There have never been more superhero shows on television, which is great for fans of the genre, but it's getting to be a crowded market. With so many to keep up with, how do we decide which are worth our time? Superhero stories also tend to follow a formula, so what distinguishes each show from the others?
Here's a guide to what's what when it comes to caped crusaders on TV:
Agent Carter (ABC)
Equation = Alias + Captain America - Captain America
The spin-off starring Hayley Atwell takes place after the events Captain America: The First Avenger, as Peggy fights for recognition in the workplace and takes on a secret mission for Howard Stark in the post-war, post-Steve world from which S.H.I.E.L.D. will be born. What's cool is that Agent Carter features its own unique brand of espionage – limited by mid-century technology, yet within the extraordinary world in which super-soldier serums and psycho gas are totally valid. The characters are interesting, particularly Dottie Underwood (for reasons that would be spoilers) and Jarvis, Howard Stark's (human) butler. Plus cameos from the Cap cast, including Stark and the Howling Commandos, are highlights.
By far the most appealing part of the show though is Peggy herself. She's a superhero in her own right – amazing at everything and nonchalant about it, but more importantly possessing the same moral fortitude and integrity of Cap himself. She draws you in and her struggles and successes feel like your own. If you like awesome leading ladies, intriguing espionage, optimism in the midst of hardship, and the comprehensive continuity of the Marvel universe, you'll enjoy this show. Best Protagonist Award.
Arrow (The CW)
Equation = Batman Begins + Robin Hood + Lost's island flashbacks
Arrow is the oldest series on this list and it shows off why the superhero story works so well on TV. We've been able to see Oliver's origin and evolution and he and his mission have had time to grow and change and be refined. Throughout, Arrow's spectacular stunts and action sequences are balanced with compelling emotion and great characters, as friends become enemies and vice versa. The absence of the supernatural (with the exception of The Flash's crossover metahumans) and inclusion of relevant issues makes Arrow's crusade a little more grounded. Perhaps excluding the mysticism-heavy appearances by the League of Assassins.
That being said, the show may have lost some of its freshness in the latter half of its lifespan (it arguably peaked in Season 2). By Season 4, a lot of the storylines and villains retread familiar ground. Suspenseful and compelling drama has turned into soapy melodrama. Repeated resurrections of characters presumed (or even confirmed dead) make the stakes lower; instead of mourning lost characters, we just assume them to reappear soon. Nevertheless, Arrow is still a strong show and benefits from a well-established world and characters you want to invest in. Best Team Award.
The Flash (The CW)
Equation = The upbeat tone and crime fighting of Chuck + superpowers + a dash of time travel and universe hopping
What started out as a spin-off of Arrow has evolved into a strong, fresh series in its own right. Brighter and more fantastical than its cousin, The Flash fully embraces the camp and color of comics, particularly going deeper into the realm of the impossible. What makes the show stand out is that it doesn't hold anything back, as so often show runners want to pace things out and save the big stuff for later on. However, The Flash's storylines move along as fast as the titular character and the stakes have been remarkably high for a show's first seasons.
Barry Allen, despite his obsession with his childhood tragedy, still remains a refreshingly cheerful departure from the broody and burdened heroes on other shows. The supporting cast is fantastic as well; Cisco's fanboy approach to crime fighting in particular appeals to the geek in all of us. Barry's bond with his adoptive West family delivers consistently heart-squeezing scenes.
The show, which is currently exploring parallel worlds, is at the best it's ever been. If you like the "freak of the week" format, time traveling mysteries, sweet scientists, and solid special effects, watch this show. Most Fun! Award.
Equation = cop-and-mob drama x twistedness + Batman - 20 years
The appeal of the prequel series following Jim Gordon comes from the fun of seeing classic characters twenty years before we know them. The unique thing about Gotham is that it feels outside of time. Gotham avoids doing the modern update most adaptations do with 50+ year old comics.
Gotham isn't exactly a period piece – characters have cellphones, for example – but the setting is distinctly timeless. The styling and costuming reflect another era and none of the storylines seem to rely on modern technology. Seeing early origins of characters like Penguin and Riddler is fun and the show's vibe is cool and different, but Gotham doesn't quite have the "must-see" factor some of the other series do, and it plays more like an unusual crime drama than a superhero series. Cutest Baby Batman Award.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC)
Equation = the Phil Coulson scenes from The Avengers + Mission Impossible + the Primatech Paper parts of Heroes
I'll be honest, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. gets off to a slow start. The majority of the first season isn't bad, but it fails to truly compel viewer interest in these characters on the periphery of the MCU. It feels like Marvel Lite in every sense, as the effects, the characters, the plot feel like B versions of what we've seen in the films. Until the end of Season 1, when the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier effectively blow up Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s premise.
