Roundtable Discussion #3: What Makes a Good Superhero Show?

Republibot 3.0
Republibot 3.0's picture

Republibot 2.0 says:
What makes a 'good' superhero show?

Republibot 1.0 says:
Interestingly enough, speaking of good superhero shows, I was just watching this:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvNLlwkwP64&feature=rec-HM-fresh+div
it epitomizes what makes a good superhero show

Republibot 3.0 says:
My own thinking is there's basically two kinds of superhero shows: Animation and Live Action, and they both play by different rules. Animation is pretty similar to the actual comics - if it's done well, like in the DCAU - but live action superhero shows are an entirely different beast.

Republibot 2.0 says:
Let's go live action- it has rarely been done well. Why?

Republibot 3.0 says:
For live action, I think plausibility is a huge factor. In animation not so much so, because just by virtue of being a cartoon it's already two degrees away from being "Real" so suspension of disbelief is less of an issue. It is really super hard to make a plausible live action superhero show. In my mind, the most successful supehero show ever done is probably The Six Million Dollar Man.

Republibot 1.0 says:
I think live action is difficult, because it is hard to imply true scale in a production sense - take the Fantastic Four movies and the X-men movies, They didn’t feel like they had an impact on the world at large, even though that is what the stories were supposed to be about

Republibot 3.0 says:
True. I think you can do that better on a TV show than a movie, actually, since a movie limits you to 120 minutes every 3 years, whereas a TV series gives you 968 minutes a year to tell a more sprawling series. That's why I prefer TV SF to movies based on TV SF shows: More canvas to paint on.

Republibot 2.0 says:
Season one of Heroes was pretty impressive, as was season one of Lois and Clark

Republibot 1.0 says:
I disagree - again, TV limits scale unless done seriously smart - Firefly left a lot to be desired universe building wise that Serenity was able to get done a bit better, though it still lacked in some respect scale, to be clear is different than plot or character or story it is building an appropriately world around all of those things that reflect the presentation

Republibot 3.0 says:
Bah. Serenity was a massive disappointment. I agree Scale is different from plot, character, and story, but the complexity that accrues when you're cranking out 22 stories a year is simply more vast than a simple movie can compete with.

Republibot 1.0 says:
Dark Knight got it right, but that is because production design was approached with intelligence

Republibot 2.0 says:
And the world building that must take place to suspend disbelief in Men In Tights is pretty.... intense

Republibot 1.0 says:
True but for superhero stuff that stuff gets seriously undercut by the lame
production value. I cannot watch Smallville for that reason alone

Republibot 2.0 says:
It's gotten better...

Republibot 1.0 says:
I have no interest in a superman show where he lives next door to One Tree Hill

Republibot 3.0 says:
Ok. Well, Season 1 of Lois and Clark got it right, and Season 1 of Heroes got it right, but both shows pretty much tanked after that point, and now seem incapable of getting it right. So a good question might be: What are some common mistakes of superhero shows? What is it about season 2 of Lois and Clark and Heroes that just killed it?

Republibot 1.0 says:
To RB2's point earlier, that is why animation works better. I would say, at least in the case of heroes - plot for plot's sake

Republibot 2.0 says:
Yeah.. Heroes got labyrinthine

Republibot 1.0 says:
No real destination in mind. It really really felt like they were just making it up as they went

Republibot 2.0 says:
Lois and Clark didn't really tank until Season 3 for me.

Republibot 3.0 says:
Did Lois and Clark ever feel like it had a point it was working towards?

Republibot 2.0 says:
Nooo.

Republibot 3.0 says:
What happened in S3 to kill it for you?

Republibot 2.0 says:
Production values vs. attempted epic storyline. Lois and Clark started out episodic and ended up arc driven.

Republibot 1.0 says:
I think it is hard to balance the intimate against the grand.

Republibot 2.0 says:
Good Point.

