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Grumpy Old Fan | Can ‘The Flash’ be a pacesetter?

A little over a year ago, I asked, “what do we want out of a [superhero] comic-based TV series?”

This season, DC Comics fans have plenty of material to fuel that debate. I still haven’t seen any of Gotham or Constantine, but I’ve really enjoyed the combination of The Flash and Arrow. With both shows taking a break for the holidays, today I want to see what satisfies and what doesn’t.

SPOILERS FOLLOW for Arrow and The Flash, including some for the most recent episodes.

* * *

It took me a while to warm up to Arrow. After taking most of last season to catch up -- and, as it happens, missing the Barry Allen episodes -- I seem to have gotten on board just at the right time. Because I am not a fan of superhero shows that de-emphasize the “superhero” part, it was harder for me to accept that Oliver Queen would skulk around the urban jungle in a hood and eyeblack. That sort of intermediate realism (which now reminds me of the short-lived TV show based on Mike Grell’s Jon Sable comics) somehow requires more suspension of disbelief than a full-on costume and codename does.

However, in hindsight it’s easier to see (and justify) the show’s easing into a more fantastic set of standards. When Arrow began, we might have described Ollie as having some superhero-esque characteristics -- a combat outfit that doubled as a disguise, a nickname (“The Hood”), a secret identity and hideout, etc. -- but now he’s given himself an actual mask and a codename (“The Arrow,” natch), and he’s surrounded himself with comparably outfitted associates (Huntress, Canary, Arsenal) who fight comparably outfitted villains (Deathstroke, Brother Blood, Clock King, etc.). Along the way Arrow has amped up the operatics, from the first season’s rehabilitation of Starling City to last year’s escalation and the current globetrotting struggle against the League of Assassins.

Smallville did this, too, of course; but that was something of an afterthought, when it became clear the show was too popular to end with Clark Kent’s high school graduation. From what I can tell -- which, again, is limited by my not actually watching the show -- Gotham may be headed down a similar path. Sure, it could introduce pre-Batman vigilantes like the Reaper, or unrelated Gotham residents like Jason Blood or even Alan Scott, but it too may be a victim of its own format. Arrow has already fielded a Suicide Squad and made a reasonable facsimile of the Birds of Prey, because it was able to expand in those directions.

Now, that’s not to say Arrow, or any superhero-type show, is obligated to conform eventually to its source material. I like it when these sorts of shows do that, but I like it when any adaptation manages to capture what I enjoyed about the original. It just goes with the territory. Still, adaptations of superhero comics (particularly live-action adaptations) seem to come with a particular tension between that sort of fidelity and the practicalities of the new medium. There’s no reason why the producers of Arrow couldn’t have done a straight-up Green Arrow series about Old Lefty Ollie, ex-billionaire who fights crime, cooks chili and rails against the fat cats. It might not have lasted very long, but that premise isn’t incompatible with the demands of a weekly TV series.

Instead, Arrow started from a very different place -- Ollie is still rich, lives with his mother and sister, and tries to woo his ex-girlfriend, whose sister died in the shipwreck that stranded Ollie -- and started moving it very slowly toward a more comics-faithful set of circumstances. Currently, Moira Queen and Tommy Merlyn are dead; Thea Queen is revealed as Ollie’s half-sister (and Malcolm Merlyn’s apprentice); Sara Lance reappeared as the Canary but has since been murdered; Ollie’s lost his fortune; and Laurel Lance is set to become the Black Canary. The show’s also introduced Roy Harper and made him Arsenal, and has introduced a Ray Palmer who expressly wants to be the Atom (or ATOM, formerly known as OMAC). Ollie still doesn’t have a proper goatee, but that’s a very minor complaint.

At the same time, Arrow has a couple of well-established main characters who share only a name with a comics counterpart. Felicity Smoak first appeared in mid-1980s Firestorm comics as a reporter who became Ronnie Raymond’s stepmother, and Lyla Michaels is the real name of Harbinger, the Monitor’s No. 1 assistant in Crisis on Infinite Earths. While it’s possible that TV-Felicity could marry TV-Ronnie’s yet-unseen dad, and/or that Lyla could be recruited for a cosmos-shattering assignment, their positions on Arrow virtually guarantee that neither will happen. (TV-Iris could still have an adolescent nephew named Wally, but so far we haven’t seen Iris’ brother.) I suppose that sort of uncertainty helps keep viewers guessing about the destinies of characters like Laurel (and, earlier, Roy), but occasionally it can make the show feel rather random.

* * *

Meanwhile, in just its first batch of episodes The Flash hasn’t merely embraced its super-comic trappings, it’s given them a warm hug. Last year I said I’d be “very surprised if a new Flash featured the Scarlet Speedster fighting the traditionally costumed Rogues Gallery in the daytime” -- but except for the costume (which came later in the episode), that’s about how the new series introduced Captain Cold. Moreover, the show makes a point to “invent” comics-appropriate codenames for its villains, which to date have also included Weather Wizard, Multiplex, the Mist, Plastique, Girder, Blackout, Rainbow Raider and the Reverse-Flash. That’s a new comics-related villain every week, which is something I don’t think many other live-action superhero shows -- from The Adventures of Superman to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. -- have ever really done. The only comparison that comes immediately to mind is the original Batman series, which had different reasons for embracing its own roots.

