Thursday, July 23, 2015

A few thoughts on TheCW's "The Flash" (Season 1)

I caught up on The Flash (premiered October 2014 on The CW) and I found the show fascinating. It spun off from Arrow, the network's other super-hero foray (after Smallville), which is based on the DC Comics character Green Arrow. Well, in theory at least; in practice it's a lesser version of Nolan's Batman ripping off Batman's mythology every other episode and pretending to be the first half-way grim and 'serious' thing The CW ever did. For comic book readers, the most conflicting moment in that show must've been the appearance of fan-favorite character Slade Wilson a.k.a. Deathstroke. The show did a good job with him, but he's a Teen Titans villain that lately has been continuously promoted as a Batman villain and whose only live-action appearance now is as a Green Arrow villain. Holy shit.

I'll be honest; I don't like Arrow. I find it dull, pretentious, dreary and overall forgettable. But I have to admit that it's been open to experimentation and it has been changing its formula each season, trying out new things and seeing what works. Presumably in its upcoming fourth season, the show will get closer to the source material; more light-hearted, names will return to what they should be (Arrow will become Green Arrow, Starling City will become Star City etc.) and I can't help but think that audiences' positive reaction to The Flash has something to do with it.

I wasted two paragraph's on the subject's sister-show, because The Flash itself benefits from the comparison. The story of Barry Allen, the Silver-Age Flash is told in the show following The CW's usual patterns: the dialogue is clunky, the characters are stereotypical, there is a lot of useless arbitrary drama fit for teenage audiences and it keeps it mostly PG with the occasional open wound here and there. If you've ever seen another show from this network or The WB, which preceded it, you know already exactly what the failures of this one are as well.

Yet, it works. Top-to-bottom, from the first scene of the premiere to the final shot of the finale (which involves Central City being sucked into a warmhole and Flash running up buildings to stop it), it absolutely works. There's a great many reasons why weak material can connect with an audience; previously, the best example was The Vampire Diaries that suffered from exactly the same problems, but moved so fast that made the viewers' heads spin-- in a good way. The Flash moves fast as well (har har), but it doesn't rely as heavily on intrigue, mystery and rapid twists. No, this show works because it's comic-books-come-alive.

This isn't a review. I will promptly go into spoiler territory to point out things that stood out to me. If you're wondering whether or not it's worth watching, it is. Especially for super-hero fans, doubly-so for comic book readers, it's a blast from start to finish. Watch it.

I had fun with The Flash, but most importantly, I was impressed by the show's masterful plotting. Not only does it not shy away from its comic book origins, but it manages to involve so much comic book goodness without being utterly awkward that it becomes genuinely impressive. Mainstream audiences may not know this, but the murder of Barry's mom didn't become part of the origin story until after his return following the 2008 event "Final Crisis"; by comic book standards, it's a a very recent addition. It was done to inject some of that needlessly obligatory "tragedy" that heroes are perceived to need and which the Silver Age Barry Allen lacked almost entirely; before his removal from the DC on-going in 1985, Barry was just a happy-go-lucky character through and through.

So, I really did like that, knowing the source material, Barry's desire to go back in time and stop the Reverse Flash from killing his mom, could potentially lead to Flashpoint; the DC event with roughly the same origin that screwed up continuity and rebooted the DCU in 2011. This is something that most audiences wouldn't connect with, but when Martin Stein is warning Barry of the repercussions of changing the past, there was an ominous weight in the air. Similarly, as early as the first episode, we see Harrison Wells taking a peak at the front cover of a newspaper from 2024. Even if the twist of the professor in the wheelchair being able to walk and having access to future newspaper covers wasn't enough of a shock, the headline read that The Flash disappears in Crisis. It's hard to see this and not be all giddy, drawing the inescapable connection to Barry Allen's death in the 1985 "Crisis on Infinite Earths".

Of course the show is also sprinkled with references (like Rip Hunter and his Time-Sphere or Jay Garrick's helmet, or the Flash Museum in Central City), but the aforementioned factor into the storytelling and thus carry a lot more weight. It's easier to see how well they've maintained the balance without hiding the show's super-hero source by taking a look at the characters. The entirety of the main ensemble (except Joe West) are comic book players. Harisson Wells? He's the Reverse Flash. Caitlin Snow? Killer Frost. Ronnie Raymond and Dr. Stein? Clearly Firestorm (the original version). Cisco Ramon? He's the Vibe.

At first glance, this may seem like a cop-out, but the show doesn't waste these characters like others did before it. Both Arrow and now, The Flash, serve as a great gateway for exposure of B-List characters to the mainstream. I never thought I'd live to see a live-action version of Firestorm, but here we are. Actually, Firestorm is probably one of the show's biggest successes. He may not be donning his traditional orange costume, but he's got the eyes, the origin story (suited to the show's needs, but still), the characters and he's not afraid to "flame on" to ridiculous, comic-book levels.

