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Powers, PlayStation's new superhero drama, is just awful

Sharlto Copley and Susan Heyward
Sharlto Copley and Susan Heyward
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

With the Avengers and Justice League set to dominate the silver screen for the next six years, The Flash and Arrow's surprising success on television, and Daredevil leading off a new wave of Marvel Netflix shows starting next month, we will have superhero stories at multiplexes and on our TVs for some time to come, whether the demand is there or not.



That's part of the problem with Playstation's new show, Powers. It isn't entirely clear what audience Powers is meant for, nor what demand the show is meant to serve. Instead of cutting through the fat of the overfed superhero genre, Powers wilts and sputters. But before lurching off to the frozen tundra of misfit superhero projects, it (unintentionally) demonstrates how difficult it is to produce a superhero television show that works.

Adapted from Brian Michael Bendis' Eisner award-winning comic book of the same name, the show follows two homicide detectives — Christian Walker (Sharlto Copley) and new rookie partner Deena Pilgrim (Susan Heyward) — who have to do their jobs in a world where many people, including the criminals they're pursuing, have superpowers.

The source material isn't a problem. Bendis' comic has a snap and crackle to it, even 15 years after it debuted. The main problem is that the primary draws of the comic book were the fleet of superpowered beings, the human consequences of their powers, and the mystery of protagonist Christian Walker — not the crime and detective work. The show seems intent on ignoring Bendis' strengths in this arena, and instead leaning into Bendis' weaker spots.

Instead of allowing Walker's origins to be a mystery, the show gets Mario Lopez (yes, the Mario Lopez) to explain in the first five minutes that Walker is a former superhero who was once known as Diamond but has since lost his powers. In the series, Walker has become a human Eeyore whose superhuman ability is to have everyone he encounters recount his past and ask him what it's like to be a washed-up superhero.

"You were a hero, Walker. That's just different than being a Power," his late partner's son says to him.

Three minutes later, Pilgrim tells him, "You look different without the mask."

"No one expects to see a Power like Diamond mow his own lawn," Walker responds.

Then five minutes later, a young suspect is brought into custody and lays this line on Walker: "But you lost your powers fighting Wolf when he escaped. Then you became a cop."

Powers, it seems, has traded in a shopworn superhero trope for that of an even more overplayed and overrepresented story: a mopey white guy fretting about something he lost long ago. That forces a talented actor like Copley to slump into scene after scene and play one redundant, sad-trombone note.

Heyward, who plays Walker's wide-eyed partner, Pilgrim, is given better stuff, providing moments of brightness to the show. But she mostly seems to exist to offset Walker's dour mope.

The choice to follow this narrative in this manner doesn't feel like an ambitious creative venture, but rather like a way to get around the show's budget. Television shows don't have the kind of disposable income a blockbuster movie does, of course. But that can be a problem for a series based on robust source material where the only constraint was an author's imagination.

Television shows have tried to solve this dilemma in the past by toning down the powers, which SyFy's Alphas did so well, or showing them off in different ways, like The Flash is doing brilliantly this season. On Alphas, you had characters whose superpowers were scaled down to things like super strength and the power of suggestion, which didn't risk looking too cheap or cheesy. With The Flash, the writers really make an effort to portray Barry Allen's super speed imaginatively. At times they portray his power as a blur — the way we're used to seeing super speed shown on film — but there are moments like in the fourth episode, in which they show off his speed in a slow-motion sequence where he's scooping people from a careening train.

Powers does neither.

Instead of taking part in giant battles between superheroes and villains, fought with fire and ice, the audience watches the characters solve murders. ("Do you want to see a dead body?" Walker asks in the first episode.) In the third episode, when the leads are pursuing a villain who has the power to discharge electricity, the sequence looks more like sixth-grade teachers trying to tackle a seventh-grade bully. There's no sense that the supervillains Walker encounters are really that scary or even that much of a threat. In that same vein, the heroes don't provide a sense of inspiration or awe.

Therein lies the rub: Why are we supposed to be so sad that Walker lost his past life as a superhero if we're never shown anything that wows us?

The tiny glimmer of potential in this show is the appearance of Retro Girl, played by the steely Michelle Forbes. Even without the dazzle, Forbes taps into the poker-faced, elemental magic that she brought as a villain on True Blood and as the dictatorial Helena Cain on Battlestar Galactica.

But Forbes isn't enough to save the show. And at this point, it's not clear what could.

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