clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Marvel's Jessica Jones shows why TV tells better superhero stories than film

Lower stakes, better villains, and three other reasons.

Netflix's Jessica Jones is a far better superhero story than any superhero film released this year.
Netflix's Jessica Jones is a far better superhero story than any superhero film released this year.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The arrival of the instantly terrific Jessica Jones on Netflix has me thinking: Is TV a better medium for telling superhero stories than film?

I'm not sure it has to be. But it is right now. Jessica Jones and Daredevil are both intimate, street-level action shows with deep character development. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has steadily evolved into a thrilling workplace drama masquerading as a superhero show, while Agent Carter is a crackerjack period piece. And those are just the shows based on Marvel characters!

When it comes to the wide scope of TV superheroes, including The Flash and Supergirl and even The Walking Dead (which has no superheroes but borrows plenty from the visual iconography of comic books), there's just no question that they boast far greater tonal variance and storytelling deviation than there is on the big screen.

And this makes sense. TV is far closer to comic books than film is, thanks to its serialization. Even with the rise of giant mega-franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, TV better replicates the experience of checking in with your favorite characters on a regular basis.

Here are five reasons TV is (currently) a better medium for superhero stories than film.

1) TV's stakes are smaller

Even in a show like Supergirl, the stakes remain refreshingly personal.

Almost every superhero film since the genre began its rise to invincibility over the past 15 years has featured a plot that would destroy a city, or a nation, or, increasingly often, the whole world. And these sorts of stakes can grow wearying after a while, especially when they're not particularly connected to the heroes' personal struggles.

Something like The Dark Knight works on this level, because it ties its city-destroying stakes into what Batman is going through in his attempts to defeat crime, whereas the film's sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, strains to link a new villain's plot to a series of complicated character histories and ultimately struggles to make any of it personally matter to the hero.

Compare this with TV, which can rarely tell stories of world-destroying importance due to its smaller budgets. Jessica Jones becomes about a woman facing off against her trauma and the man who caused it, while The Flash is about a man reconciling himself with his tragic past, even as he's trying to save the city he lives in.

TV needs personal stakes to keep viewers tuning in week after week; it doesn't matter how big the other dramatic stakes are otherwise. The movies can get by with dazzling visual effects (and often do), but TV can't rely on that crutch, even if it has the money to do so. It's only as successful as its character arcs are, and that means the character arcs usually get the most focus.

How film can improve: Focusing more on character sounds easy, but it can be murderously difficult, especially when you only have a few hours to work with. However, deescalating the stakes would be a good place to start. Instead of a whole city in danger, why not a few people the hero really cares about?

2) TV allows for greater tonal variance, at least right now

The Flash
The Flash is a completely different show tonally from something like Jessica Jones — and is all the better for it.
The CW

Really, this shouldn't be true, yet it is. In general, film is a far more forgiving medium for wild tonal shifts than TV is, because TV needs to keep viewers coming back, and thus it usually needs to establish a certain tonal baseline.

Yet TV's superhero shows still allow for the variance of Daredevil's ultra-darkness, The Flash's goofy earnestness, and the period sizzle of Agent Carter. In contrast, Marvel's films tend to use the same story structure (three big action sequences, plus snarky quips), while DC's (at least so far) have all been deeply, disturbingly dark without providing any real reason for their hyper-seriousness.

What tends to happen is that these studios think shifting the apparent genre of a film is enough to make up for its tonal similarities to other movies. So if Guardians of the Galaxy is a space opera and Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a conspiracy thriller, it doesn't matter if they share very, very similar tones. But it does. If you try to watch a bunch of Marvel movies in a row, they'll start to feel like the same movie, over and over again, with slightly different skins — right down to all of them featuring roughly the same climax.

When film studios do try to break from their usual form, they don't have tons of incentive. In 2015 alone, Marvel released the weird and sad Avengers: Age of Ultron and the (slightly) more intimate Ant-Man, only to reap disappointing box office returns for both (though it's not like anybody lost money on either). Superhero films are mass commodities, and mass commodities are usually designed to be as predictable and unvarying as possible.

