SUPERHEROICS ON A BUDGET (PART 1)

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I grew up on comic books so the renaissance of shows, movies, games and more that have spawned from my old four-color playground has kept me in a high state of giddiness this whole century. Christopher Nolan’s sublime trio of movies about the Dark Knight, the success of Marvel Studios’ shared movie continuity, and Zack Snyder’s divisively debated Man of Steel are all holding down the movie side while the well-regarded Arkham series of video games about Batman and his world has fans anxiously awaiting every new chapter. Hell, even the sales of mainstream comics have seen a bump out of their usual doldrums since the advent of same-day digital. It’s a great time to be a fan of comic books and superheroes whether a noob, a vet, an all-consumer or a partisan. The medium that has seen the most growth in spreading the gospel of fantastic heroes fighting dastardly evil is television. The selection of shows, current and planned, offer much more than a momentary distraction during the wait for the next billion-dollar extravaganza from Hollywood.

The just concluded Fall premiere season brought a total of six shows with comic book roots but I’ll only be talking about five of them. No offense to fans of The Walking Dead who are reading this but zombies bore me. Three shows were new, four of them are from the DC/Vertigo canon and one from Marvel. They are in order of the nights they air: Gotham, The Flash, Agents of SHIELD, Arrow, and Constantine. Like fandom, I’ve got my likes and dislikes about each show but overall, they have proven to be quality television, not just good comic book shows.

So make sure your running shoes are tightly laced, your quiver is full, your magic talisman is handy, and your quinjet fueled up with the cloak activated because we’re about to go into a grand journey of superheroics on a budget.

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GOTHAM (Fox), Mondays at 8PM EST

Gotham, the most hyped new show of the Fall season, aims to tell the story of Batman’s city in the aftermath of the deaths of Bruce Wayne’s parents. The ten episodes aired so far follow a large and interconnected cast around a metropolis dark as Victorian London as reflected in a Dickensian novel. A few episodes have seemed unwieldy at times due to the many moving pieces and the creators’ interest in serving Easter eggs to hungry fan folks steeped in Bat-lore but, when it slows down, the kaleidoscopic cast easily propels the show’s central mystery of why Thomas and Martha Wayne were killed. From what I’ve seen so far, it was for more than Mrs. Wayne’s pearl necklace.

A nicer group you could find in Hell

A nicer group you could find in Hell

Our entree into this murky world is fresh-faced Detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie,) whose by-the-book methods clash from the start with the slovenly corruption of his department embodied in his cynical veteran partner, Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue). Gordon learns soon enough that being the seemingly lone good cop in a bad town that likes to be dirty is hard going. Everyone from the mayor on down is compromised and interested in making him as tainted as they are. Idealism is bad for business. Gordon finds out right quick there’s a murderer’s row of gangsters and hitmen eager to make sure he doesn’t rock the boat. Gangsters led by di capo di tutti capi, Don Carmine Falcone (John Doman), and supported by his scheming lieutenants who are gunning for his top spot like Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett-Smith) and Sal Maroni (David Zayas). The murderously ambitious Oswald “Don’t Call Him Penguin” Cobblepot (Robin Lord-Taylor) is in the background creeping on his own come up and he’s not averse to spilling a little (okay, a lot of blood) to succeed Don Falcone.

Brucie, this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Brucie, this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Throw in the crazy that Gotham seems to attract like hypnotized serial killers, mad chemists, and vigilantes who kill criminals with weather balloons and Gordon has his plate full honoring the vow he made to young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) the night his parents were killed that he would find out who did it despite the cost. He’d better get a move on with it too because the amazingly self-contained Bruce is laser-focused on the same goal as he conducts his own investigation with the help of his trusty butler and legal guardian, Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee), who is as down for a scrap as any Gotham thug. Just because Batman isn’t on the show doesn’t mean Batman isn’t on the show, if you catch my drift.

That’s some character list and I haven’t even mentioned the proto Bat-villains who have appeared on the show like Poison Ivy, Mr. Zsasz, the Riddler, Hush, Two-Face, and an agile street kid with a thing for cats who witnessed the Waynes’ murder, Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova).

