What Should Be Next for Superhero Comics on TV?
Friends, these are dark times. Smallville has left us at last, and although it may have been an awkward guest that overstayed its welcome, its departure leaves an absence. With NBC’s decision not to pick up a proposed Wonder Woman series (and the cancellation of Fox’s Human Target), we’re about to enter an era in which there’ll be no live action series based on comics characters from a big shared superhero universe.
Granted, not every character in Marvel and DC’s extensive catalogues are right for TV adaptation. but in the hopes that we haven’t seen the last of characters making the leap to network television, here are a few possible choices from the Marvel and DC universes — ignoring those who’ve already gotten their live-action chance — who could make the jump to the lower special effects budget of the small screen.HEROES FOR HIRE
Luke and Danny have both nearly been the stars of feature films, but as of now the big screen still remains tantalizingly out of reach for the pair. So how about giving them a television series instead? Power Man and Iron Fist is a bit of an awkward title to attract the more mainstream fans a network television show’s going to need to survive, but why not make them the centerpiece of a vigilante crimefighting show set in New York called Heroes for Hire? If the show takes off that’ll mean more of Marvel’s street-level heroes might have a chance to join in.
It’d be a great chance for Marvel to find a way to showcase a bunch of its lesser known characters and to move into live-action TV after its success in films. They could film on location in NY, highlighting the fact that, unlike DC’s heroes, Marvel’s characters have their fictional adventures in real world cities. The fact that their lead characters’ superpowers mostly revolve around being good fighters who can hit really hard should be easy on the effects budget. And the attention both characters have received in recent years have created a ton of possible story threads the series could follow.
In Danny’s case in particular, Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker’s run on Immortal Iron Fist created an impressive mythos surrounding the character that could easily be separated from the rest of the Marvel Universe and presented on its own. I’m not sure how interested Marvel is in live action television projects, but the more I think doing the street-level New York heroes on TV would be a great companion piece to the Avengers in the theaters.
JIMMY WOO AND THE AGENTS OF ATLAS
Heroes for Hire would be an entertaining but safe television project for Marvel to attempt. If they were interested in trying something a little more daring, then Jeff Parker’s created the blueprint for them. Parker’s three Agents of Atlas series produced a little more than twenty issues but in that time developed an entertaining team of unlikely allies who inhabited their own richly developed corner of the Marvel Universe.
Made up of characters originally created during the ’40s and ’50s, the team may include an alien, an Atlantean royal, a robot, a goddess and a talking gorilla but its lead would have to be S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Jimmy Woo. Having served with the organization for decades, an aging Woo is critically injured on a mission and rejuvenated to both the body and the memories of his 1958 self. He then reunites with the other members of the team to uncover the secret conspiracies they investigated all those years ago.
While the characters tie in with other parts of the Marvel Universe in the comics, they could easily be removed and have Woo’s connections to S.H.I.E.L.D. recast as ties to a similar real world organization. It’d be an ambitious undertaking, with the special effects necessary to do convincing live action versions of M-11 the Human Robot and Ken “Gorilla Man” Hale likely to strain the budget of a TV show. But the decades-spanning secret world history conspiracies and appealing ensemble cast would make an Agents of Atlas TV show likely draw fans of shows like Lost, Fringe and The X-Files.
Yes, technically Tim Hunter, star of The Books of Magic, is from a Vertigo book and not the DC Universe proper. But the reason I’ve picked Tim is that he’s a wonderful connecting point for all the magical characters of the DC Universe and would offer the chance for an endless parade of cameos and recurring characters in a series where young Tim grows into his potential to be the most powerful user of magic in the world.
In Neil Gaiman’s four issue miniseries that introduces the character, we get appearances by John Constantine, Dr. Fate, Zatanna, Madame Xanadu, the Spectre, Dr. Occult, the Phantom Stranger and more. A TV series centered around Tim, which could reuse The Books of Magic as its title, has the potential to be for the magical side of the DCU what Smallville was to the normal capes and tights side. Except that while Smallville was an awkwardly expanded origin story that collided with the problem that it wasn’t allowed to be anything more than an origin story, The Books of Magic is an origin story to begin with and the framework of a young hero growing into his power is what’s supposed to happen.
