To watch a Greg Berlanti-produced superhero show is to turn off your brain, to revel in the bright and light and ignore plot holes, consistently underwritten female characters and increasingly unruly ensemble casts who can never quite get enough screen time/character development. To write about a Greg Berlanti-produced superhero show is to accept that you are going to be writing about the same problems over and over again. For example:
Will The Flash ever properly incorporate Iris into the STARS Lab team, and is the show forever stuck on a loop of restaging all of the conflicts and tropes that worked so well in that first season? Will Legends ever rise up to justify its own existence and find a villain or group of villains compelling enough to make our ragtag group of outcast heroes into something actually worthy of such a remarkably pompous moniker as “legends”? Will Arrow ever re-find its identity as the gritty core of the Arrowverse, or is it doomed to forever feel incompatible with the fantastical universe it now anchors? Will Supergirl…
Actually, I don’t watch Supergirl. In the age of peak TV, there’s only so much time to go around, and Supergirl came out of the gate just so remarkably flawed.
Then again, Legends’s first season was arguably worse than Supergirl’s, yet I kept watching out of affection for Caity Lotz’s Sara Lance and Brandon Routh’s Ray Palmer, even though the episodes often forced me to ponder alternate storylines where Arthur Darville’s inept leader Rip Hunter turned out to be the secret supervillain of the story. The fun thing is season 2 just made him a villain, and Darville’s never looked more comfortable in the role. In fact, Legends is suddenly the most purely enjoyable show in the Arrowverse even though its time travel logic continues to confound. As for Flash and Arrow, well…
The Flash’s big storyline for the back half of its third season is whether or not Barry and pals can stop Iris from being killed by speed force god Savitar in the future. Similar to Oliver’s kill list in Arrow’s first season or the tattoos on Lady Sif’s body in Bindspot, the plot is now supposed to be driven by a chalkboard of things Barry and Cisco know to be true of the future where Iris dies. If they can gradually cross items off the chalkboard, i.e., prevent them from happening, they believe that means they are changing the future and thus saving Iris. Um, just go with it.
In a broader sense, this means Flash’s big idea for its third season is to essentially re-stage the big idea of its first season but told from the opposite direction. Barry had been haunted by his childhood experience of witnessing the death of his mother at the hands of a speedster, so much so that he traveled back in time to save her…twice! Now, Barry must save his girlfriend from dying in the future. The bonus is that in this version the woman to be saved actually gets a say in what happens.
Since learning of her apparent fate, Iris has understandably been thrown into an emotional tailspin. Last week, she displayed an alarming recklessness in the face of danger, reasoning if she doesn’t die until May there’s no reason to be scared of anything until then. Moreover, she expressed a well-articulated desire to make the most of her final months and leave behind a legacy that’s not solely defined as “girlfriend” or “daughter” but also “journalist,” a funnier statement than the show intended considering its own flippant regard for Iris’ job/career to this point. Still, she scored a big article about a botched arms deal, and found a self-worth independent of Barry or her dad at the same time that HR was having his own self-worth validated by Cisco in the episode’s A-plot (turns out, HR is a convict on his world, but Cisco literally fought to allow him to stay and gave him some “you matter to this team” words of encouragement).
This week, Iris gave into despair about her fate since they were unable to change one of the items on the chalkboard, but she soon placed her trust back in Barry to ultimately save her, even if that means training Wally to be the one to do the actual saving. As the AV Club argued, though, the whole episode felt like a re-run cycling through familiar conflicts, a common problem with this third season. Caitlin has again been paired off with the new male cast member (Teddy Sears last year, Tom Fenton this year) she thinks she can help. The team still keeps secrets for no good reason, this time from an understandably upset Joe. And everyone has to re-learn the same old lesson about them all being better together as a team. Everyone’s happy again, and Barry and Iris can’t stop staring into each other’s eyes.
For a show featuring the fastest man alive, The Flash seems to be running in place right now. The Gorilla Grodd two-parter awaiting us when the show returns in two weeks couldn’t have come at a better time.
