Last night, NBC aired the premiere episode of its new series Powerless, the first television sitcom from comic entertainment company DC, which is responsible for superheroes like Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Such familiar characters, however, exist primarily as allusions in Powerless, which instead focuses on the ordinary denizens of Charm City, a minor metropolis that tends to get repeatedly trashed while the Good Guys and the Bad Guys fight.
That begins to change when small-town girl Emily Locke (Vanessa Hudgens) sets out to inspire the employees of Wayne Security to develop newer and greater means of protecting the “powerless” from villains and heroes alike. Locke faces an uphill battle, working against the cynicism of her boss, Bruce Wayne’s cousin Van (Alan Tudyk), and the company’s employees (Christina Kirk, Danny Pudi, Ron Furches, and Jennie Pierson).
Critically speaking, the jury’s still out on Powerless. Most reviewers appreciate its hybrid concept, though some find its blend of superhero action and workplace comedy an unstable mix, with others arguing that its actual humor falls flat. I appreciate Danette Chavez’s take at The A.V. Club that “Emily’s coworkers are audience stand-ins; they’re inured to the existence of superheroes and their nemeses and don’t realize how much they need a fresh set of eyes.”
If Powerless is to succeed, it will be (at least in part) because of these “audience stand-ins,” since the show is foremost not about superheroes, but about what it is like to live in their orbit. Ironically, though, this could lend one definitionally “epic” quality to Powerless that all of DC’s prior screen offerings (film or television) have missed: an emphasis on the importance of individual lives.
These days, DC is arguably most infamous for its slate of past and pending films—its so-called “Extended Universe.” These films in many ways reflect the vision of director Zack Snyder, who kicked them off with his 2013 Man of Steel, followed up by last year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. They often have a self-consciously “epic” quality in that they are played out with superhuman characters on a grand scale. (It’s hardly surprising that Snyder would gravitate toward this approach: He’s the man who directed the Spartan-centric 300, after all, and as I have noted elsewhere, Man of Steel interacts heavily with Plato’s masterwork, The Republic.)
Invoking epics and mythology, however, hasn’t spared Snyder from criticism that the wide-scale devastation in his movies is essentially “destruction porn”—even if Batman v. Superman did try to wrestle more thoroughly with the consequences of Man of Steel’s climax. Even DC’s TV offerings, though not quite so “epic” in the scale of their ruination, still focus primarily, or even exclusively, on heroes, both human and superhuman, and they all imagine urban environments in which destructive paranormal combat is commonplace.
The problem here is that our English word “epic” has morphed into something meaning little more than “really big.” That’s not entirely wrong—classical epics did occur on large, often massive, scales. Like Snyder’s films, they are mythical, often in a foundational way, and the protagonists are larger-than-life, perhaps superhuman or semi-divine.
But there is another quality to virtually all great epics that frequently gets ignored: They can be—and often are—pervasively, obsessively human. In The Iliad, for example, Homer repeatedly employs a jarring technique in which he zooms in on individual victims of the Trojan War, giving back-histories and life stories to men who haven’t even been mentioned until their moments of death. The cumulative effect is to remind readers that every victim on either side of a conflict is a person whose loss will be mourned by someone. Virgil does the same thing in his Aeneid, as does Dante, who often stops to chat with suffering souls in the Inferno or the Purgatorio.
Even in their tragic poignancy, these epics can present a comic spin on some characters, like Nastes in The Iliad, whom Homer mocks for his gaudy gold armor, or the warrior princess Camilla in The Aeneid, who is doomed in part by her obsession with fashion. The storytellers, though, give scenes such as these a dignity amid the humor simply by recognizing the complex and messy lives of all who participate in war.
It is in bringing this dimension to the table that Powerless might be able to make its greatest contribution to DC’s on-screen worlds. While it’s currently unclear whether Powerless shares its universe with shows like Arrow, taken holistically alongside DC’s other movies and episodes, it serves as a welcome counterpoint to the comic book emphasis on extraordinary ability, as well as a reminder of the consequences that big-budget destruction would have for ordinary people.
I expect the series in its run to emphasize the valuable roles “regular” people can play. Emily’s mantra, drawn from her florist father, is “You don’t need to have super powers to accomplish great things.” And to a certain extent, I’d be okay with such a theme. I hope, however, that Powerless never forgets its title. Certainly, we may be able to “accomplish great things” with our abilities—talents, gifts, vocations, or whatever else you want to call them. But we are not valuable because of our gifts. Our value is intrinsic to our humanity as special creations of God. I hope Powerless insists on its characters’ importance even (perhaps especially) in their epic fails.
John Milton, who would himself write one of the world’s great epics in Paradise Lost, knew also the experience of feeling powerless: When he was still in middle age, with much of his great work yet unwritten, he began to go blind. In perhaps his most famous sonnet, he laments what might happen if he fails to use “that one Talent which is death to hide.” At last, though, he realizes, “God doth not need / Either man’s work or his own gifts.” God doesn’t need us. But he values us; he wants us. And so, through nothing more or less than his supernal grace, he enables us to play a role in his cosmic plan, in his divine comedy. What could be more epic than that?
Geoffrey Reiter is assistant professor of English at the Baptist College of Florida and associate editor for Christ and Pop Culture. He holds a BA in English from Nyack College and a PhD in English from Baylor University, along with an MA in church history from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.