Nowadays, lots of things are remade that elicit groans from fans, but “Swamp Thing” is a property that was ripe for a remake – which DC Universe delivered in a 10-episode series in 2019. For those of us too cheap to subscribe to the streamer, it’s now airing Tuesdays on The CW as pandemic-era filler. The two “Swamp Thing” movies of the 1980s would make all lists of Worst Superhero Movies except that they’re relatively old and obscure. Simply by having modern production values and not being embarrassing, TV’s “Swamp Thing” could improve on that cinematic dreck.
But TV’s “Swamp Thing” – from Gary Dauberman (the “Annabelle” films) and superhero-TV veteran Mark Verheiden — is quite good even without the caveat of the low bar. Under the direction of Len Wiseman in the pilot episode, the swamps of Louisiana (with North Carolina ably standing in) are dark and moody, with A-list film composer Brian Tyler providing a scary score. Having a high-priced DC Universe series air on The CW really illustrates how cheap the network’s Arrowverse shows are in comparison.
“Swamp Thing’s” heart comes from the slow-to-trust relationship between government scientist Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed) and disgraced corporate scientist Alec Holland (Andy Bean). I loved the dimply Reed in her too-short “Gotham” arc. By-the-book Abby doesn’t smile much; she’s initially a rather bland leading woman.
But late in the episode we learn of a tragic event from her youth in Marais in a bar-table conversation with Virginia Madsen’s Maria Sunderland, the town matriarch who is married to Will Patton’s Avery. Reed pairs well with Bean, whose Alec dives into the sci-fi aspects of the local medical mystery, forcing Abby to catch up. Amid the thrown-together partners’ sleuthing and plant-tendril evasion action, the episode draws us into the Abby-Alec relationship.
For better or worse, this is timely pandemic-era programming, as a contagion is on the loose. At the hospital, Abby announces that everyone should wear masks and goggles, and we see quarantine ephemera such as plastic zip-up walls. But then Abby is maskless around patients such as a young girl whose dad had died in the process of becoming a proto-Swamp Thing; the girl herself has a mild case of plants getting into her DNA (or whatever). It’s only a year old, and “Swamp Thing” already looks ancient with its reckless, casual approach to masks and social distancing.
The more purposeful socio-political commentary from showrunners Dauberman and Verheiden (drawing on the comic’s themes) is the abuse of nature by humans. Avery Sunderland’s company did something along the lines of dumping chemicals into the swamp. Now nature is getting its revenge. It’s not precisely a climate-change warning, but “Swamp Thing” pairs nicely with that topical issue.
I knew going in that Swamp Thing – like Frankenstein’s monster — is a good guy, but nonetheless the pilot episode does a great job of building an almost horror vibe through the dark swamp images and Tyler’s music. Any time plant tendrils snake out of the swamp or out of a corpse to attack our heroes, it looks CGI-ish, but not to the point of distraction.
Avoiding pre-viewing research paid off for me, as I (embarrassingly) was surprised to find out which character becomes Swamp Thing in the dramatic closing minutes. All told, there’s plenty here to bring me back for a second episode – with Reed’s Abby and her potential relationship with the swamp creature topping the list, as it should. Not only is TV’s “Swamp Thing” superior to the movies, but it blows them out of the water.