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The Flash – Plastique (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.

Plastique demonstrates that we are still in the early days of The Flash as a television show. We are still working through all the stock elements and trying to figure out what works, while also using fairly stock plot lines to help the show find its feet. Going Rogue was a massive step forwards for the show, but Plastique can’t quite maintain the forward momentum. It feels more like The Fastest Man Alive or Some Things You Can’t Outrun, episodes using a fairly episodic format with generic guest stars and familiar plots to help get things moving.

Plastique is a nice demonstration of what works and what doesn’t work about The Flash at this stage in its life-cycle. It is light and bubbly, and more than a little silly. It is very consciously a CW show, to the point where it seems to wryly winking at the audience. It is also endearingly earnest, embracing a lot of its core superhero tropes even as the characters within the narrative remain reluctant to latch on to “the Flash” as a superhero code name. The Flash is a show that is unashamed about its comic book roots; Plastique even teases the appearance of a psychic gorilla.

Boom!

Boom!

However, there are problems. The ensemble is uneven at best. The stand-out performers – whether part of the main cast or simply guest stars – skew older. The younger actors tend to be a bit more hit-and-miss. It is more exciting to watch actors like Jesse Martin, Clancy Brown and Tom Cavanagh interact than to spend any time with Kelly Frye or Carlos Valdes. While a lot of that is down to the quality of the casting, the writing is also to blame. The Flash is at its best when it seems to treat characters as adults, rather than young people doing young people stuff.

Plastique is a solid enough episode, but it is one that demonstrates where the strengths and weakness of the show lie. The Flash needs to start compensating and adjusting for that.

A flash of inspiration...

A flash of inspiration…

There are a lot of stereotypes about the CW. As a network that prides itself on skewing towards a younger and more dynamic audience, it tends to offer those viewers what it thinks they want. Sometimes it happens organically, and sometimes it doesn’t. There is a reason that the salmon ladder has built up a cult following among fans of Arrow, as a beautiful expression of just how transparently the show conspired to write Oliver Queen out of his shirt. Shows on the CW tend to feature sexy young people being sexy, with lots of hot relationships and less clothing.

Of course, these elements arguably lend themselves to superhero stories. After all, superhero stories have been described as “soap operas for boys”, with their serialised interpersonal drama and occasionally voyueristic elements. The Flash has indulged in a number of these stereotypical attributes so far, with Barry’s unrequited attraction to Iris, lots of very awkward attempts to capture the voices of a young “nerdy” cast and plenty of excuses to showcase Grant Gustin’s fairly honed body.

Nerds!

Nerds!

At its best, these moments seem playful. There was something adorable in Eddie Thawne’s inability to identify the Millennium Falcon in Going Rogue, an awkwardly ham-fisted way of identifying him as “cool” in contrast to Barry’s “nerd.” Similarly, Barry was shocked to wake up in City of Heroes to discover that “lightning gave [me] abs.” of course it did, this is a CW show. There is a certain amount of wry self-aware fun to be had with these elements, and The Flash is generally good-humoured enough to pull it off in an endearingly awkward manner.

After all, Plastique finds a way to get Barry out of his costume upon his first meeting with Bette San Souci. She touches it, causing it to become explosive. It leads to a situation where the fastest man alive has to strip down to his underwear in the blink of an eye. It sounds like the opening of a particularly terrible bit of fan fiction, but it works because The Flash is so matter-of-fact about it. Of course that happens, because these are the rules of a narrative like this one. The Flash is not only subject to conventions of genre, but to conventions of network.

Yeah, welcome to the CW!

So that’s why they call him “the Streak”…

There are a few other moments that work in the episode, against expectations. There’s something rather strange about the way that Barry laments him inability to get drunk. It’s hard to imagine that, with everything else that has happened to him, this would be a big deal so early in his career. It might be something that he mournfully notes in passing a year or two into his new life, but Plastique just flat-out makes it a big deal. Young people like drinking, right? Almost as much as they like unrequited love and salmon ladders?

“I can’t get drunk,” Barry confesses to Caitlin and Cisco. “I’m only twenty-five and my drinking days are over.” It is presented as a very serious problem, serious enough to merit an affectionate “… and the gang hang out together” coda at the end of the episode. It leads to the revelation that Caitlin carries a blood testing kit in her purse… because she is a nerd, of coure. It’s an element that could very easily go horrible wrong, but The Flash pulls it off. The show earns moments like that with its “aw, shucks” optimism and earnestness.