The eradication of S.H.I.E.L.D. finally gives the characters a really interesting and challenging conflict. They're cut off from the resources and safety of S.H.I.E.L.D., dealing with trust issues and betrayals within their own people and battling the embedded HYDRA. From this point out, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. puts its characters through the ringer, in a good way. The show rallies around the central themes of trust and loyalty and the ethics of living in a world with emerging superhumans.
The agents have to make tough calls and face monsters, both human and Inhuman, turning it into a truly interesting and unique show by the Season 3. While one must question how the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. characters never intersect with the big, film heroes (minor appearances from the likes of Maria Hill and Nick Fury excluded), the show has actually benefitted from finding it's own story to stand on, in contrast to the first season's heavy references and winks to the MCU. Most Improved Award.
Equation = dark complexity of Breaking Bad + urban setting + the law
The Netflix model allows for the genre to foray into darker and more ambitious territory and Daredevil has a cinematic scope that the network Marvel shows lack. The show distinguishes itself in many ways – Matt has more rage than your usual hero, his disability/advantage is fascinating, and his position as a lawyer allows us to see him fighting for justice both in the courtroom and the streets. It's also by far the most gruesome superhero show and the moments of brutal violence are a shock to a genre that typically isn't very graphic. The show does a great job of focusing on both the overarching conflict with the corruption in gritty Hell's Kitchen and stopping to zoom in on a single, intimate moment.
But perhaps the most unique thing about Daredevil is Season 1's villain, Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. Kingpin. Fisk has the tastes and sensibilities of a sophisticate in the body of a brute, who exhibits the nervous insecurities of a man of much smaller stature. His first episode is a phenomenally unique introduction to a major villain. Daredevil widely benefits from the freedom of Netflix and the Marvel universe is far richer because of it. Best Villain Award.
Jessica Jones (Netflix)
Equation= Veronica Mars x darkness + sparingly used superpowers
Jessica Jones builds on what Daredevil introduces to the television superhero genre, expanding on the dark tones, gritty content, and mature subject matter. This show is definitely not for kids, featuring graphic scenes and a major theme of rape. If Matt Murdoch carries more rage than the average hero, Jessica takes it even further, barely classifying as a superhero. There is absolutely no caped-crusading to be found here, making it an incredibly unique entry in the line-up. Instead, she's a jaded, surly, broken, post-hero superperson, who's given up on the hero gig, until she resolves she must to put an end to one villain: mind-controlling Kilgrave.
Kilgrave, like Kingpin before him, is a fascinating antagonist – an example of how someone who grew up capable of mind-control might actually develop. He transforms into a terrifyingly nonchalant psycho with a totally skewed view of himself and the world around him, who is nearly impossible to stop or get away from. Kilgrave is not a classic "supervillain" bent on world-domination, but the intimacy of how he violates the mind and will of characters to satisfy any passing whim is a lot scarier than vague threats of take-over. Possibly because we usually see super villains thwarted before they achieve their ends, whereas we are, in a way, seeing Kilgrave win for a lot of the story.
Jessica Jones's greatest feat, aside from a unique female lead who is unconcerned with being likable, is that it is perhaps the best example of using superpowers to parallel real-life issues. Like the X-Men mutants represented civil rights, Jessica's battle with Kilgrave illustrates an abusive and controlling relationship. Jessica is super strong, both literally and figuratively, yet she is still controlled and violated by Kilgrave, providing a different perspective on victimhood. Most Unique Award.
Equation= Superman (1978) + a dash of 21st century x The Devil Wears Prada + a "Be True to Yourself" motivational poster
Essentially the opposite of Jessica Jones, Supergirl is light, vibrant, and shamelessly optimistic. Tonally, it has the most in common with The Flash – fun, gently comedic, not taking itself too seriously. Supergirl is still developing, making it perhaps too early to pass judgement, but there's a lot of potential. The characters are fun, especially Kara's workmates at the Tribune, led by Calista Flockhart's Cat Grant.
Most importantly, the show has a protagonist the audience can get behind – Kara is idealistic, charming, and a determined do-gooder. She spends a lot of the first few episodes alternating between defiantly defending herself and questioning herself, but the character, like the show itself, has a lot to prove, being the only traditional, cape-wearing superhero female lead around. Despite many vague references to her cousin, or "the man in blue," Supergirl is all about girl power, sometimes of the Girl Scout variety, and sometimes surprisingly thoughtful. Most Endearing Award.
Legends of Tomorrow (CW)
I can't keep up with everything, okay?
What's amazing is the range of these shows – from fun, light-hearted camp, to gritty, dark dramas, to period pieces. Each tries to take a new approach to a genre that's become increasingly familiar in the past couple of years. Television is particularly suited to the format though, as it mirrors the episodic nature of comic books and allows characters to grow and face more things than a movie has time for.
Which superhero show is your favorite?