This is a spoiler-free review
Each new comic book adaption must justify its own existence.
We now have so many superheroes on our screens that even the most enthusiastic superhero fan must do some internal triage. Let’s see: what can I miss? Can I skip the DC Cinematic Universe even though Wonder Woman was great? Or what about Marvel’s Netflix properties? Damn, it would suck to miss out on Jon Bernthal’s standalone Punisher though. The market is saturated and each new show, movie, comic book, podcast or puppet show must do something to stand out or it’s going to be missed.
Now, expert in market saturation, itself, Amazon Prime is adding one more comic book superhero adaptation to the scrum. The Tick, based on the semi-satirical comic book created by then-cheeky New England teenager Ben Edlund in the ‘80s, is the third attempt at a television adaptation of the title character. First came a well-received animated series in 1994 on Fox, followed by a similarly well-received but short-lived live-action effort in 2001 starring Patrick Warburton as the eponymous superhero/lunatic.
With The Tick’s previous incarnations looming in the wake, this Tick faces even more pressure to justify its existence. Not only do we have enough superheroes; we have enough Ticks. What say you, 2016 Amazon Prime version? What is your justification for having the audacity to exist in this crowded superhero marketplace?
The Tick’s justification is that it’s good.
Despite boasting one of the most tongue-in-cheek, gimmicky characters in all comic-dom, The Tick decides to play things shockingly clear and sincere.
This version of The Tick never quite announces what it plans to do differently and how it’s going to stand out from the comic book pack. On the contrary, The Tick wears its influences on its sleeve much more than one would expect from a concept so novel. The Tick was a very original character at the time of his creation. In 1986, there were few superheroes who deconstructed the genre so aggressively. The Tick is a well-meaning lunatic with superpowers. He’s nigh-invulnerable and possesses the strength of 10-20 men (he’s never quite sure how many). But he also has no idea where he came from and doesn’t seem to process the idea that the bright blue suit he’s wearing with tick-like antennae may actually be a costume.
It’s an original concept but this 2016 version of The Tick borrows generously from other modern superhero myth deconstructions. The ’50 espionage-tinged soundtrack and graphics recalls the aesthetic of The Incredibles. It takes its real-world superhero physics and violence straight from Kick-Ass. The Tick, himself, is basically a non-fourth wall breaking, less-dickish version of Deadpool. Though who knows – he may be breaking the fourth wall anyway with his enthusiastic, timber-toned monologues about destiny, secret identities and making a murder salad of one’s hero’s journey.
The Tick doesn’t bring anything new to the table quite simply because it cannot. There is scarcely anything new left to try. Instead The Tick leans into those Incredibles/Kick-Ass/Deadpool aesthetics and homages and then wraps them around a surprisingly compelling and charming origin story.
The Tick makes its smartest decision right off the bat by minimizing its title character in favor of its true lead character Arthur Everest (Griffin Newman). The Tick provides the charm and dayglo aesthetic while Arthur provides pretty much everything else. Arthur is a young accountant struggling through some major demons. He idolized the superheroes that populated his city as a child but then became disillusioned and mentally unwell after those heroes suffered a massive failure, accidentally killing his father in the process. Now Arthur spends his days obsessively trying to prove that the The Terror (Jackie Earle Haley), the villain who killed his heroes and indirectly his father, is still at large and was not in fact killed by Superman-analog Superian as everyone else believes
Newman as Arthur is the series’ best asset. Compelling lead characters in superhero stories are hard to find and effectively nebbish, nerdy characters in those same stories are hard to pull off. Newman does an excellent job on both fronts and makes for a perfect audience cypher.
Peter Serafinowicz does admirable work as the Tick as well. He contorts his natural British accent into a convincingly corny yet uplifting superhero shout. At this level of acting, excellent accent work should just be a given but Serafinowicz deserves particular praise here given how dramatic the transformation is and how important the Tick’s voice is to his whole “destiny is calling” mantra. Patrick Warburton did a better job in the 2001 live-action series but that’s not a fair comparison as Patrick Warburton may as well actually be the Tick.
The best part of The Tick is how unabashedly serialized it is. Of the six episodes streamed for critics, only one deviates from the central story into bottle episode territory and even though it does so only slightly. This is a relatively conventional story about one average man’s ascent into non-averageness but the show’s enthusiasm for that story elevates it to a tremendous extent.
Also, despite The Tick’s lack of ingenuity in moving the superhero genre in a new direction, there is still plenty of creativity on display. Yara Martinez as villain Ms. Lint is a major find both in her portrayal and the character’s realistic physical shortcomings. Lint can shoot lightning from her fingertips like a Sith Lord but unlike a Sith Lord this ability comes with the drawback of drawing lint, dust and debris to her person wherever she goes. Lint is often the most compelling villain onscreen as though Haley as The Terror is certainly doing…something. Yeah, he’s like really doing…something.
There are other nice little touches like the existence of a Constitutional Amendment to protect the secret identities of superheroes that Arthur once invokes like it was the Fifth Amendment. If nothing else, The Tick also deserves our respect and admiration for finally being the one show brave enough to speak the truth that when someone is shot you should not remove the bullet from their shoulder. That just causes more damage! Looking at you, dummies on literally every other TV show ever made.
It’s few shortcomings are mostly visual. Despite borrowing imagery and ideas heavily from other sources, The Tick does little to improve upon them. The graphics work is often understandably sketchy given the show’s scale against its pilot project budget. And while the costumes are undoubtedly designed to appear DIY at times they veer too far into outright bad and corny territory. The show seems to agree as the Tick gets a costume upgrade right after the pilot.
Some will argue that The Tick doesn’t do enough to justify its existence. I suppose that’s fair in a grand, creative sense. Oftentimes, superhero stories that don’t challenge or change the genre feel like they’re wasting our time.
In The Tick’s defense, however, challenging or changing the genre isn’t The Tick’s purpose. The Tick’s purpose is to charm. And charm it does.
It’s not a superhero story deconstructed. It’s just a superhero story, capably told that also happens to have a giant, blue amnesiac wandering throughout it.