Suit up!

Suit up!

However, there are also moments where The Flash really miscalculates in its application of these tropes. In Plastique, the episode tries to portray Cisco as a nerdy ladies’ man. Which, naturally, means that he spends the episode completely misunderstanding how social interactions work, and seeming like a stereotypical sexually frustrated jerk. Plastique seems to treat this portrayal of Cisco as endearing, but it just feels tired and lazy. It seems like the show has misjudged how endearing Cisco is. It aims for “lovable” and lands on “creepy.”

In the teaser, Barry discovers his drinking problem… well, his anti-drinking problem. “I have a problem,” he announces. However, Cisco is busy being quietly resentful of Eddie Thawne. “Yeah, we all do when guys like that exist.” Wait, does Cisco have a crush on Iris, a woman he has barely met? Or is he just quietly resentful of all attractive and charming men? The awkward segue makes it seem like Cisco has some pretty series entitlement issues, and one suspects that he might be one of those stereotypical “nice guys” you read about.

Father knows West!

Father knows West!

Things get worse once the plot actually starts. When Barry’s suit is blown up, Cisco is palpably upset. He starts muttering and whining as if somebody has removed one of his toys from its original packaging. Don’t mess with his stuff! However, this anger quickly transforms to love when he draws up the file photo of Bette San Souci. He is immediately smitten and in love, because he saw a hot picture of her once. When Bette shows up at S.T.A.R. Labs, he makes grossly inappropriate comments about how attractive she is.

The show seems to think that this is hilarious. When he catches himself, it’s a punchline. When Caitlin threatens to lobotomise him, it’s another punchline – no more serious than her rebuke to him when he suggests an exploding boomerang. Even Wells, the team’s designated grown-up, seems to be quite indifferent to how sleeazy and creepy Cisco is behaving. He points out to Bette that Cisco has a crush on her, as if to suggest that they’d make a cute couple or something. Of course, Wells is just manipulating people, but the episode seems uncomfortably amused by Cisco.

Captain Boomerang reference!

Captain Boomerang reference!

The episode also has a bit of trouble with Barry and Iris. It is a problem that is probably less uncomfortable than the issues around Cisco, but is more fundamental to the show itself. The whole romantic tension subplot between Barry and Iris doesn’t work. It is a tried-and-tested superhero cliché, but The Flash seems unsure of what to do with the pair. It feels like the show is checking off items on the old “superhero love interest” checklist, rather than doing something that it is excited about.

That said, there is something a little charming in the homage to Richard Donner’s Superman. Donner’s superhero classic has been around so long that it’s rare to see an overt homage to the film. Here, Barry meets his potential reporter love interest on a roof in his secret identity. It is not quite an all-access interview, but it does feel like a deliberate shout-out to that classic sequence. The Flash is a show that tends to wear its superhero influences on its sleeve, and all these nods towards that most unironic superhero film feel appropriate somehow.

This is what happens when you take dating tips from Superman.

This is what happens when you take dating tips from Superman.

Plastique climaxes what feels like a nod to another old superhero film. As Barry rushes out into the bay with Bette’s body, it is hard not to remember the end of the 1966 Batman! film. One can practically imagine Adam West’s Batman looking on in awe as Barry carries a gigantic comic book bomb out into the harbour to protect the citizens. With its cartoony physics and more overtly comic-book-y logic, this feels like more of a straight-up homage to Batman! than The Dark Knight Rises. Barry even manages to make it back to the city in one piece.

Plastique revels in the superhero potential of the Flash as a comic book character. When Barry tries to figure out how to save a dangling window cleaner, he asks for the location of the nearest mattress shop. Caitlin replies, “Barry, this isn’t a roadrunner cartoon.” Instead, Barry just runs up and down the side of the building, a much more realistic response. Later on, he speed reads his way to vital evidence. All of this feels so delightfully comic-book-y that nobody bats an eye when Barry eventually wonders, “Can I run on water?”

Turns out, some days you CAN get rid of a bomb...

