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The Flash – Fastest Man Alive (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.

In many ways, Fastest Man Alive plays like the second part of a pilot for The Flash. Like City of Heroes before it, Fastest Man Alive is written by Andrew Kreisberg and Geoff Johns, with Greg Berlanti credited on the story. It is also directed by David Nutter, one of television’s most respected pilot directors – even if his famous “hot streak” of pilots going straight to show was interrupted when CBS did not pick up The Doctor in 2011.

Fastest Man Alive is still about building the world around Barry Allen. City of Heroes established the basics, the ground rules of the world in which Barry operates. Fastest Man Alive exists to delineate them a bit further. It defines the ensemble better, clarifying the roles of Joe West and Iris West in the grand scheme of things; it gives Barry the confidence he needs to do what he does; it imposes limits on Barry’s ability; it clarifies that Harrison Wells is not entirely heroic.

CGI flames! My fatal weakness!

CGI flames! My fatal weakness!

Given the amount of attention and effort that Fastest Man Alive devotes to cementing the foundations of The Flash, it’s understandable that there really isn’t too much room for anything else. Fastest Man Alive is about settling the cast and the writers into a sustainable status quo for the next stretch of episodes – maybe even the entire first season. It makes sure that everybody knows where everything lies and that there’s a solid base upon which to build.

So, while Fastest Man Alive might not be an especially brilliant episode of television, it does a very good job of setting up what it needs to set up.

Born to run...

Born to run…

The Flash is, by its nature, going to be a cheesy television show. It is, after all, about a hero in a bright red costume who can move faster than anybody else alive and who deals with foes like that guy who wears 3D glasses and a parka, or the orange-and-green dude who can transport through mirrors, or the kid with explosive bubblegums and other novelty items. It’s quite nice to see Fastest Man Alive embrace that cheesiness, even if lines like “we were all struck by that lightning” push it a little too far.

There is something endearingly old-fashioned about the derring-do heroism of The Flash. It seems to hark back to a more innocent phase in the superhero canon. Fastest Man Alive doesn’t open with Barry Allen foiling a robbery or resolving a hostage crisis – it features our hero rescuing people from a burning building. Like rescuing cats from trees, that is among the most effective visual shorthand for “plain and simple heroics” – to the point where even Alan Moore uses it to similar effect in Watchmen.

Hint: if a character is introduced receiving some sort of basic human decency award, they are probably not a basically decent human...

Hint: if a character is introduced receiving some sort of basic human decency award, they are probably not a basically decent human…

The opening sequence seems to hark back to Sam Raimi’s turn-of-the-millennium Spider-Man movies, the first two of which similarly used burning buildings as a way to establish Peter Parker’s superheroic bona fides. Along with the gags about cheesy supervillain names (“Captain Clone?”) and the food tray in City of Heroes, it feels like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy is serving as something of a model for the tone and mood of The Flash.

This is quite appropriate. After all, that “hero uses super-reflexes to catch everything on a falling tray” sequence from the original Spider-Man was borrowed wholesale from the first appearance of Barry Allen in Showcase #4. Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies seem very wholesome and sincere about superheroics, particularly when compared to some of the more cynical adaptations that followed. The Flash seems to be aiming for that more earnest and endearing approach to the four-coloured costumed heroes.

Smith pile!

Smith pile!

That said, there is another obvious influence at play here – one that reaches even further back. The Flash seems to be consciously borrowing from Richard Donner’s classic Superman movies. That makes a great deal of sense. For the longest time, Richard Donner’s movies about the Man of Steel set the benchmark for superhero storytelling on-screen. While Tim Burton’s Batman made quite an impression, Donner’s depiction of superheroes remained the benchmark until Christopher Nolan’s Batman film.

Fastest Man Alive very clearly establishes Iris West as a reporter. While this is obvious a part of established Flash continuity, it cannot help but evoke the classic romance between Clark Kent and Lois Lane. As in those classic Superman films, the female journalist first encounters our hero during a crisis that occurs during what should be a mundane assignment. We even get a variation of the classic “open the shirt to reveal the insignia” sequence, albeit with a bag, rather than a shirt.

Well, there goes your Metamorpho spin-off!

Well, there goes your Metamorpho spin-off!

There is something quite wholesome about The Flash. A lot of that is down to Grant Gustin’s “aw, shucks” persona, but there’s also a sense that The Flash has little room for moral ambiguity or uncertainty about what Barry does. Unlike Oliver Queen in Arrow, Barry Allen is almost immediately endorsed by figures of authority. He may operate outside the bounds of the law, but it’s hard to classify Barry Allen as a vigilante in the same way that Oliver Queen is.

