Based upon longevity, cross-platform popularity, and cultural penetration (film, TV, comics), D.C. Comics is thought of as having three iconic characters: Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. So, where does that put The Flash? He’s been around almost as long, premiering in 1940, yet remains in that second tier. Maybe that is about to change with the CW preparing to create a spin-off of Arrow centered around the Barry Allen version of The Flash.
But, wait, who is The Flash? He’s the Scarlet Speedster from Central City with goofy-sounding villains (Captain Boomerang?) who are surprisingly awesome due to being so mundane and kind of pathetic. The first Flash (Jay Garrick) was part of the Golden Age and was a founding member of the Justice Society of America (which preceded the Justice League), but was canceled by D.C. due to public disinterest in 1949. The second Flash (Barry Allen) was the first superhero D.C. revived in 1956 as part of the Silver Age of comic books. He helped found the Justice League alongside Superman and Batman, and got his own sidekick, Kid Flash, who was actually his nephew Wally West. D.C. killed Barry Allen off in 1985 as part of a huge continuity-shattering event, and Wally West became the Flash. Barry also had another sidekick named Impulse, who was actually his grandson from the future (did I forget to mention that due to his super speed The Flash routinely travels through time?). Impulse, real name Bart Allen, has since become the Flash at this point. Barry Allen was resurrected in the comics in 2008, although keeping him dead for over 20 years was pretty impressive restraint.
Regardless of which version, The Flash is an incredibly likable character, particularly the slightly wittier Wally West version. Heck, even his villains kind of like him. However, as the history of The Flash on TV will indicate, he’s pretty much always been the guest star to Batman or Superman but rarely ever the star:
The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure (1967-1968)
A continuation of The New Adventures of Superman and the Adventures of Superboy, this CBS filmmation series consisted of multiple 6-minute cartoons focusing on D.C. comic book heroes. The main characters were Superman, Superboy, Aquaman, and Aqualad, but the supporting cast included the Atom, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and The Flash and Kid Flash, with all characters other than the Superman-related ones making their animated debut. The Flash and Kid Flash featured in 3 different episodes, battling a mutant ant, powerful robot, and super-fast alien respectively. Not surprisingly, they eventually won all three of those fights (suck it, you stupid mutant ant!).
Superfriends (1973-1974, 1977-1983, 1984-1986)
Ah, Superfriends, Hanna-Barbara’s infamously kids-friendly Justice League with Superman, Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman along with sidekicks the Wonder Twins and Wonderdog. The Flash (Barry Allen version, voiced by Jack Angel) was initially a guest star before joining the cast as a regular character during the third season, at which point it was called Challenge of the Super Friends (by my count, Superfriends went by at least 6 different names during its 13-year-run). The Flash villains Captain Cold and Gorilla Grodd were Legion of Doom members, i.e., main villains during the Challenge of the Super Friends era. The Flash villain Mirror Master also showed up in one episode.
You can catch a quick bit of The Flash fighting Captain Cold in this introduction from Challenge of the Super Friends:
The entirety of the Superfriends was never particularly concerned with characterization and faithfulness to the comic books. So, yes, The Flash was a character on the show, but other than the fact that he was super fast you didn’t learn much more about him. It was for many a person their first introduction to the D.C. universe, and nostalgia is sneaky powerful even if modern viewing reveals how nauseatingly fluffy Superfriends was.
Legend of the Superheroes (1979)
Quick, before it’s too late, avert your eyes!
You can’t say I didn’t warn you. Now, to explain this horrific image…
Based upon the success of Superfriends, Hanna-Barbara ran two one-hour live-action specials called Legend of the Superheroes which generally co-opted the then-popular variety show format to do live action versions of Superfriends. The first special involved the Legion of Doom plotting against the Superfriends, and the second special included various bits including an extended roast of the Superfriends.
In this clip, somebody named “Ghetto Man” roasts the Superfriends, including The Flash, dropping comedic gems like, “If Hawkman thinks he so tough wait till he walks through Harlem.”
These specials were obviously incredibly strange, updating the camp of the live-action Batman show of the 1960s (with Adam West and Burt Ward reprising their roles as Batman and Robin respectively) but adding a crap-ton of other DC heroes and villains and incorporating a laugh track. Unfortunately, this is actually the live-action debut of The Flash (played by actor Rod Haase). Also making their debut – a debut so horrendous no amount of Men in Black-style mind erasing can truly scrub it from your mind – were Green Lantern, Hawkman, The Huntress, The Atom and Black Canary.
