What must it be like to be an ordinary person living in a superhero universe? To leave the house every morning knowing there’s a good chance you could be shrunken, frozen, incinerated, or crushed to death as collateral damage in a battle between a robot and a Norse god? To walk around and see people flying above you? To not question why some of the most powerful beings in existence occasionally look like they’re wearing their underwear on the outside?
Those questions and more like them have been the fodder for some fine comic book stories over the years — and a great, long-running anthology series, Kurt Busiek’s Astro City — but there hasn’t really been room for them in this current flood of comic book-inspired television, where the focus tends to be on traditional superheroics, and where even the non-powered sidekicks tend to get powers and/or codenames within a season or two. Even Agents of SHIELD, which at the beginning was vaguely about humans cleaning up costumed messes, now mostly features characters with special powers.
That leaves a whole lot of virgin territory for NBC’s Powerless — not adapted from any particular comic, but produced by DC Comics and set in the same world as Batman, Superman, and friends (albeit neither the continuity of the current DC movies, nor the CW Berlanti-verse shows) — to mine, not just as the only current Marvel or DC series looking at heroes and villains from a civilian point of view, but the only one structured as a comedy. But based on the premiere episode (the only one made available to critics), it hasn’t really figured out how to take advantage of having this field to itself.
Powerless was originally developed by A to Z creator Ben Queen, who left over creative differences and was replaced by Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker (Surviving Jack), and the pilot that will air on Thursday night at 8:30 feels like a work still in progress. There are some leftover scenes from the Queen version — including a cheesy-looking superhero battle that our protagonist Emily (Vanessa Hudgens) almost becomes collateral damage of while commuting to work — mixed with new material that’s still trying to get a handle on what’s funny about life in the DC Universe(*).
(*) Or, at least, what the writers are allowed to say is funny about life in the DC Universe. When big corporate media entities are involved — especially in a show that’s trying a brand-new approach to the subject matter for this medium — what’s best for the story can take a backseat to what’s best for the company’s image and larger plans. (See also the lifeless, creativity-by-committee early days of Agents of SHIELD.)
Emily is a new middle manager for the R&D division of Wayne Securities, one of the many companies owned by Batman in his secret identity, and here run by his lazy, entitled cousin Van (Alan Tudyk), whose only goal in life is to get promoted away from the show’s fictional Charm City and back to fancier digs and bigger parties in Gotham. Emily’s engineers — Teddy (Danny Pudi from Community), Ron (Ron Funchess, over 100 pounds lighter than he was on Undateable), and Wendy (Jennie Pierson) — have the talent to build anything a civilian might need to protect themselves in the event of a super calamity, but they’ve spent so long trying to reverse-engineer cheap versions of Lexcorp products that the thought of creating something on their own scares them, and they assume Emily will soon be fired and replaced by someone they can also ignore.
It’s familiar workplace comedy material, dressed up with superhero references: Ron suggests making skyscraper window glass out of Kryptonite to keep Superman from always breaking them in fights, while Teddy explains one of Emily’s proposals is unrealistic by saying, “Let me just summon a wizard: SHAZAM!”
It’s at that intersection of The Office and Batman that Powerless is at its most vital, like when Van gets a text from cousin Bruce asking him to stop stealing his HBO GO password. But there’s not a ton of that in the premiere, and when it comes, it often involves Z-list DC characters(*) like Jack O’Lantern (an Irish stereotype of a Green Lantern rip-off) and Crimson Fox (who doesn’t even get to speak with her ridiculous Pepe Le Pew accent from the comics). Appearances by members of the Justice League aren’t mandatory, or even expected, but for all the public pronouncements that the post-Queen version of the show intends to be more conscious of its comic book ties, the new pilot is still reminiscent of those season one SHIELD episodes that occasionally felt apologetic about having to remind people this was set in a comic book universe.
(*) At press tour, Halpern suggested there was a lot of red tape involved in using characters who are already appearing in movies or one of the Berlanti shows. Still, Jack O’Lantern and Crimson Fox are really scraping the bottom of the DC barrel, and I say that as a fan of the late ’80 Justice League comics where both were featured from time to time.
It’s a good cast — Hudgens is energetic and likable in the straight woman role, Tudyk can play this kind of obnoxious bro in his sleep, and Pudi and the others (including Christina Kirk as Van’s beleaguered assistant, Jackie) already have a solid handle on what differentiates each nerdy character from the others — and every now and then comes a scene or joke that lives up to the promise of showing an extraordinary world from the most ordinary point of view. The main title sequence is wonderful in that regard, animating iconic DC Comics covers to reveal each of the show’s characters cowering in the background while Superman, Wonder Woman, or Green Lantern takes on a bad guy.
With so many DC/Marvel series telling the same kinds of stories, in the same angst-ridden fashion, there’s certainly room for a show like Powerless. But we may need to wait a while to see if it can live up to the promise of those opening credits or if (like the Watchmen movie) that winds up being by far the highlight. That it’s still being revamped even as it premieres is something the show has in common with many of the heroes who are flying off in the distance from where Emily and friends work; for every classic superhero who arrived on the comics page fully-formed (say, Captain America punching Hitler on the cover of his first issue), there are many more (including big guns like Van Wayne’s cousin) who needed months, years, or at times decades of tweaking to become the versions we know, love, and probably shouldn’t expect to appear here because the corporations involved have plans for them elsewhere.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org