Most superhero stories are, in some way or another, a fantasy about power that can be used and switched off when not needed. Doom Patrol works by being the exact opposite: it’s about superpowers that have no offswitch. It reminds us that it’s normal to feel like aliens or monsters in our own bodies – but also that that shouldn’t prevent us from being great, powerful, and even dangerous. We’re worth something.
Doom Patrol has been one of the biggest question marks in superhero TV. The team behind the show seems – so far – to understand exactly what makes the World’s Strangest Heroes stand apart from other teams of misfits. The concepts and themes that Doom Patrol makes its bed in are only hinted at or tinkered with by other ragtag superheroes.
I mentioned how superhero stories are power fantasies. Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, Peter Parker, Tony Stark, and so many other heroes can simply take off their work clothes at the end of a mission and go back to their lives. Superman can put on a pair of glasses if he wants to go get a cup of coffee. And without fail, these characters are completely ripped, even when there’s no reason for someone like Tony Stark or Superman to be so well-muscled. Even characters that are so-called freaks are often very good looking freaks. Cyclops is just a guy with specialized aviator glasses. Logan is a short stack, but he still gets away with the lone biker look pretty easily. Characters like Beast are more an exception than a rule. For Doom Patrol, they are the rule.
The standard form of the human body is considered by many to be sacred. That idea has its roots in religion, but it has seeped into general morality. It’s why people still in this day side-eye tattoos and piercings. It’s why people get uncomfortable around those with deformities. But in Doom Patrol, no body is left unaffected. Each character is left by their horrible origin story with extraordinary abilities but also serious scars – both mental and physical.
Robotman has immense strength and endurance, but he can’t feel anything physically. Cool breezes, spicy food, and fresh flowers are all gone for him. After he wakes up from his accident – years later and now living in a mechanical body – we watch him learn to walk, and it’s shot like rehab. It’s not a fun sequence where he tries to fly and crashes, but rather a frustrating sequence of him not being able to raise his foot enough to move up a step. Robotman is a paraplegic in a prosthetic body. From his accident to his recovery, to his constant reminders that even if he can get around, everything, especially his body, is now different.
These ideas apply to every member of the Patrol. Larry Trainor/Negative Man had to hide his true self from the world as a gay man in middle-century America. Following his accident, he literally can’t share his real self with the world because his unbandaged body is dangerously radioactive. And now the man living two lives – living as two people and suppressing one of them – literally has someone living inside him that he can’t control.
Rita Farr/Elasti-Woman was a movie star at a time when the star had to match her on-screen persona at all times, already living in a world full of expectations for what women can look like and how they should act. And now she finds herself losing control of her body, especially in connection with her emotions – a constantly scary and humiliating state.
And then there’s Cyborg, literally a Justice-League-grade hero who seems at first to be slumming it with the Patrol. But in truth, he’s just like them. His body was destroyed, and his amazing powers come at a deep cost. His body was given to him, and he lives in constant doubt of the veracity of his memories and privacy in his personal thoughts and actions.
Finally, there’s Crazy Jane. Her body is intact in a way that the rest of the team can’t claim, but it doesn’t belong to her. She’s been through trauma as deep as any of them, though this has only been hinted at so far in the Doom Patrol show. She shares her body with 63 other personalities, and it’s not even a sure thing that Crazy Jane Morris is the core personality. Jane can’t speak to her other personalities or vice versa.
Each of these characters deals with something – a loss of feeling, a loss of control, a loss of privacy – that we all deal with in some way, but that many of us deal with in literally crippling ways. But even as these people are “freaks,” they slowly are learning to become themselves and to live in their own bodies — and not in spite of their differences, but alongside and maybe also because of them. We see Larry trying to come to a peace accord with his negative form; we see Crazy Jane directly acknowledging that her personalities are a part of her and not something to separate from her.
Even Dr. Caulder, who brought them together, is bound to a wheelchair — but it’s not a Fun Space Wheelchair like we so often see with Professor X, just a modern, motorized one.
The show builds on this by putting these characters together. None of them were saints before their accidents – Robotman and Negative Man both cheated on their wives, albeit for different reasons. Elasti-Woman was selfish, vain, and deeply ableist. But together, supporting each other and poking at each others’ flaws and pointing them out. They aren’t allowed to live in isolation, wrapped in a blanket and staring at the ceiling.
Doom Patrol spends as much time on these characters coping with and learning to cope with these things as it does on them being powerful. Their abilities aren’t gifts, but compromises. They’re not disguises that these people can take off. Doom Patrol‘s heroes are heroes simply for the fact that they got out of bed that day. That they went outside at all.
Superhero stories have often made assumptions about the audience and its power fantasies but Doom Patrol offers a version of that fantasy that can let just about anyone in. We don’t have to first imagine ourselves as paragons of the human form to be heroes, and to see that not just in comics but in a comic-book show feels good and long overdue.