Hello and welcome! Throughout the month of March I will be revisiting the “classic” 1994-95 FOX superhero TV series M.A.N.T.I.S., every episode, from start to finish. That’s 22 episodes over the next 27 days, watched and reviewed by me using the POW (Plot, Opinion, What’s Next?) format.
So strap on your exoskeleton, settle into your hovercraft, and load up on paralysis darts. But most importantly? Enjoy
Today’s Episode: The Pilot
P: The movie length pilot opens on a bank robbery foiled by a man, hidden mostly in shadow, but clearly wearing a suit and some kind of strange mask. He fires something at them that freezes them in place. The vigilante is long gone by the time police arrive and discover the paralyzed would be criminals and a small wire mantis token.
Meanwhile Ocean City is far more concerned with the upcoming election than the urban legend that is the Mantis. Citizens are about to go the polls to either re-elect Mayor Beane (Jerry Black) or choose to replace him with law-and-order (some might say fascist) candidate Chief of Police Stark (Francis X. McCarthy). The campaign is rife with talk of Stark’s new “elite” police force and the city’s supposedly out of control crime rate.
Against this backdrop, several stories are unfolding. First, we meet reporter Yuri Barnes (Bobby Hosea) who thinks Stark is out to win by casting the black people of the city as dangerous thugs and that Beane is too ineffectual to stop Stark from winning on that platform.
Barnes has a flirtation with Dr. Amy Ellis (Gina Torres), a coroner whose boss, Smitty (Philip Baker Hall), seems great until she questions his conclusions on a case and he reveals himself a racist.
In short order, she crosses paths with Mayor Beane supporter Antoine Pike (Steve James in his last role) and rich, cold, paralyzed genius Dr. Miles Hawkins (Carl Lumbly). Pike has negotiated a ceasefire between the two key gangs, The Dragons and the 10-Ks, and put them to work in his community center with the hope that if they can “own” their community the violence will end for good. He speaks of role models, is a hell of gymnast, and is not afraid to fight, sometimes literally, for what he believes in. Hawkins, on the other hand, is arrogant and seems to be working with Stark to discover the Mantis’s paralysis drug to then use to quell the citizenry.
The rest of the plot follows these threads as they converge and twist together, revealing the true identity of Mantis (M.A.N.T.I.S. is the name of the exoskeleton itself) and the nature of the electoral conspiracy.
O: From the moment the pilot begins, you can feel Sam Raimi’s fingerprints all over it. The theme sounds like DARKMAN, the opening credits sequence is, essentially, DARKMAN but green, it embraces its cheap special effects without hesitation, and, of course, it has Ted Raimi in a (funny) cameo role. As a fan of early pop gonzo Raimi, I was happy for that sensation.
The references do not stop there either. The Chrysalis is Burton’s Batwing without the wings (BATMAN, obviously), the Ocean City Police Department is called OCP at least once (ROBOCOP), and Barnes almost quotes Knox, albeit sarcastically, when talking about Mantis (BATMAN again). It’s a tad derivative and referential, but with enough of a tweak that it feels loving, not just lazy or mindless mimicry. In short, it is cheese, but it is the kind of cheese that feels good.
More noticeable, if only because of how much more unique it is, is how many viable interesting roles there are for black actors here. As the comic community continues to struggle with issues of diversity almost 20 years later, here was a show on network television—albeit ’94 FOX network television, but still—in which seven major speaking roles are played by black actors versus two by white actors.
More importantly, the fact that they are the characters are black matters. It informs their experience and their character. Dr. Ellis is smart and competent and yet dismissed by her boss as nothing more than an Affirmative Action hire. Dr. Hawkins is a high profile conservative thinker in the Herman Cain/Clarence Thomas mold who ends up paralyzed after getting shut during what are clearly meant to be the LA riots, possibly by a cop. Barnes openly discusses the discriminatory policies of the Mayoral candidate Stark. Pike, and his friend/runner of the community center Cornell, are former gang members looking to prevent the next generation from making their mistakes. Ocean City actually feels like a city with a diverse population that “acts” like a city does. Socioeconomic status plays as big a role as race does, crime is committed by people of all races and walks of life (it hardly seems an accident that all crime until about 30 minutes in is committed by white people…more like a reminder that crime in the U.S. is more often committed by people with skin like mine own).
(Unfortunately, if I remember correctly, the cast gets pretty white-washed in time for the first episode but we will get to that.)
However, the characters are not just issue bearers. Lumbly’s Hawkins is driven, prone to flashes of anger, and has a wit so dry it is like the desert. Torres’ Ellis is righteous and flirty, able to do both without either element feeling false or undermining the other. Even random gang members are given enough time to show some kind of personality. It is an impressive job considering how much super hero comics are still struggling with the issue.
The pilot is very of its time and not just in the spotlight it shines on race. There is the fashion, so achingly 90's with rollerblades and Zubaz pants. It dates it, for certain, but it also grounds it in a very specific time and place. It sort of renders it a retroactive period piece. I respect that the show did not hesitate to make it very much of the then (although, at the time, it was the now).
It is also an oddly hopeful show. Despite themes of rising gang crime and lingering racism, both very much issues of that moment, it feels incredibly optimistic. It is a very Clinton-era show. Years and the whole impeachment thing tend to obscure this, but Clinton's time in office was a pretty upbeat period in U.S. history even if the administration suffered failures at health care, gay rights, and not having sex outside of marriage. Obama might have sparked far more exuberance early on, but Clinton's years in office were sort of a long, lower boiling period of hopefulness.
Beyond racial politics and world-building, M.A.N.T.I.S. is…overstuffed. In addition to the plot threads already mentioned, there’s office politics at the TV studio (with Marcia Cross!), Hawkins’ ongoing struggle with his paralysis as well as his aiding two African immigrants in learning medicine and, presumably, going home to help their native (unnamed) countries, and last second evidence of an even more massive conspiracy. It is clearly a pilot, not a movie, as it is not concerned with resolution so much as table setting. The advantage is the pilot takes the time to develop richer characters; the disadvantage is that, plot-wise, everything ends up a bit undercooked.
W: Mantis must stop a crime boss with a virus while introducing an almost entirely new cast, setting, and who knows what else in “First Steps.”