Considering his success with characters like Blade, Batman and, possibly, Superman, it’s clear that David S. Goyer sees the world through superhero-tinted glasses. While it might seem like too much of a stretch, rather than adapt another well-known character from the pages of Marvel or DC, the writer-director’s gaze has turned to the annals of history and, more specifically, famed thinker, inventor and artist Leonardo Da Vinci (Tom Riley) as the subject of his very superhero-y action drama Da Vinci’s Demons.
Known for helping Christopher Nolan script a more grounded approach to the caped crusader, it is obvious from the earliest moments of this new series that Goyer was intent on doing exactly the opposite – the end result of which suggests Goyer’s best work may be done through collaboration and the filter of another creative mind.
As such, Da Vinci’s Demons gives itself free reign to begin some worldbuilding early on by stating flat out that the world as it is known has been suppressed and there is an enormous conspiracy keeping vast amounts of knowledge in the hands of a few select and very powerful people – i.e., Pope Sixtus IV (James Faulkner) and those in his cabal.
Through the opening scene’s exposition, Goyer essentially offers the series the entire world and recorded history as its sandbox, after a mysterious man states to a slightly drugged Da Vinci that “History is a lie,” and therefore the secrets of the world are essentially his to discover. The episode then jumps back in time several days so that we can get to know this dashing fellow with his carefully tousled hair, his immaculate beard and his leather jacket that looks like it was bought off-the-rack at Express for Men.
Riley’s Leonardo Da Vinci is obviously the show’s centerpiece, but he’s also the first confounding element to a series that, tonally speaking, is a bit scattered. One minute Da Vinci is sketching a young woman in a field and the next he’s tying his flaxen-haired manservant to a kite to see if he can make him fly (the whole scene is woefully reminiscent of a moment during Syfy’s failed Flash Gordon series involving a young member of the Hawkmen and his first time taking flight). In addition to the aforementioned stylings and slightly inconsistent behavior of Da Vinci, there are a number of anachronisms presented in the first episode that are delivered in such a way it’s uncertain whether the audience should be marveling at their existence or simply giggling away.
These scenes beg the question of whether or not the series is giving the audience a subtle wink or if it wants to be taken seriously. Is the mechanical dove an artifact erased from history because, as the conceit of the show suggests, powerful people want things like that to remain hidden, or was it just too absurd to not be stricken from the record books?
The uneven tone seems to put one half of the series firmly in the camp of the old Hercules and Xena television series, while the other half is a dark, violent tale that twists around the idea of conspiracy like The X-Files. It’d be fine to marry the two into something new that is both absurd and intriguing, but that would require some stability on behalf of the storytelling and the characters. From what’s presented in the ‘The Hanged Man,’ Da Vinci is offered as both a genius and a petulant child – which, again, are two characteristics that are frequently married with great success (e.g., Sherlock Holmes and Tony Stark) – but so far, there’s not enough binding the two contrasting elements together in a truly interesting fashion.
But this is only the series premiere and kinks like this sometimes are quickly worked out. On the bright side, it’s easy to see where Goyer wants to go with the series – if history has been a lie, then the entire history of the world is his to rewrite. So far, he’s set up a looming conflict between Florence and The Vatican as the series’ foundation – which allows Da Vinci to show off engineering prowess by designing weapons of war for Lorenzo Medici (Elliot Cowan) – all while adding the quest for something called The Book of Leaves that may or may not contain the secret history of the world.
Admittedly, that’s a lot of table setting being done through a presentation that seems to be on unsure footing. But there’s enough on the table to maybe convince those left skeptical by the premiere to stick around and see where it goes. Da Vinci’s Demons seems poised to strike a chord either through embracing what feels like a tongue-in-cheek approach to its premise, or by engaging more with the high-flying adventure series that seems to be lurking underneath all that unnecessary exposition and muddied staging.
Most new shows need some time to find their footing, but Da Vinci’s Demons also needs to figure out which direction it’s planning on running once it does.
Da Vinci’s Demons continues next Friday with ‘The Serpent’ @9pm on Starz. Check out a preview of the season ahead: