‘Swamp Thing’ Revels In Comic Book Horrors, But Does So At The Expense Of Almost Everything Else

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About midway through the pilot episode of the DC Universe streaming service’s new Swamp Thing series, a corpse seemingly comes back to life midway through an autopsy. The force behind this apparent resurrection is largely scientific, as a biological accelerant that mysterious parties have been dumping into the swamplands essentially charged the area’s vegetation with an insatiable hunger for growth and movement. It’s also partially supernatural, though we’ll return to that later. For now, it’s best to focus on the body horror of this scene in particular and, as audiences will quickly realize, the rest of the series as a whole.

That’s because Aquaman director James Wan serves as one of the show’s executive producers. Before the sought-after action helmer entered the DC Comics world, he cut his teeth with the Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring horror franchises. Each of these delved into easily distinguishable subgenres like body horror, psychological horror, and the supernatural, and each one plays a role in Swamp Thing. Obviously, the body horror is the most prevalent, as demonstrated by the aforementioned corpse scene. But Wan’s genre-specific fingerprints can be found all over DC Universe’s latest, and that’s a good thing.

Longtime fans of the character should be especially pleased by this, for long before scientists Alec and Linda Holland and the stronger environmentalism themes entered the picture, Swamp Thing was purely a horror story. After all, the character first appeared in a standalone horror story for House of Secrets #92 in July of 1971. The Hollands, the science and the eco-narratives came to be a few years later, though these initial runs never forgot the property’s roots in horror.

Wan’s new series, which can be especially frightening when it chooses to be, also opts in for more horror than not. Aside from the genre notes, a few prominent characters, and some similar themes, however, writers Mark Verheiden and Gary Dauberman have done a lot to update the Swamp Thing story for modern times. The environmentalist angle adopted in the ’70s and continued through the ’90s remains, though it takes a back seat. As for the Hollands, they’ve been consolidated into a single figure.

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Alec (Andy Bean) is a rogue scientist working in secret for local businessman and community leader Avery Sunderland (Will Patton), whose own secretive efforts are to blame for a swamp-born disease that’s plaguing the area. CDC specialist Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed) is sent in to investigate the matter, so she teams up with Alec to figure out what’s causing the pandemic. The pair manages to survive the body horror of the autopsy scene and stumble upon the fact that an accelerant of some kind may be causing it all, but not before Alec is gunned down and scorched in an explosion meant to cover it all up.

Across the two episodes that were made available for review, Verheiden and Dauberman introduce an array of supporting characters and villains whose comic book blueprints lay the groundwork necessary for a new rogues gallery. Sunderland is, first and foremost, the big bad of what’s going on in the swamplands and, more than likely, directly responsible for Alec’s death and transformation. But comic book aficionados will likely recognize names like Jason Woodrue (Kevin Durand) and Dan Cassidy (Ian Ziering), who become the Floronic Man and Blue Devil, respectively. Cassidy’s transformation is teased in a recent trailer, though the Woodrue we see here is simply a brilliant biogeneticist who lacks basic people skills.

And therein lies the rub, for the more time Swamp Thing dwells on its comic book origins in an attempt to convey a convincing drama, the more convoluted it becomes. The community of characters here, whether original creations or not, is meant to foster a much bigger canvas for Wan and company to play with. Unfortunately, it tends to bog the series down. What works more than anything is the horror. The body horror of the autopsy room escape, the inescapable darkness of the scientifically (and supernaturally) powered swamplands, the humor horrors of Sunderland and company’s murderous efforts to preserve their power — this is what works best in Swamp Thing.

The DC Comics-fronted streamer has been making a name for itself with a recent spate of live-action adaptations that are darkly violent. Titans, otherwise known as the “f*ck Batman” show, kicked things off with mixed results. Doom Patrol, which stars Brendan Fraser as an unfaithful race car driver turned robot, improved matters with critics and fans alike — largely due to its willingness to embrace its irrelevance (not unlike The CW’s Legends of Tomorrow). As for Swamp Thing, humor and other forms of character and story development are largely abandoned for more time in the darkness. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, but it’s all that the show excels in.

‘Swamp Thing’ premieres Friday, May 31st on the DC Universe streaming platform.