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.