These are strange days for the TV superhero genre. Not only is the superhero sector in major flux (with Netflix shuttering its Marvel franchises, Fox’s Gotham winding down and The CW’s Arrow soon hanging up its quiver) it has taken a hard turn toward the surreal and the subversive with a wave of shows that are wildly (and wonderfully) weird. The wave of shows includes FX’s Legion, Netflix’s Umbrella Academy, and Syfy’s Happy! (and it will soon add HBO’s Watchmen and Amazon’s The Boys) but the current vanguard of the bizarro shows is Doom Patrol, the weekly DC Universe series that premiered a day after St Valentine’s Day.
It was a fitting premiere date for the Doom Patrol — the team is, after all, famously unloved within the DC mythology. They were introduced as hard-luck, misfit heroes back in 1963 — and harshly killed off when they were cancelled two years later. Their unlikely screen success here in 2019 comes with a great ensemble (it includes Brendan Fraser, Matt Bomer and Timothy Dalton) but it’s the unconventional story terrain that sets Doom Patrol apart — this is a show where one character, Crazy Jane (played memorably by Diane Guerrero), has 64 personalities, and at one point the heroes travel between dimensions through the innards of a flatulent donkey.
To get a bead on that I caught up with Joivan Wade, the talented young British actor who portrays Vic Stone, aka Cyborg, on Doom Patrol. Known in the U.K. for his roles on Big School and EastEnders, Wade also has a You Tube following for the comedy Mandem On The Wall. He also made a memorable turn on Doctor Who as a graffiti artist named Rigsy.
The first thing I asked Wade was how a show that is so surreal can also show so much heart. The characters are all heroes who have come by their powers through tragedy. Mental health themes are a steady drumbeat on the show, which can be wrenching and evocative.
“It’s probably the most grounded superhero show when it comes to this real element of being a human being and what that means when things go wrong,” Wade said. “People can really look at the show and find themselves wondering, ‘Imagine if I had some kind of accident and if I did, what would happen to me?’ It’s a show that has stripped away the glossy superhero stuff — the flying and just kicking-ass, 24/7. There’s a real element of humanity to the show. It narrows things down to what humans would do in these situations.”
Wade said that characters such as Superman and Thor are remote and hard to connect with at times while the Doom Patrol heroes may seem weird but they are closer to the audience in their shared fears, foibles, disabilities and doubts. “These characters are real people and they are characters in which they are human first. They have mental and physical illnesses and these powers but they are humans first and that’s really going to allow us to connect with these different stories to keep us watching the show. You absolutely don’t know what is going to happen next. That is for sure.”
Wade said mental illness was articulated early on as a theme of the show. With the saturation of superhero entertainment these days, it’s the gritty and challenging variations that will stand out and succeed.
“The most interesting superheroes are the ones who have these situations. They don’t have everything together. The heroes that have everything together they aren’t very interesting at all.”
As portrayed by Wade, Cyborg is more of a tourist in the world of Doom Patrol rather than a new resident at their eccentric shared mansion.
“One of the things I looked forward to learning when I first took the role was how they were going to essentially flesh out the character and how they were going to show the emotional journey of the character and how it will work is really interesting. It’s sort of like his opportunity to train for the Justice League with this band of circus freaks he’s the most polished of them all and he uses the opportunity to learn and to improve. For the Doom Patrol members, they aren’t interested in superhero teamwork. Everybody else on the team are anti-heroes and they’re not only anti-‘heroes’ they are also actually anti-‘hero.’ They don’t want these powers, they didn’t want to come on board and become superheroes. They didn’t want any part of it. They’re fighting against it, in fact, and trying to get back into the real world to get their lives back again. So Vic has a real opportunity to show them how to learn to be superheroes but at the same time he’s also learning from them how to act as himself and how to understand himself.”
Some background on the Cyborg character: Created by Marv Wolfman and George Perez, he was introduced in 1980, the same year as Pac-Man arcade games, CNN, The Empire Strikes Back, and Rubik’s Cube. His origin story has been changed a number of times but essentially Vic Stone is a college football star who suffers grievous injuries and is saved only by a miraculous melding with technology that makes him Cyborg. It’s a bit like The Six Million Dollar Man (which, in fact, was based on a 1972 novel called Cyborg) but with his communication abilities the DC superhero can also be like R2-D2 in a pinch. On Doom Patrol, Cyborg is a crimefighter based in Detroit, a nice nod to RoboCop.
From the start, the character Cyborg was hard-wired to be a team player. Cyborg first appeared as a charter member in the first adventure of The New Teen Titans. The character made the leap to Saturday morning cartoons in 1985 as member of the updated Super Friends (and voiced by Ernie Hudson of Ghostbusters) but he was back in his original team for Teen Titans in 2003 when Cartoon Network launched the popular animated brand created by Glen Murakami.
Cyborg made his live-action debut on Smallville in 2006 but it was his Justice League membership that took Cyborg to the big screen (Ray Fisher portrayed him in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice in 2016 and then Justice League in 2017) but he was back in the Titans fold for Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, the 2018 animated feature showcasing the Cartoon Network squad and featuring Khary Payton as the voice of Cyborg.
Looking ahead, Cyborg will be featured in the new animated television franchise Young Justice: Outsiders which is ramping up now on DC Universe (and features voice actor Zeno Robinson as Cyborg). Also, Fisher’s return in the big-screen role of Cyborg in a live-action feature film may still happen.
That means Wade will share the character with other actors and that different versions of the hero will be “competing” with his version. Wade shrugged off the notion of that situation being a negative one — in fact he sees the varied interpretations as a benefit that helps him see Vic Stone reflected and refracted in fuller ways.
Wade added: “When it comes to comic books generationally there’s always been situations where different writers will have different takes on a certain character, so there’s always been different versions of those characters. So this is a version where it is a much younger Vic Stone, a much younger Cyborg. He’s within that world where he is out there fighting crime, he’s in Detroit and being that superhero. But while tackling that role he’s still trying to figure out who he is and what he is.”
I asked Wade if the character’s tech-based powers made him an especially good fit for today’s marketplace. Young people spend so much time with smart phones they probably feel as if they are attached to machines themselves…
“Yeah it is exactly that,” Wade said. “Cyborg essentially has access to every single computer in the world and he has superhuman strength but all that [is a result] of being part of the computer himself. In this day and age, you know, we all are part of the computer. We all feel like that, you know. When it comes to Millennials and young people where we spend ridiculous amount of time on our phone and surfing the internet and accessing all this data. That’s really what Cyborg is to the kids.”
That’s why Wade (who was born in 1993) predicts that Vic Stone’s future is bigger and brighter than his past. He’s a hero for the age we live in: “He’s our modern-day superhero. And young people being able to connect with him on that level. And not just him as a person and his personality but also because of his power and what it means to be a cyborg and how his situation makes him a part of the modern-day world in a way that’s different than the superheroes created in a generation without computers.”