Superhero stories are traditionally about defeating villains, foiling outsized plots, then whooshing off in triumph. The genre has excelled at big wish-fulfillment metaphors about empowering marginalized people, from awkward, bullied teenagers like Peter Parker to the ever-evolving X-Men, whose persecution has made them stand-ins for everything from AIDS patients to gay kids. But dealing with racism is harder. The push for social realism in 1970s comics led to some heavy-handed moralizing, and while more recent titles like G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel have dealt with racial tension in a natural narrative way, they’re still rare compared to hero stories that would rather trade strictly in fantasy face-offs. Superheroes are fearless about defeating evil scientists and planet-eating aliens. Confronted with systemic injustice, the genre reacts as if it’s been exposed to a fiendish variety of red kryptonite that forces it to scurry off to the nearest beach and bury its head in the sand.
Sundance TV’s Australian superhero series Cleverman, now in its second season, is a striking exception. The show is set in a near-future where a group of indigenous Australians known as the Hairypeople have just revealed themselves to the world. Hairypeople are, as the name suggests, covered in animal fur, which grows back incredibly quickly when it’s shaved off. They’re also super-fast and super-strong, and they live about three times as long as regular humans.
Where the Hairypeople come from, and how they hid themselves for so long, is still unclear as of the second season. But humans, confronted with superpowered non-white people, react with predictable hysteria and racism. They confine the Hairypeople to an area known as “the zone.”
The first season’s arc focuses on Koen West, an indigenous Australian human who runs a bar and makes extra cash by betraying Hairypeople to the authorities. Koen’s uncle Jimmy is a Cleverman — a conduit between humans and the Dreaming. A fully powered Cleverman, the show reveals, can instantly heal his own wounds, see the future, defeat dragon-like heart-eating monsters, and put spirits to rest. When Jimmy dies, he improbably chooses Koen to succeed him. Koen resists at first, on the reasonable grounds that he’s a selfish jerk who doesn’t deserve these powers. But eventually, he accepts his responsibility, and the second season follows him as he tries to use his powers to help Hairypeople. Meanwhile, the human authorities gear up for various forms of genocide.
Cleverman distinguishes itself from the bulk of superhero narratives in its representation. Hunter Page-Lochard, who plays Koen, has an indigenous background. So does Rob Collins, who plays Waruu, Koen’s half-brother. The showrunners also cast indigenous actors as the Hairypeople. For example, Rarriwuy Hick plays Latani, a teenage girl whose small sister is killed and mother sold into prostitution after they try to leave the zone for safer housing.
Like the X-Men, the “Hairies” are a superpowered minority who are hated, feared, and shunned by normal humans. But in most storylines, the X-Men are largely white, and powerful enough to defeat efforts to quarantine or eradicate them. X-Men stories touch on discrimination as a way to add drama or depth. But they’re still narratives about white people successfully overcoming injustice. They’re racially comfortable stories that suggest oppressing white people is wrong and unnatural, and doomed to failure.
Because the Hairypeople are indigenous, Cleverman’s discussion of race and injustice is much more pointed — and much more painful. Human treatment of the Hairies isn’t a speculative fantasy; it’s simply an extension (and often not even an extension) of how indigenous people are treated. The Hairies are forced to live in a ghetto, side-by-side with other black and indigenous people. They face constant police surveillance and harassment. For infractions, they are thrown in prison, where they are humiliated and tortured. They’re called subhuman, and subjected to non-consensual medical experiments. Hairy women are fetishized and raped. Even supposed Hairypeople allies like Waruu dream not of granting them freedom, but of assimilating them. The government wants to shave off the Hairies’ hair, reduce their strength, and turn them into copies of the “superior” humans who hate, persecute, and abuse them. These plots parallel the stolen generations and forced re-education of native children, to a degree that’s barely subtext.
The Hairypeople have tremendous powers — but even those end up being dangerous rather than liberating. In one of the grimmest scenes in a very grim series, two white men pull a young Hairy out of a car. His attempt at self-defense only goads his attackers into beating him to death. Imagine a Spider-Man film in which idealistic high-school student Peter Parker demonstrates super-strength, and is promptly murdered by a mob. In Cleverman, even superheroes can be ground into submission by the dead weight of government-orchestrated violence and cultural hatred.
In mainstream superhero stories, the protagonists don’t need to fight the law, because they’re on its side. The X-Men are hated mutants, but they spend most of their time fighting other, more evil mutants on humanity’s behalf. Even Marvel’s Luke Cage, which features a black hero and mostly black protagonists, is leery about directly pitting its hero against police. In the show, Black Lives Matter is presented as a kind of boondoggle organized by the manipulative villain, and the only police shown directly abusing black people are black themselves. Cage’s final battle is against a black supervillain, who was responsible for unjustly imprisoning Cage. The story is set up carefully so that Cage’s conflict with law enforcement is about particular corrupt and confused individual police, rather than about a demonstrably slanted, fundamentally racist system.
In Cleverman, in contrast, anyone who defends the status quo, or works with people in power, is convincingly treated as actively betraying the Hairies. The government in the show hasn’t been taken over by supervillains, à la Hydra infiltrating S.H.I.E.L.D in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its spinoff shows. It just draws on actual official, historical racist and even genocidal attitudes toward Australian indigenous people. In Cleverman, the only moral place to be is standing with the Hairypeople.
And this is unusual, given the superhero genre’s bias toward the status quo, and its vision of a future that looks suspiciously similar to the present. In most superhero stories, amazing powers and innovative technology exist without changing the world in fundamental or structural ways. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, the main villain sells alien weaponry to bank robbers, rather than, for instance, patenting his new energy devices and becoming a billionaire to rival his greatest enemy, Tony Stark. Superhero stories are usually set in an eternal now, where no advance, no matter how amazing, changes the world.
Cleverman shows just how nightmarish this supposedly cheerful eternal present is from the perspective of marginalized people. The tomorrow of Cleverman is much like today — which means the dystopia for marginalized people has simply continued. More advanced communication technology and drones are used to keep tabs on people of color and target them more efficiently for imprisonment or death. Advanced genetic testing is used to separate “normal” people from those declared “subhuman.” Better weapons are used to more efficiently kill the same people that weapons are used to kill now. Progress doesn’t mean more equality. It just means hating more effectively, and building the ghetto walls higher.
Cleverman isn’t completely hopeless. Koen, who starts the series as a selfish, conscienceless exploiter, grows into his powers and his responsibilities. He commits to using his force blasts and Dreaming access to help the Hairypeople. Glimpses of an undiscovered Hairy stronghold suggests there may be a utopian alternative to the human world.
Overall, though, Cleverman so thoroughly undermines popular superhero-genre tropes that it’s a wonder it was made at all. Taking the experiences of marginalized people seriously makes the general superhero narrative collapse beneath its own preposterous cape. In Cleverman, injustice isn’t caused by a handful of supervillains; it’s built into society. Systemic racism, violence, prejudice, and genocide can’t be solved by one or two superfolks foiling crimes. This superhero narrative cares about evil and racism as they actually exist, and that’s dark enough to make Zack Snyder’s supposedly downbeat vision for DC look positively giddy.
And sure enough, Cleverman is one of the bleakest television shows out there, matching series like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Wire. But it’s also honest and committed to its own ideals in a way that superhero narratives very rarely are. Marvel and DC trot out nostalgia properties because they know they’ll sell; having familiar good guys defeat familiar bad guys is a safe formula. In contrast, Cleverman is that almost unheard of thing: a superhero show that actually feels courageous.