Spotlight Sunday (Kind Of) 5.12.19
The Spotlight isn’t back, exactly – I’m still mulling some options – but I have a thing I want to talk about, and today is Sunday, so…call it Flashlight Sunday. (Flashlight Funday? No? No.)
Anyway, what I want to talk about is a thing I’ve been talking about a lot elsewhere, so I might as well talk about it here.
That thing? Doom Patrol, the live-action series that’s airing right now (with two episodes left in the season) on the DC Universe streaming service, and there are major spoilers ahead for both the show and the comics upon which it’s based.
As a kid, I was only peripherally aware of the Doom Patrol, as the comic featuring the original team had been cancelled before I was born. My only real exposure to them had been via house ads for DC’s Showcase running in old comics for what was, at that time, a new version of the team. That new team had already faded into obscurity by the time I was reading comics with any regularity.
My first direct exposure, as was so often the case with older comics, came in the form of a digest collecting some of the original team’s adventures. I instantly became a fan, and hoped that they – or at least some version of them – would return to comics soon.
One thing that immediately jumped out at me was that this team of super-powered freaks, led by an older, wheelchair-bound man, seemed an awful lot like the X-Men, and the comic did, in many ways, read more like a Marvel comic than a DC comic.
The DP preceded the X-Men by a few months, but despite the timing, or rather, because of it, given how short a space there was between the two teams appearing, neither book influenced the other. However, the similarity to a Marvel book wasn’t entirely coincidental, as the DP was meant to be DC’s answer to the Fantastic Four.
While the comic was never quite as weird as advertised, it was a very different super-hero team book – from DC, at least – featuring disfigured and deformed characters who were more like a family, complete with much of the drama, dysfunction, and bickering that entails.
The team consisted of the enigmatic and brilliant Chief, the man who brought the team of misfits together and guided them as they used their abilities to help a world that shunned them for being different; Robotman, who had been world-famous race car driver Cliff Steele whose body was destroyed in a deadly crash, but whose brain the Chief saved and placed inside a robotic body; Negative Man, who had been Ace pilot Larry Trainor until an encounter with some strange energy in the upper atmosphere left him horribly disfigured, radioactive, and inhabited by a strange being composed of “negative energy” which had amazing abilities and could never leave Larry’s body for more than a minute without killing Larry; and Elasti-Girl, who was Hollywood actress Rita Farr, who was exposed to some strange gas that gave her the – sometimes uncontrollable – ability to grow to gigantic heights or to shrink to microscopic levels.
The team fought strange enemies such as the Brotherhood of Evil (another coincidental similarity with the X-Men), the alien Gaguax, and the Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man, and gained allies such as Mento, whom Rita would eventually marry (in his civilian identity as Steve Dayton, the fourth-richest man in the country), and the shape-shifting Beast Boy, whom Rita and Mento would eventually adopt (and who I knew at the time as the Teen Titan Changeling).
One way in which the original series proved to be unlike any other comic of the time was that when it ended, it did so with the death of the team, as the Doom Patrol sacrificed their lives to preserve the lives of the 48 residents of a small village.
The revival attempt in the 1970s featured a new team that included a woman who claimed to be the Chief’s widow, a Soviet woman inhabited by the negative being that had lived in Larry, a Vietnam vet who had gone AWOL, and the only surviving member of the original, Robotman, whose brain was transplanted into a new body built by Will Magnus, creator of the robot heroes the Metal Men. Their adventures didn’t last long, but at least they were still alive at the end of them.
I encountered the new DP in an issue of DC Comics Presents – which also featured the debut of another favorite character, Ambush Bug – and they (along with basically every other DC character) appeared in Crisis on Infinite Earths a few years later, before ultimately getting their own new series a couple of years after that.
That series didn’t fare too well either, and so DC decided to hand it over to a new, upcoming writer named Grant Morrison, who took the team in new, mature – and psychedelic – directions, and, like all of the writers who were part of the “British Invasion” did with the series they wrote, took it to new heights of popularity. This new Doom Patrol book, along with Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, The Sandman, and Morrison’s other “out there” comic Animal Man, eventually became part of the foundation of DC’s Vertigo imprint.
The series folded not too long after Morrison left, and while there were multiple attempts at reviving the series over the years – mostly pulling them back into the fold of the mainstream DC universe – they didn’t last long or have much of an impact on fans.
The most recent attempt, which had a bit more success, was part of the DC “pop-up” imprint, Young Animal, which was led by writer and My Chemical Romance co-founder Gerard Way who also wrote the new Doom Patrol comic.
