Is It Time for Superhero TV Shows to Say Goodbye to “Big Bads”?

     May 16, 2017

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In the 20 years since Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered, the genre shows that have followed have borrowed heavily from the aspects that made that show an icon, with varying degrees of success. Indeed, more than a few of them owe their core concepts to the playbook established by Buffy and the Scoobs. Buffy was also a de facto superhero, so it’s little coincidence that her DNA is found in abundance in the bumper crop of superhero shows currently on the air — many of which are found on The CW, formerly known as Buffy’s home of The WB. Supergirl embodies the female empowerment, Arrow is all about the terrific fight choreography, and the bona fide immortal Supernatural continues to maintain a rich mythology of magic and occultism. There are also other shows on other networks: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and the Marvel “street-level heroes” shows on Netflix (Daredevil, et al) among others (Gotham maybe, but I checked out after Episode 2). In almost all of these shows, there is one key concept of Buffy that has endured yet definitely outlived its usefulness: the season-long villain, a.k.a. the “Big Bad.” And it’s long past time for the Big Bad to be deader than Cordelia.

It all started with Buffy and the Master over the span of the show’s first 12 episodes. The Master, a powerful vampire elder imprisoned underground on the Hellmouth, is unable to confront the newly-arrived Slayer himself, so minions do it for him until the inevitable final showdown. Later nemeses like Spike, Drusilla, Angelus, Mayor Wilkins, Adam, Glory, The Trio and The First Evil all followed suit, menacing Buffy and her allies over the course of whole seasons. The concept was transplanted directly to the Buffy spinoff, Angel; later, various genre shows followed suit. Sometimes it’s worked well; other times, less so. In fact, it’s really one of the elements of these sorts of shows that are becoming harder and harder to maintain. So why does the practice persist? Our current so-called “Second Golden Age of Television” is rife with opportunity and variety: new outlets, compressed seasons, entire seasons released all at once, etc. Yet these genre shows that have the hardest slog of all, 22 episodes on the most restrictive platform (network TV) clinging to this 20th Century methodology, often to their detriment.

Image via WB

Image via WB

Big Bads necessitate hit-and-run narration in shows that run for 22 episodes. The villain makes his appearance, there’s a confrontation, harsh words, hurt feelings, and then he must retreat to later in the season to carry out his hidden agenda, a.k.a. his dastardly plot. Episodic adventures fill the gaps in the meantime. This is especially prevalent in the current DCEU shows on the CW. Supernatural has been coasting for years on the concept: Yellow Eyes, Lucifer, Leviathans, The Mark of Cain, Metatron, The Darkness, The British Men of Letters, et al. It inexplicably seems to manage its Big Bads better than just about any other show, but it’s probably a result of Eric Kripke having sold his soul to a crossroads demon to get the show on the air for ten years. (Though somebody else must have sold their soul for this current stretch. Robert Singer perhaps?)

It’s funny, really, how Millennials are saddled with the perception that they’re all “gotta-have-it-all-and-now” types, yet have grown up in the Buffy and post-Buffy era where this sort of long-term storytelling become popular. We Gen-X-ers had little such accommodation. The superhero shows I grew up watching were decidedly episodic in nature. Wonder Woman had a couple of two-parters, max. Multi-episode arcs on the Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman included three appearances of Bigfoot over five episodes (the last being the matter-of-factly titled “Bigfoot V”), a three-episode arc of Fembots, and a two-episode sequel. Lois and Clark did have John Shea’s Lex Luthor Big Badding it in Season 1, but it was largely episodic as well. Alas Automan and Manimal didn’t stick around quite long enough to worry about….

Regardless, for evidence on the detriment the Big Bad concept more often causes to a show, look no further than Season 4 of Arrow, Season 1 of Legends of Tomorrow, and Season 3 of The Flash. Arrow and Legends struggled with villains (Damien Darhk and Vandal Savage respectively) whose stories were dragged on throughout their seasons. Meanwhile, The Flash’s villain, Savitar, has bookended the season though was absent for a large swath of it. His identity and origin have only recently paid off, but his presence throughout much of the season was akin to talking behind the back of that kid you don’t like in middle school when he’s not around. Oh, and keep in mind that Flash’s signature storyline, ‘Flashpoint,” was whittled down to a single episode to accommodate the Big Bad.

Damien Darhk is an interesting Big Bad case, because has been the most unique villain of Arrow’s run to date: a homicidal magic user who eschews hoods and masks and most importantly, arrows (usually). Nevertheless, after so many confrontations all Season 4 long, I was more than happy to see him go bye-bye (despite the fact that Neal McDonough rules). Thankfully, both McDonough and Darhk were redeemed in Season 2 of Legends, itself having improved vastly over its first season without a one-note Big Bad in Savage and his soap opera tie-in with the Hawk people. Savage’s run was like Darhk’s: repetitive, largely inconsequential confrontations that are the hallmark of Big Bad villains.

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Image via The CW

The jury is still out when it comes to Marvel’s “street-level heroes” shows on Netflix. Jessica Jones had an excellent first season with only David Tennant‘s Purple Man antagonizing a post-traumatic Jones all season, while Daredevil and Luke Cage have both done well with multiple villains in smaller arcs. But Iron Fist was a veritable disaster with multiple villains — the Meachums and the Hand — tagging in and out. Of course, that show’s failures were inherently systemic rather than which enemy Danny was bitching out about at any given moment. Yet with all of the series a consensus has seemingly been reached that they could benefit all from fewer episodes.

Still, there has been evidence that a change in thinking is producing better results. Supergirl has focused on a couple of smaller arcs this past season, involving Cadmus and later the Daxamites. And even though Legends employed the Big Bad concept yet again in Season 2, it did so with greater latitude than it had in Season 1, plus a much lighter tone that included a bickering and greatly effective Legion of Doom (made up of Darhk, Malcolm Merlyn, Eobarde Thawne, and alterna-Snart). It allowed for a huge improvement in the show’s storytelling and overall quality.

But the show, the season, and the formula that I hold up as a model to break the withering Big Bad trend has been this most recent season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The show has engaged in the Big Bad practice as well during its run, sure. But Season 4, which featured three distinct story arcs centering on Ghost Rider, LMDs and the Agents of HYDRA / Framework alternate reality, has been representative of the methodology from which I think all these other shows could benefit. Take for instance, the current Season of The Flash.  Flashpoint should have been given its proper due to start the season for at least six to eight episode. That then leads to another arc, probably an expanded run with Dr. Alchemy, or perhaps some meta-of-the-weeks, (especially considering the winter break) for the second third, and then the final third wrapping up the season with the Savitar storyline, spawned directly from Flashpoint. I’m just sayin’!

The “anti-Big Bad” way of genre storytelling equals tighter adventures told in a compressed timeframe, allowing for not only more stories, but the better execution on them. I hope that more of these superhero and genre shows will embrace the opportunity to tell more stories in more manageable bits rather than clinging to a worn out and rarely well-executed storytelling methodology inspired by a 20-year-old show about a vampire-killing teenage girl with a weapon named “Mr. Pointy.” Great as it was, we’re in a new age of television now.

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