Next year, there could be a ton of new comic book TV shows on the air, most of them from DC Comics. Arrow, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and The Walking Dead are three returning shows, and depending on how their pilots perform, we could also get Flash, Constantine, Gotham, iZombie and Agent Carter. Plus, Marvel is working on Netflix shows for Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, and Daredevil along with a crossover TV show called Defenders. So we’re close to a golden age of live action comic book adaptations on television. It only makes sense. Marvel is dominating at the box office with their characters and DC trails behind with just Batman and Superman. But for live action superhero shows on television, we currently have just two: Arrow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I propose that while Marvel’s show is alright, it lags far, far behind Arrow for the reasons below. (Vincent’s Note: If you like this take on TV shows, Chris also does a podcast called Television Zombies. Check it out!)
1) You actually care about Arrow’s characters
Oliver Queen is an interesting and likable lead. He’s driven and proactive. His allies and family all have believable motivations, fun personalities and their stories feed into the main plot. In season one, there were some growing pains, but season 2 has rectified almost all of them, tying Ollie’s supporting cast into the main action in believable ways and (except for the occasionally problematic Laurel) are really likable. That’s really important on TV because we see these characters so frequently and in the privacy of our own homes. A likable character goes a long way on TV and if you’re not likable, you better be very, very interesting.
S.H.I.E.L.D. has one likable character – Coulson. We got to know him as the unflappable everyman in Marvel’s various superhero movies and he headlines a team of supposedly top-notch agents who bumble about way more than we’d expect. Where Oliver Queen’s team of Diggle and Felicity is fiercely competent, Coulson’s team is constantly getting themselves captured or shot or entangled in go-nowhere romances. Almost every TV critic will identify Skye as a problem character, and that hurts S.H.I.E.L.D. a lot because she was designed as the audience viewpoint into this world so she’s always front and center. She never obeys orders but everyone seems to treat her like a celebrity. Ward is stiff is a board and May desperately needs some backstory or a side plot to let us know who she is. They’re only just starting to use Fitz and Simmons as separate characters and it’s 2/3 of the way through the season.
2) Arrow has superior action
Whatever the show pays stunt coordinator James Bamford, it’s worth it. Every episode features at least a couple fight sequences or big stunts. In my opinion, it’s the best fight choreography on a TV show. We’re talking innovative, acrobatic martial arts scenes. Oliver Queen doesn’t have super powers, but you believe that he’s at the peak of what a human can do. I recall a hallway scene where Arrow smashed an enemy’s head into the wall 3 times as he fell down. It was brutal! He slides down staircases, leaps from moving vehicles and engages in kung fu battles with martial artists whose kicks and punches can almost be felt at home. Wire work is sparse and hard to spot. No obvious CG. This is stuntmen (and women) at the top of their game. It varies up the action with close quarters combat, multiple opponents, vehicle chases, gun battles and more. If you want an action show, Arrow delivers every episode.
S.H.I.E.L.D. is hit and miss. There have definitely been well choreographed fights for Agent Ward and Agent May. But they’re too few and far between. And the directors seem to be afraid to pull the camera back and show us what’s happening. It’s always in close and edited rapid fire. It tends to work very well in close quarters combat but fares poorly when the scene is in some place larger like a warehouse or outside. And the show uses CG that can sometimes really take you out of the narrative at times, because it’s quite obviously CG. There tends to be a lot more gun battles, but no one ever gets hit. It’s the A-Team.
3) Arrow has more interesting adversaries
Arrow has a “big bad” each season as well as one-off enemies in various episodes. And they are portrayed as serious, dangerous adversaries. In season one he faced down Merlyn, the Dark Archer. He was built up as someone that was secretly affecting his personal life and someone who had superior skills and seriously injured Arrow because of his better training. In season 2, we get Deathstroke, one of DC Comics’ premier super-villains. Both of these big bads had personal ties to our hero and always seem to be one step ahead of him. And how about the other rogues he’s gone up against? It’s a veritable who’s who of the DC villain universe: Deadshot, Bronze Tiger, Clock King, Firefly, Brother Blood, Cyrus Gold (Solomon Grundy), Eddie Fyers, Dr. Ivo, China White, The Royal Flush Gang, The Assassin’s Guild and Ra’s al Ghul, Shrapnel… the list goes on! And it’s not just fan service. These characters are woven into Arrow’s history, his city, his supporting cast. They’re engaging and sometimes terrifying opponents.
