Nine superhero TV dramas entered the ring to battle it out this year, but which ones came out on top? The count-down starts here...
September 29th, 2015 saw the latest season of televised shows themed around the comic-book medium’s most iconic bunch of protagonists, its superheroes, kick off with the broadcast of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ambitious Season Three opener “Laws of Nature”; last Wednesday saw it end with Arrow’s markedly less ambitious Season Four finale “Schism”. Between those two crucial dates, more than 160 instalments’ worth of super-powered adventure have transmitted on our TV sets via ABC, CBS, Fox, The CW and Netflix, thereby allowing fans the world over to continue following the exploits of both renowned and little-known defenders of global justice alike.
Yet out of the nine core superhero shows which aired new runs over the course of this eventful period – Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Gotham, The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, Jessica Jones, Agent Carter, Legends of Tomorrow and Daredevil – which ones soared higher than the Woman of Steel herself to stand out as the year’s best, and which ones sunk lower than Frank Castle in their attempts to succeed against their popular genre competitors? Now that the season in question has reached its inevitable conclusion, there’ll be no better time to cast our all-seeing eyes back – in the fashion of Marvel Comics’ late Watcher – through the last eight months of programming so as to rank each and every contender once and for all, starting today with the seasons that ranked from ninth to fifth place…
CBS may well have relegated their first DC Comics drama to the budget-strapped ‘depths’ of The CW – though somewhat ironically, that move will almost certainly prove to be the show’s salvation down the line – after just a single season, but that doesn’t mean the first season of Supergirl was without merits by any stretch to the imagination. Just take a look at how the captivating “Falling” turned the titular inspirational protagonist’s innocent, benevolent personality on its head in the nick of time, or how “World’s Finest” introduced Kara Danvers’ Kryptonian alter-ego to a wider universe via a crossover with The CW’s The Flash, or even how “Strange Visitor from Another Planet” revealed the beloved Martian Manhunter’s mythology in breath-taking style for the first time in a live adaptation since Smallville, another CW property – see why we’re optimistic about the show’s future over on that network?
For every fleeting moment of greatness such as these, however, came what felt like a dozen filler episodes jam-packed with forgettable villains like Livewire and Kara’s aunt Astra, infuriating love triangles involving often one-dimensional supporting characters like James Olsen and Win Schott, and worst of all borderline insulting feminist undertones that would have been applauded in the 1980s but instead feel hopelessly dated to the point of rendering supposedly righteous characters like Kara and Kat as unrealistic proponents of the cause who can’t go a single moment without having to justify their actions to ‘superior’ male constructs. Yes, we live in a world where there’s still gender inequality on a troubling scale, but having a series try to counteract that only to produce the most bland stereotypes of male characters, obsess with counterproductive love triangles and have Kara rely on Clark to save the world on multiple occasions is far from the best way to go about it. That said, Supergirl may yet grow into a DC adaptation for The CW to be proud of, so long as showrunner Greg Berlanti comes to realize that there’s far more to the character, her supporting players and their foils than age-old gender superiority / inferiority arguments in future seasons.
- Marvel’s Agent Carter Season Two
Much like the previous entry on this list, Agent Carter suffered in its early days from placing far too much of its attention on the immense difficulties faced by women trying to succeed post-World War Two, once again resulting in one-dimensional male archetypes who didn’t so much strengthen our sympathies for the lead heroine as leave many of us confounded by how staggeringly reductive showrunners Tara Butters, Michele Fazekas and Chris Dingess were being in their characterisation. Blemishes like this one weren’t helped in Season One by the laborious nature of the overarching crime solving plot, and whilst Season Two shed much of the predictable gender discussions, this issue of trying to fill ten semi-procedural, semi-serialized instalments of television with enough twists and turns to ensure that Peggy didn’t solve the mystery of the elusive Council of Nine’s plans for Hollywood in a single hour persisted throughout the show’s sophomore run.
Thankfully, ABC were at least wise enough only to hand the show a further ten episodes this year for Season Two, meaning that we weren’t forced to endure twenty-two hours’ worth of plodding detective work, but even so, that didn’t make the experience of watching Peggy and the ever-lovable Jarvis – who at least came into his own this time around thanks to James D’Arcy’s stunning performance – oh-so-slowly track the whereabouts of Whitney Frost across the state of California any more compelling. Indeed, although some of its episodes contained stand-out sequences like the penultimate instalment’s inspired – if left-field – musical number and the writers’ bold move of having Jarvis’ spouse lose her unborn child thanks to Frost’s machinations, by the finale it was simply difficult to care much for any of the show’s sub-par plot arcs anymore, hence why the show’s fast-diminishing viewing ratings as well as its recent cancellation came as little surprise to this viewer.
- DC’s Legends of Tomorrow Season One
Perhaps more-so than any other super-heroic contender on the small-screen stage this year, Legends of Tomorrow seemed to boast all the makings of a masterpiece from the very moment of its inception; after all, given the success with which both Arrow and The Flash had previously met on The CW, what could be the harm in extracting a bunch of their most acclaimed secondary characters – White Canary, Hawkgirl, Hawkman, Captain Cold, Heatwave, The Atom and Firestorm – to unite against a common enemy, the immortal dictator Vandal Savage, with the help of rogue Time Master Rip Hunter no less, in a time-travelling adventure for the ages? Unfortunately, though, that question would perhaps have best been left as a rhetorical one, since over the course of sixteen wildly varied outings, Legends demonstrated just why its ambitious premise didn’t automatically guarantee the DC TV universe’s finest hour.
