Warning: this episode doesn't air in the UK until tonight, so beware of minor spoilers...
David Goyer has Blade and The Dark Knight trilogies on his résumé, but it's notable both were based on existing material and achieved transcendence thanks to gifted filmmakers like Guillermo Del Toro and Christopher Nolan. Indeed, when Goyer takes full control of something the result is the franchise-killing Blade Trinity, and when he collaborates on a more equal footing we get small-screen turkeys Threshold and FlashForward. I don't dislike Goyer's work; I just think his skill lies in tailoring existing ideas for easier mass consumption, ideally as the 'middle man' for someone with a more varied skill-set and greater vision.
Goyer's the brains behind Starz's latest historical romp, replacing the cable channel's popular Spartacus series. Da Vinci's Demons rewrites history regarding world-famous Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci (Tom Riley); recasting him as a sexy young man with toned pectorals, not an elderly bearded figure who once painted a half-smiling woman. Of course, there must have been a time when da Vinci wasn't grey and dedicated at least some of his day to chasing girls, in-between sketching and inventing contraptions, but this show takes many steps beyond that logic.
I'm not against tinkering with history for entertainment purposes (most Oscar-winning movies take dramatic license with real events), but I sometimes wonder if a generation will grow up having a very distorted view of the past. Or maybe embellishment of facts is a good way to get people interested in learning the truth about something? I happen to know people who have become genuinely interested in Roman history because of the aforementioned Spartacus.
There's a feeling with Da Vinci's Demons that Goyer is trying to create an 'Olde Worlde superhero' using similar methods he employed in Batman Begins. Da Vinci appears to have had a life-changing but forgotten experience inside a dark cave (in scenes that evoked memories of Bruce Wayne's bat-filled well), and in adulthood he meets a decidedly Ra's al Ghul-styled Turkish mentor called Al-Rahim (Alexander Siddig)--who reveals da Vinci's a "Chosen One", before setting him on a quest to find the legendary Book of Leaves.
However, before the mythology really kicks in, "The Hanged Man" tries to get you invested in da Vinci as a boyish genius living in Florence with manservant Nicco (Eros Vlahos) and con artist friend Zoroaster (Being Human's Gregg Chillin). Tom Riley's the man tasked with bringing Leonard (or "Leo") to life, and seems to have settled on doing a cursory mash-up of David Tennant and Robert Downey Jr (in their Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes roles, respectively).
It's not a bad performance from Riley, just exactly what you'd expect. There doesn't seem to be any magic to any of the acting or writing choices here. The great thing about Benedict Cumberbatch's take on Sherlock Holmes is that it felt very faithful, yet contained elements of characterisation we don't so easily associate with the character (i.e. the BBC's modern Sherlock is an objectionable asshole). Riley doesn't offer anything original in his performance--or, perhaps more fairly, the character is written as a lazy amalgam of other young geniuses who are popular with audience elsewhere. It's a real shame, because so much of this show rests on Riley's shoulders, but I can't say I'm desperate to see more of his da Vinci.
Still, there are some fun moments and promising aspects that keep the show from completely floundering. The idea of da Vinci having a secret history holds some water, because we know the Vatican used to manipulate the truth to suit their Christian agenda in Renaissance times; and there's a memorable villain in homosexual Pope Sixtus IV (James Faulkner)--who was introduced naked in an indoor pool, threatening the life of a scared teenager with a dagger to his throat.
In terms of production, Da Vinci's Demons resembles a cheaper version of Showtime's The Borgias (filmed in Wales), but thankfully not in a totally laughable way. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the design work, in general, even if you could discern between the real sets and unreal backdrops with relative ease (certainly compared to HBO's Game of Thrones).
Overall, "The Hanged Man" wasn't terrible and did get more enjoyable as it went along, but I need to sample more before deciding if this show has enough merit to overcome its flaws. Taken as the Starz version of a BBC telefantasy airing on Saturday evenings, it has its silly pleasures... but then, with so much violence and nudity as part of the package, it unfortunately won't play easily to the nine-year-olds who may actually have enjoyed this the most. Maybe Starz learned nothing from Camelot, after all...
written & directed by David S Goyer / 19 April 2013 / Fox UK