Why Swamp Thing should be your next box set
Dark but effective direction8
Truncated but compelling plot7
Laurence Boyce | On 02, Feb 2020
For a character who is basically a plant, Swamp Thing has done alright for himself. Originally introduced in the early 1970s by DC Comics, the character would originally be the repository for lots of pulpy horror tales that allowed the elemental creature to fight all manner of ghouls and abominations. Add in a couple of camp horror movie adaptations in the early 1980s, the first of which was directed by no less a talent than Wes Craven, and Swamp Thing was firmly established as a B+ character, who could stand in the background while the likes of Superman and Batman did their thing.
In 1983, along came Alan Moore and did his usual thing of completely reinventing the character. The writer’s four-year stint saw Swamp Thing become a more tragic figure, with explorations on the nature of being human and metaphysical concepts such as the “Green”, a dimension that connects all plant life. There was still plenty of gothic horror and action, but the character was more thoughtful and intelligent than his origins implied and he fit perfectly into the mid-80s milieu of going beyond the simplistic comic book tropes of good and evil.
“Old Sprout Bollocks”, as he was lovingly referred to by John Constantine (a character first introduced in the pages of Swamp Thing), became an important part of the DC Universe, especially in those areas dealing with magic and mysticism, and the character had a dedicated following. There was even a 1990s TV series lasting 72 episodes which was, well, very 90s and even the most dedicated comic book fans have erased much of it from their memories.
Of course, in the era of every IP owned by a comic book company getting a live-action interpretation, it was only a matter of time before Swamp Thing (after being mentioned in shows such as Constantine and Legends of Tomorrow) would have his own TV series. Originally made for DC’s streaming service ‘DC Universe’, the show itself has been swamped in controversy since its beginning. Originally scheduled for 13 episodes, then cut to 10, it was soon cancelled after one episode was aired with rumours swirling about misfiled paperwork and required tax breaks not materialising. With all this real life drama swirling around, does the latest iteration of Swamp Thing sink or swim?
Dr Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed), of the Centre for Disease Control, comes back to her hometown of Marais, Louisiana, to investigate reports of a deadly virus that is sweeping through the swamp, which forms a large part of the town. As she confronts her mysterious past, include the tragedy that befell the daughter of Maria Sunderland (Virginia Madsen, proving what a great actress she still is), she meets disgraced scientist Alec Holland (Andy Bean), who is working for Avery Sunderland, the rich patriarch of the town who has his own agenda.
In the course of their investigation, Alec is killed and dumped in the swamp. But he’s reborn as Swamp Thing, an elemental creature who possesses an unimaginable power to control, and communicate with, trees and plants. After he reveals himself to Arcane, they work together to investigate the mysterious circumstances of his death. But with a conspiracy at the heart of the town and many long buried secrets among its inhabitants, it is not an easy road.
What is apparent from the first episode is that the show positions itself as, first and foremost, a horror title aimed at an adult audience. Among plenty of profanity, the show prides itself on a number of gory set-pieces. People get blown to bits, fishing hooks are ripped out of people’s cheeks and – once the supernatural elements kick in – there’s plenty of squishy, nasty and gooey moments that the show seems to delight in. There’s also a particularly nasty – and emotionally affecting – scene in a later episode, which sees a character have an autopsy performed on them while they are still conscious. It is perhaps unsurprising given one of the executive producers is James Wan, who – aside from directing Aquaman – is best known for franchises such as Saw and Insiduous.
It does certainly mark Swamp Thing out as a different beast from many of its televisual compatriots. Away from DC Universe, most DC properties have gone for a bright and shiny superhero aesthetic, while even often “grimdark” Marvel shows such as Daredevil and The Punisher have a certain gloss to them. But this is an often dark and murky affair, filmed in misty swamps, dilapidated shacks with a colour palette of black and (unsurprisingly) green. It sets up a unique vision for a superhero series (although its deep South setting has certain similarities with Marvel’s recently cancelled Cloak and Dagger) and it can often be compelling, even though the constant grimness may wear down even the most ardent of horror fan.
The show’s troubled history does become somewhat apparent as the plot wears on, as there is a lot going on – there are Avery Sunderland’s machinations, the introduction of Blue Devil and the Phantom Stranger (two more minor DC properties), the arrival of rival doctor Jason Woodrue (who is well known to DC fans) as well as revelations about Abby and various supporting characters. This is all while trying to establish Swamp Thing as a character – which includes some of the more interesting ideas from the era of the Moore comics – and explore his underlying emotions. If the show had been allowed to run for longer, then these various plot points might have been allowed to breathe and be explored. Here, things sometimes feel rushed and – even in a story about a supernatural plant monster – contrived. Yet, with the showrunners finding out the show was cancelled just in the nick of time, events are mostly concluded by the time the final episodes arrive, although there are a couple of teasers about what could happen in future seasons (including a Marvel-like end credits string).
The performances are strong with the likes of Crystal Reed and Andy Bean committed to the characters (although they have to contrive later appearances of Bean through flashbacks and other tricks as Swamp Thing itself is performed by stalwart genre actor Derek Mears). Special mention most also be made of Will Patton’s turn as Avery Sunderland. He does a great line in benevolence hiding malevolence, and probably would have made an intriguing antagonist had the series continued. The show also deserves kudos for the casting of Adrienne Barbeau, the star of the 1982 Swamp Thing movie, in a small but pivotal role.
Despite the plethora of superheroes shows that are now available (even after the large cull over at Marvel’s side), it does seem a shame that Swamp Thing was drowned before it had time to grow. But the show does work as a self-contained season and is well worth a watch for providing something different to the usual superhero fare, with both stylish horror and a bit of emotional heft. Maybe old Swampie will be back one day to make a splash once again.
Swamp Thing is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.