I didn’t know The Tick was the superhero we needed right now until we got him, but I’m sure as heck glad we did.
Amazon’s new live-action adaptation, starring Peter Serafinowicz as the eponymous, blue-clad hero, lays serious claim to being by far the best ever take on Ben Edlund’s character – who was previously seen in indie comics, a popular early ’90s cartoon series and a less popular but well-regarded early 2000s live-action sitcom. And it does this by dialling down the parodic elements that characterised all those previous versions.
That’s not to say it’s not funny – quite the opposite, it’s frequently hilarious. But 2017-style Tick cannot honestly be categorised as an out-and-out satire of superheroes. Sure, there are archetypes all over the place – Superian is an obvious analogue to a certain hero whose name is only one letter different, and Overkill is basically Batman meets the Punisher meets every single Rob Liefeld comic ever. But the superhero elements of the story are a vehicle for jokes – they’re never something we’re invited to directly laugh at in and of themselves.
The closest thing in comics that kept coming to my mind during this initial six-episode run (a “second half” of season one is slated to follow later in the year) was the work of Keith Giffen and J.M. deMatteis – most notably on Justice League International, but also on their creator-owned Hero Squared. Those books are renowned as “superhero comedy”, but the comedy is almost all in the characters – they still have a hefty amount of actual drama and heart to them, just as The Tick does. There may be plenty of gags, but the story – and the superheroic ethos – is played with an absolutely straight bat.
As with all previous adaptations, original creator Edlund is directly involved here – which is why it’s perhaps surprising that it’s a complete and total reinvention of the concept. No previous knowledge of the Tick is required – which is handy, since the Tick himself has no previous knowledge of his background. Every different version of the Tick has a different backstory, and in this case he’s more mysterious than ever, with an implication that he maybe didn’t even actually exist before meeting Arthur for the first time.
But it doesn’t actually matter who the Tick “really is” or where he came from, because he’s simply there. Serafinowicz’s version of the character is a wonderful creation, essentially a more childlike (or, perhaps, puppy-dog) version of Captain America. He sees the world in black and white, and is simply there to do good – and give out some hugs along the way – dispensing justice and laughing heartily as bullets bounce off him. Serafinowicz himself is clearly having the time of his life, punctuating every moment with garbled aphorisms in a distinctly Adam West-ish tone, and as someone who’s been following his comedy career for many years it’s only to be hoped that this gives him the major breakout that The Peter Serafinowicz Show criminally never did.
He’s not actually the lead character in his own show, mind – something that’s both a positive and a negative (on the one hand, it means the schtick never wears thin, but on the other it’s hard to deny it’s less entertaining whenever he’s not onscreen). Instead, the series is focused around Arthur (Griffin Newman), who’s given a tragic backstory involving presumed-deceased supervillain The Terror (a brilliantly menacing, if sometimes hard to understand, Jackie Earle Haley) and whose obsessive quest for the truth results in him accidentally taking possession of a moth-themed flying suit.
The first couple of episodes are in danger of going slightly overboard with the angst around Arthur and his history (although the flashback to the tragic incident in question is superbly done) – but it’s the heart and charm that really shine through as the series goes on. This culminates with an action set-piece in the final episode that is genuinely one of the most heart-swelling, fist-pumping moments I’ve encountered in any superhero fiction for a good while.
Given the short running time of the series – at around half an hour each, you’ll blast through all six episodes before you’ve had a chance to blink – there’s a decent amount of character development given over to supporting turns such as Ms. Lint (the excellent Yara Martinez), the primary antagonist who veers between glimpses of sympathy and outright evil. Arthur’s sister Dot (Valorie Curry), too, initially comes across as only really being there to nag him into keeping away from everything to do with superheroes, but has secrets and nuance of her own.
Hopefully these elements will be developed still further in the second half of the series, but it’s well-constructed as a first act in that there’s an emotionally satisfying conclusion to one part of the overall arc before then opening up cliffhangers and intrigue to be explored later. By the time it comes to an end it’s a world, and a set of characters, that I can’t wait to spend more time with – and while it may be a comedy first and foremost, it’s the fact that it strikes the hero notes so well that makes it an instant classic.