Republibot 1.0 says:
Lois and Clark: based on my fuzzy memories of it seemed to be two set pieces - cheap office setting and big, but low budget realized super battles

Republibot 2.0 says:
In Season 3 of Lois and Clark, we had KryptonRB2s wearing Michelins as costumes.

Republibot 1.0 says:
Ugghh

Republibot 2.0 says:
Yeah. Looked like Eurotrash in tractor tires.

Republibot 1.0 says:
It is why most live action superhero series fail - Spider-man, Captain America, etc, etc

Republibot 3.0 says:
To me, it seemed Season 1 was more of a hokey-jokey romantic adventure comedy that didn't take itself too seriously. From Season 2 on, it seemed to have lost the hokey-jokey quality, and each season seemed progressively more dour and less fun.

Republibot 1.0 says:
Hulk approached it smart

Republibot 3.0 says:
You mean by ripping off the format of a beloved classic TV show and shoehorning a superhero in to it?

Republibot 2.0 says:
THE BIG GREEN FUGITIVE

Republibot 1.0 says:
Yep, Exactly. Minimal use of the big green in naturalistic settings when possible. And it kept the conflict relatively personalized rather than earth shattering. It just made the whole thing a bit more palatable to the audience at large and made it easier, somewhat, to swallow the premise

Republibot 3.0 says:
So then, what, we rip off other classic shows to showcase superheroes? Marvel Star Trek; Justice League CSI? Desperate Birds of Prey?

Republibot 1.0 says:
No, Just get the scale and approach right for the technology and budget allotted.

Republibot 2.0 says:
Actually, that's not a bad idea: Gotham,CSI. A procedural where the Bat family solves crimes using detective skills

Republibot 1.0 says:
There is a comic that is similar to that - Gotham PD or something. About the Gotham Police Department trying to solve crimes before Batman shows up on the scene

Republibot 3.0 says:
ok: why did The Flash fail back in 1990?

Republibot 1.0 says:
That god-awful muscle suit

Republibot 3.0 says:
It takes more than an embarrassing suit to kill a superhero show - Batman got 3 seasons.

Republibot 1.0 says:
But they nailed the presentation

Republibot 2.0 says:
Actually it was the blinding speed at which CBS shifted it's timeslot.

Republibot 3.0 says:
From my memories of it, The Flash himself wasn't very personable, either as Flash or as Secret Identity, and they pretty much refused to do shows about crimes that needed super powers to solve them for more than half of the season. And their attempts at describing a parallel world were halfhearted at best. More distracting than intriguing. I mean, what was up w/ those murals?

Republibot 2.0 says:
Well, it was Burton Batman era, and production designers got some money... It found itself towards the end of the run... but it never had the chance to get a following.

Republibot 1.0 says:
They did the exact opposite of every other show - spent too much time building the appropriate scale, but had lackluster performers and stories to back it up.

Republibot 3.0 says:
Fair enough. Either way you slice it, it felt like it had no business being a superhero show. Ok, what's another Superhero show that completely blew it?

Republibot 2.0 says:
Human Target?

Republibot 3.0 says:
Not familiar w/ Human Target.

Republibot 2.0 says:
Rick Springfield takes on the identity of people who are about to be assassinated in order to save them

Republibot 3.0 says:
I don't think that should really qualify - Human Target, I mean - because that would let in Quantum Leap and stuff...

Republibot 2.0 says:
It's a DCU property

Republibot 3.0 says:
ok, ok.

Republibot 2.0 says:
But it smelled cheap.

Republibot 3.0 says:
Where did Birds of Prey go wrong, do you think?

Republibot 2.0 says:
I REALLY hate to say this: The casting of Mia Sara as Harley Quinn...
Mia Sara camped it up, when the others were playing it straight.

