Earlier this week, I wrote about 2016 ‐ yes, the glorious, shiny new year we’ve just entered ‐ being the year of the post-superhero superhero movie, and today I wanted to to explore that idea further. In this second part, I’ll be focusing on the television and streaming end of the cinematic superhero universes. I know, I know, that makes the “movie” part of the title false advertising now, but let’s move on.
Now, TV and streaming have been far ahead of the curve of blockbuster Hollywood in recent years when it comes to experimental and more complex fare, so I admit that this article might be a bit of a cheat as we’ve already seen the trend of the post-superhero superhero begin on the small screen. But it will really push the envelope in 2016 for a number of reasons.
When it comes to adult-themed comic books adapted for TV, AMC’s The Walking Dead is the granddaddy of them all. It’s been killing characters left and right, Game of Thrones style, for years, and bringing a level of violence to our TV screens that we have yet to see from any comic book movie, save for Kingsman: The Secret Service. Granted, there are no superheroes in The Walking Dead; it’s simply normal human beings figuring out how to survive in an abnormal world. But it showed TV executives that adult comic book adaptations could and would be embraced by a broad audience if done right.
AMC is taking it to an even greater extreme with the upcoming adaptation of Garth Ennis’ Preacher. The project has the creative duo of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg behind it, and if it sticks closely to the original source, it will be profane, blasphemous, weird, dark, and ultra-violent. While lead character, former preacher Jesse Custer, is wholly human, he gains superpowers when he accidentally fuses with Genesis, the hybrid offspring of an angel and demon. And he uses those powers to do good in his own way, but the justice and vengeance he achieves often comes at the cost of brutal violence. Like Captain America, Jesse Custer has his own rigid moral code, but unlike Steve Rogers, who is the very essence of “heroic,” noble and good to the core, Jesse is more of an antihero, and his strict adherence to that code is often his Achilles heel. He’s not above hurting people as punishment ‐ sometimes permanently ‐ if he feels they’ve earned it. The only superhero in the modern cinematic universes that even comes close to this is Batman, and even he doesn’t hold a candle to Jesse in terms of ambiguous moral code.
But the violence, drug use, and sexual overtones aren’t even the most anti-superhero part about it. The story itself is absolutely blasphemous (which I for one love), but it does not pull punches about pissing all over the concept of God and religion. The catalyst for Jesse’s entire story is that he learns God has abandoned Heaven, so he goes on a mission to hunt God down for abandoning his duty to the world. God is not “Him”, but a weak, narcissistic, selfish “him,” a childish deity not fit to rule. It’s a concept that’s not altogether new in entertainment, but it is certainly one that, to this point, has been watered far down in antiseptic live action adaptations (side-eyeing hard at you, The Golden Compass).
And Netflix has gotten into the superhero game, too, with its Marvel original series in Daredevil and Jessica Jones. While Daredevil was still wholly a superhero origin story, it veered far away from the colorful, humorous, family-friendly Marvel Cinematic Universe we’d come to know. Instead, it grappled with complex themes, most notably Matt Murdock/Daredevil’s trademark Catholic guilt, faith vs. the loss of it, killing in self-defense, and scenes of beautifully choreographed fights and brutal (if somewhat bloodless) violence. Season 2, set to launch in March, will bring even more complexity into the mix with the introduction of new enemies, and particularly with the introduction of Frank Castle/Punisher, perhaps the walking definition of the word “antihero.”
With Punisher, Marvel has the opportunity to bring a true dark night of the soul to Matt Murdock, especially if they incorporate the now-iconic scene between the two where Punisher presents Daredevil, with his strict no-killing policy, with an impossible double bind Sophie’s choice: Either shoot him, Frank Castle, in the head or stand by and watch as Frank Castle kills someone else. It was a moment that absolutely broke Matt Murdock in the comics, and it would be a really interesting one to explore in the Netflix show if done properly.
But if Daredevil explored some dark themes, then Jessica Jones, which debuted late last year, blew past that standard and brought a new level of deeply uncomfortable shit-just-got-too-real to the world of superhero adaptations. Indeed, in Jessica Jones, her powers are secondary and barely used, save for when Jessica uses her super-strength in a drunken bar brawl or to rough up a few lowlifes for information. It’s only infrequently that she uses her unstable flying abilities (or rather, controlled falling). The heroic life of an official superhero was one that, for Jessica Jones, was short-lived and unsuccessful, a mantle she never wore gracefully even before being kidnapped and brainwashed by Kilgrave.
Watch: The Daredevil Season 2 Teaser
Jessica is the antithesis of the heroes we’ve come to know on our screens. Tony Stark may have a bit of a dickish streak and Oliver Queen may be rough around the edges, but Jessica is truly abrasive, a “hard-drinking, short-fused mess of a woman” who communicates her rage at the rape, both mental and physical, she suffered at the hands of Kilgrave through biting sarcasm, uncompromising demands, and punching people in the face. More than a superhero origin story, it is the story of one woman attempting to overcome the trauma of her past and get back at her attacker; the only McGuffin she chases is her former rapist-turned-stalker in a dual attempt to regain both her sense of safety and identity and to stop him from doing the same to others. It may have “MARVEL” emblazoned in big bold letters at the start of every episode, but it’s a typical superhero story only in the sense that she has superpowers and very occasionally uses them when the situation calls for it. Her real superpower is something that many humans already naturally possess: she is tough as steel and has an overpowering urge to protect those who deserve it.
Even the CW, holding down the TV end of the DC Extended Universe, is evolving the superhero genre in its own way with Legends of Tomorrow, set to debut later this month. While the Legends have all (with the exception of Rip Hunter) already been introduced in the CW’s other two superhero shows, The Flash and Arrow, the concept will be more Suicide Squad, less Justice League. The team that Hunter puts together to save the world isn’t culled from the greatest heroes of the day, but from a ragtag bunch of rookie heroes, antiheroes, and outright villains. Two of the characters, Captain Cold and Heat Wave, are regular antagonists of The Flash, though Leonard Snart/Captain Cold, did exhibit some heroic ‐ or at least, not purely villainous ‐ tendencies. But Mick Rory/Heat Wave is a villain through and through, a psychotic mercenary who would shoot his own mother if it came with a reward. And Sarah Lance/White Canary isn’t exactly squeaky clean, either, with a killing rampage under her belt and a villainous origin in the comics.
Next: The Year of the Post-Superhero Superhero Movie
So we can expect that the black and white idea of “good guys” and “bad guys” will go right out the window here. Like the Suicide Squad, the team assembled by Rip Hunter is chosen because sometimes, you need the bad guys on your side. They’re willing to do things that the good guys, with their strict moral codes, won’t do in order to achieve the greater good.
2016 will be an interesting one for superhero stories and comic book adaptations, that’s for sure. Personally, I’m excited to see where it goes, and I’m thankful that the dire predictions of “the superhero bubble is going to burst” have been proven wrong. The world of comic books and graphic novels is a rich one, and there are still so many complex and engaging stories to be mined from it.
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