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SXSW 2022 Review: HBO Max Successfully Adapts DC’s Vertigo Comic ‘DMZ’ into a Compelling, Character-Driven Series

SXSW 2022 Review: HBO Max Successfully Adapts DC’s Vertigo Comic ‘DMZ’ into a Compelling, Character-Driven Series

Joining HBO Max’s DC Comics collection this month is DMZ, a four-part limited series based on Brian Wood’s Vertigo comic series of the same name. While staying faithful to Wood’s overall premise, writer/executive producer/showrunner Roberto Patino (Westworld) and director/executive producer Ava DuVernay (Naomi) adapted their series to better reflect today’s climate. The result is a compelling, character-driven, and unfortunately timely story about love, redemption, oppression, and war.  

DMZ takes place in a not-too-distant future where the fight between the United States government and a group of militias called the Free States of America has created a Second American Civil War. In New York, the island of Manhattan is now a demilitarized zone, called the DMZ. Its residents are grouped by gang affiliations and block associations, and at the top are Chinatown and Spanish Harlem. One of the island’s prominent influences is charismatic, ruthless Parco Delgado (Benjamin Bratt), leader of the Latin Kings in Spanish Harlem. His biggest adversary is the equally charming Wilson (Hoon Lee), who runs Chinatown. The power dynamics are constantly shifting between them with both trying to gain the upper hand on the daily. 

Wood’s 72-issue comic series centered on journalist Matty Roth. The HBO series follows Alma Ortego (Rosario Dawson), a mother who lost her son during the evacuation. Eight years later, she sets out on a search to find him in the DMZ. As a medic, she stops to help others along the way, and in a warzone, the daily bloodshed keeps her busy. Alma sometimes goes by “Zee,” a name which she shares with an original character from the comics, who was also a medic. 

In this very adult atmosphere, there are children who have to grow up too fast and learn to survive like everyone else. Best friends Odi (Jordan Preston Carter) and Nico (Venus Ariel) run around the DMZ scavenging and playing, almost completely desensitized by the horrors around them. The young actors do an excellent job playing the complex roles of children raised during the war; they are tough, street smart, and foul-mouthed, while still trying to have fun in rare moments of levity. 

In dystopian type TV/film, it’s very easy for characters to become one-note and predictable, but the best thing about the series is everyone’s grounded performances. Dawson’s Alma/Zee completely pulled me in, and I shared the character’s frustration as she’s trying to navigate all the rules of this world while simultaneously dodging bullets and stitching up gunshot wounds. 

DMZ shares some elements with AMC’s The Walking Dead. The streets of New York are empty, buildings are falling apart, and no matter how dark the tone or atmosphere is, it’s always bright outside, like it’s perpetually summer. Oddly enough, it doesn’t seem like a lot of the island’s shady dealings take place in the dark. Sadly, some of the interior locations don’t look as dystopian as they might’ve looked before 2020. Bratt told TODAY that Ava “focuses her stories on dramas that are compelling but also that reflect the reality of the world.” 

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There are some cool camera angles used to convey just how chaotic and disorienting the entire situation is; these are especially effective during the evacuation. Since I was unfamiliar with comics before viewing, some of the more creative shots seem like they could be right out of the pages of a graphic novel — tight close-ups on faces, sweeping zooms, moments when characters look right into the camera.

In 2012, Brian Wood discussed his own idea to adapt DMZ into a television series. He wanted a “reportage/documentary feel” that wasn’t “shaky Cloverfield style with handycams and Blair Witch moments, but more of an on-the-ground, ‘in the thick of it’ feeling.” I believe Ava DuVernay and Robert Patino (either unintentionally or intentionally) succeeded in crafting a tension-filled series that fit Wood’s vision. 

DMZ isn’t about a contagion or zombie outbreak. This is humans fighting humans in a constant war, which basically has the same effect as an apocalyptic virus. Life in this war zone becomes about scavenging, bartering, killing, and protecting others. Most people are jaded and lacking compassion, likely because it’s been so long since they felt safe enough to show vulnerability that it doesn’t even seem possible to them anymore. However, among all the destruction and cruelty, there is hope in the form of Alma/Zee. 

In addition to the incredible acting, my favorite aspect of DMZ is that it’s more focused on the people than the overall politics. It’s about deeply human themes like redemption, survival, adapting to a war-torn world, accepting what you’ve become, remembering what you used to be, envisioning what you want to be, and trying not to evolve into what you don’t want to be. The series showcases the diversity of New York in a genuine, authentic way that isn’t just checking boxes or playing into stereotypes, and I wouldn’t expect anything less from Ms. DuVernay. 

DMZ premiered March 13 at SXSW 2022. The series begins streaming March 17 on HBO Max.

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