Living in a world teeming with superheroes is something of a bummer in Powerless, the briskly fun new DC Comics TV series. The residents of the show’s Charm City are, in fact, so jaded by the constant super-smackdowns happening all around them that kids on an imperiled subway car can’t be bothered to look up from their phones. When gods slug it out on a daily basis, collateral damage is the norm, with a TV commercial advertising the people-protecting services of Wayne Security showing a steel drum band crushed by a falling chunk of building as nothing out of the ordinary. When bright-eyed R&D specialist Emily Locke bursts in for her first meeting with Mr. Wayne, Wayne’s seen-it-all assistant Jackie (Christina Kirk) cuts off Emily’s breathless explanation for her tardiness (her train car was saved from certain disaster by local superhero Crimson Fox) with a curt, “I’m gonna cut you off here, because I’m assuming you lived.”
Powerless lives in the DC Universe, although nowhere near the colorful but serious CW universe of Supergirl, The Flash, Legends Of Tomorrow, and Arrow. Or the dour and decidedly un-fun DC cinematic universe. Sure, Bruce Wayne (a.k.a. Batman, shhhh) owns Wayne Security, but he’s fighting crime unseen over in Gotham City, while this satellite business is run by his self-important cousin Van (Alan Tudyk, playing beady-eyed, twerpy assholery like only he can) who’s brought in Emily because the company hasn’t come up with a new idea in a while. (The Joker venom antidote epi-pen was a hit a few years ago, but all they’ve done is change the color since then.) And while the credits depict big-ticket heroes like Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Batman (and the Joker is shown being apprehended on a news report—with a blanket covering his head) Powerless is going to have to be content with mining the DC back catalog for the super-folk we’re actually going to be able to see in action. (The opening fight between Crimson Fox and the villainous Jack O’Lantern is entertaining, in a splashy, budget-conscious CGI way.)
Which is all in keeping with Powerless’ amiable sitcom vibe, as Wayne Security is seen populated by the traditional collection of oddball science geeks and ineffectual management. (Van, pining to be taken up to the Gotham big time, pretends to take phone calls from Bruce, who, he claims, liked to be called B-Dubs). Emily (Vanessa Hudgens, chipper and engaging) comes to the moderately big city from her childhood home in one of the “flyover states” (we see a superhero flying distantly over the young Emily’s town in flashback) with her heavily annotated copy of Bruce Wayne’s business bible Wayne Or Lose in hand, and lots of big ideas. Growing up, her florist dad assured her that her lack of superpowers doesn’t mean she can’t do good in this embattled world, and, as Van asserts, “You are a people person, a great motivator, and you actually care about the um, um…” (People, is the world he’s looking for.)
Unluckily for her (at least at first), Emily’s Wayne Security team is made up of directionless goofballs whose ideas are either too unfocused, impractical, or, in some cases, bananas to be useful. Brainstorming to save their department after Van announces that cousin Bruce is shutting the stagnant company down, acerbic techie Wendy (Jennie Pierson) begins, “So, you know how everyone want to have sex with robots, right?” Also, Ron Funches’ scientist Ron explains that all their ideas are rejected because they’re too expensive, or too dangerous, “or you need a piece of the sun to power it and that’s impossible to get.”
Teddy, the chief design officer, leads the pack in being dubious of Emily’s go-getter attitude toward productivity, citing the fact that she’s their fifth boss this year (granted, one was crushed by debris before starting work), and that Emily writes her mission statement, “Let’s be better” on the lab whiteboard in permanent marker. Played by Danny Pudi, Teddy comes across as the office dreamer, coupled with the office grouch, a different look from his most famous role that Pudi makes formidably funny. Helpfully explaining to Emily (and us) the nature of Wayne Security’s work, he declares, “I disrupt, I alter the structure of expectations, make people see things in new ways.” Unfortunately, he and everyone else in the place is so burnt out that all they seem to do is steal ideas from the evil Lexcorp (a Lex Luthor company) and change the color on those Joker pens. (“One’s amethyst, and one’s sangria,” he asserts.)
The wacky lab hangout vibe (think Better Off Ted) benefits immeasurably from the immediate, lived-in chemistry between Pudi and Funches (with Pierson as the even weirder wild card). Introducing Ron as the lab’s “head of engineering, and chief of childlike wonder,” Teddy sums up the ever-delightful Funches’ comic vibe perfectly. (We get a taste of his inimitable delighted giggle right away, as he demonstrates a concussion-resistant inflatable bystander suit.) And the two play off of each other beautifully. Both outraged at Van’s announcement, Ron exclaims, “I can’t lose this job. I take care of my sick grandma!,” after which Teddy protests, “And I like nice things! I should have went before Ron.” Funches, especially, plays up the delight of living in a world where miracles are as common as traffic jams with sparklingly funny delivery of lines like his offhand preamble, “We all know that the number one cause of workplace accidents is Superman crashing through office windows mid-fight, that’s a simple fact.”
