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The Flash – Some Things You Can’t Outrun (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.

The Flash is a show that can withstand a certain amount of cheese. After all, it is a television series about a character dressed in a red jumpsuit who can run faster than the speed of sound. There is going to be a certain amount of cheesiness baked into the premise by default. City of Heroes and Fastest Man Alive managed to skirt along the edge of the show’s threshold of cheesiness. Some Things You Can’t Outrun just jumps right on over that threshold.

Some Things You Can’t Outrun is the show’s first misfire. It’s the first time that the show has been written by anybody other than Andrew Kreisberg & Geoff Johns, and the first time it has been directed by anybody other than David Nutter. It feels like there’s something of a learning curve here, as Some Things You Can’t Outrun doesn’t work on multiple levels. The show seems to take forever to get going, is hampered by a fairly weak guest star, and weighed down by cringe-inducing dialogue.

Let's not pop the champagne that fast...

Let’s not pop the champagne that fast…

Balancing cheesiness and earnestness will by one of the biggest challenges to The Flash, as the show has to figure out how to strike the best balance between the inherent goofiness of the character and the demands of a prime-time network drama show. City of Heroes and Fastest Man Alive seemed to suggest that the show had already got a good grip on this delicate equilibrium. Unfortunately, Some Things You Can’t Outrun struggles to be light-hearted without being cheesy, and earnest without being angsty.

There is a sense that the show has hit its first speed bump.

A gas time...

A gas time…

The dialogue in Some Things You Can’t Outrun is just painful at times. When it comes to superheroes, there is an urge to go bigger and broader – due to the iconic nature of the characters, there’s an impulse to anchor every observation in some super-power metaphor. Even the title of Some Things You Can’t Outrun is a laboured attempt to tie Barry Allen’s powers into his character arc. While the title alone isn’t too bad, the episode soon gets weighed down by all these strained and stretched metaphors.

“Being alive means running,” Barry tells us in the teaser, as we get some nice shots of the Flash running around Central City. “Running from something, running to something. Or some one. And no matter how fast you are, there are some things you can’t outrun.” We get it. The Flash is a character who can run faster than anybody else. However, there are abstract concerns and personal issues that this power does not allow him to escape. How ironic.

Man of mist-ery...

Man of mist-ery…

There is a sense that writers Alison Schapker & Grainne Godfree are trying to channel Geoff Johns. The comic book writer helped to draft the first two episodes of the show, and enjoyed an extended run on the character back at the start of the millennium. Johns has become one of DC’s most prolific and successful writers. He currently serves as the company’s Chief Creative Officer. His style is to literalise a character’s skillset and powers, to tie everything into archetypes and metaphors – Johnsian literalism, if you will.

Some Things You Can’t Outrun works very hard to apply that literalism to Barry Allen. He is a fast character, so wouldn’t it be a great dramatic hook if there were things he could not escape? It’s a very nice idea in principle, but it illustrates why one has to be careful with this approach to superheroes. If it isn’t applied with care and craft, it can seem clumsy and forced. Even Johns himself has occasionally struggled with this problem in his writing, trying to figure out how best to strike the right balance.

This crime spree is working gangbusters...

This crime spree is working gangbusters…

However, the problems with the script to Some Things You Can’t Outrun are more fundamental than this issue of theme and metaphor. The dialogue is terrible. It is overblown in a way that feels like a parody of bad comic book dialogue, with so much knowing irony baked into character conversations that it seems like Some Things You Can’t Outrun might collapse under its own weight at certain points.

The teaser introduces us to the generic mobsters who refer to each other as “uncle” and “nephew” rather than being an endearing character quirk, it feels artificial and forced. As “uncle” is ranting about how rival gangs are undermining his power base, he insists that they need to find out who is organising these robberies. “Then those thieves will draw their last breath,” he boasts, right before he is swallowed by a toxic green cloud of gas. Some Things You Can’t Outrun suggests irony with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

Tread lightly...

Tread lightly…

This is not the only example. When we flash back to the initialisation of the particle accelerator, Harrison Wells assures his staff, “All I can think to say is that I feel like I’ve waited for this day for centuries.” It is a statement that expresses a rather understandable sentiment, but it is shoehorned into the scene so awkwardly that you expect Some Things You Can’t Outrun to pause the episode and helpfully offer viewers a flashing neon arrow to assure them that Harrison Wells is a time traveller.

It’s all very coy, and very cute – but The Flash has been coy and cute before. While the post-credit scenes in City of Heroes and Fastest Man Alive were not subtle about the nature of Harrison Wells, they weren’t winking so painfully at the audience. Arguably, the cutest hint to Harrison Wells’ true nature as a time traveller is his name. His first initial is “H” and his surname is “Wells.” There’s a sense that Some Things You Can’t Outrun would have been better to reveal the character’s middle name as “Grant” or something.

Suit up!

Suit up!

There are points where Some Things You Can’t Outrun skirts the line between clever in-jokes and groan-inducing mythology gags. The cinema behind Barry and Iris at the start of the episode is cute, advertising movies featuring C-list DC characters like “Blue Devil” or “Rita Farr.” Indeed, the film “Blue Devil II” seems endearingly ironic, given that the character in question once sold his soul to a literal demon in return for fame and fortune.

