Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.
This instalment: C-list X-Men characters gather for a tale of family, bigotry, and what it might be like if America’s law enforcement agencies were openly and dangerously racist.
Short version: Fox’s Island of Misfit Toys is a lot less fun than the Arrowverse’s, I tell you what.
Theoretically set in the same, or at least a similar, world as the X-Men movies, things have taken a turn for the worse for America’s mutant population. A few years back, on July 15th, a mutant rights protest went bad, resulting in riots and violence. And where violence meets a whole bunch of mutant powers, collateral damage happens, resulting in new anti-mutant legislation. Worse still, both the heroic X-Men and the more violent Brotherhood have vanished, so there’s no one left to fight for the mutants in any context. All that’s left is the Mutant Underground, just trying to keep their people alive and out of the hands of the mutant-hunting agency Sentinel Services.
Years of government-mandated prejudice later, the Strucker family finds themselves in the middle of the fight in ways they didn’t expect. Kate Strucker (the delightful Amy Acker) is a nurse, while Reed Strucker (Stephen Moyer, from some obscure vampire show called True Blood) is a prosecutor specializing in mutant crimes. When their son, Andy, is pushed too far by bullies, the Struckers find out that both he and his sister Lauren are mutants. And the incident causes enough damage that the Struckers find themselves targeted by Sentinel Services, especially the dedicated mutant-hunter Agent Jace Turner.
They fall in with the Mutant Underground: John Proudfoot/Thunderbird, whose powers involve tracking, superstrength, and tough skin; Marcos Diaz/Eclipse, capable a firing intense bursts of heat and light; Lorna Dane/Polaris, with suspiciously Magneto-like control of metal, and who’s pregnant with Eclipse’s child; newest recruit Clarice Fong/Blink, who can open portals from one place to another; and several more support mutants. Together they must avoid Agent Turner, break various team members out of various prisons, and figure out how to deal with Dr. Roderick Campbell (Garret Dillahunt) and Trask Industries’ evil experiments on and against mutantkind.
Race Wars: There’s a lot of diversity in the Mutant Underground. Hispanic, Asian, Native American… sure, the Strucker family are as white as it gets, but that’s actually better for the story. Only a middle-class white family could be that shocked by systemic racism in the US. Any POC family would see over-aggressive police, or doctors calling 911 on a guy in the emergency room because the woman he’s with is sporting a bruise, or neighbours forming a lynch mob on a dime, and say “Yep, sure, that’s white America for you.”
Which is to say, the first half of the season is an effective examination of systemic racism in law enforcement, corruption in prisons, and hate groups and hate crimes. And the fact that it’s all happening to pretty white people might make a certain mindset take it more seriously.
World Without Heroes: I wasn’t sold at first on the idea of an X-Men show with no X-Men in it. I wasn’t certain about Fox’s apparent lack of interest in a cinematic universe, with Deadpool and Logan and Legion and now The Gifted and soon New Mutants all existing in X-Men-related worlds with no connection to each other or the main X-Men movies whatsoever. And I have concerns that between this, Logan, and the fact that every main X-Men movie since 2006 has taken place in the past, Fox’s endgame seems to be killing off the X-Men at some point in the late 2000s, early 2010s. With the Disney buy-out in motion, one could wonder if Dark Phoenix is their “kill all of the X-Men before Kevin Feige reboots them” movie. But in the case of this show, a lack of X-Men works.
The entire premise, of mutants in desperate straights, hiding or on the run from Sentinel Services, works so much better when there’s no one to call for help. No super team giving mutants a good name by taking down Magneto and fighting villains while wearing colourful costumes. The real-world issues that The Gifted touches on are all complicated, and none have a solution as easy as “Just call the big-name Good Guys for help,” so it works that the Mutant Underground don’t have that option either.
