‘Powers’ Recap: Superhero Semi-Noir

Because Sony is rolling out Powers episode by episode, that’s how we’re going to take it, one recap at a time. Today, we’ll be looking at the pilot, which you can watch online.

The basic thrust of Powers is unchanged from the comic. Christian Walker (Sharlto Copley), a former superhero, is teamed up with Deena Pilgrim (Susan Hayward) in the Powers Division of the LAPD, where they investigate superpowered crime and try to keep the city’s various supervillains in check. Along the way, we learn that being a superhero can turn you, shockingly, into a crappy human being.

I have to admit that I’ve never been a fan of the original comic, which I always felt stopped at its premise and didn’t build on it. And, to be honest, that problem somewhat carries over here; the show’s attempts to draw analogies between superheroics and celebrity culture feels almost painfully stale, at this point, and it doesn’t really pay off. We’re told that “powers” are celebrities, but aside from a profoundly awkward cameo from Mario Lopez, and one battle in the Los Angeles skyline, we don’t see much evidence of it.

Most of the episode hinges around Calista, a homeless wannabe-power who’s manipulated into killing a major hero and finds herself tangled up with the supposedly dead Johnny Royale (Noah Taylor). Walker is introduced to Pilgrim and they go to work, even as Walker becomes convinced his supposedly dead former friend and worst enemy is still alive. Meanwhile, Royale’s new drug, which causes superpower overdrive, is about to hit the market… or at least be injected into prominent heroes whether they want it or not.

Mostly, the episode is all about setting up the world these characters live in — which is good although plodding — and building a plotline where superheroes we don’t know and couldn’t care less about might be under threat, which is bad since we literally don’t see most of them. Not helping matters is the occasional groaner in the dialogue, like Lopez’s exposition dump or Zora, the bratty power who lightly figures into the plot, explaining the symbolism of our protagonist’s name. Even Calista, as a character, is just, well, a dumb kid. We don’t learn much about her in this episode, rendering her a stock character.

That said, though, the pilot wisely puts Copley front and center, and he’s more than enough to hold your interest. Christian Walker is a mediocre detective and something of a lousy human being, which makes it hard to get a bead on him at first. But as the pilot progresses, it becomes more and more clear that his problem isn’t so much that he’s lost his powers, it’s that he’s been through hell and can’t figure out his place in the world.

Similarly, when the show lets itself be about powers, the police who try to manage them, and their day-to-day, it’s quite lively. Johnny Royale is established as profoundly dangerous in more than one way in just a few deft strokes, and with David Slade behind the camera, the powers in question feel a bit more grounded and real than they might otherwise. Similarly, the opening disaster doesn’t feel like a dramatic nailbiter; a few small mistakes snowball, and someone pays the price.

So it’s uneven, but a strong enough start that it’s worth it to keep going. We’ll recap the second episode tomorrow.