Da Vinci as superhero

Tom Riley stars as the superhero-ish (and obviously ambidextrous) Leonardo in "Da Vinci's Demons."
Tom Riley stars as the superhero-ish (and obviously ambidextrous) Leonardo in "Da Vinci's Demons."
Posted: April 12, 2013

* DA VINCI'S DEMONS. 10 p.m. Friday, Starz.

A FEW EPISODES into "Da Vinci's Demons," Starz's latest foray into the world of historical fantasy, I realized I could either fight the superpower or go with it.

And I decided to go with it.

Created by David S. Goyer ("Batman Begins," "Man of Steel"), "Da Vinci's Demons," which premieres Friday following the series finale of "Spartacus: War of the Damned," is more than Showtime's "The Borgias" on acid - though it's that, too. A little bit "Sherlock," a little bit "Batman" (but with more nudity than both), it's the story of a young Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance man, for people who like their polymaths to be able to handle themselves in a fight.

And to look good naked.

Tom Riley plays da Vinci as a brash opportunist, an artist who's turned his inventive bent toward war machines in a bid to impress Florence's Lorenzo de Medici (Elliot Cowan). He'd also like to impress Lorenzo's mistress, an Angelina Jolie lookalike named Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock). But in other ways.

No, you don't have to forget what you may have heard about Leo's love life - the word "sodomy" gets thrown around - but whatever the real da Vinci got up to, Riley's playing a character who's apparently more than just ambidextrous.

And if that's not enough, he's also caught up in a conspiracy involving the Vatican that pits him against the amusingly evil Count Girolamo Riario (Blake Ritson), who's officially the pope's nephew, and may be more than that.

Like "The Tudors," this is a show with historical figures who may look better than they do in their paintings. You know when you see Lara Pulver, of "Sherlock," playing the woman that Lorenzo's cheating on, rather than with, that standards of beauty are out of whack. She's not a typical wronged wife, though, and Cowan's Lorenzo may be a better husband than he seems at first.

If both turn in more interesting performances than Riley's, it may be simply because he's the one stuck playing the 15th century equivalent of a superhero.

Da Vinci's "kind of super hero-y, anyway," Goyer told reporters in January, noting the historical figure's parallels to, yes, Batman, including missing parents, an obsession with flight and childhood experiences that involved being trapped somewhere.

"He obviously was an incredible artist, but he was an incredible scientist and inventor and war engineer. And he was known historically to have been a good writer and a good swordsman. And there are ridiculous stories about him being able to bend iron bars with his bare hands, and things like that," he said, estimating that as much as "85 percent of what's in there actually really happened."

Beyond that, "we embellished it with a little bit of what I'm calling historical fantasy . . . but he had a pretty incredible life. We didn't have to embellish as much as you would think."

The term "Machiavellian" may lose some of its meaning after you see Eros Vlahos as a teenaged Nico Machiavelli, acting as da Vinci's apprentice. But then you'll only hurt your head trying to figure out how the Leonardo in this show fits in with the one who made an appearance in "The Borgias" (which returns for its third season at 10 p.m. Sunday, following the fifth-season premiere of "Nurse Jackie" at 9).

In this timeline, the shows' characters shouldn't cross paths for some time.

The real fun in "Da Vinci's Demons" is in seeing some of Leonardo's designs - from fireworks to a flying machine - brought to glorious life, and in the winking contrast between the period details and the modern sensibility. ("Downton Abbey" devotees might want to skip the first couple of minutes, lest they see something they can't unsee.)

"History is a lie," says a character in Friday's premiere. No one should base a term paper on it, but "Da Vinci's Demons" is at least an entertaining lie.

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On Twitter: @elgray

Blog: EllenGray.tv

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