[Note: This review was originally published in May 2019, when Swamp Thing debuted on DC Universe. It has been updated to reflect its airing on The CW.]
Not all heroes wear capes. Some wear about 40 pounds of seaweed salad and look like they’d be delicious with a rice wine vinaigrette! Swamp Thing, baby!
Swamp Thing is a bit of an outlier in the DC Universe, not really mentioned in the same sentences as Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, and all those other plain superheroes who wear bright leotards instead of leaves, do not live in swamps, and have zero control over vegetation. Nope, ol’ Swampy is his own beast, and he finally joined the rest of his DC counterparts enjoying TV revivals with Swamp Thing, a series that was originally released in the spring of 2019 but gets another chance at life filling in holes in The CW’s pandemic fall schedule in 2020.
You’d think a show about a walking, talking salad would be kind of dumb, but Swamp Thing’s unique origin allowed show creators Mark Verheiden (Battlestar Galactica) and Gary Dauberman (It) to take Swamp Thing in a very different direction than the rest of the superhero remakes that we see today. Swamp Thing veers toward the creepy paranoia of John Carpenter’s The Thing rather than the “great responsibility” pep talks of anything from Marvel or DC, making it a fresh addition to the bloated genre. And it works! Swamp Thing isn’t perfect, but it’s more than capable of filling the hole in superhero television that’s looking for a blend of horror and fantasy.
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Setting is a big reason for that. Swamp Thing calls the murky swamps of Houma, Louisiana, home, which are beautiful landscapes by day and overgrown nightmares by night. Obviously, Swamp Thing spends most of its time in the swamps at night for that very reason (or maybe everyone is secretly a vampire, I don’t know), setting a mood that’s an homage to horror movies of the past, which the showrunners are obviously very big fans of thanks to obvious nods to Nightmare on Elm Street, Aliens, and the aforementioned The Thing.
Story! It’s got that, too. Many characters from the comics are included with modern tweaks, and they go something like this: CDC doctor Abby Arcane (Teen Wolf‘s Crystal Reed) gets word of a strange virus breaking out in her hometown of Houma, so she’s tasked to go investigate. What she finds is inexplicable; victims are hacking up weird dark goo and the disease is spreading quickly, leading to one particularly gruesome discovery of a dead man propped up by twisting vines with more SHOOTING OUT OF HIS MOUTH. She’s joined by a disgraced scientist, Alec Holland (Power‘s Andy Bean), who was already looking into this unusual predicament, and let’s just say something doesn’t go right and he ends up wearing a suit of sweaty lettuce by the end of the first episode.
There’s a theme of eco-conservation here (protect the swamps!), so the villain is obviously a land developer — Avery Sunderland (Will Patton) — who wants to build on the swamp and monetize whatever he can from the trees. Virginia Madsen plays Sunderland’s wife, who is not too high on Abby because of an incident that occurred a long time ago between Abby and her daughter. Avery’s also got a scientist working with him — Jason Woodrue (the always entertaining Kevin Durand, who once again transforms himself into a sort of nerdy gardener starting in Episode 2) — to enact an evil plan, and if you are up to date on your Swamp Thing canon, you know that Woodrue also gets to experience the joys of chlorophyll at some point.
The first two episodes lay a lot of fertile ground to sprout some lengthy arcs. Is it too much? Maybe. There’s the “green plague,” Sunderland’s plans to abuse the swamp, Abby’s backstory with Sunderland’s daughter, a blind psychic, conspiracies galore, the townspeople wondering if they’ll be safe, swamp hicks up to no good, and Mr. Swamp Thing himself. Most of these are connected, which is a good thing, but it’s so much stuff to deal with that we only see Swamp Thing for about five minutes total in the first two episodes. That bodes well for the show to not get bogged (heh) down with too much filler in later episodes if it can keep a handle on all the stories. On the other hand, it puts a lot of pressure on those stories to deliver, or the show may drag with everything that isn’t a lumbering Caesar salad.
The special effects are a mix of computer-generated and practical, which adds to the throwback horror movie feel that defines its tone. There’s nothing like seeing a sturdy corpse split open and fall to the floor with a thud rather than some pixels attempt to mimic the same thing, leaving the CGI to augment the scene with some extra splatter. That’s ultimately what puts Swamp Thing in a very dear place in my heart; it’s honoring the past, including the Swamp Thing movies of the 1980s, in all the right ways.
Of course we can’t not talk about the production issues that have already hit the show. Due to creative differences (or the performance of the streaming service, if you’re a conspiracy theorist), DC Universe halted production on the show after Episode 10, cutting Season 1 down from its original 13-episode order. The ending was apparently rewritten to wrap things up, but losing three episodes that late in the season seems questionable at best, disastrous at worst. The future of DC Universe will also play a part in the future of the show, obviously, and let’s just say DCU isn’t pulling in Netflix-type numbers.
The news of the production stoppage led me to go into Swamp Thing thinking it was a stinker, so I was pleasantly surprised that I had a such a good time watching the first two episodes. That said, it feels like something that would be a great new show on Syfy, not a future classic on HBO. Temper your expectations like I did, and Swamp Thing may just… grow on you. *ba-dum-tiss*
Swamp Thing premiered Friday, May 31 on DC Universe, and makes its broadcast debut on Tuesday, Oct. 6 at 8/7c on The CW.