The Flash (1990-1991)
Back in 1990, the world was only a year removed from the ginormous success of Tim Burton’s Batman (fun fact: the 1989 Batman actually sold more tickets than both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises). So, of course the inevitable copycat craze was on its way, and D.C. figured they could maybe give the Flash a Batman-like treatment (gritty, gothic) in a live-action TV show, which premiered on CBS. Heck, they even hired the 1989 Batman composer (Danny Elfman) to score the orchestral theme for the show.
Here it is:
This was the Barry Allen version in name, although some attributes were borrowed from Wally West (i.e., the name of his girlfriend, his need to carbo-load after expending so much energy). The lead role went to John Wesley Shipp, and the costume was designed by the same guy (Dave Stevens) who did the same for The Rocketeer. The show lightened its Burton-esque tone in the second half of the season, at which point it began introducing some of Flash’s villains, most notably Mark Hamill as The Trickster (who was clearly fine-turning the voice he’d use later as The Joker on Batman: The Animated Series).
It was actually pretty good and well-liked, but world events (the Gulf War) and network idiocy (so many different timeslots for no good reason) killed its potential leading to it being canceled after 1 season and 22 episodes. It would take half a decade before The Flash would be back on TV.
Superman: The Animated Series (1996-2000)
Superman: The Animated Series was from the same exact creative team as Batman: The Animated Series (Bruce Timm, Paul Dini). However, owing to the differences in the central characters Superman was a literally brighter (nowhere near as many scenes at night) and lighter show (tonally). It is perhaps as good a take on Superman (voiced admirably by Tim Daly) as could be expected. It’s just not Batman: The Animated Series.
But the Flash actually made more sense for the universe of Superman: The Animated Series than Batman: TAS. So, The Flash, voiced by Charlie Schlatter, featured in one episode, “Speed Demons” from the second season. The storyline, borrowed from the comic books, sees Superman and The Flash (no origin story depicted, he’s already The Flash; not sure which version) taking part in a charity race across Earth to see who is actually the fastest. The normally genial Superman takes an instant dislike to The Flash.
Of course, The Flash villain Weather Wizard is just a big ole jerk who uses the global force being created by the two heroes superspeed to try and take over the world.
Justice League of America (1997)
Why? Just, why?
In 1997, CBS commissioned a movie-length pilot focusing on a female meterologist who gains superpowers, calls herself Ice afterwards, and joins a Justice League consisting of The Flash (Barry Allen version in name only), Green Lantern (the Guy Gardner version), The Atom, Fire, and Martian Manhunter (played by David Ogden Stiers!!!). It looked cheap, the costumes horrible, most of the characters behaved nothing like their comic book counterparts, and the jokes were unfunny. It never aired in America (thank the Lord for small miracles), but it was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world, some of whom were so scarred by their emotional trauma from viewing the pilot/movie that they’ve never again viewed a single D.C. comic book-related film/TV property. I hope you’re happy, Justice League of America.
Kenny Johnston played The Flash, and although you would have assumed otherwise the costume they gave him was light years worse than that worn 7 years earlier by John Wesley Shipp in The Flash TV series. It’s not an overreaction to refer to this project as absolute garbage, as even its potentially good ideas (the heroes recording talking head confessional videos ala The Real World) died a crappy show’s death.
Designed to fill the recently created Buffy the Vampire Slayer-sized hole in the WB’s schedule, Smallville was Superboy without the cape and flying. It was an initial hit, with Tom Welling’s unfailingly dim-witted Clark Kent gradually learning the truth of his identity. However, much as Arrow is doing now Smallville eventually incorporated other D.C. heroes, most notably Justin Hartley’s version of Oliver Queen as a regular character. Over time, Clark Kent practically became a supporting character in an ensemble of D.C. heroes as opposed to the center of his own show. They went full-on Justice Society/League toward the end there.
The Bart Allen (minus the whole traveling to the present from the future angle) version of Flash (played by Kyle Gallner) joined the rotation of heroes in the fourth season episode “Run,” at a time when other heroes showing up on Smallville was kind of a big deal. This Bart Allen carried around fake identification as Jay Garrick, Barry Allen, and Wally West as the show’s way of paying homage to the rich backstory in the comics. He was played as your basic self-centered teenager who needed the guiding hand of Clark Kent to put him on the path toward righteousness.