A large part of Fastest Man Alive is trying to construct a broad consensus about who Barry is and what he does. The crew at S.T.A.R. Labs initially seem to see Barry as a tool with a very specific function – his job is to hunt down “meta-humans.” His role has a very narrow focus, with the goal being to contain the damage caused by the accident that gave him is power. Joe West, on the other hand, initially insists that Barry is not a police officer or a fireman. “Chasing bad guys is not your job, it’s mine.”

"Gee, this treadmill looks pretty cosmic..."

“Gee, this treadmill looks pretty cosmic…”

Fastest Man Alive is about Barry trying to figure out what “the Flash” is supposed to be, and trying to convince the other members of the group to accept it. By the end of the episode, it seems like everybody is on the same page. The S.T.A.R. Labs crew accept that Barry cannot simply be a damage-control mechanism for their laboratory, while Joe West accepts that Barry has the power to do impossible things. Confronted with a self-cloning villain, West admits, “The only person it’s not beyond is you.”

Fastest Man Alive races through the expected superhero plot arcs. Not only does Barry gain the acceptance of those around him, he goes through his own crisis of faith. After all, isn’t that what second stories are for? The traditional superhero trilogy spends the first movie establishing the hero, and the second putting the character through a period of self-doubt. Bruce Wayne blames himself in The Dark Knight, Peter Parker loses his powers in Spider-Man II, Clark Kent retires with Lois in Superman II.

Shakin' things up around here...

Shakin’ things up around here…

Here, Barry Allen walks away from his support structure. This prompts Harrison Wells works to bring Joe West into the circle of trust, acknowledging that Barry is suffering from the sophomoric superhero slump. “Doubt is his real enemy, Joe,” Wells insists. “Not whatever’s lurking out there.” While the two are not mutually exclusive, Wells seems to have hit on the familiar second-instalment character arc. Maybe he doesn’t just have access to tomorrow’s newspapers, but to yesterday’s video rentals.

It’s all rather stock, but it works well enough. The best part of getting through all this now means that the show doesn’t have to do this later. The Flash has been – appropriately enough – quite pacy. There’s a sense that City of Heroes and Fastest Man Alive are working hard to hit all the requisite plot beats as quickly as possible so that they can straight into the whole “superhero television show” thing without too much padding or stalling.

Admit it, you heard the John Williams music too...

Admit it, you heard the John Williams music too…

After all, The Flash seems to have already moved ahead of televisual superhero contemporaries like Smallville or Gotham or even Arrow. Though the post-credits teaser is surprisingly ruthless, the most interesting aspect of that scene is the fact that Wells actually refers to Barry as “the Flash”  – not “the Red Streak” or “the Man in the Red Suit” or some similar euphemism. Barry Allen is already in the suit, so there’s no need for obfuscation like “the Blur” or “the Arrow.”

Fastest Man Alive also establishes some limits on Barry Allen’s power set. It is revealed that he needs lots of carbohydrates to maintain his speed, similar to Mike Baron’s tweaking of the mythos in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths. While Wally West’s monster appetite was a fairly arbitrary limit in the world of comic books, it makes more sense on television. After all, there are budgetary concerns that require the show to keep Barry and his opponents on a certain scale.

From a single cell...

From a single cell…

Really, the most worrying part of The Flash so far is the decision to have Iris West as the only member of the core ensemble who doesn’t recognise Barry as the Flash. The idea of keeping “secrets” is a stock part of the superhero genre, but in this case it might make it difficult to integrate Iris with the rest of the cast around her. More than that, the “I made a promise to your father” feels like the worst sort of soap opera angst – one that feels like it might trap Iris in the role of love interest rather than a character in her own right.

There’s also something a little uncomfortable in the idea that Barry grew up in the same house as Iris, as a pseudo-sibling. While it’s an effective way to give Barry a father-figure in Joe West, it does add an awkwardness to the idea of a romance between the two. If Barry considers Joe to be something of a father, doesn’t that make Iris something of a sister? It’s a plot thread that the show will need to navigate very carefully.

Copy that...

Copy that…

As with City of Heroes, there is a sense that the antagonist of Fastest Man Alive is something of an after-thought. “MultiPlex” is a d-list DC comics villain at best, a character who has been overshadowed by Marvel’s much more successful Madrox the Multiple Man. The ability to duplicate himself is very much a stock super-power, and one that could be realised quite cost-effectively on a television budget. Danton Black is scarcely developed, but that’s point – Fastest Man Alive is still about the lead cast.

Interestingly, Andrew Kreisberg and Geoff Johns adopt a tried-and-tested approach to supervillain characterisation here, a very easy and effective means of generating some small amount of pathos for the bad guy. It is revealed that Danton Black lost his wife as a result of Simon Stagg’s greed. If this plot sounds familiar, Paul Dini gave pretty much the same back story to D-list Batman antagonist Mr. Freeze in Heart of Ice on Batman: The Animated Series.

