Netflix has fully committed to pumping up their library of original fantasy series and succeeded on multiple fronts in the past year alone. From the satisfyingly sprawling The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance to the better-than-it-needed-to-be The Witcher to the schlocky-yet-complex Warrior Nun, the worldbuilding skill on display for these series rewrote the expectation book. Enter Cursed, which adapts the novel from Frank Miller and Tom Wheeler. Miller’s 300 and Sin City comics built enthralling worlds that were successfully brought to life on the big screen, so expectations were high. The end product of Cursed isn’t as wholly satisfying as the aforementioned Netflix fantasy series, but the show carries much promise for future seasons, and it’s entertaining as hell.
Cursed also keeps the Miller worldbuilding tradition alive, thankfully, and in the process, it adapts his retooling of King Arthur’s origin story. What results is not simply a gender twist on an old story but an epic adventure that revolves around a simple tweak with domino-like consequences: What would happen if the legendary Excalibur sword — which is meant for the one true king — chose a queen instead?
The answer, of course, is a feminist one, and the show frames itself as a coming-of-age tale with players by Arthurian names scattered throughout. In many cases, they’re distorted significantly from the actual Arthurian characters from which they take their inspiration. That’s gotta be one reason why Netflix asked critics to hold their reviews back until release day. It’s a slightly counterproductive tactic, yes, and it can suggest nervousness about quality. Yet I suspect that Netflix mainly wants to avoid spoilers as much as possible because, for this series, they will overshadow the experience (as will the inevitable, arguably unfair Game of Thrones comparisons). So I’ll talk a little bit about plot later, but it will be no spoiler to discuss how Cursed looks.
Miller’s comic book writing is legendary, even when it comes to the occasionally less-embraced titles, but it’s equally important to note that his words are always supported by striking visuals. He comes by that honestly, having worked early on as a comic book illustrator and, later adding writing to the mix. The instantly recognizable paint-splatter effect of the noirish Sin City, for example, pairs almost too well with his hard-boiled words, and even when another illustrator’s doing those honors, the two elements blend almost seamlessly in his work. That’s often the case with Miller-based adaptations as well, and yes, Netflix’s Cursed does strive for the cinematic and largely succeeds there.
Cursed does a fine job of stylizing its visuals, as well as building a complex story base (even if the latter feels too bulky at times). Miller’s heavily involved with this series as co-creator (with fellow writer Wheeler) along with a few other descriptors. His presence is felt throughout, so much so that his visual way of thinking, and his mindset, even, are practically characters on their own. There are a few CGI moments of wonkiness (particularly one involving a talking deer early on — that’s not fantastic), but overall, the show’s visuals help one get lost in this world.
As far as plot goes, the pleasure of Cursed will be lessened by knowing too much, so I’ll tell you the bare minimum to encourage you through the door. The story revolves around a teenage girl named Nimue (Katherine Langford), born with a bond to dark magic, a mysterious gift for which she was “cursed.” She struggles with whether to accept her destiny on a number of levels, including not only the sword-selection thing but also whether to ascend to power and attempt to save her people from annihilation by the Red Paladins. Along the way, she deals with corrupt kings and others with ulterior motives, along with forests filled whispery threats and dark magic that rivals her own.
As for the Arthurian players, I should really only mention two of them. The character of Arthur, for example, is not the medieval character you grew up with. Instead, he’s a mercenary and portrayed by Devon Terrell (Barack Obama from 2016’s Barry) with the right combination of charm and swagger, mixed with humility and honor.
Then there’s good old Merlin, portrayed by Gustaf Skarsgård (Floki from Vikings), who is, at alternate turns, scenery-chewing and sulky. Merlin’s a blast, although a total mess, given that he was once a great magician but who has lost his mojo in the worst way.
From there, the series confronts sweeping concepts like rebellion, revenge, and the power of choosing whether or not to embrace one’s destiny. Like I mentioned already, Netflix didn’t want reviews to land out here ahead of streaming time, so I don’t have to do too much heavy lifting here other than to say that, if you’re a fantasy or a Frank Miller fan, you will likely enjoy both the familiar and updated aspects of what materializes onscreen. Cursed is another reliably well-constructed dark-fantasy series from Netflix.
Netflix’s ‘Cursed’ streams on July 16.