Does Superhero TV need the Villain of the Week Format?

Arrow, The Flash, SHIELD, and Gotham have all dabbled with forgettable weekly villains, but are freaks of the week really necessary?

There are no two ways about it: showrunners and writers have long struggled with what to do about geeky TV villains. Whether you were a fan of HeroesSupernaturalMisfitsSmallvilleLois & Clark, or even the Adam West Batman series, you’ll always remember a few villains who didn’t stay long and, more often than not, didn’t match up to your favourite baddies either.

In fact, we’d wager that the process of juggling 22 (or more) episodes’ worth of material while attempting to avoid creative staleness almost always results in the occasional appearance of weekly villains who show up, cause a fuss, are quickly dispatched with a Shark-Repellent Bat Spray or similar (yes, I know that was the movie) and then never heard of again.

Is there a better way, though? There’s never been a better time for discussion, seeing as the incoming slew of new comic book adaptations coupled with the rise of online streaming platforms means that 2015 and beyond will be stuffed with more small screen heroes than ever. And where there are heroes, there must be villains.

We took a look over our favorite current comic book shows, tried to make some sense of it, and attempted to find an answer to the question: does geek TV need the ‘freaks of the week’? 

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Shows that use them

There are plenty of shows on our screens at the moment that seem to introduce a short-lived nefarious bastard with a pre-hatched scheme of doom on a regular basis. The worst case, arguably, was sitting down to watch Gotham episode three for a review, to find that it was entitled “The Balloonman” and would feature a wrongdoing weather balloon expert looking to wreak murdery havoc with his impressively inflatable weapon of choice.

Only one week before, we had seen a child-trafficking programme from an unseen Dollmaker introduced then seemingly discarded almost immediately. Although his strand is hardly the most thrilling, the Dollmaker did return as a recurring character, though, so doesn’t quite fall into the category for discussion here.

“The Balloonman” is a prime example, though, showcasing a sprinkling of lazy writing over a show that had arguably made a strong pilot episode without a never-to-be-seen-or-spoken-of-again baddie in sight. It was only three weeks in to the run, and the need to stretch a story out over a 22-episode season (and then a second season, at least) had already led to a filler episode with a threat/dispatch/forget villainous arc executed at swift sub-sixty-minute pace.

“Spirit Of The Goat” was another notable Gotham weekly freak, but he at least served to give us some exciting tension and interesting backstory about Detective Harvey Bullock. Both The Goat and The Balloonman were major factors in the two most superfluous episodes of the run so far, though – the events of both episodes seem to have had no effect on the story whatsoever now that we are reaching the end of the season. If you were recommending the show to someone, you may as well tell them to skip those episodes. Which begs the question, what’s the point of them?

Of course, though, wacky villains who come and go very regularly is a fairly vital supporting wall to the wider Batman mythos that is being established in Gotham. Does that require rushing a forgettable villain through to fill an episode, though? We’d say not, and it feels a little old hat compared to the sheer volume and stellar quality of shows doing the rounds at the moment.

As with Gotham’s important mission statement to introduce lots of villains in order to suggest the need for a shadow-dwelling vigilante, Agents of SHIELD requires a shed-load of baddies if it’s going to bear any resemblance to the Marvel Cinematic Universe films that it exists alongside. The result, from time to time, is also a freak of the week.

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These Agents of SHIELD episodes vary wildly in quality, with some thrilling stories coming from the infinite depths of the Marvel universe (see: “Repairs,” which featured a telekinetically-powered chap trapped in ‘hell’ providing a tense, twisty adventure) contrasting greatly with some seemingly-shoehorned naffly-displayed baddies (see: “The Asset,” which hyped up Graviton then ditched him after one rather underwhelming display of his abilities).

A forgettable and impactless villain is always a waste for a show, even if it does serve the purpose of padding out the running time the writers needed to fill with something or other. As a bit of a cautionary tale, Arrow managed to burn through villains so quickly that we are now onto the second Count Vertigo having killed off the first one. His killing did at least raise some interesting moral questions for Oliver, but as a villain and a character, he and his successor are fairly unremarkable.

Team Arrow may be regretting killing off their Dollmaker so quickly, too, with an episode as strong as “Broken Dolls” (which saw the Dollmaker break out of prison, take up crime once more, kidnap Laurel and Quentin – who had previously put him away – and finally face off with the Arrow) now incapable of having a decent follow-up, without bringing another copycat criminal into the show. We cant help feeling like there was more arc potential there, and it got wasted, even though it made for a strong episode. 

