This week, Sony released the first three episodes of Powers, the live-action adaptation of Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming's comic about police officers who deal with superpowered crime. And while it's slow getting going, Powers takes some intriguing looks at a world where superheroes brush up against reality.
If you're familiar with the comic series, watching Powers can be a bit of a disorienting experience. Our main character is still Christian Walker (played with a hefty dose of existential crisis by Sharlto Copley), a former superhero who turned cop after the lose of his powers, but he doesn't seem to have the epic backstory of his comic counterpart. And his new, scrappy partner is still Deena Pilgrim (Susan Heyward), who has a fiery temper and isn't afraid to turn it on someone whose temper can literally turn to flames. There's still a Zora (Logan Browning), but she doesn't appear to be an immortal badass, and there's still a Retro Girl (Michelle Forbes), but she's very much alive.
The decision not to keep the show too close to the comic's script was probably a wise one. The Zora/Diamond/Retro Girl story, for example, probably plays better in the comics than it would on TV. But watching Powers, it's hard to feel like its superpowered beings are a bit too small. Part of that may be deliberate; Powers is clearly a critique of celebrity culture, but it's hard to take the shows stakes as seriously when even the greatest superheroes fail to seem larger-than-life. By the end of the third episode, we do get a moment of truly shocking power display, but the superpowered beings, even the most famous superheroes, all seem too touchable.
But even putting aside this issue, the main problem with the fist two episodes of Powers is that they are overrun with exposition. It doesn't take long for Deena to learn all there is to learn about Diamond and his history with a couple of notorious bad guys: the opportunistic Johnny Royalle (Noah Taylor) and the Svengali-like Wolfe (Eddie Izzard, who is sure to get much more screen time after the third episode). We see powers and wannabes promenading through parts of town that look like the 1990s threw up on Harajuku. We learn that sometimes groupies swallow superhuman spunk in order to temporarily get powers. (Fun!) After that, the show actually has to work back up to a semblance of mystery.
But there are flashes of something better in those early episodes, flashes that build into something more interesting by episode three. For a show that wants to be about the gritty realism of superheroes, Powers can be a bit silly in places. I rolled my eyes — hard — when Walker complained to Deena about power kids these days. And seeing superheroes on Extra (even with Mario Lopez hosting) or promoting their latest energy drink can only carry the show so far.
So far, Powers hasn't sufficiently milked the idea of Walker as a man without a tribe (which seems odd, given that the casting of Copley seems ripe for pathos), but in other places, we do see some legitimate pressures between the superpowered world and our familiar one. One of the more intriguing plot lines involves Krispin Stockley (Max Fowler), whose father, Walker's last partner, was just killed by a power — and the increasingly dangerous ways he deals with his grief. And then there's the curious relationship between street kid Calista (Olesya Rulin) and Retro Girl, which asks the question: What if Wonder Woman was real and an incredible symbol of feminine power, but also kind of a dick?
But it's the arc about how non-powers deal with powers — particularly in the context of law enforcement — that has real potential for payoff. Powers, we're meant to understand, can be vain and dangerous and unruly. But non-powered people are just as capable of cruelty, especially when faced with what they see as an innately powerful enemy. So far, the biggest, most horrible moments have come out of that storyline, and it doesn't even heat up until Episode Three.
So are we sold on Powers? No, not yet. If you're not already a PlayStation Plus subscriber, I wouldn't recommend joining up just to watch the show. But it does have some potential, as long as it keeps poking and the places where powers and non-powers don't fit together — and as long as it gives us more of the demented moments we saw in the show's third episode.