In the first book of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol run, the world is overrun by creatures that can cut their victims out of reality. Doom Patrol leader Niles Caulder (aka “The Chief”) asks Robotman (a human brain in a metal body), “How do you propose to deal with the current crisis?” Robotman replies, “If we had any sense, we’d call Superman.”
They don’t call him, of course, and their team of exceptionally weird superheroes saves the day by confronting the equally bizarre threat. In worlds populated by many superheroes, there’s always a floating question about why more threats aren’t bumped up to the heaviest hitters. But Doom Patrol has a strong answer. When villains have the power to remove people from existence, or attack their sanity, it’s best not to send in heroes the world can’t afford to lose. Some threats are just too strange for Superman.
The “Doom Patrol” episode of DC Universe’s Titans introduced the titular squad as more rehab group than superhero team. After each member experienced some event that gave them extraordinary powers, but left them unable to fit into regular society, the Doom Patrol team finds safety in the quiet solitude of Caulder’s manor house. Bruno Bichir played Caulder as a manipulative mad scientist in Titans, but in DC Universe’s new Doom Patrol series, former James Bond Timothy Dalton has taken on the role, bringing in his experience from Penny Dreadful as father figure to a group of troubled, dangerous outcasts.
DC Universe only released the first episode of its 15-episode series for review, and that pilot largely fleshes out the backstories of the characters introduced in the Titans episode. Those stories span eras, showing that the Doom Patrol members have faced a particularly long road to recovery. Robotman (voiced and played in flashbacks by The Mummy star Brendan Fraser, with Riley Shanahan providing the physical work) was once hotshot 1980s NASCAR driver Cliff Steele, before an accident destroyed his body and Caulder built him a new one. Ace 1960s test pilot Larry Trainor (Matt Bomer) merged with a cosmic being and crashed his plane, becoming the perpetually bandage-wrapped Negative Man (Bomer’s voice with Matthew Zuk’s body). Rita Farr (April Bowlby) was a cold-hearted 1950s movie star before she was exposed to a chemical that turned her body gelatinous and made her Elasti-Girl. The show does a particularly excellent job with the combination of special effects and makeup that can shift Rita from looking like a perfectly coiffed old-fashioned starlet to a grotesque oozing mess to a version of the titular monster from The Blob.
All these characters seem satisfied with living in isolation, keeping each other’s curious company and engaging in mundane hobbies like model trains and knitting, until Crazy Jane (Orange Is the New Black’s Diane Guerrero) returns home. Physically intact but afflicted with 64 personalities, each with their own superpowers, Jane is the only Doom Patrol member who regularly ventures out into the world. She sparks an immediate chemistry with Robotman, using him as the wedge to apply some classic peer pressure and get the rest of the group to go on a field trip into town while Caulder is away. Of course it ends in disaster.
All these stories are stitched together by the droll, fourth-wall-breaking narration of series villain Mr. Nothing, played by Firefly star Alan Tudyk. “Critics. What do they know? They’re going to hate this show,” he says when sharing how Rita’s acting skills were dismissed in her day. Relentlessly making fun of the narrative and the characters in an ominous tone punctuated by evil laughter, Nothing is easily the highlight of the first episode.
While Doom Patrol pulls one scene in its first episode directly from Morrison’s first book, the show’s creator, Jeremy Carver (who previously served as co-showrunner for Supernatural and Syfy’s Being Human) is drawing from multiple versions of the characters, who were first created by Arnold Drake in the 1960s. The series earned fans across the decades for its distinctly counterculture spin on superheroics, but that novelty is lacking in the new show. All the characters are presented as barely twisted archetypes: the narcissistic actress made grotesque, the beloved all-American flyboy who feels like a monster on the inside, the weird goth chick who’s… an exceptionally weird goth chick. Sarcastic straight man Cliff is the most compelling of the characters so far, but even the emotional rollercoaster he rides in the first episode is undermined by the writers adding in one twist too many.
The most novel thing about the first episode is its visual style, which transitions across time periods. Mr. Nobody’s backstory feels like a 1940s noir, with its Nazi scientist and South American setting, while Cliff’s origin is shown in footage that looks bleached by the Florida sun. Rita is shown in pastel hues, with the footage switching to black and white when she’s being filmed. But in the present, the Doom Patrol is often shrouded in gloom and darkness, whether they’re standing in the rain or sitting in Caulder’s dimly lit manor. The diverse cinematography techniques should serve Carver well as the plot progresses, with the second episode taking the characters to another universe.
It doesn’t help that other shows have also nailed Doom Patrol’s themes and feel. Alphas provided an exceptionally powerful portrait of a group of people with superpowers who need therapy as much as training, while Legion covered the group of people with problematic and bizarre powers. Even the meta-voiceover narration gimmick has been done in The Tick. But Doom Patrol’s biggest competition might come from the comic book series’ most recent writer: Gerard Way. The Netflix adaptation of Way’s original comic book venture about a group of very weird superheroes, The Umbrella Academy, premieres the same day as Doom Patrol. That’s bad news for DC, which needs to convince viewers that its new streaming service offers content they aren’t going to get anywhere else. If Doom Patrol isn’t weird enough to stand out, DC is just going to have to hope that Superman, or at least their collection of Superman movies, can save the day.
Doom Patrol’s initial season premieres on the DC Universe streaming service on February 15th, with new episodes airing every Friday.