Just to start things off I want to make it clear that I’ll be talking about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Gotham, The Flash, and Arrow but won’t include significant story spoilers for any of them.
Agents has spent two seasons trying to build more connective tissue for the Marvel Cinematic Universe by examining the lives of people in the periphery of the powerful heroes and villains at play. At first glance this seems like a stupendous way to bring super heroes to the small screen without having to worry about the expensive visual effects a true live action hero adaptation requires. (A better way exists, it’s called animation, but for now we’ll let the ‘periphery’ idea stand on its own)
Agents started off on the wrong foot by choosing one of the most generic possible ideas for hero-periphery as its set-up. It’s just a spy show. I know more interesting angles exist, as comics have explored them; we could be seeing the hospital where heroes are treated or the construction company that specializes in repairing damage from Man of Steel-style battles. Gotham overcomes this by giving us a police department so baldly and entertainingly drenched in corruption that people can literally yell things in the station that they would have to whisper in other shows, like ‘Which mobster’s in charge of us today?’ In Agents’ first season all it did was fight a rival spy organization and replace the standard array of nuclear launch codes or black market guns with humans who have decidedly low-budget superpowers.
Take a moment to pretend you’re in charge of a show like Agents and you want to include super powers. If you take the easy way out, as Agents does, you’ll quickly find you have a host of forgettable characters. It is no coincidence that Agents and Flash have a lot of overlap with their sets of super powers and abilities. They both have teleporters, because cutting someone out of a shot and putting them back in is not that difficult. What you wind up with is the same rogue’s gallery over and over again: teleporters, strongmen, and laser-eyed folk. There was one character in Agents whose power was yelling at people to make them fall over. (I won’t even get into the chronically lame angle of having different substances and powers turning people into crusty gray statues) Their limitations are far too obvious, and it’s why you take the periphery angle or the animation angle in the first place.
I’ll do some direct comparisons, starting with Gotham (my current favorite comic show). Yes, the show with the bite-size Batman does occasionally suffer gaps in logic and predictable origin arcs for a few villains, but it overcomes those by having several things Agents doesn’t. It has a setting. Even when Agents claims to be inside ancient tunnels of alien origin, all we see is dirt. In Gotham we get a seedy, cheesy, dripping city that refuses to place itself firmly in any decade; it vacillates, much like the greatest hero adaptation ever on television: Batman: The Animated Series, between the fifties, eighties, and the present day without the slightest hint of giving a damn.
Gotham hires actors with distinct faces who look like they have lived real lives. The side characters aren’t merely civilians like Agents’ human window-dressing, they all have an attitude. They’ve all had it up to here with your garbage. While I don’t wish to insult any of the actors on Agents, the main cast is obnoxiously young and pretty. On the occasions where they actually add recognized actors, the character gets killed off or removed almost instantly. Even Agent Coulson’s personality has been largely removed by transforming him from a quirky omnipresent secret agent fanboy into a serious team leader.
Next up is The Flash. To me its greatest weaknesses are the silly plot lines and unreasonably soft scifi excuses. (Really, you can solve that many problems by running faster?) Its advantage is undoubtedly its special effects. I’ve seen people launch themselves into the air by using their hands as booster rockets. I’ve seen the Flash save a train full of people while the train was crashing. They had a telepathic gorilla and it did not look like the monkeys from Jumanji. They’ve very nearly overcome my belief that you can’t have movie-quality effects on the small screen. Agents, while never looking particularly fake, simply chooses less-intense and more traditional effects that leave me yawning.
The last show worth mentioning is Arrow, the most reliable show in the bunch. Its quality is consistent if not extremely high. It’s getting a touch repetitive, but adds some spice with strong hand-to-hand action sequences and frequent Flash crossovers. They don’t skimp on the cool costumes either. Everybody on Arrow, even the two-bit villains, looks better than characters like Deathlok on Agents.
So in the end, DC seems to be ruling the small screen far better than Marvel with their obsession over tying its shows to its movies and to its earlier movies and to its later movies and to its merchandise and to your wallet. Unfortunately for DC, the theater is where the millions are.