It all creates a gumbo mix of personalities and tones that takes something from every era of the Batman mythos. There’s the gangster element reminiscent of the Depression Era when the Bat was created, the zany camp of the Adam West show from the 60’s, the grit and urban decay from Frank Miller’s seminal tomes, and the paranoid darkness of the Nolan films. All these elements play out in a gray, overcast Gotham City that perfectly combines the Gothic influences of Anton Furst and Tim Burton from the latter’s movies with the modern verisimilitude of the Nolan trilogy strained through The French Connection. This authentic setting combined with the accomplished cast led by McKenzie’s good-hearted but tough Gordon truly makes the show a satisfying treat on many levels. McKenzie has taken what could have been a thankless straight man role and made it a foundation that allows consummate professionals like Pinkett-Smith, Logue, and Lord-Taylor, the show’s revelation, to chomp down on the scenery when the main conflict of certain episodes have proven to be rather bland.

Showrunner Bruno Heller, the mastermind behind well-regarded programs The Mentalist and Rome, is responsible for stirring up this concoction and despite some peculiar ingredients like the buffoonery of Gotham’s mayor (Richard Kind) and the unrealistically complete venality of the GCPD, his show at the midway point of its maiden season has a
savory taste that has me back every Monday night with my empty bowl asking for more.

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THE FLASH (CW), Tuesdays at 8PM EST

Now let’s move from the misty gloom of Gotham City to the breezy sunshine of Central City, home of the Fastest Man Alive and the breakout hit of the season, The Flash. The Scarlet Speedster anchors the most joyful of all the superhero shows currently airing. DC Comics head creative honcho, Geoff Johns, said in the lead up to the series premiere that it would be the most faithful superhero show ever made and I can’t argue with him. Sure, it’s not an exact translation of the Flash stories from the source material but it has the spirit of the comics down cold which makes for a fun sixty minutes every time the show comes on.

The Flash chronicles the adventures of Barry Allen (Grant Gustin), a crime scene investigator, who becomes the fastest human ever in true comic book fashion after a particle-accelerated lightning bolt hits a bank of chemicals that bathe him in electrified goodness and knock him into a nine-month coma. When he awakens Barry discovers he has superhero abs and enough speed to run circles around Usain Bolt going backward. He’s also become a human guinea pig of sorts for the remaining staff of S.T.A.R. Labs which has fallen on hard times after the particle accelerator the scientific concern turned on to great pomp and circumstance nearly destroyed the city and left behind a new and angry subset of humanity called metahumans. The staff made up of Caitlin Snow (Danielle Pannabaker), Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdez), and the founder and leader of STAR Labs, the mysterious Dr. Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanaugh), see Barry as the key to making right what went wrong when the particle accelerator malfunctioned by neutralizing the metahumans who cause trouble with their new found powers. They also want to study the effects Barry’s speed has on his physiology, even if all this scientific attention is less than altruistic on Dr. Wells’ end.

This sounds good to Barry and it isn’t long before he’s zipping through the streets of Central City in a lurid crimson bodysuit doing the hero thing. This is only natural since Barry is a genuinely good guy who wants to help people in any way he can, particularly his wrongly imprisoned father, Henry (John Wesley Shipp). Despite his natural optimism, there is much darkness in Barry’s history from the night fourteen years previously when a whirlwind of red and yellow light with a man (or men) inside of it came into his home and left his mother dead with his father framed for her murder. That night drives him to find out what or who killed his mother so he can get justice for her and free his father.

That quest for personal justice is what drove Barry to excel in scientific studies while tracking down every bit of weird and unexplained phenomena he could find to get to the bottom of this tragedy. It also eventually led him into the orbit of the Starling City vigilante, the (not yet Green) Arrow, shortly before his encounter with that lightning bolt. Yes, The Flash and the other CW comic book show, Arrow, take place in the same world as shown by the two-part backdoor pilot for the speedster during the latter’s second season.