In a surprising turn of events, when Arrow spin-off The Flash began, it seemed like the writing team had decided to embrace weekly villains even more overtly than they had on Arrow. Episode one saw the Weather Wizard introduced and dispatched, episode two brought Multiplex in before swiftly ditching him, and episode three gave us a fleeting look at Mist. From episode four, though, things took a different turn…

When they don’t use it

As fans of The Flash will know, the show quickly proved that there was more of a plan behind their weekly villains than they had originally let on. This began with the fact that Captain Cold (played by Prison Break’s Wentworth Miller) survived his episode – the fourth of the season – without death, incarceration or any other typical villain disposal. Instead, we got a TV equivalent to the cinematic post-credits sting, where Captain Cold recruited Heat Wave to form an alliance that would come back to haunt Barry Allen and the STAR Labs crew in later episodes.

The Flash has stuck with this concept of carrying it’s ‘meta-humans’ – that’s Flash parlance for super-powered folk – over multi-episode arcs, too, introducing and developing Firestorm (originally seeming like a potential antagonist, now a separate hero) over a period of weeks. Compared to killing off supporting characters on a weekly basis, this seems like a masterstroke.

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Indeed, the recurring baddies in each series of Arrow – Malcolm Merlyn, Deathstroke, and now R’as and The League – are all the more interesting than the short-lived original Count Vertigo and his new cameo-making copy cat, and have also filled far more running time than the Dollmaker ever did.

Perhaps then, if telling quality stories while filling 22 hours of content is the aim for Arrow, it could learn a little from The Flash, which feels comic book-esque in its nurturing of villains – Captain Cold and Heat Wave have already returned, and will again. In the last two weeks we’ve seen another metahuman take up the last-seen-in-the-pilot mantle of Weather Wizard, too. Like villains from comic books, they can keep torturing Barry for years to come.

With all these villains popping in and out, added to the time spent teasing the Reverse-Flash arc, there hasn’t been much time for obvious filler episodes in The Flash, which can only be a good thing.

Agents of SHIELD season one eventually learnt a similar lesson, by nurturing Bill Paxton’s John Garrett into the core baddie, with Agent Grant Ward as his secret double agent within Coulson’s team. Once we got to that story – which was held back by the wait for Captain America: The Winter Soldier and its HYDRA revelation – the standard vastly improved and the last five weeks of the show were highly entertaining for the most part, as a result.

Gotham is in the unique position (within this current slate) of not really having a core villain. There’s no Deathstroke, John Garrett or Reverse-Flash conniving in the background with the likes of Captain Cold, Graviton or Count Vertigo to keep our heroes entertained.

We’d say that the closest thing Gotham has is Robin Taylor Lord’s excellently-acted Penguin, but as his qualms at the moment seem to predominantly focus on trying to run a successful nightclub, we cant see him attempting city-wide domination in the next four weeks before the season ends. Perhaps this lack of a central conflict (Gordon’s interest in the Wayne murders seems to have – ahem – waned) is why “The Balloonman” and “The Spirit Of The Goat” seem like such blatant filler villains, and come across so badly with hindsight showing us that they were leading to nothing.

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The solution?

So, what’s the answer? Does comic book TV need ‘freak of the week’ villains? Well, that question mark there signifies that the ‘solution’ we’re about to offer is merely our opinion, and is by no means intended as the be-all-and-end-all. If you’ve got your own ideas, we’d genuinely love to hear them in the comments.

We’d argue that comic book television adaptations need a lot of villains, but there’s no need for them to be thought of or planned out as ‘freak of the week’. In our opinion, there generally needs to be a central villain (Reverse-Flash, The League Of Assassins, John Garrett, and HYDRA) or there’s no core strand to hold the show together.

Once you’ve got this framework of central villainy set up, there’s no reason shows cannot have multiple supporting villains. Malcolm Merlyn has still been a villain of sorts in this season’s Arrow, but the centralisation of R’as and the League provides him with a link to the main action and a reason to be there. The use of Deathstroke this season – far away from the main action, not posing much threat, leaving little impact – seemed a little superfluous in comparison.

On the other side of the coin, Agent Carter showed us that you can have a core villainous team (Leviathan) without the supporting villains (the show was devoid of weekly freaks, as we saw it). The opposite scenario simply doesn’t work, though, without something strong providing a core conflict to the show, random supporting baddies will always seem jarring and naff.

At the moment, The Flash is best handling the juggling act between core villain and supporting baddies. The Reverse-Flash lingers in the background and plays a core role in Barry’s life, closely linked to the particle accelerator explosion that gave Barry his powers and present at the death of his mother. Meanwhile, Barry and the STAR Labs team explore the other strange occurrences caused by the explosion, meeting villains and allies who can recur as the writers please.

Simply put: with something strong at the evil-doing core, you can definitely chuck in some supporting villains. It’s best to try and link these to the main plot, though. Also, It plays best when some of these supporting villains are saved for future episodes, rather than immediately being chucked away (unless killing them actually serves a plot purpose). When they’re disposed of straight away for no reason, what was the point of including them?

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(With thanks to Caroline Preece and Patrick Sproull.)