Here’s their first meeting:
In an odd turn of events, Smallville‘s Lex Luthor was played by Michael Rosenbaum who also voiced The Flash at that time on the animated series Justice League/Justice League unlimited. Who does Bart Allen almost get killed by in his first Smallville episode? Rosenbaum, meaning there is a scene of one live-action Flash talking to the man who voices an animated Flash.
Bart Allen returned a slightly more tolerable brand of cocky in later seasons as a member of Green Arrow and Chloe Sullivan’s Justice League, in which he was referred to as Impulse (a name they gave him). In his initial appearance, he simply wore color-coded clothing (lots of red) ala Clark Kent (always in red and blue) before adopting an actual superhero costume upon joining the Justice League.
Justice League/Justice League Unlimited (2001-2006)
Existing within the same continuity as Batman: TAS, Superman: TAS, Batman Beyond, and Static Shock, Justice League has been rather accurately described by Bruce Timm as starting as “Superfriends but played straight.” The superhero roster consisted of both traditional (Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Wonder Woman, Martian Mahunter) and non-traditional (Hawkwoman instead of Aquaman) founding members of the Justice League. Plus, instead of the Hal Jordan Green Lantern they used John Stewart (cue Daily Show joke now), and instead of Barry Allen they used Wally West. Kevin Conroy returned to voice Batman, George Newbern replaced Tim Daly as the voice of Superman, and obviously Michael Rosenbaum voiced The Flash.
Because the initial run consisted almost entirely of multi-part episodes featuring villains not even Superman could handle on his own, there was an oppressively serious tone to the show that was thankfully punctured by the reliably amusing Flash. In keeping with his comic book counterpart, he simply wasn’t nearly as burdened with trauma as his fellow team members, and Rosenbaum’s work could have easily slipped into generic “annoying high-energy guy” but instead made for a consistently endearing presence.
Here are some of his best moments:
As the show progressed and morphed into the super-charged Justice League Unlimited, it began exploring a more varied approach to the material, with some purely humorous episodes as well as astonishingly serious ones. Once it was re-branded as JLU, The Flash actually took a backseat to new characters like Huntress, The Question, Captain Marvel, Green Arrow, Black Canary. However, he became central to the show’s slowly developing serialized plot, with the show arguing that unbeknownst to everyone The Flash’s innate goodness was keeping the Justice League from eventually using their powers for evil.
There were a couple of episodes centered around The Flash across the entirety of Justice League/Justice League Unlimited, but there is no better starting point than “Flash and Substance” in the final season of JLU. In the episode, Central City is honoring The Flash by opening a museum in his honor. The JLU members Orion and Batman begrudgingly join The Flash, and are roped into a typical day in his life, including fighting four of his lame-seeming villains (Captain Cold, Mirror Master, The Trickster, Captain Boomerang) to surprising results. Mark Hamill voices The Trickster (the role he played on the 1990 TV show), and Linda Park, Wally West’s eventual wife from the comics, even makes an appearance.
The Batman (2004-2008)
This is the Batman show you don’t really hear a whole lot about even though it ran for 5 seasons. It was made mostly to coincide with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, and was meant to be a Batman: The Animated Series for a new generation (even though it premiered at the same time the old Batman was still going strong on Justice League Unlimited). It’s obvious anime-influence was overly pronounced, and it’s efforts to differentiate itself from the Batman: TAS canon uniformly regrettable.
After Justice League Unlimited ended in 2006, The Batman was allowed to incorporate more D.C. heroes in its final season. The Flash (voiced by Charlie Schlatter, who had previously voiced the character in Superman: The Animated Series) featured in “A Mirror Darkly,” seeing him join Batman and Robin to battle his own villain the Mirror Master. Similar to JL/JLU, the comedic side of the character was played up, as you can see here:
Batman: The Brave & The Bold (2008-2011)
And now for something completely different. In 2008, Batman received an entirely unexpected throwback to the Silver Age (both in temperament and appearance) in the form of Batman: The Brave & The Bold. Gone was the brooding, bad-ass of past iterations (as voiced by Kevin Conroy) and in its place was a generally good-natured, witty, and ultimately likeably uncomplicated anti-Dark Knight (as voiced by Diedrich Bader). Heck, this Batman was so bereft of complications that his real life identity of Bruce Wayne was pretty much never even depicted let alone mentioned. Instead, the show – as was the case with the long-running comic book series from which it took its name – was centered on weekly adventures featuring Batman teaming up with at least 1 other D.C. comic book character.
