Everybody's looking for the next Smallville. Both Warner Bros (DC) and ABC (Marvel) are aiming to create the next sensation based on existing comics properties. But given how bad most comics-to-TV adaptations have been, how do you copy Smallville's success?
This is a question that's on everybody's minds right now. At the Television Critics Association shindig last week, The CW's Dawn Ostroff admitted that figuring out what replaces Smallville is a big question for the network (which is part-owned by DC Comics parent company Time Warner.) She said:
We have started to talk about if there are other DC comic book adaptations," she revealed. "We haven't picked anything else up to develop yet, [but] we would like to see something on the air, so we're going to work on it... I'd love to say, ‘ "Smallville's" coming off the air and something else (from DC Comics) is coming on.' But we don't want to put something on that we don't believe in. You have to make sure the execution is excellent.
And DC's Geoff Johns told the L.A. Times the company may have as many as half a dozen new TV projects in the pipeline.
Meanwhile, Marvel has created a new TV division and put former Heroes producer Jeph Loeb in charge. At Comic Con, Loeb said that they're talking to their partners at ABC as well as ABC Family (former home of Kyle XY) about developing at least one live-action Marvel TV show. He said that the TV division will follow the example of Marvel's movie division, which started out small and now is on track to put out Thor, Captain America and The Avengers. He said:
We want to do things just as slowly. [The audience] doesn't want to see another crap television show. We want to make sure we get it right, and with the right people. It may be slower, and it may be frustrating, but we are listening.
The trouble is, creating the next Smallville is harder than it looks. From Mutant X to Birds Of Prey, TV producers have been trying for years to create more fun, relatable live-action TV versions of comic-book superheroes. So what's the Smallville formula?
Why did Smallville work so well?
Whether or not you loved Smallville, with its tenth year on the air about to begin, it's hard to deny it's been a huge success. So what are the reasons why it stood apart from the pack?
It's a coming of age story that takes its time. Fans may complain about how long Clark Kent has been taking to become Superman, but it's hard to deny that the delayed gratification has worked well for the show's longevity. Origin stories are often the most successful type of superhero narratives, because they're so classic and formative, and people want to see the hero come into his power and take on his new identity. The genius of Smallville has been the way it's taken that classic tale and made it last ten years — it's almost like the first movie in a series, only spread out over 200+ hours instead of just two.
It's a single hero, not a whole gang of heroes. Of course, as Smallville has gone on, we've met more and more other superheroes, most notably Oliver Queen and the other members of the Justice League. But it's still kept the focus on just one hero, Clark Kent, and his quest to discover who he is and what he's meant to do. And at least, in the first few seasons, Clark was the only real superhero in his world, and we got to see him interact with regular people.
It's the characters. Back when Smallville launched, people used to call it "Krypton's Creek," for its endless love triangles and melodrama and teen angst. But you know what? Superhero stories have always had a huge element of the soap opera to them. And Stan Lee's genius, back in the 1960s, was making us care as much about the complicated personal lives of Marvel's characters as we did about their battles with supervillains. Any successful superhero TV show will probably have to work as a soap opera and make us care about the characters' personal struggles, especially in this day and age. And having a strong family element, like the early seasons gave us with Jonathan and Martha Kent, will be a huge plus too.
There was a slow burn on introducing the comic book elements. It's easy to forget, now that Smallville is full of random DC Comics elements like Amanda Waller and Checkmate, how simple the setup was for Smallville's first few seasons. It was just a single alien kid stuck on Earth, dealing with normal high-school stuff and keeping his superpowers a secret. The backstory was really simple, too — contrast that with Birds of Prey, which had the daughter of Batman and the daughter of Commissioner Gordon teaming up to fight crime, with the help of Batman's manservant.
So to the extent that there's a Smallville formula, it's slow-paced character-based storytelling, focusing on one young hero's coming of age, messy relationships and all. It's keeping at least one foot planted on the ground, with relatable real-life stuff happening to our hero. Lose that connection to the real world, and you've lost the hook.
