Why NBC's 'Powerless' Changed Course to Embrace Its DC Comics Connection

The new exec producers on the forthcoming NBC comedy detailed how 'Powerless' will reference DC's most famous superheroes without showing them.
Courtesy of NBC

Another member of the Wayne family is coming to TV, but it's not what many would expect.

As part of some major creative retooling behind the scenes, NBC's forthcoming DC Comics comedy Powerless renamed one of its central characters to be Van Wayne, a distant cousin of Bruce, i.e. Batman.

"I wasn’t a Wayne before and now I am; totally better," Alan Tudyk, who plays the character, joked with reporters Wednesday at the Television Critics Association winter press tour. "It really ties into the superhero world."

The decision to embrace beloved DC Comics characters like Batman is a major change for the first-year workplace comedy. When the pilot episode was shown at Comic-Con International in July, then-showrunner Ben Queen promised that Powerless would instead focus on "our own little heroes" like Crimson Fox and Jack-o-Lantern.

"It's in its own universe. It's its own little subset," Queen said at the time. "DC is basically, as you can see, they let us talk about all aspects of the DC [Universe]. It really gives us an opportunity to lead with what's funny and what's fun and try and turn that into a fun NBC workplace comedy."

Less than a month after that panel, however, Queen exited the project. After Queen's exit, Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker came onboard. That change was just the beginning.

"About 15 weeks into this, we decided that the insurance company angle wasn't really generating the type of stories that we wanted to be telling," Schumacker said. The duo then sat down with DC Comics chief creative officer Geoff Johns and worked to find a way to "tell classic workplace comedy stories but in a way that kind of activates the DC universe a little bit more."

Subsequently, the show is no longer set at an insurance company, but instead at Wayne Security, a subsidiary of Wayne Enterprises, where Tudyk's Van Wayne calls the shots.

"It came about because there's obviously lot of recognition with the Wayne name," Schumacker said. "It is ultimately Bruce Wayne's company."

But Halpern insisted that the series would not rely on its ties to a certain caped crusader the way other DC shows do, namely how Gotham centers on a young Bruce Wayne.

"We make it a point not to use Batman and Bruce Wayne as a crutch," Halpern said. "We don't lean into that past the pilot that much."

One element that has remained the same is the setting: Charm City, which is a "totally made-up city for this version of the show," Schumacker said, nothing that Charm City is in Earth-P.

So how does this connect to the many other DC movies (Batman vs. Superman, Man of Steel) and TV shows (Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow, among others)?

"Batman vs. Superman and Man of Steel are the cinematic universe, the Berlanti-verse is its own thing and Earth-P is its own thing," Schumacker said. (To potentially further confuse reporters, Halpern did say that the writers "poke fun at the Batman-Superman films" in an upcoming episode. "Generally, I think they have a good sense of humor about it," Halpern said of DC.)

Because Powerless and the films exist in separate universes, "we don't treat the films as things that have happened within this world," Schumacker said, but the characters are mentioned.  

"They're not going to make appearances. They do exist in this world. We reference them all the time," Schumacker said pointing to the Big 7 DC superheroes that make up the Justice League. Halpern also noted "a lot of red tape" when it came to potential overlaps with Greg Berlanti's superhero shows, not the least of which because they air on a different network.

Schumacker and Halpern, instead, insisted that their series will pull from the comics rather than the DC film and TV library.

"The idea is that we're going to pull from the whole cannon of the comics," Schumacker said.  "It really is the comics we're pulling from. We really want to show as much of the berth of the DC universe as possible."

However, Halpern insisted that the characters from the DC universe will only be incorporated when it benefits the story. "We're hesitant to not name-drop just to name-drop. We want it to make sense when it happens," Halpern clarified. "We're open to that kind of thing but sort of trying to be careful to not service things the wrong way."

When pressed about further DC-connected characters or relatives of DC characters, like Van Wayne, Schumacker was cautious but optimistic: "Never say never. Hopefully we'll live on for awhile."

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