A Story About Super-Zeroes
Underdog superhero stories have a way of downplaying the less palatable parts of their protagonists’ lives, especially on the big screen. Peter Parker is your everyday dork—with friends, a brilliant mind—and Hannibal Buress is a gym teacher. Arthur Curry is a half-breed Atlantean outsider with an array of superpowers and expert combat training that fast-tracks him directly to the throne.
Thank goodness for shows that offer alternative misfits like Deadly Class, Legion, Umbrella Academy, and now Doom Patrol. This review is largely a character examination, and will (SPOILER ALERT) spoil significant events for each protagonist. Each sub-heading comes from dialog in the episode.
The Mind Is The Limit
Each protagonist of Doom Patrol faces personal and physical barriers. Cliff Steele is a former race car driver, father, and husband who cheated on his wife—a lot. After a car accident, Dr. Niles Caulder—
the ringleader and patriarchal figurehead of Doom Patrol—transplanted Steele’s mind within a robot body. A mechanical Frankenstein who’s been unconscious for years, Steele must reconcile his new body with the past he left behind. He has sobriety on his side; his robot body has neither the chemical nor sexual vulnerabilities his flesh and blood did. However, he no longer has a family, and he is not eager to start a new life in “Doom Manor” with the other misfits.
Welcome back, Brendan Fraser! His seedy flashbacks as Cliff’s human self are believably grungy and self-serving. In one emotionally straightforward scene, Steele conjures the idea of his young daughter climbing stairs to motivate his own robo-therapy. His narration and flashback, however, are at odds with one each other. Steele chastises himself for swearing at his daughter when he should have been more encouraging. In the flashbacks, though, we see a picturesque moment of parenting. He can’t help but think highly of himself, even while reflecting on a lifetime of greed.
Among his roommates, Cliff swears like a sailor, casually serving verbal jabs as he calls people douchebags and assholes. Fraser’s voice plays to Cliff’s sarcastic and tender sides with equal measure. Additionally, Riley Shanahan does an excellent job playing Robotman’s body with stilted, mechanical movements. The teamwork between Robotman’s practical effects, Shanahan’s physical acting, and Fraser’s voice acting enables the robot to act as the central story of physical and psychological rehabilitation—if he can get his act together. There are also the trans implications with waking up in a new body that society struggles to understand. I hope the rest of the season continues to explore that struggle.
Everyone Deserves The Truth
Rita Farr’s egoistical personality is of a kind with Cliff. She also once chased glory. Like Cliff, she experienced an accidental, life-changing transformation. As a star of the silver screen, she enjoyed all kinds of roles but was explicitly uncomfortable with the sight of physical disabilities. A bizarre virus on set turned her into an amorphous blob, though she can assume the youthful shape of her film days with a combination of willpower and enormous calorie intake.
Rita will down three rotisserie chickens for lunch, and as Titans viewers know, she downs the equivalent of a Sonic menu every day. “Hold on,” you might challenge. “Rita’s tragic backstory is that she’s an immortal beauty who eats all day?” Yes, but she’s still a self-absorbed jerk. Everyone in Doom Manor seems to watch her classic movies out of deference to her. During a field trip into town, she befriends a fan who bonded with their father over her movies. Rita asks her to sit and talk awhile—about her movies.
Rita ought to be the go-to confidante of the group, the empathetic diva of sorts, but instead she closes herself off in a self-perception bubble. She seems to get along with Larry, while she struggles to even stay in the same room as Jane. Unlike Cliff, she represents a real danger to everyone around her, as any loss of self-control results in becoming a massive blob of flesh that wrecks everything it touches. The only physical form that anchors her is a glorified, bygone ideal of beauty. Watching her old movies keeps her in good spirits, but what kind of balance is that? Can she learn to accept herself in any other form? Kudos to April Bowlby for her portrayal of a stuck-up actress who wishes to be above the company she keeps, but is stuck with them for an audience.