In its brief existence, The Flash has also done a couple of superhero staples, the crossover and the team-up. In fact, while it took Arrow a couple of seasons to put some of its supporting cast in costume, Flash has already shown viewers a flaming, fighting, flying Firestorm, albeit without the yellow-and-red duds.

Nevertheless, Flash has also taken a few liberties, mostly around the West family. In the comics, Iris West was already Barry’s girlfriend when he gained super-speed; and she learned his secret accidentally, because he talked in his sleep. The New 52 reboot has at least postponed this relationship, by coupling Barry with his co-worker Patty Spivot. The TV show has gone yet another way, pairing Iris with her father’s police-officer partner and leaving Barry carrying a torch. The TV series has also made Iris the next best thing to Barry’s adoptive sister, as the Wests took in young Barry after his mother’s murder and father’s imprisonment. In terms of dramatic possibilities, this has worked out well for Barry and his “foster father,” Detective Joe West, who is one of Barry’s main confidants and has become an adjunct member of Team Flash. However, nobody except Barry seems to think his getting together with Iris is a good idea, and the Iris/Barry relationship has tended to come off as either complicated or forced.

For what it’s worth, making Iris’ boyfriend a cop named Eddie Thawne reminds me of the Allen/Thawne family feud Mark Waid set up during his time writing the Flash comic. Just as the descendants of Barry (or his protegé/successor Wally West) made up a centuries-long line of Flashes -- including Barry’s grandson Bart, whose mother was Melanie Thawne -- so the Thawne family produced villains all using the codename “Cobalt Blue.”

Of course, the first Thawne in the comics was the 25th century’s Eobard Thawne, aka Professor Zoom, the Reverse-Flash. This week’s episode of the TV show seemed to hint at a connection between its Reverse-Flash and the present-day Eddie Thawne. Clearly, one possibility would be that the Reverse-Flash is in fact Eddie’s descendant; but the episode also shows another character in possession of the Reverse-Flash’s gear. Now, this too is in keeping with the comics, as Eobard Thawne was the first Reverse-Flash and Hunter Zolomon -- a onetime friend of Wally’s who was paralyzed from the waist down by Gorilla Grodd, and who resented Wally for not trying to change the past so his accident never happened -- was the second. Alert readers will notice some common (if superficial) elements between the backstories of the comics’ Zolomon and the show’s Wells, but whether the former has influenced the latter obviously remains to be seen.

The other significant deviation from the comics is the aforementioned “Team Flash,” the STAR Labs scientists who study Barry’s speed and help with the exposition. They were also responsible for the particle-accelerator accident that gave superpowers to Barry and various other Central City residents. Cisco “Vibe” Ramone and Caitlin “Killer Frost” Snow are two more comics-derived characters whose costumed destinies must presumably be addressed; although TV-Caitlin has further to go to conform to her villainous counterpart. Otherwise, Dr. Harrison Wells has a Big Bad Secret -- potentially revealed in this week’s episode, but more twists are probably coming -- which fits in fairly well with the Geoff Johns villain-motivation trope of “improving heroes through tragedy.”

So far The Flash hasn’t adopted that approach as a general rule. Instead, its characters remain largely positive, acknowledging that all the superpowers have made their efforts seem more like a game. For the most part this has been endearing, especially in contrast to Arrow; but it’s still a little disconcerting to hear our heroes talk so lightly about their secret off-the-grid prison for captured supervillains.

In any event, both Flash and Arrow have invested more heavily in interpersonal dynamics. Ollie/Laurel/Tommy has ended, but the two shows still have enough triangles to choke Phil Jackson: Barry/Iris/Eddie, Ollie/Felicity/Ray, Ollie/Thea/Malcolm, and maybe even Roy/Thea/D-bag DJ or Barry/Caitlin/Ronnie. There are well-meaning father-figure cops, one who knows the hero’s secret (Joe) and one who still doesn’t (Quentin Lance); murdered mothers and “bad” fathers (the elder Queens and Allens, of course); and mysterious scientists motivated by the loss of a loved one (Wells, Ray). Heck, I almost hope the next crossover is nothing but Diggle and Joe West sharing war stories over a couple of Big Belly Burgers.

These parallels -- including savage beatdowns delivered by the villains in both midseason finales -- aren’t necessarily bad. The recent “Flash vs. Arrow”/”Brave and the Bold” crossover episodes highlighted the shows’ similarities and differences, both in broad strokes and nuanced moments. The dividing line seems to be superpowers, which Arrow mostly eschews and Flash obviously enjoys. While the two shows can apparently learn from each other -- with Arrow using villains like Solomon Grundy and items like the boxing-glove arrow (!!!) and mind-control drugs, and Flash’s characters recognizing the gravity of their work -- neither seems likely to stray far from its core philosophy.