Barry didn't get the message that you can't smile while wearing a mask

Barry didn’t get the message that you can’t smile while wearing a mask

The introduction of Barry on the established Arrow last year brought the show some of its biggest ratings so it was no surprise that Warner Brothers, the studio that owns DC Comics, greenlit a show for young Mr. Allen. I knew the show was a go when I saw how engaging Gustin was as Barry Allen and figured he would be able to carry a program about such an iconic superhero on his wiry runner’s frame despite his young age. Gustin’s youth and the earnest way he acts have turned out to be positives though because it doesn’t allow his character to be jaded or conflicted about his superspeed and actually allows himself to enjoy being a hero, a switch from many comic book do-gooders who come across as broody and resentful of their special gifts and circumstances. Gustin’s Barry knows running around in a red fire suit fighting men of steel and human bombs is dangerous but he can’t help but race into the breach with an infectious confidence that he’s going to stop the bad guy and make everything right.

Can you adopt me too, Joe?

Can you adopt me too, Joe?

It’s not difficult to see where Barry’s boundless optimism was nurtured whenever his foster father, Detective Joe West (Jesse L. Martin), and his daughter, Iris (Candice Patton), who Barry loves too much to ever consider as a foster sister, step into the picture. Joe and Iris show that love is a force just as powerful as superspeed in surviving tragedy and coming out stronger on the other side. The Wests’ fondness for Barry is evident seemingly every episode, even when they have to toughen it up to keep his speedy feet solidly on the ground. Jesse L. Martin in particular makes my eyes a little misty every time he has one of his heart-to-hearts with his foster son. Watch the mid-season finale if you don’t believe me to see what I’m talking about but grab a few Kleenex though because you may need them.

Candice Patton as Iris and Rick Cosnett as Det. Eddie Thawne, Joe’s partner and Barry’s rival for Iris’ affections, are the only members of the cast who haven’t been well served in the first nine episodes but the midseason finale looks to address that going forward. If Johns’ boasting proves true about the faithfulness of the show then there’s more than enough material in their respective comic book futures to test their acting chops.

The Flash springs from the same brain trust behind Arrow, Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Kreisberg, so there is no drop in quality from the older series to its shinier, younger sibling. My main worry before the show began was how the crew behind the camera would pull off the much more complicated special effects needed as compared to its predecessor on a television budget. The EFX crew proves weekly it’s smarter than me with how seamlessly the running and other effects are presented because they are just short of movie quality. There were some hiccups with the look of the Mist in the third episode but the SFX really popped in the midseason finale when Barry faced off against the Reverse Flash, the Man in the Yellow Suit, whom he holds responsible for the death of his mother, along with an appearance by the hero Firestorm (Robbie Amell) in all his blazing glory.

I have to really struggle to find criticisms for The Flash but everything I come up with are only nitpicks that I expect to improve as the series goes on. The show is already a major success for a network considered lightweight when compared to its more established peers so it’s already far ahead of where many thought it would be. The trio of showrunners who have crafted the show’s initial success should be able to continue exceeding expectations because subplots abound on this show but unlike Gotham they don’t weigh down the forward propulsion of the individual episodes while building to a greater climax since Dr. Wells has already shown us a possible future for young Barry ten years down the road. By then we the viewers should know how Firestorm was created, what really happened in Barry’s home the night his mother was killed, how fast Barry can really move, and the identity of the Man in the Yellow Suit. So many cliffhangers, so many days before the new episodes start in mid-January. How is it that a show about the fastest man alive makes us wait so long before it comes back?
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AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC), Tuesdays at 9PM EST

The lone Marvel televised entry in this listing is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (AOS) which is leaps and bounds better so far in its second season than it was in the first but honestly, that just brings it up to serviceable from dreck. AOS’s biggest strength is paradoxically its biggest weakness: it takes place in the same continuity as Marvel’s wildly successful movie universe which gave it instant geek cred last year but actually hobbles what the show can do on the smaller screen. While it was fun the first ten times in the first season hearing one of the agents reference the Battle of New York from The Avengers or make a joke about Norse gods falling from the sky a la Thor, it seemed as if the showrunners, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Taucheron, were content to present forgettable episodes for most of the episodes. Too many entries looked and felt like something out of the 80’s oeuvre of Stephen J. Cannell, who gave us the immortal Fall Guy, Hardcastle and McCormick, and The A-Team. That was good adventure programming thirty years ago but in today’s world of action shows with overarching, season-long storylines and movie quality digital effects, AOS came off as slight and skimpy, especially when compared to CW’s Arrow.

