Conceptually speaking, Superheroes are inherently silly – and I say that as a lifelong fan of Marvel and DC. Superheroes and their grand concerns have always played to our escapist fantasies, sometimes inspiring readers to believe in themselves, and in others. The stories of superheroes are often allegories for adolescence, prejudice, and identity politics. But most of the time, superheroes just punch bad guys, and that simplicity has its draws, too. DC’s workplace sitcom Powerless, set to air on NBC this fall, is looking like it will approach these concepts in a way we haven’t seen before.
While DC’s attempt at interconnected movies have been blasted for being morose and major downers, Powerless hopes to go in a completely different direction. Powerless also isn’t the first collaboration between NBC and DC; the cancelled, but widely beloved Constantine began in 2014. But it’s definitely the first of its kind, with a set-up that’s equal parts eccentric and simple: Powerless is The Office set in the DC universe.
In a world where Doomsday wrecks havoc on the regular, Emily Locke (Vanessa Hudgens) is an insurance claims adjuster who cleans up after the destructive battles between heroes and villains. Emily loves her job helping people, until her new boss Del (Alan Tudyk) shakes up the place, making it impossible for Emily and her ragtag coworkers to do their good work.
Easily the most astonishing aspect of Powerless — aside from its total divorce of any pre-established continuity, including DC’s popular Arrowverse — is its brand of “superhero comedy” that isn’t at the expense of superheroes or their most diehard IRL fans. It may be because of DC’s direct involvement, but a glance at superhero-centric comedies and parodies, even ones earnest in their homages, tend to hit the same notes: Superheroes are kinda dumb.
Captain Hammer in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, for example, was a bicep-flexing baritone jock while the do-gooders in The Tick were utter nincompoops. SuperMansion and The Awesomes from talk-show host (and avowed comic book nerd) Seth Meyers are interchangeable analogs to the Justice League. The new South Park: The Fractured But Whole RPG spoofs pessimistically at the genre’s modern tropes and profit-driven marketing strategies.
While hardcore DC fans may be turned off from Powerless due to its saccharine presentation and use of a well-worn genre — the workplace sitcom — the juxtaposition of superheroes and office hijinks is at least, a novel experiment worth exploring. Millennials aren’t working in conventional offices enough to prank their cubicle neighbors, but The Office keeps a prominent place in millennials’ shared cultural consciousness. And while the genre goes back further to The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the ‘70s and Taxi in the ‘80s, NBC mastered it with NewsRadio in the ‘90s and 30 Rock, The Office, and Parks & Recreation in the new millennium. If DC can be as recognized for superheroes, it’s fair to say NBC knows what it’s doing with funny mid-level employees.
Based on its trailer alone — which isn’t officially released but is easily watchable via leaks we won’t link to — Powerless doesn’t seem interested in making fun of capes and tights. Rather, Powerless more or less respects them from an arm’s distance, annoyed at their recklessness but thankful for the employment. The comedy instead comes from Emily and her co-workers, normal people save for expected personality quirks, just trying to get by. So often superhero comedies indulge in the psyches of demigods, but what about everyone else just trying to get to work? Superheroes are silly, but that doesn’t mean everyone else has to put up with it.