Best of Comic TV 2021: The Rankings!

17. Jupiter’s Legacy

For those who wanted “Supe Lives Matter” as a throughline, though I doubt that bunch reads this.
Image: Netflix

I almost did write a full post on this one, but rethought devoting that much time and energy to a series most people were probably ignoring and should continue to do so.

What seems to be the central narrative, in which super-team the Justice Union becomes divided on whether killing supervillains is okay or not, felt in very poor taste given the US’ ongoing problems with police violence. Summing up a protest with “six officers injured” after a year of tear gassing, excessive violence from police, and badgeless, un-identified “federal officers” whisking civilians away to unknown black sites felt incredibly wrong. But we can’t even dig too deeply into the moral disagreements, because “Should heroes kill” is sharing half the runtime with a conspiracy around some Thanos/Darkseid Big Bad that Superman Utopian’s son killed that turns out to be a clone of the real villain; Utopian’s daughter trying so hard not to be her parents she ends up a junkie dating a thief that’s the son of the first Justice Union member to go bad; Utopian’s son doing a worse, mopier take on Invincible; and a Big Twist near the end that’s both massively telegraphed and still manages to completely contradict the previous fifteen minutes.

Why is all of that crammed into half the runtime? Because the other half is devoted to the least interesting piece of worldbuilding possible, how the OG Justice Union got their powers. Of everything that’s happened in the 90ish years since we meet the elder heroes’ younger selves, their origin story is the absolute lowest-stakes portion, because the outcome is known. They could have crammed the whole story into one episode, wouldn’t have hurt anything, and then maybe they could have tackled the actually interesting questions. How did Utopian’s Code of “We don’t kill or govern” become mandatory? What happened to turn the team against founding member Skyfox? If these six people had to do this epic vision quest to get powers and be the first superbeings, how did everybody else (children aside) get powers? Where did the villains come from? Why did the Union decide to ignore the Holocaust (they definitely did, this comes up right away)? Why did they all wait 70 years to have kids? Is there an older batch of legacy kids out there? Was the generational divide between Zoomers and the Silent Generation something we really needed to dig into? I get wanting to save something for season two but I just don’t care about the long, slow, crawl to the origin, given there aren’t two ways any part of it can end.

So it tries to do too many things, doesn’t manage any of them well, spends too much time on the least interesting aspect, saves virtually every major plot development for the last episode, and “Maybe superheroes should kill” is a troubling central thesis, given that history has proven that when peacekeepers are allowed to use lethal force without consequence, the question of whether that authority will be abused is not “if” or even “when,” but “how often.” Sadly not surprising, given that the source material comes from the guy who had Captain America shout “Surrender!? You think this A on my mask stands for France?” and thought it was so cool he made it a splash page.

And the age makeup and wigs they throw on the elder heroes are just bad and distracting. “Henry Cavill’s CG upper lip” distracting.

16. Black Lightning

Losing a bit of their spark, so to speak
Image: CW

Black Lightning’s third season seemed to end with the Pierce family at new heights, reunited and having finally freed their home of Freeland from corrupt government agents. So imagine my surprise that when we open season four, they’re nearly all at new lows. Jefferson has given up being Black Lightning after the death of his best friend Inspector Henderson (a relationship they never really sold); matriarch Lynn is hooked on injecting herself with meta-powers; youngest daughter Jenn is making such bad choices they get her recast for most of the season. And then Tobias Whale returns to re-enact the worst part of Daredevil’s final season, setting out to destroy everything Black Lightning cares about while taking over Freeland. And like Daredevil season three, he’s too unstoppable for too long. Twelve episodes of weekly television is a little too long to go without the heroes getting a win of any kind. Black Lightning started strong, to be sure, but in the end it was a show very much in need of some metas-of-the-week, or at the very least they could have occasionally set Tobias’ schemes back at least a little.

15. Agents of SHIELD

Godspeed, you scrappy bastards
Image: ABC

Agents of SHIELD might not have hit all the things I look for in a great final season, but they did their best to go out having fun. And fun they did deliver for the first third or so, as the Agents chased time-travelling robots through history, and they gave us huge spectacle for their final episode… shame that they couldn’t come up with a better final villain, and that they ran out money for the middle act. Although even their “gotta do some bottle episodes” period featured one of their best episodes in years. Still, smug and charmless villains and over-reliance on the same old grey corridors made the last act of the season a slog.

They tried to go out with a bang, but their concept-eyes were bigger than their budget-stomachs.

14. The Flash

Fast of foot, big of heart
Image: CW

The flagship of the Arrowverse had some highs and lows in its seventh season, which… well, yeah, most shows do. Seventh seasons are hard. They solved the “too many characters” problem I flagged last year… by firing Hartley “Ralph Dibney” Sawyer for bad taste tweets*, and for the first time in six years, losing original cast members, as Carlos “Cisco/Vibe” Valdes and Tom “The Harrisons Wells/Reverse Flash” Cavanaugh left the show at various points. So kind of a “Not like this, never like this” style solution to the problem, although Brandon McKnight is doing his very best as Cisco’s replacement, Chester P. Runk (known as “Chunk” in late 80s/early 90s Flash comics, but won’t be here, not with an actor that skinny).