I Don’t Even Know What To Hope For
How did you like the movie Split? Or perhaps the comic Dial H For Hero? Your reaction may determine how much you enjoy following this next character. Crazy Jane has 64 personalities, each with their own power. One minute, she cusses everyone out and mocks Robotman’s lack of genitals; the next, she paints outdoors and speaks in hushed tones. Diane Guerrero slips between modes pretty well among the few personalities we get to see in this debut episode, and I hope the show’s producers are wise enough to lean on her acting abilities and not cover her in 64 kinds of CGI effects.
Of all the Doom Patrol members, Jane seems to lean heaviest on Dr. Caulder, as she is also the least in control of her powers and most at their mercy. Any given member of the Doom Patrol can potentially draw a crowd by doing their thing, but Jane can shift into a personality who smokes pot in public and picks fights with cops, and that’s before anyone argues back.
How does someone control the uncontrollable? Does Dr. Caulder have a solution, or is he just guessing as much as his super-zeroes? What compels him to collect tragic figures, anyway? Cliff guesses that Jane secretly cares what Dr. Caulder thinks of her and will only act out so much as a result. Who do we believe in when we don’t believe in ourselves, and is that effect a strength or a weakness? Timothy Dalton’s Dr. Caulder only offers sketchy motives and oddly manipulative encouragement in return.
You’re Still Very Much You
Cliff may be the tentative heart of the show, teetering over whether or not to become a better person, but Larry “Negative Man” Trainor is arguably the heart of the team. He’s able to talk to everyone without reservation and often offering bonding opportunities. He brings Cliff a stock car racing kit that allows him to project the community for which he longs, cooks for Rita, and doesn’t mess with Jane. He seems to be a giver, which is rooted in the fact that he otherwise doesn’t exist.
In a wonderfully relevant reveal for the character, Larry’s past includes closeted homosexuality during his time in the Air Force. When he walks into a bar in the present day wearing bandages and goggles, he feels just as outcast over how unaccepted he would be for who he is on the inside. It just so happens that his physical “inside” is a sentient negative form that takes on several ethereal qualities. When he panics in public to find his powers visibly lighting up inside his chest, he could just as well be scrambling to bandage up other parts of himself he wishes were invisible to others. While I hope the transgender entity Rebis still comes into play at some point, I already enjoy how the show folds Larry’s social closeting into his support role on the team.
Matt Bomer plays Larry in flashbacks and voice, while Matthew Zuk plays his body in bandaged form. As with Robotman, the teamwork required to pull off layers of characterization for someone with a minimally moving face is impressive. His powers, including nullifying livewires with his ethereal self, show a superhero who looks to make sure no one gets hurt while collateral damage spreads.
We’re Gonna Do Something Different This Time
Where do all these personalities leave the show? It’s got visual effects to spare, with destruction, crashes, a black hole, a message-farting goat, transformations, and weather changes down pat. The seeming antagonist of the season, Mr. Nobody, is played with introductory glee by Alan Tudyk. The effect of his two-dimensional appearance should send a shiver down the back of everyone on the Doom Patrol, though he appears to have some history with Dr. Caulder. The Doom Patrol are not only seemingly doomed people, but the town near them takes a lot of heat, too. How is anyone going to save anyone… or is this a matter of anywhere? Danny The Street, a character in the form of a place, is supposed to appear this season, if Danny hasn’t already.
The show does not offer simple setups, though. Mr. Nobody outright states that he doesn’t want to simply beat up or kill the Doom Patrol. He seems to want something weirder, and judging by his close familiarity with all the main players, this season seems to be aiming to creatively and affirmingly subvert superheroic expectations. Victory in the modern Doom Patrol comics is usually less about learning how to beat someone up and more about understanding an abstract idea and resisting it through self-actualization. How this show’s producers plan on putting those confrontations on film, I have no idea and wish them the best of luck.
I am not planning on reviewing the whole season episode by episode, but I am happy to endorse this series premiere and invite you to discover where the weirdness goes from here on your own. May we all remain three-dimensional at the end of the journey.
Verdict: 4 out of 5 farting goats
Thomas is a teen services librarian who reads way too many comics. He can be found gobbling pancakes at the nearest diner with Jessica Cruz, Forsythe Jones III, Jane Foster, and Hellboy. He reviews media for the public here and graphic novels for librarians at No Flying, No Tights.