The Seinfeld of superhero TV
Before the annoying over-saturation of superheroes that's been choking the life out of American culture, there was The Tick (2001). An endearingly gregarious send-up of muscle-bound men and women in capes and tights, the live-action show jettisons extravagant combat in favor of wry innuendos and dialogue laced with all kinds of witty-silly wordplay. It is, 15 years later, the show we desperately need in 2016.
These days, you can't go online without being slapped in the face with ads and blog posts about superheroes. You can't walk into Times Square without seeing superhero billboards blot out the sun. They're ubiquitous, a pandemic rash. This year, we've been bludgeoned with at least five major franchise superhero movies: Captain America: Civil War; Batman v Superman; Suicide Squad; Deadpool; and X-Men: Apocalypse. On the small screen, there's Jessica Jones and its spin-off Luke Cage, as well as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which makes one long for the campy fun of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Superhero movies are big, brash, boorish endurance events, which is why The Tick, as well as the 1994 cartoon that preceded it, feel so necessary today. With its dearth of action and abundance of jibber-jabber, The Tick has more in common with Seinfeld than it does Spider-Man. You can almost picture Thomas Pynchon sitting down with a cognac to enjoy the show, which turns the absurdity of superheroes into an absurdist meditation on banality.
In lieu of a somber origin story, the pilot, still the best thing Barry Sonnenfeld has ever directed, starts with the blue antennaed hero (Patrick Warburton) looming atop a bus station, ever vigilant. He has the strength of many men and is nigh invulnerable, but, alas, he is an idiot.
When a schlubby-looking guy in a sales rack suit is thwarted by an insolent coffee-vending machine, the Tick, who exists solely to fight evil, springs into action. He grabs the machine and shakes it violently, lecturing it, "Armless bandit, empty your bladder of that bitter black urine men call coffee! It has a price and that price has been paid!" The machine's bladder gives and coffee cascades into a paper cup. "Java Devil, you are now my bitch."
The Tick has no tragic beginning, no deep-seated agony to rectify or dead parents to avenge or girlfriend in a fridge. He simply annoys the bus stop employees with his inanity, so they buy him a ticket to The City to get rid of him. In our current culture of brooding antiheroes and scruffy-faced men trying to assuage angst with vengeful crusades, the Tick fights evil because it's the only thing he understands. Like the coffee machine, he has one purpose. He's a man-sized fist ready to be thrown at whatever villainy he encounters.
He's aided by his milquetoast sidekick Arthur (David Burke), a mild-mannered accountant who grows tired of his menial life and, despite his lack of powers or abilities, decides to quit his job and become a superhero. The show's coterie of inept heroes also includes Batmanuel (Nestor Carbonell and his ravishing eyelashes) and Captain Liberty (Liz Vassey), both of whom initially detest the Tick for showing them up with his actual powers, but are soon won over by the cut of his gibberish. They mostly dwell in diners, bickering and bantering and sharing stories of former conquests/times they were conquered. If Tony Soprano was right when he said "remember when" is the lowest form of conversation, these are the lowliest superheroes.
Because The Tick is still about a superhero, and because we're enveloped by a culture that's addicted to them, it's getting a reboot this year. Peter Serafinowicz dons the blue cowl, and you don't envy the guy, given what Warburton achieved in the same role. Like Superman holding Michael Shannon's head, trying to decide if he should snap Shannon's neck or let a family die, it's an unfortunate situation that has no reason to exist in the first place. The pilot vies for relevancy, but feels like just another superhero show littered with camp buffoonery. It doesn't have that acerbic self-awareness in its marrow, like the comic and live-action show.
Summer '16 was rife with bloated, bulbous blockbusters and portentous harbingers of doom: Batman v Superman had Doomsday; X-Men: Apocalypse had Apocalypse; Suicide Squad had Jared Leto. The Tick had a confused robot trying to assassinate Jimmy Carter 30 years too late, and, in its de facto finale, the Terror (Armin Shimerman, known as the nefarious stickler Principal Snyder on Buffy), a 112-year-old menace who's spending his final days lying in bed waiting to die... until the Tick accidentally goads him into un-retiring. He's as exhausted with life as we are with overly-solemn superhero movies.
The show, which debuted a year after Bryan Singer's X-Men and one year before Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, was helmed by Ben Edlund, the creator of the original comic book series. Given how fanboys will bleat and carp about the slightest alteration to their beloved superheroes, it's funny that Edlund himself chose to change his creations. Aesthetically and tonally, the short-lived show existed as its own entity, not beholden to any tradition or misguided sense of loyalty. And the changes weren't arbitrary — Edlund and Co. tailored the show to fit a television screen. The most notable example is the Tick's costume, designed by Colleen Atwood, which relinquishes the blank, bug-eyed look of the comic, leaving Warburton's face wholly exposed.
Warburton is the face, voice, and soul of The Tick. The failure of most modern superhero claptrap lies in the casting, which seems more concerned with marquee names adorning headlines than finding the actor who genuinely fits the role. And casting a hero, or a villain, is immensely difficult, and choosing the wrong actor can have devastating consequences. Think of Henry Cavill, a black hole that absorbs all the charisma out of a film, playing Superman. Or Jai Courtney, whose masquerade as an ersatz actor may be the greatest piece of performance art of this decade, as the boomerang guy in Suicide Squad.
But Patrick Warburton as the Tick may be the keenest piece of superhero casting ever. With that cockeyed grin on his unfettered face and the sanguine, baritone voice in which he muses nonsensically, babbling like a brook, Warburton imbues the character with an almost anti-pathos. He's the anti-anti-hero we deserve.