Of the two, it’s television, more than film, that has provided the more interesting of playgrounds to explore the nuances of superheroes. Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s The Boys – a darkly comedic satire of conglomerate culture – worked just as well when transplanted from comic book to screen by Eric Kripke. Netflix‘s adaptation of Gerard Way’s The Umbrella Academy was a mediation on the complexities of family just as much as it was a show about people with superpowers. And, while there’s an argument that the seminal Watchmen should never have left the page, it’s an argument that doesn’t feel as strong in the wake of HBO’s superb 2019 series.
Now comes Jupiter’s Legacy, Netflix’s adaptation of Mark Millar and Frank Quitely’s treatise on the American ideal. Behind the camera is Steven S. DeKnight, best known for his work on Daredevil season one, but also responsible for the often very silly – but normally very good – swords-and-sandals series Spartacus. On the basis of what we’ve seen in this show’s first episode, DeKnight appears to be exactly the sort of foil that Miller’s unique talents need.
Relentlessly creative – his 2002 series Ultimate heavily influenced the Marvel Cinematic Universe – Millar is rarely short on good ideas. The premise here is one of his very best. In fact, the central theme of Jupiter’s Legacy is right there in the title; how will a new generation of superheroes fare in the shadow of their hero parents? It’s not an especially new idea – Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman have all sired children – but it’s one that’s rarely been explored as thoroughly as Miller and Quitely have done in print since 2013.
And yet Miller’s ideas have often needed a filter. 2010’s big screen adaptation of Kick-Ass, based on Miller and John Romita Jr’s 2008 comic of the same name, was poignant and cool. The comic, often tawdry and often relentlessly cruel, was not. The difference? Screenwriter Jane Goldman, who worked similar magic on Miller’s Kingsman series. Here the external influence has affected not tone so much as structure. On page, Jupiter’s Legacy could never truly work out what it was. This isn’t a problem DeKnight faces with his show.
With a surprisingly low-key cast – lead Josh Duhamel is best known for playing second fiddle to giant robots in most of Michael Bay’s Transformers series – DeKnight takes two of the comics themes; the titular legacy and the passage of time, and hangs his show on them, letting Miller’s many other ideas simmer in the background. This is best depicted in a scene early on where Duhamel (as team leader ‘The Utopian’) and his onscreen older brother (Ben Daniels, as ‘Brainwave’) discuss, like gods atop Mount Olympus, the concept of free will. They debate whether they should have used their powers to stop the Holocaust and other great tragedies of history.
There’s weariness here, with both heroes eliciting disbelief (and both actors doing so superbly) that the fight against cruelty is relentless and seemingly never ending. What we have here is another small-screen comic book adaptation that brings its ideas as big as its heroes’ muscles.
‘Jupiter’s Legacy’ arrives on Netflix May 7