“DMZ,” a new show for HBO Max based on a DC Comic series of the same name (HBO’s newest addition to its stock of DC-based media), doesn’t feel rooted in its comic book origins. This is a good thing.
The comic book series, first published in 2005, takes place in a nearly dystopian United States. A few years prior to the story, there was a civil war caused by anti-establishment militias that rose up throughout the States. The DMZ, formerly known as Manhattan, is a demilitarized zone. The armies on either side of the war can’t enter the zone, and the civilians stuck inside can’t leave. The plot certainly isn’t the typical superhero story with people flying around the sky or lasers shooting from their eyes that viewers come to expect when they hear the name DC. This ultimately allows the show to feel rooted in humanity, with the people stuck in and surviving this uncertain territory.
While the comics revolve around photojournalist Matthew Roth, the four-episode series takes a different path. The show focuses on Alma Ortega (Rosario Dawson, “The Book of Boba Fett”), a health care worker, who was separated from her son in the chaos of the so-called “Evacuation Day,” the day everyone who could tried to exit Manhattan. While Alma made it onto a bus, her son was lost in the crowd. After searching outside of the DMZ for the last seven years, she realizes the war zone is her last chance of finding him.
Alma provides the roots that plant this show in emotion and community. Dawson brings to life a character you instinctively believe in and support right from the get-go. This is important because the show shoves you right into its world. Unfortunately, there is very little exposition and explanation for the inner-workings of the society inside or outside the DMZ. Viewers are expected to catch on very quickly or to not seek out information on exactly what condition the United States is in. Beyond a few mentions of shifting country lines and war, the buildup and causes of the civil war are left unexplained. With only four episodes, the show wouldn’t have time to provide these details even if it wanted to, but luckily you feel no immediate need to get these questions answered because of the strength of Alma’s story.
While Alma is excellently constructed and brought to life beautifully by Dawson, it doesn’t come at the expense of fleshing out other characters. Rose (Mamie Gummer, “The Good Fight”), another health care worker and the first person Alma connects with within the DMZ, feels especially down to earth. She seems to look at the world exactly how it is, recognizing the smallest details, while still trying to preserve kindness. Odi (Jordan Preston Carter, “Sons 2 the Grave”), a young kid struggling to find his place and a community in the DMZ, adds yet another dimension to the story. He serves as a way to portray the future, or lack thereof, for the people in the DMZ as the years pass by.
You wonder what kind of country could ever knowingly leave children to fend for themselves, without access to school, safety or family, while people only a few miles away, outside the DMZ, have those opportunities. For some viewers, this perspective may cause a moment of startling realization that any country can, and likely has in the past, made these choices in real life. While there are a number of demilitarized zones in the real world, only a few, such as one in Korea, have communities living within. Urban warfare, on the other hand, has a much larger effect on civilians, devastating an estimated 50 million people worldwide in the modern day. For people living in these war zones, there is a constant uncertainty as to what the next day will be like, how their lives will be disrupted or uprooted, or whether they’ll have access to fresh food and effective medical supplies. For some, they have been stuck in the crossfire for so long that it becomes monotonous with a lack of hope.
The world of the DMZ feels lived in, adding to the humanity the characters bring with authenticity from a design perspective. You see the destruction of the war, corpses still rotting away in office buildings, a single medical clinic struggling to obtain supplies and a sufficient workforce. The spaces the characters occupy don’t feel falsified and work to assist in the portrayal of the character dynamics. With their sparseness and rugged decay, the spaces show a society stuck between its metropolitan past and the inevitable return to nature. They amplify the idea that people are in contention with each other, stuck between the desire for what life used to be and excitement over what the lack of authority in the DMZ allows them to become. The only places the design feels slightly off are in zoomed-out shots of the city streets and skyline. Here the CGI becomes obvious, reminding you that the show is in fact based on a comic book. The city is just a bit too overgrown for being less than a decade removed from the start of the civil war, and the random cheetah that shows up in Odi’s yard feels out of place. Overall, though, the worldbuilding of this show is spot on. Even with its possible missteps, it appeals to the real and human while being just fantastical enough to make sense for a comic book world.
“DMZ” is a great new addition to HBO Max’s DC lineup, providing some diversity to their portfolio by breaking expectations for a DC show. Without the spandex super-suits and multiple realities, it instead provides an insight into what could become of our own reality down the line. A piece with heart, “DMZ” shows us a world not so far removed from our own to leave you wondering about what the future could look like.
Daily Arts Writer Mallory Edgell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.