Within two minutes of the premiere of Jupiter's Legacy, you hear it: "With great power comes great responsibility." More platitudes follow in the next seven episodes of the Netflix superhero saga based on the comics by Mark Millar and Frank Quitely. But those words popularised by Uncle Ben rub the wrong way for they have lost all meaning. More so now than ever before, when a democratically elected leadership would rather campaign for more power than assume responsibility for its country's worst humanitarian crisis. At least, the superheroes of Jupiter's Legacy hold press conferences, and hold themselves accountable for their actions.
Using a superhero narrative as a reflection of society, however, is no bold reinvention. An antidote to superhero fatigue, it sure does not make. Jupiter's Legacy offers little more than second-rate counter-programming " and even they are dime a dozen on most platforms. Created by Steven S DeKnight (Pacific Rim: Uprising), the show intertwines the present and the past in a story about jaded millennials trying to live up to the oppressively high standards of the Greatest Generation.
The Utopian takes on Blackstar
The Great Gatsby-meets-King Kong vibes abound the long flashbacks which inform the drawn-out origin story of the first generation of supes. Following the Wall Street crash of 1929 which left his father dead and family business ruined, Sheldon Sampson (Josh Duhamel) leads his brother Walter (Ben Daniels), best friend George (Matt Lanter), future wife Grace (Leslie Bibb) and other friends and strangers " who came to him in dreams " to a Skull Island. Once there, after navigating its hostile environment and completing some Indiana Jones missions, the island grants them " you guessed it " superpowers. On returning to America, they give themselves silly nicknames like The Utopian and Lady Liberty, and get to saving the world from supervillainous threats together as the Union, guided only by the Code: "We don't kill, we don't lead, we inspire."
Back to the present, the kids have inherited their parents' powers but not their idealism. For Sheldon's son Brandon (Andrew Horton), living by the Code becomes harder as friends die at the hands of supervillains each day. For his daughter Chloe (Elena Kampouris), hedonism affords some happiness and respite in a way heroism can't. For Walter's daughter Raikou (Anna Akana), money, not mankind, obligates her to use her powers, as she works as a hired assassin. Born into privilege and luxury, the children aren't defined by the same struggles as their parents. As the kids grapple with the weight of expectations and drug overdoses, the parents brood over their heirs' readiness to take on the mantle.
In this disconnect brews a clash of two fundamentally opposed value systems within the Union. Because the ideals of the Golden Age superhero have been rendered obsolete in a world of villains without any moral compass. Living by words like "service, compassion, mercy" is no cinch when the fate of all your friends and family rests on your killer blow. But Sheldon is resolute in his ways. Bolting himself inside an ideological prison of his own making, he refuses to see that the rules of engagement have changed. He endorses moral absolutism like someone who read some Kant back in college, and hasn't read anything since. Institutionalising the Code like the be-all and end-all of moral arguments, he allows no room for dissension. Even from his own wife and children. Yet, he advocates free will, insisting superheroes interfering with political decision-making will take that liberty away from mankind. He admits the US has "never been more divided" because "no one is willing to meet in the middle anymore." But he is so blissfully unaware that the younger generation resents him for that same reason.
The problem is the show doesn't actually allow for intelligent debate. Walter calls Sheldon out on the limitations of his black-and-white thinking, regretting it prevented them from playing a more decisive role against the Nazis in WWII. He reasons superheroes must take on a role beyond meting out violent justice, before their debate is cut short by a prison breakout. Jack Hobb (Nigel Bennett), an imprisoned supervillain whom Sheldon uses as his personal shrink, tries to engage Sheldon in debate over the same subject. "(Black-and-white thinking) doesn't allow for the way the world really is, and how the majority of people live in it, in shades of gray," Jacks says, before another interruption prevents it from evolving into a more meaningful deliberation.
Interruptions are partly why Sheldon failed as a father. For all his super abilities, being a present dad wasn't one of them. Broken ice-cream promises become breeding grounds for future daddy issues. Calling yourself the Utopian, you're setting your kids up for a life of disappointments over an unattainable goal of perfection. Brandon tries to follow in his father's footsteps, even giving himself a name equally hard to live up to: Paragon. But Sheldon's exacting standards leave him disillusioned. No wonder Chloe washes her hands off the whole thing, and flies away from all her problems. Meanwhile, Grace is stuck between supporting Sheldon and her children, but more often than not chooses her husband. There is a soap quality to some of this domestic drama, and a rare sitcom cold open too. One of the episodes opens to Sheldon having sex with his wife, only to have to postpone the climax because he picks up radio anomalies outside Mars. The show even attempts its own "What is grief, if not love persevering?" moment. Only "Life happened and then it stopped" sounds neither comforting nor meme-able.
The super-powered action sequences on screen don't pack the same punch as they did in Quitely's illustrations on page. The team-up against Blackstar in the premiere is a high-stakes battle but never feels like it. It's chaos without the intensity. At another point, a group of petty criminals, led by George's son Hutch (Ian Quinlan), crash their van into a drunken Chloe. It's the kind of sequence Zack Snyder would have repackaged and revelled in slo-mo. But sloppy choreography and choppy editing make for forgettable set pieces. What makes some of the geri-action off-putting is the silver fox wigs and makeup don't really sell the illusion that Duhamel and Bibb are playing centenarians, but draws attention to the point of distraction.
Silly but straining for seriousness, the show suffers from the same foibles as Snyder's treatment of the superhero myth. But even the most unwatchable Snyder movies have a sense of direction. What Millar hoped would be a multi-layered epic in the league of "The Lord of the Rings" instead registers as the most underwhelming superhero series in recent years. Despite the potential of all its curious subtext and dramatic betrayals, the show is an utter mess. And unlike the new generation of superheroes, Jupiter's Legacy doesn't have any untapped potential to grow into something greater than itself.
Jupiter's Legacy is streaming on Netflix.