Oh, there were plotlines that played out most of the inaugural season like how the show’s lead, Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), managed to come back from the dead after being skewered by the God of Mischief’s, Loki, magic glow stick. And what was so special about Skye (Chloe Bennett), the hacktivist waif, who became part of Coulson’s team? But the payoffs usually turned out not to be worth all the buildup. It wasn’t until the ramifications from Captain America: The Winter Soldier that the show found any real footing. It is fun in concept to see a weekly show that ties into the Marvel Cinematic Universe but it becomes problematic when the most exciting plot developments take place on the silver screen and not the television screen.

The Sexy Ass-Kicker

The Sexy Ass-Kicker

That said, this season AOS has not wasted too much of the momentum from the Captain America sequel as Coulson now leads a much smaller version of S.H.I.E.L.D., on the defensive from a resurgent Hydra and the governments of the world because of the evil organization’s infiltration of the spy agency. This has made for some diverting episodes and action beats like Agent Melinda May (Ming Na Wen) literally fighting against herself, actually a disguised, brainwashed fellow agent, and a counter-infiltration of Hydra headquarters by Simmons (Elizabeth Hentsridge), the cute as a button techie no one would ever suspect of going on a deep cover assignment. The sophomore season has also brought in heroes and villains from Marvel continuity like Bobbi Morse aka Mockingbird (Adriane Padalicki), the Absorbing Man, and, notably, Kyle Machlachlan with hands dripping blood as Calvin Zabo alias Mr. Hyde, Skye’s father.

Throw in new and returning secondary members like Trip (BJ Britt), Mack (Henry Simmons), and the Koenings (Patton Oswalt) along with the turncoat Agent Ward (Brett Dalton), who’s playing his own game, and AOS has a very engaging cast on paper that’s not very interesting in execution. The worst parts of the cast are the brain-damaged Fitz (Iain de Castecker) and the roguishly lame mercenary Lance Hunter (Nick Blood). It really strains credulity that a squad on the run and facing danger from every darkened corner would actually waste time lugging around Fitz’s dead weight much less depend on him to save the whole group as he tries to overcome the injuries from Agent Ward’s betrayal last season and the mawkish flame he carries for Simmons.

What is and what could have been

What is and what could have been

Fitz’s storyline makes my eyes glaze over but Hunter’s supposedly charming scoundrel with a British accent makes me grind my teeth because he serves no real purpose. Instead of the writers giving more plot and action rhythms to returning cast member Trip or to the newcomer Mack they’re both reduced to grunt and nursemaid, respectively, so the twit Hunter can spout some tacky one-liners and make out in the back of vans with his ex-wife Mockingbird. Ain’t nobody got time for that. I would have rather seen Agent Trip’s backstory explored more of what his grandfather, one of the original Howling Commandos and founders of S.H.I.E.L.D., taught him growing up. I want to know more about Mack other than seeing him trying to read Fitz’s fried brain but his only real development came from falling down a deep shaft and coming up as a lumbering zombie with black-on-black eyes. Did I tell you I don’t like zombies? Well, I don’t like them or most horror movies because the same thing always happens to guys who look like Trip and Mack in them. While Mack’s eyes went back to their normal color at the end of the mid-season finale, *SPOILER ALERT* Agent Trip won’t be coming back, an unsurprising and clichéd end since the show has used tired old tropes from its inception.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has the bones of a much better show and while this season is an improvement, it’s still more DVR watching than must-see viewing. Sure Coulson and the Koenings get off some pithy quips, Agent May is always fascinating to look at, and the EFX have improved but the show is still a hodgepodge of cloak and dagger spy maneuvers with a sci-fi patina. The sci-fi beats are supposedly seeding the ground for the introduction of the mysterious Inhumans in their own movie a few years down the line and the Kree Empire, which figures to play a major role in the upcoming Captain Marvel flick as well. The problem is that just like with The Winter Soldier, the real payoff to these plots and world building will be seen at the movie theater instead of in prime time on your local ABC affiliate. Everything shown this season on AOS could have been done last year but the real shame of this series is that instead of being its own unique entity in the Marvel Universe it will only be permitted to spread its wings just so far. Just so far because corporate synergy trumps narrative originality every time.

–Jason O. Logan

Come back for Part 2 of Superheroics on a Budget tomorrow

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