Air Date: 31 May 2019 to 2 August 2019
UK Distributor: Netflix
Original Network: DC Universe
Stars: Derek Mears, Crystal Reed, Andy Bean, Will Patton, Virginia Madsen, Kevin Durand, Maria Sten, and Jeryl Prescott
Although the monstrous swamp creature known as Swamp Thing first appeared in July 1971, the character is best known for his Alec Holland incarnation, though both characters were created by writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson. Not to be confused with a similar swamp monster published by Marvel Comics, the Man-Thing, Swamp Thing has long been personified as the protector of the “Green” and all environmental life. Considering how obscure the character is, Swamp Thing has quite a lucrative history in adaptation; he received two live-action horror/comedies in the 1980s, a spin-off live action series, a cartoon, and often crops up in animated ventures and videogames.
Development of a new horror series based on the character began in 2018; ostensibly produced to provide more content for DC Universe, DC’s now-defunct video-on-demand streaming service. Existing in a separate continuity to other DC live-action shows, Swamp Thing was cancelled almost as soon as it began airing because of creative differences and financial concerns, which killed any plans for follow-up seasons and spin-offs. Despite this, Swamp Thing was generally very well received and the popularity of the show, in addition to the character’s very brief cameo in the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover (Various, 2019 to 2020), has left the vague lingering hope that Swamp Thing might be integrated into the “Arrowverse” in the same was as Matt Ryan’s John Constantine.
When a deadly illness hits a small town in Louisiana, Doctor Abby Arcane (Reed) is sent to investigate and begins to suspect that disgraced scientist Alec Holland’s (Bean) research may be related to the outbreak. However, in the midst of her investigation into shady businessman Avery Sunderland (Patton) and the mysteries of the nearby swamp, Alec is suddenly killed but appears to live on as a monstrous swamp creature.
All throughout Swamp Thing, the swamp is treated as a dark, ominous force that stalks intruders and actively hunts those who venture within it, no matter their intentions. Thanks to the dumping of mutagen accelerator, the swamp is alive, malevolent, and brutally kill those who invade its depths, and its influence has begun to spread into the nearby town of Marais, causing a debilitating virus known as the “Green Flu”. The town is understandably disturbed by the virus but also believes that the swamp, their primary source of income, is responsible and is striking back at those who would seek to destroy or damage it. Local businessman Avery Sunderland, who has brought prosperity to the town, is fascinated by the swamp after witnessing its power as a boy when his father, Burritt (Steve Wilcox), was murdered by the swamp for attacking one of its trees was when Avery was a boy.
The mysterious plague brings Abby back to Marais, her hometown; she’s a pretty, smart CDC doctor who immediately and affably takes charge of the hospital staff and the organisation of a response team but is haunted by memories of her childhood in Marais. Though stumped by the potency of the disease, which mutilates its victims with swamp life and roots and is capable of reanimating corpses into violent planet creatures, Abby’s investigation is aided Alec Holland, a quirky and mysterious but brilliant biologist who clearly knows more about the infection than he’s letting on. His research focuses on dangerous mutagens, which he has identified growing and mutating out in the swamp, and he explicitly demonstrates to Abby that the swamp is growing aggressively and malevolently and causing the disease. Although unsure of Alec’s odd demeanour, he and Abby quickly pool their talents; a quick Google reveals to Abby Alec’s sketchy past, which saw him disgraced after manipulating data to prove his theories, but instead of arguing, they bond over their past mistakes and remain focused on figuring out the Green Flu. During their efforts, they are horrified to witness the swamp’s malevolent effects but, right when they are on the cusp of figuring out how the Green Flu came about, Alec is suddenly shot and killed.
