“I Will Avenge Her!” Poor Writing and Characterization in Superhero TV Shows


(There are a few spoilers below.)

I think William Faulkner has ruined for me many of these recent TV shows based on comic books. While I probably shouldn’t compare Nobel Prize-winning literature to popular television entertainment, I feel like I should expect at least a modicum of psychological depth with my suspension of disbelief. After all, The Dark Knight exists, a film that is truly the pinnacle of the genre to date. What I am really noticing for the first time is how poorly written these TV shows are. The focus is on visual style and action, so getting from point A to point B doesn’t seem to require logic or coherency, and fleshing out characters doesn’t seem to be a priority.

Examples? Gotham is a new series on FOX that has a mission statement to explore the beginnings of the various villains in the Batman universe. Unfortunately, four episodes in and this seems to be all surface spectacle. None of the villains so far demonstrate recognizable motivations or psychological depth. Why does the Penguin kill? Because it brings violence and action to the screen. Is this meant to imply chaos and the darker impulses of humanity, like the characterization of the Joker in The Dark Knight? I think it is more likely that it is a symptom of poor writing. How the character gets from point A to point B, all the little steps that will eventually result in a full-fledged costumed villain, and what motivates him (or even what might motivate him) seems to be less important than how vividly each moment of violence can be displayed on the screen, gratuitous style over substance.

In The Flash, the pilot episode efficiently provides the superhero’s origin story, while laying the groundwork for the show’s mythology and mystery. We know Barry Allen is a good guy because when he was a kid he got into a fight trying to protect someone else who was being picked on. Unfortunately, the depth of this character sketch is lacking because it is portrayed during a moment of sentimentality between him and his mom. The episode is more successful when it begins fleshing out the character with dialogue and action, making Allen not just heroic, but also kind of dorky and funny and earnest. His relationship with his adoptive father is perhaps most successfully portrayed, in a series of dialogues and reveals that give more weight to this aspect of the show than more sentimental sketches and exposition would.

How characters are sketched and then fleshed-out is one sign of how well a TV show is being written. Most damning, then, is how women, and especially gay and bisexual women, tend to be portrayed in these shows. I’m getting really tired of bisexual and lesbian women being introduced and later killed off, as if their job to titillate the male gaze has come to an end and the writers need a quick and dirty motivation to set the hero of the show in a new (old) direction. I’m thinking of (spoiler alert) the third season premiere of The Arrow, the second season premiere of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, and what appears to be a similar storyline on Gotham. Is it too much to ask for gay characters to become regular participants in these shows, instead of being used mostly for titillation and then for forced sentimentally when they are killed off? In S.H.I.E.L.D. the sexuality of now dead secondary characters was only hinted at, but on The Arrow, (more spoilers) the abrupt murder of Sarah Lance/Black Canary, a bisexual woman, might provide the third season a sense of mystery, but it robs the show of what was otherwise a promising character who had an arc that played out quite successfully during season two. The way the writers handled her sexuality was often obviously for titillation, but there were several other moments, such as the moment when her father found out, or the way they depicted her relationship with Oliver Queen, that were respectful and empowering. The ongoing treatment of such characters also begs the question of how bisexual and gay men will be portrayed on The Flash. Truly it is a remarkable breakthrough that a genre series like The Flash is introducing not one but several such characters (even played by openly bisexual or gay actors!) but if this is just going to lead to quick deaths and sentimental motivations for the hero (“What a noble gay! I will avenge him!”) then perhaps it is not as big a step forward as we were hoping for.

Could I do any better? I have no idea, but probably not. My judgement, though, comes from an awareness of these flaws in my own writing, as well as knowledge about the elements of craft like sentimentality and melodrama writers should avoid, or at least be aware of so that they can use them effectively. I have also recently begun to appreciate how well characters can be constructed and portrayed in novels like Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses. Faulkner is relevant to the superhero genre because of how he constructs his putative heroes. Often they are deeply flawed. In Go Down, Moses, the character of Isaac “Ike” McCaslin is potentially a hero of tolerance, acceptance, and the environment, among other positive characteristics. These characteristics are undermined in one of the last stories in the novel, however, calling into question what was previously understood about Ike. Faulkner’s purpose is not to confuse the reader but to get to some key truths and universalities about people. The moment when Ike reacts in a surprising way to new revelations comes across not as sentimental or melodramatic but as insightful and realistic. The character even tries to justify himself in a way that highlights not only his own flaws but shines a light on other characters, on the setting in the South, on a period of history that stretches from around the United States Civil War to the early 1940s, on America itself and our values, and on humanity.

Why can’t this level of complexity happen in TV shows based on comic books? While it could be argued that the genre is simply not meant for this kind of depth, I have only to point to critically-acclaimed TV shows in other genres like Hannibal, The Walking Dead, and Buffythe Vampire Slayer, or certain superhero movies that succeed in characterization and psychological depth, or certain successful comic books and graphic novels. Some of these I think stand almost (notice my hedging) toe-to-toe with the works of Faulkner or Jane Austen or Mary Shelley or Toni Morrison or Grazia Deledda or Shakespeare when it comes to characterization and plotting. With all these great examples and a wealth of literature to learn and borrow from, I am sad that with the sudden explosion of live-action superhero television shows we are seeing so much poor writing, and the exact same mistakes in each one of them. Maybe what we are witnessing is a collective of television writers that don’t really know a better way yet. Maybe they are being hampered by their respective networks. Maybe they still believe, despite their passion for it, that the superhero genre is inferior to other genres, and so they write accordingly.

Based on the writers involved and the change in venue, I am hopeful that the Marvel properties Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Defenders being adapted to series by Netflix will demonstrate a new level in quality for this genre on television, including more positive and empowering depictions of women, people of color, and LGBT. I am also hopeful that as existing series evolve over coming seasons some of the poor writing will improve, perhaps in reaction to better shows. Certainly writers should be learning from their mistakes.

I’m also eager to try my hand at the genre in my own writing, to see if I can overcome these same tendencies. I’m learning from writers like Faulkner about the possibilities available to me when constructing characters and telling meaningful stories. I would love to apply these lessons to constructing superheroes and their stories.

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