‘I’m a Virgo’ review: Superhero fatigue? This fierce, funny, politically aware Amazon series about a 13-foot giant provides the antidote

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At this point in our 2023 screen lives, we’ve seen just about everything money and a near-total lack of filmmaking magic can buy. But there are still artists among us, creating wonders of illusion and purpose.

Let’s start with Boots Riley.

Right now on Amazon Prime there’s a remarkable series created, directed and largely written by the musician and filmmaker behind the singular 2018 capital-and-labor nightmare “Sorry to Bother You.”

“I’m a Virgo” is a fairy tale — polemical, blunt, subtle, often astonishingly funny, sweet, tough, angry, sad and stubbornly hopeful.

It tells the story of a literal giant, twice the size of the average human male. Played by Jharrel Jerome, Cootie is raised in loving but naive captivity in modern-day Oakland, California. Once he ventures out into the wider world, Cootie discovers some painful truths about how that world works. Riley’s an avowed socialist, in addition to being a truly creative polyglot artist.

The first minute of the seven-episode series establishes the visual ground rules, with fleet, witty matter-of-factness. We see Cootie as a baby, then a child banging around, awkwardly, in the house of his aunt (Carmen Ejogo) and uncle (Mike Epps).

As a teenager, eventually as a wide-eyed 19-year-old Gulliver in a world of Lilliputians, Cootie finds solace in a homemade crash pad built to scale behind his aunt and uncle’s house, and with his newfound friends. “This ... is saucy!” one friend says of his high-ceilinged apartment, not long after Cootie delights him with the sight of what it’s like to bench-press a Chevy Caprice.

But life, as his aunt reminds him, will not be easy for “a 13-foot-tall Black man.” At first, the local community’s curious but soon just fine with the giant among them. At the local Bing Bang Burger joint, Cootie, his head scraping the ceiling, joins the line like everyone else, though Cootie’s there primarily because he’s sweet on the counter employee Flora (Olivia Washington). Like Cootie, Flora is an “other,” with superfast physical and mental capabilities a la The Flash.

His early years defined mostly by comic books and television, Cootie develops a severe case of hero worship thanks to an Iron Man-type known as The Hero, whose catch phrase — “Get your minds right, half-wits!” — has a way of being directed in the comics primarily at Black folks. The creator of the Hero, a zillionaire tech mogul played by an oily, compelling Walton Goggins, has used his money and copious free time to become a real-life version of his own fictional, authoritarian crime fighter. Is the Hero a protector of the people or a symbol of economic thuggery? Cootie learns to make the call for himself, as his newfound celebrity as a racially exploited but very stylish fashion model takes off.

It sounds like pure fantasy, but “I’m a Virgo” rarely leaves the real world off-screen. Riley takes labor relations, and street-level dissidence, very seriously. He takes music no less so: Cootie’s first truly transporting experience has him discovering what it’s like to hear and feel the bass in speakers turned up to 40 or 50. “I’m a Virgo” gets a lot of excellent mileage out of simple “what ifs,” such as the initial sexual encounter between Cootie and Flora, a one-of-a-kind sequence delineating how two very different people manage things.

Riley wrote four of the seven episodes; the others were written by Tze Chun, Marcus Gardley and Michael R. Jackson, Pulitzer Prize winner for the musical “A Strange Loop.” One of Cootie’s friends, played by Allius Barnes, runs afoul of the hazardous for-profit health care system. Another, portrayed by the amazing Kara Young, serves as Cootie’s mentor in activism.

No one idea propels “I’m a Virgo,” but making a living without selling out certainly emerges as a key sticking point to Riley. Marvel and DC superhero IP, and what all that weaponry and chaos really says about America, is another. I don’t want to make what Riley and company have achieved here sound like medicine. Nor is it only for kicks. The whole of it, even when its narrative momentum goes sideways here and there, feels imagined, personal and alive. And the basic illusion of Cootie navigating a world not meant for his practical use works like a charm.

The effects are not the usual digital no-big-deals; they’re more about sets built to different scales, depending on the scripted interactions between Cootie and his fellow Oakland residents, for example. The practical effects, forced perspective tricks and puppet-based means of illusion led to results you believe, every second, no matter how and why “I’m a Virgo” works as well as it does.

At one point a character says, plainly: “All art is propaganda.” But not all art is as fresh and eccentrically realized as this series. I hope Riley gets a second season out of it.



4 stars (out of 4)

Rating: TV-16 (for sexual situations, language, some violence)

How to watch: Prime Video