LOS ANGELES -- Holy comic book heroes!
Not since the late 1970s has there been so many network TV shows based on the super-powered characters from the colourful pages of comic books.
Joining the already-established Arrow on the CW network and Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC on the fall network TV schedule are several comic-book inspired shows. Gotham begins Sept. 22 on FOX. The Flash launches Oct. 7 on CW. Constantine starts Oct. 24 on NBC. Agent Carter is waiting in the wings as a mid-season replacement for ABC.
And, it's not just the networks that have cape-and-cowl fever. Netflix will produce five series based on Marvel Comics characters: Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and the Defenders.
The genre is booming, in part, because of the massive success of comic-book movies. It's also a way for networks to lure back young viewers with shows that have a darker tone, a reflection of the dark changes to the comics over the decades.
The CW saw a big drop in male viewers between the ages of 18 and 34 when Smallville ended in 2011. CW president Mark Pedowitz sees The Flash and Arrow as a way to tempt those viewers to come back.
The challenge is making the shows, which are heavy on special effects, financially feasible.
Greg Berlanti, executive producer of The Flash, says advancement in technology makes it easier -- and cheaper -- to mimic the live-action version of superpowers.
'As soon as you're into the capes and costumes, it's less interesting than seeing how they got there'
He also suggests this renewed interest in comics is the latest example of Hollywood understanding the attraction of heroes vs. villains.
"When I was kid on Saturday afternoon, I would go over to my grandparent's house and there were all these Westerns that were on," Berlanti says. "I think it's a similar kind of thing. There were these classic kind of universes where there were bad guys, good guys, good gals, bad gals, right and wrong."
COMIC-book-inspired TV shows have always embraced the good vs. evil concept, but the new shows have a much darker tone and approach.
Gotham is a completely different look at Batman than the 1966-68 TV series, which was presented as a bright, pop-art kind of world where everything was played tongue-in-cheek. In Gotham, Bruce Wayne is still a pre-teen trying to come to grips with the murder of his parents.
It doesn't worry Bruno Heller, an executive producer on Gotham, that the series will focus more on the creation of some of Batman's greatest foes -- the Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler -- than the caped crimefighter. He believes the city of Gotham will provide the larger-than-life character that will be a central part of the show.
"This is about people, and it's about people trying to overcome real problems as opposed to trying to learn how to fly," Heller says. "Will the fanboys back away from it? I don't think so, because I think, certainly for me, the really interesting parts of these stories is the origin stories. As soon as you're into the capes and costumes, it's less interesting than seeing how they got there. And this is about how all these people got there."
Heller says the show won't change the long-accepted mythology of the heroes.
"What we won't do is break the kind of canonical iron truths of the Batman story," he says. "But issues of chronology and who was there, when and how, we will play with. In a fun way, not in a disrespectful way or a sort of iconoclastic way."
IT was Smallville that brought a new approach to telling superhero stories.
Instead of rushing to get Clark Kent (Tom Welling) into his bright Superman crime-fighting suit, the series launched as a family drama, with Clark being a kid with special needs. The show dealt with dark issues of greed, anger, revenge, hatred and fear as Clark grew into his super role.
That trend continued with Arrow. Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) is still a billionaire playboy, but he's carrying a lot more baggage after honing his archery skills while fighting for survival on a desolate island. In two seasons, he's already had to deal with the death of his best friend and mother.
Green Arrow had plenty of problems in the comic books -- especially in the early '70s run by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams -- but the series creators took major liberties with the character when bringing him to TV.
"One of the nice things about Green Arrow is unlike Batman or Spider-Man or Superman, where everyone knows about Batman's parents dying or Krypton blowing up or getting bit by a radioactive spider, Green Arrow has an origin that is subject to a lot of interpretation," says executive producer Marc Guggenheim. "In fact, it's been interpreted and reinterpreted in the comics over many, many years. So there's not as much canon that's precious, so we can play around. We always start with the comic as our source of inspiration."
ALSO on the darker side is Constantine.
The comic-book character spends his days fighting demons in hopes he won't one day have to pay a debt he owes to the devil. That's what appealed to executive producer David Goyer.
"The thing that I always loved about Constantine is he was a smartass," Goyer says. "He didn't have any superpowers. He was just a working-class bloke. He had a wicked sense of humour.
"I also felt like it was someone that would sort of translate into television without us having to change the core DNA of the character."
ONE comic-book hero who isn't getting the dark treatment is The Flash.
Both the 1990 version starring John Wesley Shipp and the new offering, with Grant Gustin playing Barry Allen, focus more on the speedster's battle with supervillains than the angst of having the superpower.
Berlanti says The Flash will be looked at as being a prodigy whose skills need to be honed.
"I always thought that was a great place to sort of start with the show, because it allows us, obviously, to sort of examine backwards in time what sort of happened to the character and where he comes from, and why he is who he is and how he's overcome some of the things he's overcome," Berlanti says. "And it always allows for, I think, deeper storytelling moving forward."
Geoff Johns, chief creative officer of DC Comics, looks over the way the company's characters get used on television. He has a close relationship with The Flash, having written the comic for years. There were countless discussions about whether to include some of the heavy emotional elements he brought to the comic in the series.
"Flash is such an optimistic character, and it's all about moving forward. When I wrote the comic, it was really about giving him an emotional anchor that would hold him back, something that happened a long time ago," Johns says. "The lightning bolt is really something that hits Barry and allows him to literally and emotionally move forward in his life, reconnect with people in a different way and explore that heroic side that is inside him."
-- MCT Information Services