Have We Reached Peak Superhero TV?

Superhero shows dominate the television landscape, but their dominance might be waning. There are currently more than two dozen superhero shows on-the-air or in-production, according to Bloomberg. DC and Marvel have deep benches of heroes and villains, along with decades of published stories. So, there’s plenty of material for Hollywood to mine, but how much is too much?

Eventually, every genre runs out of steam. Westerns dominated TV screens in the 40s and 50s but are almost entirely absent from the airwaves today. At their peak in 1959, there were 26 prime-time westerns (back when you could count TV channels on one hand). As American culture shifted towards real-world issues in the late 60s — Moonshot, Watergate, Vietnam, and Manson — the western’s enduring archetypes and old-school philosophies lost their relevance and faded away.

And yet, TV westerns didn’t really die; they evolved and morphed into police dramas, crime anthologies, sci-fi escapism, and even the superhero shows of today. Netflix’s Daredevil and Luke Cage are modern-day westerns — frontier lawmen keeping their towns safe from black-hat outsiders. Unfortunately, today’s superhero shows are sliding into the same formulaic traps as the westerns: they’re telling the same stories over and over again, and audiences are starting to tune out.

Over saturation and stagnation are the Achilles’ heels for every TV genre.

Additionally, there are simply too many superhero shows to choose from. Hollywood has long relied upon the devotion and passion of comic book fans to keep these series afloat. It all started when The CW network launched Arrow — based on DC Comic’s long-running Green Arrow comic book — back in 2012. Arrow respected its source material, and fans turned up in droves — this show established the viability of live-action, superhero content on TV (Arrow is now in its sixth season and counting).

Since Arrow‘s debut, nearly every network, cable channel, and streaming service has launched one or more superhero series (usually more). The range of styles and tones varies quite a bit too: from kiddie-fare on Freeform, to family-safe on The CW, to mature-only on Netflix and Hulu. Here’s the problem: how many of these shows can a dedicated fan possibly consume? 20-25 hours per week is quite an investment, for even the most devout viewer.

The glut of viewing options is an issue, but it’s far the only problem in this genre. Superhero series are failing at an alarming rate. Quality is one reason, recognizability is another. NBC developed several superhero series with no-name or invented characters: Heroes, Powerless, and The Cape (only Heroes lasted more than single season). The CW took the opposite route by investing in several of DC’s lesser-known characters (The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, Black Lightning), each show started out strong, but their ratings are all rapidly diminishing.

It’s hard to build a massive audience around “B” and “C” level characters; harder still with original concepts. Unfortunately, most of DC and Marvel’s “A-list” heroes are reserved for the big screen (Batman, Superman, Captain America, Spider-Man). Translation: TV is stuck with properties that lack critical mainstream appeal, limiting the attractiveness of these shows to a wider audience. Netflix and The CW countered by establishing ongoing, shared universes: The Defenders and the Arrowverse, respectively — this is the kind of innovation the genre needs, but it creates complexity and continuity issues over time that are barriers to entry for new fans.

Perhaps the greatest struggle superhero TV shows face is fragmentation. Audiences are scattered across cable, the Internet, streaming services, and mobile platforms. It’s challenging (if not impossible) to market these shows to every potential viewer because the entire eco-system is in-flux — and that’s not going to change.

For example, ABC and Marvel’s The Inhumans is the latest superhero property to fail, and it should be recognized as a canary in the coal mine. It’s a C-level Marvel title, to be generous, but it failed despite a major marketing push by Disney and IMAX. Ultimately, the show was plagued by bad storytelling, weak characters, and poor execution — but so are a lot of these shows. What happened?

The Inhumans wasn’t necessarily better or worse than anything else in the genre, which suggests that it simply couldn’t find a sufficient audience (and it was buried on Friday night, a death sentence for most shows, regardless of genre). As more superhero shows debut in the future, it’s only going to get harder to pry fans away from what they’re already watching. Ultimately, there are already too many superhero shows on TV; to survive they need to innovate, evolve, and take bigger chances… or risk going the way of the western.

SOURCE: CBR, Bloomber, NYPL, The Atlantic