powerless review

Every superhero show or movie has them: dozens or hundreds of anonymous extras milling about in the backgrounds of all those CG-heavy, city-destroying third-act climaxes, looking alternatively terrified and grateful. Every once in a while, some of them even get to speak – to testify against Superman in Congress or to corner Iron Man in an elevator. But NBC’s Powerless is the first time these nameless nobodies truly get to take center stage. And as it turns out, they’ve got a pretty great story to tell. 

Powerless is set in some version of the DC universe, and more specifically in the offices of the cleverly named Retcon Insurance Company. Our non-super hero is Emily (Vanessa Hudgens), a claims adjuster who finds profound satisfaction in helping ordinary civilians recover from the damage caused by all these endless superhero battles. In a world where falling rubble is the most common cause of “super-related” deaths, the checks she gets to deliver to the victims are her way of making a difference. Her non-super villain is Del (Alan Tudyk), an arrogant new boss who demands a 25% increase in claim denials. And so the stage is set for a completely non-superpowered showdown.

Powerless brims with delightful details about life in a superhero universe. Del underlines his worst qualities by reading a Lex Luthor autobiography in his free time; his assistant (Christina Kirk) reads a Rolling Stone issue with Hawkman on the cover. The clocks in the lobby display times for important locations like Gotham, Metropolis, Atlantis, and Themyscira, in addition to Charm City (where Powerless takes place). When yet another supervillain commandeers the airwaves to deliver an ominous threat to Crimson Fox, Charm City’s local superhero, cranky employees roll their eyes, mute their computers and televisions, and carry on with their meetings. “It’s getting old how superheroes are using our cities for their personal cage matches,” complains one person on TMZ.

And as the inhabitants of a superhero universe, Retcon employees are savvy about the tropes of the genre. Emily’s work friend Teddy (Community‘s Danny Pudi) teasingly calls her a superhero when she decides to take on Del and his draconian new rules, and half-jokingly asks if he can be her sidekick. Meanwhile, their other officemates wonder if the suspiciously quiet new guy at work is secretly Green Lantern – and go to increasingly ridiculous lengths to try and find out one way or another. If you’ve ever wondered (as I have) what exactly it’d be like to live in the Marvel or DC universes, Powerless offers a compelling and very funny answer by finally giving the “everyone else” of those universe their very own show.

If references were all Powerless had to offer, it’d get old quick. But Powerless also works as a more typical office comedy. Tudyk is the obvious standout in the first episode, as the kind of archnemesis we’ve all had – the petty boss who believes fear and respect are the same thing. (“I respect spiders,” he argues.) Pudi is in his comfort zone as the pop culture-savvy officemate, though I’m hoping his relationship with Emily will develop into something more interesting than the overused “unrequited crush” trope. And the battle at its center works precisely because the fate of the world is never at stake. The good people of Retcon Insurance are just trying to help others like themselves, one check at a time. By dialing the stakes all the way down, Powerless adds a sweet human touch to the superhero genre.

The idea of a superhero show without superheroes may seem bizarre, but Powerless shuts down that argument in its utterly perfect opening credits. The first image in the sequence is the iconic cover of Action Comics #1, the book that first brought Superman into our world. You can surely picture it in your head right now: it’s that image of Superman lifting a crumpled car. But the Powerless credits were the first time I really took notice of what’s surrounding the big blue Boy Scout: ordinary civilians, fleeing in terror. These random humans have been a part of the superhero DNA from the very beginning. It’s about time they finally got a show of their own.

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