Back in the early ’00s when the first X-Men movie came out, I was ecstatic. I had really been into the X-Men for years at that point (like many children of the ’90s, I discovered an abiding love for them after watching the cartoon), and a live action movie was pretty much the best thing that could have happened in my nerdy world. It’s important to remember that this was back before superheroes had proven themselves as a viable subject for live action cinema; the previous successful comic book adaptation had been Blade, which had the advantage of being grounded in supernatural horror, which audiences were a little more inclined to take seriously than the four-color world of conventional superheroes. I was hungry to see more of what film studios could do with superheroes, so I was a pretty voracious consumer of every comic book adaptation of the early ’00s (my greatest claim to shame is the fact that I owned a copy of Daredevil and thought it was objectively a good movie; the only defense I can offer is that it’s clinically proven that teenagers have the worst taste in everything). This was a rare breed of cinema, and I wanted to drink it all in, just in case the fad passed and there was never another superhero movie beyond Spider-Man 2 (fortunately, by the time Spider-Man 3 came out we had all figured out that Hollywood was going to bleed superheroes dry before moving on to something else, so I gradually learned to have more discerning tastes).
Flash forward a decade, and now we not only have two or three superhero movies coming out every year, but we also have a full range of television shows to choose from as well. You can indulge yourself in capes and cowls on a weekly basis instead of just as an annual event.
It’s a good time to be a comic book nerd. The fact that I sometimes still have trouble shaking that nagging feeling that this really is just a pop culture fad that’s going to run its course in a year (particularly on the television front) means that I’m having flashbacks of my youth when I wanted to see everything because it might be all we get.
I have never claimed that being a genre fan is an entirely rational experience.
Of course, being a good deal older this time around, I do try to engage with the media that I’m consuming and evaluate what’s good and what’s problematic. Enjoying something doesn’t mean you can’t question its presentation. So in that vein, here’s a (very brief) rundown of my thoughts on the superhero series I’ve been watching on a regular basis for the past few months.
Arrow – I’ve written a few times in the past about my thoughts on Arrow, and much of my earlier assessment still stands. Arrow is a show about a very rich guy who feels guilty about his unearned privilege and decides to make himself feel better about that privilege by becoming a vigilante who targets white collar criminals. The later seasons have given in to slight mission creep as the conflicts have shifted towards fighting organized crime (which often fails to explore the implications of a justice system that’s focused only on punishing crime instead of trying to correct the circumstances that lead to the crime in the first place), but the general attitude of the show is still very engaging. As someone who has never been a major DC Comics fan (aside from the various adaptations of Batman that have popped up over the years), I’m surprised with how much I enjoy watching this series, though I’d chalk that up to it being a generally good action-drama rather than just being a superhero show.
The Flash – This show’s still in its first season, and in some ways it’s still incredibly goofy (I want to giggle whenever I see Grant Gustin in the Flash costume, just because he looks so gangly in it; of course, then I think that he actually looks like he has a runner’s body, and I get over my giggles because a hero who’s all about moving fast probably shouldn’t look that buff anyway), but I have to say I’ve been taken with it from the first episode. If Arrow is a show that’s trying to explore the pathos of vigilantism, Flash is a show that’s trying to explore how much fun it would be to be a superhero. The two shows inhabit a shared universe, and I think that connective tissue went a long way towards helping me get into Flash. One thing I particularly love about it is the cast’s diversity. Of the show’s seven principle actors, three are people of color, and interracial romances are treated as nothing unusual (I know it’s weird to be praising something like this in 2015, but I’m having trouble thinking of other shows that have diverse enough casts to even make such a plot possible).
Agents of SHIELD – I’m playing catch up on season 1 at the moment, so I haven’t seen very much, but generally I like it. Though the main cast is a little white-washed (aside from Ming-Na Wen), the half dozen episodes I’ve seen do a good job of integrating people of color into the stories so that they’re significant players instead of just background. Of course, this show has Joss Whedon as a guiding influence, so it does slightly better in the realm of gender representation (the six principles are evenly split between men and women, and there’s an even distribution of skills across both sexes). If they introduce a recurring trans character who’s not a villainous stereotype, then I’ll be pretty happy with the casting. Plotwise, I know that there’s apparently some drag in the first season as they spend way too long circling the reveal that the shadow agency they keep running into is HYDRA and that it’s infiltrated SHIELD (thanks Captain America: The Winter Soldier!); I’m hoping that because I’m bingeing the season it won’t feel so aggravating for me.
Agent Carter – I’ve only seen the pilot episode at this point, and generally I liked it. My biggest complaint at this point is probably reflected in my assessment of the other shows that I’ve been watching: this show is white. Yes, it’s doing some great things depicting an independent woman who’s allowed to be competent at her very dangerous job, but it’s also running into the period piece pitfall of assuming people of color didn’t do anything in the 1940s. There was a nice bit in the pilot where they made the owner of a swanky nightclub that Carter investigates for fencing one of Howard Stark’s inventions a black man, but then they killed him off once his scene was over. I was disappointed that he didn’t turn into a recurring character (and from what I hear, he’s the last black person you see until episode 4, so that’s not very encouraging). I’m hoping for great things from Agent Carter, but I worry it’s going to be end up disappointing as it falls into the trap of pitting one axis of feminism against another.