Crisis on Infinite Shows

No matter how painful it can be, these shows make me grateful to love television and excited to be a superhero fan.

I can’t wait for the next five years.

When I last set out to survey the landscape of superhero television, figuring out where to start was easy. Arrow debuted in October 2012 and kicked off a boom in superhero shows that continues to this day. Where else could you possibly begin the story of the superhero TV boom? Just three years later, I have no idea where to start. The last piece ended with some thoughts on ten then-upcoming superhero shows. Just two of those ten are still airing. Seven were cancelled and one never made it to air in the first place.

The landscape of superhero television no longer has an epicentre. It’s not really a boom anymore, it’s a bubble: a big wobbly one that keeps growing and growing and growing and never bursts no matter the ludicrous shapes it takes. Last time I wrote about it, the superhero television market had at least three large competitors in Disney, Warner and Fox. But Disney ate Fox and AT&T bought out Warner so now it’s just two colossal conglomerates producing virtually all superhero TV shows. Both conglomerates have also launched their own bespoke streaming services, Disney+ and HBO Max, full of all the content they pulled from the original streaming giants who’d previously licensed it like Netflix and Amazon. Disney+ and HBO Max need to produce exclusive content on top of their deep libraries if they want to come out on top in the next phase of the streaming wars. Why not pump out a bunch of superhero shows? It doesn’t even matter that DC’s superhero shows are supposed to go on their dedicated streaming service, DC Universe: let’s release them simultaneously on both. Meanwhile, Disney is doubling down on the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet again by throwing mountains of cash at TV spin-offs for Disney+. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. WandaVision. Loki. Naturally, the bigwigs over at Netflix and Amazon see they’re in an arms race and have ordered their own shows like The Umbrella Academy and The Boys. And on and on and on it goes.

It’s hard to look at something that used to give you such joy and just feel tired. There’s nothing left of what used to excite you, just the same bland homogeneity repeated again and again into forever and beyond. I’ve loved superheroes all my life and I guess I still do deep down, but most superhero stories barely make an impression nowadays. Just an endless sea of pure content washing over me like a rock and slowly grinding me down to sand.

Three shows of the superhero boom that I watched to the end – Arrow, Gotham and Legion – each deserve their own retrospective. But, in lieu of anywhere else to start, I’ll still have to begin my eulogy to the genre with its last gasp.

The sixth annual Arrowverse crossover event – bringing together characters from The CW’s Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl and Batwoman – was called “Crisis on Infinite Earths” and I did not enjoy it.

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The Best of The Sundae #2

It’s been over a year since we first took a look back at our work and picked the best of it for your easy reading pleasure. A lot has happened since then. We’ve gone through two whole Oscar and Emmy cycles. We each had an essay published in Bright Wall/Dark Room – Dean on Blade Runner and Ciara on Weekend at Bernie’s II. Marvel fired James Gunn due to an alt-right smear campaign and now he’s writing Suicide Squad 2. We were shortlisted for an Irish Blog AwardJonathan Chait got BOFA’d.

But, most importantly, we kept writing and publishing, and now we have even more stuff to choose from for our second best-of round-up. So, if you’re a long-time reader, here’s an invitation to revisit the classics. If you’re a recent reader, catch up on some stuff you might not have read. And if you’re a brand new reader, take a crash course in what we’re all about.

Here’s the best of The Sundae so far. Again.

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Fan Boys: The Phantom Menace

People tend not to have a great sense of scale, which isn’t the best quality when we’re so prone to making grand proclamations about entire populations of people. For example, a common refrain since the 2016 US presidential election has been variations on “we now live in a country where nearly half the people voted for Trump”. Now and then someone will point out that, with 60 percent turnout, it was more like a quarter. But that’s still not right. It was 46.1 percent (vote share) of 60.2 percent (turnout) of 71.6 percent (eligibility) of the US population in 2016, or just under 20 percent. This isn’t to minimise the horror of the election result or Trump’s presidency in any way. Every evil thing, every atrocity, that has occurred in the past two years still happened, and, if anything, it just makes it more fucked-up that it didn’t even take a majority to happen.

That’s why it bothers me when I hear this “we now live in a country…” thing, whether about Trump or Brexit or any of the other awful election results of the past several years. If your main political opponents actually comprise less than 20 percent of the country, but you react as if it was half, you can’t possibly be responding in the most effective way. Accuracy matters, especially with something as high-stake as the fate of democracy, and it’s frustrating to constantly see well-intentioned people be so sloppy with reality. Not that low stakes should let people off the hook: standards of research and fact-checking in entertainment journalism are in the gutter and it drives me up the wall. And while it’s obviously not as significant as the rising tide of fascism (though it’s often presented as comorbid with it), when it comes to misrepresenting the scale of a social problem, there’s little critics and journalists have fucked up more than their coverage of “fan boys” and their allegedly toxic effects on society.

Normally, I find articles like this difficult to write, because it requires me to cite specific examples of bad writing and I don’t enjoy going off on other writers, for the most part. But this one will be super easy, because, for once, I can shit on the writing of someone whose writing I already constantly shit on.

This is a callout post. For myself.

