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‘Powerless’ Is a Bright Spot in DC’s Dark Universe

The NBC sitcom swaps crumbling cities for office high jinks

(NBC)
(NBC)

Superheroes can be allegories for puberty, or women’s liberation, or Cold War–era nuclear anxiety. They can be dour, or snarky, or achingly sincere — once you wrap someone in a neon bodysuit and say they live in a world where spandex’d crime fighting is socially acceptable, anything is possible. But over the past decade’s explosion of superhero movies and TV shows, our heroes have mostly just blown things up.

“There’s a scene [in Batman v. Superman] where Batman’s flying around in his car, chasing some bad guy, and he sideswipes a car that’s parked and just fucks it up completely,” says Justin Halpern, co-showrunner of NBC’s new show Powerless. (Disclosure: Halpern has contributed to The Ringer.) “It’s like, well, why don’t we tell the story of the guy who comes out and his car’s all fucked up?” So Powerless follows the civilian employees of Wayne Security, a firm tasked with finding technological means for citizens to deal with the superhero-caused chaos around them. (Guess which Gotham City billionaire owns the parent company?) The premise is a direct, if good-natured, commentary on one of contemporary blockbusters’ more commonly criticized blind spots: incomprehensible mass destruction consigned to the background. But Powerless isn’t just a corrective — it’s also a refreshing take on the genre.

In an overcrowded age of both television and comic-book properties, a superhero show that’s funny — and not about superheroes — makes a fatigued fan’s ears perk up. Comedy is a quality sorely lacking in the expanded DC Comics universe; so are looks at what life is like for the vast majority of people who are neither heroes nor villains. The high-concept perspective-flipping feels right at home at NBC. The network just wrapped up the first season of one of the knottier sitcoms ever to air on network television, part of an ongoing effort to rehabilitate its comedy brand. (Powerless even takes The Good Place’s spot on the network’s Thursday night schedule.) The approach feels unexpected coming from DC, which produces Powerless via Warner Bros. Television. DC’s bread-and-butter movie universe has tripled down on steel-and-exploding-concrete angst, starting with Superman and continuing through Suicide Squad, while the comics publisher’s biggest rival dedicated an entire movie to addressing collateral damage. Meanwhile, much of DC’s Greg Berlanti–helmed Arrowverse on the CW gets lighthearted escapism right, suggesting that these stories can work in brightly colored installments. Powerless pushes the tone even further, straight into parody.

The intent isn’t to skewer DC’s entire ethos, says Halpern. “I think the funniest version of this show is what it’s like for a normal person to live in this world, not, ‘Hey, let’s poke fun at Batman or Superman.’ That would get really old.” The characters’ heartfelt enthusiasm for superheroes and their work bleeds into the show, which keeps Powerless insightful without being mean-spirited. It’s a crucial distinction from satire like Deadpool, a blockbuster hit that was openly dismissive of genre tropes even as it inhabited them. Powerless proves it’s possible to rib from a place of affection. When Batman debuts a new gadget suspiciously similar to a Wayne Security device and the gang blithely chalks it up to great minds thinking alike, the joke is a playful acknowledgement of comic-book unreality, not a dig at these dummies for being unable to figure out the connection. The optimism of Powerless gives it license to point out some of the genre’s more obvious holes.

Caped crusaders aside, the Powerless ensemble adheres to the time-tested office sitcom template: the chipper project manager (Vanessa Hudgens, with Kimmy Schmidt–like intensity), the checked-out boss (Alan Tudyk, fresh off Rogue One), the know-it-all smart aleck (Danny Pudi, transitioning into the post-Community phase of his career), the wide-eyed whiz kid (insanely winning stand-up Ron Funches). But these days, plain-and-simple workplace comedies have a harder time making it to series. DC works as a Trojan horse as much as an inspiration. “One thing about TV right now is that if you just have a fun idea for a show that’s not high concept, unless you are one of, like, 15 producers working in the business today, you’re fucked. There’s 450 shows out there,” Halpern says. “[Executives] feel like, as a TV business, the only way we can launch something is if it has a promotable quality to it — it has a big concept to it. If you tried to pitch Friends right now, there’s not a chance in hell it’d ever be made.” Nothing says “promotable quality” louder than Bruce Wayne, even if he only shows up via text message.

Superhero TV shows most frequently find success when they piggyback on preexisting formats — The Flash to the procedural, Jessica Jones to noir. Powerless uses one of the highest-concept hooks on the market to smuggle in one of the lowest-concept and dependable dynamics television has to offer. The resulting hybrid has some of the best of both worlds, channeling the shock and awe of its setting into a genuinely fun arrangement built to last multiple seasons, ratings allowing. And if it can do all that while also working in a winking mea culpa for decades of superhero-caused destruction, so much the better. “As a comedy writer, it’s hard to watch those movies and not think about all the jokes that live in that place,” Halpern says. “There’s humor in a lot of the superhero films, but never in that direction. It felt like a new place to make jokes.”