Daniel Wu as Sunny / Photo Credit: James Minchin III for AMC

Superheroes are the new samurai, so it makes sense that the co-creators of Smallville have teamed up again to create Into the Badlands, a post-apocalyptic samurai drama. Badlands takes the cape and cowl tropes found in Daredevil, Arrow, Flash, and, well, Smallville, and places them in a feudal steampunk future-past, pulling cues from Mad Max, Kill Bill, and Sin City. The world feels surprisingly realized while the characters leave much else, like entire personalities, to be desired.

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Into The Badlands looks beautiful, which is no small feat for an unknown property on a small network on the small screen. The expert production design keeps the show from ever looking cheap, and it seems that budget was on the forefront of everyone’s mind, ensuring robust fight scenes without an ounce of unnecessary flair. There’s a perfect level of pedestrianism in the production, no six-minute one-takes, no huge tracking shots, that serves the simple story well.

A series like Into The Badlands succeeds by bringing the viewer into the world. Are the Badlands interesting enough to return to every week? So far, not quite, but there’s a lot of positive steps taken to get it there. The show is certainly at a disadvantage, unable to simply pull on years and years of Gotham or Westeros lore, unable to throw in an easter egg or two to distract from the fact that yet another meeting is taking place in yet another warehouse. In this way, Badlands succeeds, adding enough mystery and realization of the world (the other Barons and the mythical golden city, for example), to make viewers want to return next week. And there are no meetings in warehouses, which is a step in the correct direction.

Into The Badlands tells a number of different stories, the main one focusing on Sunny, who is the Baron’s lead killing dude. They call killing dudes Clippers and since Sunny is the main one, he’s called the Regent (or Chris Paul depending on where you live). In awful voice over to start the show, we learn…well we learn a lot of things that don’t make much sense since we know absolutely nothing about the world. But “the world is built on blood” does seem to ring true considering Sunny’s entire job centers around killing. This puts the show at a bit of a disadvantage, since killing, so far, is the one and only consequence. I want to know more about these characters have to lose besides their lives. What is important to them?

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Sunny also has a secret girlfriend and, based on his thousand-mile stares, isn’t really into the whole killing thing anymore, He finds a kid, M.K. (Mr. Garrison’s favorite character), and brings him back to the castle so he can grow up and murder people too. Beside his unexpressed reluctance toward the sword-first policies of the Baron, Sunny doesn’t have a lot of flavor to him. All of the dialogue, including Sunny’s, come in small bursts and are delivered with similar bad-ass staccato. We are not given a convincing reason to care about Sunny except that we are told we are supposed to. I never though I’d say this, but this AMC show could use a solid monologue.

This grayness spreads to the rest of the characters of the world. No one has any sort of personality. The characters intentions, what they want, are clear enough (Sunny wants to leave, the Baron wants to keep power, the kid wants to escape), but all of that extra spice is missing. The actors hit their mark, but that’s about it. The script leaves room for little else.

Ryder, the Baron’s son, is set up as Sunny’s foil. The Baron, sort of the king of this clan, thinks of Sunny like a son (get the pun now?), and Ryder obviously resents him for it. Ryder is therefore stubbornly aggressive, while Sunny smartly pleads for patience. Slight drama ensues, but not enough. Their dynamic reminds me of Zuko and his father in season one in Avatar: The Last Airbender, another show with swords and mysterious powers. Those powers, in this case, seem to belong to M.K., the boy and story catalyst Sunny finds. When M.K. bleeds, his eyes black out (with requisite Buffy-style effect), and he becomes a super ninja Jedi master. It’s another layer of texture that feels like Badlands has runway ahead of it to tell a compelling story.

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It is worth noting that the fight scenes, particularly the one in the rain, are badass. There’s a viciousness here that makes them stand out from, say, Daredevil. However, unlike that show, Badlands feels heavily choreographed, more of an elaborate dance. Obviously, this is the nature of martial arts and samurai films, but it sometimes comes off as slower and less exciting than it could be. Overall, though, Badlands is not scared to get ugly, which is nice. That’s actually a really hard aesthetic to pull off.

Sunny discovers that M.K. holds a pennant depicting the same skyline as Sunny’s old compass. The connection between them established, Sunny springs M.K. from jail and tells him to get to their shared city. It’s all very expected, very rote, but it works. There’s nothing wrong with hearing an old fable told in a new way.

Badlands does a number of things right, packing a lot of world in its first episode. It looks good, creatively conscious of its budget, and it moves well too—the fights are cool and crisply edited, even if the choreography is a bit stiff. Unfortunately, the characters themselves lack personality. Who are these people? Why do they care? Why should we? Hopefully, given more time to focus on character, Into The Badlands could emerge as a well-suited sidekick to the bigger superhero shows.

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Stray observations

  • Evidently, this was loosely based off the popular Chinese oral myth, Journey To The West. It tells the story of the Monkey King, who I pray makes an appearance in this show as well.
  • It is incredibly refreshing to see an Asian-American in the lead role mitigated only slightly by the fact that it’s a martial arts story.
  • Ryder’s name should basically be named Oedipal. He’s sleeping with his almost stepmom and is not a big fan of Pops.
  • For those of you who went to high school in 2002, Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park contributed to the theme song.

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