Superhero Supporting Casts Are More Essential Than Ever
If the superhero comics of the past 100 years — and the various movies, television shows, computer games, and radio plays inspired by them — have taught us anything, it’s that even the most agonizing wrongdoing fighters don’t work alone. Across years and years of stories, superheroes (and even supervillains) have fostered their own ensembles of side characters, whether as friends, family members, coworkers, or old flames. While that idea has had its very own wild trajectory in the comics (there are numerous instances of creators killing off or banishing a book’s supporting cast for “rehash”), it hasn’t always really made its way onto the screen, for certain adaptations of the past couple of decades reducing any secondary characters into some combination of predictable tropes, cannon grain, and other unrelated costumed characters.
As superhero adaptations have gotten stranger and more far reaching than ever, recounting B, C, and even D-list characters, that ethos has gradually started to change, with an altogether new yield of convincing — and refreshingly ordinary — supporting casts springing up. No place has that been more apparent than in three superhero adaptations from the past two years: DC’s The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker, and Marvel’s She-Mass: Attorney at Law.
Yes, non-costumed supporting characters have always been a part of superhero movies and shows in some structure or fashion — decades of Batman and Spider-Man reboots have helped turn characters like Alfred Pennyworth, Lucius Fox, and May Parker into household names. However, there’s certainly a contrast between side characters who exist to set up the main character’s narrative, and side characters who become irreplaceable to the actual plot. The Suicide Squad featured that latter category in spades, with the whole plot of its shocking, kaiju-filled game of life and death ultimately riding on one extraordinarily small thing — Flo Crawley (Tinashe Kajese) whacking Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) unconscious with a golf club, just before she could kill off the sum of the main costumed cast. (Honestly, so much could be expounded just on Amanda Waller’s own significance as a strong civilian supporting character in a universe of gods and monsters, which is probably why Davis is set to return as the character in Black Adam, and a spinoff surrounding her is supposedly in the works.) Even the death of Milton (Julio Ruiz), which was largely played for laughs, still served as an accidental defining moment in the chaos of The Suicide Squad’s third act.
Peacemaker took that idea of supporting characters being significant and essentially constructed the whole show around it, turning The Suicide Squad veterans Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland) and John Economos (Steve Agee) into reluctant teammates of Christopher Smith/Peacemaker (John Cena), alongside a cast of new, largely not-costumed characters like Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks). It’s impossible to imagine the show’s final battle against Task Butterfly — or the vast majority of the events of Season 1 — playing out without that exact team, and the various screwy, however capable things they each offered of real value. (The biggest joke of the finale, that Team Peacemaker was able to save the day some time before the literal Justice League showed up, arguably just works because they’re a lot of non-superpowered civilians.)
While She-Mass’ plot is still continuous, we’ve seen small instances of random side characters being key parts of it, whether in Jennifer Walters/She-Mass (Tatiana Maslany) solving a supervillain’s parole case thanks to an offhand remark from her previous colleague Dennis Bukowski (Drew Matthews), or sexist comments from her various bad dates helping her success a lawsuit surrounding the She-Mass name. All of these examples have tracked down unpredictable, yet superb ways to advance their narratives, without defaulting to a “fellow in a chair” and a yield of gadgets.
Past just mattering to the narratives of their respective shows and movies, this new harvest of superhero supporting characters have become something special by just… being something special by their own doing. Again, Harcourt and Economos were just random civilian employees of an administration agency with a handful of comic appearances each before Peacemaker. However, their individual storylines were so convincing that viewers were left making fancams of Harcourt and being invested in Economos’ insecurities about his “color beard” by the season’s end. While theories have sprung up around whether or not Harcourt could secretly be the daughter of someone like Sarge Steel, that possibility is far from the main thing that makes her interesting — and if it somehow managed to happen, it would just create another convincing storyline to toss her into. Compare this to some of the other superhero media of late years (particularly a ton of The CW’s Arrowverse shows), where the vast majority of the supporting casts consisted of comic-accurate characters reevaluated as window dressing for the main character’s story, essentially spinning their wheels until they could eventually wear a superhero suit and name of their own.
Thus far, She-Mass has had no shortage of civilian side characters with distinct, extraordinarily entertaining personalities — just glance at how the show’s viewers have become partial to Jen’s friends and coworkers, similar to the effervescent and cherishing Nikki Ramos (Ginger Gonzaga), and the easy going Augustus “Pug” Pugliese (Josh Segarra). Indeed, even Mallory Book (Renee Elise Goldsberry), who just had one line of dialog up until the show’s fifth episode, was still celebrated immediately by members of the fandom. There’s perhaps no finer example of this than Madisynn (Patty Guggenheim), whose scene-stealing job as a vital witness in She-Mass’ latest legal dispute — and the party-cherishing accidental new best friend of Wong (Benedict Wong) — essentially broke the Web. Despite having some of their personality traits exaggerated for entertainment, Madisynn and She-Mass’ other cast members feel like quite certain individuals you could meet and become friends with in reality — something that still feels remarkable to see, despite being almost fifteen years into the MCU.
Through presenting balanced supporting cast members, these shows and movies have also fleshed out their central superhero stories on both a personal and esthetic level. The titular characters of both Peacemaker and She-Mass have had something substantially more specific to battle for in their superhero crusade — Chris’ dynamic with Harcourt and the team adds an extra oomph to his one-on-one battle with Task Butterfly in Peacemaker’s Season 1 finale. And while we don’t know exactly what the endgame is for She-Mass, the possibility of Jen battling an otherworldly threat to safeguard her friends will be in some fans’ sub-conscience as she goes on future adventures in the MCU. Both of those storylines are essentially akin to the “You can’t be a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man on the off chance that there’s no area” line from Avengers: Limitlessness War, yet on a substantially more interpersonal scale.
This particular threesome of shows and movies also track down clever ways to showcase the reality of being a typical person in a superhero’s reality, whether through The Suicide Squad’s Task Power X employees placing bets in which team members will die, some of those employees spreading salacious rumors about Batman and Green Arrow on Peacemaker, or She-Mass’ coworkers discovering the universe of superhero tailors and contraband Avengers merchandise. These moments are not just some of the most entertaining of their respective properties, however they’re relatable and honest in a way that inches us closer to the hypothetical Marvels-esque anthology about civilians’ perspectives that parts of the Web campaign for every year or thereabouts.
Superhero stories are, at their actual center, tales of ordinary individuals having the option to do extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances. By leaning into the ordinary of that story’s reality — particularly the flawed, relatable, and non-superpowered individuals inside it — the new yield of superhero shows and movies have not just given their protagonists something to battle for, however they’ve given viewers an extra reason to be entertained. While The Suicide Squad, Peacemaker, and She-Mass are far from the first or last adaptations to convey that tactic (I mean, just glance at the fan enthusiasm around whether or not Elden Henson and Deborah Ann Woll will return as Hazy Nelson and Karen Page in Daredevil: Brought back to life), they’ve each shown how effortlessly and really it very well may be finished, while also bringing a sense of camaraderie and tracked down family that hit contrastingly after the past couple of years. During a time of more superhero movies and shows than ever previously, these three projects have tracked down an entirely separate way to keep us invested.
Peacemaker has been reestablished briefly season, which is set to make a big appearance on HBO Max at a later date. New episodes of She-Mass: Attorney at Law debut Thursdays exclusively on Disney+. In the event that you haven’t looked at Disney+ yet and you want to try it out, you can do that here.