Another San Diego Comic-Con is the books, and predictably, all anyone can talk about are the Marvel and DC properties. That makes sense—the event is called Comic-Con, after all. But also, both companies (and their various corporate partners) have perfected their control over the SDCC news-cycle and subsequent hype train. Marvel had a head start in building a cinematic universe—it didn’t truly feel like The Avengers film was real until the entire cast came together on stage in 2010—but DC clearly knows how to play the game as well. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was a cool Comic-Con idea first and a movie second (or maybe not at all).
It’s a simple model really: blow the minds in Hall H or Ballroom 20 first and let the internet and fandom do the rest. Armed with some strategic scheduling of panels, Marvel and DC essentially own the discussion at SDCC and online for a weekend with their respective stream of announced projects, enormous panels full of A-listers, casting news, and exclusive clips. Although this approach doesn’t necessarily guarantee huge box office returns or critical acclaim—see again, Batman v Superman—it’s successful enough that it sometimes feels like the only major projects coming out of Comic-Con involve Marvel or DC.
By 2016, this sensation has more than set in on the television side as well. On Thursday, Marvel and Netflix unveiled a super-dose of information about their quintet of projects. You probably watched the Luke Cage trailer three times. You pumped your fist at the Daredevil season three news. The Iron Fist and Defenders teasers made you realize that, for better or for worse, this televisual universe is probably just getting started. Then on Saturday, DC and Marvel traded headlines, from the Legion of Doom’s upcoming appearance on The CW’s Legends of Tomorrow to Ghost Rider’s debut on ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. And lest we forget other SDCC highlights: Fox’s Gotham, perhaps the most bizarre show on broadcast TV, Lucifer, and FX’s X-Men-adjacent Noah Hawley project, Legion, which delivered the best trailer of the weekend.
Although Marvel and DC keep their film and TV universes mostly separate on-screen—before you grumble: yes, Marvel purports to offer one big universe, but let me know the next time the films acknowledge something important from TV—the companies are increasingly treating the respective mediums equally. This is particularly true for DC, where the interconnected universe featuring Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl, all on The CW, has developed far beyond the sputtering, reactive creation of the Justice League on film. As far as pure expansion goes, TV is now as, or perhaps even more, saturated with superheroes than film.
Obviously, Marvel and DC have tried to capture the spirit and storytelling structure of ongoing comics in film and TV. These universes are intended to go on and on, spinning out one additional project after the other, until the actors are ready to move on and it’s time for a celebratory reboot.
Yet, while $300 million budgeted blockbusters bring the superstar team-ups and world-ending spectacle, TV offers a more robust—and less expensive—platform for character- and world-building and crossover events. The entire four-season run of Arrow thus far probably hasn’t yet matched the production budget of Batman v Superman. Likewise, by the time Justice League hits theatres in 2017, it will have taken Marvel and DC about four years to bring their respective superhero teams together. On The CW, that happens at least twice a year, and likely more now that Supergirl has joined her peers after a disappointing freshman year on CBS.
Of course, there’s benefit in making audiences wait, especially when you play the PR game as adroitly as Marvel and DC do. More time between films means more room for hype, speculation, fan theories, and coverage like this, all working the audience into a necessary fervor that drives big box office returns. But now, Marvel and DC simply use the same strategy—with Comic-Con as the centerpiece—to get fans amped for the new fall TV season, or the next great Netflix binge weekend. The window of anticipation is smaller, but no less effective.
With all this said, is 2016 when TV will reach Peak Superhero show? And does it matter?
The film comparison is helpful once again. Since Marvel successfully navigated the building of its cinematic world universe that culminated with The Avengers, there have been countless cries about the excess of superhero movies, including from an increasingly grumpy Steven Spielberg. The thrust behind these arguments is that superhero projects are pandering, loud, dumb, and most importantly, pricing out studios who previously made cheaper—read: better—films.
No disrespect to Spielberg, but this is bullshit. Even in a busy year, there are still fewer than a half-dozen superhero films. Marvel and DC are releasing a combined four in 2016. Sure, they take up a lot of studio attention, but that’s more of a byproduct of Hollywood’s increasing thirst for blockbusters and tentpoles, something that’s been on an upward trajectory since the 1980s. Iron Man being popular didn’t force studios to create other cinematic universes (the Hanna-Barbera CU is going to be Extremely Good). Wonder Woman won’t stop you from seeing movies at your local art cinema. Maybe years like 2008 (Iron Man and The Dark Knight), 2012 (Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises), or 2016 (Batman v Superman and Captain America: Civil War) feel like Peak Superhero Film, but there’s always another one around the bend.
The sheer number of superhero shows on TV is impressive, but still not exactly a problem. There’s still less than a dozen live-action products based on a Marvel of DC superhero series currently on the air. If you were to theoretically double or triple that number, the genre would still make up less than 10 percent of scripted shows in the U.S. in 2015. By my very scientific calculation, there’s approximately that many NCIS properties on CBS right now.
What’s more interesting is how content providers are using these shows to catalyze new types of success. Unlike film, where Ws and Ls are determined by the mostly clear box office figure, TV has no exact metric of achievement. Nielsen overnight ratings mean less than ever. It’s in the swirling unknown of private data—streaming views, Netflix subscriptions, DVD sales, downloads, and even pageviews—where TV shows increasingly survive and even thrive. Superhero shows seemingly dominate in these areas. There’s reason why Netflix paid real money for more exclusive access to The CW superhero library and cut an enormous deal for all its Marvel shows, or why FX, the most critically beloved channel on cable, desperately wants to get into the comic book show business with Legion. The buzz behind and interest in these projects is too large to ignore—and doesn’t prevent CBS or USA Network or anyone else from making procedurals and sitcoms that don’t feature superheroes at all. It’s not a zero sum game.
Superhero shows aren’t going away anytime soon, and that’s a good thing. In fact, there will only be more of them in 2017, 2018, and beyond. As the TV audience grows even more segmented and empowered by on-demand services, studios, networks, channels, and platforms are all going to rely on recognizable IP that sustains any kind of loyalty, no matter what the raw audience figures are. And nobody is better at fostering that loyalty than Marvel and DC.