Last week, everybody on the internet was freaking out about this Variety article on superhero TV shows — purely because Harley Quinn producer Justin Halpern said that season three of the HBO Max animated show was supposed to feature “Batman going down on Catwoman,” but this had to be cut because DC Comics said that this might hurt toy sales. Which is, indeed, ridiculous.
But the Variety article has stuck in my mind for a different reason: it presents three recent shows (Harley Quinn, Umbrella Academy and WandaVision) as aberrations in a landscape of superhero television that is otherwise largely formulaic and dull. And I like those shows a lot, but I think it’s not fair to suggest that they’re the first TV shows about superheroes to defy tropey expectations, or to offer a more mature, interesting look at superhero characters.
In fact, the history of superhero shows over the past twenty years has been pretty varied, and has consistently featured some really wild, big swings — some of which even reached a pretty widespread audience. We had not one, but two live-action shows featuring The Tick, Ben Edlund’s gonzo take on superhero tropes. We’ve gotten superhero family sagas (No Ordinary Family), superhero historical dramas (Agent Carter), and superheroic takes on trauma and community, like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. There are a lot of things that superheroes have achieved in live-action television shows that the movies either haven’t attempted at all, or haven’t done nearly as well.
Especially if you consider shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess to be in the superhero genre (and why wouldn’t you?) then there’s a lot of richness and complexity out there.
It’s easy to forget how revolutionary the first season of Heroes felt, when it started airing in 2006. A slow-boil of an origin story, in which huge world-saving stakes were introduced but kept vague for a long time, Heroes absolutely focused on its sprawling cast of characters and the ways that developing superpowers transformed their lives. In retrospect, Heroes season one focused rather a lot on its self-referential comic-book examination, with too many scenes of characters reading comic books to figure out what to do next, standing around comic-book stores, and trying to find a comic-book artist whose artwork was predicting the future. It was like Heroes wanted to make sure comic-book fans felt seen and appreciated, but it came across a bit pander-y. (A couple years later, we got The Cape, in which a disgraced cop actually steals his superhero identity from his son’s comic book and obsessively tries to live up to comic book tropes in everything he does.)
But the late 2000s also gave us No Heroics, a brilliantly bawdy and weird British superhero spoof from Drew Pearce, who went on to write Iron Man 3. And The Middleman, a one-season show about a nameless superhero and his apprentice that I still think about constantly, and which still has a thriving fanbase. No Heroics and The Middleman both poke fun at superheroics and their conventions, but also wear their love of the genre on their sleeves — and The Middleman is suffused with a good-natured, friendly ethos, in which quips and absurd in-jokes are interspersed with moments of kindness. The Middleman gives me some of the best “found family” feelings of any TV show of the past twenty years.
You can sort of argue that the current era of live-action superhero television begins in 2012-ish, with the launch of Arrow on the CW. Prior to Arrow, there had been a handful of really successful shows — the aforementioned Heroes, for sure, but also Smallville and Lois and Clark. And going back further, The Incredible Hulk. In retrospect, the rise of the Arrowverse feels like a direct response to the success of Christopher Nolan’s Bat-trilogy, but also the rising dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the big screen. Arrow felt like a big leap forward, in terms of how well it captured the tone of a great superhero film on the small(er) screen, but also in terms of how well it executed stuff like action and costumes and villains. Where Heroes and No Ordinary Family had avoided costumes and secret identities (while still paying homage to comics in other ways) and Smallville sometimes seemed to revel in the colorfulness of its costumes, Arrow managed to make its costumes feel somewhat natural and lived-in, even when they started to proliferate wildly.
Before 2012, I could have listed all the current and recent superhero shows without hesitation, probably on one hand. Now, of course, the Arrowverse has spawned countless spinoffs and crossovers, and there have also been unrelated DC Comics shows, including two Batman prequels (Gotham and Pennyworth.) And at one point, there were multiple versions of the Marvel Comics universe on television, including Agents of SHIELD and its spinoffs and the various shows on Netflix, Freeform, FX, Fox and Hulu.
Not surprisingly, the sheer amount of stuff out there has led to some really interesting experiments. Like, in 2017, two different X-Men shows launched: Legion and The Gifted. Nobody could accuse Legion of being a formulaic show about punching bad guys — if anything, it spent most of its time reveling in how weird and psychedelic its story of an overpowered mutant having a mental-health crisis could become. And The Gifted became one of my favorite explorations of the classic X-Men theme of an oppressed minority group struggling to survive while fighting over whether, and how, to fight back. (I’d also put Alphas, the short-lived and underrated Syfy show, in that same category.)
Agent Carter managed to burrow deep into its exploration of the discrimination that cis women, BIPOC people, and disabled people faced in the post-World War II era, in the context of a sparky Cold War spy drama.
And the Arrowverse has sometimes gone to some really exciting places as well. Supergirl has become one of the queerest shows on television, and has at times grappled with issues around xenophobia and paranoia with a decent amount of nuance. Legends of Tomorrow has embraced its own absurdity, and regularly makes me laugh and cry during the same episode. And the second season of Batwoman has become way more explicitly about systemic racism and the ethics of policing, with some powerful results. Meanwhile, Doom Patrol is just gloriously weird and endlessly finds new ways to deconstruct all of our expectations for how a heroic struggle against supervillainy will go.
I could go on and on. The point is, though, we’re reaching the tail end of a decade in which superheroes became as ascendant on television as in the movies, and a lot of creators have taken advantage of the opportunity to push them in weird, challenging, political and character-focused directions. This shouldn’t be seen as a departure from the traditions of superhero storytelling, or as a subversion of anything — this is what superheroes have always done. Since the beginning, they’ve changed and experimented and commented on politics and society. If they’d stayed in one tiny pugilistic box, they never would have lasted as long as they have, or attained so much cultural power.
Is It Imposter Syndrome, or Is It White Supremacy? (The Infophile)
Tomorrow at 4 PM PT, I’m doing a reading at the Locus Awards with Aliette de Bodard.
I was on a panel about LGBTQ+ young adult literature with Meg Elison and Darcie Little Badger, and you can watch it here.
The Literary Tarot is a fantastic project from Brink Literature Project, in which authors choose works of (public domain) literature that are paired with tarot cards, and I’ve chosen Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and the Knight of Cups. You can support this project on Kickstarter!
Seriously, behold the loveliness.
Also, I’m organizing another in-person reading at the Inner Sunset Flea on Sunday July 11 at noon PT. Currently confirmed readers include: Julia Serano, Andrea Stewart, Bonnie Tsui and Juli Delgado Lopera. Please come hang out with us!!!
The galaxy still needs to be saved — and only the heroes of my super-queer young adult fantasy debut can do it. You can get Victories Greater Than Death from all the places that don’t suck. Please support this book, or the galaxy is DOOMED.
Also, on Aug. 17, I’m publishing Never Say You Can’t Survive, my book of essays about how to make it thru really tough times in the world — by writing stories. You can pre-order it at all the places, and I will love you forever if you do.
And finally, in November, I’m publishing my first proper short story collection, Even Greater Mistakes. This book could be called The Best of Charlie Jane Anders, because it’s basically a sampler of everything that I’ve ever done that seemed to work okay. This book, too, you can pre-order and win my eternal gratitude.