The superhero is the new western hero. Just as in the 1940s and 1950s, when the western was the defining American genre in theaters and on TV, comic book heroes now dominate the big screen and increasingly the small screen. And where the Marvel Comics Universe rules in the theaters (with only the Netflix shows making a mark on small screens), the DC Comics Universe rules television. In fact, all but one of the collections reviewed here are drawn from the DCU. The exception isn’t even a superhero show, but its gonzo supernatural fun does feel like a small screen comic book.
CBS jumped into the DC TV superhero business with Supergirl: The Complete First Season (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, Netflix), developed by the CW superhero ringmaster Greg Berlanti and starring Melissa Benoist as Kara Danvers, aka Kara Zor-El, the cousin of Superman. Raised as normal girl by a loving family and taught to hide her powers, she lives as just another young woman in the world—she even gets a job as assistant to Central City media mogul Cat Powers (Calista Flockhart)—until the life of her human sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) is in danger and she makes a spectacular debut saving a crashing airplane. Cat christens her Supergirl and takes it upon herself to shape her media image while the fledgling superhero learns to harness her powers with the help of Alex, a government agent, and Alex’s boss (David Harewood), who has his own secret that comes out during the season. Her trial by fire comes when criminals from Krypton—including her own aunt—escape their interstellar prison and attempt to conquer Earth with powers as great as hers.
This series is on the sunnier side of the superhero TV spectrum, more like The Flash than Arrow, set largely in the daylight in a gleaming city, and there is even a Flash crossover episode that becomes the season highlight, thanks to great chemistry between the two actors playing young, idealistic heroes. If it suffers from anything it is superhero fatigue. It’s a well-made series with a likable hero, a solid supporting cast, and a sense of optimism that is refreshing next to such dark shows as Gotham, but it has yet to carve out its own distinctive approach and defining identity. That may change when the series moves from CBS to the CW for the second season, where it will be folded into the same superhero universe as Arrow, The Flash, and DC’s Heroes of Tomorrow, all developed, produced, and/or overseen by Greg Berlanti.
20 episodes on DVD and Blu-ray, with three featurettes and a gag reel.
The Flash: The Complete Second Season (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD) stands in contrast to its sister CW superhero series Arrow. This is an optimistic superhero drama with a young hero—police forensic scientist-turned-supersonic speedster Barry Allen (played with energetic enthusiasm by Grant Gustin)—who gets a charge out of being a superhero and works with a supportive team of family members and S.T.A.R. Labs scientists. It tends to play out in the daylight and balances all those high-tech lab scenes with the warmth of the suburban home of Joe West (Jesse L. Marin), father figure to Barry and father of Iris (Candice Patton). Because The Flash is also a show about fathers and sons and families, a theme that expands when Joe discovers he has a son and Wally West (Keiynan Lonsdale) joins the growing family. It makes The Flash the beating heart of the growing DCU on the CW.
The second season pits Flash and his team against Zoom, a speedster villain from another dimension intent on stealing Flash’s power and conquering Earth. The episodes that take us to the alternate dimension that they call Earth-2 offer a mix of Flash-noir and the Star Trek evil twin universe of “Mirror, Mirror,” where criminals rule the world, Barry and Iris have basically swapped roles, and the S.T.A.R. Labs science heroes are cold-hearted members of the criminal underworld.
Cisco (Carlos Valdes) becomes Vibe, Teddy Sears plays Jay Garrick, the Flash of Earth-2 (he comes right out of the silver age “Flash” comics, complete with the old-school costume and helmet), and Tom Cavanagh returns as an alternate dimension version of Harrison Wells, this time a flinty, arrogant scientist who works with the good guys to stop Zoom and save his world. The season also features fan-favorite villains Captain Cold (Wentworth Miller), The Trickster (Mark Hamill), and Gorilla Grodd and introduces a reborn Firestorm (with Franz Drameh) and new heroes Hawkman (Falk Hentschel) and Hawkgirl (Ciara Reneé), all of whom spin-off into the new series Legends of Tomorrow.
This show is made with a family audience in mind, with splashy special effects, less violence, and more innocence to the romantic complications, which earns the show a TV-PG rating. New episodes begin in October on CW.
23 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, plus the Arrow crossover episode and over two hours of featurettes and other supplements, including cast and creator panel discussions at 2015 Paleyfest and Comic-Con. Also features Ultraviolet Digital copy of the entire season.
Arrow: The Complete Fourth Season (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD) – Arrow is the series that kicked off the DC Comics universe of TV shows on the CW network and it continues to lean toward the dark side of the genre. Anchored by Green Arrow (Stephen Amell), the masked alter ego of millionaire playboy turned brooding shipwreck survivor Oliver Queen, the show has created an entire crime fighting team around the nocturnal vigilante that includes his computer genius / hacker girlfriend Felicity (Emily Bett Rickards); assistant District Attorney Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy), who has turned herself into Black Canary (complete with tech designed by Carlos in a crossover with The Flash); his former bodyguard John Diggle (David Ramsey), a special forces veteran; and his sister Thea (Willa Holland), who has been trained in martial arts and archery and now puts on a costume and goes by Speedy. For one episode, they call upon another DC character you might remember from a cancelled show: John Constantine, played by Matt Ryan. His appearance raised the hope of the show, or at least the character, getting a second life on the CW.