Republibot 3.0 says:
So as successful superhero shows, we've got a fairly small stable: The Incredible Hulk and The Six Million Dollar Man. As shows that weren't complete failures, but kind of fell apart as they went along, you've got Heroes and Lois and Clark and both versions of The Bionic Woman. And as dismal failures, you've got everything else. I assume we're ignoring sitcom superheroes like the live-action Tick and Batman? W/ the exception of Heroes, all those shows are (in their good seasons) episodic, w/ no real story-arc driving them

Republibot 1.0 says:
The problem I had with the Tick live action TV show is that it ended up being more sit-com than the Tick - a minimum of sets that repeated where the characters hung out, very little great Tick action - more like Seinfeld in spandex than the Tick we really love - I mean the dialogue was there, But that was about it and it was shoehorned into a sitcom setting.

Republibot 3.0 says:
Oh, I agree. You need to have some on-screen superheroics in a superhero show. The Live-Action Tick is quite a bit inferior to it's animated counterpart, despite having Liz Vassey at the undisputed height of her Hubba-Hubba powers.

Republibot 2.0 says:
Birds 'sang' best when they were doing Batgirl flashbacks. I think that their avoidance of costumes might've hurt 'em

Republibot 3.0 says:
Possibly. In general, men look silly in colorful spandex. In general, women look pretty hot in it, though. Since Superheroines invariably dress like strippers or dominatrixes, and that's a huge part of their appeal, deciding not to do that does seem kinda' dumb. OTOH, I can see why they want to keep Superman's underwear inside his pants on Smallville.

Republibot 2.0 says:
Yeah, but I think that they really need to put him in costume (even if it's modified to look less fruit of the loom-y) reallly soon. The original premise was good for a 3 or 4 year run "How did Clark Kent become the World's Greatest Hero?" Now it's "Why is he so damn indecisive?"

Republibot 3.0 says:
Well, much as hot chicks in bondage wear is an audience draw (Even among women: "Oh, I love her boots! Look at those!"), the fact of the matter is that superhero costumes actually are kinda' embarrassing. Not just on TV, though it's worse there, but come on - how long are supers going to continue to wear 1930s wrestling gear? It's antiquated.

Republibot 2.0 says:
But Heroes proved that supers in street clothes are... boring.

Republibot 3.0 says:
Didn't say street clothes, I just said no Viva El Santo wrestling garb. Rorschach and The Comedian from The Watchmen are pretty bad ass, and neither of them wear spandex. Batman has segued in to body armor...Ultimates Captain America wears essentially armored BDUs... SWAT riot gear w/a lot of pockets and a Kevlar bullet proof vest or two makes more sense than Wolverine's dayglow circus suit.

Republibot 2.0 says:
In the early 90's that was X-Men kit.

Republibot 3.0 says:
But anyway: you asked what makes a good superhero TV show.

Republibot 2.0 says:
Yeah.

Republibot 3.0 says:
It'd seem from our examples that Episodic is better than Arc Driven, and Plausibility is extremely important. It's easier for people to believe in Cyborgs like Steve Austin or in isolated freaks on the run like David Banner than it is for them to believe in stuff like Superman.

Republibot 2.0 says:
I think that there's possibilities for growth in the field.

Republibot 3.0 says:
I'd say the original Superman show from the 1950s was pretty good too, now that I think on it. Again, it was episodic, and it kept the scope of the perils down to manageable human levels - no hundred-foot-tall alien gRB2ts stomping buildings, but occasionally Metropolis got invaded by midgets from The Inner World. That kind of thing.

Republibot 2.0 says:
I really like my Batman: CSI idea So, keep things relatable?

Republibot 3.0 says:
Relatable, yes, I think that's what Republibot 1.0 was getting at earlier. No massive galactic threats, or at least not many.

Republibot 2.0 says:
And if you have them, show the human side (The Booster Gold ep of JLU comes to mind)

Republibot 3.0 says:
Yeah, that was a good one.

Republibot 2.0 says:
If you have an arc, keep it soft so as not to scare off casual viewers or people just trying the show out for the first time.

