“Critics, what do they know? They’re gonna hate this show.” DC Universe rolled the dice with this line, but despite its tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation, it has its first good live-action show—and it’s all thanks to taking risks. After the dismally grimdark Titans got more and more chipper—or at least varied—as it introduced its DC Universe teammates, Doom Patrol brightens up the streaming service’s offerings with lovable idiots and their tragic backstories. Compared to tragic idiots with tragic backstories, this is a huge step up. Featuring Elasti-Woman (April Bowlby), Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero), Cyborg (Joivan Wade), Robotman (Brendan Fraser), The Chief (Timothy Dalton), and Negative Man (Matt Bomer), the team is staffed by the goofballs, the screw-ups—the “losers” of the DCEU, as the opening voiceover puts it—and this unique tone is the way DC can keep up in the superhero arms race.
The third-tier answer to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Doom Patrol has learned plenty from its scrappy counterpart, taking as much away from that franchise’s ragtag group of space pirates/superheroes as it does the DC series with a senses of humor. The CW’s Legends of Tomorrow and Cartoon Network’s hyper, strange, and hyper-strange Teen Titans Go! have been dark horse TV success stories, with the latter earning its own (very fun!) movie and the former improving consistently over the course of its four seasons. Doom Patrol carves its own tonal niche, balancing the self-referentiality of Go!, the tragedy of Titans, and the ridiculousness of Legends. Bolstered by Fraser’s easy charm and some knockout acting by Dalton, Doom Patrol stakes its claim as DC’s best streaming option—simply because it understands and subverts expectations with its unique mix: It’s not just funny, it’s not just sweet, and it isn’t afraid to push the boundaries on either.
Elasti-Woman has gross-out slapstick thanks to her malleable physiology and at the expense of her vanity. Negative Man can stop functioning any time the mysterious force within him decides, leading to plenty of limp, full-body flops. Robotman can’t even move his mouth as profane reactions stream from his stoic face. Robotman and Negative Man’s physical actors—Riley Shanahan and Matthew Zuk, respectively—do plenty of fun pantomime to help out the famous voices behind the tragic bodies. And it’s all funny.
It’s even funny at the expense of its characters’ tragedies—or its actors’ real-life tragedies, as Fraser’s Robotman is groped by Crazy Jane, echoing Fraser’s claims about the head of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. OK, so far, Crazy Jane is terrible. Multiple-personality characters are a recipe for disaster even when every personality isn’t…that. (Think Split, but with more than 50 new and exciting ways to cringe.) But the idea is still smart, if not the execution. The approach can be shocking, but it also carries a sense of ownership. It’s the same black humor wielded by those with terminal illnesses: As Negative Man says, “That was a joke meant to make you feel more comfortable with my appearance.” It suits the show much better than the quippy confidence of action heroes or the in-between shock-jockiness of Deadpool.
That’s not to say Deadpool’s presence isn’t felt, though. There’s persistent fourth-wall breaking, and it’s more fun than the merc-with-a-mouth’s movies. Doom Patrol’s opening voiceover (from Mr. Nobody, a Joker-esque villain played by Alan Tudyk) undercuts a gray and dreary origin story that, with all its Nazis and body modification, looks more like Captain America than a series featuring multiple characters who are mostly robots. Yet there’s no smug attempt at adolescent badass-ness akin to Deadpool’s cheeky, “Oh, I’m a bad boy, aren’t I?” shtick. Instead, the voiceover continues chipping away at each member’s flashback, reminding viewers that seriousness is certainly not the goal here.
That’s because, apart from the popular cycle of prestige and camp (success and then successful parody), there are levels of corporate branding at work when deciding how characters are treated. The Lego Batman Movie—and The Lego Movie’s proof that the breakout character could successfully monetize its own subversiveness—understands the cycle while poking fun at the frowning men grappling with Power and All That It Implies in some live-action superhero fare. But there’s a certain silliness allowed down on the bottom rungs, while the figureheads must remian pristine and polished. Even the parody reinforces this idea: It’s hard to drag something successfully when nobody knows about it.
Away from the spotlight, buried in streaming services and cartoons with exclamatory titles, comic adaptations like Doom Patrol are still as weird and fun as the comics that birthed them. The accident-befallen supers drive a matte black bus into a town that looks more like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s version of West Covina than Metropolis, and create further accidents with their powers, X-Men-style. Only they’re not pubescent outcasts. They’re old souls still coping with their various traumas, which come out in such threatening ways that they’re unsuitable for polite society.
Giving that specific and depressing idea, one exploited by Mr. Nobody, a sense of humor is a lot more meaningful than making a few pop culture references before continuing to blast and slash like every other superhero. With Mr. Nobody acting as the self-doubting voice in all our heads, Doom Patrol nails a tricky brand of tragicomedy that utilizes the offbeat potential of comics rather than its audience’s knowledge thereof. “What the fuck?” beats “Fuck Batman” every day of the week.
Doom Patrol premieres Friday, Feb. 15 on DC Universe.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.