While DC’s (i.e. Warner Bros’) upcoming glut of Marvel-aping blockbusters is being eyed warily by fans and critics alike, the TV adaptations of its comics are garnering a far more positive reaction across the board. FOX’s Gotham and NBC’s Constantine have admittedly had a somewhat mixed response (both in terms of reviews and viewing figures), though both shows have had at least as many high points as low ones (particularly Constantine, which despite its perilously low ratings has managed to go from strength to strength), but also returning to UK screens this month are The CW’s Flash and Arrow, two of the biggest success stories of TV superheroes thus far produced.
Since debuting in 2012, Arrow has become one of The CW’s most watched shows, maintaining consistently high ratings while also winning awards for cinematography, stunt coordination and visual effects, and receiving an average Rotten Tomatoes approval rating of 93% for its first two seasons. In 2014, encouraged by Arrow‘s success, The CW spun off Flash, another big-name adaptation which created a shared televisual universe for DC characters on the network. Finding its feet far quicker than its parent show (which drew early criticism for its portrayal of main character Oliver Queen), Flash has also racked up huge viewing figures and won plaudits from publications such as IGN and Entertainment Weekly, and in the space of only half a season has won over viewers who’ve never even picked up a DC comic before. Being network buddies, it was inevitable that the two shows would cross over (indeed, a pre-Flash Barry Allen made his first appearance in an episode of Arrow), and that’s exactly what happened in the episodes Flash vs. Arrow and The Brave and the Bold, which aired back in December. What could have simply been gimmicky fan-pleasers actually made for very interesting viewing, because these episodes threw into focus the stark differences between the two shows which mirror a battle for the soul of comics that’s been going on for decades: the influence of the silver age vs. that of the dark age. They also, tantalisingly, offer a vision of the future for on-screen superheroes which transcends this simple dichotomy.
As Grant Morrison explains in his 2011 book Supergods, the so-called ‘silver age’ of comic books ran from (roughly) the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s, and saw a number of stylistic conventions established in the medium. Superheroes overtook cowboys and scientists as the protagonists of choice; science fiction triumphed over horror, magic and romance; new artistic styles came to the fore that would heavily influence the ‘pop art’ movement; and (primarily during the 1960s) a more psychedelic aesthetic became popular with comics creators. Simply put, the silver age was the era of primary-coloured crime fighters having crazy adventures without much regard for realism. Almost as a reaction to such wanton whimsy came the so-called ‘dark age’ of comics, whose touchstone titles were massively popular and influential series like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen (1986/7) and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986). This was an era of grim, gritty (pseudo-)realism in comics, with darker storylines and psychologically complex characters taking over from the bright and fanciful tropes of the silver age. Social and political allegory became a much more regular feature of comic book narratives, and it was around this time that comics first began to attract notice from ‘serious’ literary critics. The great artistic leaps taken during this period would pave the way for series like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Garth Ennis’ Preacher and Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, all of which are widely considered to be among the best comics ever created, and coincided with a emerging understanding that comic books were no longer “just for kids”.
Because of Hollywood’s post-millennial intolerance for whimsy and innocence in its action movies, the influence of the dark age has been pervasive throughout the recent deluge of superhero movies, and this stylistic tendency has also largely been passed on to subsequent TV adaptations of comic books. From the very beginning, Arrow presented itself as a child of the dark age: capitalising on the then-recent success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie trilogy (which took its cues from particularly grim print titles like The Killing Joke and The Long Halloween), Arrow re-cast bow-toting vigilante (and DC comics stalwart) Oliver Queen as a tortured shipwreck survivor who brutally murdered gangsters, drug dealers and corrupt property developers as part of a crusade to save his city from moral ruin. Although subsequent seasons have somewhat lightened the tone and developed Queen into a more traditionally heroic character, the show remains rooted in the grim, gritty legacy of dark age comics. In stark contrast to this stands spin-off show The Flash, which from its very first episode has been characterised by a more lighthearted approach. It’s true that the show makes use of the dark ‘murdered parent’ trope to motivate its central character, but past trauma doesn’t define the character of Barry Allen like it does that of Oliver Queen. The heroes of The Flash are quicker to make jokes, less prone to dark introspection (although they still have their share), and given to applying amusingly quaint pseudonyms like “Captain Cold” and “Reverse Flash” to the villains they encounter (both nods, of course, to the original comics). The show also has a brighter visual tone than Arrow, with far fewer scenes shrouded in darkness and an abundance of primary colours to accompany the red and gold of the Flash’s trademark costume. While it still betrays the influence of the dark age in its attempts to keep a fantastical idea relatively grounded, The Flash revels in its silver age roots and most of the time feels like a show that just wants to have fun.
