No Knight, no flight: Television's missing Dark Knight and Man of Steel

Curator's Note

Batman has enjoyed a long and varied history on television, however, the Caped Crusader’s most recent incarnation points towards a tendency of contemporary live action television shows to avoid fully embodied versions of major comic book superheroes. Powers and abilities are introduced slowly, if at all, and every character arrives in proto-form compared to earlier versions like the 1960s Batman or 1950s Adventures of Superman. Revered superheroes like Batman and Superman, and the Marvel Avengers who do not regularly appear on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., do not deign to be a full part of the contemporary television landscape unless in animated form. From the "no tights, no flights" on Smallville to Gotham’s adolescent Bruce Wayne, contemporary live action television is no place to "waste" the best superheroes. "Lesser" superheroes adopt abilities and personas quickly and readily, with The Flash and Arrow costumes and abilities present relatively early in their series. Even the lexical title choices of cities for Batman/Superman and heroes for Flash/Green Arrow is telling. There is no Batman or Superman on live action contemporary TV.

Two influential factors have led to Gotham’s Bruce Wayne and Smallville’s Clark Kent not quite achieving full superhero status (end of series notwithstanding). First, and perhaps most obvious, is the economic impetus to withhold proven film superhero commodities from the small screen to bolster theatrical performances, which heavily feed both primary and ancillary studio revenue streams. There is also a stark difference between television and film production budgets, making it difficult to visually compete on the small screen. Shows like The Flash and Smallville even emphasize powers like super speed that are relatively inexpensive to produce. The second deals with comics skewing darker, most notably Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns contrasted with campy 1960s Batman. Once the Caped Crusader fully became the Dark Knight, it was difficult to go back. As films/comics moved away from the campy 1960s Batman, so too did today’s live action television versions. Perhaps on television a fully embodied Batman or Superman can exist only as camp or romance (production constraints), as animation (lack of production constraints), or at series end. Camp avoidance and the success of the Hollywood blockbuster made it economically prudent to save the best for the big screen, leaving 21st century small screen versions of Batman and Superman shells of their full superhero selves.


What a thoughtful and interesting post on TV superheroes. I agree that budget constraints likely play a major role in the withholding of the superhero in some TV shows. The Superboy series that ran from 1988 to 1992 is strong evidence of such. And it makes sense that producers would turn to TV to launch lesser known characters, such as the Flash and Green Arrow. But I also think that shows such as Smallville appeal to a central conceit of the superhero genre: ritualistic transformation. The genre is notably obsessed with repeated origin stories and the process of cyclical change/stasis (most obviously in the constant exchange between superhero identity and secret identity and narratively in terms of constantly deferred crises). Those shows that fill in the back story of Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne appeal to a thematic interest in origins and the processes of transformation. The television form, ready-made for easy and constant cyclical re-consumption, is an ideal vehicle for this. The superhero is always in a state of be-coming, the figure pointing toward a utopian subjectivity and space (the conflation of the two evident in the choice of Smallville and Gotham as series titles) but never finally arriving. So we keep tuning in, keep re-watching.

Thank you for the kind words, and the great additional thoughts. I think your point about television being the perfect form for cyclical re-consumption of the origin story as transformation is so important to consider. I am thinking of the ways in which the reveal of specific superheroes powers in these shows all resemble the same tried and true pattern of out of control discovery, focused training, and eventual mastery all packaged in the convenient confines of the medium’s episodic delivery. To your point, there is clearly a perpetual state of becoming that contemporary television already understands as crucial to re-commodifying the same heroes again and again. I wonder if the average viewer finds these stories of perpetual re-origination comforting, or if these rehashed moments are part of the shared and known superhero lexicon that does not venture too far into the complicated comic book world (even the relatively obscure characters in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ followed an origin story template).

Yes, good point! I too wonder about the line between hardcore fan and casual viewer. Certainly many fans are very invested in maintaining that boundary of knowledge and the perpetual recycling of origins always keeps an only occasionally interested general public at bay.

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