In his place is a large, monstrous bog monster (the titular Swamp Thing) that emerges from the swamp in a confused and agonised daze and, for a brief period, has a strange connection to Susie Coyle (Elle Graham), a young girl infected by the swamp. Susie is able to sense Swamp Thing’s emotions and even see through his eyes, to an extent, which causes her a great deal of distress, nightmares, and to leave the hospital in search of Swamp Thing. There, she witnesses two of men dumping the mutagen, a particularly brutal murder, and Swamp Thing violently attack and kill one of the men, Munson (Micah Fitzgerald), using the roots and branches of the swamp. Now able to communicate with the swamp and other plant life (known as the “Green”), Swamp Thing is functionally immortal as he’s able to almost immediately heal from any injury and has no need for his plant-like organs. Thanks to Swamp Thing’s unique connection to the swamp, Abby is able to suppress the Green Flu but this also alerts him to a foreboding, oncoming Darkness that has spread death and devastation throughout the swamp. When the Darkness manifests as the Rot, it reanimates Munson’s body into a zombie-like creature who spews and controls insects and goes on a killing spree until Swamp Thing defeats it. He’s also instrumental in curing and counteracting an infection that spreads from the Darkness and causes this exposed to see disturbing, nightmarish visions of their worst fears that lead them to violently injure and kill themselves and others in a frenzied panic.
Abby’s return to Marais causes quite a stir for many characters; for her childhood friend, Matt Cable (Henderson Wade), who is now a police officer, she reawakens his childhood feelings for her. These drive him to accompany her into the swamp and to aid with her search for Alec, much to the chagrin of his mother, Lucilia (Jennifer Beals), who is also the town sheriff. Resentful and distrustful of Abby, Lucilia dissuades Matt from helping Abby, believing her to be nothing but trouble who will just break his heart, but, when Matt learns that Lucilia is little more than a corrupt official who has lied about his true parentage and been covering up evidence of Avery’s wrongdoings, he begins to consider transferring to a different department. Lucilia, who murders without a thought to protect her son, is driven to conspiring against Avery when she discovers that he manipulated his son into killing Alec, an action that ultimately dooms her to further betrayal and murder.
Like Lucilia, Avery’s wife, Maria (Madsen), is extremely perturbed by Abby’s return; blaming Abby for the death of her daughter, Shawna (Given Sharp), Maria is cold and hostile towards Abby and demands that she leave the moment her work in Marais is done. Having struggled with alcoholism after Shawna’s death, Abby’s return causes Maria to regress; she takes to sleeping in Shawna’s death and turns to local blind fortune teller, Nimue Inwudu/Madame Xanadu (Prescott) for comfort, only to be driven to both violence and near madness by Shawna’s vengeful spirit, which possesses Susie and attempts to kill both Maria and Abby. Fully aware of Avery’s transgressions, and having grown weary of him using her wealth to her own ends, she cuts him off and, after conspiring to kill him, appropriates Avery’s research for her own to enter into an alliance with Nathan Ellery (Michael Beach) and the shadowy Conclave Group.
Abby also reconnects with another of her friends, Liz Tremayne (Sten), a local reporter who believes that uncovering the truth behind Avery’s shady operation will be her big break. At every turn, even after encountering Swamp Thing, Abby confides in Liz and is met with nothing but unconditional support as Liz takes every opportunity to aid Abby in her efforts to help Alec, solve the mysteries of the swamp, and expose Avery’s true nature. Liz’s investigative abilities not only help to lead Abby to Swamp Thing after he is captured by the mysterious Conclave Group but also leads her to Daniel Cassidy (Ian Ziering), an former stuntman and actor who found fame as a live-action version of the superhero Blue Devil and runs a video rental store where Alec lived and worked. Unable to leave Marais due to a supernatural force, Daniel is compelled to assist Abby by the mysterious Phantom Stranger (Macon Blair), who bound him to Marais some time ago, even when this leaves him comatose and trapped in the town.
Supernatural elements such as these are a pivotal aspect of Swamp Thing: Xanadu finds her visions and psychic abilities augmented by the dark forces growing in the swamp, Shawna’s ghost spirit torments Maria and Abby, and Alec’s presence haunt Abby, the show, and Swamp Thing himself. The ghosts of his former life echo in Swamp Thing’s dreams alongside disturbing visions of numerous dead bodies, which the Phantom Stranger explains are actually the memories of all the events the trees and the swamp and the Green have witnessed over the centuries. The Phantom Stranger encourages Swamp Thing to hold on to the humanity still in his heart and soul and to embrace his newfound connection to the Green, which allows Abby the see the truth about Shawna’s death, but it is through his continued relationship with Abby that Swamp Thing finds his most potent connection to his humanity. Desperate to find out what happened to him and return him to normal, Abby reconnects with Alec in the episode “Brilliant Disguise” (Ostrander, 2019), which sees him temporarily reassume his human guise thanks to a mysterious flower. Here, Alec reveals the true extent of the Darkness and the Rot and believes that he has been transformed into a warrior to combat these malevolent forces and, accepting his new destiny, reluctantly asks her to leave and move on with her life.
