Superheroes being rebooted and rebranded is nothing new. In the last two decades alone, we’ve had endless Batmans, Spider-Mans, and Hulks to satiate fangirls and boys who love nothing more than to see their beloved costumed heroes kick ass on screen. With Amazon’s fresh take on Ben Edlund’s spoof of a cape-less crusader, we can now add the Tick to this long-running list of characters who every few years get a new lease on life. Except, where other reboots have become opportunities for different storytellers to put their own stamp on the material at hand (see: Christopher Nolan’s Batman, the MCU’s Spider-Man, Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk), The Tick holds the quiet distinction of having been shepherded in all three of its TV incarnations by its original creator. In fact, Edlund has written the pilot for every adaptation of The Tick, which includes the 1990s animated series, the 2000s live-action FOX sitcom, and now the ambitious 2017 version.
To watch them back to back to back is not only a chance to see a creator finding new ways of exploring his central character—and, oddly enough, building the protagonist’s sidekick into a more central narrative force in the process—but to see a snapshot of how satire cannot help but refract the zeitgeist in which it operates. Take the animated series. There’s a silliness to this candy-colored take on Edlund’s willfully naive (or, as in the comics, actually insane) man-child that kids growing up in the ‘90s will remember fondly. In many ways, it’s of a piece with its fellow FOX Kids show, X-Men: The Animated Series. True to his character, the Tick speaks like an endearing blowhard (“It is I, the Tick, you’re destined defender!” he bloviates), but the eye-popping colors and the overall zaniness of the world that surrounds him made the satire feel playful, if toothless. It captured the spirit of the comic book, never forgetting that the Tick was always an inch away from being a walking punchline, but it felt sanded down for its intended audience.
Even as a kids show, there was an unmissable incongruence in being asked to cheer on a superhero who takes his name and powers from an insect that’s quite literally a blood-hungry parasite. With a moth as his sidekick—a.k.a former accountant-turned-superhero Arthur, in a ridiculously simple, tight, white outfit that revealed his unflattering dadbod—the animated series embodied a family-friendly irreverence that made it a perfect Saturday morning cartoon: The childlike wonder that characterized the hero in the comics became the guiding principle and the more R-rated aspects of Edlund’s comics were eventually nixed. This was a series, for example, that had villains with names like The Idea Man and Chairface Chippendale—the latter, of course, with a wooden chair for a face, though sadly he seemed unrelated to the famous strippers—and which saw its eponymous hero not as an insane asylum escapee, but as a bumbling if good-natured fool that had rightly given the job of keeping safe the archetypal, nondescript urban center, named The City.
A few years later, when Edlund got to develop The Tick into a live-action sitcom, he aimed to capture what perhaps had been lost in animated translation. “The show will be closer in tone to the comic book,” he said, having seen a finished cut of the Barry Sonnenfeld-directed pilot, “favoring character over action, painting a superheroic portrait of genuine human lameness.” Played by Seinfeld’s Puddy, Patrick Warburton, this latex-wearing Tick was transposed into a kind of nihilist riff on what late ‘90s sitcoms were all about, with the various superheroes surrounding this wide-eyed super-strong doofus all feeling equally plausible as guest stars passing by Central Perk or Kramer’s apartment. There is, for example, the sexual tension between the dashing Batmanuel (Nestor Carbonell), who keeps cash in the crotch of his super suit, and Lady Liberty (Liz Vassey), whose costume has a boob window in the shape of a star; and there are raunchier jokes that feel painfully well-suited to a network show: “Hindsight? You mean sight that comes out of your…?” the Tick asks, letting audiences fill in the obvious punchline before he can make it land.
There’s an endearing aspect to this kind of grown-up take on The Tick that nevertheless looked like a bunch of action figures had come to life—Warburton’s costume, designed by Oscar winner Colleen Atwood, actually makes him look like he’d just been unwrapped from a collector’s item box. (“Big, blue, and extra-muscled! He looks like a giant immaculate toy!” Edlund noted in that same address to fans). On second look, the short-lived show feels both of and about its time.
Where the ‘90s cartoon was bright and punny, and the post-9/11 live action series was an absurdist take on a network sitcom, The Tick of today embodies—and tries to spoof—a post-Nolan superhero landscape. There’s still an absurdity to the premise at hand. There really is no way of making the Tick not feel like a ridiculous character, no matter how grounded the environment and how Fight Club-esque the dynamic between Arthur and this ‘roided-out blue wrecking ball of a superhero feels. But, with a pilot directed by The Dark Knight’s cinematographer, Wally Pfister, which comes packed with a tragic origin story for Arthur (if not, curiously, the Tick himself), this third iteration packages Edlund’s creation in a world that both nods to and gently winks at the Nolan-fied subgenre of caped heroes.
As a piece of meta-commentary on the already stale-feeling, self-serious superhero genre it’s lampooning, this 2017 take on The Tick is a perfect illustration of the perils of reboots, wherein characters and stories are constantly updated. Rather than looking like a chiseled (if sexless) action figure the Tick’s costume here resembles military-grade armor that’s been spray-painted blue—the kind of choice that feeds into the idea that the series is set in a reality similar to our own, even if villains like The Terror take pleasure in eating a little boy’s FroYo while taking a break from defeating local heroes.
There’s something almost comical about watching the Tick go from lumbering animated role model (“May evil beware and dress warm and eat plenty of green vegetables,” he says at the end of an episode), to a voice of self-help for anxious nerds who wish they could be heroes in real life (“Destiny dressed you this morning and fear is trying to pull down your pants,” he tells Arthur in the sitcom, in lines that are echoed in the Amazon pilot: “If you give in, then you’re going to end up naked with fear just standing there laughing at your dangling unmentionables”). The Tick has grown up and been given psychological complexity (at least in Arthur’s case), made more recognizable. But in reflecting and attempting to skewer the genres they’re re-enacting, these various versions of The Tick exemplify reboot culture at its most elemental: Make it now, if not exactly new.
Manuel Betancourt is a New York-based writer who has contributed to Film Comment, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic and Esquire.