The networks are still holding out for a superhero. While comic-book films Thor, X-Men: First Class and Green Lantern all hit No. 1 at the box office recently (with mixed staying power), TV has been slower to cultivate a new generation of caped crusaders.
But have no fear, citizens of TV land: Help is on the way. Super-heroes play a role in Syfy's new drama Alphas, about a group of ordinary misfits with unusual abilities; ABC Family's recent entry The Nine Lives of Chloe King, about a teenage girl with heightened abilities; and the FX pilot Powers, a police procedural set inside a world of superheroes.
And the biggest superhero splash is yet to come, as Marvel preps a major entry into TV. Disney bought the comic-book giant for $4 billion in 2009 and hired writer/producer Jeph Loeb (Heroes, Smallville) as executive VP and head of TV at Marvel Entertainment.
Since then, Loeb — who's also a well-known comic-book writer — has been combing through Marvel's library and prepping several titles for TV adaptations. At Disney-owned sibling ABC, that includes a new take on The Incredible Hulk, shepherded by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy) and Battlestar Galactica's David Eick, as well as AKA Jessica Jones — centering on a former superhero who opens her own detective agency and winds up assisting other heroes — adapted by Twilight screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg. (Marvel has also been developing a take on Cloak and Dagger, which follows two teens who become mutants after being drugged, at ABC Family.)
Marvel is notoriously tight-lipped about its projects, but insiders confirm that ABC is still high on both Hulk and Jessica Jones. "What really distinguishes these are the A-list show runners," ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee told reporters earlier this year. "We would love to make a Marvel franchise work on the network. They probably won't be the only two Marvel things we do."
In slowing down the development process, the execs at ABC and Marvel are also trying to get it right. No one's been able to match the longevity of The CW's now retired Smallville, the cult status of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the mega-phenomenon of Heroes in its white-hot first season. Last season's short-lived No Ordinary Family and The Cape, plus David E. Kelley's ill-advised Wonder Woman revival (the pilot was mercifully not picked up) proved that superheroes aren't easy to translate to TV.
"It's hard to launch a successful TV show or movie, no matter where it comes from," says Lost executive producer and comic-book fan Damon Lindelof. That goes double for superhero and comic-book adaptations. "A superhero is larger than life. You can go and sit in a theater and watch a superhero there, because the movie screen is also larger than life. When you invite them into your living room, they have to be accessible — and that's a very slippery slope, one that Smallville handled masterfully."
In fact, Smallville is often cited as the best example of how to take a superhero character and create a perfect entry point for viewers. "Smallville's one [leap of faith] was that Clark had arrived from another planet," one producer says. "Everything else was grounded in reality."
Several producers and execs suggest that TV superheroes can't be bogged down by costumes or too many powers. Not only does it overwhelm viewers, but the effects are too costly and look cheap on the small screen. That's one reason, according to insiders, Marvel avoided live-action TV takes on hot franchises like Iron Man or Spider-Man.
"Superhero comics and films are driven by the set piece, these gigantic battles and extraordinary visuals," says Peter Johnson, president of McG's Wonderland Sound & Vision, which produced Fox's now canceled Human Target adaptation. "That level of execution hasn't come over to TV yet."
That's why FX exec vice president of original programming Nick Grad doesn't even consider Powers a superhero show. "It's another way to do a cop show," he says. "For a network that did The Shield, how can you possibly top that? You do a different kind of cop show. As [Powers cocreator] Brian Michael Bendis would say, it 'stays on the ground,' both literally and figuratively."
Lindelof says he believes the comics that translate better to TV don't have superhero premises. He's a big fan of AMC's take on The Walking Dead. "There are a lot of great comic books being written right now that would make fantastic series," he says. "It requires a certain reimagining of what we think of as a comic-book series. When you think of comic books, you think of superheroes. But superheroes are very challenging to do on TV."
Nevertheless, networks are drawn to the marketability of superheroes. But to do it right, "it starts with character, not costume," one producer says. "A well-written show that has a compelling central character, who has had something extraordinary happen to them, will be relatable. And people will watch."