Bursting Onto the Small Screen: Superheroes on TV

Just like Superhero Films, Superhero TV Shows have been around for decades and fall into similar Silver Age and Golden Age categories. However, the Silver Age of Superhero TV Shows started considerably earlier than the Silver Age of Superhero Films, with entries coming in as early as the 50s and 60s, while the Golden Age began in the early 90s. In addition, Superhero TV Shows fall into four other categories, based on whether the shows are live-action or animated and whether the Heroes are adults or teenagers. Each of these different categories form distinct subgenres, however there are several common factors across the board in the characters and plot structures of the shows.

Author’s Note: It is difficult for me to talk about Superhero TV Shows as definitively as Superhero Films, due in part to their large number and in part because, being born in the late 80s, I am mainly familiar with those shows that have come out since the 90s. For this reason, I will be focusing my discussion on Golden Age Superhero TV Shows and leaving the Silver Age TV Shows for a later essay.


While the characters of Superhero TV Shows share many traits with their filmic counterparts, there are some key differences. Many shows feature teams of superheroes, or if there is only one central Hero, then the line between Confidante and Secondary Hero becomes blurred quickly. For instance, Buffy is the main Hero in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but Xander, Willow and the rest of her friends (a.k.a “the Scoobies”) live in a gray area between Confidante and Secondary Hero, helping Buffy equally in both parts of her life. On the other hand, shows like Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers or Justice League feature superhero groups without one central Hero.

Due to the nature of television as a long-running medium, many characters will show up for single episodes or seasons while others will last for the entire series. Superhero TV Shows are no exception to this rule, and any of the six major characters can appear for varying lengths of time. Confidantes and Secondary Heroes typically last the longest, while Mentors usually only stick around for the first few seasons before leaving the Hero on his/her own.

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Damsels have much more complicated roles on Supehero Shows. The central Hero will usually have at least one series-long Damsel, but more often than not there will be many more. Damsels can last for anywhere from one episode to entire seasons or series. And, as love triangles are a must in any long-running TV show, it is common to have two or more competing for the Hero’s attention at the same time. On the other hand, shows about groups of superheroes will often forgo long-lasting Damsels entirely, with female members of the team taking their place. That said, female Heroes are much more common in television than film, making male Damsels equally common. Riley from Buffy and Reese from Birds of Prey, while hardly helpless, both act as the Damsel to their female Heroes.

Spike: The Original Big Bad

Spike: The Original Big Bad

Just as Damsels can come and go, so too can Villains have varied life-spans during the run of a series. There will typically be a series-long Villain with additional Villains rounding out each episode and/or season. Many Supehero Shows follow a “freak-of-the-week” format, where a minor Villain enters the fray and is defeated all in one episode. These Villains often share common origins, such as the meteor-freaks on Smallville or the various magical creatures on Buffy. Meanwhile, the Hero will also be fighting against the main Villain, also known as the Big Bad. Big Bads are usually around for at least one full season, if not an entire series, and are usually the Vilain that best fits the dark-mirror paradigm. Lex Luthor is the main Big Bad on Smallville, while season-long Big Bads include the Teagues, Brainiac, Doomsday, and Major Zod. The term “Big Bad” itself comes from Buffy, where it was first used by Spike to describe himself.

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The plots of Superhero TV Shows tend to have a lot in common with crime dramas. A new Villain surfaces in each episode and becomes part of a mystery that the Hero must solve and overcome before the episode is over. At the same time, the Hero may also be trying to defeat the Big Bad and will gain some insight into how to defeat him/her. Defeating both types of Villains can require just as much research and investigation as is done on other crime shows. For instance, it was just as common for Batman to retire to the Batcave to run tests and analyses in Batman: The Animated Series as it is for the investigators on NCIS or CSI. The difference is that once he gets the results, Gibbs doesn’t put on a cape and cowl and jump around on rooftops.

Might Morphin' Power Rangers is one of the few live-action kids Supehero Shows

Might Morphin’ Power Rangers is one of the few
live-action kids Supehero Shows

While most Superhero Films have a wide target audience of anyone ages 8-45, Supehero TV Shows usually have much smaller markets, which yields a wider variety of shows. Live-action prime-time shows are usually aimed at the 18-40 market, while animated shows are geared towards younger audiences. Some manage to bridge the gap, such as Smallville, Buffy, and Batman: The Animated Series, while others are just exceptions to the rule, like Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers (which, let’s face it, might as well have been animated anyway). Because of this, animated shows tend to focus more on the physical fights than the investigating or character relationships, while live-action shows downplay the use of superpowers. While this is in part due to the fact that it is much cheaper to have special effects in animation, it is also partly because many live-action shows try to be more realistic than their animated counterparts.

There are many other differences between animated and live-action shows, including costuming, number of characters, and series cross-overs. I will be discussing these differences and other aspects of Superhero TV Shows over the next few weeks.


About the author

David Molofsky

David is the Owner & Editor-in-Chief of AP2HYC.

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