ANALYSIS

Is the new DC Studios regime the apocalypse that "Doom Patrol" can't survive?

Despite "Wonder Woman 3" getting canned, James Gunn's plans for the DCEU may bode well for this wacky underdog show

By Melanie McFarland

TV Critic

Published December 8, 2022 6:38PM (EST)

Matt Bomer in "Doom Patrol" (Dan McFadden/HBO Max)
Matt Bomer in "Doom Patrol" (Dan McFadden/HBO Max)

If there's any truth to that dictum about judging a man by the quality of his enemies, it's no wonder that Cliff Steele, Rita Farr, Larry Trainor, and Jane are so quick to see the worst in themselves.

The misfit "Doom Patrol"  housemates never wanted to be heroes, view their powers as a burden, and resent the man who bestowed their abilities on them, Dr. Niles Caulder (Timothy Dalton). If it were up to them, the world would forget they exist. 

The fourth season sees them attempting to embrace their heroic side – clumsily and ineffectually, but they're trying! – to stop a world-ending horde known as . . . the Butts.

As you might guess, these creatures are shaped like a badonkadonk, except the crack contains sharp teeth that infect victims with a zombifying virus.

Harebrained TV plots like this aren't unheard of, but "Doom Patrol" flaunts them as its central feature. Its cast pulls them off with zest, and includes Matt Bomer ("White Collar") voicing Larry, a post-World War II test pilot bandaged from head to toe, whose radioactive flesh holds a negative spirit. He's joined by Diane Guerrero ("Orange Is the New Black") as Jane, a woman with dissociative identity disorder whose many personalities each have distinct superpowers; and April Bowlby ("Drop Dead Diva") as Rita Farr, an actress who can manipulate her flesh into a gooey form.

Rounding out their number is Brendan Fraser as Cliff, a racecar driver whose still-living brain was placed inside a crude metal body following a crash that killed his wife. His involvement with "Doom Patrol" could increase its survival odds.

Doom PatrolMatt Bomer in "Doom Patrol" (Dan McFadden/HBO Max)

Before we get into that along with the accompanying list of howevers, let's talk about the fourth season's many, many Butts. The team initially faced the species, designated gluteus morticus, during a first-season rescue mission to retrieve a teammate from a secret prison called the Ant Farm. (This is the show's Guantanamo run by a nefarious military organization called the Bureau of Normalcy.)

They encountered them again in Season 3 while temporarily transformed into zombies. One of the team sank their undead teeth into a monster during an attack. After that, they were forgotten. In a show that features everyday encounters with sex ghosts, time travel and a non-binary hero who is teleporting a community sheltering extraordinary outcasts, ravenous zombie butts are on brand.

However – yes, it's that time – right now devoted fans of the exuberantly wacky show may be wondering whether the newly debuted fourth season will be its last. There are several solid arguments in favor of giving the writers an opportunity to build a proper farewell for Cliff, Jane, Larry, Rita, the hero formerly known as Cyborg, Vic Stone (Joivan Wade), along with new housemate Laura (Michelle Gomez), a reformed supervillain who can shapeshift.

Gale force winds may be heading in the direction of razing the gloom-tinged Snyderverse .

As many reasons exist for "Doom Patrol" and "Titans" – another live-action holdover from the tiny DC Universe streaming service – to be swept off the board as part of a restructuring of the DC Extended Universe, set to be announced soon by DC Studios new co-CEOs Peter Safran and James Gunn.

While the Safran-and-Gunn regime began in November, their transformational mission was announced in August by Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav. The company's goal is to create a DC-focused 10-year plan similar to Marvel head executive Kevin Feige's successful multi-decade blueprint for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

This week the public is getting an idea of what that means. Wednesday evening The Hollywood Reporter broke the news that the studio smothered Patty Jenkins' plans for "Wonder Woman 3." That may not mean Gal Gadot is finished as Wonder Woman, but it leads one to contemplate whether Henry Cavill has another flyby as Superman in his future.

Wonder Woman 1984Wonder Woman 1984 (Warner Bros./HBO)

Warner did not officially confirm the "Wonder Woman" news, and Gunn addressed it in a Thursday Twitter thread which begins with, "As for the story yesterday in the Hollywood Reporter, some of it is true, some of it is half-true, some of it is not true, & some of it we haven't decided yet whether it's true or not."

Even so, between that, Warner's unceremonious burial of "Batgirl," the funk of controversy surrounding "The Flash" star Ezra Miller, and the rumor that Jason Momoa is being considered to take over the role of the DC character Lobo, gale force winds may be heading in the direction of razing the gloom-tinged Snyderverse and all its related shortfalls and controversies.

But if Momoa signs on to play a character most people have never of, that may indicate oddball titles like "Doom Patrol" could have a place in new DC.

