I have a friend who actively hated the Guardians of the Galaxy trailer. Sure, comic book films and TV shows, by definition, have an elastic reality, but there’s a limit to how far you can stretch it for some people. The Marvel Cinematic Universe had already pushed her a little too far when Iron Man 3 introduced super soldiers with mutant-like powers and a nasty habit of exploding. Guardians of the Galaxy was finally her breaking point. Marvel seriously wanted her to care about a foul-mouthed cartoon squirrel and an Ent voiced by Vin Diesel? Not only that, she now had to view the Marvel Cinematic Universe as place in which a collection of misfts have their own warmed over Star Wars adventure while an alien (Thor) mistakenly believed to be a god fights Frost Giants and Dark Elves while Tony Stark takes on guys in metal suits and Captain American defeats super Nazis? She struggled to reconcile how one thing went with the other.
Her “bullshit-meter” was threatening to explode. You can love the heck out of something until it does something which fundamentally violates its reality as you had viewed it. The classic example is when Grey’s Anatomy suddenly had one of its doctor’s start talking to an apparent ghost despite a complete lack of any supernatural element on the show prior to that point (or ever since, as far as I know). Of course, quality storytelling can partially overcome that. Although my friend still struggles to accept the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a place in which both the Guardians of the Galaxy and Iron Man exist, she ended up really liking the Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Bravo, James Gunn. You made her care about a cartoon squirrel and taciturn tree.
I find myself in a similar position after watching The Flash’s “Grodd Lives.” I’ve read the New 52 Flash comics. I’ve watched Justice League/Justice League Unlimited. I know that Flash’s biggest enemies are arguably Reverse Flash, Captain Cold and, for some reason, a super strong, hyper-intelligent gorilla named Grodd. I both know and accept all of that, even enjoying some of the Grodd episodes of JL/JLU. I also know that The Flash has been teasing the introduction of Grodd on the show since the pilot, but this isn’t a cartoon. This isn’t an actual comic book. This is a live-action TV show with at least one foot in reality. Moreover, it’s a CW show, where normal-sized network TV budgets go to be cut in half. Please don’t try to do an entirely CGI version of Grodd. Please don’t make Barry Allen fight a giant gorilla. Just don’t. That’s stretching the reality of this show just a little too far and proving that your narrative reach has exceeded your budgetary grasp.
But continually trying to top what can be accomplished on a CW budget is a Flash and Arrow specialty.
Grodd Hate Banana | In “Grodd Lives,” long since forgotten General Eiling (Mean Old Clancy Brown) resurfaces as a heavily padded and masked soldier amassing stolen gold across Central City until Joe and The Flash stop him, stunned to see Eiling’s face under the mask. Back at Flash HQ, they interrogate Eiling and discover that he is in some kind of dissociative state, only responsive to Barry and Caitlin and bellowing simple statements (e.g., “Caitlin good”) in a guttural voice, declaring himself to be a puppet for Grodd. Caitlin and Cisco remember that Dr. Wells used to have a gorilla by that name, finding an old video of Caitlin actually feeding Grodd (thus the “Caitlin good” line). But, wait, Grodd disappeared after the particle accelerator, and there are all those reports of some sewer monster harming people. Could the particle accelerator explosion have hyped up the experimental super soldier drugs in Grodd’s system and turned him into the first meta-gorilla? Is he living in the sewers now?
The answer is obviously yes, and Joe, Barry and Cisco’s trip into the sewers ends with Joe taken hostage and Barry paralyzed by a psychic attack from Grodd. Team Flash does its science thing in building a device to help Barry neutralize Grodd’s psychic abilities, and he ultimately prevails over Grodd and saves Joe but only after a courage-boosting pep talk from Iris. Don’t worry – even though Grodd gets hit by a train, he’ll be back, climbing a building and jumping toward the camera right before the closing title card.
I can’t completely compare myself to my friend who went from hating the idea of Rocket and Groot to loving them in the context of Guardians of the Galaxy. But I did enjoy Grodd more than I expected. In some shots, Grodd looked weightless and clearly artificial. It called to mind SyFy Original Movies or old 1990s blockbusters whose special effects have aged poorly. But that doesn’t describe all of the shots. For entire stretches, Grodd looked surprisingly okay. The earliest scene with the team hunting him in the sewers was perfectly executed, playing like The Flash’s version of an Alien/Aliens moment with the audience seeing and hearing just enough to be creeped out while other characters monitor the progress remotely via a handy-dandy, color-coded map. Moreover, the notion of Grodd communicating psychically helped immensely as it saved us from having to accept a talking gorilla (and saved them from having to animate his mouth and lips to support that). They also rather judiciously mixed in plenty of smoke to partially obscure Grodd at times.
It was a shrewd move to have Barry fail to fell Grodd with a supersonic punch, establishing Grodd as a formidable opponent, just as it was intriguing to see Grodd presented in a vaguely sympathetic light. His whole thing is to simply act as The Reverse Flash’s diversionary tactic, using his psychic ability to let others feel the pain he suffered from Eiling’s experiments. The problem is that the entire episode ended up feeling like it was just one long diversion, a time-filling hour of TV setting up a villain for next season while this season’s big bad wastes an episode tinkering on God knows what and violating his own rules about not telling anyone about the specifics of the future when he gleefully breaks Eddie’s heart with the news that in the future Iris marries Barry, not him.