Turns out, some days you CAN get rid of a bomb…

There is a sense that The Flash is working its way through stock stories rather quickly, as if wary of devoting too much time to arc-building or world-crafting at the start of the season. A lot of the stories in the first season have been generic and rote. In The Fastest Man Alive, a super-powered criminal avenged the loss of his wife. In Some Thing You Can’t Outrun, a super-powered criminal avenged himself on those who had wronged him. These are fairly reliable and stock superhero stories.

Plastique digs just a little deeper into the drawer of superhero clichés to give us a human weapon avenging herself upon those who created her. It’s not the most original or radical idea, but it is slightly different from the freaks of the week that we’ve seen so far. “She’s the first meta-human not hell-bent on destroying the city,” Barry muses, which does acknowledge that there hasn’t been too much diversity in storytelling so far. Bette’s character arc is not innovative, but it’s effective in the superhero metaphor sort of way. “I became the thing that almost killed me.”

Hanng on in there!

Hanng on in there!

However, the problem is Bette herself. The character is fairly two-dimensional, but the casting is terrible. Despite being the title guest star, Kelly Frye turns in an abominable performance. Ther is no energy there, no sense of depth. Her line-readings are flat and there’s no sense that Bette has an internal (or even an external) life. She is just there. While it’s a shame for the show to kill off another potentially interesting meta-humanrecurring character, it might be a better alternative than coopting Frye into the series’ recurring cast.

Of course, Frye is overshadowed by “special guest star” Clancy Brown as General Eiling. Brown is a superbly menacing actor, taking a fairly rote “military bad guy” part and infusing it with a strange gravitas. This is a man who believes that he is serving his country by making a mind-controlling gorilla and a human explosive, but Brown gives the character heft. It helps that he gets nice character scenes with both Jesse Martin and Tom Cavanagh. Indeed, the secret to constructing an interesting scene in The Flash seems to be having another character threaten Wells.

Today in evil Harrison Wells news: he doesn't really need glasses at all!

Today in evil Harrison Wells news: he doesn’t really need glasses at all!

The casting of Brown as Eiling is interesting. Brown is a recognisable actor in his own right forever impressed on the popular consciousness because of Highlander. However, he is a frequent star of DC-related animated projects. Indeed, he was famously the voice of Lex Luthor on Superman: The Animated Series and Justice League. Brown provided what may be the definitive on-screen version of Lex Luthor, not that competition is too hot for that title. Any excuse to cast Clancy Brown as a villain is worth taking.

It is also interesting to note that the character of General Eiling was a supporting character in Justice League, played by J.K. Simmons. The character is traditionally associated with Captain Atom in the comic books, although Grant Morrison had helped to reimagine him as a threat to the Justice league during his nineties run on Justice League of America. The Flash would do very well to draw from any of these sources in its definition of a larger DC universe. In particular, Bruce Timm’s animated universe may be the most consistent verison fot eh DC universe ever constructed.

Caged beast...

Caged beast…

The closing scene seems to suggest that the nod towards Gorilla Grodd in City of Heroes was not just an easter egg for fans. It is hard to imagine that a super-intelligent mind-controlling genocidal gorilla could feature on a live-action adaptation of a DC comic book. Even if the results are disastrous, The Flash deserves considerable credit for even attempting to do something that audicious and ambitious. The show is decidedly unashamed of its pulpy comic book roots, and it’s hard not to find that charming.

Plastique is imperfect. It does demonstrate that some aspects of the show are problematic. However, the fact that the episode was willing to let Iron Heights fade into the background suggests that the show might be willing to act to counter these potential problems. The Flash is still young. It is allowed a few missteps as it finds its voice. There is still time for course-correction.

You might be interested in our reviews of The Flash:

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2 Responses

  1. You ever going to finish the series?

    • I’d love to. If I had time.

      I tried to do the first season, and to review the Wally West flash comics in tandem. However, the articles never generated any response in the same way that, for example, my Doctor Who or Star Trek or X-Files reviews did.

      Unfortunately, the blog is not anywhere near self-sustaining, and I don’t think anybody would pay for this content, so there is only so much time that I can spend on it. It’s one of the reasons that there have been fewer comic reviews of late, owing to changed personal circumstances.

      And my priority at the moment is finishing what I’ve already started. When I finish the Star Trek franchise next year, I will turn my attention to some other smaller projects. I want to do some comics stuff, some more film stuff and some stuff beyond the blog itself.

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