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The Flash – City of Heroes (Review)

So, I’m considering reviewing this season of The Flash, because the pilot looks interesting and I’ve always had a soft spot for the Scarlet Speedster. I’m also considering taking a storyline-by-storyline trek through the 1987-2009 Flash on-going series as a companion piece. If you are interested in reading either of these, please let me know in the comments.

Appropriately enough for a television show based around the fastest man alive, City of Heroes moves pretty damn quickly. The forty-five minute episode tears through all the requisite superhero origin elements in forty-five minutes. It takes us two minutes to brush through the story of Barry Allen’s childhood trauma. By the ten-minute mark, Barry has already been hit by lightning. At the end of the forty-five minutes, his uniform is complete and his ensemble fully formed.

There are some minor problems with The Flash, but City of Heroes offers a pretty solid start for the series – hinting that perhaps the show has already found its legs.

Suit up...

Suit up…

In many respects, The Flash is really suited towards television. His power set lends itself to stylish visualisation, without being too abstract or too expensive. While the “super-speed” skill set opens up all sorts of interesting and creative applications of physics, it is also very intuitive and very easy to understand. Barry Allen can turn himself into a red blur, and perceive events at a very slow rate. These are effects that are very easy to demonstrate on a limited budget.

After all, this isn’t the character’s first foray into live action television, as City of Heroes reminds us by casting John Wesley Shipp as Barry’s father. In the early nineties, a live-action Flash television show ran for a season. While it did not necessarily redefine the genre – and suffered from a variety of problems – it was very effective at transferring the Flash and his powers into live action. Nearly fifteen years later, technology has advanced so far that a live-action Flash television series is a no-brainer.

Drawing on a rich legacy...

Drawing on a rich legacy…

City of Heroes isn’t perfect. It has flaws. Quite a few of these are by virtue of airing on CW. It’s inevitable that The Flash will find itself playing “hip” and “trendy.” So there are a few genuinely cringe-inducing sequences, like the shoe-horning of Lady GaGa’s Poker Face into the episode based on a reference to Barry Allen’s Facebook page or making a cheesy gaga about how the sum of human knowledge must include “twerking.”

We also get a whole bunch of tired and cheesy gags. When Barry gets very excited about the potential offered by the particle accelerator at S.T.A.R. Labs, Iris is quite confused. “You’re doing that thing where you’re not speaking English,” she informs him. It’s a very old and very tired gag, something of scripted shorthand. Next week, Barry does an awkward impression of Detective West only to realise that the detective is standing right behind him.

That Shipp has sailed...

That Shipp has sailed…

At the same time, the script for City of Heroes seems to acknowledge and embrace this silliness. “Lightning gave me abs?” Barry asks after awaking from a nine-month coma, which may be the most CW-friendly aspect of Barry Allen’s superpowers. (Although it does disappoint viewers anticipating a crossover with Arrow were Oliver Queen welcomes his new super friend to the world of vigilante justice with a gift of a salmon ladder.)

More than that, there’s a cheesy charm to all the soap opera dynamics at play here. It has been argued that superhero stories are really just soap operas for boys, and The Flash seems aware of all this. So the show immediately and effectively establishes a love triangle between attractive young people. Barry wakes up from his nine-month coma to discover that his crush is now dating a character that the show knowingly (and wryly) nicknames “Detective Pretty Boy.”

An explosive début...

An explosive début…

Similarly, the villain feels a little underdeveloped. Creating the villain through the same freak accident that created the hero is an efficient (albeit inelegant) way of getting the plot moving quickly, but one that feels a little forced. The Weather Wizard is – on his own – a C-list comic book baddie. Here, he barely registers as a character, instead feeling like a convenient plot device. City of Heroes needs a quick-and-easy bad guy, and it was this or the Pied Piper.

The script even draws attention to how thin the bad guy is. At the climax, the Weather Wizard starts rambling about how he is basically a God. Detective West simply deadpans, “Why the hell would God need to rob banks?” Clearly he’s a fan of the Star Trek V: The Final Frontier school of theology. Although this prompts the villain to a grand show of force that provides a nice set piece, there’s a hint of truth in it. This is a little generic, isn’t it?

