The Union of Justice has been keeping the world safe with their superpowers for over 90 years. But they kept it safe using a code. They never kill, they never interfere with politics and they should always care for others, even the bad guys. However, that code isn’t that popular with the latest generation of superheroes, who face off with villains powerful enough to tear through them like store-brand tissue paper. More violent times call for more violent measures, they believe. The Utopian, leader of the old guard, thinks the code is more important now than ever. The young heroes want to adopt an eye for an eye approach before they are all massacred.
You might say that the narrative I described might make for a good story. And it did–Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ seminal 1996 miniseries Kingdom Come. Unfortunately, Jupiter’s Legacy, which has just premiered on Netflix, is adapted from Mark Millar‘s 2013 take on the concept.
For those unfamiliar, Millar is a bombastic writer whose stock and trade has been providing his own over the top approaches on pre-existing comic book concepts. He is never one to shy away from attacking the big themes behind these stories, but he doesn’t attack them with the surgical skill of a doctor wielding a scalpel, but rather a serial killer waving a machete. We seldom get deep characterization, we get tropes with a Millar twist. So the series might be lodged in the “your mileage may vary” category before the first scene is played out.
The show doesn’t do itself any favors by following Millar’s one note characterization. Utopian, aka Sheldon Samson (Josh Duhamel) is essentially Superman. Lady Liberty, aka Grace Kennedy (Leslie Bibb) is a Lois Lane/Wonder Woman amalgam. Brainwave, aka Walter Sampson, Sheldon’s brother (Ben Daniels) is the man who is jealous of the affection his father shows to his brother. Brandon Sampson, and Paragon (Andrew Horton) is the son who can never live up to his father’s expectations and Chloe Sampson (Elena Kampouris) is the black sheep of the family trapped in a drug-fueled downward spiral.
Now, you might think that with eight episodes the producers might have had enough space to add a little depth to the characters, especially the younger heroes not based on any pre-existing archetypes. They might, if they hadn’t decided to split the series between flashbacks to when the Union got their powers and the present day. This decision causes a number of pacing issues. It is hard to keep momentum, because when either storyline gains speed, it switches to the other one. It doesn’t help that the flashbacks appear to be two episodes of plot stretched out over its half of the eight episodes and the present day plot lines raises interesting questions–some which would likely be more exciting to see answered than the narrative we get in the flashbacks–that do not get the time to be addressed. As a result, the flashbacks drag and the present day scenes leave you wanting.
The holes in the characterization are filled by whatever the actors bring to it. Naturally, the quality varies depending on the actor. Coming off best is Matt Lanter who plays Sheldon’s friend George Hutchence, aka Sky Fox. He adds a layer of nuance to the Jay Gatsby-esque dilettante, portraying him as deeper than his superficial shell would indicate. As such, he becomes the most interesting character in the show. Also faring well is Ian Quinlan, who plays Hutch, a modern day, non-powered hustler who tries to make his way in the criminal underworld. Not coincidentally, these are the two characters the series dedicates the most time to exploring.
However, there are a LOT of characters in the show, and not all of them get the showcase these two did. Most of the cast does well with what they are given with one notable exception–Elena Kampouris as Chloe. Kampouris approaches the role the same way a featured player on Saturday Night Live would attack a Liza Minnelli impersonation in one of their “Auditions” sketches. She brings a manic energy to the character that doesn’t jibe with what the way the story wants to paint the character. Chloe is meant to be a tragic figure. Kamporius plays her as a spoiled brat. As a result, Chloe’s trip through the gutter loses all its pathos and power.
As for the story itself? Well, it’s about as good as you can expect from a series that had its showrunner removed halfway through filming. Like I said above, there are a lot of questions raised that don’t get answered. There are also plot holes aplenty and many instances where the audience has to do the heavy lifting to help the narrative along. The writers run on the assumption that viewers are familiar with comic book tropes and expect that familiarity to fill in the gaps they leave.
However, without getting into heavy spoilers, where the series fails the most is in the reveal of the big bad guy behind the season’s events. When the reveal happens in the final episode, you’ll be asking yourself why he had to through such Machiavellian machinations to set his grand scheme in order, considering who he is and what his power set is. It is then that you will realize that the eight episodes you watched were simply a way for the creators to expand the narrative so the series can run for more than one season. When any form of fiction artificially manufactures a plot that doesn’t stay true to the characters and their reality, you lose interest in the story and you feel betrayed. They want you to be shocked and awed by the last second reveal, but you’ll just end up thinking that it’s stupid instead.
On a technical level, I didn’t really have a problem with the show. Yes, even the wigs and makeup that seem to draw the ire of critics everywhere. Are they great? No. Do the serve the purpose they are supposed to? Yes. But besides that, the special effects are first rate and effective.
The comic book trend of using established tropes has become a trendy sub-genre in comic book films and TV shows, starting, like it did in the comics, with Watchmen. If Jupiter’s Legacy came out closer to that flawed film, its own flaws might have been glossed over. But following in the footsteps of superior shows like The Boys, it comes up lacking.