In a recent essay arguing that Calista Flockhart is Supergirl‘s true MVP, Vulture’s Abraham Riesman extended the argument to the wider Greg Berlanti superhero TV universe:
Indeed, Flockhart’s performance is a perfect example of a larger phenomenon in the world of the superhero shows (Supergirl, Arrow, Flash, Legends of Tomorrow) produced by Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg: The more experienced performers are way more interesting to watch than the younger ones.
The leads are almost always young, sexy people who do young, sexy things like grappling with will-they-or-won’t-they romance and struggling with their inner demons while trying to figure out their role in the world. The actors who wield those roles, understandably, take them very seriously, and their performances are therefore often dragged down by the gravity they’re giving to their lines.
But you can always count on getting a thrill when you see some of the older folks having genuine fun with the bizarre premise of being on a show about superheroes. Victor Garber’s scientist Martin Stein on The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow is an uptight, stuffy delight. When Jesse L. Martin smiles as the Flash’s adopted dad, the whole world smiles with him. John Barrowman has gradually made Malcolm Merlyn (or should I say … the Dark Archer!) one of the most interesting characters on Arrow. Tom Cavanagh displays a mastery of simmering menace as The Flash‘s Harrison Wells. And perhaps the greatest of them all is Wentworth Miller, who has reinvented longtime Flash villain Captain Cold as an eternally condescending, relentlessly wry comedic powerhouse who is basically the main reason to watch Legends of Tomorrow.
You could also add Charlott Ross’ Donna Smoak from Arrow to that list since she’s practically a regular cast member and consistently overcomes her extreme cleavage-baring wardrobe to steal every scene she’s in, often emerging by the end of her episodes as the character who had the best lines.
This “the older actors are the best part” argument is rather familiar by now. For example, Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson took a similar angle late last year while putting forth her contention that the seasoned talents of Jesse L. Martin and Victor Garber have helped turn The Flash into one of the best family dramas on TV. Whereas Riesman characterized the older actors in these shows as being the most interesting thing to watch because they’re the ones who are old enough to remember to have fun Robinson added the reminder that they’re also usually the best at eliciting strong emotional reactions. As Jesse L. Martin told her, “I’ve been doing this thing for a long time, so I have an emotional tool box to work with. I just had a moment yesterday where I was having a heart-to-heart with Barry, and our camera man just completely teared up. It was really kind of amazing.”
I am inclined to agree with both Riesman and Robinson. My ultra-familiarity with both the basic superhero narrative and the general workings of TV will-they-or-won’t-they romances doesn’t render me incapable of appreciating well-done versions of the familiar. However, it does make me increasingly more inclined to respond to something which carries a little more gravitas or offers a hint of subversion. Since the Berlanti shows never dream of coming anywhere remotely close to Joss Whedon-esque genre subversion I settle for the emotional gravitas the older actors bring to the proceedings.
However, I wonder if this is an age thing, except the age of the individual viewer instead of the age of the actors. If you are not as overly familiar with superhero TV and perhaps closer in age to the main characters, if not even younger than them, then perhaps you are fully in the bag. After all, Berlanti engineers each one of these shows to ignite shipper wars and inspire kids to put up Green Arrow/Flash/Supergirl posters on their walls.
Yet when I watch these shows I routinely feel like I am watching the younger cast members, with the occasional exception (Grant Gustin stands outs as having been amazing from the get-go), gradually learning how to become better actors, often carried along the way in the early days by the already accomplished older cast members. For example, Paul Blackthorne is just as assured as Captain Lance on Arrow as he’s always been whereas people like Stephen Amell and Willa Holland have learned over the years to add more nuance to their performances. The same goes Candice Patton from season 1 to season 2 of The Flash. Part of that might be a byproduct of improved writing for their characters, but part of it might also be a recognition that they are now capable of giving more in their performances.
There is a rich history in superhero cinema of casting Oscar-caliber talent to carry the more unproven talents who’ve been picked to play the hero in their star-making performance (e.g., Christopher Reeve in Superman, Chris Hemsworth in Thor). This is a formula which the Greg Berlanti superhero universe has repeated on TV, and even though three of the four primary shows are built around central figures (Oliver Queen, Barry Allen, Kara Danvers) the true MVPs are often those older actors who better and more quickly understand exactly what kind of show they’re on.
As Jesse L. Martin told Vanity Fair, “Yes, we have some of the best special effects on TV, that rival some movies, even. We have some of the best characters, but those little moments, they sew the whole thing together. If we didn’t have those little moments, if we didn’t have the actors that could do those little moments, I think our show would be dead in the water.” So often those little moments on The Flash have featured Grant Gustin acting opposite of Martin or Tom Cavanagh or John Wesley Shipp. A hero is only as good as his villain, and on these shows the young lead actors are often only as good as their older co-stars help make them.