There are only two episodes left from this point forward, and “Grodd Lives,” despite the iconic nature of Grodd in the comics and his cameos earlier in the season, was essentially a monster of the week episode. However, that’s The Flash’s bread and butter, and it was fun seeing how Team Flash faces such a now-routine challenge without Dr. Wells around to make their pretty good idea into something truly amazing. Caitlin and Cisco can do it because Barry believes in them, and also because he’s a scientist too (something the show often forgets) meaning he can help, even if it is just to look at a brain scan and offer a cliched TV line like, “It’s lit up like a Christmas tree.”
Iris, Wet Blanket No More? | Back in November, The Atlantic described Iris thusly, “Because she’s also his love interest, she’s the only character in Barry’s inner circle to not be in on his superhuman secret. That makes her, unfortunately, the one who constantly stands in Barry’s way. More important, any meaningful character developments meant for Iris have become tethered to Barry’s secret, abandoned in favor of having her blindly chase after him like a wannabe Lois Lane. It’s a plot that feels well-tread and, in turn, utterly stale.”
It feels like the show’s writers heard the criticism because the second half of the season seriously cut down on Iris’ scenes with The Flash, gave her a job at a paper where she had vague journalistic ambitions not tied directly to The Flash. And now they’ve finally let her in on Barry’s secret, giving her plenty of entitled anger in “Grodd Lives” as she lashed out at Barry and Joe for lying to her all year. She got good lines like, “Why didn’t you tell me? Why did you keep me in the dark? I could have helped you put the bad guys away instead of being in the way.” Candice Patton played it like the more Iris thought about all of it the angrier she got, possibly in response to the recurring joke of a rambling Barry failing to explain everything and accidentally revealing even more secrets in passing, like how everyone already knew he was the Flash but her or that Dr. Wells is the Man in Yellow and killed her colleague at the paper. They even changed formula and gave Iris the opening episode voice-over usually reserved for Barry, letting us in on how hurt and betrayed she felt that her best friend had been lying to her.
The frustrating part is how the show kept working double time to tie all of it back in to the Iris/Barry/Eddie love triangle, particularly when Iris’ first confrontation with her dad almost instantly turned into a re-examination of her romantic feelings for Barry instead of an exploration of her anger. Given the sensual way they depicted most of her scenes with The Flash earlier in the season, I suppose her realization that Barry and Flash are one in the same would cause her romantic angst to resurface. However, they diffused her conflict with her dad by having him be kidnapped, giving Iris a general air of, “I’m not mad at him anymore. I just want him to live.” To similarly diffuse her anger toward Barry with ever-so CW romantic melodrama felt like two steps forward (Yeah, good for you Iris. Call these guys on their extreme bullshit) and one step back (Must we be flirting on a rooftop while Eddie is held hostage by a madman?…although then Iris flat out pointed that out, which helped).
THE BOTTOM LINE
Grodd has been teased for some time now, and their first full-on experiment with him had more positives than I expected. Plus, even though their handling of the all-important “Love interest discovers superhero’s secret” transitional moment was at times beaten down by its very CW melodrama it did afford Candice Patton some stellar moments.
2. In general, there was a lot of convenient TV timing in this episode, Iris walking in at just the right moment to deliver her big one-liner, Cisco and Caitlin finishing their psychic device right as Barry and Iris stopped talking.
3. Barry telling Joe that Iris figured everything out is a conversation I would have preferred to have seen. Instead, it happens off-camera. I just wanted to see Joe’s “Oh, shit” face.
4. I’m not completely loving Cavanagh in campy full Eobard Thawne mode. I miss Harrison Wells, that sly sonofabitch.
THE INTERVIEW – JESSE L. MARTIN (Collider)
MARTIN: If I thought about it too much, it would make me laugh. But the truth of the matter is, when you’re doing it, it’s just like when you’re a little kid. You start imagining what it is and what the danger might be, and you go for it. That is fun and absolutely liberating. There were times when we did have an actor in place who was wearing a suit, and we could get an idea of what the scale of this creature is. But in most cases, you’re literally acting to air, so you just have to ramp your imagination up as far as it goes and go for it, and it turns out to be a lot of fun. It’s not so hilarious, if you don’t think about it.
Back when you were on the Broadway stage, or at any point during your run on the very serious Law & Order, could you ever have imagined that you’d be here, on a superhero TV show, being kidnapped by a giant gorilla?
MARTIN: No, and I was saying that, at the time. I was like, “In all my days, I never really imagined this.” I hoped that somehow I’d get in a situation where I would get to do things like that, in this fantasy realm, ‘cause I had never really gotten to do it. Now that I am, it’s one of my favorite gigs. To get to do those kinds of things, every single day, is an actor’s playground. It’s a hell of a lot of fun.