Republibot 3.0 says:
So: Episodic, Relatable, Plausible, showcase the human wherever possible. I think there's your answer. Steve Austin is plausible because they spent a lot of time explaining what he's capable of and how he got that way (Science!) and he's a spy, so it makes some logical sense as well. Superman is somewhat plausible because he's an alien and we can handwave his abilities away by saying they're normal for his species. That's doubletalk, but it works.

Republibot 2.0 says:
And as much as RB1 doesn't like it, it fits Smallville fits the criteria we've set out.

Republibot 3.0 says:
Despte the fact that Batman's abilities are always depicted as like unto a greek god, we're always *told* that he's no more powerful than a normal human in peak athletic condition, so he's retcon-plausible. The Hulk is patently non-plausible, but having him on the run and hunted kind of kicks it edgewise into nearly-plausible territory. Not exactly plausible per se, but it could be argued to be a metaphor in the sense that Dracula: The Novel was a metaphor, and so was Frankenstein.

Republibot 2.0 says:
So, by coming out and saying "This is the way it is... he's a misfit of science", they bypass credulity?

Republibot 3.0 says:
"Hulking out" could be a metaphor for his own rage-issues, causing him to be on the run from the cops...it's not a stretch, really. They don't exactly bypass it, but The Hulk is clearly a monster. It becomes a modernized Jeckyl and Hyde, rather than much of anything related to The Hulk in the comics. The Hulk himself is a raw destructive force, who's eventually shown to be kind of emotionally vulnerable and pitiable, and I think most people - particularly men in the hardscrabble Carter years - could certainly identify with the fear of letting your inner beast out in times of stress, and trying to pick up the pieces afterwards. But I think that's an isolated case.

Republibot 2.0 says:
I don't think you can really go back to that...

Republibot 3.0 says:
Superman is not a metaphor. Batman is not a metaphor. In order to make them in to metaphors like the TV hulk, you'd have to completely rewrite the character to the point where it's only superficially recognizable as the same character. Like the TV hulk.

Republibot 2.0 says:
Ooh. I just remembered the Nicholas Hammond Spider-Man.

Republibot 3.0 says:
Yeah. Terrible.

Republibot 2.0 says:
If you were to do a Batman series, you'd have to go down a similar road to Batman Begins and The Dark Knight

Republibot 3.0 says:
Was Mutant-X a good show? I never watched it.

Republibot 2.0 says:
No.

Republibot 1.0 says:
Mutant X struggled in trying to be X-Men without being X-Men in order to avoid being sued for plagiarism so it never really knew what it wanted to be,

Republibot 2.0 says:
It occurred to me that in heading into season 9 (if they do), Smallville is the most successful superhero show in history. OOOOh. Buffy.

Republibot 3.0 says:
Yeah.

Republibot 2.0 says:
She fits the criteria, and she's metaphorical. Without (much) bondage gear.

Republibot 3.0 says:
Buffy gets around the implausibility by being expressly supernatural, and, again, by being a hokey-jokey action/adventure/romantic comedy. It was a smart-assed show through most of it's run.

Republibot 2.0 says:
Yeah, but it did get pretty dark in places. This is Joss "Kill What You Love" Whedon.

Republibot 3.0 says:
Not disputing that. He does it well. But the show was never as deadly dull/self-serious as The X-Files, now was it?

Republibot 2.0 says:
No. In fact it was the levity that allowed it to be even darker than X-Files

Republibot 3.0 says:
And I think humor goes a long way towards helping suspension of disbelief. Look at "The Frighteners:" The first half hour of the movie is just a goofball romp, the next half hour is transitional, and the last hour is scary as hell, much scarier than it would have been w/out the first half hour of comedy *because* the comedy suckers you in to accepting the stupid premise. Once you've done that, they've got you and can terrify you.

Republibot 1.0 says:
Have we mentioned how well Dr Horrible works? (speaking of Joss Whedon)

Republibot 3.0 says:
We have not.

