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As Superheroes Hit Mainstream, Time For Disney to Unleash Marvel on ABC

This week, DC Comics/Warner Bros.’ “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” begins the daunting task of establishing the kind of cinematic universe of costumed heroes that Disney’s Marvel has so lucratively built. In television, however, the roles have been somewhat reversed, with DC/Warners shows like “The Flash” fully embracing their comic-book origins, a feat ABC’s Marvel tie-ins have struggled to achieve. The question, then, is whether it might be time for ABC — under new leadership, and with parent Disney eager to boost the network’s performance — to unshackle Marvel from its over-reliance on “Agents of SHIELD.”

Understandably, Joss Whedon emerged from his success directing “The Avengers” with considerable clout at Disney, which tapped him as a producer to extend the property to TV, with a lower-wattage, loosely connected appendage. Since then, however, ABC has seemed too content to ride “SHIELD’s” modest coattails while tinkering with spinoffs — including the seeds of one, “Marvel’s Most Wanted,” planted in this week’s episode — following a two-year experiment with the critically admired but virtually unseen “Agent Carter.”

Advantageously, these series tie in with Marvel movies, providing integrated promotion for upcoming releases. Yet the relationship hasn’t appeared to boost ratings, suggesting any benefits are not only puny, but also something of a one-way street.

At the same time, Warner Bros. Television has invested heavily in DC superheroes, producing “Arrow” and “The Flash” — clear hits by the CW’s more modest standards — as well as the super-team “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” and CBS’ “Supergirl.” And far from downplaying or softening the more fantastic elements, as so many comics-derived programs have historically, these series have reveled in that mythology, from the colorful costumes to elaborate time-travel plots and alternate universes (a device that will open the door for a rare cross-network “Supergirl”/”The Flash” team-up).

Marvel did adapt second-tier characters, such as Daredevil, Jessica Jones and the upcoming Luke Cage, but funneled those gritty incarnations to Netflix, which, being a subscription service, was rightfully eager to tap into properties with a small but fiercely loyal fan base.

Admittedly, nothing within this genre on TV or streaming has approximated the blockbuster performance of “The Avengers” or other Marvel movies. Nevertheless, as television becomes more of a niche proposition, there’s clearly an appreciable appetite for such series which, as Warner Bros. has demonstrated, can now be realized credibly enough to satisfy audiences within the parameters of a TV budget. If anything, the medium requires the development of stronger characters, since producers can’t afford many of the let’s-level-half-of-Metropolis sequences like the one that closed out “Man of Steel.”

Thanks to CEO Bob Iger’s acquisitive nature, Disney has assembled the most formidable array of branded assets in the industry. So if the studio is serious about jump-starting ABC, and wants to broaden the network’s demographic profile, it’s just good sense to dip into that synergistic grab bag, from Marvel to the less-traveled reaches of the “Star Wars” galaxy (already yielding dividends, notably, for its boy-oriented cable network Disney XD).

In hindsight, Marvel’s gamble on an interlocking quintet of movies (consisting of two “Iron Man” films, “Captain America” and “Thor,” and culminating with “Avengers”) remains an astonishing leap of faith, especially given how easily one unexpected flop could have derailed or diminished the whole scheme. Yet the company’s focus on expanding those feature inroads has perhaps come at TV’s expense, with characters that might have lent themselves to the small screen (think Black Widow, Black Panther and Ant-Man) being blown up (or in that last case, shrunk) for theatrical purposes.

It’s not too late to remedy this, but the development process takes time, and Marvel will need to pore over its library, especially if the company continues to mine it with multi-hero projects like “Captain America: Civil War.” Although the TV environment is increasingly hospitable to such fare, it’s also hardly without risk when ordering series based on characters likely to evoke blank stares from all but those who view Comic-Con as a pilgrimage.

Moreover, when it comes to superheroes and science fiction, there’s no such thing as a small bet, even in television. But this is not the time to be timid. In order to develop a winning strategy, Marvel might do well to consider advice found in the name of a certain DC title: Fate tends to favor the brave and the bold.

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