More moviegoers and coach surfers are familiar with Gunn than Safran. Gunn ushered broad swaggering humor into the MCU via the "Guardians of the Galaxy" movies, then turned around to correct the misstep that was 2016's "Suicide Squad" with 2021's "The Suicide Squad." That title is a ballsy rejoinder if you think about it. Leading with such a very definite article instead of calling it "Suicide Squad II" signals that it is the only one that matters.

The success of "Peacemaker" backs up that bravado, pulling John Cena out of a movie ensemble that returned Viola Davis and Margot Robbie from the 2016 movie and features Sexiest Man Alive Idris Elba, and placing him as the lead of an ensemble that held its own against his comedic and physical charisma.

PeacemakerJohn Cena in "Peacemaker" (Katie Yu/ HBO Max)

Folks who notice an artist or producer's patterns may see how Gunn's approach may bode well for "Doom Patrol" receiving a limited reprieve while understanding why his new creative direction doesn't favor Dwayne Johnson's chances of starring in a "Black Adam" sequel. Gunn has a soft spot for underutilized comic book characters, and that's probably because he has more latitude to push the comedic edge with their stories.

With Momoa being an exception (if the Lobo rumors hold any water) he also favors using those characters to make established, underutilized actors into stars by way of those characters; after all, if Chris Pratt had never become Peter Quill, in the public's eyes he'd have remained Andy Dwyer forever.

A similar theory applies to Cena and "Guardians" star Dave Bautista, both wrestling superstars whose aura doesn't approach the blindingly expensive glow surrounding Johnson.

Oddball titles like "Doom Patrol" could have a place in new DC.

To circle back to "Doom Patrol," the new season hits at the same time as this cancellation news is popping off, but also just as Fraser's performance in "The Whale" is gaining awards season steam. Fraser's resurgence has been accelerating for some time, and his continued participation in "Doom Patrol" only serves that comeback: Cliff is hilariously crass and desperate to reconnect to his humanity.

In the current season, Vic's scientist father develops a way to return sensation to Cliff's metal hands, making his primary motivation to hold his new grandson. He's also battling Parkinson's disease, a frightening archenemy in a season where the stakes are holding back (yet another) apocalypse.

Doom PatrolDiane Guerrero, Matt Bomer, April Bowlby and Brendan Fraser in "Doom Patrol" (Dan McFadden/HBO Max)

Cliff may be reduced to grey matter existing inside a bucket of bolts, but he presents Fraser an opportunity to flex his voice acting range; like Bomer, he makes a few appearances in each season, but primarily speaks for his character while another actor (Riley Shanahan) wears Cliff's robot suit. (Dalton is no longer featured for a reason that counts as a spoiler, although one of the main rules in any comic book universe is that disappearances are rarely final. To wit, the team has a time machine now.)

Cliff's storyline constantly offers Fraser heartrending interludes to break up the silliness of "Doom Patrol." Then again, the characters' psychological sagas are at the series' forefront, replacing any expectation of weekly battles. That's a main reason critics who have connected with this underdog of a show have a soft spot for it – the group's struggle to live in the world outranks their abilities in terms of power. In another example, Vic has removed his Cyborg tech and is now on a quest to find his bliss, which may be as important to defeating those Butts as figuring out how to physically defeat them.

Despite everything in its favor, and the fact that it's inexpensive relative to "Peacemaker," what the show's fate may most depend on, other than the whims of the new head of DC Studios, is whether it can fit into the larger DCEU. Gunn acknowledges that by describing the road ahead as "an unavoidable transitional period as we moved into telling a cohesive story across film, TV, animation, and gaming."

An animated series like "Harley Quinn" radiates with the type of quirkiness Gunn favors, and as a cartoon, it can be seen as a companion to Robbie's character without necessarily impacting the live-action storyline.

Harley QuinnHarley Quinn (Courtesy of HBO Max)

And if "The Suicide Squad"-to-"Peacemaker" pattern inspires DC's new gameplan, that means more emphasis on TV shows linked to theatrical releases instead of standalone players, which was how the studio operated before. Between Zack Snyder's movies and The CW's DC TV titles, there were two versions of The Flash and two versions of Cyborg kicking around.

"The Batman," Robert Pattinson's introduction to DC's most resilient franchise, will extend through a sequel and two HBO Max series spinoffs: One will be set in Arkham Asylum, and the other has Colin Farrell reprising the Penguin, which is set to move into production next year.

With all that said, it would seem the new age of DC Studios favors weirdos and unexplored outsiders, recognizing the room for creative development they offer. To that end, one might have hope for the residents of Doom Manor. The world of the DC Extended Universe may be ending, but if there's one thing we know about this bizarre band, it's that it has a knack for surviving the impossible and the highly improbable.

Part one of the fourth season of "Doom Patrol" is streaming on HBO Max.

 

 


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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