Any foolish attempt to make a live-action Doom Patrol series must first acknowledge the task as both blessing and curse. Few comics boast such a diverse cast of characters begging to be brought to cinematic life, yet any creative team crazy enough to try has their work cut out for them. A wealth of potential storylines abound in the pages of book’s numerous iterations, from its inception in My Greatest Adventure (1963) through the popular Grant Morrison years (starting in 1989) and more recently during the Gerard Way run (Young Animal). With numerous retakes, retellings, and reboots by notable creators like John Byrne, Rachael Pollack, Keith Giffen, and John Arcudi, this is a team with more than 50 years of history behind it, yet it’s always managed to feel like a niche book. The Grateful Dead or Rush of the comic book world, if you will, with a sizable cult following behind it.
Okay…yes…there was that period in the 70s and 80s where the whole team was dead, but this is comics. Nothing stays dead forever.
This glut of stories, history, and characters, though, is also perhaps the biggest problem with any potential live-action series. Can such a long-lived comic – with so many interpretations under its collective belt – hope to please an equally diverse fanbase? Which version of which beloved character(s) will we see? Will our personal favorites show up? And that age-old fanboy question – will the creative team do them justice?
Give the folks at DC Universe credit, they’re certainly willing to try. After a brief introduction in Titans, it’s time for the Doom Patrol to have their moment in the sun…which is interesting since for the most part none of them have dared to venture out in it for very long until we first meet them in…
Episode I – Pilot
Cliff Steele, a.k.a. Robotman
(Al’s Note: As with any review or article of this nature – things may be revealed that might spoil the show for you if you haven’t seen it yet. Proceed with caution.)
To be blunt, if you’re going to make a Doom Patrol story, you have to include Robotman. He’s the constant that’s held every incarnation of the group together no matter who’s at the creative helm. More importantly, you have to get Robotman right. In a show that’s already promoting Cyborg as a main character, what’s the point of a clunky robotic man with nothing overly special about him beyond being…well…a clunky robotic man? The answer is simple: You focus on the man.
Brendan Fraser pulls double-duty as racecar driver Cliff Steele (in flashbacks) and as the voice of Robotman (in present day), and does a great job of bringing the human side to a giant slab of gears and metal with a processed voice. When he says “I can’t feel anything”, the audience is left to wonder if he’s talking about the lack of sensory input in his new metallic shell, or that he’s lost all sense of emotional contact with the world he can no longer be part of. That’s the beauty of both Doom Patrol the book and Doom Patrol the show…the ride goes only as deep as each individual reader/viewer is willing to take it.
Additional founding members Elasti-Girl (April Bowlby) and Negative Man (Matt Bomer) have their origins told as well, but not to the level of Robotman’s. The implication is that, as with most series of this nature, they’ll each get their own “spotlight” episode where we’ll learn more about them. The addition of Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero) begins a blending of the old with the perhaps not-so new anymore (Sorry Morrison fans, but it’s been 30 years, okay?).
Easter eggs abound in this and subsequent episodes as well, keeping even the most storied reader on their toes. I’m sure I haven’t caught them all. Ultimately, the pilot episode does its job, giving the audience a good idea of what to expect from the series as a whole, but the question arises: Will this blend of humor, action, and the out-and-out bizarre work enough to bring people back for the next episode?
Episode II – The Donkey Patrol
The answer to that question lies in semi-reliable narrator (and chief villain) Mr. Nobody (Alan Tudyk, gleefully owning any scene he’s in) who defines the returning audience as Morrison fans, Reddit trolls, and the people who became fans after the donkey fart at the end of the first episode. With the pesky origin stories out of the way, the show begins to hit its stride with this episode, breaking fourth, fifth, and sixth walls along the way.
I pity the fans of this series who’ll have to explain an episode to non-fans, hoping to garner interest (“So in this one Cyborg shows up but not the Cyborg from the Justice League movie…but then again he might be but not just yet…and the team has to enter this farting donkey’s mouth to another dimension where they confront their pasts and then the donkey pukes them up and…”). See what I mean? Don’t get me wrong, it’ll be fun watching them try to explain it, but I empathize with them all the same.
Still, “fun” is perhaps the perfect word for this series. Oh there’s serious moments – Cyborg, Elasti-Girl, and Negative Man are made to confront their inner shames and deepest secrets, each of them doing so in a different way – but that heaviness is balanced by the weird humor of the events leading up to it. Even Robotman’s attempt to redeem himself with Jane by treating her as a surrogate daughter would be a tender tug at the heartstrings…provided Jane didn’t see exactly what he was doing and call him out on it. But along with all these seemingly grim or tender moments, there’s a playfulness that wistfully yanks us out of them at the perfect moment. Did I mention the farting donkey? With this episode, Doom Patrol establishes itself as a show willing to laugh at itself while having a great time doing it. Whether it’ll find an audience willing to join in that laughter remains to be seen.
Seriously, what is up with this donkey?
Episode III – Puppet Patrol
The real key to writing Doom Patrol, no matter the creator or decade, is simply to keep the book weird. Any approach toward normalcy meant the writer was off their game and simply wasn’t getting it right. Within all that strangeness and eccentricity, of course, lies the humanity of the team. There’s a reason these characters continue to resonate with fans to this day. That blending hasn’t been lost on the creative team behind this series. Cyborg wants to become a leader worthy of his eventual role in the Justice League, provided he can get out from under his father’s influence. Robotman comes face to face with the fact that he’s a powerful machine as much as a man. Larry (Negative Man) Trainor, however, gets the largest chunk of character development in this episode, as we the audience again confront the idea that not all “heroes” are always 100% heroic.
With The Chief (Timothy Dalton) still missing, part of the team travels to Fuchtopia (sound it out) and are given the promise of “upgrading” their abilities and possibly finding out where Mr. Nobody is hiding him. Along the way we learn more secrets about Larry’s relationship with his “negative” inhabitant, it’s hinted that Crazy Jane’s ‘normal’ personality (she has 64) may not be the main one within her mind, while back in America, Elasti-Girl comes to terms with holding it together versus helping her cohorts. The Doom Patrol is hardly a “team” at this point, and at this rate it’s debatable whether they’ll be one by the end of the season, but it’s going to be a lot of fun watching them try to get there.
(Plus if you’re good and watch it all the way to the end, you’ll get to see the birth of one of the greatest villain/monsters to ever grace a DC comic. Ever. No spoilers here, but fans who’ve been with the team from the first issues were grinning ear to ear at the end of this one. I guarantee it.)
An old proverb goes: “He who tries to please everyone, pleases no-one.” Three episodes in, and the Doom Patrol seems to be doing its level best to prove that adage wrong. It’s everything a Doom Patrol story needs to be, with enough to please fans no matter when they joined in the madness. Gloriously unapologetic in its strangeness, funny, action packed, and with more than enough humanity to keep those other elements in check…look, it’s fun, okay? A nice counterpoint to the very dark (and equally good) Titans series that preceded it, and at this rate it could easily be the best offering in the (admittedly new) DC Universe stable.