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‘DMZ’ Review: Ava DuVernay’s DC Comics Adaptation Inverts the Dystopian Drama Formula

Showrunner Roberto Patino's limited series about a mother searching for her son within a Manhattan war zone refuses to give into our worst impulses.

DMZ HBO Max Rosario Dawson TV show

Rosario Dawson in “DMZ”

Eli Joshua Adé / HBO Max

In “DMZ,” the first thing you’ll notice are the colors. Moonlight blue floods the sparse room where Alma (Rosario Dawson) sleeps between shifts. A sickly green shades the bathroom where she’s detoxed before seeing patients. Bright lights smack against black edges in the stadium serving as a detainment center for people trying to cross the border illegally. These opening shots provide a stark impression of an America nearly a decade into its second civil war. Alma works in Brooklyn, as she waits for a path into Manhattan, which is now a demilitarized zone caught between the remaining United States and the so-called Free States of America. It’s also the last place she saw her son, Christian.

New York City, she’s told, is dangerous. The 300,000 non-citizens still inhabiting the island have no government, no police, no laws. They were either stranded (on Evacuation Day, when the city was walled in) or chose to live in anarchy. No aid was given to the poor hoping to leave, and those in jails were left there. “You don’t know what you’re in for,” Alma is warned as she enters the city, hoping to find her only child. “These are people at their worst.”

“DMZ” wears many hallmarks of future-set dystopian dramas. “Escape From New York” comes to mind, as do “I Am Legend” and “The Walking Dead.” Episode 1 director Ava DuVernay (and her visual effects team) even craft an ominous shot fit for a movie poster, where the top of the Chrysler Building is upside-down, wedged between high-rises above 33rd Avenue, its spire stabbing the street like a needle piercing skin. But when Alma actually meets the DMZ locals, the promised peril dissipates. Sunny yellow walls reflect the aging lights of a makeshift clinic. Bright vines crawl along white brick. Uptown Manhattan is a prism of colors: green streaks in brown hair, purple umbrellas against a clear sky, and multi-hued murals lining the block. Walking through the jubilant street fair, Alma chuckles to herself: “People at their worst.” Really?

While Alma’s mission isn’t all sunshine and rainbows — beatings, shootings, and deaths steadily stack up — “DMZ’s” greatest strength is its rebuttal to damaging assumptions. Rather than instill fear in a place abandoned by the outside world, showrunner Roberto Patino emphasizes humanity’s capacity as caretakers and the responsibilities required of anyone who seeks to govern. Community over clans, love over hate, grand unifying speeches (filled with broad sentiments like these) over all-out war — well, for the most part. Like “Station Eleven” before it, “DMZ” carries real weight as a rebuke to contemporary conjecture about what people will do in a post-apocalyptic landscape.

DMZ HBO Max Hoon Lee

Hoon Lee in “DMZ”

Eli Joshua Adé / HBO Max

It doesn’t always carry it well. The truncated adaptation — parsing down Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli’s 72-issue comic book series into a four-hour tale — can be inaccessible and contrived. When scenes click, you want the show to be longer, so it can build drama more effectively and realize its premise with proper spectacle. But when those half-developed characters and shortcuts to climactic moments bog down momentum, the solution may have been to trim “DMZ” to feature length.

Without getting into spoilers (most of which are fairly obvious and unveiled at the end of the first episode), all the action takes place in Manhattan. When Alma arrives, the city is gearing up for its first gubernatorial election, and the field has narrowed to two candidates: On one side, there’s Parco Delgado (Benjamin Bratt), a gang leader as feared as he is respected, who preaches unity as a means to achieve statehood. Parco presents himself as a man of the people, but his campaign logo puts a literal crown atop his name, so there’s hardly any illusion about how he would reign if elected. Meanwhile, Wilson Lin (Hoon Lee) is closer to your classic cleaned-up, suit-clad politico. He’s amassed a small fortune of gold along with a loyal army in Chinatown, and he’s running on a simple platform: freedom. He’s not looking to be recognized by the United States or the Free States; he likes things just the way they are… with him living large and unburdened by bureaucracy.

How each candidate’s image is juxtaposed by their positions is an intriguing twist that slowly highlights their hollow centers. At first, Alma doesn’t care about the election. She just wants to find her son and get out. But as her interests start to overlap with Wilson and Parco’s, she’s forced to choose sides and start lobbying, becoming enmeshed in a city — and its people — she was barely aware of hours earlier.

“DMZ” is generic enough to accept multiple interpretations, which also means it can let specific messages get muddled by broad rhetoric. (For instance, the DMZ itself could stand-in for Puerto Rico, given the debate for statehood and American neglect during a time of need, but the allegory loses steam as the narrative develops. Or Alma can be seen as a surrogate for people who “don’t like politics” who slowly realize they’re just avoiding reality, though the ending makes that arc a bit treacly.) Many details about the setting and history of the ongoing civil war are breezed over in an effort to dig into Alma’s arc; the overall world-building is narrow to the point of inscrutable, as Patino’s character-driven scripts and DuVernay’s close-up heavy direction box out any chance “DMZ” has of establishing stakes and motivations beyond Alma.

But even in its hurried capacity, “DMZ” forms a moving story about minorities fighting for their place in a country that wants to box them in and deaden their spirit. The community they create is alive with color, filled with love, and real, even in its susceptibility to human error. Every lead is played by a person of color, and each of their characters is multidimensional. Bratt, in particular, pulses with energy, walking the fine line between bullshit artist and genuine leader. It’s easy to believe Parco rallied thousands of people behind his “we’re all one family” shtick, even as it’s evident in every frustrated bow of the head that he’s holding back an anger bound to consume him at any moment. Much like the gold pops of his carefully manicured couture, Bratt bursts from the screen — and helps “DMZ” do the same.

Grade: B-

“DMZ” premiered at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. HBO Max will release all four episodes Thursday, March 17.

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