And with that look at the history of DP in the comics, let’s talk about the show, shall we.
While I was hopeful – based mostly on some of the on-set photos I’d seen – I didn’t have a lot of confidence that the show would be good. The first original live-action series from DC’s streaming service – Titans – didn’t exactly inspire confidence, though it was a positive sign that the very best episode of the series was the one that actually introduced most of the principal cast of Doom Patrol.
However, I continued to have my doubts.
Until I saw this.
That haunting theme and disturbingly beautiful imagery had me hooked right from the start. There are few things in the world as unnecessary as the “Skip Intro” button that appears during the opening credits when I watch a new episode (or re-watch an existing one). I happily sit through it each and every time.
While the show leans heavily on the Morrison run, there are elements of it pull from virtually all eras in the DP’s decades-long history, and it performs the amazing feat of not directly – though it does sometimes – adapting from the source material but still managing to remain faithful to the source material in a way that few adaptations manage.
I think that part of it is that the show’s creators don’t shy away from the sillier, comic book-y aspects, but instead lean into them, and expand on them, getting to the core of what made them work in the comics and finding a way to make them work on screen. As much as I love the MCU, there are plenty of times in which they either ignore elements from the comics or put a lampshade on them and wink – or more often, I fear, wince – at them.
One of my biggest complaints about most comic book adaptations – the ones that involve costumed heroes, at least – is how, in the interest of showing off the bankable faces of their stars and to allow the actors to emote masked heroes take off their masks, often for no good reason. Doom Patrol manages to find a way allow its characters to emote even when their faces are completely covered in bandages or are nearly completely emotionless robotic faces. (Admittedly, for some of the characters we get standard views of faces via flashback sequences, but those are just a bonus more than a necessity.)
Of course, there are moments in which the show does provide some snarky commentary on some of the tropes and cliches of comic book properties, but even those feel like something out of the comics, as they’re provided primarily by Mr. Nobody (portrayed by the great Alan Tudyk), who serves as the primary antagonist whose abilities grant him a kind of fourth-wall-shattering omniscience that allows him to also serve as the show’s (unreliable) narrator. It reminds me in many ways of the kind of funny, sarcastic, and knowing editorial comments that frequently appeared as captions in comics throughout the years.
In terms of the plot of the series, the overarching, serialized narrative arc is that after decades of hiding away inside the walls of Doom Manor, the DP ventures out into the world. This, naturally, proves to be a mistake, and leads them into conflict with the villainous Mr. Nobody, who abducts his old enemy the Chief and begins subjecting the DP to intense psychological torture as they try to step up from being a loose assemblage of “super-zeroes” into a team of super-heroes to find and rescue the man who gave them all a safe place to land.
Along the way, in a much more episodic fashion than the heavily-serialized approach of the Marvel Netflix shows, we explore the histories and traumas of the residents of Doom Manor, learning more and more about the obstacles – many of them self-imposed – that they must overcome if they’re ever going to rescue the Chief.
This is where the show really shines, due in no small part to the phenomenal cast, each of whom breathes life into these lovable fuck-ups. Every single cast member is amazing, and I can honestly say that in thirteen episodes I’ve never seen a single bad performance from any of them. This is especially remarkable given that in some cases two people play one character (as with Negative Man and Robotman, who, except in flashbacks to their former lives, are each physically portrayed by someone while being voiced by someone else), and in one case there is one person who plays multiple characters. (The fabulous Diane Guerrero plays Crazy Jane, a woman with 64 different personalities, each of which has its own super power.)
It’s a character-driven show, and that pays off because they’re all great characters who are portrayed amazingly well.
The headline, of course, is Brendan Fraser’s return to the spotlight, portraying the voice of Robotman, and physically playing the human version of Cliff Steele in flashbacks. I’ve loved watching some of the publicity interviews Fraser has done for the show, as he’s very quick to praise his castmates, and in particular to sing the praises of Riley Shanahan, the actor who dons the prosthetics to play Robotoman.
I’m not a member of the community, so I can’t truly speak to it, but from what I’ve seen of the show, and what I’ve seen others say about the show, Matthew Bomer’s portrayal of Negative Man is some of the finest queer representation in mainstream media, made especially so by the fact that Bomer himself is an out gay man.