It doesn't mean that the show's many faults can be easily ignored just by its comic-book cred. For example, the Reverse Flash's storyline is -in retrospect- just a tad too convenient. At parts it really does feel as if they wanted to shroud Dr. Wells in mystery and have the Reverse Flash involved as a the antagonist as a separate character, but they decided to mix them into one at the last minute. I don't know if that's the case, but things like the Professor Thawne using a futuristic thingy-majingy to steal the real Wells' appearance and the characterization as a surrogate father figure up to even the finale rubbed me the wrong way.

Similarly, the resolution definitely punches the viewer in the feels at first; when Professor Zoom/Thawne is free and unstoppable, ready to kill everyone, Eddie shoots himself in the heart and ends the villain. It's surprising, it's sad and, at first glance, kind of brilliant. It works, until you start thinking about it. From a narrative standpoint, it reveals Eddie to have been written as a completely disposable character from the word-go. He was there to create some temporary, arbitrary romantic tension in a forced triangle between himself, Iris and Barry. Then, he killed himself to defeat the villain in what was, essentially, Deus Ex Machina.

Then, there is the logic of the thing. Eddie is Eobard's direct ancestor; his death erases Reverse Flash from existence. But this show itself has dealt with parallel timelines. This means that Eddie killed himself for a convenient quick fix at best and for no reason at worst. Besides, since Time isn't linear, does that mean erasing Eobard Thawne from existence erases his actions in the past as well? Because that would mean the entire premise of this show is now null.

Also, while most characters are at the very least likeable (with Joe West as the other surrogate dad and Cisco Ramon as the fanboy conduit taking the cake for the show's most memorable characters), there are flukes. Most villains, though fairly faithful to the source material, are a bit too one-note. Sole exception is Captain Cold, who is neither greatly written nor greatly performed, but who works because of the deadpan delivery of his psychopathic nature and overwritten sense of humor-- courtesy of former Prison Break star, Wentworth Miller.

Also of note is how Iris West, one of DC Comics' most prominent non-hero ladies since the Silver Age (right after Lois Lane/Lana Lang and on the level with Carol Ferris) is the absolute worst character in this show. She fits the bill of every annoying love interest required in a show airing in this damned network. She's useless, whiny and doesn't fit with the rest of the show. She complains about things that hurt her feelings, when the people she accuses of such a terrible crime are preoccupied with saving the world and other trivial things like not dying in the process. She pays no attention to Barry as a romantic interest until he confesses his love to her and only after both she and he are in other people's loving arms. She then chastises her boyfriend, Eddie, for trying to protect her from his job (which, at the time, involves working with the Flash) and blackmails him into confession. Then she similarly rags on both Barry and her dad, when she finds out that Barry is the Flash.

I had a good laugh, when she told her dad, who was lying on a hospital bed after almost being mauled by Gorilla Grodd that since he loves her so much, he should always be honest with her, no matter what.

- Hey, Iris, remember when you were a little girl and I told you some nice people took your dog to a nice farm, far away?
- It's okay dad, I know it died, I figured it out. I'm old now, you know!
- Oh no. It didn't just die. Found it in the garage. Decomposition had kicked in. It had shat itself and the crap was stuck in the fur. I tried picking the carcass up with a shovel, but the eyes started oozing from the sockets. I couldn't bring myself to bury it, so I threw it in a bag and then through the wood-chipper. Iris? Honey? It's the truth!

Moralizing is always inescapable in written material and it's definitely written into the very fabric of super-heroes; but even with the concept of subjective morality, the preaching needs to make sense. In a show that one of the primary characters is a serial killer with super-powers that can, at any moment, kill the entire main cast, Iris' moralizing is more akin to senseless bitching. There is a pattern in this type of show that Iris fits; Lana Lang in Smallville, Laurel Lance in Arrow (though, to her credit, she actually had shit to work through), even Xander in Buffy, at least in the first two seasons when he wouldn't shut the fuck up about Angel; it's the Joey Potter model of character writing. It's bad.

I was impressed with how much the show drew from the books, but that doesn't mean that the show doesn't have value for non-readers and that's probably its biggest strength and the reason why even Arrow seems to want to follow suit. In the end, what The Flash takes from the source material isn't the canon or the characters, but the essence; the pseudo-science, the unrelenting heroism, the crazy powers, the fun characters, the storylines that would look absolutely stupid in anything half-way 'serious'. I think that's why it connects with its audience; it's a comic-book show through and through, not just in the references to Flashpoint or Crisis on Infinite Earths, not just on the awesome shots of Flash and the Reverse Flash duking it out, but in the atmosphere, the feeling of amazement, the spectacle, the awe and the notion of larger-than-life heroism.

The Flash has many flaws for me to give it a free pass as the 'best super-hero show' or any such thing, but it's pure comic-book goodness most of the time and I'm genuinely excited to see what Season 2 brings.

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