Superhero Live Action Shows: Conventions and Evolution
The superhero genre has been a hit in America since the mid-1900s. It has grown so large today that a distinction needs to be made on what type of superhero show is being talked about such as cartoon or live action. I will be focusing on the live action series. The first live action superhero show, The Adventures of Superman, was aired in 1952 and they are still being produced and aired. The live action superhero genre is currently thriving in American society and shows are popping up on different networks. They are available to stream on pretty much every device, and Netflix even produces their own shows about the superheroes that comic book readers have been reading and have been in love with for years.
The Big Three of DC Comics
In 1952, The Adventures of Superman was released and aired for six years. The first half of the series’ life was filmed in black and white while the last half was released in color. As the name suggests the show followed Superman and his heroics while saving Metropolis and the world from his enemies. The television show was created as a follow up to the movie Superman and the Mole Men. The cast of the show was actually surprised that the show did as well as it did. Following the Superman series there was several others that were produced: Batman in 1960 and Wonder Woman in 1975 were a couple of the next high profile super heroes to get shows.
The Batman series from 1966 is still a favorite among super hero fans today even though by today’s standards the show is cheesy, and almost unbearably so. However, the show has remained to be a classic. Adam West playing Batman gave the show a leading actor that was extremely likable and Robin’s boyish charm brought some humor to a show that could have turned out to be of a darker tone. Then there is the theme song, which Batman fans still love today and to a degree even those who do not like Batman still identify the song with the series.
Wonder Woman being a superhero is an interesting story in itself. During the wars, particularly World War II and the Cold War, the comic book industry was looking to create characters that would inspire the people and give them hope. Marvel Comics came up with Captain American and DC created Wonder Woman. Keeping true to her roots she wears red, white, and blue in most adaptations even today. Her series, although short lived with only running for one season, captured this image. She was a patriotic icon and a role model for women, who were fighting their own fight for justice at the time. The show got really good reviews from critics, but the writers said she was a dated hero and had lived out her purpose. In their own way both of these shows were liked by their audiences.
Superheroes are Everywhere
Superhero shows did not cease to be made with the end of the 1970s. In the 1990s The Flash series aired. Looking at the show with today’s standards it still had an air of cheesiness, the same as earlier examples of live action superhero shows. That being said, the show implemented just enough of the available technology, that when blended with the charm of the older shows, a decent series was created that lasted a few seasons. With the new millennia also came new shows. These shows that started to arise featured prominent superheroes from both Marvel and DC Comics. The series Smallville (2001) revisited the iconic Superman but with a twist. The show focused on a younger Clark Kent before he donned his blue suit and red cape. His transition from a boy who had extraordinary powers, to the Man of Steel that we know, was documented on a personal level that showed how he, and those close to him dealt with his maturing abilities.
Within the past decade there has been a slew of new live action superhero shows: Arrow (2012), Flash (2014), Daredevil (2015), Supergirl (2015), and Jessica Jones (2015) are just some of the available programming. Within the next couple years there are shows on characters like Iron Fist, The Defenders, Luke Cage and others that are going to be released. With the current momentum these live action superhero shows have, they are probably not going to slow down any time soon. This is partially because there is a hype around superheroes with of all the movies that are coming out right now about them.
Conventions and Evolution
Over the years the shows have evolved in some aspects. The overall tone of the shows have been following a darker trend then when the first of these shows were aired. Batman and Wonder Woman were light-hearted shows that were meant to be entertainment for a younger audience. These shows were for kids and adolescents to watch for some clean television at night during the week. Batman was full of witty and corny jokes that were usually supplied by interactions between the Dynamic Due. There was even text blurbs in the shows that held action sound words such as blam and pow to signify the fighting instead of fully showing too much of the actual violence that was happening on screen. Wonder Woman was aimed more at teenagers. The show has episodes that involved high schoolers, idols, and celebrities of the time, or at least fictional counterparts for the real versions. She was meant as a symbol for female empowerment, as well as hope for the nation that patriotism was not dead; that America still stood proud and strong.
