Well, the day has finally arrived. The pilot for the murky backwoods body horror series Swamp Thing has officially premiered on the DC Universe streaming service and it certainly will make you want to tune in for episode two next week.
Swamp Thing is the third exclusive series to make its debut on the niche streaming platform and like its predecessors it absolutely showcases that while the service may lack in quantity of content, it more than just makes up for it in quality. While Titans’ first season was flawed, it served as an effective introduction to the sort of mature live-action content that DC Entertainment was boasting about when the niche streaming service was announced last May. It encouraged people to tune into fellow DC Universe original series Doom Patrol, which set a much higher standard for what fans can expect from these premium shows just by how it wasn’t afraid to be serious with its character work in a genre dominated largely by escapism while still leaning into the peculiarity of the source material. For Swamp Thing, I would like to think that the pressure for it to maintain that level of quality is even higher now as a result of the recent behind-the-scenes drama, which ended with the series’ inaugural season episode count being reduced from 13 episodes to 10. So far though, the first episode bears some promise even despite some flawed character work and exposition.
Swamp Thing is nothing short of an enthralling venture for the comic book sub-genre as it veers into the horror genre which is the one genre that comic book adaptations don’t visit often enough aside from the occasional Brightburn or Seven Deadly Sins in Shazam. Right off the bat the show doesn’t pull any punches in how it depicts the gore, just like with prior DC Universe shows. There’s no question that executive producer James Wan learned some important lessons from director John Carpenter’s 1982 body horror masterpiece The Thing when he was working on the show. Those lessons would be to make it as visceral, bloody, and disgusting as humanly possibly to the point your audience isn’t sure if they want to vomit or be elated at the sight of what they just witnessed.
When Len Wiseman was announced to be directing the pilot for this show I was a bit mixed on the series and whether James Wan had made the right call in tapping him to kick off the series. Mainly because for me Wiseman’s direction is a bit of a mixed bag and you don’t fully know which Wiseman you’re getting. Is it the same Len Wiseman who directed the awful Total Recall reboot or the one who was the executive producer for Fox’s Lucifer? Thankfully, I can say that we got the latter and based on the plot for the pilot I don’t think you could find anyone better than Wiseman to start off the series. Particularly because Wiseman also directed the pilot for Lucifer, which the Swamp Thing pilot bears a lot of similarities with. The pilots for both shows introduce us to a professional, busy-body female lead who ends up aligning with quirky, but still charming male leads with a background in the supernatural. With Lucifer, it would be LAPD homicide detective Chloe Decker and Lucifer Morningstar and with Swamp Thing it would be CDC investigator Dr. Abby Arcane and Alec Holland. The latter of whom meets his unfortunate demise at the end of the series before getting his makeover into the titular character, where he is portrayed by Friday The 13th star Derek Mears. Yes, it is the most overdone story in the history of television as we’ve seen with popular shows like Doctor Who, Lucifer, and so on but somehow it’s passable here because of the chemistry between stars Andy Bean and Crystal Reed.
Abby Arcane is called back to her Southern hometown of Marais to investigate the outbreak of a mysterious infection that’s killing people, which is seemingly coming from the swamp. The symptoms include locals getting transformed into vegetated statues and cough up green slime. In the middle of her investigation she crosses path with the charming but strange Dr. Alec Holland, who is conducting an investigation of his own into the disease’s connection to the swamp which causes him to discover an abnormal mutagen that is accelerating the growth of the local plant life and just may be the key to producing a cure for the infected. Like with any great horror production like this it becomes clear that Holland and Arcane are standing right in the middle of something that is far bigger than they realize, which the swamp and certain other malicious actors don’t want them to uncover. Along the way though the show doesn’t just focus on Arcane and Holland. There’s a lot of introductions for other characters that are of course going to set up multiple arcs, such as with Abby’s former friend and sheriff deputy Matt Cable and Liz Tremayne.
In a classic Swamp Thing fashion, the series has a very eco-friendly theme so the main antagonist of the season is of course going to be a shady land developer named Avery Sunderland, who has plans for the swamp and gain a profit from it if he can. We also get a chance to meet Sunderland’s wife, who is clearly not supportive of Abby’s return home because of an accident that happened between her daughter and Abby that happened at some point before the events of the series.
Unfortunately, aside from Alec and Abby everyone else feels semi-hollow. Not a lot is done with them as they are all slowly reunited with our antagonist. In a lot of ways I feel as if they were designed to really build her character and give us partial insight into her background that will be expanded upon as the series progresses. They almost all blend together in some facet, which is a step-back from the individuality of the characters in both Doom Patrol and Titans. I would hope that as the series progresses these characters become a tad more defined, but for now I’m not quite sure how invested I will be in any of them which isn’t something you want to feel about a show’s characters. With the aforementioned shows you felt like you could get invested in any of the characters in the single episodes.
One of the big takeaways that best define Swamp Thing is its perfect blend of practical effects and CGI that set the tone and gives the audience a chance to reminisce about the more classic methods of horror production, which works perfectly for this kind of character. Nothing screams Swamp Thing quite like seeing a corpse rise up on its table and attack people as its torn apart by the dozens of vines protruding from its body, which absolutely was not CGI. It’s a love letter to the original Wes Craven Swamp Thing film and the various other cinematic adaptations of the source material. Of course, the delight that this show takes in its violence and horror shouldn’t come as a surprise based on James Wan’s involvement as an executive producer and the script by It scribe Gary Dauberman and Constantine‘s Mark Verheiden, none of whom are strangers to the horror genre in the slightest.
Despite all of this Swamp Thing still offers so much humanity. Crystal Reed’s Abby Arcane provides the viewer with a window into the darkness of this world as she bears a dark secret from her past that she conveys through haunted looks and unfinished sentences. Somehow, she manages to vibe perfectly with Bean’s quirky Holland to the point that you’re really not going to look forward to them getting broken up by the latter’s unfortunate demise. As for Derek Mears, with what little we see of him in this episode you can already tell that his take on Swamp Thing is going to be a tragic character with so many emotions that you can’t help but sympathize with. There’s no question that he will embody what the story of Swamp Thing has always been at its core since his inception: tragedy and the horror that it brings about.
Overall, I would say that the first episode of Swamp Thing while flawed opens the door for something that could turn out to be solid. The violence, horror, and practical effects elevate it above its fellow DC Universe Originals, but in terms of character work it is a mixed bag. Yes, these characters and the drama that they could provide has potential, but we haven’t seen a lot of it compared to the pilots for both Titans and Doom Patrol. It does make me semi-nervous about whether the showrunners can stick the narrative landing on this show with a reduced episode count, but we shouldn’t call this race quite yet. We’re only one episode in after all.