It took the better part of a decade (and a few network changes), but Brian Michael Bendis’ comic Powers is finally on the small screen. Weirdly enough, the long-awaited result is both absolutely awesome and absolutely terrible.
The Powers television series debuted a few weeks ago on PlayStation Network, marking the service’s first foray into scripted dramas. The comic that inspired the series has been around for a long time, telling the stories of (mostly) Average Joe cops as they try to keep the peace in a world gone crazy with superpowers. If there was ever a premise custom built for a television adaptation, this is it. Procedural? Check. Superheroes? Check. Mythology (but standalone enough to be accessible)? Check.
But, there’s just one problem — the deeper you dig into the comic, the crazier the whole thing seems to get. In the 15 years Bendis has been telling the stories of Detective Christian Walker and Detective Deena Pilgrim, he’s crafted some truly twisted stories about death and murder. He’s also built a weird and wild mythology that jumps from millennia-spanning vendettas to wild setups for giant conspiracies. Once you get below the surface of cops in a superhero world, Powers get a whole lot more complicated.
Therein lies the problem with Powers the series. A direct adaptation of the comic wouldn’t really work, so Bendis and showrunner Charlie Huston wisely decided to remix elements from the comic and piece them together in a way that would better fit the television medium. They effectively simplified Walker’s backstory, but still found a way to work in his relationship with Wolfe that would retain some of the dynamics that made it so fun in the comics.
Now, his former lifelong nemesis Wolfe is a former hero who once served as a mentor to Walker/Diamond and a bunch of other supers — at least until he snapped and killed a bunch of them, while stealing Walker’s powers in the process. It’s a similar track to the comics (Walker lost/sacrificed his powers to stop Wolfe in the comics), but the changes make Wolfe a more palpable and relevant character (especially since Walker really wants his powers back) in the present for the TV series. Excellent move, and Eddie Izzard is deliciously creepy in the role.
They’ve also shaken up the details surrounding Johnny Royale (Noah Taylor), making him a larger character and trying to give him more of a narrative arc, as opposed to just being a quirky mob boss, not to mention aging up Calista (Olesya Rulin), which makes her more relevant to the series and mirrors a comic story that came a good decade into the original run. Retro Girl’s role has also been increased, which is a nice way to tie Walker into his old life and give us a peek into the world of a superhero. All good decisions. Here’s how Bendis explained the development process to The Hollywood Reporter, in regard to how they tweaked the formula:
“All the elements of the show are things that have happened in the book — but what's cool is that Charlie was very smart. He cherry-picked the things from the book that would make the best show, that would make the best television. We were writing, with that first storyline, we didn't think we were going to get to issue 4. We were running — kill Retro Girl! Solve the murder! — but with 10 episodes, as Charlie calls it, a 10-chapter crime novel, you can just tell the story differently, and I think, more maturely…
I think that a faithful adaptation sometimes can be very leaden. It can be very flat, very lifeless if you try to be too faithful. It can just sit there. Having consulted on the Marvel movies, that's something I've learned. You watch the first Iron Man movie, and it's not based on anything, but it certainly feels like Iron Man. Part of that is, it's only beholden to the idea of the character, and that stuck with me as we made our choices going forward.”
All those things sound great, right? Heck, even a hardcore fan of the comic can openly admit most of those changes were on the nose to make the series a better fit for television.
So, what’s the problem? They made all the right changes, but they’re just not implementing them very well. With all the focus on how to make the convoluted comic work in episodic television, they lost sight of the thing that made Powers so great to start with — the unshakeable relationship between Walker (Sharlto Copley) and Pilgrim (Susan Heyward). With compelling supporting players like Wolfe and Johnny Royale getting fleshed out, the central duo is arguably one of the weakest links of the show. That's a big problem.
Copley is a great genre actor, as he proved in District 9, but he still doesn’t fit in the cutout left behind by the comic version of Christian Walker. Sure, Walker had his flaws in the comics, but you could always still sense the former superhero boiling just below the surface, waiting to burst out of his shirt and tie. Copley’s version seems almost too comfortable as the washed-up hero, and he fits a little too comfortably into that cheap suit. Plus, the TV version of Walker is pretty much a terrible detective, and basically just leans on his former connections with the hero community to put the pieces together.
Yes, it’s obvious they’re trying to give Walker some room to grow by starting him low — and setting up this version of Pilgrim as a character who can try and teach him some of the “cop stuff” is an obvious way to bond them — but even Heyward’s version of Pilgrim comes off as a pale imitation. What made Deena Pilgrim so great in the comics is that she’s the most badass character on the page, no matter who else is in the panel. It doesn’t matter that she’s 5'2" and weighs 110 pounds. She’s all attitude, and she respects her badge enough for everyone else in the room. She's also extremely damaged, which adds a whole other layer to that bravado.
To this point, we haven’t really seen any of that from Heyward’s take on the character. She comes off as inexperienced, a bit fannish about heroes and reckless. Yes, “Reckless” is probably Deena Pilgrim’s middle name, but in the comics it fits in with her attitude. Here, it just seems like she doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing. Is this really the best person to teach Walker how to be a better detective? To this point, it looks like this version of Pilgrim could stand a few more years at the academy herself. Heyward seems to have the depth to get there, they just haven't shown it yet.
Then there are all this great supporting characters, like Wolfe, Johnny Royale and Calista. Sure, they’re solid actors and good characters — they just actually need a few more things to do. Johnny Royale’s motivations for spreading his new drug are paper-thin and barely explained, while all Calista has done for the first third of the season is mostly complain about not having powers, make terrible decisions and sneak around. Now that Wolfe has finally broken free from containment (you knew it was coming, right?), here’s hoping he gets a bit more to do than be chained up and chew scenery (and people).
… and all of that is not even touching on the shoddy production values. From the outdoor shots that feel like they were filmed on a shoestring in Vancouver to Triphammer’s laughably terrible armor (seriously, how did that make it to the screen?!), the quality does little to help cover up some of these holes. As everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Continuum has proven, a good thing can still shine through a low budget — but if the show’s not that good to begin with, it just puts a magnifying glass on top of the deficiencies.
Powers has the bones of a great show, but right now it’s still struggling to just be a good one. Not surprisingly, reviews have been straight down the middle for the series up to this point. It still has the back half of season one to course-correct, and we’ll keep our fingers crossed that the writers find their feet. For a project that spent a decade in development hell and is now trying to be the flagship for a new platform, it needs to get a whole lot better a whole lot faster to actually have a chance.
If not, PlayStation’s Powers will soon go the way of Walker’s long-lost comic super-strength and flight powers (see: oblivion). Well, before the aliens showed up, at least (we told you the comic was wild). Oh, just pick up the omnibus.