Lovers in a Dangerous Time: Polaris and Eclipse are an engaging couple. It might have been nice if they hadn’t spent so many of the first few episodes apart, as Eclipse made a deal with the free Struckers and Polaris showed us how screwed up American prisons are. It took many episodes for the show to make a case for why the Struckers should be the leads and not Polaris and Eclipse, and it was not 100% convincing.
Blink and Thunderbird work well, too. Together, the mutant underground just about makes a team worth watching, save for the nonsense they tend to get bogged down in, which we’ll get to shortly.
Variety is the Spice: There are an impressive variety of mutant powers in play, and they’re all well-done visually. It’s still network TV-budget special effects, but they’ve got more money behind them than Legends of Tomorrow.
Skyler Samuels acquits herself quite well as the Frost triplets, telepaths with untrustworthy agendas.
If you need an actor to play a modern-day Joseph Mengele with no visible human emotions, you could do a lot worse than Garret Dillahunt.
The mutant riot that caused all of these draconian anti-mutant laws to be passed is rightly referred to as “7/15,” a term Americans would use. It is not called “the occurrence” or “the unpleasantness” or “the whoopsie-doodle” or, for those who don’t see where I’m going with this, “the incident.” Everyone gets this but you, Marvel Netflix.
Also they have yet to do a “forced to fight as underground gladiators” episode, and this show is a high risk for that, because historically rich people love to make minorities fight for their amusement, so every season they resist it is a triumph. Wouldn’t make a wager they avoid it for all of season two, though.
No Plan: The Underground’s whole deal is that they’re trying to live up to the X-Men, to find a way to peacefully co-exist with humanity… but they never really seem to have a plan to make that happen. They spend the entire season either breaking people out of prisons/secret laboratories or trying to shut down said secret laboratory before it can do any more damage. There is zero plan for improving human/mutant relations, for undoing any of the anti-mutant laws. There is no hint that they might have a plan later. And this is a problem.
Without some indication that they have a plan to improve mutants’ lot in American life, what we have is a bunch of people hemming and hawing about using violence against the fascists, violent bigots, and mad scientists trying to commit a genocide against them, and that is… look, preaching non-violence is fine and all, but we are also back in a stage of history where people need to know that fascism must be fought. Not tolerated while you cross your fingers and hope that maybe eventually they’ll begin to see you as an actual person. As to those bigots…
Agent Turner is the Literal Worst: Agent Jace Turner is an asshole. He exemplifies what’s wrong with the American police. He is actually worse than the racist cops from Black Lightning because at least they’re honest enough to take bribes and be corrupt instead of pretending they’re the heroes. But I’m not convinced the writers know that’s the character they’ve created. Jace’s daughter died during the 7/15 violence, which should make him sympathetic, but it doesn’t. It just doesn’t. In the wake of 7/15, he decides that he doesn’t care which are the good mutants and which are the bad mutants, he just wants to round them all up and lock them away.
Which… this is their only major black character*. It’s not great having the one black guy in the main cast be the huge racist, saying he doesn’t see a difference between the “good ones” and the “bad ones.”
They sometimes seem like they’re trying to turn Jace into a good man unwittingly doing bad things, but he just isn’t. He sometimes furrows his brow in mild concern over the sinister and clearly immoral deeds of Dr. Campbell, but almost never raises a finger to stop them, and certainly enjoys the benefits of Campbell’s evil research. One time, after being shamed by his wife for letting his grief make him a monster and accessory to monstrous deeds, he agrees to trade down from cartoonish supervillainy to mere fascism, but that’s the episode that the Hellfire Club pulls some shenanigans and a whole bunch of his fellow agents end up dead, so it doesn’t take.
He’s a bad man who does exclusively bad things and pretends he’s somehow noble for doing it. Every time something bad happens to him and his, instead of seeing his side of things, I think “You had that coming, you jackbooted asshat.” And it is possible, it is utterly possible to take a character like this and make them sympathetic. I know this because Legion did it last year. In one cold-open montage, they took a clearly villainous character from the pilot and made us see his side of things, showed us how he’s the hero in his own story, to the point where he’s a regular this year and I’m thrilled about it. Sure, not every show can be Legion, but no show has an excuse not to try. Quality-wise, I mean. Not aesthetically. Probably shouldn’t try that.
