Netflix's 'Jupiter's Legacy' Is Best When It Gets Old-Timey
The show takes inspiration from the origin of superheroes.
Something that tumbles around and around in my head is a statement I made to a friend a few months ago after watching a bunch of genre shows in quick succession: Most TV is just people standing in rooms. It's true; the vast majority of scripted television out there is either police procedurals, legal dramas, or sitcoms, prime real estate for scene after scene of room-standing while conversations unfold in the span of a half-hour to an hour of (sigh) content. Live-action superhero shows are no different. Without the budgets of blockbuster movies, most of the action scenes are quick and light on effects, while the majority of the episodes focus on putting their characters in rooms and letting them talk to each other. (And it's those scenes that are often the strongest: The best parts of WandaVision weren't any of the climactic levitating fight sequences, but the quiet conversations between the two main characters.) It's no surprise that Jupiter's Legacy, the new comic book adaptation from Netflix, is much more engaging when it's about a family of steel mill owners trying to yank their business from the gaping maw of the Great Depression (and also becoming superheroes).
The show, which is based on the 2013 comic series written by Mark Millar and showrun by Steven S. DeKnight (director of the bright and colorful yet tonally bland Pacific Rim: Uprising), bounces back and forth in time, starting with the present day, in which the Sampson family of superheroes, the parents (Josh Duhamel and Leslie Bibb) in old age makeup and flowing gray wigs, weakly attempting to impart their heroic values onto their superpowered children, one of whom works hard for his father's praise while the other has given up on the family completely. These scenes are interspersed with flashbacks into the family's past, starting with the day the stock market crashed in 1929 and ground the Sampson steel mill to a halt. When his father commits suicide by jumping off the roof of the office building, Sheldon Sampson begins having visions and drawing strange symbols, leading him and a group of comrades to where they got their powers in the first place.
Over the course of the first season, the old-timey flashbacks become a reprieve from the yawn-inducing subplots of the Sheldon children trying to make it in a world that doesn't care for old-timey values anymore. It's telling when a superhero show is at its best when none of the characters have any superpowers yet, and Jupiter's Legacy clearly has a lot to say, but doesn't really commit to anything. The world is different in the modern day from what it was before. (Objectively true.) It's both bad to kill people, and also sometimes necessary. (A major, huge-ramifications death in the first episode is retconned almost immediately in the second.) Parents should make every effort to be in their children's lives, but also heroes have a duty to the greater good. (A dichotomy that's much more effectively explored in Amazon Prime's Invincible.)
Weirdly, it's way more fun to watch Josh Duhamel in three-piece pinstripe suits having impassioned conversations about how his steel company built this city, goddammit, and later trying to convince a bunch of his friends to go with him on a rickety barge into basically the Bermuda Triangle because he had an odd vision one time. I spent most of the episodes of this show waiting for those moments to pop back up again. Modern superhero stories are constantly grappling with what the ideal means in a modern era where ideals seem to be evolving every day, but Jupiter's Legacy at least understands that superheroes—classic comic book superheroes—were born from the Great Depression, from people at their collective lowest points searching for inspiration to keep going. The show doesn't have the manic, meanie flow that makes Amazon Prime's The Boys such an engaging watch, or the bracing absurdity of HBO Max's Doom Patrol, but it pays respect to its origins while trying to figure out what it wants to be next.