Credit: Christopher Saunders/Amazon Studios

“The only difference between a hero and a villain is who sells more costumes at Halloween.” The year is 1977, and 19-year-old Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman) is walking home from a Brooklyn movie theater with his buddies Cheeks (Henry Hunter Hall) and Arthur (Caleb Emery). They’ve just watched a new release called Star Wars, and Jonah is regaling his friends with a weed-fueled theory about one Darth Vader. Sure, he did some “bad s–t,” but Vader wasn’t born a villain. “Like every kid in the Galactic Empire, he was conditioned to believe that some evil Jedi rebels from some desert sh–hole were going to come bomb his parents,” says Jonah. “Vader doesn’t get up every day looking to destroy the galaxy… He gets up every morning believing he needs to save it.”

By the end of the first episode of Hunters — Amazon Prime’s strange, stunning, and darkly comic thriller about Nazi fugitives in America and the gang of vigilantes who track them down — Jonah will watch his stoner vision of heroes and villains play out in bright, bloody technicolor. Is justice by any means necessary truly just, or is it just evil in disguise?

Jonah Heidelbaum is an average guy, a comic book fanatic who sells weed on the side and lives with his Safta, a stern and loving grandmother named Ruth (Jeannie Berlin, a treasure of modern character acting). When Ruth is murdered by an intruder she seems to know, a distraught Jonah runs afoul of the law looking for answers. He’s bailed out by Meyer Hoffman (Al Pacino), a wealthy Jewish man and Holocaust survivor who met Ruth in Auschwitz. Reluctantly but inevitably, Meyer reveals to Jonah that he and Ruth had been hunting Nazis — hundreds of them, masquerading as God-fearing Americans — for years. Addled by grief and desperate for revenge, Jonah demands that Meyer let him carry on his Safta’s work.

So: Unremarkable teen suffers tragic loss, discovers a life-altering family legacy that he must now accept or reject. Hunters is a superhero origin story of sorts, and the titular avengers are a deliberately eclectic band of misfits: Sister Harriet (Kate Mulvany), an MI-6 agent-turned-nun; Lonny Flash (Josh Radnor), a buffoonish has-been actor; Roxy Jones (Tiffany Boone), a black-power activist with a voluminous Afro; Mindy (Carol Kane) and Murray (Saul Rubinek) Markowitz, bickering marrieds and Holocaust survivors; and Joe Torrance (Louis Ozawa Changchien), an Army vet who saw way too much in ‘Nam. Hunting the hunters, meanwhile, is Millie Malone (Jerrika Hinton) a black female FBI agent who knows something about being an outsider.

Hunters creator David Weil, whose own Safta survived the Holocaust, openly embraces a comic-book ethos and embellishes it with Tarantino-flavored flair. Character introductions get the graphic-novel treatment (“Murray & Mindy — a couple of Chabad-asses!”). Jonah, a pop culture fanboy used to digesting life one panel at a time, imagines his first mission with the Hunters as action-movie trailer (Rated J, for “Jewtastic”). Episodes are interspersed with fourth-wall breaking flights of fancy, from musical interludes to The More You Know-style PSAs. Present too are some hallmarks of modern, retro-chic Prestige TV (Fargo, Homecoming, Mindhunter): The large, blocky on-screen labels marking a change in location (“CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA”), or the chillingly impassive assassin (Greg Austin’s Travis, a Nazi operative) who regales his victims with trivia before pulling the trigger. (“You know, people think flamingos are pink. It’s a common misconception. They’re white.”)

This may all sound a little glib for a show about bringing “God’s justice” to Nazi war criminals, but Hunters deploys its surreal (and much-needed) humor strategically. Meyer tells Jonah that the group’s primary purpose is to send a message to the Reich and their modern-day counterparts: “Not again. No more.” Grim-gray flashbacks to life in the camps are stark and unflinching, as Jewish prisoners are tortured, terrorized, and murdered in a variety of stomach-churning ways. But for every atrocity, there is an unfathomable act of bravery, like young Ruth (the quietly powerful Annie Hägg) stepping in front of a guard’s gun to save another prisoner’s life.

Pacino is controlled, almost subdued, as Meyer Hoffman — a gray-haired, grandfatherly Jewish gent with a fondness for chess and bespoke three-piece suits. The legendary actor keeps the volume of his Germanic growl at a low rumble, which makes Meyer’s rare outbursts more powerful. The fact that Pacino never pulls focus from his co-stars is an impressive feat of restraint in itself.

Though the Oscar-winner’s face looms largest in Amazon’s ads for Hunters, the show belongs to Logan Lerman. The actor still has that All-American baby face from his Percy Jackson days; the more seasoned Hunters scoff at Meyer’s insistence on including “the kid” on their team. But Lerman’s Jonah is a young man, one who’s grappling with an ancestral rage and resilience he’s only beginning to understand. With her severe bangs and well-honed disdain for everyone but Meyer, Mulvany’s Sister Harriet makes for an entertaining taskmaster. And Radnor commits so fully to his character’s insecurity-fueled egomania, he gets the viewer to root for Lonny almost through sheer force of will.

The first five episodes of Hunters are taut and intricately plotted, as Jonah’s journey into Meyer’s underground world is seeded with hints of broader conspiracies at play. Nazis — including one Biff Simpson (Dylan Baker, sublime as always) — have infiltrated the White House and corporate America, and even Meyer seems to have something to hide. Occasionally the writing feels facile. Though Hinton gives a solid and steely performance, Millie too often oscillates between Scary Good at Her Job (spends 60 seconds examining a corpse in a shower stall: “She was gassed!”) and Ridiculously Lucky (would a Nazi in hiding really leave mementos from his reign of terror in the camps — including a tin of human teeth — in an unlocked desk drawer?).

But hey, even heroes need a little help sometimes. And the majority of Hunters works — at least in the first five episodes. (The only thing that kept me from giving the series a higher grade is the fear, perhaps unjustified, that the second half of the season might not hold up.) “I don’t know why you keep acting like Robin when you’ve always been Batman,” Arthur tells Jonah after a late-night weed bender. Millie has a more practical message for young Mr. Heidelbaum: “There’s a right way and a wrong way to get justice.” Perhaps, but Hunters wants us to spend some time questioning which one is which. B+

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Hunters (2020 TV series)
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