CBS's new show "Supergirl" has started off strong. The reviews are mostly positive, the ratings are good. Then again, you could have said the same thing about "Gotham" a year ago. Fox's Batman prequel about Bruce Wayne's childhood and the early adventures of future police commissioner James Gordon looked like a ratings powerhouse, but it has struggled to hold on to its audience and to figure out what kind of show it wants to be. The tone has shifted from bonkers plot twists to intimate drama to shocking and grotesque violence. And, it turns out, that may be the biggest challenge in adapting comic books to TV: finding the right tone.
Of course, the age of TV superheroes began with Supergirl's cousin Superman in the 1950s. It seemed like an odd choice, putting a character with unlimited super abilities on television, where the special effects where limited to cutting away to George Reeves lying on a table with a projection of the sky behind him. The constrictions of television forced the writers to flesh out the very human characters at the Daily Planet and Clark Kent's relationship to them, which ultimately made Superman a more interesting character. But the show had a strange quirk of constantly winking at the audience — I mean, George Reeves literally winked at the audience. Jerry Seinfeld used to do a stand-up bit where he wondered as a kid why the show would break its already fragile suspension of disbelief with those winks — which he later parodied in the "Seinfeld" episode "The Race," in which Jerry's character dates a woman named Lois.
Superhero shows only got campier over the years — from "Wonder Woman" in the 1970s to the 90s rom-com "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman." But the tone started to shift in the fall of 2001, when "Smallville" debuted on the WB network. The first posters showed a teenage Clark Kent crucified in a corn field with the S logo painted on his bare chest. The poster, and the scene it depicts, led some to ask whether "Smallville" was referencing the murder of Matthew Shepard — some heavy subject matter indeed. But the show never really explored the darkness of its premise. Its Clark Kent wasn't all that tortured, and the show became "Dawson's Creek" with superpowers, which eventually morphed into an update on "Lois & Clark."
In fact, the genre didn't really evolve until Marvel brought "Daredevil" to Netflix earlier this year. Fans weren't hopeful — no one was clamoring to revisit the notorious 2003 box office dud starring Ben Affleck as a blind lawyer with extrasensory perception. But on Netflix, the "Daredevil" series proved you don't have to adapt comic books with ironic air quotes. The show's dark visual palette matched its themes. Great care was put into staging the fights. Vincent D'Onofrio played Daredevil's arch nemesis, the Kingpin, with pathos and sadness. The show treated its material seriously and its audience like grown-ups.
The next show coming from Marvel and Netflix is "Jessica Jones," about a superhero who becomes a private eye after being tormented by her arch nemesis. Her character will eventually team up with Daredevil to form the Defenders, a small-scale version of the Avengers.
Which brings us back to "Supergirl." Marvel has shown the way towards successful comic book adaptations by mining their dark emotional content. But what if your main character is a ray of positive energy? That's even tougher to pull off, and so far "Supergirl" has done a good job. Her main relationships are with a sister (from her adopted Earth family) who turns out to be part of an elite government agency, a high powered media mogul boss, and a rogue criminal aunt who survived the destruction of Krypton. That's four major female characters. The stakes feel real and the tone of the show has stayed fun. The writers are making good use of the limits of television. I wish I could say the same for their special effects department. You know we can see that she's hanging from wires, right?
That's why the best superhero TV shows in recent years have been animated, like Young Justice, about the sidekicks of the DC heroes who form their own junior league, and Green Lantern, which focused on a doomed love story between an anti-hero Red Lantern and their spaceship's A.I. Both shows were critically praised but cancelled when Cartoon Network execs allegedly realized the complex storylines were turning off boys and drawing in girls (and adult viewers) who weren't buying enough toys. Let's hope that merchandising is less important to a prestige streaming service like Netflix.