Like both Supergirl Season One and Agent Carter before it, the third series in the Arrow-verse had its highlights, not least its gradual transformation of Cold – aka Leonard Snart – into a far more emotionally layered and therefore engaging character than he ever proved to be in his brief appearances on The Flash, as well as when the show mimicked The Dark Knight Returns by taking those viewers who remained to “Star City 2046” so as to reveal what had become of the Green Arrow and his city in the so-called Legends’ absence. All the same, that the series’ casting team picked the candidate with the least screen presence or intimidation factor to play Savage in the form of Casper Crump really didn’t help its favour, nor the writers’ insistence upon burdening us with cumbersome love triangle elements throughout the run and their struggle to find many weekly plots to throw our way beyond “the team finds Savage in a new era, tries to defeat him, accidentally screws up time then barely lives to fight another day”. There’s work aplenty to be done before Season Two airs this Autumn, then, but if the show can realign its priorities to focus on its bombastic action set-pieces and endearing humour – as well as the much-vaunted arrival of the Justice Society of America via Patrick J. Adams’ take on Hourman – perhaps it can still achieve legendary status of a similar kind to that desired by its leading ragtag group of wayward souls.
- Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season Three
Remember when Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. used to at least try and convince its viewership that it was offering up a genuinely meaningful contribution to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, be it by revealing what lay next for S.H.I.E.L.D. beyond its supposed destruction in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier or how Nick Fury managed to rebuild the Helicarrier in time for the events of 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron? Those were the days. Barring the odd mention of the Pym Technologies or the recently-unveiled Sokovia Accords, S.H.I.E.L.D. steered well and truly clear of any directly MCU-related developments this year, seemingly confirming that Marvel Studios’ Inhumans movie remains a way off by developing the titular alien species without giving any hints as to how – or even if – they will cross into the Avengers’ paths one day.
That’s less of a problem than the show’s writing team still feeling the need to stuff each run with primarily filler-based episodes so as to kill time until their mid-season and season finales, however. Although it’s not much of an issue as it was for Supergirl or Legends this year, that we spent hours upon hours witnessing the sinister schemes of Brett Dalton’s Hive slowly start to come to light when these machinations could have progressed with far greater haste over the course of a 10-15 part season was infuriating to say the least, as was the relegation of initially compelling Inhumans like Lash, Yo-Yo and the remainder of Daisy’s much-hyped Secret Warriors – who currently don’t look to have any more lasting power than the Avengers themselves given how quickly they fell apart during their first mission in “The Team” – to the background for weeks on end. Thank goodness for Dalton, then, who excelled both as Ward – who took jaw-dropping moves to force ex-Director Phil Coulson’s hand in the Autumn – and Hive – whose cold, subdued personality sent shivers down many a fan’s spine throughout the Spring – to the extent that many of the series’ ongoing flaws could instantly be forgotten on a regular basis, thereby allowing Season Three to build to an absolutely stunning final two-parter which not only resolved the long-running “Fallen Agent” arc in alarming fashion but also gave Hive the best send-off yet for a S.H.I.E.L.D. villain.
Hopefully Marvel’s Agent Carter’s cancellation and Marvel’s Most Wanted’s premature termination don’t bode negatively for S.H.I.E.L.D.’s future, since despite the programme still sporting its fair share of shortcomings these days, its spellbinding portrayal of Hive as well as its masterful Season Three finale prove that it’s still packing enough dramatic weight to warrant ABC keeping Phil Coulson’s team on their airwaves for a good while yet, especially if the shocking final moments of “Ascension” were any indication of what’s to come.
- Gotham Season Two
If DC’s Legends of Tomorrow appeared to have the easiest job ahead of it in bringing together a team of already cherished characters for an Avengers-esque ensemble saga, then Gotham in contrast arguably faced the toughest challenge from the moment of its inception: create a superhero-less detective narrative which showcased the merits of the Dark Knight’s world without being able to feature the Caped Crusader in any way, shape or form. Yours truly still can’t help but wish the show would kill off its young incarnation of Bruce Wayne in favour of affording leading man Jim Gordon – still played with a wholly underwhelming degree of soullessness by Ben McKenzie – the Bat-mantle as was recently the case in DC’s New 52 comics, but what we got instead in Season Two still made for perfectly watchable, if unquestionably flawed, television nevertheless.
Admittedly, if we were to evaluate this year’s inconsistent string of episodes on the second half, “Wrath of the Villains”, wherein an impressively sympathetic version of Mr. Freeze couldn’t save the scripts from becoming far too bogged down with their ludicrous take on B.D. Wong’s likable but shallow Hugo Strange or their even more ludicrous decision to resurrect Jada Pinkett Smith’s frankly intolerable Fish Mooney, Season Two would therefore hardly seem to represent a great improvement on its oft-diabolical predecessor. Thanks to the far more enjoyable first half entitled “Rise of the Villains”, however, the run produced more than its fair share of noteworthy instalments – between the intriguing introduction of the Order of St Dumas via the infinitely charming Theo Galavan, Bruce’s compelling romance with Galavan’s daughter, the fascinating rise of Jim’s ex-wife Barbara into a Harley Quinn-style femme fatale role and above all Cameron Monaghan’s unmissable continuation of his performance as the Joker precursor Jerome, Season Two’s first half was packed to the brim with strong contributory elements that made the opening ten episodes easily the most compelling serialized narrative experience that Gotham’s writers have managed to create so far. More like this, please!
Be sure to check back later this week for the second half of our countdown of 2015-16’s superhero TV shows, wherein we’ll be ranking Daredevil Season Two, Arrow Season Four, The Flash Season Two and Jessica Jones’ debut run…