TL;DR – there is a fine line between superhero and supervillain.
Review (warning: spoilers)
Super Crooks has the art and style that raises expectations. From the poster alone, it oozes a sense that this could be the next Cowboy Bebop. A collection of quirky characters with troubled histories seeking to find their own way in life, or redemption, or even oblivion. The OP, Alpha, by Towa Tei with Taprikk Sweezee, even has its own funky and distinctive beat that rivals Cowboy Bebop‘s jazz OP, Tank! by Yoko Kanno.
The series starts off a little slow. The first episode is an origin story of a boy named Johnny Bolt who discovers he can generate electricity. He wants to be a hero but after causing the deaths of a number of people at a swimming pool, he becomes a small-time crook. The end of episode one sees him as an adult in a prison for villains with super powers. Nothing particularly riveting but let’s give the series the benefit of the doubt. After all, episode two in Cowboy Bebop was about a dog named Ein that supposedly has super intelligence… riveting this episode was not.
Episode two of Super Crooks introduces us to Kasey who is Johnny’s main squeeze and love interest. She has an incredible psychic ability to control what other people see and experience. She can, when she puts her mind to it, create an entirely different world for the individual under her control.
There’s an old school, Bonnie and Clyde chemistry between Johnny and Kasey and I found it effective rather than cliché. Kasey has dutifully waited for Johnny to serve his time in prison and wants to go straight, living a normal life free from the dangers and stresses of being a super crook.
However, Johnny can’t help himself as he is swayed to do a robbery involving a chain of jewellery stores with his small-time crook buddies who all exhibit their own power (one can generate ice, another can teleport, and a third causes bad luck to befall those around him). You know things won’t go according to plan and when heroes start appearing, our crew of crooks are in big trouble. It leads to a confrontation with superhero, Praetorian, who exhibits as many powers as the deck of cards he is always shuffling in his hands. Johnny’s mates all get smashed in bloody fashion (the first sign that a hero such as Praetorian isn’t all that ‘heroic’, he dishes out excessive violence without any particular care for collateral damage).
It is only because of Kasey coming on the scene and temporarily controlling Praetorian’s mind that Johnny and his mates escape. Kasey is not happy that Johnny has been out of the slammer for less than a couple of days, and he is already jumping back into criminal activities.
She convinces Johnny to give up his life of crime if they can pull off one more heist; a big one that will net them enough money to support themselves for the rest of their lives. Enter a cast of more crooks seeking to score including a pair of brothers, Sammy and Roddy Diesel, who are able to regenerate their bodies from many forms of slicing and dicing, a guy named Josh who is known as The Ghost for his ability to become ephemeral and pass through walls, and an old fella named Carmine who is the mastermind of their heist and former mentor to Kasey.
Throughout the series there is this weird but intriguing dynamic between two groups. There is the ‘Union of Justice’ which is the headquarters of the most powerful superheroes, and the ‘Network’ which, from what I can tell, is an established organisation of criminals. The Network oversees all major acts of crime and super crooks cannot act on their own without paying the Network a tithe. The Network is run by Christopher Matts (aka The Bastard) who has the power to look at someone and make their heads explode. Matts is looking to retire and move to Japan where he sets up his own casino.
What is not really fleshed out in the series is that the line between hero and villain gets blurred, but it is not explained why.
For example, the Supermax prison where Johnny serves his time along with a host of other notorious villains, also holds parties for VIPs, political dignitaries and government officials and is funded by the Network. This conflict of interest does not seem to bother anyone as Matts waltzes in and announces he is retiring from the villain world and tells a story about how he killed his mother.
And then we have the Praetorian who is part of the Union of Justice but also ends up serving Matts as the Bastard’s bodyguard.
Why the Union of Justice superheroes do not try to stop Matts, and why they seem to allow the Praetorian to switch sides is never explained. I guess no one thought that part of the story is worth telling.
The focus of the series is on Johnny, Kasey and their merry band of crooks looking to outmanoeuvre the Network (because they are operating without the Network’s consent and don’t intend to pay the tithe) while also pulling off a heist under the Union of Justices’ noses.
The action sequences are impressive and care has been taken to make the viewer become entranced by the animation. But this cannot alleviate the muddled mess of the plot. It doesn’t help that other than the Praetorian and the Gladiator (another superhero) the rest of the Union of Justice are glossed over.
And even if you can accept Praetorian’s motives for switching sides (never explained), and the Bastard’s blatant villainy and every superhero turning a blind eye to him (again, never explained) there are other sequences that simply do not make sense. For example, when Johnny and company seek to infiltrate the Bastard’s casino, they disable technology that nullifies their powers for ten minutes. But when they fail to get out in time and the technology reboots, their powers are no more and their exit is blocked by the Praetorian. Yet the Praetorian’s powers are not fully nullified, and he is able to reflect Carmine’s flame throwers? How the technology differentiates between hero powers and villain powers is beyond me.
Super Crooks could have been the next Cowboy Bebop. It could have been a series that elevates above the others and subvert the anime genre itself. Sadly, it does not.
6 out of 10