Netflix’s South London-Set Superhero Drama 5

Going back to the immigrant/foundling who became Superman, the superhero genre has often been used as an exploration of what happens when people from variably disenfranchised groups find themselves with unexpected levels of power. Whether the result leads to enhanced altruism or diabolical megalomania is the difference between a hero and a villain.

Not all audiences are so eager to read for subtext, which has led to recent stories that push the subtext to the surface and the superpowers occasionally to the background, whether the goal is to make stubborn pre-existing audiences get the point (see X-Men ’97), to make an audience that probably never watched in the first place get the point (Amazon’s short-lived The Power) or to make a low-IQ potato get the point (season four of The Boys)


The Bottom Line

Distinctive setting, distinctive characters, familiar genre tropes.

Airdate: Thursday, June 27 (Netflix)
Cast: Tosin Cole, Adelayo Adedayo, Nadine Mills, Eric Kofi-Abrefa, Calvin Demba, Josh Tedeku, Eddie Marsan
Creator: Rapman

It’s the genre storytelling equivalent of a bacon-wrapped date. I’ll leave it for you to decide, in this metaphor, which is the chewy, salty protein (the subtext, probably) and which is the sticky sweet (the superhero stuff, I guess). And maybe you only like bacon or maybe you only like dates or maybe you love them both but don’t love them together, which is crazy because dates are made to be wrapped in bacon and this is what happens when I write a review after skipping breakfast.

Like The Power, a series you’ve probably either forgotten entirely or never knew existed in the first place, Netflix‘s Supacell is a show that could easily be dismissed as the latest in a long line of shows and movies (and an even longer line of comic books) about a group of seemingly ordinary people who develop seemingly extraordinary abilities.

Whether your introductory point of reference is something like Heroes — a lot of clout to give a series that was a certifiable phenomenon for most of a single season and then… was not — or The Umbrella Academy, nobody, including the producers of these shows, would deny a high level of genre familiarity.

It’s a familiarity and a comparison that benefits and hurts Supacell, from British multi-hyphenate Rapman. You’ve seen so many shows like Supacell that it’s generally impossible to be surprised by any of the things that the series treats as twists, and a lot of the most inevitable elements play out in a needlessly prolonged fashion over the six-episode first season.

But if, on a beat-by-beat basis, Supacell resembles every superhero show you’ve ever seen, the way it feels and plays out is completely distinctive. The genre is the genre, but the tone and feel that Rapman sets and the characters he builds out are different enough to be worthwhile, even if the show remains largely notable for its emerging potential after these six episodes.

Supacell is a piece of genre revisionism that fits within what has become a subgenre of its own, namely: “Take a story-type that traditionally exists in white spaces and shift it to South London to see what happens.” See also, Attack the Block and Rye Lane (among others).

Written and directed by Rapman, the Supacell pilot takes its time getting to a destination that’s the premise of the show. We begin by meeting Michael (Tosin Cole), a parcel delivery driver in a sweet longterm romance with Dionne (Adelayo Adedayo), while struggling to help his mother continue her fight with sickle cell disease.

Then there’s nurse Sabrina (Nadine Mills), sister to Sharleen (Rayxia Ojo), who has really bad taste in men (they both do, actually). Nearly homeless Rodney (Calvin Demba) is trying to build a market as an amiable, low-level weed-dealer, but he isn’t very good at it. Ex-con Andre (Eric Kofi-Abrefa) wants to hold down a job and develop a relationship with his teenage son. And Tazer (Josh Tedeku) is just trying to stay alive, leading a small gang of tower estate kids in an escalating rivalry with a larger and more violent gang.

At a moment of peak happiness, Michael makes a shocking discovery: His eyes glow yellow and he can teleport. Actually, he can do more than teleport. He can pause time and travel backwards and forward in that dimension. On an accidental jaunt into the future, he learns that Tazer and Andre and Rodney and Sabrina, four people he’s never met, have powers as well, that they’re clashing with a group of faceless figures in hoodies and that Dionne is only three months from death.

Before you can say “Save the social worker, save the world,” Michael begins a quest to find and unite this group of superpowered strangers in order to save the woman he loves. I’ll let viewers discover most of the superpowers for themselves, though Supacell is mostly working from page one of the handbook — strength, healing, speed — rather than digging as deep as, say, Hulu’s delightful Extraordinary.

Oh and meanwhile, we keep occasionally cutting to a mysterious lab facility in which a number of other people presumably with powers are trapped in comfortable, but sealed cells. It’s hard not to notice that the people with powers, both in the outside world and the lab facility, are all Black and that the people doing the controlling are primarily white, including Eddie Marsan‘s Ray, who is spotted monitoring everything in the series’ opening scene and then doesn’t appear again for a long, long time.

I’d say that Supacell was Heroes meets Hulu’s top-notch new rom-com Queenie if I felt like there was much overlap between those two audiences. Regardless, Rapman is interested not just in giving exposure to a part of London that’s far removed from the more conventional, “Hey look, it’s The Gherkin!” perspective on the city, but in exploring the cultural and economic diversity of South London.

Our main characters reflect a wide spectrum of Black British experience, some fighting poverty and some eagerly approaching middle-class comfort, some with names that speak to Caribbean or African roots and others hailing from biracial backgrounds.

The characters are all facing different levels of adversity and they all come to a realization that superpowers can only confront and overcome certain societal and institutional failings. Like maybe having telekinesis can help you fight off menacing sex-pests, but it’s pretty useless in the face of discriminatory hiring and promotional practices.

From the slang-driven scripts — turn your captioning on — to the rousing, hip hop-infused soundtrack to the immaculate cinematography, Supacell has the feeling of a story that could only spring from this location and these characters, rather than a series that acknowledges London exclusively for token globalism. Every neighborhood depicted in the show feels vibrant and lived in, no matter the tax bracket of its inhabitants.

Plus, every actor from the cast of relative unknowns — apparently if I watched the British soap Hollyoaks I would know a few of them — is a solid discovery in a way similar to the ensemble of Tubi’s Boarders, another recent example of South London-izing a staid genre. Cole and Adedayo look like stars and have a warm chemistry that anchors the show, while Kofi-Abrefa and Tedeku have a looming intensity that suggests their characters could turn good or evil depending on circumstances. Demba’s performance tends in the direction of humor, but when we get his background, he quickly earns empathy.

Supacell has the specificity to be a great superhero drama if its actual superhero trappings weren’t so average. The way the characters loosely intersect before their inevitable team-up underlines the small-world feeling of South London and there’s some elegance in how Rapman and fellow director Sebastian Thiel have their paths cross.

There’s some frustration as well, because fans know various directions that these origin stories can take, and Rapman leans into as many tropes as he upends. While you’ve seen better and worse versions of the action set pieces and special effects spectacle, you’ve seen comparable versions, and a lot of them.

It’s only in the finale that Supacell really begins to come together, as the series starts to clarify the origins of our heroes’ powers and the identities and motivations of their adversaries. This puts viewers in a position that, like so much in Supacell, is pretty familiar: I’m telling you to watch the show for its potential, which I think is evident and ample, but if you wait for the show to fulfill its potential before tuning in, a second season will never materialize.

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