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Is Picking a Bad Guy the Biggest Hurdle In Getting The Flash to Screen?

The rumour is that the Flash is the next Green Lantern. By which I mean the character looks set to move to the centre of DC’s universe – on panel and on screen – in the next few years. Geoff Johns relaunched Hal Jordan with Green Lantern: Rebirth about four years ago and since then he’s guided the character through arguably two of the best received event comics of the past decade (Sinestro Corps War and Blackest Night), launched a direct-to-DVD animated feature and is getting the big screen treatment from Martin Campbell, the man who saved Bond (twice). All this from what a character who was a second stringer a few years ago. It appears that the Flash is on a similar trajectory. A relaunch of the comic book was completed last month with the final issue of Flash: Rebirth and there are rumours of a big screen treatment already in the works. Part of me wonders, however, if the character’s foes are ready for the big screen?

They're either a bunch of supervillains, or a very committed eighties concept band...

I imagine that DC are hoping that the path of this reinvention will mirror that of his Silver Age colleague. Green Lantern and the Flash were both created at approximately the same time and heralded in the Silver Age, the second age of the superhero, with science fiction replacing urban fantasy as the genre of choice. Both Hal Jordan and Barry Allen “died”, allowing the titles of Green Lantern and the Flash to become legacy titles – passed (or even shared) between different characters. However, somewhat befitting the tide of Silver Age nostalgia that has swept comic books lately, both have recently returned to reclaim their titles.

Aside from the success that his compatriot has enjoyed in recent years, there are more reasons to hope that the next few years may be a period of success for the character. There’s certainly a case to be made that – aside from Batman and Superman – he is the most ‘film friendly’ of the major DC characters. Wonder Woman has always been hard to get a handle on for writers and audiences, nobody outside comics knows who the Martian Manhunter is and the Green Lantern flies around space powered by his ring. On the other hand, the Flash is a guy who runs really, really fast. It’s a simple concept. And his secret identity… is a forensics expert. That’s right – he’s a CSI superhero. He seems like a sure bet for a feature film adaptation. There’s just one crucial bit missing. The villains.

To put this in context, we are dealing with a studio who couldn’t find any acceptable villains in Superman’s rogues gallery apart from Lex Luthor and General Zod for five films (though I welcome the suggestion that we will see Brainiac in the upcoming Man of Steel). The route with choosing comic book villains seems to be to pick the ‘safe’ ones rather than the more outrageous ones, even if they are more interesting and complex (I make an exception for Nolan’s Batman franchise, which was somehow able to start off with two of the relatively minor Batman villains in Batman Begins). When it works, we get three films of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen with wonderful chemistry. When it doesn’t work, we get Topher Grace in a muscle suit. When you look at it that way, it’s easy to see how the Flash’s rogues might pose a difficulty for a live-action adaptation.

The Flash has one of the most unique rogues galleries (that’s the collective noun for supervillains) in comic bookdom. And I’m not using unique as a synonom for ‘insanely wacky’ either – I can’t actually think of a comparable collective. However, I’m not too sold on how they might adapt to the big screen.

The core of his villains is a group that, creatively enough, brands themselves “The Rogues”. Essentially they’re a bunch of originally individual foes – like Captain Cold, Heat Wave, Weather Wizard and so on – who got sick of getting beaten by the character individually, so decided that getting beaten collectively was some how better. And it works. They aren’t just like a team-up of villains, they actually function like a wacky co-operative. They hang out together, they chillax together, they drink together – and they don’t double-cross each other. Sometimes they even have a dental plan. Which is fantastic. To portray any of these adversaries in isolation would be pointless.

A wise commentator once noted that what distinguished the Flash from the other heroes was that he was essentially a ‘working class hero’, salt of the earth. One of Geoff Johns’ earlier issues opens with the title character helping to fix a broken down car while on patrol around the city. There’s a grudgingly respectful relationship between The Rogues – who are essentially working class criminals whose crimes generally revolve around stealing large amount of money – and the Flash (to the point where they’ve actually ended up partying together, with the second Flash, Wally West, bringing his girlfriend along). There’s even a sort of “honour among thieves” thing going on, for example “Rogues don’t kill women and children” or the governing rule “Never kill a speedster” (though admittedly it also helps them avoid particularly bad things happening).

