Op-Ed: ‘I’m A Virgo’ Is Odd, Heady, And Straight-Up Mesmerizing
No matter how much we love comic book adaptations, the landscape has progressively gotten staler and staler since Avengers: Endgame. Don’t get me wrong, there were a few gems in the rough post-2019 – most notably HBO Max’s Peacemaker, last year’s Wakanda Forever, and this summer’s Across the Spider-Verse. But despite their glossy production value and tiny glimmers of humanity, even the best of the bunch will eventually fall into the same “hero’s journey” cliches that audiences have grown numb to over the past decade. Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen is the one property that genuinely didn’t disappoint, but it’s still an adaptation of a familiar story. As of late, I lost faith in seeing any semblance of originality in the genre.
It was when Boots Riley’s new show I’m A Virgo that I was convinced to keep hope alive. The new Prime Video original is straight-up mesmerizing. It’s odd, heady, and every other weird adjective you can think of, wrapped into a beautiful superhero satire that cuts DEEP with real-world themes. Not only does I’m A Virgo provide critical examinations of race, class, and anti-capitalist commentary, but the show also redefines the “form” of superhero cinema by adding writer/director Boots Riley’s signature layering of surrealism. I’m a Virgo is bold, new, and unlike anything we’ve ever seen. That’s why Geeks of Color author Rihaana Starks and I sat down to discuss the show in full spoiler detail.
The story follows an Oakland, Califorina-based Black teenager named Cootie, played by Emmy winner Jharrel Jerome (When They See Us), who happens to be 13 feet tall. Using what I can only imagine is a clever combination of puppets and “forced perspective” cinematography techniques, you naturally buy into the illusion without it looking fake for a second. The VFX team contacted old-school effect artists from ILM and The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power series for help.
Cootie’s parents (Carmen Ejogo and Mike Epps) sheltered him for the first 19 years of his life, so when he met new friends Felix (Brett Gray), Scat (Allius Barnes), and Jones (Kara Young), Cootie finally spreads his wings for the first time. In the process, he falls in love with a young woman named Flora (Olivia Washington), who may or may not be a speedster. Olivia Washington adds a softness to Flora to mirror her character’s quietly assertive personality. And as Rihaana points out in the video, Flora is also a model of neurodivergent representation, with her character’s childhood autism diagnosis paralleling her superpowered abilities.
Amongst the rest of the friend group, Felix is the overt “leader” of the squad. But as the story unfolds, we begin to learn that Jones is the true revolutionary. She employs her power of persuasion to encourage Oakland locals to a general strike for fairer wages and treatment. Jones manages to change the minds of anyone listening to her by painting an animated picture inside a black void. She utilizes visual storytelling to paint an unfiltered look at capitalism. You’re probably wondering, “How?” but you’ll know when you watch the show.
What’s fascinating about a protagonist like Cootie is that his height and stature directly contradict his insecurities. Even though Cootie’s body is enormous, he’s a gentle giant that feels small in his world and is eager to free himself from isolation. Jharrel Jerome does a great job portraying an innocent, slightly scared “fish out of water” whose eyes still adjust to the brightness of reality. The pilot acts as a heartfelt coming-of-age story of someone coming out of their shell and seeing the outside for the first time. The problem? It’s not like seeing a 13-foot Black man is an everyday occurrence, so when clips of Cootie start to surface, the media mischaracterize him as “dangerous” – something that happens to many young Black men in the media, regardless of their height.
Hence comes “The Hero,” played by Walton Goggins. A white billionaire who acts as a vigilante at night makes “The Hero” come off as a Bruce Wayne/Tony Stark stand-in. But unlike Batman or Iron Man, Goggins’ character isn’t motivated by an inciting childhood memory or a traumatic moral realignment. Instead, he was a psychotic comic book writer who decided to suit up and fight crime under the moniker of his super-character creation. Here lies a couple of core themes throughout this seven episode arc; both the deconstruction of the superhero “myth” and the moneyed control of the media/propaganda apparatus. In many ways, this satire speaks to the constant failure of contemporary superhero media to address the consequences that real-world vigilantism brings to the Black community. Walton Goggins plays the a-hole villain role to a T.
If we were to sit here and analyze the subtext and social commentary that Mr. Riley and his team incorporate into this world, this review would turn into a novella. So, in brief, come expecting discussions of discriminatory zoning practices, environmental racism, cultural appropriation in streetwear, over-policing, the death penalty, medical malpractice, and unhealthy fast-food franchises invading our communities. While it’s a comedy, be prepared for a range of emotions, as I’m A Virgo pulls no punches in displaying some of our daily hardships. Covering all in a superhero show is pretty based, especially if you are an actual socialist or communist like myself. But, at no fault of Boots Riley or the show itself, the irony of hearing people-oriented politics on a streaming network owned by Jeff Bezos is hard to ignore.
Nevertheless, I’m a Virgo is something special. Breaking new ground this late into the genre seems impossible, but Virgo is a jackhammer. Filmmaker Boots Riley is out here elevating Black surrealism to another level. The style, the aesthetic, and the deeper meanings contribute to a fun, rousing, emotionally-driven superhero satire that everyone should watch. Between this, Harlem, and Swarm, Prime Video seems invested in some remarkable Black creative talent.