Of course, the dark forces in the swamp aren’t the only things Swamp Thing has to content with in the show; Avery’s dumping of the mutagen accelerator was meant to bring him more opportunities for profit and expansion but, after witnessing the power of the swamp and seeing what Alec has transformed into, he begins to manipulate the situation back into his favour. A disreputable and manipulative individual, he Avery regularly engages in extramarital relations with Lucilia (which ultimately turn Maria against him) delivers thinly veiled threats to Abby and Liz when they continue to poke their nose into his business, and purposely exploited Matt to eliminate Alec when he got close to discovering Avery’s plot. A slick and deceptive individual, he’s even able to trick Swamp Thing into trusting him and doesn’t hesitate to twist the narrative in his favour wherever possible, including having his wife committed to a mental hospital and threatening friend and foe alike.
I found Avery to be quite an intriguing character and he had a lot of complex layers to him; though both he and Maria were heartbroken at Shawna’s death, Maria’s reaction is far rawer and more aggressive, and Avery is much more accepting of Abby. Rather than blaming her for Shawna’s death, he sees her as a surrogate daughter and regrets not defending her in the past and there’s a genuine sense that he cares for her even when he’s clearly primarily concerned with his own self interests. A master manipulator, he’s able to prey upon Maria’s fragile state of mind and lingering fears about Susie’s health into continuing his funding in order to improve the image of their family in the eyes of the public and the investors. Despite being betrayed by all those around him and having lost everything, Avery remains adamant in his ability to bounce back from his losses out of a pig-headed belief that the town is reliant upon his generosity and influence. With Maria reduced to a mindless shell of her former self, and having learnt that he is Matt’s true father, he attempts to rekindle his relationship with Lucilia only to be adamantly rebuked by her after everything he’s done to her and Matt. Although Lucilia reconciles with Matt, she doesn’t live to see that through as Avery stabs her from the backseat of her car and dumps her body, and the car, in the swamp. By the end, he’s been reduced from an affluent and influential industrialist to a cold-blooded, remorseless killer; he mysteriously spits up a piece of the swamp, hinting that he may have been infected by the Rot.
Avery forges an alliance with Doctor Jason Woodrue (Durand), an unorthodox biogeneticist with an unhealthy obsession with plants who was responsible for creating Avery’s mutagen accelerant and causing the plague. While Woodrue is incredulous since the swamp’s very nature invites disease, Avery is unimpressed with Woodrue’s efforts, which were supposed to allow him to profit and have, instead, brought an unwelcome amount of attention and death to his doorstep. Woodrue is both in admiration of the aggressiveness and potency of the Green Flu and the swamp but also determined to stay support his wife, Caroline (Selena Anduze), as she suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Like Abby, Woodrue is astounded by Swamp Thing’s genetic make-up and the regenerative capabilities and, upon discovering evidence of Swamp Thing’s existence, convinces Avery to provide him the resources to hunt down and capture the creature, alive, for further research.
Ever the opportunist, Woodrue willingly betrays and allies with each of the Sunderland’s in his desperate bid to find a cure for his wife’s condition; to that end, Ellery provides Woodrue with the proper facilities to continue his research and is instrumental in luring Swamp Thing into a trap to freeze him with nitrogen blasts. Subjected to an invasive examination more akin to an autopsy and subdued by special lights, Swamp Thing is horrified when Woodrue discovers that he has no nerve or pain receptors (despite the fact that he clearly reacts to injury), can survive without any internal organs, and his theory that Alec’s consciousness was merely absorbed by the swamp and given a humanoid form by its mutagenic properties. Disturbed by Woodrue’s claims, Swamp Thing returns to the swamp after being rescued and is devested when he retrieves Alec’s mangled corpse from its depths, confirming that he is merely an autonomous plant creature possessing the shadow of Alec’s consciousness. Thought despondent at this discovery, Abby insists that Swamp Thing is imbued with Alec’s heart and soul regardless and, after mercilessly slaughtering Ellery’s men in retaliation for the suffering they caused him, he is bolstered by Alec’s sprit and Abby’s devotion to stay in the swamp and find a new path for himself against the coming Darkness.
