Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a movie that feels like a living comic book. It works not only because of how it uses its source material, but how it shifts away from it.
Syfy’s Deadly Class fails to meet the same standard, leaning too heavily on its graphic novel to the point where it doesn’t feel like a show any more. That might make it palatable for hardcore fans, but others may grow tired of a series that’s not only flawed, but feels as though it’s trying too hard to be cool.
I’ve seen the first four episodes of Deadly Class — Syfy debuted the first episode online late last year but will air its US premiere on the cable network today — based on the graphic novel series by Rick Remender and Wes Craig. The series is a 1980s drama about a homeless teenager named Marcus (Benjamin Wadsworth) who is recruited into a high school for assassins.
Headed by Master Lin (Benedict Wong), King’s Dominion trains children how to become killers. Its mission was originally to help the underprivileged gain power against “The System”, but it has since become a who’s who for the children of gang leaders, federal agents and the criminal elite.
Right away, the elephant in the room is the premise itself. It’s about kids learning how to hurt and kill people. That’s something not everyone is going to be OK with (I personally didn’t care for it). We’re living in a time where there’s an epidemic of school shootings in the US, so to have a series that’s centred around violence in school can feel unsettling.
Especially because the show hits so close to home — this isn’t a fantasy about superheroes or witches, it takes place in the real world. And in the real world, school violence is a real problem.
In the graphic novel, students routinely brandish guns inside school. The production team did make a conscious decision to remove guns from King’s Dominion (they’re still seen outside the school), with the in-world justification being that Master Lin abhors guns.
That said, there is a moment in the first episode where Marcus looks over a school trophy case with a couple of guns inside. Also, there’s a scene where a couple of kids ambush some bullies at a school dance and shoot hallucinogenic blow darts at them, forcing others to evacuate while screaming. The guns may be gone, but the imagery isn’t.
For those who aren’t turned off by the premise, the rest is a mixed bag. There are some good performances in there, notably by Luke Tennie (Willie), Lana Condor (Saya) and María Gabriela de Faría (Maria).
Wadsworth is OK as Marcus, though not a total standout. He holds his own against the other actors just fine, but he feels a little more subdued than a role like this needs. Marcus is supposed to feel wild and unpredictable, but I never got that impression from Wadsworth.
Others definitely had room to grow — the biggest problem being projection, as some of the young actors are just too quiet for a show like this.
Wong is a solid performer who always delivers, but it’s hard to tell how much he cares about the role he’s playing. My takeaway: Not much.
The biggest problem for Deadly Class isn’t the acting, it’s the story. Regardless of whether or not you’ve read the source material (I’ve read the first two volumes), the show comes across as though the writers turned a comic book into a script without changing enough to make it feel real.
Comic books may be visual, but they don’t automatically equal good television. The mediums are different, and should to be treated as such. On the page, a scene where Marcus is monologuing in his head about the evils of the capitalist system might read well, but watching it on the screen makes it seem awkward and kind of preachy.
The teenagers, who are supposed to be these counter-culture rebels, the epitome of the “real 1980s”, end up feeling less than human because some of their most-important dialogue feels as though it was written to be read, not said.
During a set visit last year, Remender told me one of the reasons he was brought on board as a co-showrunner was “to make sure that the book is translated with the intent that Wes and I had when we created the book”. The novel’s thumbprint can be felt all over the place. Shots are ripped straight from the panels, character flashbacks are animated to look like the series. Several lines are repeated verbatim from the books, or only slightly altered. Some of this works, but much of it doesn’t.
I can’t speak to what happened behind the scenes — although many of the people I talked to on set mentioned how they worked to honour Remender’s vision — but it feels as though the comic book creators (or creator) should have taken a bigger step back to let the show’s story come into its own.
There’s also the issue with some of the graphic novel’s more questionable subject material, much of which has made it into the show. The series is very diverse and boasts an equally diverse cast, but some characters (who Remender said he based on real people he knew growing up) end up playing into racial stereotypes.
There’s also a supporting character who’s a Neo-Nazi, portrayed as the Queen Bee of the school. She faces occasional backlash for her openly racist views, but never any long-term consequences (at least not as of the first four episodes). Given the rise in alt-right and white supremacist activity over the past few years, framing Brandy as this typically unchallenged person in power felt unwise.
Then there’s Fuckface. I don’t even know where to go with this. He’s a villain, but he’s one that felt as though he was written by a 15-year-old trying to “shock” his English teacher. Fuckface is, I’ll just come out and say it, a young man from Marcus’ childhood who’s into bestiality. We first see him at a petting zoo, having just screwed a goat. He masturbates to footage of dog shows. He strips men down and puts them in chains. He threatens to defile a corpse.
Sure he’s a bad guy, but he’s also a disgusting waste of time that I had no interest in watching. It was the one thing I thought the show was going to change from the comics, but it didn’t. And it’s terrible. He doesn’t add anything of value — good or bad — and his presence feels more an attempt to be “edgelord” than tell a good story.
Really, that’s kind of the show in a nutshell. Deadly Class thinks it’s on the cutting edge, that it’s saying more than it is — partially because it’s based on a graphic novel that did the same thing. There’s going to be a specific audience this works for, and that’s fine, but I’d otherwise tune out. Deadly Class is an immature edgelord fantasy that isn’t nearly as cool as it wants to be.
Deadly Class airs in the US today on Syfy. An Australian premiere date has not yet been announced.