Every major studio in Hollywood wants what the Marvel Cinematic Universe has. A once-unprecedented and undeniably successful multibillion-dollar enterprise, it seems the only thing that can slow down its steady march of pop culture dominance is a pandemic. But most of the MCU imitators want to reap the same rewards without doing all of the intricate planning that is essential to the original. (I find Marvel movies hit-and-miss, but the fact that the MCU hivemind spent a decade-plus patiently building up to Avengers: Endgame is no small feat.) There’s a particular kind of schadenfreude that comes from seeing the implosion of wannabe cinematic universes; the ill-conceived and very short-lived “Dark Universe” from Universal will always have a special place in my heart. But the underplanned universes are calling from inside the house.
Welcome to the tragicomic tale of “Adventure Into Fear.” Once upon a time, Marvel Television—the same folks responsible for the Marvel series, like Daredevil, that existed on Netflix—had hopes of creating a horror-themed extension of the MCU with, ideally, some tangible connections to the main films. These shows would live on Hulu and feature gnarly heroes like Ghost Rider, who was previously introduced on ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Sadly, the new Ghost Rider had no connection to the iconic Nic Cage–starring Ghost Rider movies.)
But “Adventure Into Fear” ended up having, somehow, an even shorter shelf life than the Dark Universe. Since then, Marvel Television has been folded into Marvel Studios. (The “Adventure Into Fear” announcement and subsequent shuttering of Marvel Television all took place within a year.) The main priority for Marvel on the small screen is now its Disney+ shows, the first of which, WandaVision, will debut at the end of the year. Ghost Rider was canceled, and all the other Marvel Television–produced shows that stuck around through 2019—The Punisher and Jessica Jones on Netflix; The Gifted on Fox; Runaways on Hulu; Cloak & Dagger on Freeform—have since ended their runs. When WandaVision premieres on Disney+, a new era of Marvel on the small screen will begin—one that will feature actual A-listers from the MCU and have meaningful connections to the films.
But for the time being, that leaves Helstrom in an awkward place. “What the fuck is Helstrom?” you ask. Well, it’s the last holdover from the Marvel Television days, and it’s coming to Hulu on Friday. Since its entire reason for being no longer exists—Helstrom was supposed to kick-start “Adventure Into Fear”—the series is in a bizarre purgatory. Helstrom hasn’t officially been canceled, but its production company is effectively dead and the show’s barely being marketed as a Marvel entity. Talk about feeling unwanted.
But even if Marvel wants to pretend it has nothing to do with Helstrom, that’s not how these things work! In fact, you’d think that the company would want to play up its association with the show, considering 2020 will be the first time in over a decade that a Marvel movie hasn’t been released in theaters. It’s hard to classify anything under the Disney umbrella as a plucky underdog, but Helstrom being tossed aside as an unceremonious content dump stripped of Marvel branding is more than a shade disrespectful. I haven’t seen this sort of casual indifference outside of Los Angeles Chargers home games.
Having seen five episodes of Helstrom, though, I’m starting to see why Marvel wants to pull a Mariah Carey. This show is bad—and not even in an interesting, dumpster-fire type of way. Helstrom follows siblings Daimon (Tom Austen) and Ana (Sydney Lemmon) Helstrom, whose personal demons are literal. You see, their mother, Victoria (Elizabeth Marvel; uh, no relation) has been institutionalized since they were small children, possessed by a demonic entity that is slowly draining the life from her body. Things with their dad aren’t much better: He’s a prolific serial killer who died but somehow come back to life after laying dormant for decades. Their traumatic upbringing has also led them to try to make the world a better place: Daimon helps priests exorcise demons when he isn’t teaching ethics (lol) at a university, and Ana, apparently inspired by the news of a Dexter revival, hunts down and kills evil men like her father.
Based loosely on their comic book counterparts—Daimon and Satana Hellstrom; yes, with two Ls—it’s not exactly a spoiler to say that their dad might be a bit more than a regular serial killer. In the Marvel comics, Daimon goes by another, somewhat less subtle, name: Son of Satan. If not literally the Devil, then it’s evident that their father at least has some supernatural ties, especially since Daimon and Ana both have psychic powers. But while a series about Satan’s children hunting demons and confronting their evil dad sounds interesting on the surface, Helstrom belongs in the bottom tier of TV’s recent obsession with demonic entities.
Seriously, we’re living in a golden age of hellish television. To name a few: Fox made an Exorcist TV series; the first season of American Horror Story ended with Jessica Lange raising the spawn of Satan; AMC’s Preacher treated hell like a bureaucratic nightmare; CBS has one season and counting of the excellent Evil; and Netflix has a crime procedural called Lucifer where, yes, the Devil becomes a consultant for the LAPD. Then there’s shows like Supernatural—which is somehow still on, currently airing its 15th (!) and final season—that also dabble with angels and demons. Supernatural is probably the closest antecedent to Helstrom, given that both shows deal with moody siblings whose upbringings were shaped by demons. (In Supernatural’s case, the Winchester brothers’ mother is killed by a yellow-eyed demon named Azazel, but don’t worry, Lucifer himself eventually shows up in Season 4.)
But Helstrom doesn’t really have an identity; it struggles to decide whether it wants to be a supernatural procedural, a traditional comic book adaptation, or something a bit more experimental, à la Legion. It would actually be cool if a Marvel show embraced horror elements, but aside from the occasional grisly imagery of dismemberments and one-eyed skulls, the show doesn’t live up to that promise, either. Helstrom is so sufficiently bland and full of muted tones that the series feels like an unintentional roast of Portland, Oregon, where the action’s supposed to take place. (The show was actually filmed in Canada.) It’s not enough for it to be a stylistic departure from other Marvel series, because it doesn’t do anything else interesting. Helstrom fails on every front.
And so that’s how the Marvel Television era ends: not with a bang, but more of a half-shrug. (A proper mic drop would’ve been the final season of Daredevil, which kicked serious ass.) We’ll never know what the “Adventure Into Fear” small-screen universe would’ve looked like in full swing, but if Helstrom was any indication, it wasn’t headed anywhere promising. When your project makes the Dark Universe look like a compelling and thought-out experiment, you’ve done something very wrong. Befitting the show’s material, I don’t think anyone at Marvel will mind exorcising Helstrom from the rest of its catalog—or the rest of the frustratingly inconsistent slate from Marvel Television, while we’re at it.