It does seem at times like moviegoers have an addiction to superheroes. For years, journalists and critics have predicted that the glut of superhero movies would lead to a backlash; 12 years removed from the summer of Iron Man and The Dark Knight, they’re still waiting. If audiences are sick of these films, you wouldn’t know it from their buying habits.

Now Netflix seems to be planting its flag, and claiming a small piece of this valuable market for itself. Just a few weeks after The Old Guard, based on an Image comic book about a team of immortal warriors, they’ve got Project Power, an original tale that takes our cultural addiction to superheroes and turns it into literal text, via an experimental drug that gives users random superhuman abilities for five minutes at a time.

It’s an irresistible premise. The execution? Totally resistible. Superhero fans jonesing for a fix during this depressing summer without blockbusters might get some small comfort from its generic stunts and superheroics. But even with its comic-book trappings and solid cast, Project Power just doesn’t cut it. It’s cinematic methadone; it might mitigate your withdrawals, but it won’t get you high.


Although the core concept surrounds this amazing drug that gives you a spin at the roulette wheel of super powers, the plot mostly involves a pair of standard action dudes trying to get these pills — called “Power” — off the streets of New Orleans. Frank Shaver (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a cop who worries that Power could lead to the deaths of a lot of good police officers. He gets the occasional Power dose of his own from a low-level dealer with the sidekick-friendly name Robin (Dominique Fishback), who sells Power to fund her mother’s cancer treatments. Meanwhile, Robin crosses paths with an ex-soldier named Art (Jamie Foxx), who’s conducting his own investigation into the drug for personal reasons.

Supposedly, no one knows what power they’re going to get until they take the drug, a concept rife with opportunities for comedy and suspense as characters get worthless abilities in the middle of fights. Instead, almost everyone in Project Power get exactly the power they need exactly when they need it, like when Frank becomes bulletproof right before he storms the dealers’ compound. The film emphasizes how dangerous the drug can be, then repeatedly revels in how cool it is when it works, transforming people into fire monsters or giant hulking beasts. Is this a cautionary tale or an escapist fantasy?

Project Power isn’t sure and, more importantly, doesn’t seem to care. It falls on the lower end of the Netflix originals spectrum; stuff apparently designed for distracted viewing and limited engagement. As visual wallpaper that will bliss you out with snappy superhero effects, it’s okay. As a thriller about the whole notion of a superhero drug, it falls very short. (This notion has been explored far more thoughtfully elsewhere, including in actual comics like Daredevil by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Alex Maleev.)


Project Power comes from directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, who are still best known as the directors of the original Catfish documentary, even though they’ve spent most of their subsequent careers making fiction movies like Paranormal Activity 3 and 4 and Nerve. Their latest collaboration feels very unlikely to change that, even with stars like Foxx and Gordon-Levitt on hand.

While the leads mostly coast along on sheer charisma, Fishback makes the biggest impression. Her Robin is, among other things, an aspiring rapper who likes to drop freestyle verses. These innate musical gifts stand as a counterpoint to the artificial strength provided by Power, one of the rare moments when Project Power feels like it’s about something more than narcotizing audiences for 110 minutes. The rest of the time this story about untapped human potential rarely taps into its own.

Gallery — The Funniest Netflix Thumbnails: