Angel and the Rejection of the Superhero
Season one of Angel was a flawed, and sometimes inspired, introduction to the titular vampire and his new LA setting. The first season goes a long way to unlocking the potential of the character who was mostly, rightly, side-lined as either a generic love interest or a fantastic villain on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So what direction did creators Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt choose to differentiate Angel from its sister show? Quite a few actually.
Angel is a beautiful mix of film noir, psychological character study, legal drama, procedural, and high fantasy. The one genre that it toyed with but then dropped was that of the superhero. Buffy, for all intents and purposes, is a superhero. The only difference between her and Batman and Superman and the Avengers is that she is so completely relatable. In the first season of Angel the writers had a lot of fun playing with super heroic conventions, mainly due to Angel’s similarities to Batman, but instead of leading the vampire with a soul down the same route as Buffy, Angel used the breaking of these conventions to make the character more relatable.
Angel shares a lot with Bruce Wayne: both are filled with guilt and use this guilt to fuel their quest to do good, both utilise gadgets, at least Angel does early on, and both have enemies that are brought in by new enemies that change the game: the Joker in The Dark Knight, and Darla and Drusilla murdering the lawyers of Wolfram and Hart.
That’s where the similarities end as the first season of Angel uses every opportunity, mostly for comic effect, to show that Angel is no Batman. The first episode, “City Of”, has Angel at his most cape crusader-like, but his attack on Russel fails, leading Angel to change the rules in one of the series’ first great moments, I mean would Bruce Wayne enter Black Skulls office in broad daylight and push him out of a high story window? Then there is “Lonely Hearts”, in which Angel and Kate are trapped in a basement leading to Angel bragging to Kate that they will be going out the high window as Kate mutters the clichéd “who are you” line. Except Angel’s grappling hook doesn’t work, because of course it wouldn’t. There are countless other examples: Spike’s undercutting commentary of Angel saving a damsel in distress, and Cordelia’s Dark Avenger commercial idea to name a couple.
All of this undercutting not only has fun with the beats of superhero story-telling, they also allow Angel to become a more distinctive character, one that is capable of making mistakes, and crucially eliciting humour, something that was frequently missing from his characterisation in Buffy. Most importantly though, Angel’s quest to help the hopeless isn’t the typical superhero call to arms. He isn’t fueled by personal tragedy like Batman, he doesn’t have a calling like Buffy, he chooses to help people because he wants to be good, to fight the good fight, which is heroic because it’s not super at all, and all the better for it.