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‘Powerless’ could expand the stories we tell about superheroes, but it’s not quite there yet

🕐 4 min read

Given the sheer percentage of movies and television shows that now involve superheroes, it was inevitable that pop culture would finally get around to the people whose feet stay planted firmly on the ground even as heroes soar around them.

PlayStation used an adaptation of Brian Michael Bendis’s comic “Powers,” about detectives who investigate superhero-related crimes, to kickstart its original programming. And tonight at 8:30 ET, NBC is debuting “Powerless,” which stars Vanessa Hudgens as Emily Locke, who moves to the big city to work for Wayne Security — only to find that her boss, an unseen Bruce Wayne’s cousin Van Wayne (Alan Tudyk), is indifferent and that the engineers she has been hired to mobilize are making bad knockoffs of LexCorp products designed for personal protection from superhero fallout.

Plenty of interesting questions could flow from the premise of “Powerless.” Do people who live in “flyover country,” which here means the states that superheroes zip over but don’t stop in, admire those heroes more than the urbanites who have to deal with the fallout from big battles? How have city residents adapted to being under near-constant threat, other than becoming wearily unflappable and accustomed to rescheduling meetings?

What does it mean that Bruce Wayne is profiting from that collateral damage? What sort of CEO is he to people who don’t know that he’s Batman and who think of him as the kind of corporate guru who writes advice books?

Unfortunately, the pilot for “Powerless” veers away from that question in favor of plot artifice and team-building. Emily arrives for her first day of work, only to learn that Bruce Wayne has decided to shut down the company because its personal-defense products aren’t relevant in an era of potentially world-ending clashes between superheroes and supervillains. As Van puts it, “Gone are the days of a man in a bandit mask trying to steal a ruby from a museum.”

That means that Emily spends most of the episode trying to rally Teddy (Danny Pudi), Ron (Ron Funches) and Wendy to come up with a great idea. When she finally has a breakthrough for a new supervillain-detector, the show takes it from concept to fully developed product in two scenes.

That’s a shame: One of the great insights in Victor Fresco’s late, lamented, lightly science-fictional comedy “Better Off Ted” was that the product-development and testing process can be both incredibly funny and a terrific way to explore corporate venality.

That show had a nearly identical setup to “Powerless”: Ted Crisp (Jay Harrington) was in the Emily role, overseeing brilliant but impractical scientists Phil (Jonathan Slavin) and Lem (Malcolm Barrett) and trying to deal with his boss Veronica (Portia de Rossi), a brilliant, deeply strange and highly amoral corporate executive. The combination of Ted’s sanity, Veronica’s drive to profit — in one episode, she recruits Ted’s young daughter to fire people for her — and Phil and Lem’s ingenuity meant that “Better Off Ted” produced the kind of back-and-forth that the setup for “Powerless” currently lacks.

Van’s indifference, Emily’s peppiness and her team’s demoralization mean that the show is preoccupied with keeping them together as a company, rather than letting them get down to work and benefiting from the creative tension that comes with putting people with different motivations but equal enthusiasms for the same task together on a project.

On the plus side, “Powerless” is the first superhero show or movie in an age currently chock-full of them to feel and look like the comics the genre descends from. Hudgens has a wide-open face with huge eyes; she could easily play Veronica Lodge in a live-action Archie Comics adaptation. The show has nice little details, such as a Joker Anti-Venom delivered like an EpiPen, or a shot of Emily getting ready in the morning with a giant starfish climbing the water tower outside her window, only for it to get hit with a pulsing ray of light and dissolve in a turquoise spray of goop.

In an era where at worst, superhero movies are weighed down by all the grimness and grit Zack Snyder can dump over them, and at best, we’re getting Joss Whedon-inspired quips around debates about superhero regulation, “Powerless” has the potential to be a relief. It would be nice to have a superhero story that asks smart questions without having big ideas become the Kryptonite that drags the whole thing down to Earth.

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