With the huge (and ever-increasing) number of comic-book adaptations on TV, a common question on any fan's lips is "but will they be part of the movies"? Marvel is already crossing over their TV and cinematic universe with both Agents of SHIELD and the upcoming Agent Carter, while DC is so far keeping things separate.
The issue of joining TV shows and movies is a complicated one, and now Variety has talked to many of the heavy hitters behind the projects, such as Jed Whedon (Agents of SHIELD), Jeph Loeb (Head of TV, Marvel), Geoff Johns (Chief Creative Officer, DC), Mark Pedowitz (CW President), Maurissa Tancharoen (Executive Producer, Marvel) and showrunners and execs such as David Goyer, Greg Berlanti, and Bruno Heller. So what are the reasons behind decisions to combine (or separate) the big and small screen superheroes?
Obviously, a huge issue with combining TV and cinematic universes lies in the timing. When the two are connected, the stories in one have a direct impact on the other, and it's necessary to make sure that nothing is given away before it is time for a reveal in both. Tancharoen talks about how this impacted the plot in Agents of SHIELD, when writers were forced to wait until Captain America: The Winter Solider was released to reveal the presence of Hydra within the organization.
As much as it was this very challenging game of chess to play, we were also very excited to finally be able to reveal a number of things, including the fact that we had a traitor in our midst the entire time. And once that happened, it was very liberating. I do think you can feel the momentum that took off towards the end.
When done right, it's incredible to see the impact of a plot point across genres, but there is some debate as to whether or not Agents of SHIELD managed it. Many fans and critics complained that the show was too slow, especially in the first half, and that can be seen as a direct result of the waiting period between the show and the movie.
This would have an even bigger impact with shows like Gotham, which start from a completely different point in a character's timeline. It would be almost impossible to link this particular show to the big-screen Batman, because the logistics would involve having to know everything that will happen in a show that has yet to begin, before writing the movies that may need to reference Bruce Wayne's past. By separating the two, writers are able to focus solely on the universe they are trying to create, without being hampered by storylines and details that are being put in place elsewhere.
The Simplicity of Flying Solo
Geoff Johns puts it perfectly when discussing the creative freedom that is afforded to writers when working with a totally separate TV universe.
We want to give freedom to creators… so that they can take their passion [and make] the best show, the best film, the best game without having to tie it into other things.
Shows like Arrow can move entirely at their own pace, without waiting for the larger cinematic universe to catch up. It also allows the writers to use villains, storylines, or aspects of a character that may not fit in with those of the other members of a team or group. While Arrow may be connected with the new Flash, these are shows that are being written concurrently, making the crossover a whole lot easier.
Marvel is also going to be releasing a series of interconnected TV shows that do not directly relate to their movies, with a Netflix deal to create four series based on Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist. The assumption is that these will not connect to the larger universe, which is a smart move. This allows Marvel to capitalize on some of their larger characters in a small screen format, which brings me neatly to the next point:
Spin Offs VS Solo Projects
Thus far, Marvel's two shows are both spin-offs of their wildly successful Avengers franchise, while DC continues to play with bigger characters getting their own shows. Along with the timing issues I talked about earlier, this can be a risky move because spin offs are not historically very successful. For every Angel or Frasier, there are ten Joeys and Once Upon a Time In Wonderlands. The focus is on minor characters, and they can be harder to flesh out because of the lack of source material or existing fan base. Captain America has decades of comic books to draw from; Peggy Carter, on the other hand, has always been more of a supporting role.
On the one hand, spin-offs usually guarantee a certain audience as fans of the movie want to see where the story will go, but this often falls off quickly if the show cannot stand on it's own two feet. Agents of SHIELD has also come up against criticism for both under-utilizing big names, and for relying on Avengers name-dropping too heavily. (You just can't please some people). As Whedon says, finding a way to use characters from the movieverse is more difficult than some might think.
You’ve seen the Marvel slate. They have movies planned for the next two decades, so there’s a process to us approving characters.
By choosing to use big names to front their TV shows, DC doesn't need to worry about the curse of the spin-off, however, this can cause other problems when a character is so important that it appears in both mediums.
Doubling Up On Superheroes
So far, it sounds like the decision to keep the two universes separate is a great one; it makes timing simpler, gives writers more freedom, and allows for the use of fan favorites. But what happens when the two double up? DC has announced that a Justice League movie is in the works, and Stephen Amell has talked about his desire for a Justice League TV universe, where each of the major members of the team has their own interconnected show.
So what happens when there are two Justice Leagues? Having two actors portraying such major characters can be confusing, and will undoubtedly lead to fan comparisons, which rarely benefits anyone. There will be unhappy fans who feel that Henry Cavill should be the only Superman, or that Grant Gustin is the only Flash for them.
However, for me, it's actually a benefit to have multiple versions of the same character running around. Much like the comic books themselves, it allows for multiple universes, different storylines, and endless possibilities. In a genre where there is no pleasing every fan, because each has their own favorite era and story arc, this is a great way to cover the bases, to reflect the initial medium more accurately.
Special Effects and Budgets
The final reason for a split is a purely practical one. Movies (especially with the huge financial successes of superhero movies in recent years) have the opportunities afforded by big budgets and a long time to film. TV, on the other hand, usually deals with significantly less time and/or money.
Even now, the smaller shows are feeling the pressure to try and compete with the effects used on the big screen.
Berlanti: People can flip their dial and watch a movie with [expensive] visual effects. You’re not just competing with other shows that are in that timeslot each night. Everyone has to up their game.
Pedowitz: doing effects to the extent that they’re doing it on ‘Flash’ does cause some production nightmares, but each year we do this, it gets better and we’re seeing more feature-like effects being done on television. It’s a little tougher for TV, based on the production schedule and broadcast schedule.
While the budget and the skills may be rapidly catching up, as it stands it just makes more sense to keep some of the most FX heavy characters on the big screen, and keep the small screen for the more human heroes.
At the moment, it seems clear that a separation of the movie and cinematic universes is paying off - DC is widely accepted to be more successful on the small screen, and Marvel is now beginning to adopt their model with the interconnected Netflix shows.
Personally, I am happy to see the two remain distinct; I think that on top of all the practical reasons to do with timing, budgeting, licensing, etc, it simply gives fans a live-action universe that mirrors the format of comic books. There are the bigger, shorter event-style story arcs that fit in with a more general storyline (the movies) and then an alternate universe and storyline that is more episodic.
With the popularity of live action at the moment, it's important to me that we can still see the influence of the original medium in more than character details.
Obviously, the landscape of live-action comic book adaptations is changing rapidly, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if DC brought out some spin-offs for TV once they have their cinematic JLA established.
At the end of the day, while it is interesting to see the reasons that companies have for both separating and connecting characters across TV and film, the most amazing thing for me is that it seems that there will be no stopping the comic-book juggernaut, and in a few years, there will be live-action formats to rival the breadth of the comic book world.
And that is just plain awesome, however you look at it.