Powers Premier Review -
The first three episodes of PlayStation’s superpowered foray into the wild world of television aired on Tuesday. Adapted from Brian Michael Bendis’ award-winning graphic novel, the ten episode miniseries attempts to bring to life a world inhabited by heroes, villains, and the normal people trapped in the crossfire. Despite that intriguing premise, does Powers deliver a compelling reason to watch the seven upcoming episodes?
I’ll be upfront about my love of Sharlto Copley. I’ve really enjoy him as an actor since I first saw him in District 9 and in everything I’ve seen him in since. He has a great deal of natural charisma and something about him holds my attention. I should also mention that I’ve never read Powers and had relatively little knowledge of the characters and premise other than what was put forth in the trailers and general announcements regarding the show. Without further ado, here are my thoughts.
A few short minutes into the pilot firmly establishes in my mind that Powers is not for a young audience. A casual observer might take the words “graphic novel adaptation” and “superpowers” and make the mistake that Powers is geared toward children. It is not. Murders, of which there are several in the first episode, are grisly affairs with blood gratuitously spattered everywhere. As a related side note, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the director made use of physical prop blood rather than cheap digital blood effects.
The first episode gives us the building blocks for the rest of the series. Set in a world where people sometimes develop superpowers, casually referred to as “powers,” the show tells the story of Christian Walker (Sharlto Copley), an important agent who works for the Powers Division. Normal people can’t always rely on the superheroes to put a stop to a rampaging power, so the Powers Division are the first responders to powers related crimes. Walker is especially respected within the division both because he was once a power himself and because he personally put away Wolfe, one of the most dangerous powers in the world.
When a job pits average humans against people with extraordinary abilities, it often comes with a short life expectancy. Within minutes, we see an improperly restrained power crush the skull of Walker’s partner into a concrete support beam. Following that tragic incident, Walker is assigned Deena Pilgrim (Susan Heyward) as his new partner. During their first day together Walker and Deena are called to investigate the death of one of Walker’s old power friends, Olympia.
Beyond the violence, Powers goes some really dark places. A core plot element of the first episode involves a girl in her late teens performing oral sex on the much older Olympia in an effort to get superpowers from him, which we are informed can happen during “an exchange of fluids.” A core tenant of the show is that these characters, whether or not they have powers, are not Superman. They have the same vices and flaws as normal people. Everyone has problems and powers often seems to make those worse rather than better.
As the investigation continues, it becomes clear that Olympia’s death is only a small part of a wider criminal powers conspiracy that somehow involves the incarcerated and mentally unstable Wolfe. Walker and Pilgrim’s search for answers lead them to Calista, the young girl found at the scene of Olympia’s death, and a struggle over the girl’s allegiance ensues between the agents, a crime-fighting power, and a mysterious teleporting man.
I’m not going to venture into spoiler territory, because I think a large part of the appeal of a show where people have superpowers is that element of the unknown. Overall, my impression of the show was positive and, with episode three’s cliffhanger, I am certainly interested in watching more high-powered drama unfold.
My biggest worry after I finished watching the pilot was that the show wouldn’t be able to establish good chemistry between the characters. The first episode goes quite a bit out of its way to make the viewer understand that this isn’t an optimistic world in which all powers are heroes or even good-natured people. I like that approach. We don’t see many superhero properties tackling their worlds like this. However, the first episode ended with everyone angry and sad, which left a bad feeling in my mouth. Feeling bad after watching something can be a good thing if it’s driven by a purpose, but if that
purpose is just to establish the cruel realities of a fictional setting… well, I am not a fan of that. There were relatively few moments where it felt like the characters really cared about each other or had a few seconds of levity. It seemed that an overzealous focus on the gritty world might severely dampen my enthusiasm for future episodes. Luckily, the second and third episodes seem to ease off of the harsh corners of the world and spend some time humanizing the characters, aside from their anger and sadness. The grim setting is still grim, but by the end of episode three, you feel that at least the Walker and Pilgrim generally like each other, which seems to be the core dynamic that really needs to work well.
I found myself enjoying the writing in Powers. Characters feel like people who have histories, motivations, wants, desires, and lives that go on when they aren’t on the job. It isn’t always the best thing ever, but the writing is always functional. There are actual set ups and payoffs! We are given the means to understand why these characters are the way they are and we can understand why they react to new information in the manner that they do. Yeah, this is basic writing stuff, but a lot of the time even big budget shows and movies don’t worry about getting the basics right.
The flatter parts of Powers' dialogue are largely hidden behind great performances from pretty much everyone involved. Seriously, the casting director did a fantastic job. Sharlto Copley lived up to my expectations, surprising me with the near elimination of his Johannesburg accent. He expresses a wide range of acting talent and is generally fun to watch. Susan Heyward provides some much needed heart and subtle humor to Deena Pilgrim. Noah Taylor turns in a fantastic performance as an enigmatic teleporter, reminding me of a more active version of the smoking man from X-Files. I was also surprised to see Eddie Izzard go all out for the role of Wolfe (and I do mean ALL out), creating a fascinating portrayal that comes off half Wolverine and half Hannibal Lector.
One of the most admirable aspects of Powers is how well they managed to translate the world of the graphic novel into a live-action setting that feels real. Obviously, they had to do this without hundreds of teams of special effects artists. Recognizing that they wouldn’t be able to pull off sweeping superpowered battles, the production wisely limited their usage of CG effects. This works in the show’s favor, as it relies on excellent cinematography to highlight real people and locations. Powers is beautiful, aside from the occasional dip in CG quality. When viewers notice the special effect seams, they can prove to be a momentary distraction. However, a well told story generally matters more than occasional slips in graphical fidelity.
Some parts of Powers feel a bit rushed. A bit more time to learn about the locations and side characters before launching into the main storyline could really have benefited the show as a whole. There are also some strange editing decisions, quick cuts between rooms and scenes that I could nitpick about, but I don’t think that will really influence anybody one way or another at this point.
Powers has a neat premise, a great cast, and some really competent execution. It can be tempting to write it off as a police procedural with superpowers. True, the main characters are police and there are superpowers, but instead of investigating separate crimes, each episode is clearly building to an end goal. Relatively little fluff clogs up the narrative. Like I said at the beginning, Powers is definitely not for kids, but if you are looking for some mature entertainment and don’t mind adult themes and language, it is definitely worth checking out. If you’ve been on the fence about a PlayStation Plus subscription, here is another reason to consider subscribing on top of the free monthly games.
The first three episodes of Powers are currently available to PS+ subscribers and new episodes will be released every Tuesday.
Review originally appeared on www.extra-life.org 03/12/15