Legends of Tomorrow
So much has happened on Legends since I stopped writing episode reviews a little over halfway through the first season. Vandal Savage is gone (“free at last”) as are the Hawk people (“free at last”), and Rip’s a totally different person now (“thank God almighty we are free at last” – and, yes, this is the most trivial re-use of that famous MLK quote ever). The Waverider has a new captain (Sara’s take-no-shit attitude fits the role perfectly) and two new crewmembers (a version of Vixen from the 40s, and an affable historian named Nate who has since gained the ability to turn his skin into steel on command). Just as importantly, the show has a brand-new story generator, with the team now directly responding to significant disruptions in time they call “time aberrations” (i.e., when something strange happens in the past they go back to fix it).
Needless to say, this has all been a serious course-correction on the part of Legends’ producers, jettisoning the parts of the show that didn’t work, replacing them with parts that do and finally finding the right tone and balance among its cast members, who now all seem to have fairly well-delineated team roles, even if those often overlap (e.g., Mick and Vixen are the muscle, Nate and Ray the brains, etc.). Legends is now what it should always have been: time travel dress-up with some of our favorite characters, not dissimilar to NBC’s Timeless.
Fittingly since Legends has always been a show built from Arrow and Flash’s spare parts, this season has also replaced Vandal with a mini-Legion of Doom consisting of Reverse-Flash (the original one before he changed his face to look like Harrison Wells), Damien Darhk (plucked out of the timeline several decades before his death at Green Arrow’s hands) and Malcolm Merlyn. They have proven just as fun to watch together as the Legends, prompting io9 to joke, “I could watch a show just about them going on their evil road-trip through time.”
And then that’s exactly what Legends did last week, throwing in a mentally re-programmed Rip (he thought he was a 1960s America hippie named Phil) for good measure as the Legion bickered and jockeyed for power while executing a bank heist in the future.
If anything, the Legion are almost too entertaining, pulling focus away from the Legends. We should be rooting against the bad guys from getting the reality-altering MacGuffin they’re pursuing, but watching them try is so much fun, especially since they all feel so unjustly wronged by fate (and Flash and Green Arrow). Now that Rip, who remembers who he is but has had all of his more selfless and altruistic instincts purged from his personality, has joined the Legion the Legends finally have truly formidable villains, ones quick with a good one-liner instead of a cliched sneer and some meandering story about that one time they met that one famous person in the past (seriously, I still can’t believe how terrible Vandal Savage was).
Apart from the infusion of entertaining villains, season two is such an improvement because the show finally owns its inherent silliness and no longer bothers with pretending its time travel rules make any sense. This, as io9 argued, has been creatively freeing:
As such, this season the Legends have traveled to a hysterically tiny, 16th-century Japan where Ray Palmer’s Atom suit was stolen and worn by an evil Shogun; fought Confederate zombies in the Civil War; and battled Damien Darhk after he bafflingly became President Ronald Reagan’s advisor in the ‘80s. Also, in one of my favorite moments of the year (and an oddly prescient one, too), an undercover Ray Palmer punched a Nazi when he couldn’t bring himself to heil Hitler in order to maintain his disguise.
You can add to that list the events of this week’s episode which saw Mick become one of our fore fathers by bonding with George Washington and teaching him a thing or two about the benefits of fighting dirty.
Of course, just because Legends now owns how dumb it is doesn’t free it from fault or criticism. Nate and Vixen’s mid-episode hook-up this week felt like it was lifted out of a slasher movie (I kept waiting for them to be attacked in that random tent they found), and this romantic turn for their relationship had precious little build-up. Martin’s goodbye with his time aberration daughter last week was just confusing (what, are they never going to see each other again?).
But any show that can make me laugh from watching a miniaturized man (Ray in his ATOM suit) running away from a rat in an air vent and yelling “This is why we have a chore wheel!” (since if Mick had done his chores and cleaned up after himself they wouldn’t have attracted a rat in the first place) is doing something right. I ultimately defer to io9’s conclusion about Legends’ turnaround:
Legends of Tomorrow isn’t just the Arrowverse’s most improved show, and it isn’t just the most fun show—it currently has the best writing, too. More than that, it’s become clever, also a word that I wouldn’t normally use to describe it. If you gave up in season one, I can’t tell you more strongly to give season two another chance. It’s a different show, and a much, much better one.
