Villain Fatigue

This week, I finally finished watching season 3 of CW’s SUPERGIRL, nearly two months after the season finale.  This has been a show I’ve largely enjoyed, but this last season, every time I saw SUPERGIRL on my watch list, I found myself skipping over it in favor of something else.  This was partially due to the tone the show has taken.  Events from season two had resulted in the usually exuberant Kara Danvers, played with such natural charm by Melissa Benoist, going through a crisis of faith.  Everything from the show logo to Kara’s mood was darkened dramatically, and what had once been a refreshing light spot in the landscape of grimdark dramas had become a mediocre melodrama about the woes of superhero life.

But the real problem this season is one that has been plaguing many of the CW superhero shows in general: villain fatigue.   By this I mean that after 23 episodes of SUPERGIRL, I could not care any less about the plans of Reign, the Kryptonian World Killer sent by a death cult to wipe out all life on earth to make way for a new Kryptonian society.  It’s not because the plan is outlandish – I’m more than willing to accept insanity from my superhero fare.  It’s that the ENTIRE season was devoted to teasing out this plot in its many, many stages.  There was the introduction of Reign as a concept. The mystery of her secret identity.  The introduction of Reign’s minions, Purity and Pestilence.  The defeat of said minions.  Supergirl’s failed attempt to defeat Reign in combat.  The race to capture Reign.  The struggles to separate her from her human host. So on and so forth until Reign was FINALLY defeated.  But in the end, I didn’t care.  Just let Reign raze the earth – at least it would be something different.

This is a problem that extends to all the CW superhero shows, and to some other genre shows in general.  With the vast majority of television trending towards serialized content, the Arrowverse has been trying for years to take a genre that favors episodic content and structure it around a Big Bad whose plot extends for an entire season.  Some attempts have been more successful than others.  The first season of THE FLASH was highly entertaining, and featured the best villain in Reverse Flash/Eobard Thawn.   That success was in part because the show didn’t rely on the villain to carry the narrative plot of every episode.  The writers were more than happy to have Barry chase around a variety of metahumans for most of the season.  The episodes were more stand alone, with the ongoing plans of Reverse Flash lightly sprinkled in the background.  Contrast this with more recent seasons of THE FLASH, where EVERY EPISODE heavily featured thwarting the plans of the Thinker.  Even though there were episodic elements (the Thinker was trying to capture certain super powered individuals), the threat of his plot was at the forefront of every episode. You couldn’t escape a single scene without some member of Team Flash wringing their hands over how they would never defeat this formidable foe.  The result was a feeling of running in place (pun intended) – the plot was always going frantically nowhere, because they had to fill out twenty episodes with incremental progress.

If the Arrowverse is to right its ship, it has got to realize that it cannot spend every one of its 22+ episodes focusing on the main villain.  Doing so only makes the stalling tactics of such plotting truly obvious. They would do well to look to another genre show, PERSON OF INTEREST.  This was a series with a clear narrative arc that nevertheless wasn’t afraid to lean heavily on its episodic elements.  Every episode there was a new person to save, and sometimes there would only be passing mention of the ultimate villains of the series.  Eventually, you would get a few episodes in a row when the stakes would be raised to focus solely on rival AI Samaritan, but by and large, the show was a CBS procedural. BUT when it became clear that PERSON OF INTEREST was coming to an end, it adapted a more serialized story structure while also reducing its season order to 13 episodes.  This mean that the show was tight and focused and if most of the episodes were about Samaritan, I was okay with that, because the show wasn’t stalling for a conclusion, but actually moving the story forward in meaningful ways.

I appreciate that I now live in a world where I can have my pick of superhero shows. The idea of a network  devoting almost half of its programming to the DC verse was a pipe dream when I was younger.  But the fact that I have my pick means that I no longer feel obligated to watch these shows despite their problems.  After an interminable season of the Flash vs. the Thinker, I’ve decided to drop that show from my ever growing watch list.  After an endless season of dealing with Reign, SUPERGIRL is likewise on the chopping block.  Only some intriguing casting decisions (hello Bruce Boxleitner!) have me considering coming back for next season.  So hear my final plea, Supergirl: don’t bring on another supervillain to dominate the scene.  Keep the Big Bad in your back pocket.  We know another one is around the corner.  Just let them stay there a little while longer.

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