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'Jupiter's Legacy' Decodes The Superhero Genre Without Subverting It

L to R: Walter/Brainwave (Ben Daniels) and Sheldon/The Utopian (Josh Duhamel) agree to table their discussion in Netflix's <em>Jupiter's Legacy</em>.
L to R: Walter/Brainwave (Ben Daniels) and Sheldon/The Utopian (Josh Duhamel) agree to table their discussion in Netflix's <em>Jupiter's Legacy</em>.

You'd be forgiven for wondering how Netflix's Jupiter's Legacy compares to other recent entries in the glut of "Wait, what if superheroes ... but, you know, realistic?" content currently swamping streaming services. (To be fair, this "realistic superheroes" business is something we comics readers have been slogging through for decades; the rest of the culture's just catching up. Welcome, pull up a chair; here's a rag to wipe those supervillain entrails off the seatback before you sit down.)

So here's a cheat sheet. Netflix's Jupiter's Legacy is ...

  • Less cynical and empty than Amazon's The Boys
  • Less bright and blood-flecked than Amazon's Invincible
  • Less weird and imaginative than Netflix's The Umbrella Academy
  • Less funny and idiosyncratic than HBO Max's Doom Patrol
  • Less dark and dour than HBO Max's Titans
  • Less innovative and intriguing than Disney+'s WandaVision
  • Less dutiful and disappointing than Disney+'s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
  • Less thoughtful and substantive than HBO's Watchmen
  • Less formulaic and procedural than the various CW super-shows (which I include here only out of a sense of completism, not because they're aiming for the same kind of performative faux-realism that drive most of these other series).
  • It's unfair to make these comparisons, sure. But it's also inevitable, given the crowded landscape of superheroes on TV right now. And in every one of those comparisons, Jupiter's Legacy doesn't necessarily come up short (it's far better than The Boys, especially), but it does come up derivative.

    Makes sense: "Derivative" is a word that got slapped on the comics series it's based on, by writer Mark Millar and artist Frank Quitely, which kicked off in 2013. Millar and Quitely would likely prefer the term "homage," of course, and after all, the superhero genre is by nature nostalgic and (too-)deeply self-referential. So the fact that so many story elements, and more than a few images, of Jupiter's Legacy (comics and Netflix series both) echo those found in the 1996 DC Comics mini-series Kingdom Come is something more than coincidental and less than legally actionable.

    Showrunner Steven S. DeKnight and his writers' room have carved out only a thin, much more grounded slice of the comic's sprawling multi-generational saga, but they've retained certain elements of family tragedy and Wagnerian recursiveness, wherein the sins of the father get passed to the son. They've also, smartly, retained the multiple-timeline structure of the comic as a whole, though they've pared it down and stretched it out over these eight episodes, clearly hoping for a multi-season pickup.

    Readers of the comics will likely grow impatient at how little of the overall saga is dealt with here, but this review is aimed at those coming to the series fresh, who will find more than enough in this season to satisfy — it's a whole story that hints at what's to come without slighting what's happening now.

    The now in question switches between two eras. In 1929, immediately before and after the stock market crash, brothers Walter (Ben Daniels) and Sheldon (Josh Duhamel) are the sons of a successful steel magnate. Walter's the diligent numbers guy, Sheldon's the glad-handing optimist. Sheldon's rich, smarmy friend George (Matt Lanter) is going full Gatsby, and muckraking reporter Grace (Leslie Bibb) runs afoul of Walter and Sheldon following a family tragedy.

    Sheldon becomes beset by visions that will put him and several other characters on a path to their superhero origin story. Be warned: The series doles this bit out even more slowly than the comic — settle in for seven episodes' worth of Duhamel clutching his head and shouting while trippy images flash by, hinting at his ultimate destiny.

    In the present day, Sheldon is the all-powerful hero The Utopian, who is married to Grace, now known as Lady Liberty. Walter is now the telepathic hero Brainwave, and George is ... nowhere to be seen.

    The series has fun playing with the disconnect between the two timelines — characters from the 1930s story are either missing, or drastically transformed, in the present day, and while later episodes connect some of the dots, many of the most substantial changes are left to be depicted in future seasons.

    The present-day timeline instead focuses on the generational rift between heroes of Sheldon and Grace's generation and those of their children. There's the brooding Brandon (Andrew Horton) who strives to live up to his father's impossible example, and the rebellious Chloe (Elena Kampouris), who rejects a life of noble self-sacrifice and neoprene bodysuits for a hedonistic modeling career.

    At issue: Sheldon's refusal to acknowledge that the world has changed, and that the strict superhero code (no killing, no politics, etc.) that he lives by — and forces others to live by — may be obsolete, now that supervillains have escalated from bank robbery to mass slaughter. Younger heroes, including many of Brandon's friends, feel compelled to protect themselves and the world around them through the use of deadly force.

    Clearly it's a fraught cultural moment to have fantasy characters who can fly and zap folk with eye-lasers deal with that particular all-too-real real-world issue; several scenes land far differently than they were originally intended.

    But unlike other entries in the superhero genre, Jupiter's Legacy is prepared to deal overtly, even explicitly, with something that films like Man of Steel and shows like The Boys too simply and reflexively subvert: The superhero ideal itself.

    The notion that an all-powerful being would act with restraint and choose only to lead by example is what separates superheroes from action heroes. Superheroes have codes; that's the contract, the inescapable genre convention, the self-applied restriction that tellers of superhero tales impose upon their characters; navigating those strictures forces storytellers to get creative. Or at least, it should. The minute you do what so many many "gritty, realistic" superhero shows and movies do — dispense with that moral code, or pervert it, or attempt to argue it out of existence by portraying a villain so heinous and a world so fallen that murder is the only option, you're not telling a superhero story anymore. You haven't interrogated or inverted or interpolated the genre, and you certainly haven't deconstructed it. You've abandoned it.

    Say this much for Jupiter's Legacy — it's not content to wave the concept of a moral code away, or nihilistically reject it. It instead makes its central theme the need to inspect it, unpack it, and truly and honestly grapple with it.

    Which is not to say it doesn't stack the deck by portraying a fallen modern world not worth saving — it does do that, usually through the lens of Sheldon's daughter Chloe, who throws herself into a world of drugs, alcohol, sex and general narcissistic monstrousness. The show attempts to explain her sullen self-destructiveness as a reaction to her father's unrealistic ideals, but in execution, her scenes prove cliche-ridden and bluntly repetitious. It's one of several examples where the show's choice to focus on and pad out one small part of the comic's overall tale results in leaden pacing.

    But even though it takes seven full episodes for the characters in the 1930s timeline to get to the (almost literal) fireworks factory of their superhero origin, it's hard to argue that it isn't worth all that extra time, as Duhamel, Bibb, Lanter and especially Daniels have a great time with the period setting. (There are two other actors who get brought into the superhero fold in this timeline, but they 1. aren't allotted nearly enough screentime to really register and 2. represent spoilers.)

    The period details of the 1930s timeline (Lanter was made to wear a waistcoat; Daniels' pencil-thin mustache should win its own Hairstyle and Makeup Emmy), and the brewing conflict between the younger selves of Sheldon and Walter can't help but make those scenes much more intriguing to watch than those set in the modern day.

    The ultimate effect is a lot like watching the 2009 film Julie and Julia, in that sense. If you imagine that Julia Child could fly and shoot lasers out of her eye-holes.

    And, really, who's to say she couldn't, after all?

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Corrected: May 7, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
    An earlier version of this story identified Chloe as Walter's daughter. She is Sheldon's daughter.