Thank Goodness for TV Superheroes

Superhero movies have become the easiest way to make a blockbuster. The Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe have 31 released films between them, with at least a dozen more on the way. This glut of superhero cinema has burned out even some of the most tried-and-true comic book fans.

While DC’s universe occasionally has a more adult edge, the MCU has bombarded viewers with family-friendly, epic storytelling for over a decade. Comic book fans wanting a more mature look into what it means to be a hero were left in the cold. Thankfully, television and streaming services went where the popcorn flicks couldn’t. DC Universe’s Doom Patrol, Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy, Amazon Prime’s The Boys, and HBO’s Watchmen each take bold new looks at the nature of heroism. Unbound by the constraints of the ratings system or movie runtimes, each brings something completely unique to heroic storytelling. 

doom patrol trailer

The Wonderfully Weird World of Doom Patrol

One of the biggest perks of having a series on a streaming service is the ability to get weird with it. In the case of Doom Patrol, showrunner Jeremy Carver was able to get really weird with it. Based on the long-running DC Comics series of the same name created by Arnold Drake, Bob Haney, and Bruno Premiani, Doom Patrol is the story of a group of misfits rescued by a kindly genius in a wheelchair. (Doom Patrol is older than X-Men, but this appears to be a case of creative confluence.) When the Chief (Timothy Dalton) is kidnapped by a supervillain who can shape realities (Alan Tudyk), the band of busted people with powers is forced to unite to find him.

The heroes of the Doom Patrol are delightfully diverse. There’s Cyborg (Joivan Wade), the son of top scientists who lost his limbs in an explosion and is now half-robot. Then there’s Cliff (Brendan Fraser), a NASCAR driver who is now all-robot, save for his brain. The scarecrow to Cliff’s tin man is Larry (Matt Bomer), a closeted gay Air Force pilot burned in an accident. Oh, and he also hosts a rogue spirit that has energy powers. Speaking of hosts, the unfortunately-named Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero) is host to 64 different personalities, each with a different superpower. Former Hollywood starlet Rita (April Bowlby) rounds out the crew, with the curse/ability to turn into a gelatinous monster.

Each of these unusual characters is treated with respect by the writers room. They are each given a full episode in the first season, allowing viewers to empathize with them more. While many of their powers or situations could easily be one-note jokes, there is surprising depth to each character arc. Doom Patrol takes a tough look at what it means to be an outsider, whether through gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability, or mental illness. These topics are handled with care, and the result is a big warm squishy heart at the core of the series’ incredible weirdness. 

Some extra weird highlights: the team must go through a portal in a donkey’s butt; a cult summons the apocalypse via a giant eyeball in the sky; a rat named Admiral Whiskers gives Cliff a nervous breakdown; there’s a recurring character named Danny the street that is a sentient, genderqueer, teleporting bit of roadway. Doom Patrol is absolutely bizarre and creates a world where anything can happen, but it remains grounded by its emotional sensibilities. 

the umbrella academy featurette

The Umbrella Academy’s Gothic Greatness

Much like Doom Patrol, The Umbrella Academy features a group of damaged superbeings collectively raised by the same man. Unlike Doom Patrol, The Umbrella Academy is a direct riff off of Marvel’s X-Men. Based on the Dark Horse comic series by My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way, The Umbrella Academy asks one big question: what if Professor X wasn’t a good guy? Billionaire Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) adopts seven children born on the same day to mothers who became instantly, magically pregnant. Six of those children became his superhero fighting team, each with unique powers. The seventh, Vanya (Ellen Page), was deemed powerless. Hargreeves is a brutal taskmaster and terrible adoptive father. After his death, the now-grown Umbrella Academy must reunite because one of them believes their abusive caregiver was murdered. 

Where the members of the Doom Patrol clearly love the Chief, the Hargreeves kids loathe their late paterfamilia. Each of them bears the scars of their trauma and has found their own unhealthy coping mechanism. They often take out their pain on one another, their fellow survivors. While Doom Patrol riffs on the importance of having a family we choose, The Umbrella Academy delves into the importance of making the best of the family we’ve got. When Vanya has a crisis and the siblings might lose one of their own, the bickering and in-fighting finally stops. The power of the Academy is their ability to work together. 