A man of mist-ery...

A man of mist-ery…

The Flash’s villains are an interesting bunch. None of them really have the raw iconic power of the top-draw names that square off against Batman or Spider-Man. It seems unlikely casual film or television fans could name a single Flash baddie. More than that, they look a fairly generic bunch. If you assemble them together, none of them are really that visually striking. However, they are among the most fascinating bad guys in comics, because of how they are written.

These bad guys tend to stick together. They call themselves “the Rogues.” They function almost as a supervillain union. They frequently team up together, and hang out together. Sometimes, they even have insurance plans and dental cover. The Rogues exist as something between a dysfunctional family unit and a medium-level enterprise. This little group is modest in their ambitions. They don’t tend to go on rampages or sprees, instead using great powers for low-level crime.

Sleeping it off...

Sleeping it off…

One of the appeals of doing The Flash as a television show is the freedom to develop this idea and relationship over an extended period of time – instead of having to explore it in a single two-hour feature film. It’s a delightful eccentric aspect of the larger Flash mythos, and it would be nice to see the show play with the idea. While the treatment of Weather Wizard in City of Heroes seems at odds with this, it will be interesting to see how that thread develops.

City of Heroes is a bit silly and cheesy and light; but this fits the Flash. Although somewhat overshadowed by the launch of the Marvel Universe with Fantastic Four #1 in November 1961, the arrival of Barry Allen in Showcase #4 in October 1956 helped to herald the Silver Age of superhero comics. Many of the tropes and iconography we associate with classic superhero comics originated with the Flash. With his bright red costume and iconic yellow lightning bolt, the Flash is tightly associated with that sort of sixties style.

Not fast enough...

Not fast enough…

City of Heroes seems to understand this. It is informative to contrast the show with its sister series, Arrow. Arrow lifts a lot of its mood and iconography from the Christopher Nolan Batman films, playing like a pulpy and less pretentious twist on those defining blockbusters. It is telling that City of Heroes’ big mandatory crossover conversation between Barry Allen and Oliver Queen takes place at night in the inner city, on a rooftop.

In contrast, the rest of the show has a relatively light tone. Barring the final confrontation at the barn, most of the action sequences in City of Heroes take place during the day – making it feel like the difference between The Flash and Arrow is literally night and day. If Arrow borrows its tone from Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Flash seems to be aspiring towards Richard Donner’s Superman films or even Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.

Never too far afield...

Never too far afield…

(After all, one sequence features Barry watching a tray fall to the ground in slow motion. Superhero movie aficionados will remember a similar sequence was used to demonstrate Peter Parker’s new gifts in Spider-Man. However, that scene seems to have been an homage to the first demonstration of Barry Allen’s gifts in Showcase #4. It would appear that our superhero references has finally come a full circle.)

Oddly enough, City of Heroes actually captures the mood of the Marvel movies much better than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has. The show unabashedly unashamed of its superheroics. It counts on the audience to be literate enough to understand the stock beats of a superhero origin, to the point where a lot of Barry Allen’s transformation feels almost rote. The show appreciates that its audience has seen enough of these stories over the past decade that it can breeze through the broad strokes.

Making a splash...

Making a splash…

City of Heroes ends with Barry in a superhero uniform that is very close to the comic book character’s iconic attire. There is no sense that the series is trying to downplay its comic book elements. After all, Arrow features a version of Oliver Queen who wears a much more “realistic” superhero costume. The show features shoutouts to all manner of iconic aspects of the larger Flash mythos, including a fairly overt reference to a giant genocidal mind-controlling gorilla. This is not a show ashamed of its roots.

Geoff Johns, DC Comics’ Chief Creative Officer, is credited as a co-producer on the series and a co-writer on the script for City of Heroes. In many respects, you can sense Johns’ influence on City of Heroes. Johns has worked on several of the more high-profile DC comics characters. With the exception of Wonder Woman, Johns has written a considerable volume for the company’s “big six” superheroes. He knows these characters and their world inside out.

