With the upcoming release of Marvel’s Avengers 2, Ant Man, and Fantastic Four this year, and a cubic fuck-load of them coming up in the subsequent years, television, one way or another, has begun to embrace superheroes again. There’s been Smallville, is The Flash and Arrow, and both Gotham and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have built up very loyal, very large fan bases not only for the universes in which they take place, but for the quality of their writing and productions. Hell, I find myself seeking out every little tidbit of information I can find on what’s going on in Agents so I can try to glean some insight into the upcoming films. But… That’s not what I’m here to write about.
What I am here to write about are two newcomers to the scene, Daredevil and Powers. The former, as I’m sure you’re aware, is based on the Marvel comic of the same name, of which a certain Affleck sort of disgraced a dozen years ago. Actually, I take that back, that film wasn’t his fault. He’s an actor, there’s only so much you can do with the shit you’re handed. As the trailer for Batman Versus Superman: The Dawn of Justice just dropped today, it’s not getting my blood pumping, and I’m hoping that very same Affleck can pull it off. If he doesn’t, then maybe it is him after all; then again, the premise for it seems a bit weak to me, but it remains to be seen exactly how it develops… I’m getting off topic again… Similarly, Powers is based on an Image comic of the same name developed by [Sony] PlayStation Originals, and is a fundamentally different sort of superhero story.
Because it’s much more fresh in my mind and simpler to explain, I’m going to start with Daredevil. To sum up Daredevil in the most simplistic of terms and as quickly as possible, Daredevil is essentially Batman with a couple of key and important differences. Difference #1, Matt Murdock is not rich (at least here in this Netflix Originals series), doesn’t have a warehouse full of gadgets or a secret lair other than his home. Difference #2, while Bruce Wayne doesn’t have any super powers, Murdock does; albeit it’s kind of a lame power in the spectrum of super powers. His power is, essentially, the ability to see. How is that a super power? Well, it is when you’ve been blind since you were a kid… I’m not going into the details, but that’s his super power, and I know I’m vastly oversimplifying everything about the differences between Murdock and Wayne, but in all honesty, those are the big differences. They’re both vigilantes that stalk the bad guys, doing whatever it takes to put them out of commission, and both have rules against killing. (Though frankly, that hasn’t been the case in the Batman films since Tim Burton’s original 89 film, the comic still sticks to it.)
I’m going to go slightly off topic for a moment to explain my background with Daredevil. It’s at least tangentially related, I promise. Many years ago, in my late teens and early twenties, I had a pretty good friend that I played role playing games with as part of a group of friends. Most of us attended Martin L. King, Jr, Senior High School here in Detroit together, though a few were from other schools. This particular friend went by the name Dizzy, and he was the biggest fan of Daredevil I have ever met. I still don’t know any one that liked Daredevil as much as he did, and he would talk to us about him as we’d discuss the Avengers, the X-Men, Fantastic Four and a whole host of other characters in and out of the Marvel Universe. Despite all our protestations that this character was the best, or that one was awesome, Dizzy stuck to his guns that Daredevil was the best.
I lost touch with him around 95 or 96, and only saw him once during that time when I happened to run into him at Fairlane Town Center while I was skipping a class at the nearby Henry Ford Community College. He’s a good guy and I’m sure he’s out there, holding the faith even after the Affleck film. Honestly, after watching the complete first season of Daredevil in the last 26 hours or so, I’m much more inclined to agree with him now than I was those twenty something years ago.
