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REPORT CARD: Which Comics-Based Series Are Making the Grade?

by  in Movie News, TV News Comment
REPORT CARD: Which Comics-Based Series Are Making the Grade?

If you watch television, it’s a pretty fair bet that you’ve seen a comic book adaptation at some point this season. A far cry from just a few years ago, they’re now virtually unavoidable — with even more on the way. But no one has the time to watch everything, especially when there’s so much to choose from. Fear not, true believer — we’re here to help.

RELATED: FANTASY DRAFT: “The Flash” Villains Ready for Prime Time

With 2014’s fall season offering both returning series and a healthy crop of new ones, we delve into the season premieres and the episodes that have followed, assigning a letter grade to what we’ve seen so far. Of course, some shows have aired more than others (“Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” recently ran its sixth installment of the 2014/15 season, while at the time of this writing only one “Constantine” episode had aired) but based on their own merits, we let you know which comic book shows are worthy of your audiovisual pull list.

Warning: from here on out, things get spoilery!

Arrow (The CW)

Season three started with a bang, featuring guest stars, some intriguing flashbacks, and possibly the most surprising television death so far this season.

Of course, bold storytelling decisions are nothing new for “Arrow.” While comics-based shows are often afraid to kill off main characters, things are significantly more perilous for the inhabitants of Starling City. Former billionaire playboy Oliver Queen (played by the perfectly-cast Stephen Amell) lost his fair share of family and friends in the first two seasons, and judging by the events of the premiere, virtually no one is going to be safe going forward.

There’s a lot to love about the handful of episodes The CW has aired thus far. It’s been action-packed, suspenseful and filled to the brim with DC Comics lore (I can’t be the only one who squealed with delight when the gang jetted off to Corto Maltese). Thankfully, the writers have never veered too far off-course when it comes to character development. Laurel’s recklessness, Felicity’s day job, Thea’s mysterious training, and even Diggle’s domestication have all provided the show some much-needed texture, adding to the already captivating framework of a season that is shaping up to be the best of the series.

Grade: A

Constantine (NBC)

“Constantine” is the second time DC/Vertigo’s occult-themed “Helblazer” comic has made the leap to live action, the first being the mostly forgettable 2005 film starring dark-haired American Keanu Reeves playing the traditionally blonde-haired Brit John Constantine.

Nearly a decade later, and the new television adaptation has fixed that particular issue. Matt Ryan looks and acts the part, turning in a cracking performance as the titular character. Despite that, some critics and purists aren’t quite satisfied as the typically chain-smoking protagonist will not be puffing away due to television restrictions, and his bisexuality will likely not be explored, at least not in the near future (at least according to Executive producer Daniel Ceron).

The pilot delivered some fun (if sometimes rushed) supernatural encounters, and featured some decent looking visual effects. John’s conversations with a surly angel (“Lost” veteran Harold Perrineau) provided some of my favorite moments. While the show failed to deliver a huge knockout punch in terms of story or character development, it laid a nice foundation for future episodes and did enough to draw me in. It seems hardly fair to judge “Constantine” based on a single episode, but there is a lot of potential — even if it seems unrealized thus far.

Grade: B-

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC)

Marvel’s tentpole television show has been a roller coaster from the onset. Premiering last season with blockbuster ratings, ABC saw it’s viewership drop over the course of the season, finishing at less than half of its debut numbers, though the show’s quality, in my humble opinion, actually trended in the opposite direction. It began slowly, with characters that felt like two-dimensional archetypes and some cookie-cutter obstacles to overcome, but gradually developed into some pretty compelling television as it headed into the season finale.

Now dealing with the fallout from the events of season one (the Hydra infiltration that was also part of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”) S.H.I.E.L.D. has gone rogue. Without a fancy base of operations, fewer supplies, and having lost all affiliation to the US government, Coulson attempts to run his ops in secrecy — all as he copes with his own affliction — the fact that alien technology used to heal him after the Loki stabbing incident during “Marvel’s The Avengers” is now causing him to write alien scribbles all over stuff — trust me, it’s cooler than it sounds.

With the introduction of several new characters and a meandering plotline based on uncovering Skye’s origin story, this season felt somewhat directionless up until episode 6. The search for a silver obelisk covered in the same symbols Coulson continues to draw emerged early as the primary plot device, but not much else happened — until S.H.I.E.L.D. turncoat Grant Ward made his escape during a prison transfer. Thankfully, we’re finally treading into the meat of the season with some emotional currency invested in the plotlines.

While slightly underwhelming as a whole, I have enjoyed each episode on their own merits. The action scenes continue to get sharper, the humor is developing nicely, and some of the character interactions are just plain fun. “AoS” continues to deliver solid weekly fare that sometimes — frustratingly — teeters just on the edge of greatness, never quite able to make it over the edge. To reach the levels that Joss Whedon achieved during his tenure at “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Serenity” and the latter episodes of “Dollhouse,” “S.H.I.E.L.D.” will have to take more chances (see “Arrow”). And, possibly, focus on fewer characters as the growing cast of agents is distracting from storylines we really want to see develop.

The season is still fresh and there’s plenty of time to course-correct. Over the span of 22 episodes — several of which will likely tie into “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” if last season is any indication — let’s hope “AoS” can regain the electricity it was able to generate during Ward’s jaw-dropping betrayal in the latter frames of last season, and craft him into the compelling villain he has the potential to be.

