How Doom Patrol avoids WandaVision's biggest flaw
DC’s most underrated series is the show WandaVision wanted to be.
Hailed as a post-modern classic, Marvel Studios’ WandaVision took on superhero tropes while using meta-text to discuss larger issues like mental health and grief.
To be sure, that was certainly the way WandaVision was promoted and played out to some extent. However, by its final episode, the Disney+ series eschewed resolution in favor of special effects and the opportunity to tee up next year’s Doctor Strange sequel. For audiences disappointed by WandaVision’s failure to live up to its own hype, there is a superhero show that does all of that, and it’s about to return for its third season on HBO Max.
Doom Patrol may not have the reputation or cultural cache that WandaVision does, but what it does have is a willingness to go all-in when addressing issues that no other superhero show (or movie) would be willing to tackle. The DC series makes human stories central to the superhuman struggles that reel in viewers and keeps them coming back.
Doom Patrol’s comic origins
The original Doom Patrol debuted in 1963, billed by DC Comics as “the world’s strangest heroes” — an appellation the property has tried its best to live up to in the decades since.
The television incarnation uses some of the characters from that original comic book version, notably Cliff Steele, Robotman (Brendan Fraser at his sweary best), and Rita Farr (April Bowlby). Still, the show takes far more inspiration from the late 1980s reinvention of the title, helmed by then-newcomer Grant Morrison.
Morrison brought a queer subtext to longtime cast member Negative Man — renamed Rebis — and introduced Crazy Jane, a character with dissociative identity disorder (DID), whose every identity has a different superpower. Under Morrison, the comic series centered around art theory, cultural trauma, and the idea that spectacular apocalypses can act as metaphors and be born from personal experiences.
Unpacking Doom Patrol
The same is true of Doom Patrol, the television series. Indeed, if anything, it’s even more focused on those apocalyptic metaphors. Debuting on the now-defunct DC Universe streaming service in 2019, the show has spent two seasons unpacking both its main characters’ psyches and the superhero genre’s potential to comment on larger, more universal themes.
Doom Patrol finds new ways to comment on the ridiculous (and, occasionally, tragic) nature of superhero stories. But it also highlights that such stories can fully illustrate emotional journeys, mental states, and other intangibles — and the show does so in ways that more traditional, more “serious” genres can’t.
Partly, this comes directly from the source material. The series’ take on Crazy Jane allows actress Diane Guerrero (and, occasionally, others) to bring the character’s DID to life and deepen audiences’ understanding of the condition. In the first season’s episode “Therapy Patrol,” Guerrero’s subtle shifts in tone and attitude, as she plays multiple personalities — Jane, Hammerhead, and Baby Doll — achieve more than any comic portrayal could.
The show does more than simply translate what was on the page to the screen, though. It also brings new nuance to the comic book canon by adding wrinkles to the backstories of its main cast. This includes revealing that Negative Man was a closeted gay man in his earlier life or exploring Cliff Steele's complicated relationship with his daughter. The first season doesn’t hesitate to dive into Steele’s remorse at being an absent father due to the accident that transformed Steele into a brain in a robot body. The second season’s “Pain Patrol” sees him attempt to reconnect with his daughter… something that doesn’t go particularly well, considering that she believed her father to be dead.
Doom Patrol goes deeper than WandaVision
While WandaVision paid lip service to the emotional underpinnings of Wanda’s experience before introducing a villain who was pulling strings behind the scenes (Agatha, why did you end up being such a letdown?), Doom Patrol is all about what’s going on inside its characters’ heads. This extends to the point where, in the second season, both of the “big bads” are literal manifestations of the team’s internalized traumas.
Where the Marvel series didn’t bring the Hex and the reality Wanda created out of her subconscious emotional needs to a logical conclusion, Doom Patrol instead makes an ambitious, dizzying effort to see to its characters’ needs through the end, and the show mostly achieves this.
All of this makes the show sound like a huge bummer, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Outside of the show’s determination to be true to the internal journey of its core cast, Doom Patrol’s secret weapon is that it’s a hilarious show.
Whether it’s the meta-textual humor of Season 1 villain Mr. Nobody (Alan Tudyk, clearly having a ball), the camp glory of Danny the Street — a genderqueer sentient piece of urban geography that can teleport around the world — and all their citizens, or simply the level of fucks Cliff Steele doesn’t give when dealing with the weirdness surrounding him regularly, Doom Patrol functions almost as well as a comedy as it does a drama. (And don’t get me started on the running gag in the show’s first season about Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man…)
At its best, Doom Patrol is a superhero show like no other: something that is less interested in superheroes as a means to an end or portraying the quasi-political squabbles between heroes as epic battles or civil wars. Instead, it’s a show that looks at its heroes and sees them as human and flawed and then tells their stories, with more than a bit of visual spectacle and superhuman prowess just to add a bit of flair.
If you were disappointed in how WandaVision turned out — or even if you weren’t — now is the time to give Doom Patrol a chance. You’ll be glad you did.
Doom Patrol Season 1 and 2 are now streaming, and Season 3 premieres on September 23 on HBO Max.