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HBO’s The Nevers Entertains With Its Female-Centric Victorian Steampunk X-Men Schtick
(Review originally posted on 5 April 2021)
There’s no shortage of superhero or comic book adaptations out there, but sometimes a show comes along with a unique premise to try and stand out. HBO’s The Nevers is one of those, and it’s created by Joss Whedon of Firefly, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Avengers fame.
The Nevers is set in the year 1896 in Victorian London when a mysterious event causes people to manifest strange superhuman abilities. These people are referred to as the Touched and their abilities are called a Turn. It falls to protagonists Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) and Penance Adair (Ann Skelly) to protect and shelter these gifted individuals in an orphanage home.
First things first, it is simply unavoidable to point out how similar all of this is to the mutants in Marvel Comics’ X-Men. Amalia True is sort of the Professor X of the series, recruiting and helping the Touched. Funnily enough, there’s even another character who actually is confined to a wheelchair, adding another X-Men parallel. Just like Marvel’s mutants and the X-Men, the Touched in The Nevers are prosecuted and regarded as abnormal, freaks and abominations.
What distinguishes The Nevers from Marvel’s X-Men is that a vast majority of the Touched are women (with very few of them being men) and the presence of steampunk elements. That’s where Penance Adair comes in, as she is an ingenious inventor who creates all kinds of tech that shouldn’t exist in 1896, including a steampunk car (when even the rich aristocrats are still using carriages as transportation), and other gizmos to help her friend (Amalia True) against other more hostile Touched.
With an X-Men-like premise, there has to be a diverse ensemble cast. It’s interesting to see the tables turned and have more of the powered individuals to be women. The Turns (or abilities) are varied enough as well. Some of them are unique, like protagonist Amalia True who can receive brief visions from the future, while another character is a polyglot (someone who can speak multiple languages) but she can’t control it, so she automatically speaks in random languages. There are also some more conventional ones, like a character that can generate and manipulate fire, as well as another who is a doctor and can heal wounds almost instantly.
I was given four out of the six total episodes in The Nevers Part One (a future Part Two will contain another six episodes), and every episode has at least one or two action-heavy scenes. It’s a bit of a shame that for a series that boasts characters with unique powers, most of the fights are simply fisticuffs.
It’s rare that characters actually fight with their powers, so don’t expect much on that front.
I initially described The Nevers the series as Bridgerton meets the X-Men and there’s definitely that vibe going on. All the superpowered action and intrigue are interspersed with drama and a bit of romance, some of which feels forced like I’m suddenly watching an episode of Downton Abbey. These tend to be the weaker and more frustrating parts of The Nevers, though it’s not exactly a surprise (to be expected with the territory and setting).
For instance, there was a moment where one of the characters forbids another character from starting a romantic relationship just because the target of the character’s affection is Irish and also one of the Touched. Therefore, being in a relationship would mean inviting scandal to all parties involved, bring them in danger, and god forbid an English man marries an Irish woman.
Yes, seeing as this is set in Victorian England, of course, there’d be class issues between the posh so-called Toff aristocrats and everyone else. Several characters are annoying to watch, including the pansexual Hugo Swan (James Norton), who never forgets to remind everyone else how sexually freeing he is. So much so that almost every scene with nudity and sex in The Nevers involves this character.
The Nevers excels at showing the protagonist Amalia True as a flawed and morally complex individual. Much of her true origin and motivations remain a mystery, and it’s part of what makes the narrative compelling to follow. The others (even fellow protagonist Penance Adair) don’t get fleshed out as much, which is often the case in a series with a massive ensemble cast like this.
However, the plot might be a bit messy, especially when it comes to the antagonists. There are several of them. Nick Frost impresses as the ruthless Declan King AKA The Beggar King (who knew he could be such a good villain) and Pip Torrens (who I remember fondly as Herr Starr from the underrated Preacher TV series) is a natural as the intimidating Lord Massen.
Then, there’s Amy Manson’s Maladie who is just a cringe-worthy Harley Quinn-type character. It’s just awkward to witness.
The Nevers isn’t as original or good as the first seasons of other HBO shows. Still, it has a lot of potential with its characters and setting. Even if you have a problem with Joss Whedon’s name attached to this project (with all the disturbing allegations thrown at him), you should know that he’s already been replaced with a new showrunner; Philippa Goslett (though Whedon was still involved for the entire Part One of the series).
For now, The Nevers might be the closest thing we’re getting to an actual X-Men series. With strong female leads and room to grow, this can provide a refreshing change of pace from all the bombastic male-dominated superhero shows out there.
The Nevers will premiere on 12 April 2021 at 9am GMT+8 exclusively on HBO GOÂ and HBO (Astro Channel 411 HD), with a same-day encore at 10pm GMT+8 on HBO.
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