Are we really saturated with superheroes these days?
If you read most mainstream media, you might believe that superhero fatigue is setting in at the movies any day now…
Since the number of superhero films in cinemas has grown from two or three a year to (gasp!) six a year, journalists seem convinced that there is no way the market can sustain six films in one genre in a year. And yet superhero films keep making in the vicinity of a billion dollars.
Obviously, it’s not hard to muster enthusiasm for six films a year – a 15 hour commitment, give or take. However, there’s another medium where it does feel like superhero saturation is happening: Television.
The number of superheroes on TV has doubled each year since 2012, and going off of personal experience, I think we’ve hit saturation. To illustrate how rapidly the quantity has increased, let’s take a brief trip down memory lane.
The current superhero-on-television craze began in 2012 with Arrow, which received plenty of derision – stemming both from the shirtless CW posters and the certainty that no one would watch a superhero show on TV. For the first half of its debut season, Arrow pretended to not be a superhero show at all. But upon seeing a positive response when it did introduce superhero elements, Arrow leaned into its comic book roots and never looked back.
Seeing that it was possible (and emboldened by its Avengers success), Marvel countered with Agents of SHIELD in 2013. The first three quarters of the debut season was pretty bad, but we geeks stuck with it in the hope that it would get better. Our patience was rewarded when Winter Soldier came out and SHIELD suddenly got awesome, at the same time as Arrow was concluding its second (and definitely best) season to date.
Things started escalating in 2014. Arrow spun off The Flash, which became an enormous success. It delivered record ratings for The CW, and was the first superhero show that was not only awesome out of the gate, but fully embraced its comic book-ness.
Other channels wanted in on the fun. NBC tried with Constantine, which holds the distinction of being the first superhero show of the modern era to be cancelled.
Fox offered up Gotham, which is something of a black sheep among TV superhero shows in that it isn’t connected to anything. While that made it accessible to general audiences, we geeks decried it for being a cop drama masquerading as a comic book show. It’s a testament to the dearth of product at the time that viewers even stuck with Gotham as long as they did. (This writer got about 18 episodes in before calling it quits.)
SHIELD got its own spinoff in early 2015 with Agent Carter, finally providing a much-needed female lead to the genre, and Netflix upped the ante when Daredevil debuted to general acclaim that spring. Most geeks managed to keep up with all (or most) of these shows, despite the fact that the number had tripled that year. The 2014-2015 season provided us with 124 hours of superhero television – a manageable amount, but a commitment.
The 2015-2016 season is when the amount of superhero television became difficult to manage, even though we all wanted to watch everything because these shows finally had female leads.
The Arrowverse gave us two more shows with Supergirl (on CBS) and Legends of Tomorrow. Netflix debuted Jessica Jones, which became the most acclaimed superhero show yet. And all the shows from last year (minus Constantine) offered up new seasons. I began to notice viewers’ patience wearing thin for those shows that weren’t up to snuff. I powered through Legends of Tomorrow, but plenty of people didn’t, and I can’t blame them because I dropped Supergirl after three episodes. I have good intentions to pick it back up one day, if I can find the time.
Talking of time, there were 172 hours of superhero television aired in the 2015-2016 season, encompassing all five major networks and Netflix. That’s over a week of the year spent watching — if one were to keep up. It’s three and a half hours a week on average, which is doable but difficult. However, that is clearly superhero saturation; there’s only so much television a week that a person can watch.
In this current season, for the first time, the number of shows barely increased. Luke Cage and Iron Fist replaced their fellow Defenders on Netflix, Legion makes up for the cancellation of Agent Carter, and Powerless is only half an hour a week. In total, 178 hours this season.
But if you’ve been reading Hypable diligently, you know that next season the superhero ranks will swell once more. Netflix will trot out the Defenders and Punisher. Greg Berlanti (who almost single-handedly fills The CW’s schedule) will give us Black Lightning. Syfy and Freeform want in on the fun, with Krypton and Cloak & Dagger, respectively. ABC will debut another MCU show, Inhumans. And I’m sure I’m missing one or two, because it seems like every other week news comes of a superhero show in development. It’ll amount to well over 200 hours of superhero television a year.
And I’m here to say, I concede defeat. I can’t keep up, and I am conquering my FOMO. Maybe I won’t ever resume watching Supergirl. I dropped Legion and Luke Cage after their pilots. I still intend to watch Daredevil one of these days, and jury’s out on Powerless, but I think I’m going to pass on next season’s offerings. I’m sure they’ll be lovely, but there just aren’t enough hours in the week. I’m already having a bit of superhero burnout on occasion.
While it’s great for us, having a surplus of choices to watch, this may be problematic for the TV networks. It’ll be curious to see whether the audience splinters equally towards different shows, allowing them all to succeed, or if we’ll start seeing some superhero shows failing to find an audience.
How many superhero shows are you keeping up with? Do you think we’ve achieved saturation? And which one’s your current favorite?