tv review

Doom Patrol Breathes New Life Into Superhero TV

Matthew Zuk as Larry Trainor in Doom Patrol.
Matthew Zuk as Larry Trainor in Doom Patrol. Photo: Warner Bros. Televison

At the end of the second episode of Doom Patrol, Larry Trainor unwraps his many bandages and shrugs off a hulking coat to reveal the burnt, mangled visage of a man who feels like a stranger in his own body. In a way, he is: The character, based on the DC Comics superhero Negative Man, is inhabited by a mysterious energy being that regularly overpowers him to take control. Larry leaves a note for the energy being, demanding that they set some ground rules, but in the next episode, now streaming on the DC Universe platform, he wakes to find himself precariously laying on a metal beam high above the floor. The energy being may have no name, but it knows how to communicate a hearty “buzz off” when necessary.

Three episodes into its run, Doom Patrol has proven to be curious, vulgar, and brazenly metafictional as it traverses genres, tones, and styles to tell the story of its eccentric characters who feel less like a traditional superhero group than a family burdened by trauma. Not even halfway through its debut season, the show’s confident elasticity had already blended name-checks of writer Grant Morrison (who wrote the most iconic run of the Doom Patrol comic); Alan Tudyk’s villainous Mr. Nobody dryly asking the audience, “Aren’t you sick of superhero TV shows?”; a puppet show about a Nazi scientist hiding in Paraguay; and a henchmen’s legs being ripped off then used as a weapon. But what surprises me about Doom Patrol is its heart.

The third episode, “Puppet Patrol,” showcases an emotional depth that the superhero genre rarely does on television. This is especially true when it comes to Larry Trainor, a famous 1960s Army pilot who, prior to the accident that led a celestial being to hitch a ride in his body, struggled with hiding his sexuality while balancing the needs of his family and the weight of his American hero image. Larry is brought to life by two actors: Matt Bomer in flashbacks and voice acting, while Matthew Zuk plays the modern physical form of the character, who hides his scarred body in bandages. His arc is not only emotionally complex and sharply political, but it makes his character feels tangible in ways the denizens in the ever-expanding superhero genre don’t often feel when they make it to the screen. Coupled with the synthesization of Bomer and Zuk’s performances — each with their own strengths and gravity — Doom Patrol breathes new life in a genre that in recent years has felt calcified.

For the uninitiated, we’re brought into the Doom Patrol story by Cliff Steele (Brendan Fraser), a hard-drinking, wildly successful NASCAR driver with a penchant for fooling around with his kids’ nanny and acrimonious fights with his wife. When Cliff gets into a horrible accident — losing his head, quite literally — Dr. Niles “the Chief” Caulder (Timothy Dalton) “saves” him by putting his brain into the body of a robot, ushering Cliff into an eccentric family of meta-humans whose abilities are better thought of as curses: Rita Farr (April Bowlby), a brittle, narcissistic 1950s star with the ability to elastically stretch and grow, if only she could control it; Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero), a woman with 64 personalities, each with their own powers; Victor Stone (Joivan Wade), a teenager whose father turned him into a half-man, half-machine superhero known as Cyborg in an effort to save his life after an accident that killed his mother; and of course, Larry Trainor.

Given that series creator Jeremy Carver is intent on replicating the boundless curiosity the Doom Patrol comics present, particularly under Grant Morrison’s run, it would be all too easy for the show to fall apart under metafictional excess and bloody fight scenes. But so far, it has instead turned its focus to the ways memory can shape identity, piecing together the emotional and fantastical turns of these characters’ lives through flashbacks — whether it’s Cliff reckoning with the hard-living past that soured his life before he became a brain in a tin can; Cyborg wondering if his memories, along with his body, have been tampered with by his father; or Trainor grappling with the dual life he struggled to maintain as a closeted gay man. Memory shadows the lives of these characters at every turn.

Larry’s memories of his honey-hued ’60s life as a pilot and perfect all-American husband most notably give the impression that, for him, the past is always present. Doom Patrol lays the groundwork for this theme early: After Mr. Nobody opens a vortex to another dimension (that, full disclosure, just so happens to exist within a donkey), Larry, Jane, Rita, and Cyborg find themselves forced by this foreign place to relive their own pasts. Episode three takes this idea further by expanding on Larry’s flashbacks, acting as an emotional track even as characters teleport, swindle, and punch their way to finding answers about the Chief and Mr. Nobody.

