What makes or breaks a superhero TV show? I guess that’s the $1,000,000 question about any IP or entertainment property… but we’ll limit it to the genre posed in the initial question.
This post was inspired by the news and speculation that due to low ratings, Marvel’s Agent Carter might not or wouldn’t be picked up for a third season. I have a theory about why that may be the case – so, I’m going to explore it here. And while it isn’t really a ‘superhero’ show per se, Agent Carter is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – so, technically it qualifies.
Superheroes have been on TV almost from its inception. Popular comic book characters that had found a wide audience on radio, inspired studios and property owners to take the next logical step to transfer those properties over to the small screen. DC led the way, with its two most recognizable characters Superman and Batman. and through the following decades we would see other live-action superheroes succeed or fail as they tried to capture the television audiences attention.
In each decade since there have been live-action versions of popular and not so popular superheroes, and thanks to the success of main stream superhero film’s like Spider-man and X-Men, superheroes also found a following on TV in the 2000’s. Smallville was good, but we never got to see Superman, not really. And for most of its run, there were no costumes and capes. And though it had great promise Heroes stumbled and didn’t quite live up to expectations. But it did pave the way for flashier shows to follow. See what I did there? Flashier? As in The Flash!? Ok, yeah I know…
I like the Agent Carter. I like it not because it’s a Marvel property, I like it for the same reasons I liked the original Wonder Woman pilot/series in the 70’s with Lynda Carter — because it’s a period piece – it’s set sometime other than the post 9/11 world and because of the style, fashion and mores of the day, hearkens back to a supposedly ‘better time’. I like it because it recalls the innocence of the comic books I read growing up – when the characters and stories were seemingly free of cynicism, grim-dark angst and political or psychological underpinnings.
Though of course, it wasn’t a better time – we just perceive it that way – we have the benefit of hindsight and the unconscious notion that because its the past, we understand it better than we do our present circumstances. And yes, of course some of those elements I mentioned above, the same ones that are so highlighted and dominate today’s comics, including gore and adult-oriented fare, were there in some fashion all along in comics – but they weren’t the driving force behind them, like they seem to be for many titles today.
Agent Carter explores the early days of S.H.I.E.L.D. before the arrival of masks and superheroes… kind of. And that is what I theorize is perhaps why it received low ratings this season and may not be picked up for a third.
Fans of comics and superheroes like all the trappings that come with them – the most obvious being: the mask and cape/costume. Agent Carter (and in a round about way, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) has no four-color suits and disguises. AoS has the benefit of showcasing more ‘powered’ character’s and so I beleive is keeping its ratings and audience. Sure, you could argue that Peggy’s blue-power suit and red hat are her “costume” – but I think what audiences are looking for, is what the CW’s Arrow and The Flash and CBS’s Supergirl are providing, and as a result are gobbling up the audience shares left and right.
In those shows we get to see the costumes and the masks – those things we read comics for… bold, thrilling captivating images of PWA (people with abilities) who are larger than life.
What I was hoping Agent Carter would provide for us (and what I still think is lacking on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) are glimpses and moments with those costumed characters of the MCU and comics who could and should make appearances on those shows.
I’m sure ownership rights, licensing, and any number of other factors, (including SFX budgets) prevent us from seeing the big hitters like the Avengers (and all the character’s from the big screen films) or other multi-powered characters… but still. Would it really be too hard to see them in passing ? You really wouldn’t even need to feature them.
Seeing a news report on a TV screen with grainy footage of either a hero or villain would give fans that momentary thrill of ‘yes! did you see that!’ It would widen the scope of what’s possible… and just reinforce the fan base’s love for the shows and characters.
Can you imagine if at some point during Agent Carter Season One we got to see Namor‘s winged foot step out of the surf and onto the sand near Brighton Beach? Or the fiery trail of the Human Torch streaking across the night sky over Manhattan? Or maybe in Season Two we caught glimpses of The Whizzer stopping a bank robbery or Union Jack taking out Nazi saboteurs?
Now, there is no evidence to support that Agent Carter’s ratings were low because no costumes or masks make a showing in any of the episodes… I mean, Agent’s of S.H.I.E.L.D. really hasn’t had a costumed hero front and center – yeah, I guess you could say Deathlok and Sif count or even Mockingbird – but they really don’t seem to capture the same ‘heck yeah’ thrill that seeing Arsenal and Black Canary or Deathstroke do on Arrow – or Gorilla Grodd on The Flash? J’onn J’onzz or Red Tornado on Supergirl?
But notice how those character’s from the Arrow and Supergirl shows match more closely the costumes and outfits of their comic book counterparts – while the ones from AoS are more tactical and subdued (except for Sif of course :))?
But, maybe seeing a mask and cape is no guarantee that you’ll capture an audience’s attention. At the very top of this post I included a pic from a short-lived TV series called The Cape.
The show has a cliche, but tried and true comic book premise – a cop takes on the persona of his son’s favorite comic book superhero character to fight crime and to protect his family after being framed and supposedly killed. In execution, it was pretty standard formulaic really and the first several episodes were a a drawn out ‘origin’ combined with character development and scant SFX. The show had some decent stars and characters and plots… but in the end, it fizzled out and disappeared. Why?
Maybe the story got too bogged down or drawn out or maybe there wasn’t enough “super” powers or maybe it was because it was an all new character that wasn’t really based on an established property. I stopped watching after the fifth episode or so because… well, it just wasn’t compelling after a while.
I mean, according to my theory stated above, it should have captured the same vibe and thrill of Arrow or The Flash. It had masks and capes aplenty. But for some reason the elements that came together to create the show, did set it on fire – didn’t glue people to the screen week after week to watch it.
Of course my theory is pure speculation and has no real merit or research to back it up – other than my own observation and supposition.
There’s a lot of hard work that goes into getting a TV show on the air – and keeping it there is something akin to walking a tightrope over a lava pit while balancing two heavy bags, one full of bricks the other full of marbles, all the while pursued by censors, ad execs and newshounds.
Not to mention the vocal detractors who nitpick every detail and post it vlogs, blogs, rants and poisonous tweets… it’s a minefield at best.
Could a cameo by say, Sub-Mariner or Jim Hammond (aka the android Human Torch) have saved Agent Carter or boosted its ratings? We will never know.
The answer to whether or not a superhero show is successful – whether to mask or not to mask – isn’t easily answered, but its a fun topic to think about.