Speeding to Max on the heels of The Flash, Superpowered: The DC Story hopes to keep momentum for the noueveau-DCEU supercharged. Given the underperformance of that film as the latest in an ongoing series of public embarrassments of the brand under the leadership of Warner Bros.-Discovery CEO David Zaslav, the three hour docuseries arrives at a moment when DC needs some heroism.
Luckily for Zaslav, the show succeeds for the most part. Superpowered’s first episode retraces the beginnings of DC Comics as part of the pulp fiction movement of the 1930s. The publisher’s three iconic characters — Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman — all have their origin stories retold, and in a way that breaks from public narrative.
Though keen comic lovers will recall that Bob Kane received creator credit for Batman, Superpowered dives a bit further in to the story, revealing that writers Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson actually did more to create the world of Batman, his villains, and his story.
Wonder Woman gets a similar deconstruction, with the show exploring creator William Moulton Marston’s penchant for polyamory, and how his numerous female lovers informed the character. Along the way, DC stalwarts such as producers Greg Berlanti and Michael Uslan, artist Jim Lee and Phil Jimenez, and writers Gene Yang and Mark Waid offer memories and commentary as to why DC heroes became popular and evolved over the years.
The second episode recalls the early beginnings of DC crossing over into television and film, with the third episode continuing the trend. The show also highlights how writers in the 1980s pushed the publisher into experimental territory with the publication of such titles as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. If it all sounds a bit rote, there’s a reason: other documentaries have told the DC story many times over. Superpowered doesn’t offer much new in terms of the broad strokes of DC history.
On Point When Off Point
Maybe for that reason, Superpowered is most interesting when it digresses from the standard chronicle. Besides the myth-busting of certain creators, the show peppers in fascinating tidbits about some of DC’s forgotten but influential titles.
Sgt. Rock forsook the usual superpower trappings to tell gritty war stories. Secret Hearts dove into soap opera and romance territory. Though it didn’t find a large following, it did inspire pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s most famous works, including the painting Drowning Girl. The theme of undo credit rises again here, as Lichtenstein’s work fetched millions at art auctions, while Tony Abruzzo, who drew the original panels that Lichtenstein borrowed for his own, received almost nothing.
Tangents about the creation of DC’s off-label publications, Vertigo, to feature more violent, adult fare, and Milestone Comics, to chronicle black characters, created, written, and drawn by African-American artists and writers, add interest to the proceedings. Though the series doesn’t underline the point, the fact that DC storytelling flourished in the 1980s and 90s under the leadership of Editorial Director Jenette Kahn and Editor Karen Berger is one of the show’s most interesting tidbits. That two women pushed hypermasculine writers such as Frank Miller and Grant Morrison to write some of their best work is a story worthy of its own docuseries.
Where’z Zack Snyder and the Others?
Superpowered is noteworthy for a number of inclusions and exclusions as well. Bat-franchise directors Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan appear only via archival interview footage. Ditto writers Miller, Alan Moore, and Neil Gaiman. Zack Snyder, who helmed five major films for the label, never appears at all. Considering how these men shaped DC stories on the page and on screen, their absence feels conspicuous here, in particular since the show emphasizes the importance of their work.
Directors Leslie Iwerks and Mark Catalena devote much of the series’ second and third hours to DC media synergy. Yet Superpowered mentions only Batman: The Animated Series in passing and totally ignores the massive success of DC direct-to-home-media animated films, many of which have earned more critical acclaim than their live-action, big screen counterparts.
Superpowered will also have viewers raising eyebrows over the presence of several personas non grata as well. Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins appears on-screen a considerable amount of time considering Warner Bros. fired her from her job directing Wonder Woman 3. Geoff Johns, who stepped down as producer on most DC television and film properties amid the Joss Whedon scandal, also gets ample screen time. The prominent appearances of James Gunn — who, to date, has only directed a single DC movie, but who happens to be the architect of a forthcoming rebooted DCEU — also stand out.
Who’s the Mastermind?
In a sense, the screen time devoted to Gunn highlights Superpowered’s most glaring issue: it shows major signs of studio interference. Besides the presence of Gunn, posters for Zack Snyder’s Justice League that appear in the series advertise it as premiering on Max. Anyone who paid attention to that film will recall it actually debuted when the service was known as HBO Max. Thus, it feels like someone here wants to rewrite history. That, along with several glossed over chapters (the multiple versions of Justice League) or worse, obvious omissions (the “New 52” going off the rails), undermines the authority of the series.
Given that the aforementioned narrative tangents about Sgt. Rock or Milestone Comics offer some of the show’s most compelling moments and the conspicuous inclusion of Gunn, we suspect that a much longer version of Superpowered probably exists somewhere in the Warner Bros. vaults. Most docuseries these days go on way too long, and perhaps the bosses over at Max wanted to avoid a pitfall, so Superpowered deserves props in that regard. At the same time, a show that wants to tickle fan nostalgia and that skips over major milestones will probably turn off the series’ target audience.
Superpowered Is Still Fun
All that said, Superpowered still manages to entertain, and, at its best, even offers some original insight to the DC Comics saga. At the show’s worst, it feels like a commercial for a product the audience has already bought. Warner Bros./Max might intend the show as a bookend to the era of DC-inspired entertainment that gave the world the Arroverse and the Snyderverse, which ended with the sale of WB to Discovery and the arrival of David Zaslzv as CEO.
If the tinkering on this show offers any indication, when Superpowered gets the inevitable follow-up at the end of the next DC “phase,” it may well feature Zaslav as a supervillian.
Superpowered: The DC Story debutes exclusively on Max July 20.