Mark Millar has probably had more of his comic book storylines adapted for the screen than anyone not named Stan Lee, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, or Chris Claremont. Besides the Kingsman and Kick Ass movies, a lot of his work on The Ultimates was mined in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, not to mention Logan being inspired by his Old Man Logan miniseries.
With Marvel now corporately bonded to Disney+, and DC similarly linked to HBO Max, Netflix has been going after independent comics (The Umbrella Academy, The Old Guard, Warrior Nun), and they have now done a deal with Millar to adapt his comics to the screen. This partnership kicks off with Jupiter’s Legacy, and it is very much not an auspicious start.
SPOILERS for the first season of Jupiter’s Legacy herein!
Based on a series that Millar and Frank Quitely started in 2014, Jupiter’s Legacy is a generational story about superheroes in a team called the Union, who debuted shortly after the stock market crash of 1929, and their various offspring in modern times. There was also a spinoff, Jupiter’s Circle, which showed the heroes’ travails in the era between the 1930s and the 2010s.
The TV show jumps back and forth between the origin of the heroes and modern times where there is a philosophical divide between the older heroes—who live by the Code, as espoused by the Union’s leader, Utopian, that heroes must never take a life—and the younger heroes, who feel that lethal force is a viable option when villains are trying to kill you.
The show went through a couple of showrunners, both of whom are experienced in comic book adaptations. Steven S. DeKnight (who show-ran Daredevil’s first season) developed the show, but quit over story disagreements and was replaced by Sang Kyu Kim (The Walking Dead).
I’m not sure if the scattershot tone of the first season of Jupiter’s Legacy is due to that sudden change in showrunners, but it certainly didn’t help matters. This season is an absolute mess, telling two barely-related stories (even though they have many of the same characters) that give us shifting tones and a nonsensical plotline.
The problems here are legion, starting with the very setup. The original members of the Union are all older, though they have aged much more slowly, so they only seem to be in their 50s or 60s even though they’re all closer to 150. (Hilariously, most of the actors are older than they’re supposed to be in 1929, but are younger than they look in 2021, and so have to be modified in some way, either with latex, whitening of hair, or both, to look older in the modern-day portions.) And many of the heroes have children, who are also super-powered, and who all appear to be in their twenties.
So, to start with, the show is asking us to believe that these people, who lived in an era long before readily available birth control or legal abortion, had no children for five decades, then all of a sudden all decided to procreate in the 1990s?
Perhaps the most frustrating element of Jupiter’s Legacy is that the 1929 story is significantly more interesting than then present-day one, though it barely has anything to do with superheroes. It’s about a family that is torn asunder by the crash, with the patriarch committing suicide. Sheldon Sampson, the younger of his children (played by Josh Duhamel, who comes across as a second-rate Kiefer Sutherland in the 1929 portions and a second-rate Jeffrey Dean Morgan in the modern bits), is plagued by visions, which lead him to gather a group to charter a boat to the middle of the Atlantic. The process by which Sheldon has these visions and descends into madness and convinces his brother, his best friend, a reporter, and one of his employees to go along with him, because the vision said so, takes up about half the season’s running time.
There are lots of great bits here, from the dynamic among the Sampson family, as well as the trio of Sheldon, his older brother Walt (played with impressive repressed anger by Ben Daniels), and Sheldon’s best friend, the rich dandy with a heart of gold, George Hutchence (played with superlative complexity by Matt Lanter, who is one of three actors who’s actually worth watching for his performance here) to the re-creation of the devil-may-care days before the crash followed by the desperate early days of the Depression to the gathering of the fellowship and going on the sea journey. Indeed, the storm-wracked sea voyage is more visually exciting than most of the superhero battles. And there’s a great moment where Sheldon meets someone else who had the same visions as he, played by the great Kurtwood Smith (the second of the three worthwhile actors), who then shoots himself in front of Sheldon. It’s the second time Sheldon has to watch someone kill themselves in front of him (the first being his father), and I wish they had done more to show how this drives his need to follow the Code at all costs.
Meanwhile, the front story never really comes together properly. The conflict is supposed to be between the new generation of heroes who think the Code is silly and the old guard who live by it fanatically. It doesn’t help that the Code is never really explicated properly and doesn’t seem to go beyond “don’t kill anyone.” Mind you, that’s a good code to go by in the abstract. There’s a good argument to be made that it’s important that costumed heroes who are (a) not officially law-enforcement or military and (b) are symbols of good don’t take another life. But there’s also a good reason why military and law-enforcement are authorized to kill in certain circumstances—and, for that matter, why killing someone in self-defense is not always considered murder or even manslaughter.
But Jupiter’s Legacy isn’t really interested in exploring those questions beyond an early conversation between Sheldon and Walt (now a.k.a. Brainwave). It doesn’t help that most of the younger heroes are ciphers. Only Brandon and Chloe—the children of Sheldon and Grace Kennedy (the reporter, played by the third worthwhile actor Leslie Bibb, who oftentimes feels like the only actual grownup in the cast)—have personalities, and they’re both spectacularly boring. Chloe is the bad girl, who has eschewed heroism in favor of being a literal supermodel (sorry…), while Brandon—who in the original comic was just as much of a ne’er-do-well as his sister—is instead an angst-ridden kid who longs for his Daddy’s approval and never gets it. Worse, the first episode sets up that Brandon will be the POV character, but the show abandons him for lengthy periods of time, to the point where you almost forget he’s even in the story. (Given that DeKnight wrote the first episode, I’m wondering if the focus on Brandon was a casualty of the switched showrunners.)