I really enjoyed Swamp Thing; at only ten episodes long, the show is paced incredibly well and the structure is just about perfect; it never feels like there’s any filler and everything flows naturally and nicely and with a real purpose. The show’s emphasis on dark, gritty horror really makes it stand out against other superhero shows and it does a really good job of explaining its unique lore and introducing just enough intrigue to keep you hooked; the supernatural elements are seen as equal parts mysterious and dangerous and beautiful and alluring, and the ominous presence of the oncoming Darkness was a fascinating inclusion that I’m sad to see has not been resolved in the Arrowverse as of late. In many ways, it feels like the showrunners should have tried to slightly rewrite the concept to refer to the destructive anti-mater wave that was the subject of the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover but I remain hopeful that Swamp Thing’s loose ends will be addressed in some way, shape or form at some point.
One of the most appealing aspects of Swamp Thing is how well it utilises its special effects; the swamp, a living, largely malevolent being in and of itself, writhes and squirms through a mixture of practical and special effects that reanimates dead bodies with a sickening burst of ever-growing and malicious tentacles but nowhere is its influence more impressively realised that in Swamp Thing himself. Brought to life through the power of an impressive practical suit and augmented by animatronics and just the right amount of CGI, Swamp Thing is both impressive and horrific in his appearance thanks to an abundance of dark lighting, shadows, and well-framed shots but he also impresses when seen in full lighting. It seems like the showrunners wisely put a great deal of Swamp Thing’s budget into the titular creature, which results in them creatively cutting corners when it comes to Blue Devil. Sadly, we never get to see a clear shot of Blue Devil, who slaughters the Conclave’s goons through the power of frenetic and blood-soaked editing; to be fair, though, this does work to emphasise the brutality, horror, and mystery of Blue Devil.
Performances are strong throughout Swamp Thing; Crystal Reed is a fantastically alluring lead actress, carrying just the right mixture of gumption, intelligence, and empathy. She feels a tremendous amount of guilt over her part on Shawna’s death and is both heartbroken and desperate to try and help Alec after he’s transformed into Swamp Thing. Similarly, while she’s little more than a supporting character, there’s a surprising amount of depth to Liz; I was very pleased to see that the two never fell out or had any interpersonal drama and were simply two close friends who supported each other no matter what, even in the face of their own deaths. I was impressed with Durand’s range for his portrayal of Woodrue, who is continually torn between his work and his wife just as Swamp Thing is torn between his humanity and the creature he has become, and his descent into insanity and villainy was all the more affecting because he wasn’t just some over the top comic book villain. I was similarly intrigued by Patton’s performance as Avery; a deceitful, manipulative character who always has the upper hand, he fought and clawed against his descent from his lofty position and always had another scheme, another option, at hand to try and turn things to his advantage. The only real issue I had, in fact (apart from the show being cancelled) was that Susie seems like she’s going to be important but basically disappears from the show after a few prominent episodes and her connection to Swamp Thing is not as pivotal as it seems at first.
Honestly, it’s a real shame that Swamp Thing was cancelled almost as immediately as it started as it was very entertaining as a horror/mystery show and was a very different type of comic book adaptation. The show was also packed with some clever additions and references to the wider DC universe; Adrienne Barbeau, who starred in the first live-action movie, makes a cameo appearance as the CDC’s new assistant director, the Phantom Stranger was a surprising and welcome inclusion, and the show even does a good job of bringing Blue Devil to life when Daniel eventual transforms into an actual, fire-breathing demon. The show even ends on a massive cliff-hanger when Woodrue, driven to madness by his wife’s accidental overdose and his obsession with curing her, ingests Swamp Thing’s organs and transforms himself into the Floronic Man.
Were you a fan of Swamp Thing? Did you enjoy the show’s emphasis on horror and practical effects or was a bit too obscure and dark for you? What did you think to the Swamp Thing suit and effects and Derek Mears’ performance as the character? Which of the show’s characters and sub-plots was your favourite and did you enjoy the inclusions of names like the Phantom Stranger and the Blue Devil? How well do you think the show did at adapting the source material and were there any characters and plots you would have liked to see included in the show? Were you disappointed that Swamp Thing was cancelled and would you like the see the character and the show’s loose ends tied up in the Arrowverse? Whatever your opinions on Swamp Thing, leave your thoughts down below.