Review: Swamp Thing 1×1 (US: DC Universe)

A boggy superhero show, possibly with hidden depths

Swamp Thing

In the US: Fridays, DC Universe
In the UK: Not yet acquired

Swamp Thing is one of the most oddly popular characters in the DC comic book universe. So-called because creator Len Wein couldn’t think of a name for that “swamp thing I’m working on”, Swamp Thing was originally just a horror comic character, with scientist Alec Holland seemingly dying in a swamp, but thanks to a chemical, ending up a plant-monster instead.

Gosh, wouldn’t you want to read that?

Not even two movies by Roger Corman persuaded people that Swamp Thing was worth reading. Instead, as with most things comics in the 80s, it wasn’t until Alan Moore was let loose on the title that a seemingly ordinary comic book character could become extraordinary.

Moore had already subverted Marvelman/Miracleman into a quasi-scientific analysis of superhero powers, their status as a new Greek pantheon and how they could transform the world if they so wanted.

With Swamp Thing, he was able to muse on the hidden horrors of US society, deconstruct the right-wing and Christian values at the core of comic book morality, and enable Swamp Thing to transcend his slock origins. He even introduced the world to John Constantine along the way, and ironically, it’s his run on Swamp Thing that gave Constantine its first season ‘big bad’

In his hands, Swamp Thing was no longer Alec Holland transformed into a plant beast – he was an elemental, a supernatural protector of nature, intended to preserve the balance in ‘the green’. He wasn’t a man: he was the plants themselves thinking they were a man, but actually borrowing his consciousness and creating a similar form – no more the true Alec Holland than the nearest tree or rose bush was.

That proved a successful enough interpretation of the character that the USA Network was able to resurrect Corman’s version of Swamp Thing for a three-season run from 1990.

Andy Bean and Crystal Reed in DC Universe's Swamp Thing
Andy Bean and Crystal Reed in DC Universe’s Swamp Thing

Swamp Thing (2019)

Oddly, though, it doesn’t yet feel like DC Universe’s take on Swamp Thing is going to follow the successful Moore interpretation. Instead, Swamp Thing is very much a show rooted (ho, ho) in the horror genre, particularly the “things that go bump in the swamp at night” genre, but with a slight hint of Cronenbergian body horror.

It sees Crystal Reed (Teen Wolf, Gotham) playing Swamp Thing’s comic book main squeeze, Abby Arcane. Now a CDC doctor, she returns to the home town she thought she’d left behind forever, when a strange haemorrhagic disease breaks out in the swamps and people start dying.

In the hospital, she meets scientist Alec Holland (Power‘s Andy Bean), who hints that stranger things are afoot that might at first appear. He’s been hired by local bigwigs Will Patton and Virginia Madsen to see if there’s anything financially exploitable in the swamp. However, he’s discovered something else much stranger.

Together, Bean and Reed investigate the swamp – as well as the local town – and grow closer. But there’s a murder on its way that’s going to change everything…

Swamp Thing
Crystal Reed in Swamp Thing © Brownie Harris / 2018 Warner Bros

Boggy

Unlike its DC Universe predecessors Titans and Doom Patrol, Swamp Thing doesn’t wow in any way with its first episode. This is pretty conventional horror stuff, albeit at the smarter end of the scale.

Bean and Reed have a reasonable chemistry and we get a decent chunk of back story to both of them. We also get well established Swamp Thing/DC characters, including Matt Cable (Henderson Wade) and Madame Xanadu (Jeryl Prescott).

For the most part, though, it’s Bean and/or Reed running around to escape rapidly growing plants and engaging in bants in scenes of mild peril. Meanwhile, minor characters don’t manage to escape the plants so end up with things growing out of them.

Which is fine, if that’s what you want.

But if, for example, you actually want to see the titular character, you won’t get that until the end of the episode, since this is an origin story, of course. Whether that’ll be a Moore-ish version or a Corman-esque version remains to be seen – it could go either way, with suggestions that our Swamp Thing will be Holland animated by a special swamp goo, but also that the swamp itself is sentient in some way.

The latter would at least be interesting and open the show up to greater possible ranges of events, as Moore showed. Otherwise, we’re going to be stuck with Swamp Thing hitting things and not getting too hurt by mere humans in return. Snore.

Swamp Thing

Where’s Swamp Thing?

As with Doom Patrol, the show also has the slight issue that its main character is a bloke in a costume, voiced by Bean from now on but not actually Bean. Doom Patrol‘s format meant that flashbacks et al were possible, but it’s hard to see Swamp Thing doing the same. It’s also hard to see Bean and Reed doing the same bants together in future.

That leaves the show largely on Reed’s shoulders. She’s good enough that that could pay off, but the back story we’ve got so far is borderline nonsense, so the writing is going to have to improve if she’s to have the support she needs for the job. It doesn’t help that Madsen and Patton seem to think they’re doing Southern Gothic, with all the lack of restrained acting that invites.

Crystal Reed and Andy Bean in Swamp Thing
Crystal Reed and Andy Bean in Swamp Thing

The green shall endure

None of which is fatal, of course, and episode two now has the chance to bring plenty of other elements into play. Nevertheless, there’s nothing here to suggest that we’re about to get a third piece of must-see TV from DC Universe. The fact the season has already been shortened during production clearly doesn’t help either.

So I’ll stick around for episode two at least, but I suspect this might be a show that never quite hits the TMINE recommended list. Not unless John Constantine shows up, of course.

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