There are a lot of superheroes in TV and movies. But NBC’s new comedy, Powerless, isn’t about superheroes. It’s about the normal people who exist around them. Like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., it takes place in a bigger universe and references larger-than-life characters. Unlike Agent’s of S.H.I.E.L.D., it references them consistently and takes place in a DC comic universe filled to the brim with wacky and iconic people. Though you’ll probably never see Batman or the Flash on the show, Powerless never shies away from their existence. Superheroes exist–bright spandex capes and all. And this time, you’re getting the A-List! Here we’ll be looking at the first five episodes of Powerless, to see if it’s a worthy addition to an already-crowded genre. Is NBC’s new superhero workplace comedy a winner, or should it hang up its cape early?
Powerless stars Vanessa Hudgens as Emily Locke, a recently-hired Director of Research & Development for Wayne Security. Yes, THAT Wayne Security. It co-stars Danny Pudi as Teddy and Ron Funches as Ron, a pair of inventors working on Emily’s team; with Alan Tudyk as Van Wayne, the bumbling self-aggrandizing cousin of Bruce Wayne; and Christina Kirk as Jackie, Van’s long-suffering sarcastic personal assistant. The cast is, without exception, wonderful. Hudgens’ relative youth is used well to sell her sometimes naïve, wholesome optimism, and she has no problem keeping up with the rest of the cast. Pudi, Funches, and Kirk all nail their comedic timing, but the real standout is, predictably, Tudyk. Alan Tudyk’s smarmy, selfish Van is an actual character from the comics, and a delight to watch on screen.
“The technical term is ‘space doctor’.”
For DC fans, it’s a bit unclear at this point which version of the DC universe Powerless takes place in. It’s not the TV-centric Arrow-verse, nor is it the cinematic DCEU. Powerless seems to be set in the comic universe, but from there it’s unclear if it’s a silver age facsimile, a post-crisis modern DC, or the current New-52. Perhaps this will be answered definitively in future episodes. But for now, it’s not important. This show pulls from all corners of DC’s eclectic history, and the specifics never matter. While this can sometimes come off as cheap fan-service, most of the time it’s a fun wink and nod. Yes, that’s Batman’s Batarang. Yes, those are the Riddler’s henchmen. No, you won’t be seeing Batman or the Riddler here.
As a half-hour workplace comedy, Powerless isn’t the funniest. Part of this is the format: it’s wholesome and colourful, with bright hopeful characters in light situations. The dialogue, however, is often biting and sarcastic, with dark jokes contrasting the bright aesthetic. In this sense, it’s a bit like Community, which might have been a deliberate creative decision. It also helps that both shows feature Danny Pudi. But unlike Community, the characters are often under-utilized, and several jokes land flat each episode. Luckily, though, Powerless often uses its comic setting to pick up the slack when the humour falters. When the show has fun with DC mythology, it’s an absolute blast.
“You don’t know Aquaman.”
While the series premiere was a bit of a saccharine pain, the show picks up quickly. From the Atlantis-centric third episode, ‘Sinking Day’, to the icy ‘Cold Season’, the show seems to find its footing. In ‘Emily Dates a Henchman’, when Emily finds out that she’s dating one of the Riddler’s henchmen, it’s hilarious. Powerless is at its best when it takes moments like these and extrapolates them for comedy. “Doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy. Just means he’s a bad guy,” one character tells her, while another compares dating henchmen to dating bass players (everyone does it once!). Many of these jokes could work in any superhero universe, but the DC comics setting makes them sing.
Still, five episodes in, Powerless is still far from perfect. Episode 4 mentions that Emily has been working at Wayne Security for six months. That’s six months in four episodes, with almost no character growth in between. Two weeks pass in that same episode, with little mention. This is a common problem with TV and movies nowadays–the rush to establish meaningful relationships before the audience has a chance to feel them. While the cast and comedy work well, the constant focus on Emily’s need for friendship and approval only forces these issues. The escalation isn’t coming naturally, and character relationships suffer. Still, this is early on, and an easy fix for later episodes.
“I had this made by my rubbersmith.”
DC comics fans will enjoy the well-crafted references and loving jabs at the source material. Little nods to the creators, like Marv Wolfman in episode 3, really go a long way. And I’m happy to say that the characters are all likable enough for me to stick it out till the season’s end. Powerless hasn’t been renewed by NBC yet, and they still haven’t confirmed how many episodes will be in the first season. We’ll follow-up with Part 2 of our Powerless Season 1 review when that happens, and give you our final thoughts. For now, Powerless is a charming superhero workplace comedy, and fills a niche in the marketplace that wasn’t really being met. Yes, it’s entertaining to hear characters mention Bruce Wayne, but it’s even more entertaining to hear his feckless cousin badmouth him behind his back. Powerless is certainly something special.
My Rating: 7/10