S.H.I.E.L.D. seems hamstrung by their ties to the Marvel cinematic universe. They’re not allowed to use anyone too interesting because that’s a potential character to introduce in a film. So far we have them up against a shadowy organization called Centipede and a shadowy figure called the Clairvoyant. But what are the chances the Clairvoyant will be a S.H.I.E.L.D. enemy from the comics like Modok or Zodiac? Low.
For comics villains, they’ve faced down the pre-supervillain versions of Graviton and Blizzard, and the minor Thor villain Lorelei. Centipede/the Clairvoyant are mysterious, but we don’t really know what their plans are and they’re so far not very connected to our main cast. So why should we care? It’s not like it’s Coulson’s brother betraying him or someone that has the power to blow up London or something. They’re just trying to make supersoldiers. Supersoldiers that so far haven’t been too much of a threat to S.H.I.E.L.D. despite using the same technology that nearly killed Iron Man in Iron Man 3. This is the Marvel Universe. Where’s the Leader? Hydra? The Kingpin? Heck, can’t the show even give us Batroc the Leaper? No, because those are all reserved for the movies.
4) Arrow actually uses the DC Universe
Beyond the villains listed above, every episode contains references to people, places, and businesses from the DC Universe. It’s an Easter Egg trove for fans and also helps to build a world that feels larger and weirder and cooler than anywhere else. An earthquake machine? It was designed by Dr. Brion Markov, who in the comics is Geo Force. Clock King was stealing high tech parts from Kord Industries, the company owned by Blue Beetle. Oliver’s ally Diggle likes to eat at Big Belly Burger, the premier fast food chain in DC comics.
Name checks for Bludhaven, Markovia, Nanda Parbat and other fictional locales are dropped regularly. Oliver’s tech guru is Felicity Smoak, originally a minor Firestorm supporting character. They introduced Barry Allen and showed the beginning of his origin as The Flash and now he’s set to have a spinoff show. Arrow’s introduced early versions of his future sidekicks Speedy and Black Canary. Arrow is about to have consecutive episodes titled Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey. They’ve introduced enough supporting characters (Huntress, Black Canary) and villains (Deadshot, Bronze Tiger, Shrapnel, Amanda Waller) that they can introduce entire teams from other DC titles! And it isn’t forced, it’s all happened organically.
S.H.I.E.L.D. is a globe trotting show but have they bumped into Atlanteans or Inhumans? Read the Daily Bugle newspaper? Used unstable molecules? Eh, they’ve touched on things. Maria Hill and Nick Fury have each had very short cameos, along with Agent Sitwell (a comic character who showed up in a Blu Ray exclusive Marvel One Shot short film). Their biggest move is introducing a version of Deathlok, a killer cyborg in the comics. While the TV version is interesting, he only has minor burns on his face and a metal leg (covered by normal clothes). He does not quite look like the superhero version.
The show had a Thor “crossover” that amounted to some bikers getting a staff that made them angry and strong. It’s been pretty mild. Agent Garrett was introduced on the show, played by Bill Paxton. Garrett is a fairly obscure S.H.I.E.L.D. agent with a checkered past. I’d put down money that he’s the Clairvoyant, personally. They also showed a blue character who I personally think is a Kree alien. So there are nods here and there. Even deep cut references like calling the team’s plane 616 (in the Marvel comics, that’s the number of the “main” universe among all the parallel universes). But it all feels so minor. Can’t the show at the very least feature comics characters that are pretty much exclusive to the S.H.I.E.L.D. comic books? Zodiac, G.W. Bridge, S.W.O.R.D., Spider-Woman, Mockingbird, Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, Nick Fury, Jr., the 2nd Black Widow, Clay Quatermain… there’s a lot of options.
5) Arrow has a consistent pace – fast
Arrow lays out an arc for the character and moves fast. How else would the show have been able to feature so much from the DC Universe? Whenever the main plot could slow down, the show has options – jump to a B story with its large supporting cast, give us a hint of the villain’s plans, or go to a flashback. Arrow normally uses the majority of its time in the present but cleverly shows us what happened to Oliver Queen when he was stuck on a remote island in the South China Seas. This is where he learned to survive and gain the skills that would transform him from billionaire playboy into a crusader for justice. The flashbacks help inform us about various aspects of Oliver’s personality and why he cares about his mission. The show features plenty of action scenes but everything feeds into the character.
