Review: PlayStation's 'Powers' fails to take flight
Early in Brian Michael Bendis' career in comics, before Marvel gave him the chance to reinvent Spider-Man, Daredevil, the Avengers and the X-Men, he wrote a terrific autobiographical comic called "Fortune and Glory," about his struggles to get his early film noir-style comics adapted into movies. He runs through the usual inside showbiz stories of near-misses and ridiculous studio notes, but is also very open about how much he had to learn about the differences in writing for the page and the screen. (He's embarrassed to realize, for instance, that much of his dialogue is too dense to come out of the mouths of actors and sound natural.)
Bendis has been on a much longer and more convoluted journey with "Powers," the comic he and Michael Avon Oeming created about a pair of human homicide detectives in a world overrun by superhumans, and which debuts today as the first scripted series on Sony's PlayStation Network. (The first three episodes, which are the ones I've seen, are all available today to PlayStation users; after that, they'll appear once a week on Tuesdays.) "Powers" debuted in comic book form in 2000, and was almost instantly optioned for a movie adaptation that never got off the ground. Bendis later took it to FX, which took years trying to make it work, shot a pilot with Jason Patric and Lucy Punch in the lead roles, then tried to retool yet again before finally giving up.
Now — 15 years after the first "Powers" issue was published, and after several waves of comic book movies and TV shows — comes the PlayStation Network version. Adapted by Charlie Huston, a comics veteran who was part of the short-lived FX writing staff, it's illustrative of why such a seemingly simple concept — Bendis has compared it to "Men in Black" — took so long to put on screen.
The show centers on a pair of homicide cops, veteran Christian Walker (Sharlto Copley) and rookie Deena Pilgrim (Susan Heyward), as they investigate the murders of heroes, villains, and sidekicks, all involving suspects and witnesses who appear to put our human detectives way out of their depth. The catch is that Walker used to be one of those heroes himself, calling himself Diamond, so he knows the players even if the loss of his powers means he's no longer part of their game.
In the comics, Walker's superhero origin story was a background element for a while, and the main focus was watching ordinary cops deal with the insanity of godlike beings walking among them and getting involved in the same petty, violent nonsense criminals in other crime stories do. Here, it's introduced almost immediately — in a clumsy expository sequence featuring Mario Lopez, of all people — and made into the show's primary source of emotional conflict. Everyone knows who and what Walker used to be, and it's driving him nuts having to be so ordinary.
That shift might have been needed to land an actor like Copley for the first drama to launch on a gaming platform, or perhaps Huston felt it was a way to underline the conflict between the cops with their feet on the ground and all the mayhem happening "up there" with Diamond's old friends and foes. Whatever the reason, it doesn't work. It drives Copley's performance into a really mannered and angst-ridden direction, it makes Deena Pilgrim — the comics' foulmouthed, beloved audience POV character — into an afterthought, and it leads to every single emotional and thematic arc of the show being over-articulated as everyone asks has-been hero Walker about his former life.
For all the heat Bendis caught once upon a time (and still does from some comics fans) for wordy dialogue, the "Powers" comic rarely paused to explain the way its world worked, perhaps because it assumed that its audience had grown up on superhero comics and could appreciate how this title was tweaking and inverting the tropes by showing how Superman might actually be viewed by the people who had to clean up his messes. Superhero comic book adaptations have become a staple of the big and small screens, but "Powers" the show acts as if its viewers needs their hands held through an introduction to the world, and everything has to be spelled out to make sure nothing gets the slightest bit confusing.
Even with top "Hannibal" director David Slade doing the pilot, "Powers" also looks cheap and small. The show does interesting things with the way it depicts the power of teleporting villain Johnny Royalle (Noah Taylor), but all the costumes look ridiculous on flesh-and-blood actors (and are mostly not meant to be silly), and there's only occasionally the sense of scale needed to convey how big and scary people with powers seem to normal folk. It's a premise that's simultaneously tiny (cops investigate gruesome murders) and grand (these crimes happen to, or are committed by, people who fly), but the production really only makes the first half work, even though it's beefed up the prominence of super characters like Retro Girl (Michelle Forbes) and Wolfe (Eddie Izzard) in the early going.
Huston has at least captured the frank, R-rated nature of the comic, like a scene where a superhero's widow, warned that her husband died in a compromising situation, tells Walker and Pilgrim, "If he died licking coke off the tits of a groupie while her friend gave him a rim job, then yes, that was nothing new for my husband."
Sony, like most every entertainment company at the moment, is looking to produce exclusive original content that will make you buy or subscribe to their specific platform. Doing this kind of show directly for PlayStation wouldn't have been possible at the time Hollywood first tried making "Powers," but the show would have felt much more novel back then, and its flaws perhaps easier to overlook in favor of the little details (like how social media would function in a superhero world) it gets right. I don't know if it would have convinced me to pick it over a different gaming system (or buy one if I didn't game), but it would have been more exciting, at least.
Back when "Powers" was still in development at FX, that network's chief John Landgraf would get asked about it once every press tour. He would always seem amused that a project (long) in development kept generating such interest, but exasperated that they hadn't found a way to make it work yet. There's a potentially terrific show to be made from this material, but PlayStation doesn't seem to have had any more luck finding it than FX did.
If nothing else, it should give Bendis material for a "Fortune and Glory" sequel one day.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com