Hubris is at the root of DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow, not just for its characters, who believe themselves capable of altering the course of time, but for its creators, who take a big risk by launching a live-action superhero team TV series at a time when pop culture is saturated with superhero projects. Viewers have turned up for The CW’s other forays into DC superheroes, Arrow and The Flash, but those shows were built around one central hero, limiting the scope of the series by focusing on a solo superhero’s experience. Both shows have large ensembles that feature other heroes, but the title characters are the top priority, a smart decision that has kept the emphasis on personal relationships as those shows build a larger shared Arrowverse (which includes the animated Vixen webseries).
Legends Of Tomorrow breaks from the successful formula of these other Arrowverse series by spotlighting a superhero team, splitting focus nine different ways as a group of seven heroes and two villains travels through time to stop an immortal madman before he achieves world domination. The sensational metahuman fantasy of The Flash represented a significant jump in ambition after the more grounded urban adventures of Arrow, and now Arrowverse producers Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg, and Marc Guggenheim are going even bigger with Legends Of Tomorrow. Bigger isn’t always better, though, and the first half of this pilot is so overstuffed with concept set-up and character exposition that it fails to provide a gripping narrative.
“Pilot, Part One” plays like the first issue of a superhero team comic, which is both a strength and weakness. As a big superhero comic fan, I appreciate this show’s willingness to embrace the most far-fetched elements of the genre. It’s about nine characters traveling through time to stop an immortal dictator (Vandal Savage), and the team includes a time traveler from the future (Rip Hunter), two reincarnated ancient Egyptian hawkpeople (Carter “Hawkman” and Kendra “Hawkgirl” Sanders), an assassin recently brought back from the dead (Sara “White Canary” Lance), and a living nuclear reactor (Firestorm) created by the merging of a scientist (Martin Stein) and a jock (Jefferson “Jax” Jackson). It says something when the guys with the flame and freeze guns (Mick “Heatwave” Rory and Leonard “Captain Cold” Snart) and the size-changing supersuits (Ray “The Atom” Palmer) are the most plausible characters, and that eagerness to dive headfirst into the superhero fantasy is a huge part of this show’s charm.
Most of the first half of this episode is dedicated to getting the team together, which means quickly establishing who new character Rip Hunter is, who the established characters are, and why they join the team after Rip offers them a chance to become legends. The math comes out to about two minutes per character, which forces the writers to rush through important information by doling out huge chunks of exposition. This is a common occurrence in the first issues of superhero team comics, and while a series of infodumps punctuated by action may not be the smoothest way to set up a story, it gets the background info out of the way quickly so the characters can start interacting as a team. Those early scenes are clunky, but it’s also exciting to see so many larger-than-life characters in such quick succession.
The cast can be split into two groups based on those that have a personal stake in taking down Vandal Savage (Rip, Carter, Kendra) and those that have no connection to Savage (everyone else), and the characters with the most distance from the villain are the most intriguing. Part of that is due to those cast members being in the Arrowverse longer—with the exception of Franz Drameh’s Jax—so they have a better handle on their roles. It can take time for performers to create a distinct personality within their broader character types, and the actors playing Savage (Casper Crump), Rip (Arthur Darvill), Carter (Falk Hentschel), and Kendra (Ciara Renée) aren’t there yet.
A villain like Vandal Savage demands a bigger presence than what Crump brings to the character, and if he’s not going to be physically imposing, he needs to channel Savage’s power in his performance. Right now, Vandal Savage comes across as the slimy deputy of a scarier unknown foe rather than an almighty evil mastermind, which a problem that is carried over from his appearance in last year’s Arrow/The Flash crossover. Hentschel’s Carter also suffers from the same issue as his performance in that crossover, namely a wooden delivery that undermines the supposed passion of his eternal romance with Kendra.
It’s not Ciara Renée’s fault that her character as Kendra wasn’t adequately developed before it was revealed that she’s actually a reincarnated Egyptian priestess with hawk wings, but her performance suffers because the internal conflict between Kendra the barista and Shayera the priestess hasn’t been fully realized. Renée has the most difficult role in the cast thanks to all of Hawkgirl’s backage, and it doesn’t help that the show is pushing her into the Shayera role before she’s ready for it. When the team goes back in time to 1975, their Vandal Savage resource turns out to be the son of Kendra and Carter from a previous life, and Kendra is quick to form an emotional attachment to the stranger.
That connection needs to happen quick because Aldus will be dead by the end of the episode and the writers want to make that a painful moment, but his death scene just feels forced because their relationship is paper-thin and based in an experience the viewer barely knows anything about. Rip is in a similar situation, and the big reveal that his wife and child were the people killed by Savage at the start of the episode isn’t very shocking or devastating. It’s no surprise that Savage killed Rip’s family because he’s killed billions in his campaign for world domination, and it’s silly that the team is more sold on Rip’s mission after they learn about his personal loss than before when they just think billions of people are going to be killed.