I went into this Daredevil series a little wary and certainly little positive expectations. While I respect Netflix’s production value on House of Cards and what little I’ve seen of Orange Is The New Black, I wasn’t sure they were going to put the same effort into a superhero series about a character that — in my opinion — wasn’t an A-list top draw character. Well, I was fucking wrong. Everything that I’ve seen in these episodes was extremely well crafted, and aside from two moments that kind of irritated me, I was very satisfied with it. (One of the two moments really isn’t the show’s fault; I was watching while doing my job, and I missed the message of an extended conversation in a foreign language because I was too busy focusing on work to read the subtitles. The other was Murdock peeking at what was under his bandage when he damn well should’ve known what was under it.) The attention to detail was on par with all the other Marvel Studios productions, and even the fight scenes came off as being very realistic and visceral. Nothing was particularly over the top as you sometimes see in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (don’t get me wrong, I love those moments) or Black Widow’s combat in any of the Marvel films thus far; in fact, I’d go so far as to say they were about as good as you can expect a normal man to do. And believe it or not… I really appreciated that authenticity. Daredevil isn’t shown as a godlike character, all capable, all knowing, but as a man that is struggling just as much as you or me. And it’s not just him. All the characters seem to have their flaws and faults, and are seen to be struggling with them, including the villain, Wilson Fisk (The Kingpin). To be brutally honest, I think I liked him and his right hand man, Wesley, the best of all. (I’m a sucker for a villain that knows he’s the villain, and loves his job. Heath Ledger’s Joker is probably my all time favorite villain for that portrayal and reason.)
All of these things come together to build a very compelling story and television series that I would gladly watch again.
Powers… not so much.
I had no expectations going into Powers at all, because I wasn’t familiar with the comic in the least. The only thing I took with me going in was that it was a Sony produced series and I had seen a preview or two that made it look kind of interesting. As I watched the first episode, I cringed at a few badly done things, and got a feel for the overall plot, which I’m going to more or less ruin here, and the shockingly low production value. The basic premise of Powers is that there’s a downside to a world full of superheroes; they too have their faults, addictions, self-confidence issues, and cross the lines; sometimes not even realizing that they’re causing as much damage and death as the supervillains (and not so super villains) they seek to stop. The show follows Christian Walker, a superhero who lost his powers, and his partner Deena Pilgrim as they work for the Los Angeles Police Department’s “Powers” division which is responsible for bringing in super powered villains mostly without the help of superheroes. Frankly I love the concept. As my buddy put it in a conversation with me yesterday, the big picture looks great, but it’s when you start looking closer, at the day to day stuff, that it starts to look bad.
And he’s right. I told him a couple weeks ago that Walker looks like he was carefully crafted to look like David Tennant in Broadchurch. My guess is they wanted to make him look haggard and hung-over at all times as he struggles to deal with the loss of his powers, the loss of his relationship with his his one time super powered love, Retro Girl (who, according to Wikipedia, is actually supposed to be dead as that was the first case he investigates in the comic), loss of essentially all of his friends except his partner prior to Pilgrim, who, by the way, dies stupidly in the first few minutes of the first episode. The “Downtrodden Song” by Denis Leary pretty much sums up Walker’s life.
The sad thing is, I actually don’t mind Walker all that much. He’s pretty much completely unlikable, but stepping back, resisting the urge to just slap the labels “cliche” and “rip-off” on him, you can respect what he’s been through. I can’t say that he is a rip off of Broadchurch’s Alec Hardy (Tennant) because the comic has existed for 15 years, and I don’t think Broadchurch was a comic or book prior to become a BBC television series a few years ago. So technically, this crap that has affected Walker is original, and he just happens to look a hell of a lot like Hardy. But you can definitely see the design influences from Broadchurch on Walker regardless of whether anyone at Sony/PlayStation Originals wants to admit that fact.
Putting characters aside for a moment, I’d like to talk about something that really bothers me in Powers. Although it’s trailed off, the first episode looks like a commercial for Sony products as they’re all over the place, clearly displayed. Yes, Sony is a major brand name, and I’ve had more Sony products than I care to count at the moment, but everywhere you look, people were using Sony smartphones and tablets and Vaio computers and PlayStation 4s and televisions. I get it, it’s a Sony production and it’s smart to self promote, but that level of representation is not realistic nor representative of the real world. I am very much an Android device user and developer, but throw a fucking iPad or iPhone in there, because we all know those are way more common than Sony’s phones and tablets. Product placement is important, there’s no question about it, but the ubiquity of a single brand in a film or television series is not only unrealistic, but it’s jarring and becomes a point of focus in a bad way.
