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Why are superhero shows so afraid of their source material?

by Eric Frederiksen | October 29, 2017October 29, 2017 6:00 am PST

When you’re a kid, even the most unassuming of masks can be terrifying. When you’re older and know better, that changes. Or at least, it’s supposed to.

We’ve been watching comic-book shows for a steady five years now and, more than ever, it seems like the showrunners behind these shows are terrified of putting masks on their characters. That fear is hurting – and sometimes lethally wounding – many of these shows. Over and over, we watch these shows play at masking their characters, only to chicken out.

TV has flirted with superhero shows for decades. The 1960s Batman series treated costumes and masks as jokes, and Smallville producers hid Superman under Clark Kent for over a decade.

Things improved as writers used masks to help tell their stories. When Oliver Queen took on a fully-decked out Deathstroke in Arrow‘s second season, his one-eyed mask showed us how completely revenge had consumed him. The Flash took on the ridiculously-named Reverse Flash in his inaugural outing, and his mask acted as a plot device to conceal his true identity. Daredevil gave birth to the Marvel Netflix Universe, and featured the vigilante in the black mask straight out of Frank Miller’s “Daredevil: The Man Without Fear” storyline.

We were in comic-geek heaven.

And then these showrunners developed a case of maskaphobia. We can see it all over in these shows, but the worst of it surfaces in Iron Fist. It breaks the fiction and the pacing of the show, and even hurts the show on a technical level.

If anyone in Marvel’s The Defenders needed a mask, it’s Danny Rand. Rand and his alter ego aren’t that different from Batman or Dr. Strange. He’s a superhero, but he’s literally on magazine covers. For him to run around New York doing secret Kung Fu makes literally no sense.

He and Matt Murdock even talk about this in the comics:

Civil War: Choosing Sides (2006)

Iron Fist‘s fight scenes suck. Where Daredevil‘s fights are cinematically lit and acrobatic, Iron Fist‘s are filled with jump cuts and shrouded in darkness. A lot of this rests on Finn Jones’ shoulders; he’s an actor, not a stuntman. Daredevil actor Charlie Cox can dip out when the going gets ninja, but Finn Jones has to be there for close-up shots.

Luke Cage and Jessica Jones don’t wear costumes, but their unmasked presences work in favor of those shows. Luke Cage is about an African American man being able to stand up and protect his community, and Jessica Jones is about a woman coping with the aftermath of an extremely abusive relationship. Both shows deal with identity in ways Iron Fist never would, should, or could. Masks would hurt those shows, but they’re doing something very different from Daredevil and Iron Fist.

The CW’s shows aren’t immune from this mistake, either. DC’s Legends of Tomorrow is a perfect example of this. Despite what a great masked villain Reverse Flash was in Flash, In Legends he left his mask resting on his shoulders unless it was necessary for a special effect.

The common point in both cases is that they underplay the part we’re all there for – the costumes, colors, and antics – and force a greater focus on interpersonal drama.

Superhero movies, on the other hand, don’t suffer from nearly the same hesitation. The movies take advantage of the masks and use them to push their stories forward. The first Iron Man movie and this summer’s Spider-Man: Homecoming both used their characters’ masks to enhance the core pillar of each character. The pulls of Tony Stark’s guilt pushes him to create Iron Man, but his ego compels him to reveal his identity, giving purpose to both his masked and unmasked identities, ensuring that both are allowed pivotal moments in the movie.

Spider-Man’s adventures, meanwhile, revolve around the conflict created his drive to use his newfound abilities for good and the danger that could bring upon his loved ones if his life bleeds over into his daily life. In both cases, the mask itself – and the need to conceal one identity with another – is the story.

Further, the people creating these movies seem to understand that the masks themselves are as iconic as the symbols so often emblazoned on these character’s chests. Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker are both just brown-haired white guys. The same way that comic books can swap out artists from one issue to another without losing readers, moviegoers know exactly who Spider-Man is, across different directors, actors, and costume variations. Spider-Man’s eyes, the ears atop Batman’s cowl, and the lightning bolts on Flash’s mask make them instantly identifiable even if the actor in the suit changes.

And those masks don’t prevent mainstream audiences from enjoying this stuff. Superhero movies frequently top the box office, and the CW’s strongest supershows completely embrace the inherent absurdity of comic books. The Defenders plays at this in its first half, imbuing each character’s scenes with vibrant, deep colors that represent that character, giving us shots that look like frames out of the comic. Just as the characters got together, though, the show is sapped of its color; we’re back to the drab world of Iron Fist. Similarly, the Flash will give us an exciting “event” episode, only to end up with characters standing around unmasked and talking in expositionese the next episode.

We’ve seen page-to-screen translations that show a loving adherence to the source material. Audiences have shown that they’re ready for masks and costumes. It’s time for Marvel and DC to stop pretending like we’re not.


Eric Frederiksen

Eric Frederiksen has been a gamer since someone made the mistake of letting him play their Nintendo many years ago, pushing him to beg for his own,...

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