'Arrow' Vs. 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.': Is DC Winning the TV War Against Marvel?

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This week’s all-new ‘Arrow’ installment mashed together a plethora of major DC names in both minor appearances and name-drops, some more unexpected than others, as we learned that a previously off-limits ‘Batman’ figure would figure prominently into the ‘Arrow’ mythology. Compounding ‘Arrow’’s already DC-heavy roster of characters, the reveal got us thinking about Marvel’s own TV continuity tie-in ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,’ and begging the ultimate question: Which is making better use of its source material?

Right off the bat, let’s get one thing straight. We know both ‘Arrow’ and ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ have undertaken vastly different paths with their continuity to a larger mythology, with ‘Arrow’’s place in DC’s cinematic universe relatively unclear, while ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ has had less time to establish its own identity, but maintains far clearer-cut ties to the cinematic whole. In that way, the two seem almost evenly matched in their potential, ‘Arrow’ offering a bit more creative license to ‘Agents’’ superior exposure.

To that end, we need consider the current state of DC’s live-action universe, and the origins of ‘Arrow’ itself as an evolution undergone within that timeframe. ‘Arrow’ emerged with a simple thesis of combining the CW’s ‘Smallville’-created Green Arrow fanbase with a TV budget-friendly ‘Batman Begins,’ a surprisingly elegant and well-timed idea for the brand. The series debuted to strong critical fanfare, steadily increasing its buzz and bankability over the course of the first season, while keeping mostly true to its more grounded take on the mythology. Then, in the summer of 2013, the poles began to shift.

The earth-shattering announcement that Batman would be integrated into Zack Snyder’s ‘Man of Steel’ sequel proved equal parts exciting and puzzling, given how soon it seemed to resurrect the Dark Knight after Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. One might read that DC had grown tired of its cinematic universe stalls, compared to Marvel’s second lap announcement of ‘The Avengers: Age of Ultron,’ leaving DC to rush its creation of a larger team of heroes. Arguments could be made either way for the origins of ‘Batman Vs. Superman,’ though DC’s live-action ambitions were further compounded by another announcement that arrived only weeks later, namely that ‘Arrow’ would break its apparent no-powers rule to integrate‘The Flash’ into its second season, positioning the character for his own TV spinoff thereafter.

The timing of the announcement again suggested that DC and Warner Bros. had tossed out the rulebook in expanding its live-action character base, even if it remained unclear, perhaps unlikely that the cinematic and TV franchises would share even a spiritual sense of continuity. Meanwhile, Marvel’s ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ continually plodded toward its September premiere, keeping its characters largely under wraps to preserve the secrecy around its more overt ties to the ‘Avengers’ films. We had our own ideas over the realistic possibilities for ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ to interact with its cinematic brethren, but several episodes deep into either season, a comparison between the two needed consideration.

Our expectations of ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ not withstanding, few would argue that the inaugural five episodes of the series have established little in the way of previously unseen Marvel mythology. We’ve endured all manner of references to the films themselves, but only the basest tiptoeing around comic book characters and ideas. Even as we see the ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ brand taking shape on a weekly basis, we know that the complicated state of affairs in managing Marvel rights necessitates a light touch with characters potentially earmarked for future films, or concepts that could potentially damage the brands of Marvel’s more profitable enterprises. It almost seems as if all the cooks in the kitchen and creative red tape has choked the early life out of Marvel’s flagship live-action TV series, regardless of what other properties the corporation may look to adapt with a TV treatment.

Spoilers be warned for those not yet caught up with the current season of ‘Arrow,’ but the second season’s third episode “Broken Dolls” dropped a major bombshell in announcing that the typically Batman-centric supervillain Ra’s Al Ghul would figure into the ‘Arrow’ mythology, having only been alluded to in the previous season. Until now, our experience with ‘Smallville’ and DC’s TV adaptations had taught us that Warner Bros. too had earmarked its most bankable characters for the movies, hence ‘Arrow’’s tendency to tiptoe around aspects of the ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy rather than adapt them outright. We’ve yet to be given a clear understanding of how ‘Arrow’ will actively incorporate the character or the “League of Assassins” (changed back from Nolan’s League of Shadows to its comic name), but the suggestion alone of “Ra’s Al Ghul” elevated our perception of the series altogether, specifically in an episode that had already introduced Black Canary, Amazo, Sin, Jean Loring, and Metamorpho, with many more to come in future weeks, at least  that we know of.

So what have we to make of all this? Everyone knows that Marvel maintains the lead in establishing a live-action universe as a whole, but has DC’s scatter-shot approach to continuity actually succeeded in crafting more excitement from its fanbase? At least in TV, that would appear to be the case. ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ has only an implied lead in its connection to the Marvel movies, with little evidence to suggest its inaugural season will improve its incorporation of the Marvel brand, even with the faith we reserve for anything associated with Joss Whedon. ‘Arrow’ cast us into doubt earlier on with its announcement of ‘The Flash,’ a development we’ve yet to truly evaluate within the series itself, but certainly one indicative of the brand’s willingness to take risks in adapting its characters. The namedrop of Ra’s Al Ghul eagerly appears to place ‘Arrow’ over the mark as well, heralding a newfound franchise freedom that double increases our excitement for the season.

From a superficial standpoint, it can be difficult to take ‘Arrow’ as seriously as ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,’ given The CW’s limited exposure compared with ABC, or even the CW’s established association with more teen soap opera-esque programming. You’ll find equal exploitation in either, by ‘Arrow’’s shameless shirtless posters, or ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”s repeated attempts at sexualizing its leading lady Skye, but as far as the source material, we have to give ‘Arrow’ the edge in this conflict. One need only look as far as the recent ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ trailer to see that Marvel continually earmarks more attention for the theatrical ventures, while its live-action TV brand has proven underwhelming across the board.

‘Arrow’ has plenty left to prove in its second season, with a mountain still to scale for the DC brand in rehabilitating its theatrical base as well, but it seems DC’s desperation is surprisingly starting to pay out dividends. The TV landscape could also look drastically different a year from now, as Marvel supposedly prepares its other offerings, and DC rolls out FOX’s Batman-free ‘Gotham’ TV series. That said, please excuse us while we watch ‘The Winter Soldier’ trailer 52 more times.

What say you? Do you think ‘Arrow’’s incorporation of DC characters has given the brand an edge over ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’? Movies not withstanding, which show do you think does its fanbase justice? Which will look to avenge the loss? Check out our reviews of the latest ‘Arrow’ and ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ episodes, and weigh in with your thoughts in the comments!

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