Well are you, chum? Honestly, I didn’t think I was, but Amazon’s new reboot of The Tick won me over by the end of the pilot. When I saw the images of Peter Serafinowicz in the suit I was apprehensive. I loved the original live-action version of The Tick, because in addition to Patrick Warburton being seemingly cosmically ordained to play the role, David Burke (Arthur), Nestor Carbonell (Batmanuel), and Liz Vassey (Captain Liberty) were also perfect, and director Barry Sonnenfeld managed to create fully-realized world around the characters. It was distinct from the comic and cartoon, but just as funny. But that first shot of Serafinowicz? The suit looked weird. It looked like a suit. I had visions of uncanny valleys dancing in my head.
I’m happy to say that, at least in the opening episode, The Tick makes the suit work. And it makes everything about the show work by embracing and then oh-so-gently mocking the current gritty superhero landscape.
We only actually get a few minutes of the Tick in the pilot, because what we focus on instead is Arthur’s Tragic Backstory. Really. (Stay with me.) First, we get a wonderful nod to Watchmen as we see the first superhero, Superian, arrive on earth. Obviously this ushers in a new era of humanity, yada yada yada, and we jump to present day, and get acquainted with our new Arthur. He’s a young man who is still reeling from an incident in his childhood, which I won’t describe because spoilers, but believe me, it’s horrific. (Also, if you’re a sick bastard like myself, incredibly funny.) This incident left him with an obsession with The Terror, a supervillain whom most people believe was vanquished by Superian… but Arthur suspects otherwise. For most of the episode, though, the show keeps us with civilians—Arthur’s relationship with his sister, Dot, and his past issues with hallucinations and PTSD are in the foreground. In the background, there is definitely a criminal network up to no good – but is it The Terror? Or simply humans? Did I mention that The Terror is played by Jackie Earle Freaking Haley, and is legitimately terrifying?
Ben Edlund has liberally sprinkled quotes from older versions of The Tick across this new, bleaker landscape, which makes for a jarring experience in the moment, but the more I think about it, the more it seems the show is mounting an impressive commentary on our current superheroic climate. When The Tick comic first premiered back in 1986, comics were not yet part of mainstream culture; while devout comics fans were learning about the new, more mature landscape drawn by The Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Sandman, and Preacher, most people thought of comics and superheroes in terms of Christopher Reeve’s Superman and Adam West’s Batman.
The Tick was big, blue, and silly, and the foes he faced were usually ridiculous. In much the same way that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles parodied Daredevil (the Foot Clan = The Hand; Splinter = Stick), The Tick referenced Frank Miller’s run on Elektra, as the nigh-invulnerable hero helped a character named Oedipus battle an American ninja clan called, um, The Ninjas in America (presumably because Eastman and Laird had already used The Foot). When the Tick followed the Turtles again by getting his own cartoon, Ben Edlund and his writers doubled down on the silliness, giving us villains including The Deadly Nose (he has a gun for a nose), Chairface Chippendale (he has a chair for a head), and The Evil Midnight Bomber What Bombs at Midnight (what it says on the tin).
The original live-action version took the character in a slightly darker dimension, reflecting a world that had embraced Tim Burton’s vision of Batman, only to be rewarded with Joel Schumacher’s vision of Batman. The Tick deals with death for the first time, apparently not understanding before that it was, y’know, permanent. Batmanuel and Captain Liberty have a way more complicated relationship than Die Fledermaus and American Maid ever did. Arthur’s sister Dot has him committed to a mental institution run by a nefarious Dave Foley. Jimmy Carter is threatened. It’s pretty dark stuff! But the Tick himself is still warm, friendly, and swathed in a cartoony blue suit that might be an organic part of his body. The criminals are all goofy enough, and violence cartoony enough, that it all feels fun.
But here in 2016 the darkness has gotten so thick that you wonder if even the Tick can punch through it. I mean, Dot is nagging Arthur about taking his pills? Real villains use real guns that are loaded with real bullets? But when The Tick and Arthur finally meet, suddenly the language changes. Tick makes ridiculous pronouncements about destiny, calls Arthur “chum”, and reenacts the scene from the original live-action series where Tick (naturally) assumes that one of Arthur’s lamps must be a lever for a secret passageway or hidden supercomputer, thus wrecking all of his new sidekick’s stuff. This lighthearted comedy crashes right into a show that was reaching Mr Robot-levels of sadness and paranoia only a scene before.
I think it’s fascinating that each new version of the character has grappled with the superhero landscape of the day—now we’ll have a Blue Avenger ready to tackle a world that has not only lived through the blimp scene in Watchmen, the back-breaking scene in The Dark Knight Rises, and the electroshock scene in Suicide Squad, but also binged Daredevil and Jessica Jones and Arrow and Flash and Legends of Tomorrow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D…. if anyone can make superheroes fun again, it’s the Tick, and in Amazon’s version, I think we may have gotten the hero we both need and deserve.