There’s so much popular fiction DNA to be found in the new series Powers that it almost becomes sort of a game as well as a darkly colorful superhero melodrama. The basic premise feels like someone tossed Watchmen, Sin City, and NYPD Blue (or any high-end police procedural) into a blender, sprinkled in some gritty film noir tone and tension, and added a little dash of Silence of the Lambs before hitting the “mega-blend” button. And based on just one episode, the resulting concoction somehow turned out to be pretty damn tasty.
The difference between an homage and a rip-off is usually more than evident in the final product. At first glance, Powers might look like someone just smashed Heroes together with a cop show, added some gritty violence and some harsh language, and tossed it onto the airwaves for the ravenously hungry fans of cinematic/televised superhero fiction. But there’s quite a bit of cleverness on display here, and it sure seems like the storytellers are more interested in adding a new wrinkle to the “frustrated superheroes in the modern world” sub-genre than they are in rehashing the stuff we’ve already seen in Watchmen, Hancock, Mystery Men, and The Incredibles.
Plus, given that Powers is based on a Brian Michael Bendis/Michael Avon Oeming graphic novel that’s been running since 2000, it actually predates a lot of the properties it’ll soon be accused of stealing from. None of which even matters if the show is actually decent — and I think the pilot episode of Powers is pretty damn good. It’s mainly about a cop who used to be a superhero, but given what goes down in the inaugural episode, Powers feels like a sprawling superhero soap opera just waiting to explode in all sorts of crazy directions.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that David Slade (30 Days of Night) was enlisted to direct the pilot episode, but your introduction to Powers might run more smoothly if we simply run through the main characters.
Christian Walker a.k.a. Diamond (Sharlto Copley) — He might be a great detective now, but he used to be one of the world’s coolest superheroes before losing his powers to a creepy nemesis known as Wolfe. (More on him later.) In true “cop story” fashion, Walker has just buried his partner and is not all that thrilled about breaking in a new one.
Deena Pilgrim (Susan Heyward) — The new partner. Tough, smart, and sort of a wise-ass, she cuts straight through Walker’s gloomy mood and starts asking the questions the viewer wants answered. Like, “What’s it like being an EX-superhero?” Needless to say, Walker and Pilgrim don’t get off to a particularly great start.
Captain Cross (Adam Godley) — The man in charge. The guy who founded the Powers Division of the police department. The deliverer of copious exposition.
Calista (Olesya Rulin) — A pretty but clueless young “wannabe” who does all sorts of sordid things in an effort to attain some “powers” of her own.
Detective Kutter (Justice Leak) — Pretty much a jerk. I like him.
Dr. Death (David Ury) — A dry, impatient, and amusingly frustrated coroner who is fed up with how Powers keep messing with good ol’ reliable science.
Krispin Stockley (Max Fowler) — The justifiably angry teenage son of Walker’s recently deceased partner. Seems like a character who will be important later on.
Candace Stockley (Claire Bronson) — Grieving widow, mother of Krispin, potential guilt-laden love interest for Walker.
Diamond (aka Christian Walker, also: see above) — Presently does not have his powers, and at this point we’re not even sure what they were. (Probably imperviousness.) It might take all ten episodes, but I bet we’ll be seeing the return of Diamond eventually, which will make Pilgrim and Calista happy. Because Diamond is a girl’s best friend. (Sorry.)
Wolfe (Eddie Izzard) — Now here’s a super-villain worth watching! He’s chained up like a monster, he clearly has some sort of Hannibal Lecter-style connection with Walker, he has killed hundreds of people, he can somehow ingest the powers of Powers, AND everyone keeps talking about how he eats people! At this point Wolfe is just a caged animal (and occasionally an image in Walker’s mind) but something tells me this character is going to go through all sorts of, um, transformations. (Also: Eddie Izzard makes anything worth watching. It’s a scientific fact.)
Johnny Royale (Noah Taylor) — Looks to be the head baddie, and that’s just fine with me. Johnny has the power of teleportation, which doesn’t sound all that amazing — until you see how he uses it to kill the henchmen who make him angry. Seems to have a long and generally unpleasant history with people like Diamond, Wolfe, Olympia, and…
Retro Girl (Michelle Forbes) — Not much is known about Retro Girl at the end of episode 1, which is cool because it adds a dash of mystery when all the other characters talk about her in hushed and reverent tones. We know she can fly, and that she’s some of of global superstar who once had a romantic entanglement with Walker, bet beyond that we’ll just have to wait for the upcoming episodes.
Zora (Logan Browning) — A beautiful and apparently devious young Power who flirts with Walker, picks on Calista, and generally makes us wonder whose side she’s on. I love her already.
Olympia (actor unknown) — The formerly-awesome superhero who is found dead after having a sexual liaison with the understandably shaken Calista.
Iron Impact (Troy Brenna) — The shape-shifting villain who killed Walker’s partner/Krispin’s dad. Like Olympia, Iron Impact is also presently dead. (It happens in the opening scene! I just included the guy because I like his name.)
Zerotron X (Linds Edwards) — Goofy young Power villain who inadvertently gets two people killed by acting like an idiot.
Triphammer (Andrew Sensenig) — No idea. We know he used to be teamed up with Diamond, Retro Girl, and the now-late Olympia, but that band broke up a long time ago. Expect more from this guy later on.
Simons (Adam Farb) — A nefarious henchman to Johnny Royale who clearly has multiple skills. Plus he’s bald and that always equals evil in sci-fi stories.
Aside from introducing all these characters and setting the stage for the whole series, the first episode of Powers focuses on the mystery of Olympia’s rather distasteful demise, Pilgrim’s introduction to the world of Powers Division, and Calista’s unwavering commitment to becoming Power-ful, no matter the price. If this episode suffers from one (relatively minor) stumbling block, it’s that the first half is pretty much stuffed with long bouts of inordinately lengthy exposition, particularly one from Captain Cross and another from…Mario Lopez?
Still, it’s not easy to set up this type of universe in less than 25 minutes (and I’ll take two long “explanation” scenes over yet another full-length origin story), so Powers can be forgiven for front-loading its pilot episode with all the basic rules, themes, and narrative parameters. It certainly helps that what follows the first half set-up is a witty, creative, and unexpectedly dark mash-up of three or four genres we all know and love.
It’s easy to assert that we’ve got “too many” superheroic series going on right now, but fortunately Powers is not too light (The Flash), not too moody (Arrow), not too glossy (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and not too completely uninteresting to me (Gotham). Each of those shows has its charms (ooh, and Agent Carter was great) but the tone, the style, and the weird, cynical energy of Powers seems pretty appealing to me right about now.
Powers is available for your viewing pleasure on the Playstation Network.
Check back soon for my take on Episode 2: “Like a Power.” (Sounds like a Madonna song.)