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‘Powers’ Review: Crime Caper Genre Gives Fresh Perspective on Superheroics

Based on the long-running comic series, PlayStation scripted series offers a ground-level take on a world with costumed superheroes

PlayStation Network jumps into the original programming game by offering a fresh perspective on the nearly oversaturated superhero market. “Powers” is based on a long-running comic book series by writer Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming. While set firmly in the world of spandex-clad heroes and villains, it is not these colorful characters at the center of the stories.

Instead, homicide detectives Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim take center stage, as they tackle powers-related crimes. Rather than flying through the air with the superheroes, or witnessing their tussles with super-powered foes up close, we are instead treated to what this looks like from the ground.

These kinds of people and battles may be taking place all around us, but they are not necessarily the center of our lives, even though the common people are fascinated with the powers around them. Nevertheless, it has very little impact on most people in the show, except perhaps the members of the police department’s Powers Division.

Detective Walker, portrayed by a slightly over-the-top Sharlto Copley, is a former power himself, having lost his super-abilities at the hands — or perhaps teeth — of the mysterious Wolfe (Eddie Izzard). When we meet this character, he is being held captive in a special containment facility to keep his powers inactive because of the danger he poses. But as Izzard is a main character, we can certainly figure this won’t last.

Walker finds himself partnered with a fresh-faced new member of the Powers Division, creating that classic cop combination of grizzled veteran and eager newcomer. Detective Pilgrim, played by Susan Heyward, has been changed from the source material into a young African-American woman rather than a blonde white one, but absolutely nothing else about her appears different … including her signature earring style. She is just the right balance of enthusiastic and inquisitive to break through Walker’s defenses.

Copley comes on a little strong in the early going, scratching and growling his way through his lines — which offer a bit too much awkward exposition in the pilot. Thankfully, he settles into the role as the series progresses, so that by the time I reached the end of the the first three episodes — PSN launched the series by making its first three episodes available Tuesday, with subsequent installments releasing one per week — I wasn’t nearly as distracted by his performance.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that Copley seemed a little melodramatic in the early going, as he is essentially the “superhero” lead of the series. He is balanced in this way by series villain Johnny Royalle, played with similar gusto by Noah Taylor. The teleporting Royalle was thought long dead, but makes a surprising return to torment his old nemesis Diamond, which was Walker’s superhero name back during his heyday in the 1990s.

Ironically, one of the most talented performers in the ensemble gives the most grounded performance as Retro Girl, a “Power” — as those with superhuman abilities are called — with incredible abilities and even more fame who shares a complicated past with Walker. But while she has embraced her role in the spotlight, Walker is less enthused by his own fame.

This is a world where Powers are the new celebrity. Rather than talking about the latest antics of the Kardashian clan, Mario Lopez could be seen on “Extra” talking about powers. The public is fascinated by the Powers and desperately wants to be like them. It becomes a statement about our own desperate grasping for fame; whereas we have people dreaming of being cast in a reality television show, in the world of Powers, the “wannabes” fantasize about their own powers emerging.

And they’ll do almost anything for the chance to be among the powered elite. Our glimpse into this world comes through a strong performance by Oleysa Rulin as Calista. She worships Retro Girl, is painfully desperate to matter and is convinced that the only way to do this is by finding her own power. She believes she has a latent power that just hasn’t triggered.

In the mythology of the show, special abilities seem mostly to develop around puberty and as a result of great stress and trauma, as evidenced by the revealed powers origins of both Walker and Royalle. This gives Calista a terrible idea, which shows just how this world of Powers can affect those who are not among them.

Royalle latches onto Calista for personal reasons that are revealed later, adding depth to his character. But it’s not quite enough to explain why she becomes such a focal point for so many of the characters. While Rulin gives a compelling and believable performance, it’s strange that such an ordinary girl becomes so important to so many people — while annoyingly running back and forth between the conflicting factions.

She’s pivotal to the investigation into the murder of a Power that sets the show in motion. While this is a series about people with superpowers, it is ultimately a crime caper. Powers are getting murdered, and there’s a signature connection between them.

“Powers” is more similar in tone and approach to shows like “Fargo,” “The Killing” and “True Detective” than superhero shows like “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” “Arrow” and “The Flash.” It is a refreshing amalgamation of the two genres that creates a fascinating exploration into the world of four-color comics by imagining what it might really be like to live among costumed superheroes and villains.

Watch the first episode of “Powers” on YouTube here.

The first three episodes of “Powers” are currently streaming on the PlayStation Network. New episodes will be available each Tuesday.