Nerds had good reason to fear The Tick. One of this year’s Amazon pilots, the prospective show features the latest incarnation of a long-running satirical superhero whose adventures were first chronicled in a comics series, then a beloved 1990s children’s cartoon, followed by a short-lived live-action Fox show in 2001. His whole deal is that he’s charming and goofy, so when the character’s creator, Ben Edlund, said in March that the pilot would be a “darker and more grounded” take, there were deep concerns. Would this be a grim and gritty reboot, one that removed everything that made the Tick fun?
Take heart, dear citizens, for the answer is a resounding no. The pilot just debuted, and oh man, it’s exactly the superhero satire that the world needs right now. One reason the 2001 Fox iteration failed was that it, much like 1999’s underrated Mystery Men, was making fun of a genre that hadn’t really taken off yet. The superhero boom was in its embryonic stages at that point, so what was there to send up? It was a punch line without a setup. But now, as the entertainment industry continues its long march toward Peak Superhero, the time is ripe for a big, blue dude armed with super-strength and an endless stock of quasi-absurd, faux-profound proclamations about heroism and destiny. He has arrived.
The plot of the half-hour installment is relatively simple: In a world where superheroes are commonplace, a mousy, mentally troubled, wholly un-super thirtysomething named Arthur (Griffin Newman) is obsessed with uncovering the existence of the presumed-dead supervillain (Jackie Earle Haley, seen for an enticingly brief moment) who killed his dad. His sister, Dot (up-and-comer Valorie Curry), worries about him. While investigating criminal activity, Arthur runs into a mysterious crime fighter calling himself the Tick (baritone-voiced comedy veteran Peter Serafinowicz), who recruits him to be his sidekick and might be a figment of Arthur’s imagination.
The half-hour installment is, indeed, dark and grounded. Yet, astoundingly, it’s also quite funny and intelligently irreverent in its warping of caped-crusader tropes. It’s directed by Wally Pfister, the celebrated cinematographer of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, and he seems to understand both what was wonderful and what was slightly ridiculous about those flicks. Everything is shot with urban-thriller hyperrealism, making the action genuinely tense, but it’s all ever so slightly off: A villain rappels down from a ship and his foot awkwardly misses the ground on his initial landing; the hero’s costume has Christian Bale-esque ab contours, but their blue coloring reveals them for the comically macho design choice that they are.
Pfister’s self-aware, exciting direction merges perfectly with the script, written by Edlund himself. In retrospect, given that the title character’s creator was behind the enterprise, we really shouldn’t have been all that worried. He gets what makes Tick and Arthur work while also adding new dimensions to them. Arthur has always been nebbishy, but here, he’s also tenderly and respectfully depicted as a man grappling with mental illness, one who deals with a childhood trauma in ways that might not be healthy, but are certainly understandable. Newman plays him with subtle tics and Curry shows sweet and earnest empathy for her brother.
That brother’s key role is to play the straight man to the guy we all came here to see. And Serafinowicz is a revelation. He’s loud, confident, and Edlund’s dialogue for him is all killer, no filler. To wit, here’s the way he lays out his whole deal for Arthur after barging into the latter’s apartment: “I’m nigh-invulnerable. I have the reflexes of an Olympic-level jungle cat. I have the strength of ten, perhaps 20 men — a crowded bus stop … of men. But my greatest power is this: When destiny speaks … she speaks to me. She says hi, by the way!”
I could fill this entire article with great Tick lines, most of them about that most hoary of super-narrative concepts: destiny. “Destiny’s got her hand way up in their puppets,” he says about himself and Arthur in the third person. “It’s an unpleasant tingling. The deepest of wriggles. And its only reward is draaaaama!” When he makes his pitch to Arthur, Newman and Serafinowicz have undeniable comedic chemistry: “I’m over here answering our destiny. Come on over — it’s good. It’s warm. Like the inside of bread!” Tick intones. Arthur’s reply: “I’m not gonna get inside of bread with you!”
What makes the whole thing hold together is how smartly and subtly it riffs on the modern superhero genre. The dimly lit action set pieces and operatic mission statements feel like a commentary on expensive sludge like DC Entertainment’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The Tick’s primary-colored costume lightly pokes fun at DC’s rivals at Marvel, as does his relentless onslaught of comedic dialogue — it’s all funny, but it does start to overwhelm you after a while, which is exactly how it often feels to watch aggressively witty Marvel flicks like Guardians of the Galaxy. To add an extra bit of delight, Tick’s braggadocious line deliveries and optimistic derring-do recall the pre-boom era of superhero films like the Joel Schumacher Batmans and Richard Donner’s Superman. The whole history of superhero filmmaking is tossed in a salad and dressed with loving parody.
There’s so much promise here. Arthur’s quest is both compelling and a potentially delightful jab at the overused model of the Hero’s Journey. We’re left wanting more of supporting performers like Haley and Curry; one has a feeling that Arthur’s mental struggles will be handled thoughtfully; and most important, Serafinowicz seems to be on the verge of his greatest role in an underappreciated career. “Light against darkness, up against down,” Tick says in a rooftop proclamation about the battle ahead. “A struggle as old as time, but with a beat you can dance to.” Yes, please.