“Puppet Patrol” writers Tamara Becher Wilkinson and Tom Farrell, alongside episode director Rachel Talalay, mine tension in the fact that Larry is glorified by a system of rigid masculinity and bigotry that would tear him down if anyone knew he was gay. In a flashback to the night before his fateful accident early in the third episode, Larry and his partner/Army peer John Bower (Kyle Clements) lie together in the back of Larry’s gleaming blue pickup truck, staring at the stars. It’s the kind of romantic setting that feels ripped from some lost Rock Hudson flick, though the passion between John and Larry is neither chaste nor easily codified; these are characters who passionately kiss and touch each other with an intimacy that’s hard to miss. At least until the romance curdles into an argument about being gay men in a time and a place where remaining hidden was a matter of survival: Larry wants to keep up appearances with his wife and kids while only seeing John for brief snatches of time, but John sees it differently. “[You] become a poster child for a country that hates you,” he says, adding that he’s tired of working for bigots and having no say in their relationship.

Watching this scene felt revelatory. In recent years on television, the superhero genre has expanded its queer representation — with the ragtag time-traveling crew of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, Nia Nal on Supergirl, and Karolina on Marvel’s The Runaways, to name a few — but this was the first time I have seen a moment between queer characters in a superhero property that had texture, heat, and a political center. It’s a moment that feels electrifying because it actually says something meaningful about the world we live in, not a children’s fable about good and evil, as if life exists only in those extremes. It’s an expansive choice for a genre whose greatest issue, on both television and in film, is the repetitive emotional beats that plague even the most dazzling properties.

A moment such as this one would lack the necessary tangibility and potency if it weren’t for the fact that Bomer and Zuk have synthesized their performances beautifully, using Larry’s loneliness and stifled emotional life as the track that runs throughout his past and present. As Bomer noted to Variety, their great sense of experimentation allows the performance to feel whole: “It’s a true collaboration in that I just throw spaghetti at the wall, Matthew [Zuk] does his stuff, and we go back and polish it at the end.” This adds an intriguing layer to how the actors synthesize their performances. In flashbacks, Bomer evokes the square-jawed machismo of classic Hollywood with an undertow of immense melancholy. (Watch the way he moves around his wife as they tiptoe around the fractures of their marriage, or the way he kisses John passionately.) Zuk, meanwhile, brings a levity and exasperation to his movements that communicate so much about Larry’s relationship with his own body — like when he wakes to find himself in a hospital operating room with doctors dead near his feet because of radiation poisoning, or when he’s later quarantined, only able to speak to loved ones through a speaker, and chooses to push John away forever. Both performances underscore an important part of Doom Patrol: There are no distinct heroes and villains within this story line, just people trying to claw their way to some semblance of stability.

Perhaps being on the fledgling streaming service DC Universe is a boon for this series. In an effort to pull attention from the glut of superhero efforts elsewhere, its creators have been given the room to do something the genre desperately needs: experiment. What’s fascinating about Larry in particular is that he isn’t much of a hero. He often runs from danger, preferring to tend to his plants. He gets furious and frightened. In effect, he feels human and tangible in ways superhero characters are often unable to because of the need to push plot along and the genre’s cheery optimism toward exceptionalism. (It is, by my account, one of the most fascinating and insidious arguments in the damaging American bootstrap theory, with life existing in only extremes of good and evil.)

Doom Patrol subverts this expectation in ways both uproarious and heart-wrenching. One of the most potent sequences in the third episode exists exactly at this intersection: After one of Jane’s personalities teleports part of the team to the Paraguayan doorstep of Nazi scientist Strumbanhfuhrer Von Fuchs — whose “Fuchtopia” lab has become the destination for middling villains to gain greater abilities — Larry finally gets the chance to face his past. He enters the experimental chamber that gave Mr. Nobody his powers, and there, against a startling white backdrop, his bandages unfurl and he feels not his burnt skin but the face and body he had before the accident, only to confront the energy being that both keeps him alive and makes his life hell. Bomer makes the most of this scene as Larry travels from rage to longing. “I had a life before you!” he screams at the energy being. That Bomer sells this scene so well — physically and vocally — when he’s in fact talking to nothing immediately suggests that we don’t have to sacrifice the emotional for the thrilling within this genre.

The world-building of Doom Patrol — which gleefully trusts its audience as it leads us into a world where superheroes are firmly established — is riotous and engaging without feeling weighed down by the genre’s typical pitfalls. The fight scenes are brutal and aware of the human body in ways that make them immediately more tangible than the CGI-heavy extravaganzas of its big-screen compatriots. But the questions I’m most intrigued to see answered are rooted in the emotional lives of these characters: Will Jane ever face the trauma that caused her personalities to splinter? Will Cliff reach out to his daughter he only just realized is still alive? Will Larry finally make peace with the man he once was and the body he lives in today? Or, instead of mastering the powers he now has, will he be destroyed by them?

Doom Patrol Breathes New Life Into Superhero TV