At The CW’s presentation at this year’s Television Critics Association press tour, network president Mark Pedowitz described Legends Of Tomorrow as “Guardians Of The Galaxy meets Doctor Who,” and it’s an apt summary. The Doctor Who aspects come through in the time-traveling concept featuring a British Time Lord Master, and while it may seem like a rip-off, Rip Hunter’s comic-book debut predated Doctor Who by four years. Doctor Who is very wise inspiration for a superhero story on this scale, and the British series’ skill for telling ambitious sci-fi and fantasy narratives with a limited budget is something the creative team of Legends Of Tomorrow should strive to replicate.
This episode features a ragtag group of lesser-known comic-book characters that crack wise and get into fights while popular ’70s music plays in the background, which is basically Guardians Of The Galaxy except the team is traveling through time instead of outer space. The bar fight set to Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” is easily the high point of this episode, and the juxtaposition of the cheery music with the brutal fight choreography makes for an extremely entertaining sequence. It’s also a spotlight for Sara (Caity Lotz), Leonard (Wentworth Miller), and Mick (Dominic Purcell), three characters that gel very well together.
There’s a coolness to Lotz and Miller’s performances that creates an instant bond between Sara and Leonard, but there’s also a fire inside Sara that melts away the cool when she’s provoked on the dance floor, aligning her with the hot-tempered Mick. Miller and Purcell have a long history of working together, and they’re performances compliment each other perfectly, with Miller playing suave and superior while Purcell goes for gruff and aggressive. Their motivation for joining the team also makes a lot of sense without requiring much explanation: they’re thieves, and they can steal some really valuable stuff as time travelers.
As a former assassin, Sara has more in common with the rogues of the group in terms of attitude, but she has the heart of a hero, a delicate balance that Lotz captures remarkably well. Lotz is the best part of this episode, and she’s especially good at projecting emotions without saying anything. Her introductory scene in Tibet effectively details her mental state with minimal dialogue—the ghostly reflection of Sara’s face in the foggy bar window says a lot about the emptiness of her life since she came back from the dead—and there’s a significant change in the way Lotz carries herself once Sara is in the past. Sara was confined by all the pressures of her life in the present, but she’s able to let herself free in the ’70s, which is why she refuses to stay in the Waverider when Rip and a small group go out to learn more about Savage.
The White Canary spreads her wings when she hits the bar’s dance floor, and her body language is sensual and confident, a big contrast from the angry, confused Sara of the opening scenes. She enjoys her brief time dancing, but she really comes to life when a man gets handsy, giving Sara permission to kicks his ass and the asses of anyone else that comes after her. The camerawork before the fight accentuates Sara’s charisma with a full-body shot of her taking control of the dance floor, and the camera stays on her as it moves around the bar, reinforcing how all eyes are on Sara while also showing off more of the space that will become her fighting arena. This single-take shot ends with Leonard watching intently in the background, teasing his eventual involvement in this conflict when Sara calls for back-up, and even before the fight breaks out, the smart, specific creative choices by director Glen Winter and cinematographer David Geddes draw the viewer into the action.
You know that scene in Guardians where they’re all sitting in a circle and then they motivate each other and stand up at the end all inspired and ready to work as a team? The ending of this episode is like that scene but way longer and it’s doesn’t end with a joke that points out how trite it all is. Yet in the midst of all the blunt talk about becoming legends, Sara brings up the deeper concept that could make this show great if the writers tap into it. “If we have the power to change the world, don’t you think we have the power to change our own fate?” Sara asks Ray, and this idea that they’re not only fighting to stop Savage, but to find fulfillment in their lives is much more interesting and emotionally complex than simply having a superhero team travel through time to stop the bad guy. Maybe they’ll be legends at the end of it all, but an even greater victory is finally being satisfied with who they are, legends or not.
- Brandon Routh is such great casting for The Atom, a superhero with a severe inferiority complex. So much of Routh’s history with the superhero genre involves him being perceived as a lesser version of Christopher Reeves due to the disappointing performance of Superman Returns, and the character of Ray Palmer benefits from Routh’s off-screen narrative. Even with Ray’s desperate, slightly annoying need to leave a lasting impact on the world, Routh’s natural charm makes the character very likable. His talent still isn’t enough to sell some of Ray’s heavy-handed lines about becoming a legend, but he’s a lot of fun when he’s not functioning as a vessel for the series’ pitch.
- Martin Stein drugging Jax, kidnapping him, and forcing him to join him on a dangerous mission through time is a really horrible thing to do and makes him look like an awful person. Victor Garber is great as Martin and clearly having a wonderful time acting in this heightened setting, but that is a seriously problematic way to introduce the character at the top of the series.
- Having characters comment on a bounty hunter looking a lot like Boba Fett and Darth Vader doesn’t excuse the design shortcut of having a bounty hunter that looks like Boba Fett, but I do like the idea of the villain this team faces in the ’70s having a design heavily influenced by Star Wars. It’s still pretty lazy, though.
- Where’s The Flash? Grant Gustin wasn’t available for a quick cameo?
- Carter: “Vandal is immortal. Kendra and I reincarnate.” Sara: “Yeah. I’ve done that.”
Jax: “Knock yourself out.” Martin: “You took the words out of my mouth.” Why are you so shady, Martin?!
- “Hey, haircut! Deafness wasn’t one of the side effects.”
- “I say we go get weird in the ’70s.”
- “Who wants to listen to some Captain & Tennille? My mother played it. A lot.”
- “I do not need another roofie!”