With Disney+ on the horizon, Marvel is taking their ball and heading to their new home, leaving Netflix a little light on the superhero fare that has come to dominate cinemas and streaming services. Netflix can’t go without a plethora of America’s current favorite genre for long. Superhero stories resonate with wide audiences for several reasons, mainly because in a world that feels increasingly out of control, all of us want to see justice enacted, for good to overcome evil, and for someone that resembles a regular person like us become a better, more powerful, and more altruistic version of themselves.
The key to that last part is “resembles a person like us,” and though creators are starting to widen their scope to tell more inclusive stories that represent a wider array of identities and experiences, there’s still more work to be done. Comic writer Dennis Liu knew this when he created Raising Dion, a story about a 7-year-old African-American boy Dion developing powers and his black, single widowed mother Nicole trying to protect him. Liu’s story led to a viral Raising Dion short film, and now a nine-episode series on Netflix.
“I started this project many years ago because I wanted to see more diverse representation on film and television, and I’m excited to partner with Netflix, who I know shares that commitment,” Liu said when the series was announced. “More than ever, we need more stories told from different points of view. My hope with Raising Dion is to create a cinematic experience for all families that will lift your spirits and make you laugh and cry.”
If that’s all Liu’s goal was for the Raising Dion series, then mission accomplished. Executive produced by Michael B. Jordan, one of the first Hollywood producers to adopt an inclusion rider for all of his projects, Raising Dion is a family-friendly superhero show with as much diversity behind the camera as in front. Written by Carol Barbee, Raising Dion finds Dion (Ja’Siah Young) and his mother Nicole Reese (Alisha Wainwright) starting over in a new Atlanta neighborhood after the sudden loss of Mark (Michael B. Jordan), a scientist who died in a thunderstorm/flood rescuing a stranger. Suddenly, young Dion starts exhibiting superpowers and Nicole is forced to deal with the mysterious, phenomenal circumstances, uncover new shadowy details surrounding Mark’s death, and hide Dion from a secretive organization searching for the boy. All the while, Nicole has to look for work, settle Dion into a new school, and process her grief. Helping her navigate all of this is Mark’s nerdy, comic book loving best-friend Pat (Jason Ritter) and her sister, sister Kat (Jazmyn Simon).
The performances on Raising Dion are stellar. Nicole is a three-dimensional character, a resilient, loving mom who fails at times, lets her emotions get the best of her, but always has her son’s best interest at heart. Wainwright makes Nicole feel authentic, messy, ferocious, and charming. Speaking of charming, Ja’Siah Young is a delight. Lacking the uncanny valley polish of certain child actors, Young gives a natural performance that makes Dion feel like a real kid, unquestioning of his new powers and excited to explore their possibilities while dealing with the normal problems kids go through after moving to a new school.
However, Raising Dion does have some issues. At times, the series feels like it would have been better served as a single storyline on something like NBC’s Heroes, as the series really stretches to fill its nine episodes and has tonal issues common of network television series that try to please all audiences at all times. The show stumbles on rich ground when it focuses on Dion overstepping with his powers when dealing with his friend with disabilities, Esmeralda (Sammi Haney, who steals every scene she appears in), Nicole talking Dion through his first experience with racism, and Nicole bucking back against a male admirer’s sense of entitlement, but there are several plot threads, like Nicole’s past as a dancer, that go nowhere. Michael B. Jordan lights up the screen every time he appears in flashback, but his star-power is almost as a distraction, as you’re anxiously waiting for him to pop back up. Also, the show takes a long time to get to its main plot and key twist, and it’s one most audience members will clock early on.
Still, Raising Dion is a different type of superhero origin story, one that pays just as much attention to the budding hero as it does to the people fostering his growth. I have a feeling kids will really gravitate toward it, and parents will have something they can identify with as well. As someone that consumes almost all of the superhero media on TV and at the movies, it was nice to watch something that felt fresh, even if the series would have been better off as a feature or six-episode miniseries. Someone out there will really see themselves in Dion, or feel seen by a character like Nicole, and there’s a real strength in that.
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Nick Harley is a tortured Cleveland sports fan, thinks Douglas Sirk would have made a killer Batman movie, Spider-Man should be a big-budget HBO series, and Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson should direct a script written by one another. For more thoughts like these, read Nick’s work here at Den of Geek or follow him on Twitter.