It’s an age-old question that more important now than it has ever been. Do comic-book superheroes thrive better on the big-screen or in episodic fashion at home on your television? It’s time to find an answer to that question.
As with most questions of this type, this is difficult to answer. The first step is to really dissect what sets a movie apart from a TV show.
Movies take longer to produce than TV shows and are typically much more expensive to produce, but they’re done in single increments. In essence, a movie is a time, money and labor intensive effort but once it’s done, it’s done and out there. One great movie will snowball and make back all the money it took to create it and then some.
TV shows, on the other hand, are less expensive and take less time to make but are arguably more labor-intensive than movies because writing and producing a television show takes a constant stream of effort. Unlike movies, TV shows can’t be successful with one good outing. It takes a stream of successes, lots of luck and the grace of whatever network the show is airing on for a TV show project to be successful and even then, it doesn’t always happen.
Then there’s the matter of limitations. You can get away with a lot more in movies than you can TV shows, but one bad scene can jeopardize an entire film. You have more restrictions on TV, but the episodic nature of television allows for far more chances to correct mistakes. Movies are typically committed to and released, even if they end up being complete suckfests, while networks like Fox have displayed a tendency to axe TV shows at the drop of a hat for any number of frivolous reasons.
So where do superheroes fit into this? It’s impossible to avoid the comparison, so let’s just get it out of the way early on.
Marvel vs DC: A contrast of strategies
Marvel destroys everyone in movies. That’s not an argument, or a debate, or an opinion. It’s straight fact. Marvel makes more money doing movies than your future grandchildren’s great-grandchildren could spend in a lifetime. Marvel also has an incredibly consistent track record doing movies.
It didn’t happen overnight, but Marvel has the formula for a successful superhero flick figured out. They conquered the entire planet with The Avengers in 2012, then conquered their own success with Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014 which made an obscene amount of money.
DC, on the other hand, doesn’t exactly have the same track record. DC has dealt about as many big screen stink bombs as they have mega hits and can’t even tie Marvel’s Captain America shoelaces in the consistency department. And that’s coming from a guy who grew up a total DC fanboy.
While Marvel has experienced rousing critical success with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter, DC has seemingly found their comfort zone on TV. The Flash and Gotham are both well received and exceptionally well produced and are bolstered by standout performances from stars Grant Gustin and Ben McKenzie respectively.
On top of that, The Flash benefits from its relationship with its benefactor, the CW Network. CW has a proven track record of both appreciating and complementing superheroes, proven by the amazing 10 year run of Superman prequel show Smallville and the critically acclaimed Arrow.
As it stands, Marvel and DC seem to be on equal footing, albeit in different areas of the game. But what about the characters themselves?
It’s all in the character
Is it easier to tell a superhero tale on the big screen or the small screen? It all depends on the characters.
Heroes like The Flash and Green Arrow seem to thrive off the episodic, long-form storytelling offered by TV shows, while Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy proved that Batman in the modern era is most comfortable in theaters.
Deadpool, after years of harassment and passionate pitches from star Ryan Reynolds, is finally getting a proper movie and a chance at redemption after the character’s hideous portrayal in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and, much to the delight of fans everywhere, the movie will be rated R to allow for the excessive violence, profanity and irreverence, that would never fly on TV, which makes the Deadpool character so beloved.
However, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. went a long way in proving that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has as much to gain from episodic TV as it does from movies.
When trying to decipher which medium is more beneficial to superheroes, it really does fall on an individual basis.
The final verdict
I love superhero movies. I’m never going to stop watching them, because I’m a huge fan and I will continue to be long after most of the rest of the world gets tired of watching them tear it up on the big screen.
Still, there’s just something about that feeling of excitement I get tuning into see my favorite superheroes once a week that can’t be completely matched by the feeling of excitement I get tuning in to see them once every year or two.
At the end of the day, I’m not sure superheroes would prosper on either medium without the other. Without Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., would Marvel fans still be as invested in the MCU, and in S.H.I.E.L.D. as a whole, as they would be had they just had to wait the three years between Avengers films? It’s far less likely.
Would something as epic and detailed as Batman’s complete origin story function with a two-three hour time limit as opposed to years of weekly TV episodes? Probably not.
Then again, what do I know? I’m just a guy who loves superheroes.