Quick on his feet...

Quick on his feet…

This tweak to the origins of Victor Fries served to breath new life into a fairly generic ice-themed thug, and has since established itself as a very effective means of character reinvention for other bland and one-dimensional bad guys. After all, DC comics has an incredibly deep bench of supervillains, and not all of them have received development or even back story. Giving the audience a clear motivation an a reason to feel sympathetic is a very efficient way of remedying that.

It is also worth noting that “MultiPlex” works reasonably well as a metaphor for Barry’s character arc in Fastest Man Alive. Danton Black learns that he cannot be an army of one person, just as Barry learns the same lesson. Similarly, Barry cannot simply be a “blank” slate for West or Wells’ direction and ideas, he has to be his own man. It’s never really developed, but he serves a very clear thematic purpose. That said, Fastest Man Alive does suggest that The Flash might need some better-defined antagonists.

Seeing double... or quadruple...

Seeing double… or quadruple…

Still, it helps that The Flash actually has a pretty solid cast. The two best performers in the ensemble are the two most experienced. Jesse L. Martin brings a charming authority to the obligatory father-figure role, while Tom Cavanagh is delightfully ambiguous as Harrison Wells. The best character sequences in Fastest Man Alive feature Joe West and Harrison Wells measuring each other up. West seems suspicious of Wells’ motivations, while Wells knows how to manipulate West.

There’s a sense that West is the only member of the primary cast who is old enough and experienced enough to see through Wells’ good samaritan act. After all, Wells calls Simon Stagg out on pretending to be a philanthropist or a humanitarian, inviting the audience to wonder what that makes Wells. “Did you know about Barry?” Detective West asks Wells, flat out – wary of the idea that Wells might be trying to exploit his surrogate son.

Down to business...

Down to business…

There’s a very clever suggestion that West may be a father-figure to Barry Allen, but Wells sees himself as a father-figure to the Flash. It is worth noting that the portrayal of Wells is very much in keeping with Geoff Johns’ approach to the Reverse Flash as a villain – a character who argues that a superhero needs to be nurtured and controlled, the product of a meticulously-crafted set of circumstances. It will be interesting to see where the arc goes, and Cavanagh is doing great work.

Of course, The Flash isn’t playing its cards too close to its chest here. City of Heroes ended with the revelation that Wells could walk and that he had the power to see into the future. Just in case there was any lingering ambiguity – and faking a disability was not evidence enough – Fastest Man Alive featured Wells flat-out murdering a guy in pursuit of his own agenda. Next time, the teaser may show him kicking a puppy.

All's Wells...

All’s Wells…

As with City of Heroes, Fastest Man Alive draws heavily from the comic books which inspired the show. Keeping with the references to Crisis on Infinite Earths at the end of City of Heroes, Wells makes another here. He explains that his ambition and eagerness led him to this point, where he is “in a wheelchair… and a pariah.” Pariah was, of course, the character who travelled from one world to the next to herald the end of all things in Crisis on Infinite Earths. (Stagg’s death is similar to that of Pariah’s in Infinite Crisis.)

There are other nods. The fact that Caitlin’s supposedly deceased fiancé is named Raymond suggests that he may be Firestorm, another DC superheroic character. Stagg makes a reference to Mercury, the god who actually provided the source of Jay Gerrick’s power. While tossing around code-names for Danton Black, Cisco suggests, “Meet Captain Clone. Don’t worry, we’ll come up with something cooler.” Somewhat ironic, considering the importance of Captain Cold as an antagonist for the Flash.

Getting his head in the game...

Getting his head in the game…

“This is the part where I’m supposed to do the whole intro thing,” Barry narrates at the start of the episode, before dismissing the idea. “But let’s get to the good stuff.” While this loses its impact after an extended “previously” segment, there’s a sense that The Flash is really trying to get through as many of the obligatory superhero story beats as possible in as little time as possible. As of the end of Fastest Man Alive, it seems that almost everything is in place. The show is ready to hit the ground running.

You might be interested in our reviews of The Flash:

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6 Responses

  1. Wow this is an incredible analysis of this episode in context and relationship to a ton of other superhero properties. You’ve pretty much said it all!

  2. There are a lot of stock CW story elements at play, but they are well executed stock story elements. I definitely got the feeling of them still laying out all the building blocks so I’m willing to give them some time to pay things off.

    Also it’s just a really pleasant contrast to Arrow to have a show that isn’t all about moral ambiguity and woe.

  3. I would definitely be interested in your take on the Wally West Flash series; there were some great stories told with that iteration of the character.

    • There really well. The Waid/Johns years were fantastic. The Messner-Loebs era is also somewhat underrated. Mike Baron’s run is the only one that really seems to struggle to hit the ground running, pardon the pun.

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