Note: this is a spoiler-free review of Helstrom: Season 1, which is available to stream now on Hulu.
Even in a year marked by a frustrating lack of new MCU content, it’s difficult to muster much enthusiasm for Helstrom. What was originally billed as the beginning of a new shared, small screen Marvel universe – one focused on Marvel’s supernatural heroes as opposed to Netflix’s gritty street vigilantes – is now merely a standalone project with no tangible connection to the larger MCU. Helstrom is a relic of an older Marvel TV, before the days when Kevin Feige assumed direct control and big-budget Disney+ series with clear MCU ties became the order of the day. All of this is to say that if you’re hoping Helstrom will give you a badly needed Marvel fix, you’re better off waiting a couple more months for WandaVision.
Helstrom revolves mainly around siblings Daimon (Tom Austen) and Ana Helstrom (Sydney Lemmon), a highly dysfunctional duo who grew up with a demonic serial killer for a father. As adults, both Daimon and Ana do their best to harness their latent supernatural powers to rid the world of their father’s ilk, even as their demon-possessed mother Victoria (Elizabeth Marvel) rots in a psychiatric institute. Other major players in Season 1 include the occult-fighting Henry (Robert Wisdom), wide-eyed Vatican prodigy Gabriella Rossetti (Ariana Guerra) and devoutly religious psychiatrist/mother figure Louise Hastings (June Carryl).
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At this point, fans of the source material may be confused at just how loosely Helstrom seems to borrow from said source material. Daimon and Ana (or Satanna, as she’s normally known) have a decades-long history in Marvel’s comics. But not unlike Fox and Netflix’s Lucifer, many of the more outlandish and fantastical trappings of the comics have been toned down in favor of a smaller, more approachable and ultimately safer adaptation. But whereas Lucifer still has its charms (thanks in no small part to Tom Ellis’ charming portrayal of Mr. Morningstar), Helstrom has very little to show for its grounded approach to these larger-than-life characters.
The series captures very little of what makes either Helstrom sibling compelling. It tries to be a quiet, understated superhero show starring two characters who are normally anything but. You don’t call yourself “Son of Satan” and stomp around New York City bare-chested in a red cape because you’re trying to keep a low profile. Despite dealing with the supernatural and demons, Helstrom is a weirdly unambitious series with very small stakes. If anything, it plays more like a pitch for another Exorcist TV series that was retrofitted to become a Marvel adaptation instead. The fact that Daimon and Ana have superhuman powers often comes across as an afterthought.
Even at a relatively lean 10 episodes, Season 1 is a slog. The plot is both predictable and laden with all the familiar exorcism tropes. Season 1 is a slow burn that never achieves much in the way of dramatic payoff. Nor does the series manage to establish many compelling characters along the way. Daimon himself is surprisingly dull for a guy with demon blood and a lifetime of daddy issues to work through. Again, a far cry from the flamboyant spellcaster of the comics. Ana is somewhat more compelling – given her arrogant demeanor and unusual ways of relieving stress – but she always comes across as a lower priority for the series than her brother. The supporting cast, meanwhile, are uniformly generic and two-dimensional. Season 1 does a poor job of encouraging us to actually care about these characters and their struggles, and so there’s little weight to some of the more dramatic developments late in the season. That’s all too apparent in the closing moments of the finale.
For the most part, the problem is more with the quality of the writing and direction than the actors themselves. After all, the main cast includes veterans of such modern classics as The Wire, Succession and Homeland. There just isn’t a great deal to work with here in terms of dialogue or dramatic moments. Lemmon is given a little more room than the others to stretch out and have fun, but again, the series never hones in on Ana as much as it should.
Though ostensibly set within the MCU, Helstrom certainly doesn’t feel like it belongs alongside those movies and shows. The show is relentlessly humorless and self-serious when a little bit of that classic MCU banter would do the show a world of good. Nor is it successful in exploring the opposite end of the tonal spectrum and recapturing the magic of shows like Daredevil and Jessica Jones. For all the demonic possessions afoot, it doesn’t even function as a decent horror series. It has little sense of visual style, to boot. Though primarily set in San Francisco and Oregon, the series was filmed in Vancouver. Accordingly, it has the look of a forgotten CW series more than an MCU spinoff.
Other than those occasional fun moments with Ana and her assistant Chris (Alain Uy), the music is the only area where Helstrom ever really distinguishes itself. The traditional orchestral score is solid enough, but the use of classic doo-wop tunes and other inspired needle drops from the likes of Peter Gabriel and Nick Drake further elevates the series’ sound. It’s a shame that same quirky sense of personality isn’t apparent anywhere else.
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