It’s a great gimmick which binds together the core group of his opponents and which really serves to distinguish the character from the tonnes of other tights-wearing heroes out there. The problem is that I don’t see it transitioning to film particularly effectively. Anyone who remembers the original Flash live-action television show from the nineties – and, yes, it was terrible, but I was a kid, so I have an excuse – will remember the huge changes it had to make to his foes to fit them in. It’s traditional for superhero movies to spend as much time on the origin of the villains as the origin of the hero – spending time on the four origins of four rogues would certainly bog down the movie. And while simply treat the villains as if they already exist (not bothering with an origin) worked for The Joker in The Dark Knight, it’s probably harder to sell freeze-rays and weather wands to audience members than make-up and knives.

It’s a shame, because the rogues are perhaps the most unique collective of supervillains in comic books. Sure, Batman’s gallery is arguably the deepest and most varied collection of individual psychopaths you’ll find outside a psychiatric institution (and to be honest, it would have to be a big psychiatric institution) and Spider-Man has a variety of creative foes (the animal thing is popular, you’ll note), there’s no group the functions with quite the same dynamic as the Flash – so much so that they can carry his book even when he’s not in it – recent miniseries such as Rogues’ Revenge and Blackest Night: Flash come to mind, heavily focusing on the merry band. Still, I don’t think we’ll be seeing them on screen anytime soon.

The problem is that once you get outside the Rogues, there really isn’t too much that would be easier to adapt to film. There are Flash villains who work outside the group, and pose a threat indirectly, but you’re dealing with characters like time-travelling magician Abra-Kadabra or the talking super-smart Gorilla Grodd. I really can’t see either of them translating perfectly well to the screen.

Guess who lost the superhero costume lottery...

There is one almost logical choice. It’s the arch-nemesis, the evil counterpart. Basically, it’s a guy who can also run really fast, but wears a yellow suit and is evil. Calls himself Zoom (or the Reverse-Flash, depending on how up-front he is about the whole thing). He’s the mandatory villain who has the same sorts of powers as the hero, but is insane or just evil. And, like the title character, he’s also been throw several iterations.

I honestly can’t see the original version working particularly well on the big screen. He’s a mad man who Barry met in the future and then eventually followed him to the present to ruin his life. Long story short, Barry killed him (by snapping his neck) – but, of course, he’s still around. Because he can time travel. So Barry actually only killed a later version of him, so the current character simply hasn’t died yet. Yes, it’s like Lost if they wore funny clothes. I imagine that Warner Brothers will want to wait to see if science-fiction-y superheroes kick off in the wake of Green Lantern before introducing a time-traveling dead-but-not-dead-yet yellow-clad speeding psychopath as the primary adversary in a big screen adaptation. Being honest, the talking gorilla is more likely.

However, I think that the answer may lie in the second iteration of the character. And you’ve guessed it, that version of the character was created by Geoff Johns, the master of reinvention over at DC. Basically, this second Zoom (going by the unlikely – even by the standard of comic books – name of Hunter Zolomon) has an origin closely mirroring the Flash (which I suppose is mandatory for an arch-nemesis), working at the police department and solving crimes, despite a dark history of personal tragedy (again, kinda a checklist thing for would-be adversaries). Anyway, he ends up crippled from the waist down and asks the Flash to… you know, turn back time and change history like in that Superman film. The Flash refuses, citing the whole ‘risking the timeline’ thing and butterfly effect and so on. So, Zolomon understandably calls this as a dickish move and attempts to use the Flash’s time-travelling gizmo himself. It explodes and voila! Instant supervillain.

Anyway, Johns wrote the character very well (as he tends to) and actually managed to give him a pretty neat meta-fictional motivation. We all know that tragedy is what makes all real heroes, right? So, logically, more tragedy makes a hero even more heroic. And Zoom decides to make the Flash the best hero ever, causing all sorts of horrible things to happen to him and the people he loves. I always thought that aspect of the story was neat, like the theory that the Joker knows he can’t kill Batman because the book would end, and is really just playing the part of a comic book villain because he’s self aware. Anyway, enough on that.

I can see most of that translating well to screen. Okay, maybe not the turning-back-time thing, but certainly the trying-to-become-the-Flash-and-then-gaining-powers-very-similar to him thing. It’s tragic and it’s simple enough to be effectively portrayed. It doesn’t require time-travelling to the future or a collective group of supervillains.

I’m still a little wary though. Does it seem like a bit of a copout to have two really fast characters in the opening film of a new superhero series? Aren’t the two a little bit too similar?

I don’t know. I’m just glad that we might be getting a Flash movie relatively soon.

We’re a bit late to the party, but next week we’ll be celebrating the 75th anniversary of DC Comics, with a look at the medium, the company and the characters in a selection of bonus features running Monday through Friday. Be sure to join us.

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