By Charles Pulliam-Moore, io9
Much like an actual tract of wetlands teeming with different forms of organic life, DC Universe’s Swamp Thing is a complex, interconnected system of a story. And it’s best understood when you make an effort to appreciate it from the big picture and zoomed-in perspective simultaneously.
On its face, Swamp Thing is DC’s latest live-action adaptation of the hero’s comics origin story that’s been reworked a bit to make it feel fresh. But when you take a closer look at the smaller, specific elements that create the series’ premiere, the show reveals itself to be much more than a simple attempt at making Swamp Thing cool.
Swamp Thing has always been the sort of character that either immediately spoke to you in a profound way or didn’t. It’s why, even though he’s never been one of DC’s most high-profile heroes, he’s enjoyed a surprisingly large number of appearances across animated series over the years and was the lead of two live-action movies in the ‘80s. Because Swamp Thing’s first episode is designed to introduce you to its general world and establish the overarching horror themes that define the series, it works as an interesting entry point regardless of how familiar you are with the source material.
In this telling of the humble beginnings of the series’ heroes, we meet Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed), a gifted doctor from the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service. She’s called to her back hometown of Marais, Louisiana when a strange swamp-borne disease starts not just affecting the local plantlife but begins plaguing the city’s residents as well.
The mysterious outbreak presents exactly the kind of challenge that Abby typically rises to meet with the utmost confidence, but her homecoming is a bittersweet one became of the deep trenches of emotional morass she begins wading through the moment she drives into town with her fellow researcher Harlan Edwards (Westworld’s Leonardo Nam). Dark secrets from Abby’s past are what drove her to leave Marais as a teenager and because of the town’s small size, there are only a few people around who don’t know she’s a kind of pariah.
There’s bad blood between Abby and the powerful Sutherland family that’s aiming to capitalize on the swamp’s potential for real estate development, and it makes Abby’s sudden return that much more of a cause for people to talk. But all of that takes a back seat to the swamp disease that seems to be spreading at an accelerated rate. Like everyone else who’s had a chance to examine the latest patient diagnosed with the disease, Abby’s at a loss to explain what it is exactly, and it’s only after a chance encounter with disgraced scientist Alec Holland (Andy Bean) that she begins to understand that whatever’s emanating from the swamp is something the world’s never seen before.
While Abby and Alec’s story begins playing out much like your typical Contagion-esque thriller, Swamp Thing sets itself apart by fleshing out the background details of the world the show takes place in with shadowy visions of the nightmarish things that are actually lurking in the swamp’s waters. Long before Abby and Alec come face to face with any of Swamp Things’ monsters, we’re given haunting, artfully gory glimpses of them that foreshadow just how central horror is to the series identity. At times, the swamp shudders to life with streams of clutching, grasping vines that surge through the water with an almost animal-like sentience as they eviscerate unsuspecting humans.
When Abby and officer Matt Cable (Henderson Wade) stumble across a dead body that’s been ravaged by vegetation, they’re at a loss to explain what they’re looking at, but they can’t help but be fascinated by the sight of it. There’s a morbid, grim beauty to many of Swamp Thing’s practical effects that are smartly presented alongside respectable VFX in order give the show the overall feel of a brilliantly-executed B horror movie. As you’re watching a cluster of tentacles explode from a corpse’s chest, it’s not as if you can’t tell that the tentacles are just rubber. But Swamp Thing uses its practical props in such a way that gives its grotesque monsters a raw, terrifying physicality. A rotting tentacle monster is bad enough on its own, but when you can see it sloughing off huge chunks of human flesh that splatter loudly onto the floor, it’s...it’s just something else.
Despite its eponymous title, Swamp Thing positions Abby and Alec on equal footing on their paths to becoming heroes, which will likely end up working in the series’ favor as it brushes up against, and perhaps dives head first into, the supernatural world. Reed and Bean play off of one another with a casual intensity that speaks to both of their characters’ belief in and respect for science. While there are faint echoes of writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson’s original conceptualizations of Swamp Thing in the show, DC Universe’s Swamp Thing also heavily draws inspiration from Alan Moore’s iconic run on the series that defined Swamp Thing’s status as one of DC’s most important mystical characters.
When Swamp Thing writer and executive producer Gary Dauberman began speaking about the series last fall, he explained that despite the fact that DC Universe’s Titans and Doom Patrol series are set in the same, shared universe, the same wasn’t necessarily true of his show. With those other two series having finished their first seasons just as Swamp Thing’s is just beginning, it’s clear that it’d fit right into the wild universe of gods and monsters that’s taking shape on DC’s streaming service.
The strength of Swamp Thing’s pilot makes the recent news that Warner Bros. chose to cut the season’s length down to 10 episodes from 13 that much more curious because you can clearly see that the journey the show wants to take you on has levels of depth to it that deserve thorough unpacking. Even if the premiere wasn’t strong on its its own, the potential the series has to delve even deeper into Swamp Thing’s canonical, existential weirdness makes it worth keeping an eye on.
Swamp Thing begins streaming on May 31.