The appearance of actual meta-humans in The Flash may not be entirely unrelated to its silver age tendencies. In Arrow, Oliver Queen has no superpowers and faces no superpowered villains (unless one counts the drug-enhanced physical prowess of Deathstroke), whereas The Flash features superhuman protagonists and antagonists, as well as a heavy dose of science fiction. It’s more difficult to keep a story grounded and gritty when it features actual superheroes (although that hasn’t stopped Zack Snyder from creating his defiantly dark age Superman), so it perhaps makes sense that The Flash would be more inclined to the unashamed exuberance that so defined silver age comics. Whatever the reason, though, the two shows clearly have as many differences as similarities, so their crossing over in the episodes Flash vs. Arrow and The Brave and the Bold could have been a jarring clash of silver and dark age styles: the shadowy, blood-soaked world of Arrow versus the more upbeat, wacky world of The Flash. What actually happened was a lot more interesting: aside from a few obligatory moments of in-jokery and meta-commentary, both shows remained undiluted in their crossed over incarnations, but instead of coming to a clattering tonal impasse, Flash and Arrow simply….blended.
According to Grant Morrison, we are now living in the “renaissance age” of comics – the successor to the dark age. This postmodern paradigm has seen creators blending genres, styles and imagery with a freedom hitherto almost unknown in the medium, and while an element of marked self-awareness is a commonality frequently observed by writers and artists, there are almost no defining characteristics of this age, aside from the shrugging off of established norms and boundaries. Here the sugar-coated poignancy of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim can rub shoulders with the grim trauma of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, and the politically-aware adventures of Wilson and Alphona’s Ms. Marvel can sit alongside the genre-bending dystopia of Hickman and Dragotta’s East of West. The tropes of the silver and dark ages have now become so many colours on a painter’s palette, and the renaissance age – for the most part – represents the best sort of synthesis of its historical forbears. This is the situation in print, but TV and film adaptations are lagging defiantly behind, still clinging to the tropes of the dark age.
Flash and Arrow‘s crossovers signal the way forward for comic book adaptations, catching up with the comics and moving towards the creative liberation of the renaissance age. Post-9/11 Hollywood action cinema has been a perfect fit for dark age themes, and even the apparent lightheartedness of Marvel’s cinematic universe is frequently undermined by a drive towards gritty pseudo-realism. Now, like their printed counterpart, on-screen superheroes must slip the restrictive bonds of grim, bleak violence, and their writers must embrace the full range of storytelling possibilities open to them. In Flash vs. Arrow and The Brave and the Bold, all the main players retained their trademark characteristics, and the dynamics of the two shows remained intact. The result – thanks to some high quality writing – was a televisual spectacle that felt like a blueprint for the renaissance age of on-screen superheroes, a mixing of the silver and dark ages without any jarring incongruities. These tentative steps towards a renaissance should increase as movie studios look for more obscure and adventurous properties to adapt, having exhausted the stable of comic book mainstays. Disney’s Big Hero 6, which balances unbridled superheroics with genuine angst and sorrow, is a good example of this trend, and we should hope for many more. On-screen superheroes deserve their renaissance, and the storytelling possibilities afforded by it will be innumerable.