Tim’s character should probably be aged a few years to late high school to avoid using a child actor, while John Constantine should be the other starring role as Tim’s older mentor figure (Yes, I remember that the Keanu Constantine film happened, but that hardly defined a lasting impression of the character). In a perfect world Hugh Laurie takes that part after he leaves House and I watch this series as long as it goes no matter how otherwise terrible it gets. And even in an entirely adequate world they’re able to get guest-star extraordinaire Mark Sheppard to take the role and I’m still thoroughly entertained by it.
Seriously, DC, if you can manage to get this show on the air just in time to catch the attention of a world full of people looking for their next fix after coming down from years of Harry Potter movies, you’ll have a hit. And I’m not only pushing this so hard because a live action show featuring the DC’s magical ensemble means that there might someday be an episode featuring Detective Chimp. I’ll admit it’s a pretty big reason, though.
I’d already mentioned Zatanna among the possible guest stars for a Books of Magic series. But since this article was prompted in part by NBC’s decision not to pick up the pilot of Wonder Woman, I felt compelled to answer the question “If Wonder Woman can’t get a TV show, what DC comics woman can?” And while a re-tooled Wonder Woman show still might have a better chance, I’m going with Zatanna as the next most likely option.
Honestly, the problem with a lot of DC’s best female characters is that they’re too tied in with the rest of the setting to be able to be removed and work by themselves. No matter how good they are as characters, I can’t see DC choosing to make a Supergirl series rather than Superman, or a Batwoman series instead of Batman. I don’t think they’d attempt a Catwoman series without Batman in it, and Batman seems to be restricted to movies for now. After the jokes about Wonder Woman’s costume, can you imagine what’d happen if someone tried to do a live action series with an accurate recreation of Power Girl’s costume? Or, conversely, the backlash if they tried to do a version of Power Girl’s costume without the boob window?
There’s Renee Montoya/The Question, but a live-action Question creates the problem of a character whose identifying trait is a blank face, which makes it a little tricky for the actor to perform to the best of their ability. While a Gotham Central series starring Renee would just be Homicide: Life on the Street with occasional guest appearances by Batman. And while I would watch that show on loop forever, Batman on TV still seems like a no-go.
Which brings us back to Zatanna. She separates out nicely from the rest of the DC Universe in much the same way Tim Hunter did, bringing along whatever magical friends and enemies might be convenient from episode to episode. And when I say that Zatanna separates out nicely, I’m also implying that this should in no way be a spin-off of the character’s guest appearances on Smallville.
Having Zatanna take her traveling magic act across the world, solving supernatural mysteries, seems like an obvious direction for the show, lthough it should make some effort to be more than just Magic Sexy Murder She Wrote. Paul Dini’s recent series has been a good example of how to send the character off on her own adventures, and Dini’s own experiences working in television and unbridled enthusiasm for the character make him a natural choice to include on such a project in some role. There’s also the issue of the backwards talking magic which, even if it could make the transition to live action, probably shouldn’t. Backwards talk would be to Zatanna what blue-star spangled underpants are to Wonder Woman, something a lot of people won’t be able to get over in order to enjoy the show. Maybe do a gag episode here or there that plays with it but then let it drop.
So there are a few possible comic heroes that could flourish on television. If a comic’s not listed here that doesn’t mean it’s bad. The belief that if a comic is good it should be put on TV or in a movie, as if that’s somehow a promotion that validates it as worthy, is a dangerous one. Not every comic story or character is going to work as well in another medium as in does in print. And there’s nothing wrong with a comic that only works as a good comic. But that being said, Marvel and DC have many more characters to offer, so who do you think is best suited for a television series?