Swamp Thing Series Premiere Shows Promise
The Swamp Thing series premiere is not a traditional pilot, because the powers-that-be approved a 13-episode season based on the script alone. Whereas most pilots, especially for genre properties, must show-and-prove the whole concept in that first episode, Swamp Thing can take its time. If it’s not immediately evident by the character choice, this is not a traditional comic book series. Comic books and mythology are close cousins in storytelling terms. So, it’s apt to suggest, like Icarus, DC Universe’s ambitious Swamp Thing series represents them flying dangerously close to the sun. The premiere of the new show hit the DC Universe streaming service last week. It may represent a locus point for the viability of the platform. The Swamp Thing is not a traditional hero, nor does this series want to be compared to the Arrowverse or even the other DCU streaming shows, Titans and Doom Patrol.
James Wan, fresh off Aquaman success, produces the series specifically because of his experience with genre. More so than any film adaptation of this character, this version leans into the horror genre. From the opening scene of the Swamp Thing series premiere, audiences know they are in for a grisly horror piece. Yet, fans of the original comics, recognize that Swamp Thing may first appear to be horror but, thanks to writers like Moore and Morrison, the character is high fantasy. Yet, from implications made by the storytellers, the series will look to adapt this part of the story as well. Sadly, the real-world financial concerns of the business of entertainment might get in the way of a truly unique and worthwhile series. Time will tell, but if Swamp Thing ends up frustrating fans because of its pace, this might have been a series better suited to a “binge” distribution model.
The Business of Swamp Thing
The roll-out for the DC Universe original shows is mixed, at best. The first trailer for Titans both intrigued and offended DC fans, because of the liberties taken with the characters. The show went on to be, essentially, better than its early critics suspected. Introduced in that series were the characters for the next original series, Doom Patrol. There were some casting shakeups and redesigns, suggesting further trouble. Instead, Doom Patrol generally is the most well-received new DC show since CW’s The Flash. Still, the trend continued. When debuting the first image of Swamp Thing, DC also announced that instead of 13 episodes, the series would consist of only ten. Immediately, some took this to mean the series was already cancelled. The storytellers denied this rumor recently, bolstered by positive early reviews from select critics. For all the rest of us, the proof will be in the series.
Compared to the other two DCU series, the Swamp Thing series premiere unfolds at a snail’s pace. Given the subscriber base, chances are everyone knows from the second Andy Bean’s Alec Holland is introduced he’s destined to become the mossy green behemoth we’re all really here to see. Because this is a horror series, the slow pacing is a deliberate choice to build tension. They also have to establish the bond between the two central characters, Crystal Reed’s Abby Arcane, before one is changed irrevocably. There are still incredible horror moments, usually centered around a “redshirt” character from the opening scene and his fate. Still, like a motorless boat on a slow-moving river, the story drifts to the point mostly everyone will expect it to. Thus, it feels like the Swamp Thing series premiere was all preamble, and the real story starts this Friday with the second episode.
A Better Binge Than a Slow-Burn?
Deep though we are into the streaming wars, it’s easy to forget that all the episodes of a Netflix original debuting at once was big part of the appeal. Instead of doling out an episode week-by-week, audiences could watch a new episode when they chose to. Yet, for a streaming service without Netflix’s subscription size like DC Universe needs its fans to subscribe consistently. If they dropped all the episodes, fans could sign up for a month, watch all the episodes, and then cancel. In order to get a return on the investment, the DC Universe originals need to follow the traditional television release model. Yet, this can backfire. If fans expect the ass-kicking excellence of Titans or the cerebral superhero character studies of Doom Patrol, will they stick around for a fairly traditional horror story?
It’s unclear from the Swamp Thing series premiere if the show will drift into the more mystical territory of the comics. The central premise is “scientific,” in that it’s a mystery chemical that causes a mysterious illness and accelerated plant growth. Yet, when they show these enhanced vines actively menacing humans, they seem to have an intelligence about them. If they do adapt the part of the Swamp Thing saga that deals with the character’s larger connection to nature, that could be truly groundbreaking. Yet, would it work with the more traditional horror feel the show’s established? And, will fans hoping for that story stick around to see if they even get there? If the series struggles, which it might if only because Swamp Thing is difficult to adapt, will the delayed release schedule further frustrate the subscribers DCU desperately needs?