Which brings up the idea that Powerless will be addressing the greater question of what normal people’s role is in this gaudy, super-suited society. Comics have taken memorable trips through that theme, usually to pretty dark effect. (Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come are some favorite examples.) As we see in the cynical train passengers (“Siri, push my meeting an hour”) and the flailing workers at Wayne Security, being a non-superpowered person in Charm City means feeling perpetually an afterthought. (Even Crimson Fox casually crushes some poor commuter’s car with that train car she saves.) Emily is our representative, learning the ropes and needing occasional exposition, but Hudgens anchors the pilot with a light touch that suggests there’s more to Emily’s idealism. Rallying the troops to come up with a villain-detecting smell-o-scope that Batman eventually adopts as part of that utility belt of his (not that they put two and two together), Emily and her team share some beers (Wayne Light Lime, a WayneBev product) and bond a bit after their initial friction, as all sitcom pilot character groups must.
Powerless has to pack in literally an entire new world in this premiere, which makes the usual first-episode judgement even more difficult. But the cast looks prepared to gel nicely, and there are just enough hints that the show has some sneaky points to make about the genre to keep things from disposability. Citing changing times for Wayne Security’s demise, Van complains, “Gone are the days of a man in a bandit mask stealing a ruby from a museum. Now there it’s all just supervillains trying to destroy the Earth, and superheroes fighting each other for vaguely defined reasons.” Like “real people reacting to superheroes,” the idea that superheroics have become darker and grimmer is a potent theme in comics, with the genre’s war between escapism and mature storytelling providing some memorable stories. (Suggestions: Infinite Crisis, Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man.) In Powerless’ slyly powerful opening credits, the comic book images of DC’s big guns socking out villains reveals drawings of our main characters, cowering in the corners. The brassy superhero theme music ends with a somber strain as the show’s name is revealed as well, suggesting, as does the zippy, funny Powerless, that a show about living in the shadows of heroes isn’t all fun.
- At the outset, I’m just gonna say that Powerless, relying as it does on cost-effective and unwanted C-list (and below) DC characters, is right in my wheelhouse. Like, scarily so. So, each week, we’ll be playing Name That C-Lister! Tonight:
- Crimson Fox: In the comics, this French superheroine was actually a pair of twins, one of whom faked her death so they could play secret identity. They owned a cosmetics company, had super-speed and agility, claws on their gloves, and a strange headpiece to their costume I could never figure out. Oh, and because they were French, and women and stuff, they had pheromone powers that could make men go ga-ga over them. They were in the European branch of the Justice League for a while. They’re both dead (although, being comics, a new Crimson Fox is running around). On Powerless, it seems like Crimson Fox has completely different powers and a more practical Red Riding Hood-looking costume. She catches Emily’s entire falling subway car (with some effort). She may be Charm City’s resident superhero. We’ll see.
- Jack O’Lantern: DC hasn’t always done great with the whole international superhero thing. Witness Jack, an Irish hothead who, nonetheless, was a member of Europe’s premiere but little-seen hero team the Global Guardians. At least until he went rogue and started working for terrorists. Again, there’s another Jack O’Lantern that popped up after the original died. He got his powerful, pumpkin-shaped lantern from—not joking—the faerie-folk. On Powerless, Jack has the lantern, and a penchant for seemingly inadvertent double entendre, at one point bellowing, “Prepare to feel my powerful balls… of fire!,” before shooting some fireballs.
- And that seems to be Starro The Conqueror getting splatted in one of Emily’s flashbacks. He’s a big starfish.
- There’s a billboard for Blackhawk Airways.
- A newspaper indicates that Lex Luthor is the new President-elect in the Powerless DCU, with the telling slogan, “Make Metropolis Super Again.” (Luthor was actually President of the United States for a while in the DC comics universe proper before being unmasked as an uber-capitalist villain. Take from that what you will.)
- After the newscaster (whose name is Marv Wolfman) announces that Batman has used the Wayne Security team’s gizmo to catch the Joker, he announces a correction. The audio goes too low for me to pick out what he’s saying. Anyone?
- Tudyk, whose squirmily ambitious Van is obsessed with “failing up” to a penthouse in Gotham, adopts some ominous expressions along with Van’s terminal bumbling. Plus, when Jack O’Lantern breaks into everyone’s internet connection, Van’s seen searching through a catalog of ninja swords. Just putting that out there—supervillains have been spawned from thwarted ambition more than once.
- The original premise for the show was that of a superhero-related insurance company, which sounds a lot like a short-lived Marvel humor title called Damage Control.
- Also, the idea that Bruce Wayne would own an insurance company that profits from superhero fights seems a little villainous, so good change all around, Powerless.
- Speaking of Batman, pretty sure that’s Adam West doing the voiceover for the Wayne Security commercial.
- Of course, please make your own obscure reference tally and recommendations in the comments. I’m Dennis. I’ll be your Powerless reviewer. Yes, I know how that sounds.