NBC’s Powerless brings DC Comics into a brand new realm of the television multiverse DC has ever before traversed: the half-hour workplace sitcom. Starring Vanessa Hudgens, Danny Pudi, and Alan Tudyk, Powerless embraces the everyday weirdness of the DC Universe and mines it all for laughs. Plus, as Powerless proudly boasts in its opening credits that homage classic DC comic book covers, the show exists on an Earth where the Justice League makes its home.
Supergirl wowed fans with its charming, dead-on version of Superman to kick off its second season, but before that the other superhero shows on The CW, Arrow, The Flash, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow coyly danced around the subject of whether the Trinity of DC’s superheroes – Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – exist on Earth-1 (unless something changes, they don’t.) Meanwhile, Gotham on FOX gets to play with most of Batman’s wonderful super villain concepts, while keeping the future Dark Knight a teenager and far from donning the cape and cowl.
Superman and Batman are neither seen nor heard in Powerless – unless you count the voice of Adam West delivering a brief opening narration – but the show leaves absolutely no doubt the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight prominently exist in its universe. As do Lex Luthor, the President-elect of the United States who promises to “Make Metropolis Super Again,” and the Joker, whom we see in custody but with a hood over his head in a newscast from Gotham City. Kryptonite also exists in Powerless, and apparently is so plentiful it can be made into panes of window glass for office buildings.
The only superhero Powerless‘ pilot “Wayne or Lose” actually shows is the Crimson Fox, who was a C-list member of the Justice League introduced in Justice League Europe in the early 1990s. The lone super villain plaguing Charm City, where Powerless is based, is Jack O’Lantern, another C-list character who has been a villain in the comics as well as a member of the heroic Global Guardians superhero team. Powerless also briefly shows the Justice League’s first-ever enemy, Starro the Conqueror, climbing a building before vomiting on Vanessa Hudgens’ character Emily Locke’s window, as well as the scrap of a giant robot that may be the Construct, another classic League villain.
Emily Locke is the audience’s window into the weird world of her new place of employment, Wayne Security. Locke and her wacky co-workers provide research and development of products to help Charm City’s citizens cope with and survive the daily superhuman brawls that plague the city, like Joker Anti-Venom that comes in different shades of purple. Despite their lofty slogan – “Wayne Security Gives The Power Back to the Powerless” – it’s surprising and odd that a subsidiary of a company owned and run by Bruce Wayne churns out low grade products that they freely admit are knockoffs of better products developed by Lex Luthor’s LexCorp.
The best explanation for Wayne Security’s corporate culture of under performance can be found in the man who runs it: Van Wayne, played by Alan Tudyk. Van Wayne is Bruce Wayne’s cousin (or as Van puts it his “cuz-bro”), who has been plucked from the pages of Silver Age comic Batman #148. Van is “a big picture guy,” and the big picture of himself in his office proves it. Van eschews being referred to as “Mr. Wayne,” unlike Bruce (or “B-Dubs” as Van likes to call him). Bruce and Van appear to be rather close – so close, in fact, that Van texts Bruce constantly. Bruce in turn replies to Van demanding he stop using Bruce’s HBO GO password.
Bruce Wayne’s most prominent cousin in the comics today is Kate Kane, who is Batwoman and currently fights alongside Batman in the pages of Detective Comics. Kate is Bruce’s family on his mother’s side. Before she married Thomas Wayne, Martha Kane hailed from one of the three most prominent families of Gotham: the Waynes, the Kanes, and the Cobblepots (the most famous Cobblepot is Oswald Cobblepot, the Penguin.) Thomas Wayne has not been known to have any brothers or sisters, as upon the murder of Thomas and Martha, Bruce had no immediate family and was left in the care of the family butler Alfred Pennyworth. But now, thanks to Powerless, Bruce has a cousin. Perhaps soon Powerless will reveal whether Thomas Wayne had a brother or a sister.
We don’t yet know if Van was banished to Charm City from Gotham or if he was always in Charm City, but we do know Gotham is the place Van wants desperately wants to be. Van yearns to work at Wayne Enterprises alongside “B-Dubs.” Van has a framed photograph of Wayne Tower and Gotham’s skyline in his swank office. Van’s photo of Gotham looks a bit like the Chicago-New York City hybrid of Gotham in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy with a fleeting echo of the Gotham Anton Furst designed for Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film. Van was supposed to be promoted to Gotham a year prior, but lost out to another Wayne employee who invented Wayne Light Lime beer.
Powerless‘ Bruce Wayne also somehow found time in his busy schedule to write a business management book, Wayne or Lose, filled with business bon mots like “A boss can’t be afraid to look human” and “To get the best out of people, you need to get to know them on a personal level.” Emily Locke took the wisdom found in Wayne or Lose to heart and it is one of her keys to success.
The plot of “Wayne or Lose” revolves around Emily coming up with a “big idea” that Van can show to Bruce that will persuade Bruce to invite Van to join him at Wayne Enterprises in Gotham. What Van wants most in this world is to leave Charm City behind, or in his words, to “get out of this godforsaken taint of a city.”
Prior to Locke and her R&D team coming up with said invention – the Jack-O-Lert, a watch that identifies super villains by their unique smell profile to warn the wearer of impending danger – Bruce calls Van to inform him he’s scuttling Wayne Security and firing the entire staff. That’s a rather cold-blooded business move by Mr. Wayne, who seems to be a hands-on manager of his company in Powerless. This is a far cry from the Bruce Wayne Christian Bale portrayed in The Dark Knight Trilogy, who slept through board meetings and was content to let Lucius Fox handle the day-to-day running of Wayne Enterprises.
Sadly for Van, if not for his employees, the Jack-O-Lert is a success, necessitating Wayne Security keeping its doors open and Van remaining at its helm in Charm City, far from his dream job in Gotham. The Jack-O-Lert is even used by Batman (who changed its color to black) to apprehend the Joker by his smell – “a weird coincidence” according to Emily. Emily and her co-workers amusingly wish they worked for Batman because “he’d really get us.”
Whether there’s more to Van Wayne than meets the eye remains to be seen. Luckily, Powerless has a full season order from NBC, so there are plenty more episodes to “pop the hood on this Van and see inside.”
Powerless airs Thursdays at 8:30 pm on NBC.