Get ready, comic book fans -- two new Time Warner (NYSE:TWX)/DC Comics properties, Gotham and Constantine, will soon follow CW's Arrow and Disney (NYSE:DIS)/ABC's Marvel's Agents of SHIELD to the small screen.
While the allure of comic book franchises on TV is undeniable, most of the shows that came before -- such as Lois and Clark, Birds of Prey, Smallville, and Witchblade -- have failed to match the big-budget impact of their big-screen counterparts. Arguably, the only well-made comic book show has been AMC's (NASDAQ:AMCX) The Walking Dead -- which was not only faithful to the comics, but actually improved upon the original storylines.
As I noted in a previous article, one of the biggest disappointments of the fall season was Agents of SHIELD. Despite being funded by Disney, and having an enormous portfolio of Marvel characters to choose from, the show fell flat with formulaic procedural plots.
Will Gotham and Constantine suffer the same fate? Let's review what we know about both new shows, and what they need to accomplish to succeed.
Gotham City before Batman
Fox's Gotham will focus on the early career of Commissioner Gordon, prior to Bruce Wayne's transformation into Batman. The show will reportedly also feature a 10-year-old Bruce Wayne, and "all of the classic Batman villains," according to Fox chairman Kevin Reilly.
Unfortunately, there's a glaring problem with that idea -- most of the "classic" Batman villains, such as the Joker, Catwoman, the Riddler, and the Penguin -- shouldn't exist before Bruce becomes Batman.
In fact, that's a recurring theme in the Batman comics -- that Batman could actually be responsible for the creation of the villains in his rogues gallery, since they all play theatrical roles to counter his dark vigilante fantasy. Introducing "classic" Batman villains would be anachronistic and would make little sense to any viewer remotely familiar with the comics.
For comic fans, the canon for young Jim Gordon and Bruce Wayne was established long ago in Frank Miller's Year One (1987), a classic, gritty tale full of corrupt cops and crime lords rather than super villains -- a tale so well known that it was partially adapted into Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins.
Television hasn't been kind to Batman -- audiences still remember him from the campy 1960s show, which only lasted two seasons. The only other notable effort was the single season of Birds of Prey -- a Batman show which, like Gotham, featured Gotham City without Batman.
Constantine, take two
Meanwhile, NBC believes that supernatural chain-smoking detective John Constantine, best known for the mediocre Keanu Reeves film Constantine in 2005, deserves a second chance on the small screen.
The original film from Warner Bros. was met with lackluster reviews, with a 46% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but it was an undeniable hit at the box office, grossing $231 million worldwide on a production budget of $100 million.
Constantine is less well-known than Batman -- a fact that could either help or hamper the television series.
For the unacquainted, John Constantine was originally introduced in DC's Hellblazer, a contemporary horror comic series that was published under DC's Vertigo imprint for mature readers. The character, who has the magical powers of a sorcerer, shifts between several roles, such as a streetwise magician, a con man, and an occult detective.
Fans of the comic will likely be interested in the TV reboot, but other viewers, who might only know Constantine from the 2005 film or not at all, might not -- to them, the show might simply resemble a copy of NBC's own Grimm or CW's Supernatural.
David S. Goyer, who wrote the Blade trilogy and Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, is reportedly writing the pilot. However, before comic book fans get too excited, it should be noted that Goyer also wrote the critically panned Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.
What do these two shows mean for Fox and NBC?
From a business perspective, it's easy to see why Fox and NBC are eager to hop on the comic book bandwagon -- they don't want to let ABC and CW (a joint venture between CBS (NYSE: CBS) and Time Warner) corner the market.
If Gotham is a hit, it could help boost revenue at Fox's broadcast television segment, which reported a 7.8% year-over-year gain in revenue to $1.05 billion last quarter. Although that growth was decent, it was outpaced by Fox's stronger cable networks segment, which grew 12.3% to $2.81 billion.
Meanwhile, Constantine could help NBC capitalize on the success of Grimm, which has been renewed for a third season. Grimm attracted an average of 6.35 million and 6.95 million viewers for its first and second seasons, respectively, suggesting that the audience for supernatural procedural shows is steadily growing.
Unlike Fox, NBC has been shrinking. Last quarter, revenue at Comcast's broadcast television segment dropped 41% year-over-year to $1.64 billion. While a big part of that drop can be attributed to unfavorable comparisons to the Olympics in the prior-year quarter, it also means that NBC really needs some hit shows to fill the void.
Avoiding the mistakes of the past
I'll be honest -- I have doubts that Gotham and Constantine can succeed.
Gotham, in my opinion, will face a steeper challenge, since it could suffer from unfavorable comparisons to Smallville as well as Christopher Nolan's recent films. Asking viewers to believe that classic Batman villains can exist in a world where Bruce Wayne is only 10 years old is asking a lot from viewers.
Constantine, on the other hand, could work, since both Grimm and Supernatural have audiences who don't really mind cheesy special effects as long as the writers cook up a fun plot. Its success, however, will come down to David S. Goyer's writing and the casting of John Constantine. On a side note, my personal pick for the role of John Constantine would be Joel Kinnaman (The Killing, RoboCop), who seems to be born for the role.
Last but not least, both shows need to avoid the path that Agents of SHIELD took -- that is, generating hype as a comic book franchise but becoming a different show only loosely related to the comic book universe.
In conclusion, I'm excited to see more comic book franchises making it to the small screen. However, I won't have high hopes -- Arrow and SHIELD have already taught us to temper our expectations.
What do you think, dear readers? Can Gotham and Constantine succeed where Agents of SHIELD failed? Let me know in the comments section below!
Fool contributor Leo Sun owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends AMC Networks and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.