Over the past two years, the superhero has been coming to our screens with almost predictable regularity. There are the large-screen dust ups involving the Avengers, and then there are the smaller screen encounters of lesser-known heroes such as Supergirl, Luke Cage and Jessica Jones. The TV series have been more critically well-received, with shows such as Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Daredevil marrying strong storylines and complicated plots with larger, ethical questions and superb acting. These shows have also made a strong pitch for diversity on TV, since the characters hail from groups that are too often underrepresented in the mainstream pantheon.
And yet, the tone of the shows has tended to fall into one of two categories: campy, shot through with tones of comedy (Supergirl, Flash, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) or noirish, prestige drama-influenced heavy hitters, the domain of the Marvel-Netflix offerings. While the dramas have paid some attention to the angst that comes with being a powered being in a dark world, the attention has been focused, to a great extent, on that staple aspect of the superhero story: chasing down and bringing the bad guy to justice.
Enter two new shows that effectively broaden the range: FX’s Legion, and NBC’s sitcom Powerless.
Legion centres around one of the lesser-known but more powerful mutants from the X Men franchise. In the comic books, David Haller is the son of Charles Xavier and a powerful mutant in his own right. With telepathic abilities that rival those of his father and his protégé Jean Grey, David, or Legion as he comes to be known for his multiple personalities (the product of his severe dissociative identity disorder), was often considered too dark to be included in film or animated versions of the comic. It’s no wonder then, that when he finally comes to the screen, some of the darkness stays with him. The first episode of the Noah Hawley-created show is set in a mental institution, where David (played by Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens) is recuperating after a breakdown, one which involved an apartment destroyed by telekinetic powers, and a suicide attempt.
Or did it? With every scene, Legion seems to remind viewers of the sheer unreliability of David’s point of view. As someone who is unaware of where his powers come from and what they are capable of, David is constantly on edge, unsure of whether the things he is seeing are really there and whether the voices he seems to hear are real, or the product of what his minders call his paranoid schizophrenia. It’s only when he meets Sydney, a woman who does not like to be touched, that he seems to begin trusting himself, letting his numbed mind awaken from a pill-induced haze.
The episode slips in and out of different timelines, flickering through sepia-toned flashbacks and vibrantly hued scenes in the institution, then forward to David in the present. It brings to mind the work of Darren Aronofsky, whose films are famous for their unreliable narrators, often made more so by drugs. There is a trippy quality to Legion that, much like Aronofsky’s films, underlines the grimness and sadness at its core. This is no campy superhero tale, nor the stark universe of Christopher Nolan and other Marvel shows. It’s a world where we are as unsettled as the hero. Dan Stevens captures beautifully the angst and sheer terror of his situation, as well as the moments of levity that arise when he speaks to fellow inmate Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), and the tenderness of his feelings for Sydney.
NBC’s Powerless is as far from this mind-bending experience as you can imagine. It follows the lines of a sitcom – 21-minute episodes powered by witty dialogue, set in an office space peopled by attractive characters from diverse backgrounds (the cast notably includes Vanessa Hudgens of High School Musical fame and Danny Pudi, Community’s Abed). The only difference? It’s set in the DC comics universe, where ordinary people have to deal with the fallout that results from the actions of superheroes and supervillains.
Emily (Hudgens) is an enthusiastic new recruit to Wayne Enterprises in Charm City (not Gotham, as the CEO of her new office laments). It’s Emily’s job to head the research and development team, inspire them to create products that will keep the branch relevant, and convince the conveniently off-screen Bruce Wayne to not shut them down. Emily is excited to be in Charm City, where costumed heroes regularly make their presence felt in the skies, but her coworkers have grown bored of these encounters, choosing to stare at their phone screens rather than watch yet another epic battle take place above their heads.
Powerless veers off the beaten track by making the standby characters – the people in the office buildings, on the streets and in the ruined train cars – the main act. Superheroes may cause the events that take place in the show, but we are more concerned with how these everyday people deal with them. Wayne Enterprises is tasked with superhero/villain-proofing office buildings, and dealing with the logistical consequences of their existence, such as insurance policies and early detection systems. For these people, superheroes are not a source of wonder or even admiration. They are a daily inconvenience that must be tolerated. The show is both a spoof of the genre and an eye-opener. Living in Metropolis might be exciting, but when you think of all those broken windows caused by Superman, or the daily fear of having your train hurled off the tracks by a crazed villain, the charms start to fade.
Both Legion and Powerless push the scope of the superhero show, one by forcing viewers to consider the sheer terror of these powers to the uninitiated, the other by spoofing it and turning the focus from the actors to those who are in the background. Legion relies on stylistic storytelling and heartfelt acting to create its disorienting effects; Powerless on the banter and absurd characters that are typical of the traditional sitcom.
With so many different moods and stories of the superhero genre on offer, it truly is a good time to be a fan. There is something for everyone, and with the greater push towards inclusion and diversity (Wonder Woman (March 2017) and Black Panther (2018), it’s only going to get better.