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Jupiter’s Legacy review: Netflix superhero drama needs some super-speed

Jupiter's Legacy review: Netflix superhero drama needs some super-speed

Is it a bird? Is a plane? Is it a seniors outing?


Netflix

Even with Marvel movies disappearing for a year, there’s no shortage of superheroes. The latest superpowered drama to hit the small screen is the ambitious Netflix series Jupiter’s Legacy, packed with characters who have powers of flight and super-speed — and yet ironically it struggles to soar because it moves too slow.

Based on a series of comics by writer Mark Millar and artist Frank Quitely, Jupiter’s Legacy arrives in a crowded field. On the small screen alone we’ve recently seen new episodes of WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Batwoman, Black Lightning, Invincible, The Boys, the Snyder Cut… Can Netflix’s latest caped crusaders stand out? Find out yourself as all eight episodes of Jupiter’s Legacy volume 1 are available to stream on Netflix today, May 7.

Donning the cape is Josh Duhamel as Sheldon Sampson, a square-jawed Superman-style hero calling himself The Utopian. He’s a loving but stern patriarch of both his family and the Justice League/Avengers-esque Union of Justice, with an uncomfortable crossover between kin and caped coalition. Leslie Bibb is his wife, Grace, also known as Lady Liberty, and a deliciously slippery Ben Daniels is his brother Walter, endowed with tricksy mental powers.

Living in their super-shadows are super-children Chloe (Elena Kampouris) and Brandon (Andrew Horton). Brandon’s adopted his own super-identity in a tormented attempt to live up to his father’s example, while Chloe is a hot mess who’s gone the other way with a superhuman drug habit and nothing but contempt for daddy’s code.

Episode 1’s showstopping punch-up promises all the color and costumes of a comic book, plus the grit (and gore) you don’t get in a Marvel movie. But family drama is the real focus of the show: Sure, there are a few superpowered battles and some inventive action dotted through the season, but after the opening installment whole episodes go by with barely a swirl of a cape. If the noisy city-smashing carnage of DC and Marvel movies isn’t your bag, then this could be the superhero show for you.

Family drama is supersized with superpowers.


Netflix

The modern-day plotline also cuts back to the Union’s origin story back in the Depression era. Between the present day and old-timey storylines the main cast play both their younger and older selves, and it’s one of the biggest strengths of the show. Admittedly their superpowers mean they haven’t aged much beyond dubious white wigs, but Duhamel, Daniels and Bibb really sell the transition between young and old. Duhamel in particular does a great job of going from strapping young buck to strapping but aged super-senior, the strongest man in the world bent under the weight of time and doubt.

They also have fun chewing on old-timey dialogue as their younger selves, glamming it up in sharp 1920s outfits. Matt Lanter is insanely watchable as a louche rich kid joining the search for superpowers. Again, we’re told a lot about his character, but inevitably we’ll have to wait for future seasons to actually see more of him.

While the modern-day story is more about characters and relationships, the old-timey plotline is driven by a clear goal. But comics readers know the destination of this story, making it paradoxically the most and least interesting part of the show. And even if you aren’t familiar with the source material, you still pretty much know where this plotline is going, because it’s a flashback from the present-day events unfolding in front of you. When I spoke to Millar he compared this fleshed-out backstory with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a classic film that builds a mystery around whether aliens are real, whether they’re friendly or malevolent, and whether the hero is losing his mind. Close Encounters wouldn’t have the same impact if it opened with a guy living among aliens and then expected us to feel any suspense about those questions.

Ahoy-hoy, we’re super-heroes, see?


Netflix

That’s the difficult balancing act of adaptation. But it doesn’t help out that showrunner Steven DeKnight (and his replacement Sang Kyu Kim) flesh out lengthy backstory for an event that’s literally the first thing you see in the comic. This extra backstory is all very atmospheric, but many viewers may find themselves wondering why it’s taking so long to get to something they’d expect to take for granted. Obviously it’s all building to a suitably exciting season-ending climax, but some twists and turns along the way would be welcome. Compare that with recent Amazon Prime Video series Invincible, which slams a world-changing twist from issue 12 of the comics into episode 1 of the show and then just cracks on from there.

The lack of forward momentum in Jupiter’s Legacy also applies to the present-day storylines. The characters have a tendency to move in place, milling around each other worrying about the same things rather than making choices and changing their lives. The younger characters in particular don’t seem to do much except exist in a holding pattern until the big season climax. For example, the opening episode sets up Brandon as the leading character, but then he pretty much disappears. Meanwhile you could comfortably skip episode 4 entirely and you wouldn’t miss any important plot development from either the present-day storylines or the flashback scenes.

Still, the relationships and internal struggles are engaging, and the major characters are all well drawn. There’s a reality to the characters and their troubled relationships. The Utopian’s strict standards for his fellow superheroes represent an identifiable emotional challenge, and you can’t help but sympathize with everyone feeling the weight of those ideals. These are big personalities with big problems, and the prospect of spending time with them draws you into their world. It’s just frustrating to feel like you’re wading through a season of setup waiting for the real story to kick in next year or the year after. We’ve seen enough of that in superhero moves shoehorning in sequel setup.

You can’t fault Jupiter’s Legacy for scale or for establishing compelling core characters. It’s just a shame events unfold so slowly. It’s strange to say that a show filled with so much stuff doesn’t do enough. Jupiter’s Legacy is superpowered enough to leap tall buildings in a single bound; if only it remembered it could move faster than a speeding bullet.

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