Touching...

Touching…

Johns has a long association with the Flash. Johns really established himself as potent force in the comic book world with an extended run on The Flash in the early years of the twenty-first century. He also helped resurrect and reinstall Barry Allen through the Flash: Rebirth miniseries and a second shorter run on The Flash before DC comics relaunched its entire line in September 2011. It makes sense for Johns to be involved on The Flash.

Even in this forty-five minute episode, there’s a clear sense that the show is drawing from Johns’ work. Johns was the writer who reintroduced Barry Allen as the star of The Flash. The character had famously died during Crisis on Infinite Earths, a massive comic book crossover in 1987. The death was one of the most iconic and memorable moments in the history of DC comics. Johns decided to bring Barry Allen back from the dead. Indeed, Barry Allen was responsible for that September 2011 reboot of the DC universe.

Tomorrow's headlines today!

Tomorrow’s headlines today!

“My name is Barry Allen,” we are told as the show opens. “I am the fastest man alive.” This is one of John’s’ distinctive narrative touches – he also used it during his run on Green Lantern as well – a way of reminding people that every comic could be somebody’s introduction to the medium and that readers should be introduced to the characters as they go. That introduction makes it clear that Johns has made a mark on The Flash.

Johns’ approach to comic book characters is very effective and very iconic. It has been described as “Johns-ian literalism”, which as good a description as any. He has a tendency to boil superhero characters down to their core attributes and then build them back up around there – he looks for thematic elements that can build from these core memorable attributes, developing comic book characters in ways that can often sound quite snappy and logical.

"Did he really have to pout for his police photo?"

“Did he really have to pout for his police photo?”

(For example, when writing Green Lantern, he came up with the idea of the “emotional spectrum.” If Hal Jordan used the green light, surely there must be other lights that can be used in similar ways? So Johns’ extended run on the title introduced a literal spectrum of light wielders – Red Lanterns, Orange Lanterns, Yellow Lanterns, Blue Lanterns, Indigo Lanterns, Violet Lanterns, White Lanterns, Black Lanterns. It was a fundamentally re-jigging of the mythos, but one that fits quite comfortably with the core idea.)

So City of Heroes leans pretty heavily on the idea that the Flash is a character who can run fast. After young Barry Allen gets into a fight, he reflects, “I guess I wasn’t fast enough.” Remembering a past trauma, he admits, “But after that night I was running from something much scarier.” Giving a big pep talk, Harrison Wells warns, “That future will be here faster than you think.” Detective West advises his daughter, “I told you. When you see danger, you run the other way.” The line “run, Barry, run” is used twice.

Everything changes in a flash...

Everything changes in a flash…

There are other moments of literalism at play in City of Heroes. It is no coincidence that Barry Allen is in a coma for nine months, making his rebirth as the Flash almost literal. The script is hardly subtle on this point – Barry was knocked into a coma as Barry Allen, but awoke as something else entirely. The fact that it took his body nine months to work through the changes forges an explicit connection between his rebirth and an actual birth.

We are also told that the accelerator worked for forty-five minutes. Not an hour, forty-five minutes. The fact that this amounts to a single episode of television shrewdly draws that audience’s attention to the nature of the show. The Flash has always been self-aware.  He burst through a strip of film on the cover of Showcase #4, took his name from his favourite comic book character and even begged the audience to read his comic. City of Heroes is not quite as overt in drawing attention to its nature, but there are shades.

Picture perfect...

Picture perfect…

The other big nod towards Johns’ work can be seen in the decision to incorporate Johns’ revisions to Barry’s childhood. When Barry was introduced in the fifties, he was a normal guy who just happened to get hit by lightning and decided to use his powers for good. He did not need a dead relative to spur him towards heroism. In a way, he represents the purest form of Silver Age comic book heroism. However, when Johns reintroduced Barry in Flash: Rebirth, he introduced a dead mother into the mix.

