Available on Netflix
There is a line in Netflix’s Raising Dion that more or less sums up its raison d’être: “Moms aren’t any fun – that’s why they’re not in comics.” Certainly, if you look through the vast range of superhero comics, you’d be hard pressed to find many mums who aren’t dead and who are integral to the plots, other than (of course) in Wonder Woman.
Raising Dion is an attempt to counteract that – but simultaneously proof that there’s barely a genre on Earth that hasn’t now been cross-contaminated by the superhero genre. In this case, the genre is “heartwarming family tales about single black mums who try to raise their talented sons, and have to overcome all the obstacles that society – and men – can throw in their path”. It sounds niche, but there’s actually more stories like that then you might imagine.
Raising Dion, not Arizona
Adapted by Carol Barbee from Dennis Liu’s comic book (and short movie) of the same name, Raising Dion sees Alisha Wainwright (Shadowhunters) playing the former dancer turned single mum in question. She’s recently lost her scientist husband, Michael B Jordan (Creed, Black Panther), who apparently died rescuing a drowning woman during a recent storm.
Moving back to her old neighbourhood but a new home and putting her son into a good but virtually whites-only local school, she’s soon struggling to make ends meet and juggling the demands of working life with those of her seven year old son Dion (Ja’Siah Young). She gets some help from her doctor sister (Jazmyn Simon), as well as her new neighbourhoods, but principally she starts to lean on her husband’s nerdy engineer best friend Jason Ritter (Joan of Arcadia, The Class, Parenthood, The Event, Kevin (Probably) Saves the World), who also happens to be Dion’s godfather.
Dion’s demands only seem to increase. Not only does he have a racist principal and new enemies in the form of the cliquey skateboarders in his class, he soon starts to exhibit strange powers, such as the ability to levitate things, to teleport and even to heal things. Can Wainwright protect her son, keep his powers secret while helping him to control them, keep him in school and decide whether to start dating again, all while trying to get a job that will give her medical coverage?
I guess it’s just the typical story of a single mum’s life. Apart from the man made from lightning.
These days, the average superhero story isn’t really intended for the young. You can find some kid-oriented comics and animated shows if you look hard, but live action superheroics tend to be in the 12A and above territory. So it’s actually quite pleasing to watch a show that’s clearly, you know, for kids. While it’s scary in places and there’s a plotline or two that’s a bit more adult-oriented, for the most-part Raising Dion is there for the kids.
Over the course of the nine episodes, the story is two from two points of view: Young’s and Wainwright’s. Young’s stories are all the sorts of things you’d expect of junior fiction: making friends, fitting in, being an outsider, playing nice with the disabled kid who’s going to become your best friend and help you with that science project.
Sure, there’s the little matter of the superpowers, but not for one second does the show entertain the notion of entering Brightburn territory. Instead, Dion is just a well intentioned little boy who wants to use his powers to rescue other kids’ toys, heal sick animals and steal crisps from the kitchen using just his mind.
It’s actually quite nice to watch such sunniness, even as an adult.
To a certain extent, Wainwright’s story has to serve Young’s – that’s the title of the show, after all. But even that has a purpose: to point out the vital importance of mums’ influence in kids’ development. Would Superman be the nice guy he is without Martha Kent? Probably not, but most versions of his story never really bother to show why. Here, we get the issues explored in depth.
But the main thrust of Wainwright’s story is actually an inditement of the way the US treats those on the bottom rungs of society. She spends considerable numbers of episodes being thrown from job interview to job interview and job to job, being told she needs to be the “first one in and the last one out”, fired by phone for being 10 minutes late in, and suffering endless amounts of bullshit, purely so she can get the expensive-but-necessary medical insurance she needs to cover her young son’s occasional visit to hospital and asthma medication. Lose her cover? Suddenly that inhaler is going to cost her $50+ per shot.
God bless socialised medicine. God bless employment tribunals.
Coupled with that class analysis wrapped in levitating Lucky Charms is an analysis of male-female power inequalities and expectations that feels like a nine-episode adaptation of Arthur Chu’s famous viral essay Your Princess is in Another Castle. I can’t give too much away without spoiling it, but suffice it to say, male entitlement is the root of all evil here.
The worst of both worlds?
The show does quite well with most of these concerns, painting a plausible portrait of Wainwright’s complicated life. It’s a little too “family” to really approach her storyline in too much depth and too bleakly, but if you want that, there’s always Joker. Its rooting in the “family struggles” genre also means that when the CDC turns up, for example, it verges on the histrionic rather than plausible.
More importantly, it doesn’t quite work as a superhero story. While the special effects are surprisingly good, there’s rarely a moment to really evoke the same kind of awe that Superman managed to conjure from its emerging hero. There’s also no real building of tension, just a more prosaic relation of narrative.
Similarly, that “not your princess” message, while relevant to the single mother narrative, doesn’t really marry up with the emerging child superhero narrative, despite some brave attempts. What does an eight-year-old know about privilege and expectations? And is that really the worst supervillain you could face? You can squint and see it maybe working at a metaphorical level, but “beware of nice guys as they might be too nice” is starting to get into 15-18 certificate territory that Raising Dion hasn’t quite got the storytelling skills to enter.
Nevertheless, despite not so much pulling its punches as preferring to sit down and negotiate its differences in a supportive environment, Raising Dion is a decent watch. It features many of the standard tropes of both family action movies and superhero stories, including “evil corporation will do experiments on you” and “the Asian boss career woman is definitely evil”, but manages to subvert many of them. There’s a definite originality to the show’s “mythos”, too, and the characters are all well drawn.
And then there’s the cast. Wainwright is a compelling lead and Young is endearing, while Ritter deploys his comic chops to good effect. To his credit, Michael B Jordan does actually show up a lot, despite being dead, when he could simply have been a name in the credits. Together with Wainwright, he’s able to portray that rare thing on mainstream TV: a young black couple in love, acting as good parents and role models.
If you don’t mind watching a superhero show that barely scrapes past a PG certificate – at least in its heart and mind – Raising Dion is an enchanting, if not quite thrilling ride.