In comic book movies, the damage caused by superhero battles is serious drama. On NBC’s new comedy Powerless, they laugh about it.
Powerless originally began as a workplace comedy in a superhero insurance company, created by Ben Queen. When the insurance angle proved limiting, NBC brought in Patrick Schumacker and Justin Halpern ($#*! My Dad Says, Cougar Town) to pitch a new angle. They came up with Wayne Security and a whole bunch of creative ways to integrate DC Comics characters and references into the show.
Schumacker spoke with Rotten Tomatoes at the NBC party for the Television Critics Association, and shared 12 Easter eggs from the first season of Powerless. They may be considered mild spoilers, but he doesn’t give away the jokes.
This is a spoiler for the 1978 Superman: The Movie, but that movie ends with Superman turning back time after Lois Lane dies. Schumacker said they had actually developed an episode based on that for the early version of the show, and he thinks it could still work.
“There’s an episode we were in love with we’re calling ‘No Consequence Day,’” Schumacker said. “Imagine Lois Lane is killed. It’s public knowledge, they announce it on the news. One of our characters happens to be a conspiracy theorist and has heard about his happening before and he knows that when this happened before, Superman flew around the earth, reversed the rotation of the earth as well as time which means he’s going to do this again because he’s in love with Lois Lane. It also means that we have about eight hours to do whatever the f*** we want. What would you do if you had zero consequences? And then you’ll see whether or not Superman ends up saving Lois Lane. We’re going to try as hard as we can to make it work.”
Powerless has some fun with how many ways they can’t show Batman. He sends Van text messages and maybe calls, but we don’t hear his voice on the other line. Schumacker said, however, that Batman will make an actual appearance.
“There’s an episode that we’re doing right now that does involve Batman, and he will, in a very small way, make an appearance,” Schumacker said. “That’s all I can say.”
Powerless got Adam West, star of the ’60s Batman TV series, to provide the voice of Bruce Wayne for a Wayne Security training video. You’ll also hear West’s voice in some online promos for Powerless.
“He’s done some digital promos for NBC.com and YouTube,” Schumacker said. “We were like, ‘Well, we’ve got him in the studio. Let’s have him do it. It’ll be a nice thing, the voice of Bruce Wayne talking about Wayne Security.’”
Jack O’Lantern already appears in the Powerless pilot, as revealed in promos too. This DC Comics villain has a lantern with the power to cast light, fire, illusions, and fog as well as teleporting and super strength. So Powerless didn’t explore all of Jack’s powers in his first appearance.
“The second episode is Jack-O’Lantern making a return wreaking havoc on the streets,” Schumacker said. “Our character is in line for a coffee essentially and you see the destruction happen on the street level.”
Batman must be used sparingly, and that probably goes for major Batvillains like The Joker, Catwoman, and The Riddler, too. At least The Riddler will send one of his minions to Charm City, Schumacker said.
“We have Vanessa’s character dating a guy who turns out to be a henchman for the Riddler, played by Robert Buckley from iZombie,” Schumacker revealed.
In the movies, Jason Momoa is playing Aquaman, Arthur Curry. Aquaman must have a good sense of humor too, because he took the Entourage jokes well and several people from his home of Atlantis will visit Powerless.
“We have obscure Aquaman villains showing up and turning people’s arms into tentacles,” Schumacker said. “We have Atlantean businessmen showing up so that Vanessa and the R&D team can pitch them, and Wayne Security can potentially become a contractor. It explores the cultural differences between Atlanteans and our people in Charm City. Also, you find out that Ron was born in Atlantis.”
Jack O’Lantern was a former Global Guardian before turning evil. The Global Guardians are sort of an international Justice League, and since they’re not as well known as the JLA and its A-list members, they are fair game for Powerless.
“We have a guy who’s a member of the Global Guardians called The Olympian that shows up in a couple episodes,” Schumacker said. “Also, we’re currently working on a story with Green Fury — aka Fire. A lot of people know the tandem of Fire and Ice. They’re members of the Golden Guardians as well. Those are characters that I’m in love with.”
Not all of the supervillains on Powerless are caught in the act. Some have already been captured and appear providing their community service. Schumacker took great joy in selecting random obscure comic book villains for those jokes.
“There’s a cameo by a very obscure villain named Prince Evillo — amazing name,” Schumacker said. “He is part of a workplace training video that he has had to do as a public service, because he’s been in a maximum security prison. So the HR department at our company has a cassette tape that basically is a film of Prince Evillo telling you all about respect in the workplace.”
Schumacker talked about portraying less popular superheroes as underdogs on Powerless. Crimson Fox appears in the pilot, and Schumacker suggests that she’ll be back with greater ambitions.
“Yes, she’s super-powered, but she’s aware that she’s a second-tier hero compared to the Justice League,” Schumacker said. “She would love nothing more than to be invited to the Justice League, but she’s had to settle for Justice League Europe. Every episode seems to have some sort of member of the Justice League referenced, but I like seeing characters that are able to, on some level, relate to the everyman. Crimson Fox knows in a fight with Superman — not that that would ever happen — she would be destroyed. So they have a chip on their shoulder, and I think that’s funny. I think ultimately comedy is about dorks. Having a superhero think that he or she is a dork by comparison to Superman is funny.”
Everyone loves the Stan Lee cameo in Marvel movies, but die-hard comic book fans really appreciate it when they’re favorite authors get name checked. Powerless is about to make them very happy.
“There’s a pastry cart that’s named Lamire’s Patisserie after Jeff Lemire,” Schumacker said. “There’s a pizza company, Palmiotti’s Pizzeria after Jimmy Palmiotti who’s writing Harley Quinn right now for DC.”
Brainstorming future episodes, Schumacker shared some other gags he hopes to work into Powerless.
“I want to be able to have a character walking in the background unable to pry a Dr. Fate helmet off of themselves because they have it in the office for some f***ed up reason,” Schumacker said. “I want to be able to reference Blue Beetle.”
One scene got cut out of the pilot, and Schumacker hopes to find another place for it. “Steve (Josh Breeding) tries on a mask the sole purpose of which is to combat Scarecrow’s fear gas,” Schumacker said. “So it’s like a neoprene mask that you would wear with a filter on it. Of course, it’s in beta and it doesn’t work, and Steve gets dosed with fear gas and starts going apesh*t around the office. That’s one of the ones we hope to bring back.”
It’s OK if you don’t remember Bruce Wayne’s cousin Van. Now that Alan Tudyk is playing him, you’ll never forget him, but a Van Wayne did appear in one comic book. That’s where Schumacker got his name.
“By the way, I say that Alan’s character is related to an existing character,” Schumacker said. “It’s very loose. Vanderveer Wayne is a character that existed in one comic, one issue in 1962. We came to DC and we’re like, ‘OK, there is this guy who ostensibly was Bruce Wayne’s cousin who was a con artist. Can we retcon him, make him a businessman, make him the black sheep cousin of the Wayne dynasty?’ Everyone was like, ‘Works for us.’”
Powerless premieres February 2 at 8:30 p.m. on NBC