In the first episode of Jupiter’s Legacy, Netflix’s adaptation of the Mark Millar/Frank Quitely comic book series of the same name, the world’s greatest superhero provides a litany of America’s failings. “The country’s never been more divided,” The Utopian says. “Congress is at a standstill. No one’s willing to meet in the middle anymore. The gap between rich and poor just keeps getting wider. Kids learning active shooter drills before they even learn their ABCs. Nazis smashing up the streets.”
His brother and fellow superhero Walter (Ben Daniels) agrees that the country is on the wrong track, but they disagree on how to fix it. Utopian, aka Sheldon Sampson (Josh Duhamel), believes the heroes of the Union of Justice should just keep punching supervillains (but not killing them), and hope that in the process, they can inspire people to be better. Walter thinks they should take over, because “free will is what’s bringing the world to its knees.”
Walter has all the subtlety of The Lion King’s Scar warning Mufasa, “Perhaps you shouldn’t turn your back on me.” But Sheldon and the other heroes of Jupiter’s Legacy are archetypes of the Good Is Dumb trope. Showrunner Sang Kyu Kim, who took over after series creator Steven S. DeKnight left the project due to creative differences, is trying to deconstruct how the superhero genre has evolved, but he and the show’s writers don’t seem to actually have anything new to say. As a result, the characters spend eight episodes delivering monologues that are all variations on “things used to be black and white, but now they’re shades of gray” while only offering the most black-and-white solutions: Do nothing, or take over the world.
By slapping a heavy application of aging makeup on the principal cast, the show alternates between the present day and 1929. Walter, ever the pragmatist, predicted the coming stock-market crash, but his overly optimistic brother ignored his advice, leading to their family business going bankrupt and their father committing suicide. Soon after losing everything, Sampson began seeing strange visions urging him to assemble a group of six chosen people to venture to an island and gain the power to fix everything by becoming superheroes.
More than 90 years later, the world resembles a hybrid between Kingdom Come and The Boys. Superheroes are the world’s biggest celebrities, with the new generation spending much of their time racking up endorsement deals and partying at clubs. In the meantime, supervillains have become more violent, and young heroes no longer believe in The Utopian’s code, which states they can never kill, even in self-defense. In yet another incarnation of the current trend of using superhero stories to explore how fathers relate to their children, The Utopian is portrayed as a pretty awful dad. His demands for perfection push away both his daughter Chloe (Elena Kampouris), who escapes into drugs and alcohol, and his son Brandon (Andrew Horton) who desperately wants his father to see him as a worthy successor.
Millar and Quitely’s series is short, and most of the Netflix show draws from just a small section of the third volume of the comic. Netflix’s adaptation of The Umbrella Academy faced a similar scarcity of source material, but that show’s writers were able to actually improve on the comics by adding fresh details that meshed with Gerard Way’s zany style. The idea of the Greatest Generation heroes grappling with America’s decline, which Millar originally explored in the wake of the Great Recession, feels even more relevant today, but Kim and the writers take such a light touch with the material that their additions all feel like padding, rather than really developing or updating the characters, world, or themes.
The storytelling is especially sluggish in the historical segments, where Sheldon spends entire episodes wandering alone through the Dust Bowl like a raving madman. The action speeds up a bit when the journey to the island actually gets underway, but the sequence’s Lovecraftian pulp trappings fail to deliver much payoff. The story focuses on the fractured relationship between Sheldon, Walter, and Sheldon’s eccentric and fabulously wealthy best friend George Hutchence (Matt Lanter of 90210 and Star Wars: The Clone Wars). Sheldon’s future wife Grace (Leslie Bibb) plays peacemaker, and the other two heroes are very much just along for the ride.
That’s especially problematic for Fitz Small, aka The Flare (Mike Wade), one of several characters who was race-swapped from the comic to make the cast more diverse. He’s used as a mouthpiece for monologues in 1929 about how he loves America, even though it’s a rough country for a Black man. But he doesn’t express any of those sentiments in the present day, with the show falling into the frustrating period-piece trap of pretending that racism is a problem of the past that’s been resolved. All his conflicts are instead based on being worried that his superhero daughter might be injured fighting, and wind up in a wheelchair like him. Aside from being generically smart, he has no defining character traits besides his race and disability.
There are a few bright spots within the show, like The Utopian having therapy sessions with a defeated villain he believes understands him better than anyone else, and a dramatic fight scene that takes place in a silent vacuum. While the special effects can’t rival the action in the big superhero fights taking place on Disney Plus’ Marvel shows, there’s certainly plenty of creativity on display in how various powers interact.
Unfortunately, that creativity is largely lacking from the rest of the series. Millar was trying to comment on the transition from the simple conflicts of the Golden Age of comic books, where heroes mostly dispatched bank robbers and silly costumed villains, to the more nuanced modern hero stories, which have become overtly political. But the conflict throughout most of the first season of Jupiter’s Legacy just boils down to whether it’s OK to kill a supervillain who’s about to murder you or your parents. The show hints at the more complex conflicts that the comics address, but the writers seem to be keeping them in reserve for a future season. It’s hard to care about how the story will continue, given that everyone in the show is either an evil cliché, exceptionally gullible, unreasonably stubborn, or barely a character at all.
There are plenty of problems with America, and with the superhero genre’s relationship with violence and politics, but Jupiter’s Legacy doesn’t really address any of them. Like The Utopian himself, the show’s creators are stuck looking back at an imagined Golden Age, with no way to move forward and build something better.
All eight episodes of Jupiter’s Legacy are now streaming on Netflix.