There’s plenty of lovely weirdness in The Umbrella Academy as well, but it has a distinctly punk and gothic aesthetic that sets it apart. Way’s influence is present not only in the gorgeously gloomy set designs, but also the soundtrack, which features some perfectly-placed alt-rock needle drops. 

the boys review

Bawdy Brawling with The Boys

Doom Patrol and The Umbrella Academy are both more mature in their take on superhero storytelling, but The Boys is particularly adults-only. Based on the series by Garth Ennis, The Boys is an anti-capitalist satire that takes the piss out of everything from action figures to the military-industrial complex. It’s brutally violent, features multiple instances of sexual assault, and has the kind of creative swearing you’d expect from Ennis. Showrunner Eric Kripke and his writer’s room carefully updated from the source material, turning some previously cringe-inducing moments into something more subversive. Like The Umbrella Academy and Doom Patrol, the characters in The Boys are all dealing with personal trauma, though how they deal with it is completely different. 

The biggest villains in The Boys are the most popular superheroes, including Homelander (Antony Starr), who is essentially Fox News Superman, and The Deep (Chace Crawford), an Aquaman-esque character. Both take out their frustrations on the people around them, and both seek to control anyone who might stand in their way. Both have a great deal of privilege, and it’s interesting to see how they wield it as a weapon. Other members of the Seven (this universe’s Justice League/Avengers) have their own privilege, but are kept under the thumb of Homelander and his oppressive straight white Christian maleness in one way or another. 

Opposite the Seven are the titular Boys, out to get vengeance against the Seven for various reasons. Superhero-hating Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) wants revenge for Homelander assaulting his wife. Hugh (Jack Quaid) wants to take out A-Train after the speedster accidentally killed Hugh’s girlfriend. Marvin (Laz Alonso) and Frenchie (Tomer Capon) are mercenaries with their own agendas, and the Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara) is a superpowered person held hostage by the same group who controls the Seven. The Boys’ attempts to destroy the Seven are mirrored by a story about the newest member of the group, Annie (Erin Moriarty). The more Annie learns about being a superhero, the more disillusioned and in line with The Boys’ thinking she becomes. 

The Boys is mean-spirited and occasionally tough to watch, but it’s also a savagely funny satire. If you’ve ever longed for series that riffs on the commercialism, religious idolatry, and strange sexual fetishes of costumed heroes, The Boys is for you. 

Why Everyone’s Watching the Watchmen

HBO and Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen series was a massive hit that inspired a whirlwind of critical and cultural conversation. Unlike the other adaptations above, it also served as a sequel to its source material, giving us new information on old characters. Like the others, the series explores characters dealing with trauma, delusions of godhood, and the commodification of justice. 

Watchmen is a tour de force of storytelling. The first episode opens with the Tulsa Massacre and never lets up on forcing the audience to confront terrible things about American history. While Watchmen takes place in an alternate universe where the United States won the Vietnam War, among other things, there are plenty of corollaries to our reality. Lindelof’s Watchmen asks us to think about systemic racism and white nationalism, police brutality, and vigilantism. 

One example of Watchmen’s excellent writing comes in the form of the Seventh Kalvary, essentially the KKK with Rorschach masks instead of white hoods. Many fans of the original comic and 2009 movie empathize or even identify with Rorschach, so pointing out his xenophobic nature in this way was a brilliant meta-move. Other decisions are more spoiler-heavy, but each character from the original comic was dealt with in a way that made the story feel fresh and subverted all expectations. 

Watchmen is brilliantly made in every way, from its cinematography to performances to the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. It’s top-tier filmmaking in every way, applied to a genre that usually suffers from cookie-cutter blandness. Like its comic book comrades, Watchmen goes to bizarre extremes, but everything is done with so much polish that it’s hard not to be sucked in. 

There are many reasons that streaming and premium cable series are able to do more with these kinds of stories. They don’t have to put rear-ends in theater seats. There’s a much lower barrier to entry for streaming because people can watch from their couch on their time. There’s no MPAA or standards and practices lawyers to worry about. In streaming and premium cable, there are no rules and creators are able to truly share their vision. These four superhero shows are visions of costumed crusaders like we’ve never seen before. 

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