*Some of the mutants have pretty heavy makeup, and one of them is black underneath it, but he’s not exactly a major character.
Pacing Problems, Always Pacing Problems: Every single plot point on this show takes longer than it needs to because we need to wade through a stream of “This is wrong” and “This is too dangerous, but what choice do we have” and “This is/isn’t what the X-Men would have wanted” and the ever-popular “I don’t want my kids mixed up in this.” There are 13 episodes in season one, and between them they have maybe eight episodes’ worth of plot. The rest is just constant hand-wringing.
Also the Struckers are not the show’s best characters, which is a problem, because they are the main characters. And it pains me to say that, because one of the Struckers is Amy Acker, and to reiterate Amy Acker is delightful. But the generic, cliche dialogue they feed her, and others… oy.
Actually, let’s add that to the list. There is some bland, clunky dialogue all over this show.
[Deep sigh] Let me think… “threat of eXtinction,” in which Reed discovers some dark family secrets, and some things about his kids’ powers, and he is not happy learning any of it. The Strucker family finally became as interesting as everyone else.
I’ll say “eXtreme measures.” Eclipse has to repay a favour to the cartel he used to work for, while Reed and Kate Strucker [gasp] don’t approve of Lauren’s new boyfriend! Honestly, this episode could have been cut and nobody would have missed it. The only lasting thing it accomplishes is making Sentinel Services even more purely evil than they had already been, which just was not necessary.
Emma Dumont as Lorna Dane/Polaris. This show could have a great deal of potential if they shaved off a bunch of the side plots (I’m counting the main characters as a “side plot”) and focussed on Lorna, Eclipse, their unborn child, and their growing philosophical divide. They might never be Stewart/McKellan Xavier and Magneto, not even MacAvoy/Fassbender Xavier and Magneto, but they could be as close as network TV is likely to get.
Tips For Next Season
Ugh. That asshole evil scientist is going to become an evil cyborg, isn’t he. Damn it.
Okay. So. We have a schism in the Mutant Underground. Some want to follow in the X-Men’s “co-exist” footsteps, some want to join up with the Hellfire Club, go the Magneto route, and start punching back. That’s cool. That’s sensible. That’s a logical direction for the show to go. Classic X-Men stuff right there.
Their opponents were all way too willing to hunt down, lock up, and wipe out mutantkind. So the whole “don’t kill, try to not fight, just pursue peace” thing is already looking like the wrong call. When the Frosts killed a whole bunch of Sentinel Services officers, it was really hard to see why this was a bad idea. I felt about as bad for them as I did any Earth-X Nazis Green Arrow put down back in December. When you’re fighting Joseph Mengele and the SS, damn it, you hit back.
The whole X-Men vs. Brotherhood thing only really works if co-existence is somehow on the table, if humans are willing to accept mutants in their midst. In the wake of 7/15, that seems to be a pipe dream. There’s talk of pro-mutant movements, mutant-rights-friendly congressmen, and that Sentinel Services is on thin ice with the Department of Justice, but… kind of seems like Polaris’ choice in the finale has put an end to all of that. Seems like all the Hellfire Club has accomplished is cranking up the heat on the war between mutants and humans. So for the Underground, well, to quote a certain King of Men… “Open war is upon you, whether you would risk it or not.”
In short, you’re going to have to work much harder to make the Underground’s anti-violence stance make sense. If you don’t want us to side with the Hellfire club, then the Underground needs a plan.
Also, you’ve dropped a lot of hints about Polaris’ birth father. Say his name. Say “Magneto.” Say it, or drop it.
Overall Grade: C-
You’ve got the ingredients of a good show here. But a pile of sugar, flour, yeast, eggs, and vanilla dumped on the counter ain’t a cake just yet.
Next time in this feature: the CW breaks some habits with Black Lightning.