We live in what some might call “the golden age of comic book movies.” That is, we live in an age with a seemingly endless cycle of comic book films. Capes and cowls fill the big screen all months of the year. Next year alone will see the release of three X-Men movies, three Marvel Studios movies, a DC film, a Sony Pictures Spider-Man spin-off about Venom and others as well. But while comic book movies have only recently begun to dominate movie theaters, TV shows based on comic books have been popular since the early ’90s. It is television after all, not movies, that is designed to be literally episodic in nature, watched week to week, episode to episode, for as long as possible. While it is comic book movies that currently take up most of the airtime surrounding comic adaptations, I believe that TV is actually the medium most suited to adapting comics.
Unlike movies, TV shows don’t have to wrap up their storyline at the end of an episode. TV shows are built off the idea of a cliffhanger, of keeping the audience coming back week after week. TV shows may have given birth to the phrase “monster of the week,” but they really got that idea from comic books. Shows like “Smallville” or “Batman: The Animated Series,” based on comic book stories about Superman and Batman respectively, feature an ongoing storyline while also allowing their heroes to fight different villains and foes each episode. Cartoons in general are a natural home for superheroes, with colorful animation fitting in perfectly with the artwork that children are familiar with from reading comics. Shows like “Teen Titans,” “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” or “Riverdale” make great use of their admittedly silly source material by playing everything completely straight, and letting the drama play out as it would in a comic book, with twists taking weeks to play out and ending episodes in ways that always leave the audience wanting more.
Another way in which TV shows based on comics have succeeded where films have failed is the idea of the “Cinematic Universe.” This term first came into use around the time of the original “Avengers” movie. Pioneered by Marvel Studios, a “Cinematic Universe” is a series of interconnected films that all take place in the same “canon,” allowing them to build off of or out of each other. While this idea seemed novel at the time, TV beat them to the punch by almost two decades. The DC Animation Universe began in the early ’90s with “Batman: The Animated Series” and “Superman: The Animated Series.” These two series featured regular crossovers and eventually expanded their universe to include “Justice League,” “Justice League: Unlimited,” “Batman Beyond,” “Teen Titans,” “Static Shock” and many others. While DC fans continue to ring their hands over the fate of the DC Universe on the big screen, DC has twice over had the best interconnected television universe on the market. First with the DC Animated Universe of the ’90s and 2000s and now with the so-called CW Arrowverse, which includes the shows “Arrow,” “The Flash,” “Supergirl” and “Legends of Tomorrow.”
Indeed, TV is more suited to the connectivity that is featured so prominently in comics. In TV, it’s easier to contract actors through the network to appear on a multitude of shows, or to animate a bunch of background characters from another TV show without having to pay anyone a cent. In TV, long storylines that play out over a half-decade or longer are the norm, not the exception. It’s hard to really imagine a “Riverdale” movie, but the series works great on TV, where it is just schlocky enough to have some kind of bonkers appeal. TV shows also don’t have to reach nearly as large an audience in modern times as movies do, and in that way they can be more selective and considerate of the kinds of stories they want to tell. While movies appear to be the dominant form of comic book adaptations, TV shows remain strong, and it seems likely that they will once again become the prevailing method of comic book adaptation in the future.