This season they take on Damian Dhark, a megalomaniac bent on world domination using magic as his superpower. He’s played with a self-satisfied smile and snappy gusto by Neal McDonough, and he’s one of the best things in a season that gets bogged down in personal melodrama, romantic spats, and family drama. Felicity breaks it off with Oliver after he lies to her about former affair, Diggle clashes with his estranged brother, a mercenary working for Dhark, and a major character is killed in the final episodes, which makes the conflict personal. Because a fight to stop the apocalypse isn’t enough—it has to be personal to count.
23 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, plus the The Flash crossover episode, four featurettes, deleted scenes, a gag reel, and an Ultraviolet Digital copy of the entire season.
DC’s Legends of Tomorrow: The Complete First Season (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD) is the first genuine team series the DCU of interconnected TV shows and in their debut season they come as little better than a minor league version of The Avengers (or, in DCU parlance, a farm team version of Justice League). From Arrow comes Brandon Routh as Atom and Caity Lotz as White Canary, and from The Flash we get Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell as villains Captain Cold and Heat Wave (playing for the good guys here), Victor Garber and Franz Drameh as Prof. Martin Stein and Jax Jackson (who merge to become Firestorm), Ciara Renee as Hawkgirl, and Falk Hentschel as Hawkman. The team is put together by rogue Time Master Rip Hunter (Arthur Darvill), a time traveler from the future who breaks the rules to carry the heroes to fight eternal supervillain Vandal Savage (Caspar Crump) through history. Vandal will destroy time itself if they don’t stop him, or so Rip tells them, but he’s got a few secrets of his own.
The series struggles to find its balance and to establish its own identity as it jumps back and forth through time, playing with time-travel conflicts and conundrums and skirting alternate realities. There’s even a trip to the old west where they meet Jonah Hex (Jonathon Schaech) and play cowboy. Given all this, you’d expect it to be more fun, but the sheer number of characters on the team ends up leaving too many of them underdeveloped, especially Darvill’s Time Master (who can’t help but draw comparisons to the much more engaging time travelling hero he co-starred with in Doctor Who), and show seems to flounder for a sense of direction. Brandon Routh brings amiable charm and a gee-whiz innocence to Atom while Wentworth Miller brings a little grit and cynicism to Captain Cold, the most complicated character on the team. The rest do their best in a team series that hasn’t figured out the team dynamics.
It feels more engineered more than written—unlike previous CW superhero shows, it’s not based on an established comic book or inspired by particular stories—and it disappointed fans of the previous shows. But it is coming back for a second season (beginning on the CW in October 2016) with a smaller team and a new attempt to ground the show in the existing universe. While that doesn’t make the first season any more interesting, an improved second season could at least make the debut season relevant, which at this point would be an improvement.
16 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with three featurettes, the 2015 Comic-Con panel, a gag reel, and an Ultraviolet Digital copy of the entire season.
Gotham: The Complete Second Season (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD) – The pre-Batman comic book series focused on the early years of Gotham City police detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and teenage Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) struggling to do right in their corrupt city isn’t technically part of the TV DCU—it exists in its own universe of comic book noir and classic cop show dropped into a throwback urban jungle seeped in 1950s iconography—but it does draw its inspiration from the lore of the Batman comic book legacy.
Arkham Asylum continues to play a major role in the second season as it continues to chart the origins of such icon characters as The Penguin, The Riddler, and Catwoman in a city that faces a veritable flood of supervillains. The first half of the season (subtitled “Rise of the Villains”) focuses on mayoral candidate Theo Galavan (James Frain), who unleashes a crime wave on the city and plots to wipe out the Wayne legacy, and the second half (“Wrath of the Villains”) shifts to Dr. Hugo Strange (BD Wong), who runs Arkham Asylum (where the most dangerous criminals are treated) and creates a dungeon-full of superpowered, often insane villains in diabolic secret experiments. Jim clashes with a new chief (Michael Chiklis), who frowns on the unconventional tactics he and his partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) use to battle the extreme criminals infiltrating the underworld, and breaks his own code to end Galavan’s evil plot, which lands him prison and costs him the love of his life (Morena Baccarin). He escapes to clear his name, becoming a fugitive and remaining outside the police department for the rest of the season, teaming up with Bruce and teen cat thief Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova).
The series was developed for Fox by Bruno Heller (of Rome and The Mentalist) with Danny Cannon (CSI and Nikita) and they show off their generous budget in every episode. This is the most visually impressive superhero show on TV with its film noir-inspired style and lighting, out-of-time setting (dial phones and classic cars and city streets and buildings out of the old Hollywood movies next to modern computers and scientific equipment), and big action scenes on impressive city sets. It’s also one of the darkest, presenting a city overrun with corrupt officials, powerful mobsters, and vicious criminals: the crucible from which Batman will be born. The second season begins in September 2016.