S.H.I.E.L.D. could best be described as going in fits and starts. It has some episodes that move fairly well. And then there are some real clunkers. The problem seems to be growing pains. Initially, the team was just going to investigate the weird event of the week. Almost like a superhero version of X-Files. But it felt so slow. Audience numbers dropped from a premier around 12 million viewers to hover right around half of that. It’s far from a hit for ABC but they’re willing to keep it around because it’s advertising for whatever the next Marvel film or Blu Ray is. The show seems to be speeding up a little after the halfway point with retooling to bring in Deathlok and the Lorelei/Lady Sif guest star roles. But the agents are just not proactive enough. Coulson wants to know how and why he came back from the dead, but only sometimes. None of the characters talk to each other nearly enough about what they want so they just seem to be going from mission to mission half-focused on the objective.
6) Arrow has better acting and writing
Overall, the cast of Arrow is more diverse and interesting. Diggle has a different perspective from Officer Lance which is different from that of Shado. Everyone has a voice that sets them apart and the cast is up to the task. It’s a CW show so the quick, bias would be to think it’s a teen melodrama or populated with models. And while the cast is attractive, I’d argue there’s real depth there. I care about Oliver Queen because of how Stephen Amell plays him. He’s become more interesting to me than Batman, who Green Arrow absolutely was a copy of in the comics, to begin with. And that’s because Oliver has a life and interests separate from when he’s suited up. Oliver is the real person and Arrow is his identity compared to most modern iterations of Batman having him use Bruce Wayne as a type of identity, but he really is Batman full time. I believe in the journey they’ve sent Oliver on which has changed him from an aimless (though not morally bankrupt) playboy to someone who cares about his city and the underlying issues that cause social problems. He may not be a full liberal like his comic counterpart but he absolutely is invested in social change. The show has also given us big twists with other characters using false identities, blackmailing or working for others, reveals of people that aren’t dead and why. Every episode features twists and turns both in the problem of the week and in the overall arc.
S.H.I.E.L.D. is taking steps to make its show more interesting, but is hampered by a case of the week feel that is too light. There’s a slight reset switch every week until recently when it became more serialized. A show doesn’t need to be serialized to be smart, though. The problem of the characters is at the heart of the show and that’s a failing of both the acting and writing. Skye is unlikable and Fitz and Simmons are very similar. The cast is entirely white folks except for Melinda May. There’s not a lot of diversity. And because Coulson has to be the authority figure, he can’t always be at his most fun, when he’s in the field and takes things in stride. The show has a central mystery, how Coulson returned from the dead, and seems very casual about how it addresses that. It sets up questions, but parcels out tidbits of answers without asking anything new. There have been two twists so far – Coulson learning that he did in fact die and came back to life somehow and Skye discovering she is some form of superhuman (abilities still unknown). But they are both pretty laid back about investigating why things are the way they are, content to go on the mission of the week. And there’s always a mission of the week. Rarely are they proactively setting a goal, but instead being told by unseen higher-ups about something weird they should go investigate. It makes it harder to care about the characters. They’re bland. They’re not funny like you normally expect from a Joss Whedon show.
7) Arrow exceeds expectations
It’s on the CW and that comes with it lower expectations. Arrow exceeds them to be, arguably, the most interesting thing to be created on the CW (Veronica Mars and Supernatural are contenders, but were both created by the WB). The fight choreography and stunt sequences are some of the best on television, bar none. The ability to pull in big-name DC characters like Flash and Deathstroke keeps the show ahead of the audience. They’re not afraid to kill off main cast members or introduce characters we thought were dead and explain how and why they’re not. It’s a heightened reality, like you would expect from a comic book story, but not campy. Things are grounded, fast, and headed somewhere. Stories and mysteries are set up and paid off every week.
S.H.I.E.L.D., at its best, meets expectations most of the time. It suffered from unreasonably high expectations spinning off from one of the biggest hit films ever, Avengers. It can’t do that big budget stuff on a weekly basis. It was never going to be able to. But it could still feel like a closer look at the Marvel Universe and the reactions of the average person that lives there. Instead, a LOT of episodes take place on their plane. And we’re still a bit isolated with a cast of special agents. And they agents aren’t very exciting or interesting. The show is getting better by adding characters like Deathlok and Sif, but it really needs to make us care more about the main characters. They need to feel like real people with real goals outside of just “doing a good job.” I hope it can find that. I watch S.H.I.E.L.D. every week and I want to like it more. I would suggest to them they look at what’s working for Arrow on a fraction of the cost and name recognition.