So on the one hand, we’re supposed to understand how the younger heroes feel, because apparently the villains are getting nastier and killing them. But we don’t see that, except in one scene where they’re attacked by what turns out to be a clone of a villain named Blackstar who’s been imprisoned. The Blackstar clone kills several younger heroes, and it’s supposed to symbolize the shift—but this clone isn’t a normal villain. We see bits of other stuff later, but the big problem is that very few of the younger heroes get the kind of characterization that (some of) the older ones get. They’re redshirts, who die to provoke a response in Brandon and a lack of response in Chloe.
Worse, there’s an entire subplot with Hutch, who is the child of George Hutchence, who apparently went rogue. Like so many of the interesting elements of the storyline, we don’t see George, a.k.a. Skyfox, go bad. We see lots of him as Sheldon’s best friend (and Walt’s rival) in the 1929 portions, where he’s played magnificently by Lanter. Meanwhile, his son is part of a gang of powered criminals, though Hutch himself has no powers, only a rod that will teleport anywhere he tells it to go (a gift from his father before he disappeared). But it takes several episodes before we even find out who Hutch is, or are given any reason to care about him. Then he starts a relationship with Chloe, which happens for no reason we can determine except that they’re a couple in the comics. There’s no actual chemistry there, and it makes no sense for Hutch to get involved with the child of the most famous superhero in the world if he wants to, y’know, continue to be a criminal. Indeed, the rest of his gang quits because of it.
The revelation at the end that Walt is behind everything doesn’t really land all that well. The way the storyline plays out there were only two possible masterminds: Walt or the still-missing George. Everyone assumed it was George, so it wouldn’t be much of a twist if it was, and 21st-century TV writers are tiresomely addicted to Big! Twists! You didn’t! See coming! So it kinda had to be Walt, especially given his disagreements with Sheldon over how they’ve done their superheroing in the present, not to mention his conflicts with Sheldon in the past.
Just like the children, though, you have to ask what took so long? Sure, Walt initially puts aside his differences with Sheldon in order to get the superpowers—the aliens won’t grant them their powers until they set aside their grudges—but after living through the 20th and early 21st centuries (World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the turbulence of the 1960s, 9/11) when they could have made more of a difference, why did Walt wait until now to enact his master plan? For that matter, why do the aliens let this happen? They’re conscientious enough to insist that six people go through a ridiculous number of tests to earn the superpowers (a test that several groups of a half-dozen failed over the decades), but then don’t enforce that afterward? If it’s so important to set aside differences to get the powers, why are there no consequences if it happens later?
Also, in the present day there are a ton of super-powered beings, and only some of them are blood relatives of the original six. Where’d they get their powers? And what happened to Richard Conrad, a.k.a. Blue Bolt? He’s part of the original six, but nothing of him is even spoken in the present-day portions—yet somehow Hutch has his power rod. He’s also the only gay character, though that’s only hinted at (the aliens appear as someone they care about and have lost, and Conrad sees a man who is coded to be a closeted gay lover). Add to that that the only original Union member of color (Fitz, played by an underused Mike Wade) and the only woman (Bibb’s Grace, a.k.a. Lady Liberty) are also marginalized, and it’s not a great look.
Jupiter’s Legacy is full of stuff we’ve seen before, and it does nothing to add to it. The whole history of superheroing from the 1930s to today is very much like Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, while the present-day dichotomy between the grand old heroes and the next generation was done much more interestingly in Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come. The bit where Sheldon seems to be seeing a psychiatrist, but is instead talking with one of his arch-nemeses, Dr. Hobbs, in prison because he’s the only one who understands him is an old comics trope, and one that doesn’t work here at all because we have no idea who this guy is. When, for example, the Red Skull sat with Captain America to tell him his full origin in Captain America Vol. 1 #298 by J.M. DeMatties and Paul Neary, it had the weight of forty-four years of history between the two characters; even the confrontation between the Comedian and Moloch in Watchmen worked better than this. Which is too bad, as Nigel Bennett does excellent work as Hobbs, though mainly as a therapist, as there’s nothing in his performance that screams “supervillain.”
For that matter, the alternating between flashbacks and the present is very reminiscent of Lost, but where that early 2000s show was able to thematically link the two most of the time, Jupiter’s Legacy’s flashbacks barely seem to be part of the same space-time continuum. Worse, the pacing of the switching is awful and disjointed.
This season would have been far better off showing more of the history (basically using more material from Jupiter’s Circle), not just the beginning. Seeing the Union in action in the 1940s and 1950s would have been useful. For that matter, seeing Skyfox turn evil would’ve made the present-day portions worrying about his showing up more meaning.
In the end, Jupiter’s Legacy is a teeming mass of unfulfilled potential, a superhero story that does nothing to make it stand out in a very crowded genre. Let’s hope Netflix can do better by the other Millarworld properties…
Keith R.A. DeCandido has been writing for this site for a decade now, including rewatches of classic Star Trek series and superhero movies, reviews of new Trek series and various other things, including several of Netflix’s other superhero adaptations. He’s also an author of more than 50 novels, more than 75 short stories, and around 50 comic books. His latest work is the Jersey Devil novella All-the-Way House, part of the Systema Paradoxa series about cryptids, a short story in the charity anthology Turning the Tied featuring H. Rider Haggard’s Ayesha, and the thriller Animal (written with Dr. Munish K. Batra).