Review: Netflix series Jupiter’s Legacy tells a frustrating superhero story
The superhero series leaves audiences torn between two storylines: one lively and engaging, the other not so much
JUPITER’S LEGACY (Steven S. DeKnight, Sang Kyu Kim). All eight episodes now streaming on Netflix Canada. Rating: NNN
Oh, super-parents and super-children. Forever at odds over preparing for the future, wild lifestyles, hairstyles, wardrobes, and whether or not it’s okay to murder a villain in battle by punching his brain into his throat.
As metaphors for changing generational values go, it’s a good one, and for a little while Jupiter’s Legacy seems genuinely committed to investigating how its super-families work through key differences in the parents and kids’ conception of heroism. What are the responsibilities of the good guys, when the bad guys are trying to murder people by the dozens? And what about personal concerns when parents and children fight alongside one another? Can a super-son watch his super-mom beaten to a super-pulp and still be expected to hold back a killing blow?
All of this is laid out in the first episode of Jupiter’s Legacy, the new Netflix adaptation of the 2013 comic created by Mark Millar and Frank Quitely. Spoiler for episode 1: the super-son does not hold back. But the show does, pulling its best punches in a number of ways… some of which won’t be revealed for a few episodes. Which is a disappointment, really. The most compelling material of any superhero narrative tends to be the stuff that characters (or writers) can’t take back. If you’ve been watching Amazon’s Invincible, you know exactly what I mean; Jupiter’s Legacy has some of the same cards in its deck, but lacks the spine to play them for real.
I suspect that comes down to a structural issue. Like so many current shows, Jupiter’s Legacy splits its narrative between two timelines: there’s the storyline of the present, where the 20-something kids of globally renowned superheroes struggle with their perpetual status as provisional heroes because their parents refuse to retire; and another set in the Great Depression, telling us the story of how those parents first earned their incredible powers. The present day is filled with colourful heroes and villains, and a couple of characters who fall somewhere in the middle because they aren’t comfortable with their lineage; the past is populated by some frustratingly two-dimensional characters, largely because co-creator Millar is a huge King Kong fan who built his heroes’ origin story around an expedition to Skull Island.
A lot of Jupiter’s Legacy is frustrating because of that, actually. The show – developed by Daredevil showrunner Steven S. DeKnight, who departed during production on the first season, and completed by The Walking Dead’s Sang Kyu Kim – never really reconciles the two threads. It stalls out whenever it zips back to 1929 to show us the pre-hero characters arguing over the impossibility of something we already know will happen – and, from the perspective of the present, is ancient history. Like The Stand’s decision to spend the entire miniseries shifting back and forth between the plague and its aftermath, it’s something that probably sounded great in a pitch meeting but simply does not work at all when played out over multiple episodes of serialized drama.
The conceit also requires half the cast to be aged up for the present-day material, a decision that works not nearly as well as the show needs it to. Josh Duhamel is a good fit for the 1929 version of Sheldon Sampson, the idealistic young tycoon who will become the ever-upstanding Utopian; he’s a lot less convincing as the 2019 version of the guy, no matter how shaggy and wrinkled they make him. Curiously, Leslie Bibb is far more suited to playing the older Grace Sampson (aka Lady Liberty) than she is to the younger version, a Lois Lane-like reporter who accompanies Sheldon, his brother Walt (Ben Daniels), their depressive friend George (Matt Lanter) and Sheldon’s ex-employee Fitz (Mike Wade) on the trip that will change them all forever. Maybe they should have cast different actors as the older heroes. Maybe they shouldn’t have bothered with the flashbacks at all, since at the end of eight episodes all we really learn is that a bunch of friends went to a mysterious island and came back with superpowers.
You’re wondering why this thing gets a three-N review, aren’t you? Well, let’s talk about the next generation: they’re much more engaging – although that age gap is a little weird, with most of the kids being in their mid-to-late 20s despite their parents being around a century older. (Did the original heroes put off having kids until they were in their 80s? Again, a show that moved faster would leave us with less time to think about this stuff.) The supers’ spawn are played by Andrew Horton, Elena Kampouris and Ian Quinlan, among others, and they’re the most interesting aspect of the show. Horton’s Brandon is the one who death-punches a rampaging villain in the first episode, and must deal with the fallout, while Kampouris plays his wild-child sister Chloe, who’s turned her back on hero stuff to become a super-powered fashionista. But when she meets Quinlan’s Hutch – the powerless son of a super-villain – their mutual black-sheep status proves powerfully attractive, kicking off the show’s best subplot. (It also helps that Kampouris and Quinlan are charismatic as hell, both separately and together.)
The present-day stuff is a lot of fun, and because this story isn’t beholden to dynamics borrowed from Golden Age comics and movies, the actors get to play characters who feel like believable people, rather than a bunch of stiff archetypes. The various storylines have potential, and it’s nice to see a few Toronto actors here and there: Jess Salgueiro pops up as one of Hutch’s associates, and Tony Nappo is one of the crew of Sheldon’s expedition. It’s lively and even unpredictable, and it all leads to the season’s best set piece, a silent fight in an airless room. I would happily watch an entire season of the Disaffected Super-Kids show.
But – and yes, there’s always a but – Jupiter’s Legacy is too beholden to the original comics, constantly abandoning the present to flash back to 1929, where the story of how the original heroes earned their incredible powers plays out at a snail’s pace, introducing conflicts that won’t even begin to pay off until the second season if we’re lucky. The show ends on something that’s supposed to be a cliffhanger, revealing that everything we’ve seen up until now has been part of an elaborate revenge plot which, frankly, makes no sense at all and about which I could not care less. Yes, it’s taken directly from the comics; the way the show lays it out, it’s impossibly muddled. Again I point to Invincible, which makes a lot of the same stuff land so much more effectively and never once wastes your time with unnecessary flashbacks. It’s right over there on Amazon.