I was uncertain about the addition of Cyborg to the mix, but, as portrayed by Joivan Wade, his Victor Stone has been a fantastic asset, serving as something of a catalyst and foil for the team, driving and inspiring them to become something more than just a bunch of mopey recluses. At the same time that he’s raising them up, however, they’ve managed – with the help of Mr. Nobody – to kind of drag him down. At the start, Vic was where they should be, having made peace with the trauma that made him different and special and using that to become a beloved hero, but slowly, inexorably, he has started to end up exactly where they started.
(I could write another, equally-lengthy post about the dynamic of the relationship between Vic and his father Silas, but I probably won’t. Suffice to say it’s complex and fascinating.)
We probably don’t get enough of Timothy Dalton’s Chief – or perhaps just enough – or of Mr. Nobody, for that matter, but what we have gotten has, of course, been great.
All of the various guest stars and bit players have also put in amazing performances.
However, as much as I love everyone – particularly Fraser and Guerrero – the real MVP for me is April Bowlby as Rita.
Bowlby’s Rita is the quintessential 1950s’ Hollywood star, putting on a tough, yet feminine facade that serves as a mask for deeper feelings and hidden truths. Whether there’s a camera pointed at her or not, Rita is always playing to it, attempting to make sure the focus is on her good side, but under that mask of glamour and perfect elocution hides a monster, both metaphorical and literal, an all-consuming amorphous blob of endless need.
Or, at least, that’s what she thinks in her worst moments.
This Rita’s powers – or her curse – manifest a bit differently; when she loses control over them, which she does when she’s feeling stress, she dissolves into a giant mass of sentient Silly Putty. She has gotten some indication that she can do more with her elasticity than she ever imagined, and the team has found some – extremely gross – use for her abilities, but Rita still has a long way to go before she can really even consider being a hero.
In the most recent episode, however, we have seen her make some enormous strides towards that goal as we learn the dark secrets that had previously only been hinted at.
Even though I said there are spoilers here, I’m reluctant to share this clip, as the description alone is a huge spoiler, but I kind of have to, because even if you choose to never watch the show – though you most definitely should watch it – you need to see this outstanding performance (done at the side of one of our greatest National Treasures, the incomparable Ed Asner).
Despite her elasticity, Rita is a woman with a decidedly limited emotional range, and here, as she breaks down and tells her story, she reaches the absolute limit of it, and while it may be tropey as hell – which is part of the point – it manages to transcend those limitations even as Bowlby puts in a performance that remains confined within Rita’s limitations.
(Just the way she says the word “baby” absolutely kills me. I haven’t been that affected by someone saying a single word since Gary Oldman’s delivery of the word “I” in The Dark Knight. “We have to save Dent! I have to save Dent!”)
(Also, gotta love the snarky commentary from Mr. Nodody, which is a fine example of the way the show can seamlessly join humor and wackiness with genuine emotional resonance.)
There are two episodes remaining in this season, and fortunately, it has been renewed for a second season, but if this season – indeed, if only the partial season we’ve gotten so far – were all we ever got, we would be damned lucky.
(Of course, I do hope we get a little more explanation – as Fraser has assured us we will – as to why none of the cast appears to age. Rita and Larry in particular should be extremely old, Jane, despite being in her 60s, looks like she’s in her 20s, and the Chief should have been dead decades ago, but looked nearly exactly the same prior to World War I.)
Doom Patrol is a stunning accomplishment, and nothing I can say about it would do it justice or drive home just how spectacular it is. Even if it weren’t as good as it is, it would still be amazing given the way they’ve managed to take some of the most out-there elements of the Morrison run – Danny the Street! The Beard Hunter! Flex Mentallo! – and make them work in live-action is an accomplishment.
But seriously, you need to see it for yourself. Trust me, I know that adding yet-another streaming service is a pain, but as Gail Simone said…
And there’s plenty more to recommend the service. Lots of classic DC TV shows and movies. Young Justice: Outsiders, which is also amazing (and even features a DP cameo), and an ever-expanding library of comics, with a very good reading experience, even on a TV screen. (My one complaint is that they really need to add a lot more issues of Lois Lane and Superman Family.)
If you’re outside the US, sometime after the season ends Doom Patrol should be available on Netflix in foreign markets, so you can always check it out then.
In the meantime – and to be clear, I don’t get anything in exchange for being a shill, other than the satisfaction of being an evangelist for one of the best TV shows of all time – you can always do a free trial of DC Universe and see for yourself.
On another note, I should mention that The Spinner Rack is back up and spinning, albeit with some modifications to address the limitations of my hosting provider.
Said limitations are something that I’m going to have to do something about soon, and it would be a lot easier – in terms of money and time – if you were to take to heart the fact that…
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