Can the Dark, Intriguing Superhero Drama ‘Powers’ Survive on PlayStation Plus?


As if there weren’t enough streaming sites — in addition to countless television channels — Sony PlayStation is now introducing original programming for members of its PlayStation Plus subscription service. Its first (and so far only announced) program is Powers, an adaptation of the Eisner Award-winning comic book series by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Avon Oeming. The ten-episode series will be available exclusively on PlayStation Plus (though the pilot is available for free on YouTube), a platform that, as of January 2, 2015, boasted nearly 11 million users. With a subscriber base roughly one-fifth the size of Netflix’s, it’s hard not to worry that Powers won’t find a substantial audience — which would be unfortunate, because it’s certainly a series that deserves one.

Powers is made for the screen, but it’s been a rough road getting there. Sony originally optioned the comic in 2001 for a movie that didn’t shake out, and in 2011, FX greenlit a pilot that was shot but never made it to air (a shame, because Powers is perfect for FX’s increasingly dark sensibility). Last March, there was the surprise announcement that Powers found a new home — on a video game console. And it’s easy to see why the comic book is such a good candidate for a TV adaptation: it’s gleefully gritty, twisted, and funny, with a cartoonish style that works with the dark material rather than against it, allowing readers to fully immerse themselves in this grim world. It’s also part superhero story and part police procedural, two popular genres that lend themselves well to television (the former is currently experiencing a resurgence related to the huge success of superhero movies while the latter is still, unsurprisingly, going strong).

Powers is also a smart way for PlayStation to begin its foray into original streaming content. Every aspect of the show — the fact that it’s adapted from a comic, the emphasis on good vs. bad and winning vs. losing, the existence of powerful superheroes and villains, the expletive-laden dialogue and violence, the occasional scenes that resemble a video game — should be vastly appealing to gamers, though it will only reach those willing to shell out for PlayStation Plus.

The show gets off to a shaky start in the pilot, even though it dives straight into the action and plunges viewers into a new world without any sort of warning. Powers takes place in a world where people with superhuman powers (they are all dubbed, of course, “Powers”) populate the earth and mingle with commoners. They are both good and evil: the good superheroes are on par with A-list celebrities, and have devoted fans who wear their T-shirts and follow their every move; the evil supervillians wreak havoc in the city, trying to stay one step ahead of the “Powers division” of the homicide squad, who are trained in how to catch and conquer those with special abilities.

It’s a science-fiction procedural, complete with a veteran homicide detective, Christian Walker (Sharlto Copley, District 9), and his plucky rookie partner, Deena Pilgrim (Susan Heyward). Walker, we learn immediately through an Extra segment wherein Mario Lopez plays himself, used to be a hero himself before he lost his powers due to a villain (Eddie Izzard’s jarring — and naked — Wolfe) and became a cop. The catalyst to the series is the death of one of Walker’s friends, Olympia, and the ensuing investigation that leads the two detectives to a teen girl named Calista (Olesya Rulin). Appropriately nicknamed “Wannabe,” she desperately wants to be a Power — so much so that she tried to get Olympia’s powers to rub off on her through sex.

Calista is an obsessive fan of superheroes — particularly Walker’s ex, Retro Girl (Michelle Forbes) — but she’s plagued by mediocrity, worried that she’s doomed to a life of normalcy. She truly believes that she’s a Power; she just hasn’t actually gotten her powers yet. She tries to force them, in the pilot’s most memorable and gripping scene, only to be shot down once again (and to nearly take Walker down with her). Calista’s a smartly written character, and Rulin provides a great interpretation, nailing her expressions and reactions as Calista slowly learns that not all heroes are heroic, and not all powers are powerful.

Powers suffers from a few predictable problems, such as relying too much on gritty crime-procedural tropes. Walker and Deena are both great characters, but their relationship isn’t fully established here and instead revolves around the typical cynical veteran/eager rookie dynamic. Deena is especially underwritten in the first few episodes, though it’s clear she’s in for some meaningful development in future installments. The dialogue, particularly in the first episode, is too expositional and overwrought at times; there is no need to explicitly state that Walker is a man “who walks because he can’t fly anymore.” And, as expected, Powers doesn’t have the biggest budget for special effect but it does make do.

As the series moves on from the pilot, however, it gets stronger. In the two subsequent episodes provided to critics, the writers deepen their characters and the world of the show begins to pop off the screen. Episodes 2 and 3 are engrossing and addictive — when I finished them, I not only wanted to watch more but was tempted to revisit the source material, which is why it’s a little frustrating that the weakest episode is the one available for free viewing. Powers could very well have been a hit on television (or on Netflix, if its plate wasn’t already full with Marvel adaptations). Now, the question is: How will it fare on PlayStation?