When vigilantes are faster than speeding bullets and perps can destroy city blocks just by blinking, walking a police beat pretty much has to be the worst. “Some power gets out of hand, the policy was leave them the fuck alone, let a hero take care of it,” Detective Deena Pilgrim (Susan Heyward) says in the first episode of Powers, a new show in which the super-powered are also the super-viral and the super-famous. (Watch them sashay past bouncers in a single bound!) Which means that if you’re wearing blue, you also probably have a super-inferiority complex. If the skies are full of capes, who needs cops, right? Don’t tell that to the Los Angeles Police Department’s “Powers Division,” into which Pilgrim has just transferred, and where, according to its captain, “We don’t leave them the fuck alone here.”
Premiering Tuesday, Powers is the first scripted show on the PlayStation Network, the gaming console’s (and Sony Pictures’) entry into the crowded field of glossy, scripted, streaming TV, not to mention the crowded field of moody masks-and-tights adaptations. (It’s based on a long-running comic series by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Avon Oeming.) Like Fox’s Gotham, which is set in the pre-Batman days of Gotham City, Powers is ostensibly a police procedural with some superhero trappings. But in this universe, puny-human cops sometimes have to cuff criminals who can absorb the properties of concrete or channel electricity, and who rarely go quietly. Heroes—some of whom pop power-enhancing party drugs like Sway and accept blow jobs from “wannabes” hoping to get a dose of their powers—can’t always be counted on for tactical support.
The show’s antihero is Detective Christian Walker (Sharlto Copley), who used to be a “power” himself. He excels at policing superhumans because he’s lived in both worlds. In an early scene, we get his backstory from, of all places, a faux episode of Extra, with Mario Lopez explaining that Walker was once known as Diamond, that he was a high-profile hero, and that he lost his superhuman abilities in a fight with the super-villainous Wolfe, a former pal. These days, Walker sports a permanent eight o’clock shadow and keeps binoculars on his coffee table, in case a super-fight breaks out in the skies. When one does, he instinctually rushes toward his window, preparing to fly into the melee—until he imagines the voice of Wolfe (Eddie Izzard, chewing scenery with lots of saliva) bringing him down to Earth: “How does it feel to be powerless?”
That’s the question this kind of story is meant to ask, but it’s been answered more edifyingly elsewhere. Comics writers often present supervillains as superheroes’ clarifying foils, thematic opposites that expose the genre’s contradictions: Batman has to defeat the Joker, but his existence also makes the Joker possible. The more interesting, and less exploited, relationship is superhero and cop. Superhero stories are comfort fiction, but when police—fallible, relatable, taxpayer-funded, and responsible for cleaning up the superheroic damage—get involved, we begin to get uncomfortable. No wonder some of the best, most interestingly complicated Batman stories are about Commissioner Gordon.
The excellent Gotham Central—a comic series that ran for 40 issues in the 2000s and followed police detectives going about their daily business in Batman’s city—understood that dynamic. Issue by issue, case by street-level case, it prodded the idioms, hypocrisies, absurdities, and staying power of our superhero myths. Something kind of similar is happening in the fleeter, more escapist Arrow and The Flash, two ongoing series on the CW based on DC Comics characters. Both shows’ casts include detectives whose occasional struggles with the morality of abetting souped-up vigilantes undergird the title characters’ own exploits. But a truly deconstructionist superhero story, in the form of a slowly unfolding procedural, with a side helping of zaniness? I would have liked to see that show. Powers isn’t it.
What Powers is, from the start, is something stranger, more convoluted, and a bit grandiose (at least in the three episodes shared with critics). Early on, Walker is paired with Pilgrim, and soon they’re investigating the lurid death of Olympia, an aging hero who’s discovered with an exploded heart and something funny-looking in his blood. A few feet away is a shaken-up Calista (Olesya Rulin), a homeless, underage wannabe who, the audience learns, appears to have fallen in with a supercharged drug ring led by Johnny Royalle (Noah Taylor), a teleporter with skinny slacks and a taste for soliloquy. Possessing a clue to all of this may be Wolfe, now a federal prisoner who’s so dangerous his keepers have lodged a poker in his brain. And complicating it all further is Walker’s ex-girlfriend, the superheroine Retro Girl (Michelle Forbes), who, when not cleaning up humanitarian crises, is flexing her power in nightclub VIP sections.
All of that is set against two backdrops: a fascinatingly dire culture of wannabes and “powers kids,” who sign with talent agents, mug for viral videos, and generally deploy their superhuman gifts for social capital and self-aggrandizement; and Walker’s more-or-less ceaseless brooding over the death of a partner, the loss of his abilities, and the generally lamentable state of super-powered Kids Today. Unsurprisingly, it’s the morose second backdrop that begins to grate. Though it helps little that these costumed youngsters put the detective down with clunkers like “Your name is Walker—as in one who walks because he can’t fly anymore.”
The show does offer up some craftier digs at the genre’s guiding myths. Take the medical examiner Dr. Death, who hates investigating superhero homicides because those pesky powers defy known science. (Powers could use more humorous moments in this vein.) Or consider the heated moment in a nightclub that boils over when Retro Girl, approached by a wannabe, shoves the young woman away and yells, “Stop touching me and grabbing me!” Paparazzi cameras and the crowd’s smartphones capture the exchange, and Retro Girl, having initially arrived to deliver a message about strength, instead walks away, bested not by an opponent’s talents but her own PR blunder. Image-making, not ability—now that’s power.