Patton Oswalt, Jessica Jones and the Innovative Future of Superheroes on Television

On Monday, I wrote about what Marvel Studios and other people making comic book movies ought to do with their franchises now that they’ve got people watching superhero movies the way they read superhero comics: over a period of years and an indefinite number of stories, with constant loops around to revisit characters and shifting team-ups. Some of you suggested that our chances of getting filmed storytelling that worked that way would be better on television, and I tend to think you’re right. For one thing, that medium is closer to the frequency and run length of comics releases, and (somewhat) closer to comic book production budgets. But television’s also where we’ve become accustomed to anti-heroes, to ambiguity in our heroes, to big experiments in genre and tone, meaning it could be better primed to tell weirder, darker superhero stories and to assume the risk of doing so than Marvel’s giant, exquisite machine.

There are a number of such projects in the works already. FX scrapped its first attempt to adapt Powers, Brian Michael Bendis’s sprawling story about a division of cops who investigate crimes involving people with extraordinary abilities, but the network is taking another crack at the project. Fox is casting the talent for Working Class Hero, an animated show which stars Patton Oswalt as a superhero employed by the government and with the lack of prestige that typically accrues to bureaucrats. These are both smart experiments in tone, and with the default assumptions about superheroes: that they’re clean-living, well-motivated, and broadly respected by their communities.

There are less quirky experiments under way as well. The CW is developing a Green Arrow show from Smallville’s David Nutter that will likely have a similar soapy tone to that network’s other fare. And Melissa Rosenberg was developing a Jessica Jones show for ABC that doesn’t appear to be in contention for this fall, but that if it goes forward would be the first TV show that’s part of the continuity and universe Marvel is establishing in its movies.

All four of these shows may end up falling through. But I’m glad Marvel and other studios are thinking about how to tell these pulpy, serialized stories on television. If we can root for a $150 million version of a character like Thor on the big screen, then maybe there’s room for She-Hulk or Luke Cage, and all the attendant and rich complications their characters would bring to our modern superhero mythos on the small one.