The flashbacks in Some Things You Can’t Outrun are very clearly setting up the appearance of another DC comics superhero. The first two episodes did a nice job teasing out the identity of Ronnie Raymond, Caitlin Snow’s fiancée. However, Some Things You Can’t Outrun lays it on a little heavy. “He used to say we were like fire and ice,” Caitlin recalls. That’s an awkward line coming from a character named Snow, even before one gets to the strained foreshadowing of Ronnie and Caitlin’s future super-powered identities.

"My Cerebro is coming along nicely..."

“My Cerebro is coming along nicely…”

(Also groan-inducing is Barry’s response to Joe’s concerns about his thirst for glory. “It’s not like I want a museum built in my honour,” Barry insists, a forced shout-out to the Flash Museum from the comics. There’s a sense that the episode is being a little too wry for its own good. The appearance of a treadmill in Fastest Man Alive was quite endearing, without some painfully awkward to the “cosmic” nature of the device as a wink to the comic books.)

However, dialogue is just one problem with Some Things You Can’t Outrun. Once again, the Flash finds himself facing a fairly generic bad guy. In this case, it is Kyle Nimbus – a man who can turn himself into gas, named by Cisco as “The Mist.” The character is not directly associated with the larger mythos of The Flash. Instead, the character is most associated with the Golden Age Starman comics, where he was the arch enemy of Ted Knight.

Green meanie...

Green meanie…

Once again, there is a connection to Geoff Johns here. The most recent comic book appearances by the Mist were in James Robinson’s superb nineties Starman revival. The success of Starman led to DC recruiting James Robinson to write Justice Society of America, a book populated with Golden Age characters in the contemporary DC universe. When Robinson departed, the series was taken over by Geoff Johns and David S. Goyer, giving Johns his first big break in the world of comics.

Robinson’s Starman characters remained a part of that book, with Goyer and Johns being among the few writers outside of Robinson to write for the character of second-generation Starman Jack Knight. Indeed, Johns would go on to have Jack Knight pass the “Star” mantle on to the character of “Stargirl”, Courtney Whitmore. Whitmore would become a character very close to Johns, who modelled her personality on his deceased sister.

Well Wells...

Well Wells…

As such, there is a strained six-degrees-of-separation at play here. One can see why The Flash would be taking the time to properly set up the core members of the main character’s rogues gallery. Using somewhat disconnected characters like Multi-Plex and the Mist in earlier episodes devoted to setting up the status quo and building the show’s world means that the show will then be able to more properly integrate iconic Flash baddies into the mythos.

That said, the problem with the Mist is nothing to do with his tangential relationship with The Flash. The problem with the Mist is that the character is too similar to the Weather Wizard who appeared in City of Heroes. While the Weather Wizard could not transform himself into gas, his powers still meant that the episode climaxed with Barry confronting a gaseous phenomenon. The ending to Some Thing You Can’t Outrun feels a little too close to that. It feels like something that we’ve seen before.

Out in a flash...

Out in a flash…

(The episode is also undermined by a fairly weak and generic performance from Anthony Carrigan. Carrigan has an effective screen presence, but his line-delivery is just terrible. The fact that the script doesn’t give him anything more than stock clichés doesn’t help. “Now go run away,” he warns our hero at one point, an awful line – but one delivered with no real weight or substance. The Mist makes no real impression. Given how hard the episode works to keep the character alive at the end, it feels like a wasted opportunity.)

Some Things You Can’t Outrun feels like a wasted opportunity. There are a wealth of interesting ideas here, but the script structures them terribly. Kyle Nimbus’ attack on Iron Heights while Joe West is visiting with Henry Allen is a great set-up for a final act. A killer with the ability to transform himself into gas would be astonishingly lethal and effective in a tight confined space like a prison. Instead, it feels like a bullet point the script has to check off. No sooner are the Flash and the Mist there then they are outside again.

No time like the past...

No time like the past…

There are little elements of Some Things You Can’t Outrun that do work. Barry Allen’s split-second crime-fighting in the teaser is a rather fun illustration of the character’s powers and the show’s general mood. Similarly, the way that Wells points out that the bad guys have an unfortunate (or, as Wells puts it “fortunate”) tendency to die around Barry feels like the show calling itself out. If the Flash is to be an optimistic hero, the idea of a “no kill” rule needs to be established a lot quicker than it was on Arrow.

There are some nice little touches. Barry’s use of his powers to blur his face is a delightful use of his super-speed in a way that recalls his personal centrifuge in Fastest Man Alive. The show seems to be acknowledging its debt to Richard Donner’s Superman movies. The elevator in the Central City Police Department looks like it was shipped straight from Richard Donner’s Metropolis. Because, let’s face it, it isn’t like Zack Snyder was going to need it.

"You'd be amazed what we found lying around the Warner Brothers lot!"

“You’d be amazed what we found lying around the Warner Brothers lot!”

Some Things You Can’t Outrun represents a bit of a stumble for the series. City of Heroes and The Fastest Man had gotten the show off to a running start, but Some Things You Can’t Outrun suggests that first season teething problems are as inevitable as over-wrought angst.

You might be interested in our reviews of The Flash:

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