Grade: B+

The Flash (The CW)

When CBR posed the question “Which New Comic Book Television Series Are You Most Excited For?” in May of this year, you overwhelmingly chose “The Flash” by nearly a 2-to-1 margin over the runner-up, “Gotham.” It was the same show I selected while participating in that poll, and my instincts (at least so far) seem to have been correct.

“The Flash” stands in stark contrast with the other DC property it shares continuity with, The CW’s “Arrow.” It’s bright, energetic and has a candy-coated sweetness that was completely unexpected, yet not at all unwelcome. Bucking the comics adaptation trend to try to be the darkest and edgiest, “The Flash” provides laughs, camaraderie, a wonderful father-son bond (two, actually), and there’s some light romance that provides a nice change of pace from the heroics, while never distracting from the larger narrative. Even the aesthetic is bright, with most of the show taking place in broad daylight or brightly-lit rooms.

Best of all, we’re already a handful of episodes into season one without bogging the show down with an over-extended origin story. Barry Allen is struck by lightning, meets the team of scientists who will inevitably serve as his ‘Scooby Gang’ and is outfitted in red and yellow before the credits roll on the pilot episode. His buddy Oliver Queen even hints at his eventual superhero name by suggesting that he helps people, “in a flash.”

Though it’s clear that the writers have adopted a “metahuman-of-the-week format” thus far — the gang has even developed a containment unit in place to incarcerate a new bad guy at the end of each episode — there are enough juicy mysteries unfolding that I’m itching to sink my teeth into.

Fun, fresh and fast-paced (pun intended) it’s too early to know if “The Flash” will live up to the greatness so many viewers are expecting from it. But the show has quickly earned a spot on my must-watch list, and it only seems to improve with each new episode.

Grade: A-

Gotham (Fox)

The story behind James Gordon’s rise to prominence in Gotham City in the years preceding Batman’s arrival is jam packed with Easter eggs, and more than a few chance run-ins. In the pilot episode alone, Gordon (played by “The O.C.”s Ben McKenzie) interacts with a pint-sized Poison Ivy, a pre-teen Catwoman, The Riddler, The Penguin — the list goes on and on. It seems like everyone the young homicide detective encounters happens to be on the fast track to super-criminal activities.

I was skeptical coming into a program that relied solely on back story, while not sharing any connective tissue with the upcoming “Batman v Superman” film. The Batman-less show is, surprisingly, not part of DC’s movie universe, leaving me to ask the question: Why craft a show based around a series of events that will never pay off? Is this part of some plan that will hatch years down the line with an intensely satisfying conclusion, or just an attempt to cash in on the biggest name on the DC superhero roster?

Another head scratcher: If all of these characters will one day become Bruce Wayne’s arch enemies, then it’s impossible for any of them to die — right?

Confusion and continuity issues aside, “Gotham” — at least thus far — feels like more of a Frankenstein monster than a Caped Crusader. The series is a mish-mash of styles we’ve seen in previous cinematic incarnations of “Batman,” combining the grittiness of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, the aesthetic of Tim Burton’s films, and some of the silliness of Joel Schumacher’s mid-90s popcorn fare that ultimately put the franchise on ice (once again, pun intended). The show dabbles, but never commits to any of the distinctive directing styles its clearly borrowing from — or truly discovers what the audience loved about them in the first place.

The acting is solid, if uneven. Mackenzie seems to be playing it fairly straight, while his partner (Harvey Bullock, portrayed by Donal Logue) feels much more cartoon than comic book. For every bright spot (Jada Pinkett’s Fish Mooney is a nice addition), there is a strange one (young Master Wayne, played by 13-year old David Mazouz, looks like he’s perpetually confused that he’s on the set of a TV show).

With a full season order under its utility belt, we’re all but guaranteed 22 episodes of “Gotham.” And while flawed, I’ll be on board for the duration to see if the freshman show can find its voice.

Grade: C+

The Walking Dead (AMC)

I’m just going to come right out and say it: I didn’t like The Walking Dead last year. Not the entire season, mind you, but everything that took place after the mid-season break.

It was truly a tale of two seasons, the first part of which featured The Governor’s journey to the heart-stopping showdown at the prison. The game-changing final episode before the break, “Too Far Gone,” was one of the best installments to date. But when we returned after Christmas, we found the gang on a long, arduous slog towards Terminus, a fabled sanctuary at the end of a train line. While occasionally compelling, the second half felt mostly like filler material until the season drew to a close. The finale left our heroes in peril, but didn’t offer any satisfying conclusions as to what Terminus was, or why we should care.

This season, my faith was restored in the span of about five minutes. The battle at Terminus was the best season premiere of any show this year — comic book related or not — and maybe the best single episode of The Walking Dead to date, and that’s saying a lot. It had shootouts, explosions, flaming walkers and one of the most disturbing images in recent memory; the scene involving the baseball bat and the trough had me burying my face in a pillow until the sickening clangs of metal meeting skull had subsided.

Witnessing the ongoing brutality of a post-apocalyptic world has been chilling, though it’s even more horrific to see it through the eyes of a father. A particularly unsettling scene had Rick tell his son Carl that he’s never going to be safe, no matter what, the exact opposite of what parents want to tell their kids when they tuck them in at night. Months (years?) into the aftermath of the outbreak, many have learned to cope with the walkers in some way or another, but as supplies become more scarce and hope continues to run dry, humans are becoming the most savage predators — a development that has been underscored in the episodes following the premiere.

Once again without a home, Rick and the survivors have split in two groups: One on their way to DC in search of a cure, and one staying behind to search for Beth, who was kidnapped in the latter half of last season. The series seems to have a renewed sense of direction with its fifth season, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Grade: A+

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