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Monday, February 22, 2010

Union Dues: Why Do Superhero TV Shows Fail?

A few months ago, EscapePod ran a story from the Union Dues universe. For those who don't know, Union Dues is a series of short stories in the Superhero genre. What makes this different is that the stories aren't about epic clashes with super-villains or having to be in two places at once.

These stories explore the meta-life of superheros, as they all fall under the protection of "The Union". The Union is a shadowy corporation that "forcefully retains" any human who demonstrates superpowers, and uses them not just for hero work, but for merchandise and publicity. Examples: A "Big Guy" is imprisoned for accidentally killing a kid. A boy with a dying mother is given a non-choice to join the supers. The supers who refused to join the union are imprisoned in Antarctica, then recast as super-villains. They deal with sexual affairs, losing their memory, drug addiction, being gay, and living under the all-seeing eye of the "Company". These are not your typical Superman/X-Man/Spawn types, and the stories are excellent.

And they're becoming a TV show.

Or at least, they're trying to. There's a campaign going on to promote the show (I don't know if they have a website, but they're on Twitter). And one of the questions they wanted people to answer was "Why do most adult superhero shows fail?"

I've been rolling this question around in my head for the past month or so, trying to find an answer myself. The ones that come to mind are "Lois and Clark", "Dark Angel", "Heroes" (initially popular, but fading, and lacking critical acclaim), "Birds of Prey", and "The Tick". One of the only ones that succeeded was "The Incredible Hulk", and that didn't really follow Superhero conventions. I don't know what Smallville's doing, but that seems more like a teen drama, plus it's a pre-superhero story. And I don't know enough about Wonder Woman to say. Hercules and Xena dabble their toes in the water, but their success was based on its campiness and cultish at best. But there's never been a dyed-in-the-wool superhero drama that succeeded.

I haven't been able to find a good answer beyond "the others were boring". Lois and Clark was doomed to fail because Superman sucks. Plus they tried to make it some romantic drama, except they made Lois a super-bitch and Clark Kent gay. I didn't watch Dark Angel, but judging from the commercials, they seemed to be more focused on the romance rather than the premise. I watched "Birds of Prey", and the problem with that was the characters didn't have much charm. Plus there was the stereotypical viglante/cop romance cliche. Maybe they were trying to make "Charmed" with superheroes. "The Tick" was geek humor, which the world was not ready for (and still isn't). I stopped watching "Heroes" because A) the ending of season one was anti-climatic and B) everyone started having superpowers. And like Syndrome says "When everyone's special, no one will be".

But I don't believe Union Dues would be boring. Maybe the others tried to focus on the "bad guy of the week" and couldn't live up to the epic flavor that comic books make us expect. A hero is only as good as his villain, and the legendary superheros (Batman, Superman, Spider-Man) have done so because of their rogue's gallery.

Maybe a better question to ask would be "Why do Superhero shows for kids succeed?" Lots of them have adult followings, and not just for nostalgia. Any Batman series (especially including Batman Beyond), Teen Titans, X-Men, Ninja Turtles. They all have great plots, interesting characters, bang-up super-villains, and they deal with things that matter.

Union Dues stories are not about superhero activities at all. They're about being a superhero, the stuff that goes on behind the scenes. No one ever does that. That's the part that's interesting. That's the part that bridges the gap between humans and superhumans. That's why, if there's a series, I will be watching it.
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