Grant Gustin

The DC Universe may be lagging far behind Marvel on the big screen, but television is another matter entirely. Prime time has become a veritable comic book store this fall, with The Flash, Gotham, and Constantine all premiering within weeks of each other and Arrow launching its third season. (Aquaman is still waiting for his agent to call.) It makes a lot of sense because television’s serial nature comes closer to replicating the comic book experience than movie franchises with years between each installment, but that’s not to say all comics-based TV shows are created equal. While Gotham has struggled to find a consistent tone, early indications are that The Flash is perfectly suited to the small-screen environment.

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Predictably, the pilot episode does suffer from a touch of pilot-itis: it’s overstuffed and a bit rushed. (Yes, I realize every reference to speed is going to come off as a Flash pun in this context, but sometimes it can’t be helped.) There’s an origin story to get through, a supervillain to be established and defeated, and an entire cast to introduce. Arrow viewers will have met one of them already: Barry Allen (Grant Gustin), Central City CSI scientist, who made a two-episode visit to Starling City last season. The CW conception of Allen has more than a little Peter Parker in him. In his comic book heyday (and in the short-lived early ’90s TV series), Allen was a standard square-jawed hero type, but Gustin looks like a kid and brings a golly-gee-whiz quality to the character that’s actually kind of refreshing when compared to the grim, brooding avengers that tend to populate DC adaptations.

Allen’s transformation into the Flash plays out as an amalgam of the classic comic-book origin and a more recent retcon, with a dash of Spider-Man tossed in the mix. The new piece of Flash lore, dating back only as far as the 2009 comics miniseries Flash: Rebirth, has Allen witnessing his mother’s murder as a child. Allen’s father Henry (John Wesley Shipp, who played Barry Allen/The Flash in the ‘90s series) is arrested and convicted of the crime, but Barry, who remembers seeing a strange red and yellow lightning storm when his mother vanished, believes he is innocent. This innovation feels like a tacked-on way of investing Allen with some of that DC Universe darkness, as if every superhero has to lose a loved one in order to give the quest for justice a personal stake.

Fortunately, The Flash doesn’t let that aspect of the story overwhelm what is generally a light touch in keeping with the character’s comic book heyday. In the ’60s through the early ’80s, the Flash always had the goofiest storylines and most colorful villains in the DC Universe, and in the early going, the show looks to be honoring that tone. Barry Allen still gets his super-speed powers from a lightning bolt striking an array of chemicals, but there’s a smart tweak to the origin story. The lightning is caused by the explosion of a particle accelerator at STAR Labs, run by Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh), a Steve Jobs-ian genius with ambiguous motivations. Wells and his team nurse Barry back to health and help him harness his new powers in time to battle the Weather Wizard, Clyde Mardon (Chad Rook). As it turns out, the energy from the particle accelerator blast has affected any number of people in different ways, transforming them into meta-humans, which is an ingenious way of stocking the Flash’s rogues gallery in a hurry.

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The most traditionally CW parts of the episode revolve around Barry’s personal life, particular his relationship with Iris West (Candice Patton), a friend since childhood with whom he is hopelessly smitten. When he awakes from a nine-month coma after being struck by lightning, Barry learns Iris is now dating Eddie Thawne (Rick Cosnett), pretty-boy police detective and partner of Iris’s father Joe West (Jesse L. Martin). So far this is pretty standard love triangle stuff, populated by the brand of attractive young people the network apparently stocks in a warehouse, but fans of the Flash mythos won’t be surprised if there’s more to Thawne than meets the eye.

Given all the work the pilot has to do, it’s inevitable that someone would get short shrift, and in this case it’s the villain. Mardon only has a few lines of dialogue, and his weather control powers aren’t all they could be; he basically comes off as a human smoke machine. The character would have benefitted from a longer arc, but it’s understandable that certain concessions have to be made for a pilot episode in order to hook both the network execs and a potential audience. On the whole, however, ”City Of Heroes” is a promising start, giving us a likeable lead with a host of potential adversaries who will, with any luck, be better developed than his first one.

Stray observations:

  • The obligatory Green Arrow cameo for the obligatory superhero pep talk felt…obligatory.
  • Barry Allen, forensic genius, identifies a substance as “fecal excrement.” Is there some other kind of excrement?
  • The pilot contains a few tantalizing Easter eggs for Flash fans. There’s a destroyed cage at STAR Labs with a sign on it reading “Grodd.” And then there’s that final scene, in which Wells enters a secret chamber, stands from his wheelchair, and looks at a newspaper from ten years in the future headlined “Flash Missing: Vanishes in Crisis.” A couple of smaller headlines on the front page: “Red Skies Vanish” and ”Wayne Tech/Queen Inc Merger Complete.”
  • The fast-motion effects so far mostly consist of red blurs with a few shaky-cam closeups thrown in. I do like the retro costume, though. It beats the styrofoam suit from the early ‘90s show.

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