The pre-Disney era of Marvel TV finally comes to a close in the most mundane, workmanlike way possible.
So this is how the Jeph Loeb era of Marvel Television ends; not with a bang but with a sulfur-tinged whimper.
For those who may not know, Loeb oversaw Marvel Television as a sort of counterpart to Kevin Feige’s stewardship of the MCU. Loeb’s tenure brought fans the quintet of Netflix shows—Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and their crossover series Defenders—as well as ABC shows Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter, and Hulu offerings Runaways and Cloak and Dagger. In May of 2019, Hulu and Marvel announced that Helstrom and Ghost Rider would be heading another interconnected family of shows, these all supernatural in nature. However, quickly thereafter, Marvel released Loeb, Feige moved to also oversee the company’s TV efforts, Ghost Rider was scuttled, and finally, this April, Helstrom was canceled before a single episode had aired.
But air the series still must. And thus, this October 16th, Hulu will drop all 10 episodes for viewers to stream. After watching the five provided to critics, one can safely conclude the series is…fine. After all the drama that has led to its birth, you might be expecting something good-bad. Or, perhaps, you hoped Loeb would at least get a victory lap of sorts after delivering some truly strong work with several of the Netflix seasons and Agent Carter. Alas, Helstrom ends up neither heavenly nor hellish, but rather something right down the middle.
Comic book fans will likely anticipate this result simply from a plot description. In the source material Daimon Hellstrom—yes with the double “L”—goes by the moniker “Son of Satan, runs around with a dangerously plunging v-neck revealing a massive pentagram scar, wields a pitchfork, and has a sister named Satana. In the series, Daimon Helstrom (Tom Austen) has one fewer “L,” works as an ethic professor and part-time exorcist, has a sister named Ana (Sydney Lemmon), and there is nary a supernaturally-powered farm implement or sexually dangerous collar to be found. You can already feel the compromises before frame one reveals itself on your television.
At times, you get to see the adjustments live. Austen starts out portraying Helstrom as a deeply prickly character, think Dr. House with holy water. However, by the time plot machinations bring his estranged sister into his life, our lead has been nearly cuddy. Part of it is that Ana, played with delicious kick by Lemmon, is even more terse and sarcastic than him. That’s just too much snark. It’s a sensible choice. However, the show makes the switch so inelegantly you can practically hear the printer spitting out rewrites on-set.
Daimon does, however, remain the son of a demon although perhaps not Satan himself. For years, it seemed Dad was more of a human monster, a serial killer who used his daughter to bring him victims. Eventually, his crimes became known and he received the death penalty. Now, though, it seems he is back, in a brand-new body, and more powerful than ever.
Helstrom ends up neither heavenly nor hellish, but rather something right down the middle.
It is a strange plot choice. The show establishes early on that demons are real including the one that has possessed Daimon and Ana’s mom Victoria (Elizabeth Marvel). So why add the extra layer of complication? Sure, we knew Dad was bad but we didn’t realize he was bad, especially considering how little mileage the show gets out of it. Ana knows right away and doesn’t struggle with her revelation at all. Daimon is skeptical, for roughly 23 minutes of an episode. These extra layers serve no dramatic payoff.
The show’s dynamics also add little zest. Austen and Lemmon’s sibling jousting has some pop, but never as much as the individual elements promise. Similarly, Lemmon’s unabashed sexualization of Daimon’s partner in exorcism and nun-in-training Gabriella (Ariana Guerra) never quite cooks. The best moments come from Ana and her assistant/partner in antiquities/murder Chris Yen’s (Alain Uy) interactions. Unfortunately, the show’s plot machinations dismantle that relationship somewhere around episode 3.
This all sounds a bit harsher than intended. Helstrom isn’t bad. It just isn’t particularly good either. Everything feels halfway done or sanded down. Casting is good, visuals are handsome but bland, the writing occasionally throws out a good line or an enjoyable tete-a-tete. This is the kind of television words like “workmanlike” were created for.
In the 4-network basic cable kind of world of the mid-90s, Helstrom would be a perfectly good companion to The X-Files when that show was running on Friday nights. Today, during peak TV with more and more streaming services battling for our eyes, it just ends up as an also-ran. To make the Son of Satan feel like an ethics professor…that’s just a show working too hard to be nothing special.
Helstrom works out its personal demons on Hulu October 16th.