Republibot 2.0 says:
We might need to do a Whedon roundtable or two

Republibot 3.0 says:
Ok. That can be our next one. You're in charge of that.

Republibot 2.0 says:
Yeah... will Dollhouse have aired by then?

Republibot 1.0 says:
Do you remember Misfits of Science?

Republibot 3.0 says:
Barely.

Republibot 1.0 says:
I thought that show had a lot of potential - a solid premise, a good cast, fairly well thought out character interactions, some humor, action and drama and little bit of intelligence, not too ambitious but willing to take some chances

Republibot 2.0 says:
Young Courtney Cox, no?

Republibot 1.0 says:
that is it

Republibot 3.0 says:
Sorry, I got distracted remembering "The Man From Atlantis" which was essentially an attempt to do an underwater Star Trek with a Superhero as Captain Kirk.

Republibot 2.0 says:
Well, Kirk wasn't far from a superhero, and Spock kind of WAS.

Republibot 3.0 says:
That's a good point: Super strong, super smart, emotionless, a token alien who's abilities were dictated by the expediencies of the script.

Republibot 2.0 says:
And the fact that Kirk is a direct (Wold-Newton) line descendant of Dick Grayson...

Republibot 1.0 says:
Exactly! I need to get that book - I have Tarzan Alive by PJF, but want Doc Savage and his apocalyptic life. I loved Man from Atlantis, even if nothing every happened, I remember wanting to go swimming at the local pool just to try to swim like him

Republibot 2.0 says:
That underwater butterfly is hard to pull off.

Republibot 1.0 says:
So, what have we decided then here? That TV and Film/live action - needs to scale appropriately for the scope presented?

Republibot 2.0 says:
That I need to run Smallville for the next ten years

Republibot 3.0 says:
I'd agree with both of those.

Republibot 1.0 says:
Would you get them out of Smallville? If so, the job is yours…

Republibot 2.0 says:
Yes. It would be Metropolis. Apologizing to Fritz Lang all the way...

Republibot 1.0 says:
Clark with Lois will always be Smallville, but they seem to have screwed up that dynamic in what little i have seen of the show.

Republibot 2.0 says:
Yeah. Pretty badly. We can have a How I'd fix Smallville roundtable on another rerun night.

Republibot 3.0 says:
Ok. Let's do that. So are we done here? Any last thoughts?

Republibot 1.0 says:
I hope Watchmen works. I want to direct a live action adaptation of Mike Barron's The Badger

Republibot 3.0 says:
Won't. They've already changed the ending. And the movie's already been made as "The Incredibles."

Republibot 1.0 says:
Well if they get 90% of the running time right I can live with that - I have lived through bigger disappointments.

Republibot 2.0 says:
Yeah. Superman IV.

Republibot 3.0 says:
Superman Returns.

Republibot 1.0 says:
I know you guys aren’t fans, but I liked it - it isn't perfect, but I agreed with most of the decisions on that movie.

Republibot 2.0 says:
I liked it. But I wanted to love it, and couldn't.
It was a sloppy wet love letter to Richard Donner.

Republibot 3.0 says:
I liked the fundamental idea, but the execution mostly stank. But we're getting off topic. Do we have any final words?

Republibot 2.0 says:
Yes: Although we all have (to varying degrees) quibbles with Smallville, I think we've figured out why it's worked. So far.

Republibot 1.0 says:
I just want to reiterate my final words - I WANT TO DIRECT A LIVE ACTION ADAPTATION OF MIKE BARRON’S “THE BADGER!” Its time has come

Republibot 2.0 says:
We don't need no steenking Badgers.....

Republibot 1.0 says:
Heheh… It can star Bob Hoskins and Van Wilder

Republibot 3.0 says:
Ok. Thanks. Goodnight, and thank you for reading. Tune in next week when our topic will be: "Canadian Hookers? Are their weird teeth worth the extra money?"

Tags: