How ‘WandaVision,’ ‘The Umbrella Academy,’ ‘Harley Quinn’ Subvert the Superhero Genre

·5 min read

Once seen as nothing more than a niche genre, superhero content has come to be a dominant force on screen. Television, especially, has seen a massive influx of such large-scale stories of late.

But with audiences having seemingly infinite options of what to watch, long gone are the days of the simple hero origin stories or watching the hero fight a bunch of small-time bad guys while ramping up to take on a Big Bad being enough to capture attention. Creators today have to offer new twists on the genre to keep the audience engaged.

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The Marvel-Disney Plus series “WandaVision” was a noticeable departure from projects Marvel Studios had done in the past. The series kicks off with Wanda Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Vision (Paul Bettany) living inside an idyllic sitcom world from the 1950s.

“The design of the show from early on was that we were going to frontload the TV sitcom stuff and the ‘Twilight Zone’ aspects with this Lynchian vibe,” says creator Jac Schaeffer. “Then we would get to the more cut-and-dry superhero fare and the blasty blasty and people flying in the air and all the wire work in the middle of the narrative, and then we would end on this big bang.”

Big swings are always a risk, with some fans more comfortable with the same old tropes, rather than experiencing something new. Schaeffer was well aware of this and made a conscious effort to avoid one trope in particular: “Comics and comic material often have women who have epic powers on a scale that’s so enormous that it could destroy the world,” she says. “Then the narrative often goes in a direction where she comes undone emotionally and can’t control it.” On “WandaVision,” Schaeffer says, “We would never allow the dialogue to be, ‘I can’t control it!’”

Another show that has found a massive fanbase (more than 3 billion minutes watched during the week after Season 2 launched) despite its often oddball nature is Netflix’s “The Umbrella Academy,” based on the graphic novel of the same name. The show follows the Hargreeves siblings, all of whom are endowed with superpowers, and offers a dizzying mix of blood-and-guts action, comedy, drama and everything in between.

Steve Blackman, who developed the show for television and serves as showrunner, says that he believes the show has found success due to its focus on its family elements. “I think some of the superhero shows, at least when they started, went for huge VFX over character,” Blackman says. “I see ‘Umbrella Academy’ as character show first with the special effects second. It really is a dysfunctional family show. I came at it from a very different perspective.”

Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker, two of the co-creators and executive producers of the DC Entertainment-HBO Max adult animated series “Harley Quinn,” say that they also approached the show from a different perspective. Having a strong background in writing sitcoms, the duo compares the series to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” — “if Mary killed a bunch of people,” in Schumacker ’s words, as Harley (voiced by Kaley Cuoco) and her compatriots often engage in acts of incredible brutality that feed into the show’s outrageous humor.

“Harley Quinn” is also unique among the current crop of comic content in that its main character and all of her closest allies are villains rather than heroes in the DC canon. That allows the show to do different things with the characters that heroes simply cannot do — at least according to DC.

“It’s incredibly gratifying and free to be using characters that are considered villains because you just have so much more leeway,” says Halpern. “A perfect example of that is in this third season of ‘Harley’ [when] we had a moment where Batman was going down on Catwoman. And DC was like, ‘You can’t do that. You absolutely cannot do that.’ They’re like, ‘Heroes don’t do that.’ So, we said, ‘Are you saying heroes are just selfish lovers?’ They were like, ‘No, it’s that we sell consumer toys for heroes. It’s hard to sell a toy if Batman is also going down on someone.’”

(In fairness to DC, both Halpern and Schumacker went on to say that the company has been remarkably supportive of their series and has allowed them to push the envelope numerous times. Still, it remains to be seen if Batman and Catwoman will be shown engaging in some bedroom antics in Season 3 or if it will simply be implied via cunning linguistics.)

Even when compromises must be made to stay true to traditions within the franchises, that such wide-ranging superhero series are being made in general is positive for these creatives. For many of them, who grew up reading comics and consuming genre films and earlier television, the excitement is in adding to the conversation by offering a more mature take and diving deeper with characters who previously never saw much time in the spotlight. The challenge, though, is in making enough noise to capture the zeitgeist when so many series in similar veins keep popping up.

“Everyone wants to do a superhero show now, so I think finding original voices is tougher and finding a place in that hierarchy of shows is important,” Blackman says. “So I think that’s the challenge going forward: With so many people doing it, how do you stand out? What makes your show special?”

In this current environment, standing out is no small feat. “WandaVision” was Marvel’s first outing for Disney Plus, for example, but “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” was right on its heels, and “Loki” premiered right after “Falcon.” Additionally, DC has a number of series on the CW (from “Batwoman” and “Superman & Lois” to the upcoming “Naomi” from executive producer Ava DuVernay) and is plotting an expanded television universe at HBO Max. Amazon Prime Video has the live-action “The Boys” and animated “Invincible,” both of which have been met with acclaim. The former is even getting a spinoff, set at a college for aspiring superheroes.

The race is on then to see which, if any, of the new shows will have what it takes to stand alone

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