The America of Jupiter's Legacy looks much like the one we know except for one big difference: Since the 1930s, heroes in capes and tights have patrolled its streets and skies, righting wrongs, stopping crime, and keeping supervillains in check. Otherwise it looks quite familiar. Overheated politics divide the nation. Unemployment keeps rising as a gulf between the rich and the poor deepens. Protests fill the street. Residents struggle with depression. Rather than saving the world, the arrival of superheroes has just created another complication. The real problems, the ones at the heart of society, remain beyond their ability to fix.
Or maybe they just choose not to. Since the arrival of superheroes, led by the Superman-like Utopian (Josh Duhamel), they've adhered to a strict moral code that forbids killing and meddling in political affairs. It's clear and simple and it's served the Utopian, otherwise known as Sheldon Sampson, his wife Grace, a.k.a Lady Liberty (Leslie Bibb), and the other members of the superhero league The Union well for decades. Unless, that is, it hasn't. Sheldon's brother Walter (Ben Daniels), a.k.a. Brainwave, has had his doubts from the start, and those doubts have intensified as the world has grown more violent. They continue to plague the next generation of heroes as they prepare to pick up their parents' mantles. Some, like Sheldon and Grace's son Brandon, a.k.a. The Paragon (Andrew Horton), have started to wonder if certain situations don't require lethal force -- an issue he soon has to confront in person. Others have just walked away, like Grace and Sheldon's other child, Chloe (Elena Kampouris), who's eschewed the life of a superhero for the life of a supermodel, complete with all the late nights and hard living that profession practically requires.
It's an intriguing premise for a superhero series, one made all the more intriguing (if only at first) by a structure that flashes back to the early days of the Union heroes, tying their arrival to the stock market collapse of 1929 and drawing parallels between superheroes' obligations to ordinary people to business titans' relationships with those they employ. Yet while the series' first episode ends with a bang -- both literally and narratively -- Jupiter's Legacy soon reveals it's much better at set-up than delivery.
Created by Steven S. DeKnight (Spartacus, Daredevil) and adapted from a comic book series written by Mark Millar (Kick Ass, Wanted) with art by Frank Quitely, the show suffers a bit from bad timing, arriving on the heels of other revisionist superhero stories, including Watchmen (HBO's extension of the Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons graphic novel that's the gold standard for probing, grown-up takes on the superhero mythos), and Amazon's The Boys and Invincible. But no matter when it debuted, Jupiter's Legacy would suffer by comparison to those series. It's never as thematically rich as Watchmen, as darkly funny as The Boys, or emotionally complex as Invincible. Ultimately, it's not much of anything beyond a slowly unreeling plot played out by thinly realized characters sometimes accompanied by some decently realized special effects.
Some portions of the show work better than others, however. The flashback structure effectively divides Jupiter's Legacy in two, one half dealing with the first heroes' long 1930s journey to a remote island where they received their powers, the other with the same slowly aging but still formidable characters and their children in the present day. The latter proves sporadically compelling, particularly when the series brings in some lively supporting characters, like a band of superpowered outlaws with some family ties to the Union. The former, however, almost seems to play out in real time, chronicling seemingly every detail of Sheldon and his companions' journey -- down to a scene in which they haggle with a ship's captain -- even though we already know their destination and what will happen when they get there.
Production woes might be partly to blame. DeKnight left the series mid-production over "creative differences" at which point Sang Kyu Kim (The Walking Dead, Designated Survivor) took over as showrunner. (With Joss Whedon's exit from The Nevers we're now only one mid-series showrunner departure for a trend.) It's tempting to perform a post-mortem suggesting DeKnight had the stronger vision for the series given that it begins more strongly than the shrug with which it ends, but who really knows? Even the best moments of Jupiter's Legacy's early episodes feel a little rickety, like a show not quite stable enough to hold the weight being placed upon it.
Still, good ideas do occasionally float to the surface over the course of this eight-episode first season, even if they sometimes don't quite survive translation to the screen. In one episode, Sheldon attends a therapy session and explores his compulsive need to do good. It's not particularly lively, but the final twist (best left unspoiled) almost makes it worth the wait. And though another big twist, the revelation of the ultimate villain in the first season finale, will likely come as no surprise to anyone paying attention, it does leave the door open for a better second season, one that can dispense with the anchor of the Union's origin story and delve into the hard choices and moral dilemmas of the next generation of heroes -- the sort of stories promised in the series' opening hour then largely forgotten in every episode that follows.
TV Guide rating: 2/5
Season 1 of Jupiter's Legacy is now on Netflix.