How film can improve: This should be so easy. The movies already allow for so, so many tones; superhero films just aren't that interested in taking advantage. The easiest way to start would be to hire iconoclastic directors and let them develop their own personal visions of what a superhero film should look like. Ava DuVernay didn't agree to direct Marvel's Black Panther movie because the studio wouldn't give her enough creative control. But what if it had?

3) TV has better villains

One of the best things about Daredevil is its utterly believable main villain, Wilson Fisk.

There are exceptions to this one; both Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger's spins on the Joker are classics, and Alfred Molina made for a wonderful Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2. But for the most part, villains in superhero movies (especially superhero movies from Marvel) are typically just another obstacle for the hero to get past in the big, CGI-infused climax. But a great villain has recognizable, understandable goals and believable motivations driving those goals. Even if we find them despicable, we understand where they're coming from. Superhero movies fail at this point, over and over and over.

But TV's villain game is on point. Daredevil's Wilson Fisk and Jessica Jones's Kilgrave are better than any villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, thanks to their utterly believable (and occasionally mundane) wickedness, while The Flash has cooked up a hilariously silly rogues gallery that fits that show's tone perfectly. Even Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which has struggled with this) has created an appropriately creepy and mysterious villain in its third season.

How film can improve: The goals of too many superhero movie villains feel as if they were added to their corresponding movie plots at the last possible moment, because most of them ultimately boil down to "destroy the world." Simply obeying the first rule I outlined above and deescalating the stakes would make for more vivid enemies.

4) TV can always emulate the best non-comics superhero of all time

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy the Vampire Slayer remains the best. Forever and ever.

20th Century Fox

You want to know the best superhero TV series ever made? It's not any of the current bumper crop. It's not the 1960s Batman. Nor is it Smallville. (God, is it not Smallville.) No, it's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, from showrunner (and Avengers director) Joss Whedon. Whedon's spin on superhero stories has everything a good superhero story needs — a superpowered heroine, an eclectic ensemble of characters, and a season-long structure that allows for minor confrontations with smaller villains in the buildup to a face-off with the "Big Bad."

In general, all of the successful superhero shows on TV right now borrow liberally from this template, and they're all the better for it. (As the Atlantic's David Sims has pointed out, The Flash has basically become Buffy with a super-speedster.) And Whedon's chief influences in crafting Buffy and its very superhero-y spinoff Angel were 1960s Marvel comics. TV's storytelling format simply allows for the sort of broad, lightly serialized storytelling that comics do far more than film does.

How film can improve: I'm not sure there's an easy answer here, honestly. Most superhero movies are following the same template as various entrants in the 1970s Superman series, at least at a structural level. The Marvel Cinematic Universe offers a slight edit to the comic book format, but it doesn't dig nearly deep enough. Telling more standalone stories might be the way to go here.

5) TV is far more interested in diversity

Agent Carter
Agent Peggy Carter started out as a movie character. But she truly came into her own on TV.

In addition to fostering tonal diversity, which allows for a greater swath of superhero stories, TV is also more interested in what it would mean to be a woman or a person of color with superpowers. We're just four years removed from the arrival of Arrow — sort of ground zero for TV superheroics — and we already have multiple series about women with superpowers (or living in a world where superpowers exist), as well as several upcoming series about people of color with superpowers. Meanwhile, in the world of film, we're 15 years removed from X-Men, and Marvel might start getting around to making a couple of movies about superpowered women and people of color someday now.

In and of itself, this wouldn't be worth noting if the storytelling weren't there to back it up, but Agent Carter, Supergirl, and Jessica Jones offer three wildly different takes on how to make a feminist superhero series, while Daredevil considers what it would mean to live in the world with a disability but still have powers far beyond those of other people. TV still lags in terms of superheroes who are people of color, but Netflix's upcoming Luke Cage and Iron Fist series will change that in 2016. In all of these series, the diversity of the characters onscreen enhances the storytelling. As it should be.

How film can improve: Honestly, just hurry up. Also, make sure that the diversity of the characters isn't merely an attempt to provide a token hero or two but is, instead, entwined with the storytelling on a very deep level.