Superhero stories are in vogue right now between the mass popularity of big screen films from Marvel and DC and the programs, primarily DC properties, which are all over television and the fact that many of the showrunners, producers, and decision makers are reaching positions wherein they can make their childhood dreams come true. One need only look at the popularity of Funko to acknowledge that nostalgia is riding an all-time high as vinyl toys becomes totems of a bygone moment in a person’s life made manifest and available to sit on their shelf. The stories largely take on two approaches: good triumphs over evil (example: Avengers: Endgame) or the good guys are evil (example: The Boys). It’s as though the greater nuance of the stories is pushed aside a bit in favor of glorious spectacle. This, of course, isn’t to say that Endgame isn’t without heart or that The Boys is lacking in the examination department, it’s just that the ideas these comics possess don’t always get the same attention when shifted off the page. With its fair share of comic adaptations, Netflix’s latest film, Project Power has all the pieces of a big screen event, but is (a) not actually based on a comic and (b) possesses the kind of resonant notions that make the grander, super-powered moments feel far more weighted.
In order to fund a desperately needed surgery, high schooler Robin (Dominique Fishback) hustles a new drug called Power on the streets of New Orleans. Unlike the usual narcotics, Power doesn’t get you high, it offers you the chance to become imbued with a super power for five minutes. There’s also a slim chance it’ll just kill you, but that’s a chance many are willing to take. Due to her dealing, Robin finds herself caught between Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a good cop trying keep pace with the criminals, and Art (Jamie Foxx), a dangerous man gunning for the person distributing Power. The fight to take back the streets of New Orleans gets personal as the three risk it all to return power where it belongs: the people.
From the outside looking in, the optics on Mattson Tomlin’s script are not great. Caucasian villains disperse a super drug into New Orleans, a city still recovering from 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, and the one “good” cop is a white dude. The term “good” is in quotes because Frank engages in the type of behavior audiences don’t mind from rogue cops who take down bad guys, a perspective currently under fire from general audiences in the wake of recent protests against police brutality. It certainly helps that Gordon-Levitt brings to the character a certain empathic nature that’s less aggressive toward those the audience agrees are benevolent. It’s so rare for audiences to turn against Gordon-Levitt that people continue to debate whether his character in (500) Days of Summer is the bad guy or not, so much so that the actor himself chimed in via a tweet in 2018 to offer his opinion. All this to say that Frank is meant to be sympathetic to the audience and his relationship with Robin appears one wherein the “good cop tries to keep the youth out of trouble.” Except “the youth” is a young Black girl selling Power and the “good cop” is a user. Visually, the script sets up a power dynamic that doesn’t look good and it shouldn’t. At all. It should make you uncomfortable and that’s where Tomlin’s script gets really interesting, because the deeper you go into Project Power, the more it reveals itself to be an exploration of modern eugenics. The trailer boasts the question, “What would you risk for five minutes of pure power?” and that’s what the narrative explores. What do you risk physical, psychologically, socially, and ethically for a short-cut to power.
To break this down as simply and spoiler-free as possible, Power manipulates human DNA to grant the user an random ability. It could be something like invisibility, being bullet-proof, or the manipulation of the laws of thermodynamics. This is the concept that attracts potential users and, for Netflix, potential audiences. There’s something exciting about taking a pill to become superhuman. In my day job, I even pose a similar question to my students on the first day of the semester as an ice breaker to incite discussion. For them, it’s a dumb question to get them interacting. For Project Power, it’s a concept with enormous implications. Similar to the way that Robocop satirized the convergence of private corporations and law enforcement as the ultimate form of capitalism, Tomlin’s script explores, in a less satirical manner, what it means to become powerful, the measures we’re willing to take to reach pinnacle humanism, and the costs of such an exploration. To do so, Tomlin sprinkles throughout Power notes of the 1932 Tuskegee Study and name drops Henrietta Lacks. These aren’t merely tossed in to offer a deeper meaning to the explosive pageantry on display, they tie back to the other themes of those in positions of power using the Black community as they see fit and holding that same community to a different standard because of it. You think New Orleans was chosen by accident? Upon finishing the film, selecting New Orleans as the battleground for Power makes more sense than almost any modern location outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma, or Flint, Michigan. The government failed it, people are still — 15 years later — dealing with recovery, and, especially now, the notion that health care is an expensive necessity is a plague for many. Tomlin’s script may not carry the emotional weight of xenophobia-exploring comic series The X-Men by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but Power is not without heft, packing the final conflict in the film with emotional resonance amid a rather clever design.
As is common when Netflix announces a release, there’s bound to be a cacophony of voices shouting Power down as the next bit of tripe from the streaming giant. Truth is, outside of the slowly developing subtext of Power and strong performances from the three leads, especially Fishback, Power is better than the average film, but is not as strong as more recent contemporaries. Foxx is his usual dynamic self, able to juggle the soft performative changes required when Power shifts tone from action to drama to comedy as needed by the moment, while never reducing or diminishing his presence. Foxx has always been a charismatic performer and his energy works wonderfully here, offering genuine vulnerability as required and seeming truly desperate per the narrative, yet never weak. His version of Art is a focused force of nature whose strength is in recognizing his skillsets and being willing to do whatever it takes, except sacrifice his humanity. For her part, Fishback is the absolute standout. She’s been working since 2014 and her next film is the hotly anticipated Warner Brothers Pictures release Judas and the Black Messiah, featuring Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield. Even though Art and Frank have their own agendas, Power is really Robin’s story and neither the script nor Fishback make you forget it. If there is a true downside to Power, it’s that it *looks* like a Netflix production and not its own thing. Whereas recent releases The Old Guard and Extraction possess a style singular to their respective stories, Project Power frequently looks like an extended episode of Warrior Nun, The Umbrella Academy, or The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. It could be that those shows just have cinema-like quality (kudos to their respective directors and cinematographers), but Project Power is dealt a disservice by comparison. Does it use its color scheme well in lighting, costuming, and production? Absolutely. It’s just that it seems so homogenized that it loses its obvious distinction.
At the end of the day, Project Power is going to do exactly what it sets out to do: entertain. It’s likely to resonate more with the audiences who pick up on the messages of corporate greed and unethical science which propel the story versus those who do not. It’s not a requirement to enjoy watching Foxx and Gordon-Levitt whoop a little ass or observe a clear star on the rise in Fishback. But it does help.
Available for streaming on Netflix beginning August 14th, 2020.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.