Regardless, The Flash seems to have been received much more positively than Arrow was originally, thanks in large part to the upbeat attitude. Arguably, if it didn’t need to provide a contrast with Arrow, it wouldn’t have had that attitude; but whatever the reason, it’s worked out pretty well. Makes me wonder what Ray’s ATOM heroics will look like in Arrow’s context. They’d have to be less gloomy than Team Arrow’s, because I can’t imagine how the show would pull off a six-inch hero beating up dark archers in dank alleys and deserted warehouses. (It’d make Yoda vs. Dooku look like Enter the Dragon.) Maybe Arrow isn’t going full-on Batman ‘66, but it definitely has room to adopt more four-color elements.

* * *

If that happens, I think it can only help the comics. By now we know there’s no guarantee that movies and TV move the needles of comics sales, but if DC’s high sheriffs see these shows succeeding with something other than grim/dark solemnity, that may convince them to follow suit. With its current saga of battle-hardened time-travelers and “proactive” crimefighting, the Flash comic could especially use a little bit of the show’s light touch.

So what do we want out of a comic-based TV series? Last year I boiled it down to “capturing the spirit” of the source material, which The Flash certainly has done. Arrow is probably closest to a combination of ‘80s Mike Grell and the current New 52 version, but it’s a distinctly different version of Ollie and company than anything comics-specific. Rather than channeling Old Lefty Ollie, it’s laid a foundation for how a superhero saga could work on the small screen. As such, it probably had to start with a heavy dose of Christopher Nolan-style Batman, because that’s apparently what audiences expected from masked urban crimefighters.

Nevertheless, for too long DC has hedged its bets about superheroes, both in print and on screen. Its efforts have been painted with the dingy gray wash of “realism,” as if a healthy flavor of angst would make the flights and tights easier to accept. Again, there’s a strong sense that Flash started out the way it has because Arrow started from a very different place. Maybe it’s just another turn of a pop-culture cycle.

Whatever the reason, Flash demonstrates that audiences will accept a superhero show that isn’t ashamed of its roots. Here’s hoping that leads to a lighter slew of DC-based adaptations, which in turn influence the comics in more positive ways. It’d be eminently appropriate if Barry Allen were once again the trendsetter for a new age.

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And here is the Futures Index for this week’s Issue 32.

  • Story pages: 20
  • “Batman and Batman” pages: 6
  • Grifter/Lana pages: 3
  • Fifty Sue pages: 1
  • Doctor Polaris pages: 4
  • Firestorm pages: 1
  • Stormwatch pages: 5
  • Number of pages spent on Yamazake/Polaris narrating how and why he hates the Justice League: 2
  • Number of pages in previous issues where Yamazake revealed why and how he hates the Justice League: enough to know that this stopped being new information long, long ago
  • Number of pages comparing Yamazake’s tragedy to the similar death of Ronnie Raymond’s mother, or for that matter the apparent death of Green Arrow which kicked off the whole Firestorm subplot: significantly fewer, if any
  • Number of villains in Futures End who hate superheroes because their loved one died in a superhero-related tragedy: 1 (Doctor Polaris)
  • Number of villains in Batman Eternal who hate superheroes because their loved one died in a superhero-related tragedy: 1 (Jason Bard)
  • Number of characters in this week’s Futures End who didn’t get to kill who they wanted to kill: 1 (Fifty Sue)
  • Number of characters in this week’s Agents of SHIELD who didn’t get to kill who they wanted to kill: 1 (Kyle MacLachlan’s Cal)
  • Odds that there is Coca-Cola in the future but no pizza: at least 1 in 1,000,000,000
  • Voice I hear whenever Brother Eye calls Mr. Terrific “Michael”: William Daniels

NOTES: The past few weeks have seen a number of single-storyline issues devoted to events like the Cadmus Island invasion and the birth of MadiStorm, but with three-and-a-half more months left in Futures End, a return to form was inevitable. I just wish the individual subplots had been stronger.

Specifically, we’ve already seen corporate confrontations between Bruce Wayne (who’s obviously back in the high life five years after Batman Eternal) and Mr. Terrific, where the former fails completely to intimidate the latter. It’s been drummed into our heads why the new Doctor Polaris will be doing his dirty deeds. I don’t know why we needed a page’s worth of exposition to establish MadiStorm’s return to Yamazake’s lab, when a few lines of dialogue accompanying that return would probably have sufficed. That said, a little more exposition on the front end, establishing why Grifter and Lana were in the bureaucrat’s office, might have offset the initial randomness of that scene.

While this issue’s odd set of coincidences (laid out above) are probably just that, I can’t help but think that both here and in Batman Eternal, the “I hold all super-folk responsible” motivation has been laid out rather poorly. Neither Bard’s partner nor Yamazake’s wife exist as anything more than plot devices, and when the motivations themselves are both spotlighted in the same week to justify megalomaniacal actions which have been going on for several weeks prior, their shortcomings are hard to ignore. At least Yamazake has been a minor villain so far, so his rants aren’t as important structurally (at least not yet), while Bard’s actions have been shrouded in mystery along with the identity of Eternal’s final boss.

NEXT WEEK IN THE FUTURE: Pensive Batman Beyond! The littlest Terminator! Father Time eats the Atom! And ... Firestorm’s first fight!

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