They continued the multiple-arcs structure that served them well last season, but COVID complicated it. Instead of two arcs, we essentially had four: 1) what would have been the end of season six; 2) the birth of the Strength Force, Sage Force, and Still Force**, and their rivalry with the Speed Force; 3) [checks notes] um… nothing, we just do filler for a while, they even write Flash out of an episode like he was busy on a crossover or something; 4) four episodes on Godspeed, perhaps their least developed Big Bad in seven seasons. Seriously, I’ve read every comic Godspeed’s ever been in, and TV Godspeed’s backstory, motives, mechanics, and basic rules of engagement are foggy at best to me. He needed more time.

Some people complained that two out of three Big Bads, an early-season nemesis turned late-season ally, and also minimum two minor villains were stopped not by force or speed but by heart-to-heart talks appealing to their better nature. I don’t know, these complaints feels like edgelord bad boy “Punisher didn’t do enough killing” talk to me. Flash was always supposed to be more about inspiration than violence, it’s what was initially meant to separate The Flash from its more murdery older brother Arrow. So I’m fine with it.

Still, they were a little all over the map this season. It had highlights: Cisco’s farewell was very well done, I like that they brought back Flash’s future daughter Nora/XS without diminishing the sacrifice season five’s Nora made (she looks the same but is essentially a new Nora), and then also gave her a younger brother to be their version of Impulse. I like that Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick now exists on Earth Prime, so he can pop by more often. I like Chester. I like that Caitlin Snow and her second personality Frost (formerly Killer Frost) now have separate bodies. They have a fun sisterly dynamic and Danielle Panabaker plays both well. We just needed less filler and more development of Godspeed is all I’m saying.

(*When James Gunn got fired by Marvel for old, bad tweets, everyone who knew or worked with him cried out in his defense, saying those bad jokes were not who he is. When Hartley got fired for more recent bad taste joke tweets… the cast of The Flash said “Yeah, fair.” Damning. That’s damning.)

(**Why was the Sage Force the sinister one!? The Sage Force was totally chill in the comics, the Still Force was a literal Force of Doom, one of the dark cosmic powers Lex Luthor tapped into to defeat justice as a concept, I don’t–)

13. Batwoman

Second verse, same as the first
Image: CW

Okay I did a whole page earlier on the complexities and consequences of replacing the lead character with an OC so we don’t need to sink a lot of time on that. Suffice to say, swapping in Ryan Wilder for Kate Kane, then bringing Kate back in a way that kept Ryan in the lead role, was not a smooth process and yes, it caused about as many problems as it solved, but it also paved the way for some very well done superhero stories. Unhinged Alice got her own arc, Sophie went from just “Kate’s once and maybe future girlfriend” to being forced to confront the corrupt nature of the Crows, cops for the 1%, and the show as a whole took a mostly unflinching look at the systemic flaws and bigotry in law enforcement.

Black Mask could have been a fun villain, if I didn’t hate the “brainwash Kate” plot so much, but I did hate the “brainwash Kate” plot, so here we are. And island leader-turned-potential warlord Safiya was… okay, but lacked punch separated from the “Lost Year” arc that introduced her in the comics.

So what we have is a still good, still powerful show, that went through some growing pains as it transitioned leads, meaning season three’s looking promising. (Given how many Gothamites willingly worked for Black Mask in the closing episodes, season three would be a great time to introduce Clownhunter, a recent addition to Bat-lore who hunts former Joker minions, but now that I’ve said that they probably won’t, dang it)

12. Warrior Nun

Starring a young woman who is neither Warrior nor Nun, so the title was more of a promise than a description
Image: Netflix

It says something about how elegantly Warrior Nun built its world… one of demons both wispy and hulking, powerful metals that might be Heavenly in nature, and the nuns who wield the latter against the former… that when they start to blow it all up in the back half of the first season it doesn’t feel confusing or like a betrayal. They built an intriguing world, then found interesting ways to start tearing it down. Ava’s a good lead, hampered only by two things… Sister Beatrice and especially Shotgun Mary are much cooler; and her determination to run away from her new circumstances lasts just one episode longer than you want it to. I wish season one was a more complete story, rather than the opening chapter of a longer saga, but they have my attention.

11. The Falcon and the Winter Solider

Mismatched buddy cops saving the world from… something?
Image: Marvel Studios

Of all the shows on this list, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier felt the most like a movie stretched into six instalments. And a Captain America movie at that, given how many Winter Soldier/Civil War cast they brought back, and frankly good, Captain America has to date been the strongest Marvel solo franchise. I absolutely respect that the central thesis of the show was to take the moment in Endgame when Steve Rogers passed his shield to Sam Wilson and say “Asking a black man to be the new Captain America isn’t actually that simple, Steve,” and then digging into America’s not-even-slightly-solved-in-their-entire-history race relation problems.

Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan played great off each other, Zemo was so much fun he became uncomfortably likable, and John Walker’s descent was played well right until it wasn’t.

Where it loses points is Karli Morgenthau and the Flagsmashers. They were never really fleshed out as antagonists: what they were after, why they warranted dispatching the new Captain America to stop them, why Karli was so willing to cross more and more lines. Some say it’s because the show had to cut a pandemic-themed plot from the first half because, well, obvious reasons, but didn’t manage to put anything in its place. Regardless, the Flagsmashers fell short, and it left chunks of the show feeling hollow.

They also lose points not just for the fact that John Walker’s redemption happens very fast and feels very unearned, but for the fact that the writers think they just nailed it. They did not.

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