The World’s Strangest Heroes have joined DC Universe’s streaming service in a new series! (Sort of) spinning out of their appearance in the first season of Titans, this episode takes a dive into the origin stories of each of these heroic misfits.
One of the things I admire most about this first episode is that it shows that this series is determined to be its own unique entity, sort of mirroring the Doom Patrol themselves. It doesn’t quite jibe with the characters as presented on Titans and that’s fine. This pilot episode tells its own story and does a hell of a job.
Right from the start, the production value is astonishing. The special effects work is by and large pretty convincing, with super powers on full display and a genuinely suspenseful sequence involving a jet fighter. More than that, the show feels like it populates a real world, thanks to the casting of actual extras. This may seem like an odd point to make, but think about how many shows you’ve seen recently (especially lower budget series on streaming services) that have oddly empty towns or buildings. Even Netflix’s Marvel shows occasionally featured a bizarrely barren Manhattan. It was nice to see a level of realism here that added authenticity to the bonkers nature of the story.
The cast is the biggest plus to this adaptation. Without this ensemble, the show might not have had any chance of resonating with viewers as well as it does. There’s a gentle misery to Matt Bomer’s Negative Man, who’s not so much self-pitying as he is deeply damaged. Larry is a man who has never been allowed to be himself, both as a closeted man in the Air Force and as the bandaged mutation he has become.
We don’t get much of Timothy Dalton’s Niles Caulder in this first episode, but his even-keeled performance brings many more interesting levels to a character that could so easily come off as a generic mad scientist in the wrong actor’s hands. He’s nurturing, but manipulative, simultaneously embodying the best and worst of Niles as portrayed in various incarnations of the Doom Patrol comics.
As Rita Farr, April Bowlby’s lines are delivered in a very deliberate manner. There’s a poise to her that feels rehearsed, like it’s all that she can do at every moment to hold herself together. While Hammerhead gets the most spotlight in this episode of Jane’s many personalities, Diane Guerrero does an admirable job of making each side of Jane believable without chewing the scenery.
No, that responsibility lies with Alan Tudyk as our lead villain (and narrator!), Mr. Nobody. First seen as a power-hungry man with more money than sense, Nobody has the distinct “privilege” of being the only character on this show to have ASKED to become a freak.
Nobody has gained abilities that have yet to be defined within the series, but judging from the repeated mantra of “the only limit is the mind,” we can kind of guess just how powerful he is. Tudyk bites into his narration with relish, channeling an almost Bill Hicks level of detached, disgusted irony. His Mr. Nobody is what would happen if Dr. Manhattan went on a meth-bender, went to rehab, and then found out his rehab counselor was a secret meth dealer, such is his disgust with the concept of heroes and their righteous need to feel responsible. Nobody is also hyper-aware of the fact that he’s in a TV series, addressing the viewers directly and occasionally cleverly lampshading some of the goofier aspects of the show’s lore. He may be an evil omnipresent genius, but he was wrong about one thing: this critic, at the very least, loves this show.
One of the main reasons for that love lies with the final member of our main cast (at least as far as this episode is concerned), Cliff Steele, a.k.a. Robot man. Cliff is presented here as the heart of the story and by extension, the heart of the Doom Patrol. This feels just right, as Robotman is also the only character present in each iteration of the Patrol in the comic book world. Brendan Fraser lends a sad-sack quality to Cliff in the early scenes of the episode, but there’s a bit more lightness to his delivery in the 2019 segments, showing Cliff’s development and partial acceptance of this new version of his life. The fact that Niles has constructed Robotman’s voice from a drunken voicemail left by Cliff further reinforces the idea that, as strong as this robot is, he’s still come back from the grave more than a bit broken.
Riley Shanahan and Matthew Zuk, the actors who physically portray Robotman and Negative Man respectably, do admirable jobs in embodying these characters. Shanahan has an innocent, awkward physicality that perfectly captures Cliff’s uncertainty (and occasional rage), while Zuk carries himself like a soldier without a war to fight. There’s a wounded pride to Negative Man that speaks volumes, showing us a man who’s always wanted to serve the greater good, but who has always been sheltered or hidden in one way or another.
The comedy in the episode works too. Though the show is definitely geared towards an adult audience (even more than its sister series, Titans), this pilot doesn’t rely solely on foul language and over the top violence, although there’s plenty of that on hand, as well. This episode allows us to get to know the group and allows the comedy to come from character moments and their interactions with the rest of the world.
There’s certainly a bit of schadenfreude on display here, as we can enjoy these misadventures but would certainly never want to be in the Doom Patrol’s shoes or bandages. There is a delicate balance, though, in that we get the sense that these characters are not to be laughed at, but with. And they don’t want your pity (well, maybe Rita does), they want your kindness and acceptance. It’s this universal feeling of wanting to belong that makes these characters so much easier to invest in. Despite all outward appearances, they’re only human/Robotman. They’ve made mistakes and have learned from them, but now it’s impossible for them to reintegrate with society and lead normal lives.
There are a few little gripes I have with the episode. While most of the effects look great, some of the CGI in the Rita-blob sequence look a little fake, likewise with some of her transformation sequences. However, these changes mostly occur during some of the wackier scenes of the episode, so it’s not terribly distracting. Though I had issues with some of the practical costuming for Robotman in early teasers and his first appearance in Titans, those issues were resolved with this episode. The clunky nature of Cliff’s new body felt very important to the character, especially in the scenes where he learns to walk again.
There’s also a slight narrative leap that felt off to me. After Niles learns of the gang’s misadventures in town, he came to tell them that he believes they’ve drawn the attention of his enemies and that they all need to leave town with him. Everyone aside from Cliff agrees and we cut to them driving their bus out of the town. Meanwhile, Cliff wanders toward the town square. That’s when Jane says tell the team that they can’t just let Cliff “go in there” by himself. Everyone rushes off to meet Cliff just in time to face their future together.
My only issue with this is how they know to go there. The Chief says the bad guys are coming to town, not “they’ll be where you saved that bus earlier.” It feels like something was trimmed, perhaps part of Niles’ warning or a formal challenge from the baddies? It’s a small problem, but it did feel like an odd hiccup right at the episode’s close.
Minor quibbles aside, this is an exceptionally strong pilot. It’s insane to believe that this show even exists, let alone a version of it that wasn’t sanitized and simplified for audiences. Much like the title characters, we need to meet this show on its own terms, which is a challenge I will gladly accept.
What did you think of this week’s premiere? What do you hope to get from this first season? Sound off in the comments and be sure to join me next week when I review the second episode, “Donkey Patrol!”