This was a somewhat controversial decision. One of the central themes of Johns’ first run on The Flash was a rejection of the idea that tragedy makes for a better hero. Johns had introduced a new Reverse Flash, the Flash’s arch-enemy, who believed that heroes need to be motivated by loss and suffering in order to understand the weight on their shoulders. So the character sought to introduce that element of tragedy into the Flash’s life to teach him a lesson.

Gorilla warfare...

Gorilla warfare…

(There are elements of that here. Harrison Wells – whose name seems to be a reference to H.G. Wells – accuses the Flash of selfishness. He suggests that Barry is gifted and does not appreciate what that gift might mean to people who have lived less fortunate lives. It’s a short conversation, but it owes a clear debt to the dynamic between Edward Thrawne and Wally West during Geoff Johns’ first run on The Flash.)

When he returned to the title, Johns had a different version of the Reverse Flash offer a twist on that idea. It turned out that this villain had travelled back in time to murder Barry’s mother in order to give him a stock tragic back story that people expect when it comes to superheroes like Batman or Spider-Man. The death of Barry’s mother inspired him to become a police officer, and infused him with a sense of right and wrong. This example was a lot less clear-cut that Johns’ rejection of the idea in his earlier run.

All's Wells...

All’s Wells…

City of Heroes quite clearly draws on that second story. Barry points out that he saw red and yellow lightning in the room with his mother, and even discerns a familiar shape in the blur. It seems quite clear that Barry and somebody else were in that room when his mother died. It’ll be interesting to see where the show goes with the idea. The teaser at the end of the show makes it pretty explicit that The Flash will be playing with time travel, so it will be fascinating to see whether the show chooses to keep the death or reverse it.

After all, City of Heroes embraces the comic book optimism that one associates with The Flash. There is no gritty realism here. When Barry tells Detective West about the bright lights, West tries to dismiss it as delusion and fantasy. “It was your brain helping a scared little boy accept what he saw,” West insists, offering a ground pseudo-psychological explanation. However, by the end of the episode, West has learned that the world is not as grim and as cynical as he might think.

A sketchy character...

A sketchy character…

“I called you crazy for chasing the impossible,” he admits to Barry. Barry manages to get Kate Snow to smile for the first time since the disaster. Barry breaks records. Barry saves countless lives. Barry reverses a twister. It seems like Barry embodies hope and optimism. Even Oliver Queen concedes, “You can be better because you can inspire people in a way that I never could.” It seems quite possible that The Flash may be building towards a rejection of the argument that heroes need tragedy to be heroes.

City of Heroes draws quite heavily from across the DC comics mythos. The newspaper alludes to the death of Barry Allen in Crisis on Infinite Earth. The suggested top speed of seven hundred miles per hour comes from Mike Baron’s work. Barry Allen works as a CSI, as Geoff Johns reinvented him. Even the suggestion that Barry Allen’s iconic (and traditionally technologically-powered) adversaries may be introduced as “meta-humans” is drawn from the more recent comic book work of Brian Buccellato and Francis Manapul.

Father son moment...

Father son moment…

Even the casting of John Wesley Shipp seems like an affectionate acknowledgement of the character’s on-screen legacy. That classic television show might have been cancelled after one season and might now be largely forgotten, but City of Heroes still pays homage to it. The final conversation between Barry and his father seems like a conversation between the show and its predecessor – a promise to carry the name proudly and triumphantly.

City of Heroes is not perfect, but is confident and light and fun. That gives it a pretty good start out of the gate.

You might be interested in our reviews of The Flash:

 

4 Responses

  1. Thanks for the review! I have it on DVR and I just may go watch it before I fall asleep. Thanks again

  2. Haven’t seen the episode yet but I’m interested!

    Great to see the old 1990s series get a nod – I was pretty young at the time but I remember that! Very much in keeping with Teri Hatcher and Helen Slater popping up on ‘Smallville’.

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