22 episodes on DVD and Blu-ray, with featurettes, character profiles, and the 2015 Comic-Con Panel, plus an Ultraviolet Digital copy of the entire season.
Lucifer: The Complete First Season (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD), loosely based on the Vertigo comic book series of the same name, is a mix of supernatural show and police procedural starring Tom Ellis as Lucifer Morningstar, the fallen angel better known as Satan.
In this universe, he has become tired of reigning over Hell and come to Earth for a little rest and his brother, the angel Amenadiel (D.B. Woodside), has been sent to bring him back. The similarities between the series and the comic end there. This Lucifer runs a nightclub and becomes fascinated with a Detective Chloe Decker (Lauren German), who is immune to his powers and his charms. This isn’t the force of evil who goes around tempting humans and making bargains for their souls but a disillusioned angel who is angry that his father banished him and is obsessed with justice, which in his case means finding and punishing the guilty. Solving crimes begins as an entertaining distraction, a lark in which he arrogantly breaks rules and pushes the buttons of his human partner, but becomes a passion for him.
The play with Biblical characters as mythology and the glee with which Ellis plays the role is the most entertaining part of the series. Where it stumbles is with Decker, who is supposed to be a tough, smart police detective but puts up with Lucifer’s disrespect, flagrant rule-breaking, and just plain bad behavior with little more than an exasperated shrug, and with the police drama itself. The show is a fantasy but the sloppy and silly treatment of the police drama and lazy mystery writing strains credulity in an age of sophisticated cop shows and investigative procedurals. The second season begins in September 2016, and I have a suggestion for the showrunners: why not bring Matt Ryan in as John Constantine? He would definitely make in interesting and appropriate addition to the supernatural DCU.
13 episodes on DVD and Blu-ray, with two featurettes, four character profiles, the 2015 Comic-Con panel, and deleted scenes.
Ash vs Evil Dead: The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) is not a comic book series or a superhero show by any strict definition, but the supernatural setting, blackly humorous approach, and flamboyantly splattery excess gives it a sensibility that fits right in with the comic book series aesthetic.
Bruce Campbell returns to the role that made him a cult movie icon in this half-hour horror comedy produced by Sam Raimi, the director of the original Evil Dead films, and Campbell. It picks up thirty years after the movies, with Campbell’s Ash now a career underachiever still working as a box store clerk and using his stories as lines to pick up women. When he reads from the Book of the Dead (which he just happens to keep under the bed of his trailer home) during a seduction, he unleashes demons into the world and is forced to go back into action to stop Hell on earth. He’s a little paunchier, a little dumber, and just as bullheaded, but he has his old chainsaw (which he straps to the stump of his arm) and two twentysomething apprentice sidekicks (Ray Santiago and Dana DeLorenzo) that he regales with stories and lessons in demon hunting.
Sam Raimi directs the first episode and Lucy Lawless has a recurring role as mystery woman also following the trail of supernatural deaths. The half-hour show is made for the Starz and features the same mix of slapstick humor, over-the-top gore, and wild supernatural horror as Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness, complete with outrageously bloody violence, foul language, and some nudity. You could say that it’s a show with juvenile humor for an adult audience. New episodes begin in October 2016.
10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary on every episode and three featurettes.
Batman: The Killing Joke (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is not strictly a TV production. The latest in a series of DCU animated original features, it’s a DTV production that was released to theaters for two days of limited showings (where it became the biggest Fathom Event screening to date) before it hit DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD.
The original, award-winning 1988 graphic novel “Batman: The Killing Joke,” written by comic book legend Alan Moore, became a legendary chapter in the “Batman” comic book storyline for its exploration of the complicated relationship between Batman and The Joker, for adding a human element to the origin story of the iconic supervillain, and for the extremes of the sadistic plot to break the spirit and the moral character of Commissioner Gordon, which involves the brutal abuse of his daughter Barbara (formerly Batgirl). The story, and the imagery created by artist Brian Bolland, is faithfully brought to the screen in this animated original feature, and it features the voices of Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as The Joker, the actors who portrayed the characters in the famous 1990s animated TV series and are still considered the definitive performers of the animated incarnation of the characters. It is also the first R-rated feature in the DCU animated series.
The original graphic novel is a short work with only minimal appearance by Barbara Gordon, so scriptwriter Brian Azzarello (a respected comic book artist in his own right) wrote a half-hour prologue that explored Batgirl’s retirement from crime fighting. Fans of the original comic book gave high marks to the adaptation proper but were outraged at the new story. While it helps reframe Barbara from a mere victim and plot device to a full-fledged character, it also adds a sexual affair with Batman that has no corollary in the comic books, and it diminishes her agency.
The Blu-ray features supplements not available on DVD: the featurettes “Many Shades of Joker: The Tale of The Killing Joke” and “Batman: The Killing Joke – Madness Set to Music” and one episode apiece of Batman: The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures featuring The Joker, a sneak preview of the next DCU original movie, plus bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital copies of the film.