The CW is out of the superhero business with Superman and Lois canceled

Superman & Lois -- “Of Sound Mind” -- Image Number: SML306a_0489r -- Pictured: Tyler Hoechlin as Superman -- Photo: Colin Bentley/The CW -- © 2023 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Superman & Lois -- “Of Sound Mind” -- Image Number: SML306a_0489r -- Pictured: Tyler Hoechlin as Superman -- Photo: Colin Bentley/The CW -- © 2023 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved. /

While Marvel has unquestionably dominated the superhero film industry for the last two decades, DC held a similar position when it came to television, with an expansive multiverse taking place on the CW.

Starting in 2012 with Arrow, DC took advantage of the serial format to show multiple sides of the superheroes it portrayed. The series may have wanted Oliver Queen to be Batman, but it did a surprisingly good job balancing threats like Ra’s al Ghul and Deathstroke with important elements of day to day life.

The Arrowverse, as it became known, had each hero develop their own team and rogue gallery, while meeting up once a year for major crossover events. This allowed for street-level threats on some shows and cosmic-level battles on others. Altogether, the Arrowverse felt much like a collection of comic runs, where the good, the bad, and the wacky co-existed but could be enjoyed separately.

While Arrow portrayed the vigilante side of things, The Flash (2014) and Supergirl (2015) brought in the chaos of metahumans and aliens. DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (2016), Black Lightning (2018), and Batwoman (2019) each added more dimension to the expansive world.

Sadly, the announcement that Superman and Lois was canceled means that the CW Arrowverse is truly at its end, with all of its core shows and alternate-universe series ended or about to be. When the season 4 finale of Superman and Lois airs, it will be the end of the CW’s superhero dominance.

The CW has been facing major budget cuts and changes for years

In 2022, The Wall Street Journal announced that the CW had literally never made a profit as a network, a fact that shocked fans. While it has rarely been considered a top-level network, the teen dramas, supernatural series, and superhero content all earned large audiences. The shows might have been considered guilty pleasures, but they did seem to be successful ones.

Even more, the network had a creative value that cannot be overestimated. Because it was used to losing money, the CW let shows run long enough to find their audiences even if their ratings were low to begin with, which resulted in unique series that became cult classics.

However, it was only able to do that because it was bolstered by a deal with Netflix, which came to an end in 2019. Without the backing of Netflix, the network was ‘sold’ to Nexstar, though the company was effectively paid to take the CW out of Warner Brothers and CBS’ hands.

In light of those changes, there were several baffling decisions made to make the network more profitable. These included cancelling the vast majority of original programming (including most of the Arrowverse and the last running series in The Vampire Diaries universe) and announcing that the network would be targeting their ‘true’ demographic: 58 year-olds–this was later walked back by CW President of Entertainment Brad Schwartz who described the network’s pivot as a means of broadening its audience.

The CW canceled most of their original series, and have placed their focus on unscripted television and foreign acquisitions, in a move that some in the entertainment industry have argued transforms it into the “Used Parts Network.”

There were many elements factoring into these decisions. The superhero shows were expensive thanks to their effects to begin with, but things started falling apart in 2020. Beyond the network’s issues, Covid-19 disrupted production schedules. The combined WGA and SAG-
AFTRA strikes in 2023 only made things more difficult for the network.

Because they could not produce content as regularly, fans got used to not seeing the shows, which likely contributed to their lower ratings.

However, it’s worth asking whether the fall of the Arrowverse was due more to external circumstances or to the network’s own failure to produce consistent, enjoyable content for their massive superhero multiverse.

The slow downfall of the CW’s superhero line-up

In May 2022’s cancellation spree, casualties included Legends of Tomorrow, Batwoman, and Naomi, many of which had finished their seasons with cliffhangers on the assumption that they would be returning.

Black Lightning and Arrow had just ended on their own terms, leaving the network without the superhero-dominated field they had previously been known for.

Still running were The Flash, Stargirl, and Superman and Lois, though the latter two were not technically within the same universe as the rest of the Arrowverse. From there, it was like knocking down dominos.

Stargirl ended in December 2022 with a satisfactory season finale, and The Flash finished its final season in May 2023. Though a new superhero show, Gotham Knights, was produced, it too was canceled after just one season.

Superman and Lois was the final hold-out, likely only surviving so long because it had fewer budgetary needs than other series. While it was technically a superhero show, a large number of its plots focused on small town family drama, which helped limit the effects budget.

But now, even that last show is coming to an end. The series has one more ten-episode season, set to air in 2024. When that finishes, so too will the Arrowverse and the CW’s superhero lineup.

What does this mean for superhero television?

Obviously, this isn’t the end of superhero television altogether. Disney+ is still producing Marvel series, and DC has a few (Harley Quinn and My Adventures with Superman) streaming on Max. However, it seems as though the long-speculated superhero fatigue truly has set in, as even Loki, Marvel’s best-performing streaming series has seen a major drop in viewership.

It could be that audiences are tired of traditional superhero shows. That would make sense, given the popularity of The Boys and its spin-off, Gen V. Similarly, it seems that the idea of the multiverse is getting exhausting, with satiric takes like Everything Everywhere All at Once and Southpark’s ‘Pandaverse’ drawing plenty of attention.

It’s easy to speculate that the superhero genre needs fresh takes to make it viable in the future, but even that seems like a temporary measure. We’ve seen dark and gritty superheroes, raunchy comic book characters, and fourth-wall-breaking comedians already. Where can they possibly go from here?

After nearly two decades of superhero saturation, it will be hard to find a fresh take on the genre. It may be time to set superheroes aside for a time, until audiences are able to watch a series without comparing it to every other piece of superhero media out there.

Even so, it’s hard not to see the cancellation of Superman and Lois as the end of an era. It seems to be the final death knell not just for the CW’s superhero lineup, but also for the network itself and a possible harbinger for the live-action superhero altogether.

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Superman and Lois season 4 premieres mid-2024 on The CW.