As part of this set-up, Batman teamed up with the Jay Garrick Flash, Barry Allen Flash, and Kid Flash on multiple occasions. The Jay Garrick Flash (voiced by Andy Milder) first showed up in the season 2 episode “Golden Age of Justice,” which featured a rather knowing exploration of the alarmingly casual sexism of Golden Age comic book treatment of female characters. The Barry Allen version (voiced by Alan Tudyk!) showed up later that season in “Requiem for a Scarlet Speedster!”, which combined the famous death of Allen from the comics with his long-standing time traveling component. In a nice homage, the villain of the episode, Professor Zoom (seriously, that’s his name), was voiced by John Wesley Shipp, the Flash from the 1990 TV show.
The Flash Vs. Professor Zoom:
This episode also featured Kid Flash and the Golden Age Flash, who help Batman investigate Allen’s apparent death. Kid Flash and the regular Flash would both return for relatively small roles in separate future episodes.
Young Justice (2010-2013)
A show centered on the teenaged sidekicks of all the D.C. superheroes? Um, yeah, I’m going to watch that…never. Well, now you won’t even have an option (watch/not watch) anymore because Cartoon Network canceled Young Justice earlier this year after 2 seasons. The fools!
Inspired by disparate eras of both the Teen Titans and Young Justice comic books, Young Justice was not a direct adaptation of any one source but instead a general interpretation of the entirety of D.C. comic book superheroes. Set in a present day time which has only just recently become aware of superheroes, the Young Justice squad of sidekicks functioned as the B-squad to the Justice League. The heroes were initially the Dick Grayson Robin, a new version of Aqualad, the Wally West Kid Flash, Artemis and Speedy (Green Arrow’s sidekicks), Superboy, and Miss Martian (Martian Manhunter’s sidekick) but expanded to include many, many more, especially after it jumped ahead 5 years in-between its first and second season.
Similar to how The Flash functioned on Justice League/Justice League Unlimited, Kid Flash served mostly as a comedic presence surrounding by a sea of furrowed brows. The adult, Barry Allen Flash was seen on occasion. Both adult Flashes (Barry Allen, Jay Garrick) and the two sidekicks (Impulse, Kid Flash) featured in the second season episode “Bloodlines,” which was also the introduction of the time-travelling Bart Allen Impulse. Impulse, The Flash, Kid Flash and the Golden Age Flash combine their superspeed to take down a bad guy. Impulse is depicted much as he was on Smallville, except here we discover his annoying demeanor is actually an affectation to mislead those who might suspect the truth behind his sudden appearance in the present. The episode also features Flash canonical elements such as Barry Allens’ wife, Iris West, and loving mockery of Barry’s over-used catchphrase, “Back in a flash!” The three speedsters, minus Jay Garrick, would later feature rather significantly in the conclusion of the series finale.
Notice how most of the stuff on this list is recent? The character had his shot at cross-over stardom over 20 years ago on his own show, but Warner Bros./D.C. has been re-building awareness of The Flash in the animated realm for the past decade beginning with Justice League.
Perhaps The Flash is popular enough that a TV show rather than a film (if it’s an either/or proposition) is beneath him (as some are lamenting). However, the history of the character on TV indicates he’s following a similar pattern: he’s going to be a guest star to another character, Green Arrow on Arrow. Except this time he might just emerge from it a star of his own show. He’s only done that once before. Hopefully, it will go better this time around.
If I missed anything please do be kind and ever so kindly let me know. Otherwise, is there any favorite Flash moment of your’s from the mentioned shows? Still traumatized by the “Ghetto Man” roast? Still deeply depressed over the cancellation of Young Justice? Let us know in the comments.
- Back in a Flash: Barry Allen To Be Introduced on Arrow for His Own Flash Spin-off Show, Wonder Woman Show is On Hold (weminoredinfilm.com)
- Arrow’s Producers Clarify Flash Spin-Off Confusion: Yes, “Powers” Are Being Introduced Into the Show (weminoredinfilm.com)
- CW Eyes ‘Flash’ Series With ‘Arrow’s Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg & David Nutter (deadline.com)