*This is a spoiler-free advance review of episodes one and two of DC Universe’s Swamp Thing*
Regardless of what one may think of DC’s streaming service, it does offer creators an outlet to tell more experimental stories using established characters. This was best seen in the meta-fictional and quirky stories being told in Doom Patrol, a series that stood out from the various other superhero based live action series. Swamp Thing, DC Universe’s newest live action serial, embraces the character’s horror roots with a resounding success – at least in the second episode.
The series premise reads as follows, “Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed) returns home to Houma, Louisiana to investigate a deadly swamp-borne virus, where she develops a bond with scientist Alec Holland (Andy Bean). After Holland tragically dies, Arcane discovers the mysteries of the swamp and that Holland may not be dead after all.”
Swamp Thing’s pilot is a slow burn that, for the most part, feels like a generic infection story where the Center for Disease Control (CDC) must combat a mysterious illness that is rooted within a larger conspiracy. It is not until the second episode that the infection storyline feels less derivative. What the pilot does do well is establish the core conflict and character relationships that will be integral to the season long arc – even if the characters are lacking any real depth. Character traits and backgrounds are told to viewers through lengthy exposition rather than being brought up subtly through character interactions.
As a result, the pilot doesn’t off viewers many series elements to latch onto, besides some grotesque imagery and the chemistry between series’ leads, Andy Bean and Crystal Reed. The pair work well together onscreen, which makes the developing attraction between the two feel credible. In fact, the Bean’s performance makes up for the lack of characterization given to Alec Holland in the pilot.
While Abby Arcane is given a dark past that does make her character more appealing towards the Pilot’s end, Holland Is barely a character. Bean gives a strong performance, but there is nothing really interesting about Alec in the pilot, beyond the fact that he is destined to become the Swamp Thing. The supporting cast is even less interesting in the pilot, feeling more like character architypes than complex individuals. The pilot’s narrative does improve in the third act, where a violent and shocking twist reengages the viewer just enough to build interest in continuing onto the second episode, which is where the series really justifies its existence.
The second episode is where Swamp Thing begins to explore deeper characterizations of its cast, and use the body horror elements of the series for more than just shock value. The supporting cast of the series is given further development, particularly the Will Patton’s Avery Sunderland, who comes off as the ultimately sinister, but outwardly gentlemanly businessman in the pilot. The relationship between Avery and his wife Maria, who is played excellently by Virginia Madsen, is one of the second episode’s highlights. There are members of the supporting cast that are not fully fleshed out in these first two episodes, but I would imagine future episodes will devote more screen time to their individual stories. That is, if they all survive the unknown horrors that lurk in the Louisiana swamps.
The Pilot does not lack in gruesome imagery, with human bodies being mangled and broken by all manner of creepy swamp life. Swamp Thing’s first two episodes feature scenes of horrific violence that one would expect from horror genre, made somewhat cathartic as some of the victims are not the most upstanding of citizens. However, the usage of body horror in the premiere feels like the intention behind it was to shock the audience, without holding any real narrative weight. Swamp Thing’s second episode focuses more on how the grotesque imagery affects the series’ characters on a deeper level. This review will not delve into specific examples of how characters react to the more gruesome aspects of the series because that would involve entering spoiler territory. What can be said is that those moments are rich in character development, which is largely facilitated by the writers’ approach to pacing in the Swamp Thing scripts.
Swamp Thing takes it’s time in telling the season long arc. It allows for rich character development in the second episode, but it also makes the series’ titular character something special. The writing team is not rushing elements of the narrative to show the audience all the fantastical parts of Swamp Thing’s mythology right off the bat. Part of that approach can be found in the writers’ restraint in revealing the character of Swamp Thing, who plays a small, yet important role in these first two episodes. Reed’s Abigail Arcane is the main POV character, so Swamp Thing’s presence in the series is filtered through her perspective and that of other members of the cast. Making Swamp Thing a smaller element of the early episodes while focusing more on the human cast builds a mystique around the titular character and emphasizes the importance of any scene featuring the character.
It was an incredibly smart decision by the production team to use practical effects for the Swamp Thing character, rather than fully render the creature using CGI. There’s something very appealing about seeing the actors interact with an actual Swamp Thing, rather than another actor in a motion capture suit. It adds a level of physicality and emotion to the character that could be achieved with the standard CGI budgets of most television series.
This superhero/horror series does have some social relevance, the origins of which can be found in the comics stories the Swamp Thing series is based on. Swamp Thing’s source material never shied away from commenting on humanity’s exploitation of their environment, something that began with Alan Moore seminal run on the Swamp Thing comics of the 1980s. The Swamp Thing television series does not engage with this part of the character too much as of yet, but it is briefly referenced in a quick barb from Bean’s Alec Holland in the Pilot. That reference may just be a throwaway line of dialogue, but judging from how the show develops its story and characters in these first two episodes, Holland’s words will become most likely grow in significance as the first season continues.
While the Pilot wasn’t the most compelling opening to Swamp Thing, the series’ second episode was a vast improvement. If the series can maintain that level of quality for the rest of the season, Swamp Thing should be another success for DC Universe.
Swamp Thing premieres on the DC Universe streaming service on May 31, 2019.