The Hero, So Far, Isn’t Who You’d Think
One key detail about the Swamp Thing series premiere is that the show, thus far, isn’t very focused on the titular character or his human counterpart. Alec Holland is shown to be a man of action, but the real hero in the story is Abby Arcane. This version of the classic comic book character is a doctor of infectious diseases with the CDC. The town where the inciting outbreak occurs is where she grew up, and the show expertly explains that baggage while retaining its mystery. Still, it’s through her eyes that audiences experience everything for the first time. She’s also show to be a hero, taking great risks to save children no fewer than two times in the Swamp Thing series premiere alone. While Swamp Thing might have the “power” in this show, it will be Abby who has the superhero conscience.
Again, we only see the Swamp Thing, portrayed on-screen by Derek Mears but likely still voiced by Andy Bean, for a moment. So, by the end of the first episode we’re deep into Abby’s story. While it’s clear she will have some kind of romantic interest in the “monster,” centering the narrative on her gives the story a much-needed human connection. We will see Swamp Thing through her eyes primarily, but also through the eyes of other characters who see him as a monster and a threat. Fans of the comics know to watch Henderson Wade’s Matt Cable, who also holds romantic desire for Abby. He also has the added advantage of being a handsome man who looks human. Other characters like Will Patton’s Avery Sutherland, Kevin Durand’s Jason Woodrue, and others give this series ample space to examine what really makes a person a monster.
The Way Swamp Thing Works Best
That this series seems to be a case of artistic intent versus corporate business interest is very metafictional, because the saga of the Swamp Thing is that story. The character had success early on, but when the book faced cancellation, DC gave then-unknown Alan Moore free reign with the character. His story, and fellow artists who produced the series, became something special. It told the kind of story that many thought impossible to do well in a comic. Moore and company proved that it this kind of philosophical and politically-charged story works best in this “children’s” medium. The villains were titans of industry looking to pollute the Earth, and Swamp Thing rose up as its defender. Later on in Moore’s career, business sensibilities got in the way of his artistic vision time and again. Art imitates life, and all that.
The character is, quite literally, an avatar for a greater supernatural force that is meant to signify the symbiosis required for humans the Earth to continue our living situation. An examination of hotly contested issues like these usually works best when told through a fantastical allegory. To weave that message into a horror story about monsters and magic is a huge challenge for any storyteller, especially in a medium as unforgiving as direct-to-consumer television. This series feels like it could be something unique that would better the genre-at-large like 2017’s Logan or, even, DCU’s Doom Patrol has done. Yet, artistic risks rarely mix well with business risks, and DC Universe is already a big risk, especially with parent company Warner Bros. also planning its own service. The worry shouldn’t be whether the Swamp Thing series is “good,” but rather will it get the chance to be truly great?
Worth a Watch, but Maybe Wait to Binge
Judging from the Swamp Thing series premiere alone, this is not exactly “must-see TV,” at least not right away. If shelling out another eight bucks every month for a streaming service like DCU (though the digital comic access may be worth the price alone) is a problem, wait. The finale of this season of Swamp Thing does not air until August, and if you are impatient with your shows you might want to let an episode backlog build up. Still, if they are able to maintain the quality level of the Swamp Thing series premiere throughout the whole thing, this is a show any comic book, fantasy, or horror fan should watch. It’s gory and graphic, akin to an R-rated film, but the rich source material promises a compelling story, no matter which version they tell. Hopefully, like with Doom Patrol recasting and reshoots, the shortening of this first season only makes the series better.
What do you think? Are you willing to give DC Universe a chance for Swamp Thing or any of the other original series? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below. Don’t forget to share the article on social media, so your friends can get in on the discussion.
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.