AirPods, assemble! How podcasts are shaking up superhero classics

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

Superheroes are everywhere, so it is no surprise that the rising popularity of podcasts – and the way this has driven interest in audio dramas – has attracted the attention of longstanding rivals Marvel (home to the Avengers, Spider-Man and the X-Men) and DC (custodians of Batman, Superman and more). But how do you create a superhero story without the visual action that fans take for granted? What about the fight scenes and frantic chases?

You use the theatre of the mind – which can imagine stories anywhere in time and space, without the hassle of scouting filming locations or spending a fortune on CGI.

A new wave of excellent superhero narrative podcasts is proving that far from being a problem, audio drama’s constraints can set stories apart from the current glut of superhero TV shows and movies. It certainly opens up casting options: DC has launched two Batman podcasts since September 2021 and both feature black actors in the title role.

Winston Duke, who plays Bruce Wayne in DC’s Batman Unburied podcast.
Winston Duke, who plays Bruce Wayne in DC’s Batman Unburied podcast. Photograph: Phillip Faraone/WireImage

Instead of reinventing the wheel, Batman: The Audio Adventures takes inspiration from the past, using the narrative tricks of old-time radio serials and updating them with a self-aware spin. It is a straight-up ensemble comedy with Jeffrey Wright’s caped crusader joined by a rogue’s gallery of Saturday Night Live performers. That means a strident narrator (Rick and Morty’s Chris Parnell) keeping listeners up to speed with what is actually going on. The result is raucous and refreshing, with a campy pep similar to Adam West’s 1960s TV series.

Batman Unburied tries to tell a compelling Batman story – without Batman. The 10-part Spotify exclusive, which launched in May, briefly knocked the popular Joe Rogan Experience off the top of the music streamer’s podcast charts.

Instead of bright fights in tights, this is a slow-burning psychological thriller in which Bruce Wayne (Winston Duke from Black Panther) apparently does not have a vigilante alter ego. Instead, he is a lonely pathologist being stalked by a serial killer nicknamed the Harvester. Heavy on immersive sound design and (initially, at least) light on action, it is an impressively bleak take on a familiar myth, with the added frisson of the occasional F-bomb. A second series was recently green-lit.

When Marvel launched its first narrative podcast in 2018, these well-made audio dramas could easily have been TV series. Richard Armitage was cast as clawed mutant Logan in the Alaskan-set murder mystery Wolverine: The Long Night, which spawned a sequel, The Lost Trail.

More recently, though, Marvel has pushed things in some stranger directions. The six-part Squirrel Girl: The Unbeatable Radio Show leans ingeniously into the audio format by imagining that its furry teen hero hosts an advice show on her local college radio station. Callers looking for guidance include Spider-Man, X-Men villain Magneto and game real-life celebrities such as Back to the Future’s Lea Thompson.

Things are even wilder in the Wastelanders franchise, set in a post-apocalyptic US where the supervillains won (by ambushing Captain America and murdering most of the Avengers). Set three decades after that cataclysmic event, the various Wastelanders series have their own narrative to explore – featuring older, creakier heroes who are far less likely to get into punch-ups or foot chases.

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The first instalment Wastelanders: Old Man Star-Lord reimagines Star-Lord, the cocksure space cowboy from the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, as a paunchy 60-something (voiced by Thirtysomething’s Timothy Busfield). Crash-landing on an irradiated Earth after a long absence, Star-Lord and his cranky sidekick Rocket (Groundhog Day’s Chris Elliott) have to adjust to this chaotic new reality. They are joined by a pseudo-narrator in the form of inflectionless probe droid Cora, who catalogues all the mutant scorpions and feudal baddies they meet, so listeners feel immersed in this vast, blasted world.

The follow-ups Wastelanders: Hawkeye and Wastelanders: Wolverine fill out more details of the far-flung dystopian future but both are essentially tales about ageing heroes going on One Last Ride in search of redemption. Their chief aural pleasures come from the lead performances, with Avatar baddie Stephen Lang performing every hard-luck Hawkeye line as if he is auditioning for Deadwood. Terminator 2’s Robert Patrick gives Hugh Jackman a run for his money as an even more grizzled Wolverine.

Susan Sarandon stars in Wastelanders: Black Widow.
Susan Sarandon stars in Wastelanders: Black Widow. Photograph: Frank Gunn/AP

But it’s not all dust, dystopia and old dudes being sad. The standout story now is Wastelanders: Black Widow, starring Susan Sarandon and set in a hi-tech New York enclave for the super-rich. The price of security is constant surveillance by keen young snoopers, and that audio footage – plus various chirpy smart-speakers – keeps you up to speed with all the action.

Quite why Black Widow wants to infiltrate this place is the central mystery but it fires up the surveillance department, sparking a witty workplace conflict that feels more like Office Space than Avengers: Infinity War. If Marvel can keep attracting top-notch acting talent and developing its superhero canon into such interesting new formats, even the all-conquering Batman might get a little nervous.

The finale of Marvel’s Wastelanders: Wolverine is released 15 August. All other podcasts are downloadable from the usual providers except Batman Unburied, which remains a Spotify exclusive