07th Oct2015

The DC Universe – It’s life on TV

by Phil Wheat

Superheroes have been leaping off the printed page and onto the small screen for as long as television has been in existence, and there’s never been a better time for comic book fans to binge on the TV exploits of their favourite crime-fighting characters with dozens of series either in production or on the way…

Interestingly it’s DC Comics who are currently leading the charge on television, thanks to the likes of Arrow and The Flash – both of which have seemingly changed the way superheroes are brought to TV. No longer are superhero shows camp and OTT, instead they have become much more like the very comic books that inspired them, telling rich stories within huge universes; and thankfully television networks haven’t been afraid to bring the epic “crossover” to the small screen either. Be it Arrow and The Flash and their irregular team-ups, or 90s Flash characters reappearing in the new show, or – coming very soon – an entire series about various superheroes coming together to fight a bigger foe (definitely look out for Legends of Tomorrow when it airs, it looks fantastic!)

With the new TV season in full swing, and the return of Arrow, now in its fourth season, to US television today AND the recent UK Blu-ray and DVD release of Arrow: The Complete Third Season, we’re taking a look at a handful of our favourite DC Comics characters AND their TV shows…

DC-Comics-header

1. Arrow

Billionaire playboy Oliver Queen is missing and presumed dead when his yacht is lost at sea. He returns five years later a changed man, determined to clean up the city as a hooded vigilante armed with a bow. Arrow premiered in the US in 2012, although the Oliver Queen/Green Arrow character had previously appeared in different form in Smallville. It’s Arrow than can be held “responsible” for the current success of DC heroes on television, the series has really captured the imagination of comic fans and non-comic fans alike.

2. The Flash

Barry Allen wakes up 9 months after he was struck by lightning and discovers that the bolt gave him the power of super speed. With his new team and powers, Barry becomes “The Flash” and fights crime in Central City, moving through the city as an unseen guardian angel. The first spinoff from Green Arrow when it launched in 2014, The Flash has been an electrifying hit in its own right, although it’s not the first time that the character of Barry Allen/The Flash has been brought to the small screen. A previous Flash series aired on CBS in the early 1990s, starring this generations Flash’s father – actor John Wesley Shipp – as the titular hero. And the new series hasn’t been afraid to reference the previous show either, with both Mark Hamill and Amanda Pays making the leap from the 90s iteration to todays.

3. Lois & Clark / Smallville / Superboy

If any comic book hero has had the most success on the small screen, it is Superman. Appearing in a new “guise” on TV for the past four four decades in one form or another, the character has had some of the highest-rated and most-beloved outing of any DC superhero.

Starting out in the 80s, fresh off the back of the success of the Superman film franchise, Superboy was the first successful live-action adaptation of the character since the George reeves, black & white era Superman. And whilst it didn’t take off aas well overseas as it did in the US. The show that followed: Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman did. In addition to fighting evil this take on the classic kept audiences on tenterhooks with Superman’s burning romance with Lois Lane in both his identities. This version created by Deborah Joy LeVine and starring Teri Hatcher and Dean Cain set the standard for comic book TV adaptations in the 1990s, running for four seasons.

The most recent TV adaptation of the classic hero took a little look back into the history of Superman… Smallville tells of a young Clark Kent as he struggles to find his place in the world, learning to harness his alien powers for good and dealing with the typical troubles of teenage life. Former Superman star Christopher Reeve expressed approval for the series, making two guest appearances before his death in 2004 and the show even made it to the 10 year mark – a feat few television series tend to achieve.

4. Batman / Gotham

Whilst the Dark Knight has had less of an storied history on television, the iconic 60s take on the Caped Crusader – starring Adam West and Burt Ward – is still one of the most beloved shows of that era (and some would say beyond). Still repeated on television to this day, Batman made a pop culture icon of actor Adam West. Yet it would be an animated take on the gothic hero that would truly make a mark on TV for Batman… Produced by Paul Dini, Batman: The Animated Series – a mainstay of 90s kids TV and still, to this day, seen by many as THE definitive televisual take on the DC legend – not only revitalised interest in the character on TV but on kids animation as a whole, leading to a number of DC animated series such as Superman: The Animated Series, Teen Titans, Batman Beyond, Static Shock and Justice League to name a few.

Which brings us up to today, and the fresh new take on the Batman universe, Gotham. Which – undoubtedly inspired by the comics Gotham Central and Batman: Streets of Gotham -  tells the story behind Commissioner James Gordon’s rise to prominence in Gotham City. A new recruit in the Police Department, James Gordon (played by Ben McKenzie) is paired with veteran detected Harvey Bullock to solve one of Gotham City’s highest profile cases: the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne, aka Batman’s parents…

5. Wonder Woman / Birds of Prey

Where would the DC universe be without its heroines? Riding on the crest of goodwill, and no doubt the syndicated repeats of the 60s Batman series and the success of shows like The Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman was a late-70s superhero show that is the only live-action show (until the failed pilot in 2011) to bring DC’s iconic heroine to the screen, maing a superstar of its leading lady, Lynda Carter, in the process. The show, whilst remembered fondly today (and which still plays on UK television each and every day), was not without it troubles. It took two TV movies and an eventual switch in US network channels for the show to find its feet, lasting three seasons in total.

It would be almost fifteen years before another live-action superhero show featuring a female central cast would air on television. Of course DC’s female characters appeared in many animated and live-action shows in the meantime but it took The WB’s Birds of Prey to bring another female-led DC comic to TV – even if the show was cancelled way too early after a mere thirteen episodes and that’s despite the series debut garnering the network’s largest premiere ratings ever (at the time) in the 18–34 demographic!
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This is only a snapshot of the vast array of DC Comics’ characters that have made the transition to TV. For more check out this fantastic and in-depth Wikipedia entry and of course Arrow: The Complete Third Season is out on Blu-ray and DVD now.

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