DC Comics properties that could be the next Smallville:
Shazam. The L.A. Times' Geoff Boucher said recently that "there are rumblings about doing a Captain Marvel TV series, based on the venerable Superman copycat. (Unlike Clark Kent, Captain Marvel's alter ego is a small boy, Billy Batson, and Billy can transform into Captain Marvel when he says "Shazam," the name of the wizard who gave him his powers. Due to legal nonsense, Marvel Comics also has a character named Captain Marvel, but only Marvel can put out a comic book with that title.) But a new television series based on Shazam would make one crucial change: Billy Batson's transformation into the Big Red Cheese would only last for one hour, putting more of a limit on his otherwise limitless powers. (That would also put the focus more squarely on Billy Batson, and allow for a format more like the Incredible Hulk TV series, in which Billy turns into Captain Marvel a couple times per episode.) There was, of course, already a Shazam TV series, which set the bar pretty low.
Who is Donna Troy? You know Donna Troy as Wonder Girl, the young sidekick to Wonder Woman, but she's been reinvented as a stand-alone character in the comics over the past couple of decades, including a long stint in the Teen Titans. So how about a show where Donna Troy is a young woman attending college in a big city, with no memory of her past. It's only when something dramatic happens that she starts to realize she may not be the same as all the other kids, and she starts to uncover her true identity and the role she's destined to play in the struggle of larger forces on her real home, Themyscira (or Paradise Island, if you're old school.) (Thanks to Deric A. Hughes for suggesting this one.)
Blue Beetle. The test footage they showed at Comic Con got a whole lot of people pumped up, and the source material is pretty amazing too. The Blue Beetle comic book was one of the best young superhero comics I've seen in forever. Jaime Reyes is an ordinary teenager, until one day a blue scarab drops out of the sky and fuses itself to his spine, giving him the ability to turn into an armored superbeing. Is it magic? Alien technology? Something else? Jaime's not sure, but now he's got a weird alien voice in his head and more power than he knows what to do with. But it still doesn't help him get through high school or navigate his complicated relationships. Honestly, if they could get comics writer John Rogers (who's now working on Leverage) to produce this show, it would be the best show on television.
Marvel Comics properties that could be the next Smallville:
Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane. When Marvel first rolled out its girl-centric Mary Jane comic, I was incredibly skeptical. But the comic, which relaunched after a while as Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, turned out to be as sweet as it was soap-operatic, and I found myself getting just as interested in the supporting characters, like the frequently obnoxious Liz and Flash, as I was in Mary Jane and her crush on Spidey. This comic is really must-read material for anybody who wants to see superheroes in high school done right, and it's also the perfect template for how to do a live-action superhero show that features characters who really feel young and relatable, and a young hero who's trying to do the right thing — plus the all-important female characters who aren't just ciphers. Just the arc where Mary Jane goes Goth could be a whole season by itself! The only reason this series might not fly is the fact that the Spidey movies are being relaunched, and Marvel may not want to compete with itself. (Plus Marvel may not have the TV rights to Spidey.)
Gravity. Speaking of properties created by the amazing Sean McKeever, here's another great heroic coming-of-age saga that's tailor made for a TV series. Gravity is really Greg Willis, a young kid from Wisconsin who goes off to college at NYU... and promptly gains the ability to control gravity itself. He starts using his ability to fight crime, but meanwhile he's got a kinda-sorta girlfriend who thinks superheroes are dumb. And people keep misunderstanding exactly who he's supposed to be. Is he a mutant? A bad guy? His new heroic best friend turns out not to be whom he seems. And meanwhile, all this crime-fighting is making Greg flunk out of college. You could change it up a bit, maybe ditch the costume or delay it for a few years, and you'd have Felicity with superheroics!
Kitty Pryde. She can fade through solid walls, but can she find her place in the world? Joss Whedon's favorite mutant is just crying out for an introspective TV show, in which she goes to a regular high school or college, and tries to deal with being a mutant in a world of normal people. Actually, here's what I'd do — take the Ultimate Spider-Man version of Kitty Pryde, who goes to a regular public high school and tries to live a (semi) normal life, and take Spidey out of the picture. You could have Wolverine pop up every now and then as a mentor figure, to give Kitty a bit of mutant guidance and maybe Logan's unique viewpoint on the birds and the bees. A girl who can easily fade into the background has to learn to be herself. It could rule! Or you could borrow from Warren Ellis' Excalibur run and have Kitty occasionally team up with a snarky chain-smoking brit named Pete Wisdom.
I also think a Young Avengers or Runaways show could work, but I'm not sure how — and I have a feeling a show about a single hero is probably an easier sell than a show about a group. Although there's always the Roswell precedent.