DC's Most Mysterious Failure is Still Ahead of Its Time

Be careful out in the swamp.

Written by Jeff Ewing
Warner Bros. Television
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With James Gunn at the helm of Warner Bros.’ attempt to reboot the DCU, some of DC’s darker, weirder characters may finally make it to the big screen. Swamp Thing, one of DC’s best heroes, is already slated for a film from Logan’s James Mangold. That’s exciting, but it’s worth noting the character already had a top-shelf adaptation premiere five years ago on the now-defunct DC Universe streaming service. It was a critically lauded, comic-accurate, horror-heavy adaptation of Alan Moore’s brilliant Swamp Thing run, with gorgeous effects and a complex performance from horror great Derek Mears... and its cancellation was announced a week after the pilot aired.

As a character, the Swamp Thing was always a tough sell to wider comic audiences. In his 1970s origin, scientist Alec Holland simply transformed into the plant monster under tragic circumstances in a deep, dark swamp. Alan Moore’s brilliant 1980s reboot reinterpreted this beginning, showcasing Swamp Thing as an independent, powerful plant entity that isn’t Holland but retains his memories and identity, and who controls plants in service to The Green, the cosmic elemental energy that pervades all plant life. Moore’s work cemented the character as part of DC’s darker, more occult-influenced line of characters, and it influenced the tone and material of the 2019 DC horror series.

Ill fate aside, Swamp Thing was a successful adaptation. The performances were excellent across the board, and despite the series’ episode order being reduced from 13 episodes to 10 as they were shooting the season, the majority of episodes are well-paced. It also doesn’t shy away from proper scares, fully embracing the comic series’ unsettling tones, mind-bending elements, and unflinching body horror.

Derek Mears’ performance as the massive inhuman entity is powerful and often frightening, but also nuanced and emotive, a tortured and empathetic soul in the form of a green, swampy monstrosity. TV history has far fewer exceptional horror series than one might expect, but Swamp Thing refused to pull punches, landing among greats like Hannibal, The Terror, or Channel Zero. Then, like Alec Holland’s human self, it mysteriously just… wasn’t.

The series’ sudden cancellation was reportedly a surprise to all parties involved, including producer and seasoned horror creator James Wan, who wrote on Instagram: "Don't really know or understand why #Swampthing was cancelled, but I can tell you this — all the cast and crew, and producing/writing team poured their hearts into this. Really proud of everyone's hard work. Go watch episode 2, and immortalize these 10 episodes. Swampy deserves it."

Strong creature work was just one of Swamp Thing’s many strengths.

Warner Bros. Television

An unsourced report stated that the cancellation resulted from a tax credit snafu, but that was later debunked. Other reports suggested creative differences may have contributed to the series’ cancellation, and while a later re-premiere on the CW banked a healthy 1.1 million viewers, such an early axing surely denied the series any ability to gain momentum. We may never know the full reason why the series was canceled so abruptly, but it ended the promise of one of the most surprisingly great horror stories in recent memory. Even worse, Swamp Thing was subsequently difficult to find on streaming services; unlike other DC Universe titles like Doom Patrol or Titans, it wasn’t moved to HBO Max, although it did eventually resurface on the ad-riddled Tubi.

Swamp Thing overcame severe odds to become a TV horror masterpiece in a world where such masterpieces are rare. Excellent performances met great production design, cinematography, and special effects to create an immersive thrill. Swamp Thing’s horror elements were also exceptional, including a richly developed atmosphere and shocking body horror that captured the world of one of DC’s most unique and unsettling heroes.

With James Gunn’s track record as a horror advocate who loves bringing memorable plant people to the screen, the forthcoming Swamp Thing movie will surely take the character seriously and won’t hide from its weirder elements. It will be interesting to see how the movie connects the darker side of DC comic lore to a DC Universe reboot that seems determined to shed the old DCU’s dour label, but in the meantime, audiences can still celebrate a stunning, frightening interpretation of the green DC hero that’s far better than it had any right to be.

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