Powers episodes 1-3 review: Pilot, Like A Power, Mickey Rooney Cries No More

Powers is a new comic book show, exclusive to PlayStation Network. Our thoughts, both spoiler-filled and spoiler-free, are here…

Warning: there are spoilers later on, but we’ll warn you before we get into them.

First coming into existence in the year 2000, Powers is an on-going comic book by writer Brian Michael Bendis (credited, perhaps most famously, with being the artichect of Marvel’s Ultimate universe) and artist Michael Avon Oeming (known for Bluntman And Chronic and a host of Marvel work).

Powers (originally an Image comic, now owned by Marvel’s Icon imprint), is the story of two detectives – Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim – based in the ‘Powers’ Division of the police force in a world where superheroes and their equally powerful villains are commonplace. Both characters’ pasts come into play in interesting ways, and the chemistry between them is a thing of beauty.

Now, Sony Pictures have made Powers into a live action series starring District 9’s Sharlto Copley as Walker, relative newcomer Susan Heyward as Deena, Submarine’s Noah Taylor as teleporting villain Johnny Royalle and comedian Eddie Izzard as the big bad cannibal known as Wolfe.

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The home for the show is PlayStation Network, with PlayStation Plus members getting the entire season for ‘free’ as part of their paid subscription package. The first three episodes premiered in the States earlier this week, so what do we think?

We’ll give you some spoiler-free thoughts first, for those who haven’t seen it yet, before looking a little closer at the three opening episodes…

Spoiler-free thoughts

Undoubtedly, there are facets of Powers that it’s hard not to like. In the pilot alone there were laughs, dark moments and a tense action sequence involving three of the main characters that brought the episode to a strong conclusion.

The casting is spot on, for our part, with Oleysa Rulin’s wannabe hero Calista (differently introduced than the Calista of the comics, but possibly headed in a similar trajectory) already looking like a breakthrough star with plenty of charisma on offer.

However, if Powers is among your favourite comics of recent years, or you had been anticipating the show as a potential beloved series for other reasons (Mr Copley, perhaps), we’d warn you to try and keep those expectations out of your mind as you watch the first three episodes. Like a few comic book TV shows of recent years (see: Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., Gotham, Constantine) Powers hasn’t quite worked out what it wants to be yet in its first few episodes.

In truth, the pilot comes across as an attempt to throw spaghetti at the wall to see which bits are cooked, and which need a bit more time on the hob before serving up. After 55 minutes, you can expect to have had all these things lobbed at you: protagonist backstory, haunting flashbacks, two main villains, lots of death, one return from death, a mysterious drug, random supporting character introductions, and a very forward spelling out of things to come (we’d recommend skipping the trailer at the end, which isn’t very shy about the show’s direction).

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It’s a shame, considering that Powers’ debut comic book run (entitled Who Killed Retro Girl?) did such a fine job of introducing new readers to a world full of superheroes and detectives through one core investigation that characters dipped in and out of. On screen, though, there’s not yet a similar coherency.

There is certainly potential here, though, and Copley and Heyward embrace their altered versions of Walker and Pilgrim with a good douse of chemistry and comic timing shared between them, handily breaking up the plot overkill.

Having seen episodes two and three as well, we’d say two is the best of the bunch so far. Therefore, we’d urge you not to switch off yet if the pilot doesn’t impress you much.

From here on out, we’re going to analyse the opening three episodes with spoilers. Consider yourself warned…

 

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Episode 1 review: Pilot

So, here begins the difficult task of trying to give Powers a fair review without being unfair based on the superior enjoyment found in reading the comics. As mentioned in the spoiler-free section, the comic Who Killed Retro Girl? was a far more effective way of introducing the world of Christian Walker, Powers Division, Deena and even Royalle than the TV pilot managed.

In the comics, the death of Retro Girl gives the story focus. Walker and Deena don’t have time to stand around discussing their pasts yet; they’re too busy trying to solve the case. Nor do they have time to meet Wolfe, go to parties, visit families or learn too much about Royalle’s operation. There were things we didn’t know in the comics, which made it more interesting.

On telly, though, the death of Olympia (subbed in so Retro Girl can become a recurring character) doesn’t have the same effect. The media doesn’t seem to care much, and is only really shown in one celebrity-news-esque clip at the start off the show. It’s a shame, because the representation of newsgathering in the comic was a very strong side strand.

As a result, the show begins in a way that lacks much tension, structure or mystery. Olympia died, and the audience know where the drugs came from that killed him. What’s the show’s focus then? While Royalle’s drug operation seems to be the answer, we can’t help feeling that surely it should be Walker.

Again, though, too much information regarding Walker is just chucked randomly at the audience – we know already that he used to be Diamond, we know who took his powers, we know who he used to date, and we were even overtly told that Royalle is plotting to kill him. It would have been nice to actually get to know the guy before his life story was spelled out.

