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Successful Superhero TV Shows Go Beyond Superpowers


Now to the world of comics and their adaptations on the big and small screens. So what makes a great superhero story? NPR TV critic Eric Deggans has been thinking about that question, especially with three big-budget superhero stories soon to hit theaters, including "The Avengers" later this week. But there's a lot happening on the small screen, too, and Eric says television may be a better home for tales about guys in tights who fight evil. Hey there, Eric.


CORNISH: So when you talk about superhero stories that work on TV, you've actually talked about Netflix's "Daredevil," which is a show about a blind lawyer with super senses fighting a crime boss in Hell's Kitchen. People might remember the movie "Daredevil," actually, with Ben Affleck. Tell us why this is better, why this is a quality superhero story.

DEGGANS: I was going to say actually I hope they don't remember that movie.

CORNISH: Yeah, yeah, yeah, he might think that as well.

DEGGANS: It sounds like you know a little bit more about comic books than you might expect.

CORNISH: I might have dabbled.

DEGGANS: Maybe you're a little bit of a comic book geek like me. So what I like about "Daredevil" is it has a story that goes beyond the superhero. This story features a crime boss who controls media and government and the police. So let's check out this clip of the bad guy - the Kingpin - who's explaining why he's forcing poor residents of Hell's Kitchen out of their rent-controlled apartments so he can build condos.


D'ONOFRIO: (As Wilson Fisk) I've done things that I'm not proud of. I've hurt people, and I'm going to hurt more, but I take no pleasure in it - in cruelty. But this city isn't a caterpillar. It doesn't spin a cocoon and wake up a butterfly. A city needs to die before it can be reborn.

DEGGANS: Now, that has got to be the best argument for gentrification I have ever seen in a superhero movie.

CORNISH: (Laughter) Was that really a gentrification speech? Is that really about building condos?

DEGGANS: That was about him remaking the city into something better, but to do it first, he's got to force all these people out of their apartments and turn them into condos. I know, it's amazing.

CORNISH: It makes sense that Netflix picked this up for a second season. People have been talking a lot about it. But have we seen this in other TV shows, right? I mean, there's so many superhero comic shows on TV.

DEGGANS: For sure. I think the CW's "The Flash" is a great example of a great superhero story that also goes beyond the superhero stuff. This is a guy who's dealing with questions of loyalty and questions of friendship. He has an unrequited love, and it makes the show more compelling because then when he puts on the superhero costume, there's something extra there. I talked to Brian Michael Bendis, the writer of this comic book and PlayStation TV show called "Powers." And he said that TV works with comics because comics have cliffhangers and they have soap opera moments and TV does that stuff really well, too. You look at "Daredevil," for example - spoiler alert - you don't even see him put on the official Daredevil costume until the very last episode of the first season. They are taking time to develop this character, and you hang in there for it because there are important stories going on there.

CORNISH: And TV's really embracing this. There are so many shows based on comic books - "Agent Carter" on ABC, "Arrow" on CW and, you know, "Walking Dead" on AMC - that was built from a graphic novel right? I mean, anybody getting it wrong out there?

DEGGANS: I've got to call out "Gotham" on Fox.

CORNISH: Oh, break my heart.

DEGGANS: I know. It started as a great show. It was this noir-ish crime drama that gave you a sense of how Batman's villains sort of got their start. But it seems to have lost its way in telling these stories. It's become this mishmash of ridiculous plotlines and villains. And Jada Pinkett Smith, who plays one of the most compelling characters on the show, isn't even coming back for a second season. So they are in a lot of trouble on that show.

CORNISH: Here's the thing, Eric - it's summertime. This is when I'm excited to go to the theater to see big superhero films. Are you telling me not to bother?

DEGGANS: No, not at all. I think a great superhero movie can also do the same thing. And when I think about movies like "The Dark Knight" or "Guardians Of The Galaxy" or even the first "Superman" movie with Christopher Reeves, I think about movies where the characters are vibrant and they're telling stories that go beyond their superhero powers. And if I'm thinking of the worst example, I am thinking of the last "Superman" movie. This is a movie where they ran out of story about halfway through it, and it just became two guys knocking each other through skyscrapers. And that stuff looks great, but that's not enough to sustain a really good movie or a TV show.

CORNISH: That's NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans. Eric, thanks so much.

DEGGANS: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.