What if superheroes were real? This is the question “Jupiter’s Legacy,” the new Netflix series, feels the need to ask (and try to answer) yet again.
Granted, there are different kinds of superheroes; the “Jupiter’s Legacy” superheroes are troubled demigods along the lines of DC Comics’ Justice League. It’s a vein a lot of TV- and filmmakers are currently mining — a ready metaphor for excessive deference to preening authority figures undeserving of our trust or attention. I wish the show did it better — or at least was as good as its trailer.
In the series, Josh Duhamel plays Sheldon Sampson, aka The Utopian, a Superman type who, when we encounter him, is devoting his life to three things: The Code (which, though not entirely explained, mostly seems to be “Please don’t kill anyone under any circumstances”); telling other characters not to swear so much; and being too strict with his 20-something kids, Chloe (Elena Kampouris) and Brandon (Andrew Horton), who also have superpowers.
Having read the source material, I do have some hope for the show if it continues to follow the original comics (and if it, perhaps, speeds up slightly in doing so).
The big question of the series, as in many, many others, seems to be whether a divine and omnipotent superhero — The Utopian, of course, looks like a himbo version of the Sistine Chapel ceiling God — can hack it in today’s modern world, with all its shades of grey.
But at the center of the drama seems to be a plot to undermine The Utopian by driving a wedge between him and his already more-or-less estranged kids, who haven’t taken kindly to years of their father’s no-cussing edicts or lectures about how everybody’s watching. And, though it probably doesn’t intend to, the show clumsily invokes the all-too-urgent question of whether authority figures ought to be allowed the discretion to kill dangerous lawbreakers on the spot — a debate that deserves a lot more consideration from the perspective of the victims than the killers, who are this show’s primary concern.
I say “seems” because the entire eight-episode first season covers only two-ish issues of the original 10-issue “Jupiter’s Legacy” series (and its 12-issue prequel, “Jupiter’s Circle”) with a lot of padding, which muddles both the plot and the intentions of the adapters.
The problems with the series point to a larger problem with how comics tend to be perceived by Hollywood and TV land.
The show might be better if there were room in the overplotted script for the actors to work — maybe it could even allow them a joke or two. The series, taking a cue from shows like “Lost,” unspools current events in parallel with the origin story of Sheldon and the rest of his original gang, and Duhamel is very good as his obnoxious Don Junior-ish pre-superpowers self. The flashback sequences definitely give him and his castmates more breathing space; Leslie Bibb, in particular, is much more interesting as his determined, loudmouth newspaper reporter antagonist than as the Marge Simpsonian wife she plays in the current-day sequences.
Having read the source material, I do have some hope for the show if it continues to follow the original comics (and if it, perhaps, speeds up slightly in doing so). There should be bigger things ahead for Ian Quinlan as the mysterious antihero and Matt Lanter as his absent father — the two most interesting actors here in the first season — and Kampouris, playing Utopian’s daughter, gives the impression that she’s capable of a lot more than just cursing forlornly and wearing sexy outfits.
But the problems with the series point to a larger problem with how comics tend to be perceived by Hollywood and TV land.
“Jupiter’s Legacy” is, in part, the work of writer Mark Millar, the seemingly inexhaustible one-man hit factory behind production company and publisher Millarworld, whose comics can read a bit like gorgeously illustrated spec scripts for the entertaining star-vehicle movies they eventually become. He’s half of the creative force behind the “Wanted” movie and the “Kick-Ass” and “Kingsman” film series, and a half-dozen Marvel movies acknowledge him by name in the credits.
Comics translate most easily to film when their stories are light enough to fit in the frame.
But comics are not just scripts written by guys like Millar and then fleshed out by whatever competent artist happens to be handy; they’re at minimum a collaboration between writer and artist, and, at their best, the artist is often the principal craftsperson. Millar himself is keenly aware of this: The partners who draw for the Millarworld comics get legendarily generous shares of the profits from their associated media — often far more than when their work on corporate superheroes gets made into big movies. (For the “Jupiter’s Legacy” comics, Millar partnered with the Scottish artist Frank Quitely, one of the four or five most technically gifted cartoonists alive.)
Comics translate most easily to film when their stories are light enough to fit in the frame. Millar is a master of the skeletal story, and in the best case, the style of a careful director can take the place of one of his talented collaborators.
But Millar has become a better writer since his most commercially successful work hit the stands: The self-conscious trendiness and edgelord politics of his earlier “Wanted” and “Kick-Ass” comics — which were both catnip to big-budget producers — were nowhere in evidence in the “Jupiter’s Legacy” comics, a genuinely thoughtful piece of work.
So “Jupiter’s Legacy” isn’t something that translates as directly to the screen as his earlier work; it has to be adapted by someone who understands why the story works in one form and how it can work in a different one. In trying to capture the thing that makes these comics work and put it in front of audiences in a live-action format — rather than to use the material as a springboard into a different form — that vital essence slips away.
Or it has for now, with “Jupiter’s Legacy.” As a partisan of the original work, nobody hates my currently low opinion of this show more than I do. But life and television contracts (at least sometimes) are long. I hope someday to eat these words.