With the premiere of NBC’s Powerless this week, another DC comics-based show has taken to the airwaves – this time trading in capes and superpowers for office chit-chat and nice shirts. Seeking to show a different side to all the superheroism currently doing the rounds, Powerless is a sitcom about the regular people that have to put up with superpowered individuals flying around and wrecking their city. And despite being very specifically a DC property, the series as yet has ties to neither The CW’s Arrowverse or the DC Extended Universe – though the showrunner has already mentioned the possibility of The Flash‘s Grant Gustin to making an appearance as Barry Allen.
Set in Wayne Security, a subsidiary of Wayne Enterprises based in Charm City, Powerless follows a group of researchers led by Vanessa Hudgens’ Emily Locke, who are tasked with the job of superpower-proofing the city and its inhabitants. In other words, they have to figure out how to make living somewhere where your morning commute can involve your train being blown off its rails by a fight between a hero and a rogue supervillain somehow feasible. Vanessa’s team answer to Van Wayne, Bruce Wayne’s narcissistic cousin whose only interest is getting promoted to the Gotham offices, played by Alan Tudyk. Needless to say, their job is difficult and their living conditions less than ideal.
In both tone and setting Powerless presents something potentially very interesting to the current pop culture climate. Comic book characters are everywhere right now and the various shows and movies that depict them are pretty much all in celebration of their existence and sympathetic to their troubles. Here, there’s a malaise towards their necessity. Their battles are disruptive to city-life and trying to protect against them is an exhausting job. When Vanessa arrives in the first episode, the Wayne Security team treat her with a pompous arrogance, expecting her to get fired despite her unabashed idealism for superheroes like Crimson Fox, who saves her in the opening scene. The humor is mostly jovial meta-satire, complimented with a cartoonish colour palette that gives the show a kind of unreality, creating a mood of self-awareness at the ridiculousness of the mere concept of superpowers.
There’s nothing else quite like Powerless aimed at the same audiences as the current comic book shows and cinematic universes, which is why it’s perfect for crossing over with one of the already established DC franchises. The DCEU, the Arrowverse and the MCU each have a very particular production-style they rarely deviate from: The DCEU is dark and gritty, the MCU more bright and colorful, and the Arrowverse shamelessly cheesy. In their writing, however, they each tackle the same broad themes – person gets powers, person learns to use powers, person finds being a hero isolating and lonely.
Powerless breaks that pattern. It’s a show that argues about being sick of superheroes and how they’re a nuisance and the collateral damage they cause – like Watchmen, only with less misery and death. In the wake of Man of Steel, one of the widest criticisms was the amount of destruction caused in the climactic battle – Powerless is those complaints focused and amplified, a bunch more superpower-fueled films later. As such, it could be a vital ingredient to making sure one the Arrowverse or the DCEU stays distinct. Rather than a Flash/Supergirl crossover ending in a smiley goodbye, the two could have to go to Wayne Security and formally apologize for wrecking their protective gadgets. Powerless can keep writers answerable for what happens and double-down on the idea of the events depicted happening in a living universe, with living people, and occasionally heroes have to answer to that.
This would be a good experiment for the characters and actors, too. Having a similar tone across shows simplifies crossing over, Melissa Benoist or Stephen Amell having to hold their own surrounded by a comedic cast on a comedy would be a perfect stage for them to prove their acting chops. More to the point, trying to make Green Arrow or Supergirl fit in such a cartoonishly bright show is a prospect gigglesome in and of itself.
Of course, the obvious choice for a connection is the Greg Berlanti-led CW stable, as then both direct ties and crossovers are on the table, but the DCEU could also work. It would give some much-needed levity to the very dour approach that’s showcased in both Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad to know that the events of these films are possibly being helped along by a tool made in Wayne Security. While the possibility of an actual appearance by the DCEU actors is microscopically slim (Powerless showrunner Patrick Schumaker has said plainly, “[Jason Momoa will] never show up as Aquaman. Ben Affleck will never show up as Batman“) there are other ways to build connections. Van Wayne can make mention of Batman thanking the team in an episode, or a member of the Justice League could mention an incident in the show. Ambiguous enough that scripts don’t require total overlap, direct enough that fans recognize what’s going on.
Powerless represents something new and different for the current stream of comic book productions. It’s sarcastic and morose without being mean-spirited or condescending and tosses up the tried-and-tested formatting already widely in use. With two established universes in which Powerless could extend a rejuvenating, fulfilling touch, the powers that be at DC and Warner Bros would be wise not to let it slip by.
Powerless continues next Thursday with ‘Wayne Dream Team’ @8:30pm on NBC.