Comic Book TV and the Art of Pain

Comic book TV is more than colorful characters and gaudy action sequences. The genre can be a highly effective medium to spotlight and explore troubled people dealing with recognizable struggles.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Comic book television and movies have evolved to the point of encompassing a broad spectrum of moods, styles and storytelling approaches. From bright, uncomplicated escapism to dark, intricate character drama to bold experiments in form and structure, comic book TV shows, like the source material on which they’re based, embrace a considerable amount of diversity.

And while not ignoring the big ticket action moments that fans expect, three current series have provided an intriguing canvas for exploring pain that’s human rather than super.

Spoilers ahead.

The Super-Family

The newest entry, Superman and Lois, after only a handful of episodes has distinguished itself in the long line of TV takes on the Man of Steel with a focus on the challenges of Clark Kent (Tyler Hoechlin) and Lois Lane (Elizabeth Tulloch) in raising twin sons Jonathan and Jordan (Jordan Elsass, Alex Garfin).

While informed by the recent direction of the comics, Superman and Lois works with a darker feel. Clark isn’t the idealized Super-Dad he can often be in print. Here, he doesn’t have all the answers and is often at a loss as to how to approach his boys. While cheerful, outgoing Jonathan more easily rolls with his father’s frequent absences “for work,” moody, disaffected Jordan brims with anxiety and resentment.

The writers throw a lot at Clark and Lois from the outset: Clark loses his job at the Daily Planet; his beloved mother Martha dies suddenly; and Jordan begins to exhibit signs that he’s inherited his father’s powers. When the boys’ snooping forces Clark and Lois to reveal their father’s secret, it isn’t played as a “Wow, my dad is Superman!” wish fulfillment moment. The twins’ reaction is gratifying realistic: they’re angry that their parents have been lying to them all their lives. Jordan, especially, lashes out at his parents letting him think his feeling of anxiety was unfounded. The writers take an outlandish fantasy trope (finding out your father is an alien and the planet’s greatest hero) and transform it into something at the heart of any “coming of age” story (the disillusionment of discovering your parents are fallible).

Lois and Clark’s decision to move the family to his hometown of Smallville could come off as the cliché of a progressive urban couple deciding to “get back to nature” and take on a farm they’re ill-equipped to handle (though Clark does have some agricultural skills). And certainly Lois immediately going on the attack against a corporate incursion into the region could feel like a high-minded outsider imposing her views at the expense of the town.

But what’s really shone in the early episodes is the family dynamic. Hoechlin is nailing the mix for Clark, juggling the grief of losing his mother, the pressures of his heroic role, and his struggle to relate to, and be an effective parent for, his sons as the world twists around them. Tulloch has the harder assignment, grounding the family, playing peacekeeper, and coaching a sometimes clueless Clark on what the twins need from him. But she also very effectively plays the often unwritten subtext of the burden that comes with being married to the world’s ultimate first responder (a point her air force general father makes explicit to his son-in-law). She radiates concern for her boys, communicating with subtle looks and gestures her fear for the gentle, complicated Jordan inheriting the weight of his father’s legacy.

Elsass and Garfin have been a real asset as the twins. The show does a very good job writing the brothers’ relationship, that mix of affection and competition, support and mockery, that defines the fraternal bond, and both young actors get the material across without mugging or exaggeration. They come off like actual teens, neither hyper-idealized nor prematurely wise. Jordan’s emerging powers play as an effective stand-in for the struggles many families face in dealing with the challenges of a child with emotional or physical health issues.

The Kent family’s drama may be heightened by the Superman aspect of it. But at its heart is a relatable tale of parents and children learning to accept each other and themselves, flaws and all. It will be interesting to see where the show goes with this set-up, but if it continues to ground the fantastic in the universal experience of family, it gives the show a strong identity.

Outcasts Unite

Doom Patrol has been one of the quirkier entries in the field. Based on a concept that goes back to the ’60s, the show focuses on a group of outcasts whose physical manifestations reflect their inner damage. Through two seasons, Cliff (Brendan Fraser), Larry (Matt Bomer), Rita (April Bowlby), Jane (Diane Guerrero), and Vic (Joivan Wade) have formed an unusual substitute family.

Vic, while dealing with half his body being replaced by robotics from an accident that also killed his mother, is presented as the more typical heroic type, embracing his destiny as the hero Cyborg. Jane’s plethora of multiple personalities (each with its own power) is a striking visual way to dramatize her core personality’s childhood victimization. Both are somewhat more typical examples of how comic book TV explores the aftermath of trauma.

More intriguing is the trio based on the concept’s original members. Cliff, Larry and Rita’s comic book forebears always posed a lacerating counterpoint to the typical superhero creation myth. Unlike the stalwarts who took a dose of radiation or a chemical swim and emerged as hyper-idealized paragons of heroic virtue, the original Doom Patrol members represented the potential body horror inherent in comic book origin tropes that only a few other superhero concepts (like Marvel’s Hulk and Thing) explored. Unlike Vic and Jane, who were essentially innocents when they suffered their respective traumas, Cliff, Larry and Rita weren’t especially good people before their transformations. Their respective outer changes serve as a mirror of the inner damage each has tried to deny.

Racecar driver Cliff had success and fame, but was a terrible father and husband, perpetuating a family cycle of infidelity, neglect and abandonment. The destruction of his body and the transplantation of his brain into a hulking robot body reflects his disconnect from his essential humanity. Larry’s insistence on hiding his sexuality in pursuit of his astronaut dreams led him to mistreat his long-suffering wife and children and render the man who loved him a dirty secret. His possession by a radioactive energy spirit he can’t control mirrors his inability to accept himself. Vain movie star Rita built a career on sacrificing others for her opportunities, whether it was her mother trading sexual favors to secure a break for young Rita or her adult self procuring innocent young wannabes for the industry’s vicious predators in exchange for roles. Her loss of physical integrity is the outward manifestation of her inner moral rot.

The most interesting aspect of how the Doom Patrol series handles these characters is that it doesn’t treat their moments of progress as bigger victories than they are. The show acknowledges that accepting a hard truth about oneself isn’t the same thing as having the tools to make the best use of that knowledge. That self-acceptance is a milestone in a long, complex and often messy journey, but not the end of it. Cliff reunites with the adult daughter who thought he was dead most of her life, but it’s not the healing fairy tale he’s dreamed of. Instead, he reckons with the reality that the damage he inflicted before his apparent death has made a bigger impact on his child. Larry embraces his sexuality, but that doesn’t magically heal all the damage he caused to the people who loved him. Indeed, in some cases that progress comes far too late for him to ever make amends. Rita resolves to be a kinder, more generous person, but her intentions often fall short of her ability to carry them through. She finds old patterns difficult to transcend. The trio’s physical issues inform and reflect their ongoing struggles.

It’s a brave approach, bypassing the typical TV character arc where confronting an issue is all that’s needed for personal transformation. It acknowledges that the hard work of overcoming the negatives in yourself doesn’t cure all that’s wrong with your life. Fraser, Bomer and Bowlby do a strong job keeping audience sympathy for their characters’ “two steps forward/one step back” journeys. There are no simple answers or easy victories for this Doom Patrol. Instead, the show constructs a fallibly human, sadly relatable metaphor about the small successes and inevitable setbacks that line the way toward personal growth.

Reality Bites

One of the most indelible recent explorations of the damage of intense grief is WandaVision. The spin-off from the Avengers movies finds Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and a mysteriously resurrected Vision (Paul Bettany) living in a bizarre sitcom fantasy world.

The duo gets to show off their comedy chops in the early episodes, as the series skillfully executes a series of loving TV comedy homages. But even in the premiere there’s a sense of dread threading its way around the edges, hovering in the background as Wanda magicks up a dinner for the boss or Vision works his way through the canon of Sitcom Dad pratfalls. What’s amazing is how seamlessly the season segues into the darker, emotionally raw material of its final act.

The bizarrely shifting sitcom world of Westview is the unintentional creation of Wanda. Weighed down by a lifetime of losses (her parents, her brother), the death of the Vision proves to be the one blow too many for the isolated Avenger. After seeing Vision’s lifeless frame and discovering an empty plot of land on which he intended to build a home for them, Wanda lets loose a stunning cry of agony, and her reality-warping power create a bubble that essentially takes an entire town hostage and traps them in the pain of her loss. She conjures up an idealized version of Vision from her memories, along with impossible-to-exist twin sons, and desperately seeks shelter in a world that mirrors the TV programs that provided her comfort in the past.

It’s a fascinating study in the psychology of a complicated, powerful woman. Olsen owns the show from first scene to last. The highly entertaining early outings wisely don’t push the heavier elements too forcefully, allowing the impact to build slowly. As Vision begins to realize their little bubble is deeply problematic, and as two very different enemies try to co-opt Wanda’s creation for their own agendas, Olsen is magnetic in playing Wanda’s denial and papered-over suffering. When the story peels back the layers, exploring her intense losses and how they’ve worn away pieces of her spirit, viewers can’t help but feel for Wanda. Olsen makes palpable every last ounce of Wanda’s grief and irresistible drive to find whatever solace she can grasp, no matter how misguided.

The finale wisely doesn’t exculpate Wanda’s behavior. She doesn’t mean to take the town hostage, but the damage she inflicts on those around her hits hard. And just when viewers think they’ve seen it all from Olsen, she’s utterly heartbreaking as she undoes the spell that created her TV world, sacrificing her fantasy family in the process.

That scene is oddly similar to one in the recent Wonder Woman 1984 movie, that saw the title character get an impossible wish from a magic totem that resurrected her lost love, but at a price. In order to regain the power she needed to defeat the villain, Wonder Woman had to renounce her wish and lose her love for a second time. It played as a mythic moment of grand, heroic sacrifice. The hero giving up her own happiness for the good of others.

Wanda’s letting go of her own wish plays in a quite different, more emotionally-grounded, fashion. She knows she has to undo the spell to stop the damage she’s inflicting. It isn’t a moment of grand victory, but an intensely personal act of sober acceptance. It’s Wanda choosing to give up a comforting lie and instead face a much harsher reality. Olsen nails every moment of it, including Wanda’s “walk of shame” afterward, as she endures the silent fury and contempt of her neighbors. Her sacrifice isn’t a glorious stop on the hero’s journey. It’s a damaged woman enduring yet one more devastation, but finding a way to keep going. It’s pure, raw humanity, messy and heart-rending, but with a promise that something better can come from acceptance.

At its best, comic book TV uses its colorful avatars to illustrate in creative ways the kinds of emotions and struggles that many viewers endure. These portraits of damage and pain, and the struggle to grow past them, illustrate how much depth and complexity the genre has earned as it continues to evolve.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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