So, if Flash is the show running in place, Legends the one improving with every new episode, where does that leave Arrow? Backsliding, that’s where.
Last night’s episode saw the team visit Russia to track down the General who framed Diggle at the start of the season. Turns out, evil General man (his given name, I think) is open to selling nukes to terrorist cells to support himself while evading the law, and the episode’s writers had to engage in much Dark Knight-esque verbal gymnastics to explain why exactly this type of world-threatening event would fall to vigilantes instead of government-sponsored entities. Plausibility aside, the episode was more structured as a fulcrum point to connect the ongoing Russia-set flashbacks with the present (is “Bratva” Arrow’s new “Mirakuru,” i.e., the word you never want to hear again?), and to bring Oliver, Felicity and Diggle into the same room together for the first time in a long time only to realize that they are all three breaking bad in some way or another. By episode’s end, Oliver’s plea for unity and appeal to the better angels of their nature resonated with Diggle, who made the just choice in not killing evil General man, but not with Felicity, whose newly rejuvenated hacktivist tendencies were only further emboldened.
And Curtis was there too, quick to crack a joke.
Dinah, the new Black Canary, was also around, speaking of Felicity and Diggle in a heart-to-heart with Oliver as if they were people she actually knew when in fact their introductions must have occurred off screen in-between episodes.
Rory was also around to use his magic rags to contain a nuclear blast, and then abruptly leave the team but promising to return once he figures out how to get the rags to work again.
Rene, um, bonded with a fresh-out-of-rehab Quentin back in Star City, and revealed how much something Quentin once said to him (and doesn’t remember saying) many years ago changed his life.
Plus, Oliver somehow found the time to have sex with his journalist girlfriend, with the episode going out of its way to point out that their sexual encounter in the mid-season finale had just been a makeout session and nothing more (there had been plenty of confusion about that). So, the oddly long list of shows to run with the “journalist sleeps with the man she’s supposed to be investigating” storyline now officially includes Arrow, with the latest twist being she seems to have connected the dots and figured out the obvious truth that Oliver is the Green Arrow.
So, Arrow just lost a cast member, and it should have hurt more than it did. Rory’s departure should have been more meaningful, but it wasn’t, not with Felicity being the only one to bid him adieu in person and striking an almost nonchalant tone in the process, kind of like, “Okay. Whatever. We’ll see ya’ when we see ya’. I’ve got some hacktivist stuff to do anyway.” He went out the same way he came in, defined by a nuclear missile-related accident but performed by a charismatic actor capable of doing more than was being asked of him. It also continued Arrow’s surprisingly casual treatment of nuclear weapons as a threat. Frankly, any storyline that is dependent upon reminding us of the nuclear Armageddon at the end of season four is almost irreparably damaged by the association.
This alone does not constitute the backslide I referenced earlier. In fact, it’s not any one storyline that’s causing that; it’s all of them. More specifically, Arrow has at least one too many plates spinning in the air right now, and too little time to give to its sprawling cast. That’s why Thea has been gone for multiple episodes with the thinnest of explanations (although it’s possible she’s up to something secret for Oliver that will pay off soon), and why Evelyn’s betrayal and Rory’s departure failed to register in any kind of meaningful way. This might now free up screen time for others, but it’s not like Rory was getting much to begin with.
More egregiously, the team roles still seem surprisingly fluid, with Curtis transitioning into a more Cisco-like lab engineer role one week before being thrown back into the field the next. As such, when we got the Guardians of the Galaxy/Suicide Squad hero shot in “Bratva” of everyone on Team Arrow walking into Russia I literally had no idea why Rory was there. On top of that, the Russia flashbacks seem to only be continuing at this point because they didn’t pay Dolph Lundgren just to show up for a couple of episodes and not get a final fight with Oliver.
But that gets back to what I said at the start: to write about a Berlanti-produced superhero show is to accept that some things will always present problems. Arrow’s indelicate balance between past and present is definitely among them.
What do you think? Am I totally off base about the current direction of all three shows, or just a couple of them? Do you think Legends has actually deteriorated this season, not improved? Or do you reject everything I said because I opened by badmouthing Supergirl? Let me know in the comments.