Counterpoint: Powerless Has Laughs and Some Serious Comic Knowledge, Too

By Evan Narcisse on at

I was sceptical about Powerless when I first heard about it, not the least of which because it sounded like a rip-off of Damage Control, created by the late, beloved Dwayne McDuffie. Plus, Katharine didn’t much seem to care for the pilot. But after watching the first episode of the upcoming series myself, I was totally charmed by its clever continuity references and superhero-centric humour.

The episode opens in the new fictional burg of Charm City during a quick fight between heroine Crimson Fox and villain Jack O’Lantern. As the Fox leaps around from lamppost to lamppost, Jack O’Lantern’s wayward explosive attacks are making parts of buildings and infrastructure crumble. One blast takes out part of the elevated subway that main character Emily Locke (played by Vanessa Hudgens) is riding to work. Crimson Fox saves the train car she’s riding on and Emily asks the hero if she could kindly throw the train on the other side of the damaged tracks so everybody aboard could get to work. The Fox grimaces through Emily’s impromptu speech and doesn’t answer, choosing instead to lob the train car onto a nearby parked car. From there, we follow Emily to work where we learn that she’s a claims adjuster at RetCon, an insurance company that specialises in policies that protect against superhero-related damages. A montage sequence shows a scene with giant space starfish villain Starro clinging menacingly to a water tower and a discussion over whether a Wonder Woman battle would be covered as an act of God, when Emily pipes up to say that Diana is a demigod. Emily loves being able to help people recover from the catastrophic corollary damage that happens from superfights and has a boss named Joe that’s nurtured her career.

When Emily gets to the office, her coworkers are revelling in the fact that Emily’s convo with Crimson Fox has gone viral on a TMZ segment—making her a hero for the common folk endangered by superfights. However, she soon finds out that her beloved boss Joe has been crushed by rubble in a superfight. The department’s new supervisor is Del Heller (Alan Tudyk), son of RetCon’s CEO. This smarmy silver spoon jerk says “when we pay out, the company loses money,” and immediately demands a 25% increase in denials by the end of the month. Emily pushes back and her resistance kicks off a campaign of terror by Del, with the loss of Bagel Wednesdays and the institutions of a no-chairs, standing-desk-only being blamed on the spunky central character. The drama gets neatly wrapped up when Emily sweetly gets the better of Del in a bit of perception turnabout where he can’t pass up admiration he didn’t earn. It’s here the antagonistic dynamic between them gets established as the show’s status quo.

Powerless’ reference game is surprisingly deep. Its opening credits sequence segment starts off with an image of Action Comics #1, panning over to a panicked woman drawn in the Golden Age style with Vanessa Hudgens’ name next to it. The sequence repeats the same visual gag with other old-school comics covers drawn by Gil Kane, Jim Aparo, and other greats, positioning cartoon avatars of the show’s cast as people cowering in background of the superhero vs. super-villain carnage.

It’s a signifier for how rooted Powerless is going to be in DC lore.Superfriends sidekicks Wendy and Marvin are reimagined as squabbling brother-and-sister workmates, fighting over whether glasses-wearing coworker Hank Detweiler is really Green Lantern. Del is shown chuckling over the Luthor biography from a few years back, while world clocks showing the time in Atlantis and Themyscira are part of the set dressing. Marvin slams Hank with a yellow, plastic-backed, wooden chair to try and find out once and for all whether he’s Green Lantern in a moment that got big laughs. When Emily is gloomy, Danny Pudi’s Eddie tries to cheer her up by saying “After the blackest day is the brightest day. ”There’s a lot of self-awareness with just a touch of raunch, seen when Christina Kirk’s Jackie groans lustily, “I wanna nail Aquaman so hard… He can breathe underwater so when he goes downtown…”

When the cast and director/executive producer Michael Patrick Jann came on stage, Jann made a point to say that the show doesn’t happen in “the Arrow-verse or Supergirl-verse or whatever.” Charm City is an underdog urban centre that’s not as glamorous as Metropolis, National City, or other metropolises. If the first episode is any indication, Powerless will be a funny take on superhero trips that other shows take very seriously.