt the story of a woman in the 1940s who was probably smarter than everyone else in the room, combined with the extraordinary talent of Hayley Atwell, was an opportunity for us to tell the origins of a story not just about SHIELD, but about the heroes in the Marvel universe.”

Meanwhile, central to “Gotham” is Jada Pinkett Smith’s Fish Mooney, a character unique to the series. “I particularly wanted to create a female villain who didn’t have superpowers — who was powerful the same way that Batman is strong and Penguin is strong,” Heller says. “Jada brings the level of veracity, strength and intelligence that the character needs.”

Berlanti is also in the early stages of developing a “Supergirl” series, and insists that “we’re well past due for those kind of characters in film and TV,” admitting that since the news broke, “I’ve gotten a number of messages from friends and former coworkers who write me about their daughters wearing superhero outfits instead of princess outfits and how they’re grateful that people are working on it. I definitely think there’s a need.”

Still, Berlanti notes, “I think people are more interested in quality than they are necessarily just going to watch something because it’s about a man or a woman… There are just as many women who love the action of [“Arrow”] as there are men who love the romance. I think it’s [about] recognizing that audiences are sophisticated and varied.”

“It’s more than just the abs. It’s also the storytelling,” Kreisberg says of “Arrow’s” success. “It’s more than just the ‘comicbook’ aspect. When we sit down to break a story, it’s not ‘oh, what’s the big superhero thing we’re going to do this week?’ It’s always ‘what’s Oliver going through? What’s his journey? Who’s he having his journey with?'”

This is the ethos that has driven fans to read comics for decades.

“You connect with these characters, and you’re inspired by these characters and you aspire to be like them,” Johns observes. “You ask yourself, ‘What would Superman do?’ Everyone knows what Superman would do. You can’t say that about a lot of other characters that exist in fiction.”

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