clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The original Helstrom siblings are so much better than Hulu’s Helstrom

The new Marvel Cinematic Universe series turns Satan’s kids into something generic

Tom Austen and Sydney Lemmon stand in front of a black van and glower as Daimon and Ana Helstrom in Helstrom Photo: Bettina Strauss / Hulu

If you buy something from a Polygon link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Daimon and Ana Helstrom are two of the underrated greats of Marvel’s comic world. The Son of Satan and his powerful sorcerer sister were created in the early ‘70s as part of Marvel’s horror line, a longtime cult-favorite subsection of Marvel’s colorful superhero world. But their backstory has usually been more interesting than the stories they’ve been placed in. In their many decades on the scene, neither of them has even begun to tap their narrative potential. These enigmatic siblings have floundered at the edges of the Marvel Universe, with a small, dedicated fandom hoping for better.

Hulu’s new series Helstrom introduces them to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its TV tie-ins, though the visible MCU ties are extremely minor. Unfortunately, the new revival doesn’t fare much better than the comics when it comes to creating a lasting impact, and it only helps bury what makes them unique. The monster-of-the-week format could use any two characters in their place. In the comics world, Daimon and Ana are in tune with the world of the supernatural, but they both have personal issues that prevent them from fulfilling their potential as master occultists. They’re constantly hit with otherworldly attacks that leave them scrambling and on the defensive. Their TV counterparts are acting out more standard primetime-TV fare, which means audiences are losing out on the surreal, doomed tone that made the characters and their circumstances unique.

The show offers a fascinating plot with a ton of potential — a serial killer’s abused children, all grown up and attempting to uncover the secrets of their past. The first episodes revolve around Daimon and Ana reuniting, in spite of their shared animosity, to help their mother and crack the mystery of their father’s legacy.

Some technical missteps throw off the vibe. The series’ camera angles are bizarre and repetitive. The colors are dark and murky. And the set design is minimalist in moments where it should be anything but. Modern Marvel TV shows from Jessica Jones to Daredevil to Luke Cage have regularly been critiqued for their uneven pacing, and Helstrom continues the tradition, with most of the scenes feeling rushed and lacking in the emotional depth they would require to fully land. The series’ ideas work fine, but they’re too brisk to recognize the story’s potential impact.

Adding some of the comic characters’ quirks would have boosted the series’ appeal significantly. The show introduces Daimon as a stoic, staunchly unamused ethics professor, which is a nod to the comics, where he’s an anthropology professor. Yet it drops some of the more entertaining elements of what makes him work. Daimon’s comic-book counterpart tends to show up to everything from social gatherings to business meetings barefoot and shirtless, acting weird and mumbling to himself, sporting occult artifacts and tattoos. His failure to fit in is equally apparent in the TV series, given his intentionally aloof persona. But a rocky opening scene, where he snaps at everyone involved in a possession hoax, including his own partner, doesn’t give viewers much reason to look deeper into the character. Still, as the series goes on, like his comic-book self, Daimon turns out to be a much more sensitive and complicated person.

Sydney Lemmon as Ana is a highlight for the show, and a boon as the most prominent queer character in the MCU so far. Her character design, essentially “business Goth,” adds some much-needed style to the series, but it’s one of Helstrom’s only visually compelling aspects. Her dialogue doesn’t always land (she veers into snark regardless of how appropriate it is to the scene), but when it does (for instance, when she’s gently mocking Daimon for his hyper-seriousness), she’s the best part of the series. Tom Austen isn’t given much emotional depth to work with in playing Daimon, but he’s at his best when he’s empathizing with others, rather than talking down to them. Cutting way back on the “moody genius with a heart of gold” vibe and giving him more of his comic counterpart’s wounded exterior and out-of-this-world hijinks would have done wonders for him. Throwing in the comics’ penchant for glamorous, even slightly ridiculous wardrobe choices could have complemented Ana’s look in a much more visually appealing way, and helped tie the look of the series together.

The supporting cast adds a lot to this series. Elizabeth Marvel has her work cut out for her in portraying Ana and Daimon’s possessed, occasionally demonic mother Victoria, and she does well with it. The series introduces a new cast of supporting characters for the siblings, including Mindhunter’s June Carryl as Louise Hastings, head of the psychiatric institute that holds Victoria. Carryl’s character is one of the best parts of the series, and she deserves more screen time and depth, but she does have her own subplots to keep the audience busy between Daimon and Ana’s exploits.

Ariana Guerra is fun to watch as Gabriella Rosetti, a gender-swapped version of the comics’ character Gabriel the Devil Hunter. But most of her scenes are wasted on frustrating moments where she’s supposed to prove she’s worthy of being in the same room as the siblings. The series opens on Daimon condescending to her at length, and many of her scenes in the first episodes entail people grilling her about her beliefs, or why she’s even present. Hastings defends her and Daimon lightens his approach, but it’s a hard dynamic to love. Once she stands up for herself, the show instantly gets better. Alain Uy as Chris Yen, Ana’s business partner, has sparse screen time, but he’s charismatic and fun. Meanwhile, Robert Wisdom plays Caretaker, a recurring Marvel comics character who was played by Sam Elliot in the 2007 film Ghost Rider, and he’s great as the emotional core connecting Ana, Louise, and Daimon, and encouraging them to watch out for each other.

In the end, there’s nothing that’s wrong with Helstrom that couldn’t have been fixed with a little more attention and care. The series’ main drive becomes that of any standard demon-of-the-week paranormal series, without the allure that makes the format work. Ana and Daimon’s shared trauma could be an interesting or even profound element of the story, but it’s flattened to the point of being reductive. Helstrom has its charms, but all these small problems combine to make it a frustrating watch, particularly for longtime Marvel who hoped these characters might finally be getting their due.

The 10-episode premiere season of Helstrom is now streaming on Hulu.