The second season of “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” has been almost universally viewed as an improvement over the first. Unburdened by the gloomy Vandal Savage, the series is now free to be lighthearted; free to bring in new heroes; free to hop from era to era. All of those seem like essential traits for a superhero show that hinges so much on time travel. No point in trying to make it grim and realistic.
But being whimsical comes with its own set of problems, and for all the entertainment of last week’s premiere, it sometimes threatened to collapse under its own playfulness. Flitting from time period to time period is fun and all, but if the device gets overused, audiences may not take anything on the show seriously, even the important stuff.
Fortunately, the writers find the perfect balance of pulp and emotional weight in “The Justice Society of America,” and they do it by largely staying in one place and time. There’s no Atom getting chased by a t-rex; no White Canary getting sentenced to death at the Salem Witch Trials. Instead, the group remains planted in 1942, first explaining themselves to the JSA after an all-out slugfest, then returning to World War II after it’s revealed by Nick Heywood that history has once again been altered. From that point on, the missions stay direct and easy to follow: infiltrate the Nazis (still mysteriously in cahoots with Reverse Flash), stop them, and — in an unexpected curveball — save Vixen and Ray after they get captured.
“Legends” has always worked best when the story’s kept simple, and “The Justice Society of America” is no different. Because the plot never becomes too byzantine and bogged down in time-travel logic, there’s plenty of room for the heroes to explore the tensions and character growth within their ranks. The Legends (most notably both halves of Firestorm) fight over who should lead in Rip’s absence, and Nick gets some face time with his JSA grandfather, Henry (a.k.a. Commander Steel). While their dynamic relies heavily upon the distant-hero trope (Commander Steel stays aloof because he cares too much about his friends and family), it still leads to a handful of refreshingly quiet moments between them. Just because “Legends” is more concerned with fast-paced action these days doesn’t mean it can’t have moments of emotional connection.
It also has moments of flat-out comedy. As the team sneaks into a cabaret swarming with S.S. soldiers, Professor Stein takes the stage to sing “Eidelweiss” from “The Sound of Music.” And when Atom escapes captivity with Vixen, it’s a kick to see him use his microscope as a bludgeoning weapon. But their storyline also leads to some more somber plot points within the episode. The Nazis want Atom to replicate a super-soldier serum given to them by Reverse Flash. Instead, Ray improves upon it by getting rid of its Hulk-like berserker tendencies. This comes in handy later on when they use it to save the life of Nick, a hemophiliac. Thus, he officially dons the persona of Captain Steel, thus strengthening the bond to his grandfather.
And yet that also comes with a scene of great loss. As reported earlier, “The Justice Society of America” features the death of someone in the group of the title. While trying to stop Reverse Flash from taking a mysterious amulet from the Nazis, Hourman meets his demise after the speedster runs his hands through his chest.
Make no mistake — the episode doesn’t feel like a overwhelming tragedy. These are still simple black and white themes that only add to the current season’s accessibility: one hero dies, another gets reborn; violence leads to progress, etc. These are classic superhero motifs. At the end of the day, this is still an episode where the primary joy comes from watching a bunch of people in tights kick the crap out of a bunch of Nazis. Like the first “Captain America” film (and countless comics that have come before), it wears its patriotism proudly. Is it a little goofy? Sure. Is it perfect? Of course not. It feels a little strange to lose Hourman so soon after his first appearance on the show, and the CGI when Baron Krieger balloons into a super soldier is worse than most modern video games.
But it’s all still an improvement over last week, which was an improvement over just about everything in the first season. As long as “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” keeps this up, it may not be the best show in the Arrowverse, but it will certainly be the most fun. And even in their darkest moments, superhero narratives need to be at least a little fun.
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