Friday, June 24, 2011

Superheroes on TV

The superhero genre is one that is often considered to be one of spectacle. After all, the comics from which many of the genre's tropes derive are full of displays of power, be it flight, strength, energy beams or fighting prowess. But it is this spectacle which is limited on television particularly by the budget and the production schedule, which cannot typically afford either extensive effects or the time for extravagant fight choreography.

One way around this has been to avoid the more spectacular displays of power. This frequently happens with live-action superhero shows, such as the British series Misfits, where the central characters have abilities which are mostly conveyed through performance and editing effects, with a little post-production work. The other empowered individuals that they encounter similarly have less spectacular abilities, at least in terms of them producing effects to be looked at - spectacle. This avoids the issue of poor effects rendering something which should be spectacular as ridiculous (an effect arguably embraced by the superhero sitcom My Hero, with its flight effects no more sophisticated than those used with George Reeves in The Adventures of Superman in the 1950s). It also allows for a concentration on the characterisation and narrative, rather than presenting a series of special effects set pieces which are tied together by story.

An alternative is to use animation rather than live action. The exploits of the Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, whether as G-Force or Eagle Riders or Ke Xue Xiao Fei Xia, involved spectacular feats of acrobatics, combat skills, amazing vehicles, visions of technology and massive explosions.

While the individual action may have been hampered by its marionette style, British series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons also presented an unkillable lead character and the by then standard fantastic array of vehicles engaged in impressive action scenes expected from a Gerry Anderson series.

The state of any particular television industry and its relations to the film industry also influence the options open to productions, which is why the Japanese live action Spider-Man television series from 1978-1979 was able to show a more spectacular approach to the character than the exactly contemporary American The Adventures of Spider-Man. The access to Toei's effects and stunt departments and their experience with the then-popular mecha shows meant that they were able to achieve a very different, and rather more spectacular, version of the character than the American television version.

But this raises a series of other questions: how much of this difference is cultural rather than medium-specific? Are production companies more restrained by their conceptions of what is appropriate for particular genres than they are by the actual limitations of budget and production? And how important is spectacle to the superhero genre in any case? The primary special effects for the Linda Carter Wonder Woman and the Bill Bixby / Lou Ferrigno The Incredible Hulk were arguably their performers, together with some creative use of camera angles and basic stunt work, yet these remain fondly-remembered and highly influential versions of the characters. Do superheroes need to defy gravity to be super?

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