With all this exposition, not much is injected into the narrative to actually get us to care about Walker. The scenes where Izzard’s Wolfe haunts his memories are probably meant to have this effect, but actually achieve little more than filling time. It’s telling that said device has disappeared since. Instead of a stoic enigmatic detective, Walker has become more of a washed up celebrity sometimes cursed with creepy flashbacks, which is simply less engaging.

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At this point, Deena (with her ‘chin-pubes’ slam still intact) and Calista (quirkily intriguing) seem the most interesting characters, and the Retro Girl rescue was the only real moment of tension. Going forward, though, things get a little better…

 

Episode 2 review: Like A Power

When you’ve just watched the Powers pilot, and you see that the next episode title seems to be a Madonna reference, it’s easy to be worried. However, after the ‘previously on Powers…’ montage reminded us of the unnecessary stuffed-ness of the pilot, things thankfully started to improve.

From the off, it seems like we’re being given a minute to breathe at last. Walker wakes up on that rooftop by a kindly old man reminiscing about the good old days. At this point, it seems as if Like A Power might actually make a better pilot episode than the pilot itself. Referring to past events, rather than spelling them out repeatedly, has already cultivated a bit of mystery. Not a minute too soon, either.

Then, we jump to Deena and some Powers-based action in the park. More so than the pilot, we are now actually seeing some Powers in action with something more interesting than flying or super strength. The little fight with Zerotron X, and the ‘rookie mistake’ conversation it enables, truly helped install some more faith in the show, for this writer at least.

Getting to meet Michelle Forbes’ Retro Girl certainly livened things up a bit, too, giving wannabe hero Calista a hint that meeting her heroes might not actually be that much fun. Forbes brings enigma, presence and a slight sprinkling of untrustworthiness to the role, making us thankful for the first time that she has been kept from her comic book fate for the foreseeable future.

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Royalle is given something slightly more interesting to do in this episode, too, rather than killing characters that we haven’t even met yet and popping around like a character in Charmed as he was in the pilot. Here, instead, through his overly nice TV interview, the smarmy Powers registration scene and an ominous tie-returning Powers made Royalle seem creepier, and more like a villain who might be able to help carry the show.

While Walker remains a bit of a douche in Like A Power, and Deena isn’t given vast amounts to do, the grieving side characters caused by the events of the pilot are given a little more space to grow. While that left-behind booze-friendly wife strand may not lead anywhere, Krispin – the videogame-playing son of the late Detective Stockley – is certainly being primed for a big arc, judging by the online handle of the girl he gets chatting to.

 

Episode 3 review: Mickey Rooney Cries No More

With another episode of Powers comes another change of pace – after being led to enjoy the company of dastardly neckwear thief Royalle last time, episode 3’s opening immediately sent the show in another direction altogether. This was managed through the introduction of Andrew Sensenig, who plays the morally questionable armoured hero Triphammer. We always read him as a less-likeable Tony Stark, but he came off like a genuine contender for future villainy in this episode.

Mickey Rooney Cries No More (a title someone will have to explain to me, sorry) effectively introduced Triphammer’s grim quest to perfect the ‘power drainer’, a device that – you guessed it! – drains powers. This strand was gruesome, dark and welcomely left hanging for future instalments. At last, we seem to have something resembling an arc on our hands.

Triphammer’s prediction of ’50 years until your kids die’ was a strange moment, but the drainer-testing scene where a locked-up villain’s head exploded was certainly a shocking moment, arguably the first of the series. The scene where Zerotron X claimed inability to feel himself after Triphammer’s test harked back nicely to the idea that Powers choose their ‘real names,’ too, suggesting that power draining could rip super-powered individuals’ personalities apart. We look forward to seeing this strand move further, particularly with the as-yet-undeveloped Captain Cross involved.

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The rise of Kaotic Chic was welcome, too, even if the rest of the nightclub strand felt a little superfluous to the episode. It seemed more a place for characters to meet than a location of any real purpose to the investigation (they didn’t do much about stopping the drugs, did they?). Retro Girl continued to look a bit suspicious, and we’re not sure what Righteous Thunder was meant to bring to things. His display of abilities looked cheap, as did that of Logan Browning’s Zora. Wolf’s consuming was left in the shadows, as well. In fact, the powers in Powers have been a little underwhelming across the board so far.

In fairness, though, this matches the comics – in print, the detectives have always been the core of the story, rather than delving too much into the super-abilities in the world surrounding them. For that to work, though, we need to spend more time with Deena and Walker, who at the moment don’t seem to have progressed with their investigation or personal lives very much at all.  

Our opinion so far, all things considered? Well, this writer has been disappointed more than he’s been impressed, but it’s a close call. That could be my own fault for reading Who Killed Retro Girl? so recently and getting my hopes up, though.

The casting is good across the board, it has to be said, but there’s a niggling feeling that the show seems a little more interested in parties and mentioning cool things like ‘I checked this app!’ than it is in truly delving into Walker and Pilgrim. With seven episodes left to go, though, there’s plenty of time for that to change.