The series that have been released within the past decade and are continuing to be made have a bit of a dark tone. There is more violence that is being shown in detail. The colors that are being used tend to be blacks and the darker hues of blue, red, and green. The content has become more sexualized and the crimes that are being committed are more gruesome than they used to be because this is what audiences now want as a majority. In Batman the crimes that were committed were usually robberies or taking hostages. In the shows now there a lot more murders happening. Even the outcomes are not as cheery as they used to be. In the older shows once the episode, or occasionally the two part story, was over the hero has won with little or no loss to them. It has become common now for the hero to lose more often, and even if they do win it has become a frequent event for the hero to have lost something dear to them or fail to save everyone. The happy endings that were once so common in this genre are now few and far between. Along with this darker tone has come a darker hero.
A common theme currently is the vigilante. The heroes of the first shows were either loved by the cops or in some cases even worker with the criminal justice system directly. Now the heroes lurk in the shadows just like their enemies do. They are often hunted by the law and afraid to let those around them know about this part of their lives.
This shift in tone is partially due to a shift in the intended audience for the show. The age demographic has moved upward along the scale. How superhero shows were once for kids and teenagers, they are now more for adolescents and young adults. Instead of eight year olds sitting in front of the screen watching The Adventures of Superman, it is now more common to find high school and college student sitting down to watch Arrow or Flash. With the older audience base there is a higher level of maturity that the studios can work with.
Something that might have not been included before because it would be too upsetting or adult for kids can now be shown because those who are watching for the most part are now mature enough to handle the material appropriately. In fact, the shows almost had to go darker in order to appeal to this demographic who as a whole are not as interested in content that is purely black and white. Morality appears greyer to adolescents and young adults as a whole then it did when they were children, and they tend to enjoy material that reflects that greying of morality because they can relate to it more.
Even though there has been some changes in the overall tone of the shows there are some things that still hold true for the most part today as they did when live action superhero shows first started to become a hit. These shows typically take place in some kind of metropolitan area such as Gotham, and Metropolis. This is in part because it makes sense for there to be a lot of crime in the area since it takes place in a big city. A bunch of robberies happening in a small town all the time just would not make sense. The crimes that happen in these shows tend to be big crimes done by villains, not just average crooks. Once the hero starts to mature so does the people that they fight. It would be boring to watch Superman stop Joe from holding up some grocery store after episode. So they bring in the big boys such as Lex Luthur and Parasite. The normal criminals do not just disappear they are just handled by the cops, or they become included in the story by being the henchmen to the main villain.
The use of henchmen is a common technique in these shows. The main boss does not want to get his hands dirty so he sends other to do his work for him, and ultimately take the fall for him as well.
The hero may not always succeed anymore but they are still the focus of the show. The spotlight is on them and those that they care about most: family, friends, and sometimes even side-kicks. After all, what is Batman without Robin? There may come a point where they want to quit, and some will even hang up their suit “for good.” However, there is always something that happens that forces them to don the tights once more and fight for truth, justice, and the American way. This is commonly achieved by a villain kidnapping someone that the hero cares about and threatens to kill them if the hero does not show up at some place and a certain time where there is a trap awaiting them. This is just one of the more common plot lines that are employed in this genre. Some of the other are: something from the hero’s past comes back to haunt him; the villain tries to get revenge on those who put him away or “wronged” him in some other form; and the hero temporarily loses their powers due to illness or overexertion.
So Why the Infatuation with the Men and Women in Tights?
Live action superhero series are still popular because they still speak to the people. They changed just enough to keep audiences coming back for more, while holding on to what makes them what they are. The older group wanted more violence and choices that were not purely good or purely evil, and they got it. Yet, the heroes still seem like the “good guys”, even though they are just as violent as those they are trying to stop. These individuals are still an inspiration to audiences to aspire to a better tomorrow, even if today looks bleak. Above all the message of superheroes in general, and the shows about them, is still do not give up, keep hope in the future.
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