Back to characters and plot… Perhaps the biggest problem for me with regards to the series thus far, is that I don’t have a sense of who the real villain really is. That would be good if this were a mystery, but we have two very obvious bad guys: Johnny Royalle (played by Noah Taylor) and Wolfe (played by Eddie Izzard). While it’s made very clear that Wolfe is the overall major villain, and he’s played well by Izzard (but then I’m biased, I love the guy), there’s the question of Royalle. Royalle has been teleporting in and out of, I kid you not, “The Shaft” prison to harvest blood or something else from the regenerating Wolfe to make into a drug called Sway. (Let me comment on something completely unimportant for a second; when I imagine characters teleporting in or out of a room, I imagine an aggressive popping sound or a boom of some sort, or hell, even just silence, not the adorable little Snapple-lid-just-popped-up-as-you-open-it sound. Thanks guys, well done.) Royalle has been doing his cutesy teleporting thing for a while to make the drug, and it’s spreading among the “Powers Kids” that either have low level powers or are groupies of those kids, and gives them an enhancement to their abilities or kills them. Depending on which of the two they are. An unforeseen side effect is that anyone that takes Sway is apparently getting linked to Wolfe which will undoubtedly play out in some horrifically written way in an upcoming episode, as they’ve already forewarned us in at least two episodes by episode 8. Naturally, desperate to get his powers back from Wolfe without knowing how it was made or the side effects, Walker took Sway to put Wolfe back in his cell.
You would think that the drug alone would be enough to cement Royalle as the primary villain, and even though he taunts his former best friend, Walker, repeatedly through the first few episodes, he ultimately still cares about him and knows he’s in over his head. Frankly, Royalle is more wishy washy than a soaked wash clothe. He can’t decide if he’s really a bad guy or a champion of the under privileged Powers Kids as he keeps flip flopping all over the place, then begs Walker to help him fix his mistake, extracting whatever from Wolfe, by killing their former mentor. Yeah, that’s right, Wolfe was their mentor back in the 90’s on how “Powers” (as super powered individuals are called in case you haven’t gotten the drift) get their abilities, refine them, and should act. Then he ate a bunch of people, freaked them out, and they gave him The Shaft. Sorry, couldn’t resist. I wonder if it was throbbing… Anyway, Walker, the fine upstanding good cop that he is has agreed to help Royalle put Wolfe down… Note that in earlier in the exact same episode, Royalle first teleported Walker into a sealed room then teleported out with all the air, then later teleported them to the edge of a balcony, and pushed him off; rescuing him in both cases. Naturally, these kinds of actions engender friendship and trust, right?
As if all of this wasn’t bad enough, there’s the the production itself. Everyone is pretty damned well dressed, even the poor people. All of the women’s hair and make-up are perfect at all times. While most of the powers’ visible effects are decent, those characters that can fly look like ABSOLUTE SHIT while doing it. It almost emphasizes the wire-rigging frequently used to demonstrate flight; in particular Walker during his fight with Wolfe in the Shaft; he looked a thin version of Fat Bastard from Goldmember hanging in mid-air. It looked terrible. It still looks terrible.
Here’s the thing,while PlayStation Originals undoubtedly is a separate production entity from Sony Motion Pictures, there absolutely positively has to be some cross-talk between the two houses. There’s undoubtedly a sharing of resources, crew, equipment, editors, special effects, make-up, costuming, and production teams. Correction, PlayStation Originals would be absolutely stupid if they weren’t trying to take advantage of essentially in-house resources, advice, and expertise, even if they had to pay for them. I don’t expect that Sony Motion Pictures would try to charge [Sony] PlayStation Originals the going rate for their help; actual cost maybe. Even if they did have to charge full price for it, it would be a steal for PlayStation Originals. Sadly, to me, it looks like they’re going it alone, trying to prove that they don’t need any help at all, not even from their bigger, more experienced brothers and sisters.
Walker and Royalle talked, among other things, about pride being the problem in dealing with Wolfe, that it was pride that was letting him control them. Maybe it’s pride that’s also ruining this golden opportunity for PlayStation Originals… If so, then that, like Powers, is just too bad…