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Oliver in the High Castle: Nazis in Pop Culture

The fourth annual Arrowverse crossover event – bringing together characters from The CW’s Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl – was called “Crisis on Earth-X” and I…enjoyed it? I’ve written previously about my visceral hatred for superhero TV show crossovers, and “Crisis on Earth-X” certainly doesn’t avoid all the problems of the genre, but, as a self-contained story – as a TV movie, essentially – it’s certainly the most successful Arrowverse crossover yet.

It was about Nazis.

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The Anxious Christianity of Scott Derrickson

Scott Derrickson is a frustrating filmmaker. Since his 2005 breakthrough with The Exorcism of Emily Rose, he’s had a string of commercial successes, some of which were even good movies. There was his terrible remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, his excellent horror film Sinister and his addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange, which, like most Marvel movies, was good, but not particularly so.

On paper, there are a lot of directors like Scott Derrickson: variably good, but consistently profitable, making films that millions of people see, but almost none of those people know their name. Horror and comedy are full of these directors. Sure, tens of millions of people saw Annabelle: Creation and Central Intelligence, but who amongst us can really say we know who made them? Usually, I’m dimly aware of these financially-successful mid-tier directors and don’t super care about them. But I make an exception for Scott Derrickson. That’s partly because his best films are sincerely great, but mostly it’s because he’s one of the few successful and influential Christian directors working in mainstream cinema.

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Some Unspoken Thing: In Praise of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

For at least a decade, we’ve lived through a pretty unprecedented boom in superhero films. Disney releases three Marvel Cinematic Universe films a year, Warner Brothers is trying desperately to make the limping DC universe hold together, Fox has the X-Men, and that’s not counting failed experiments like Fantastic Four or Sony’s Spider-Man universe, which, as far as I understand, they’re attempting to still do, but without Spider-Man. Superheroes aren’t suddenly popular out of nowhere or anything, but the sheer glut of superhero movies being produced now makes the progenitors of the superhero boom – like Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy or Sam Raimi’s Spiderman – look modest by comparison.

It’s no secret that I’ve been critical of the superhero boom. I would support a ten-year ban on producing superhero films if such a thing were possible. But that isn’t out of snobbiness, or even out of a dislike of superhero films. I think Spiderman 2 is a masterpiece. I saw The Dark Knight Rises in the cinema twice and think anyone who criticises its many plotholes is a pedantic killjoy. I think Logan had one of the best screenplays of last year. But the superhero boom is a feature of a much bigger problem: a trend in blockbuster filmmaking, and popular cinema in general, away from the thoughtful, interesting and weird and towards bland, hollow pleasures. It started with superheroes, and now it’s creeping all over the place, from Star Wars to the Universal monsters.

Superhero films tend to get a disproportionate amount of praise because they’ve spent a decade wearing us down, calibrating our expectations to just the right frequencies. I hate the word “overrated,” but I don’t think there’s a better word to explain the phenomenon of every Marvel release apparently being one of the best films ever made, if Rotten Tomatoes scores are anything to go by (and they aren’t). I really liked Wonder Woman, even if it had third act problems, but when people started talking about it as one of the best films of the year and it being “snubbed” by the Oscars, I felt like I was going insane. So I’ve never felt the need to speak up for a superhero film, really.

But then there’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

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Doctor Who and the Death of Death

Death in popular culture is meaningless. There’s too much death and not enough. More than ever, TV shows and films are obsessed with the omnipresence of death, but blind to death having any meaning. “Why is no-one allowed die?” (e.g. the Marvel films) or “Why must everyone be killed off for shock value?” (e.g. Game of Thrones) seem like not only distinct but contradictory problems, but they’re two sides of the same coin: anybody might die – but probably not anybody you care about, and if it is, they’ll come back to life in the end.

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The Best of The Sundae So Far

The Sundae launched seven and a half months ago with a history of the decline of multi-cam sitcoms and a counterpoint to the 89th Academy Awards. Since then, we’ve published a piece a week every week for thirty-two weeks, and this week will be no different, except that it’s completely different, because we’re not publishing a new piece of criticism, analysis or opinion.

We’re taking a week off because, well, we don’t get paid to do this, and we’re both in full-time education, and we both have coursework to do, and we’d rather not write something this week than write something half-assed, rushed or forced. So, instead, we’ve looked back over the past seven and a half months of writing we’ve published and picked our favourite pieces. If you’re a long-time reader, revisit the classics. If you’re a recent reader, catch up on some stuff you might not have read. If you’re a brand new reader, take a crash course in what we’re all about.

Here’s the best of The Sundae so far.

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Five Years in Hell: a Reflection on the Superhero TV Boom

We’re five years into the boom in superhero television kicked off by the surprise success of The CW’s Arrow, and business is so good we’ve somehow strong-armed Noah Hawley into making a show based on a minor X-Men property. But at what cost? Arrow has just come full circle by concluding the story of Oliver’s time in exile and bringing us right back to the opening moments of the show, and the genesis of television’s superhero boom.

Now seems an appropriate time to examine and evaluate the landscape of the genre over the past five years and consider what the future may hold.

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