Sunday, May 29, 2016

My Love-Hate Relationship With The Legends Of Tomorrow

On the opposite end of the scale for me this season from The Flash was the debuting Legends of Tomorrow. The lofty promises and goals laid out at the beginning all made me very hopeful and excited for the series. As it wore on over its 16 episodes though, the series more and more left a lot to be desired. Some of this was forgiven by the eventual reveal of the last two episodes (which I will be spoiling here, since it’s relevant to the discussion of the show’s overall quality) but not everything. But we’ll get there.
A ragtag group of misfits must travel through time to stop an immortal genius from taking over the world in the future. Some of them are superpowered, some of them are villains, and they just can’t seem to get along or get it together! There is nothing better. Any pitch that starts with: a ragtag group of misfits needs no more explanation for me to get on board. But when it’s DC, and the immortal genius happens to be Vandal Savage, one of my all-time favorite villains ever, then you have got everything going for you! Six seasons and a movie, let’s do this!

Okay… I didn’t realize they were going to immediately interact with Vandal Savage so often. Nobody’s going to kill him? Oh, weird. Ah, I see, only Hawkgirl and Hawkman can kill him, because they’re… linked by an immortal curse of reincarnation? Wait a minute… That’s not Vandal Savage. That’s Hath-Set, an entirely separate villain, linked to the Hawks origins in ancient Egypt. Well, the Arrowverse has been doing this to varying degrees of success, so maybe it’s fine… Oh, Hawkman’s dead. So now it’s up to Hawkgirl. But we’re not going to send Hawkgirl into direct confrontation with Savage anymore? Kind of defeats the purpose of the mission, but okay… Hope this team comes up with a plan. Oh, they can’t find Savage anymore. Hope they start working as a team. Wow, they are all incapable. Well, now she’s incapable of killing him, because… love? Oh. Oh! Wait, it doesn’t matter anyway, guys. No one could have killed Savage even if they tried. Remember the Time Lords? OH! I mean the Time Masters? Yeah, turns out they were working with him the whole time. Also, they can manipulate time as they see fit. No one has been responsible for their own actions this whole time. Talk about sucks.

A paragraph-sized version of my growing frustration and confusion with the season. Week-to-week, it was an increasingly difficult show to watch. But could it have been better? Are there pieces of a successful show in there? Of course there are.

If you start here, this is the most basic premise of the season:
- A person petitions a governing body to allow him jurisdiction to bring in a war criminal. They deny him this, so he goes rogue.
- He assembles a team of somewhat qualified mercenaries who won’t be missed to aid him.
- The group, barely functioning as a unit, are overwhelmed in their initial struggles with trying to bring this criminal to justice.
- Many struggles along the way, loss of comrades, complications with interpersonal dynamics, our group of heroes gets split up, other agendas get brought to the forefront, our villain is continuously underestimated.
- In the final act, the group understands the meaning of working together, they overcome their differences, and initially bring our war criminal to the original governing body to face justice.
- Unfortunately, in a twist, the governing body is corrupt, having manipulated all the previous events, and allows the villain to carry on his activity as normal.
- The team works together to purge this corruption, and then, now being restored and stronger than ever, makes a coordinated last stand to bring the villain to his end. Happy ending.

        This formula works. It should be an effective story. The narrative’s all in place. Tightly-woven, well-paced. Well, that would be the first problem. If this were a two-hour movie, it would’ve worked. The first two bullet points are the opening act, we meet all the characters and the central conflict. Second act kicks off with the team leader, in this case Rip Hunter (played by Arthur Darvill, if only to further confuse the Gallifreyan time traveler thing) who is refused by the Time Masters, reveals his personal reasons for wanting to bring in Savage. This splinters the team somewhat, as it feels they were brought in under false pretenses. The third act reveal is the Time Masters working in tandem with Vandal Savage. Our finale is the team destroying the Oculus, which was revealed to be manipulating all of space and time, and the epic conclusion of a fight with Savage spanning three different periods of time. But this story had to be instead spread out over 16 hour-long episodes. That means two things: a lot of filler, and a lot of things ending up not making sense.

        The filler, you can mostly tolerate, because with any time travel plot, you get all the usual stuff: 60s/70s, cowboys, the techno-future, dystopia-future… I was sad we didn’t get dinosaurs though. Anyway, they used most of the filler time developing their characters and their relationships, and cool plots in their different time destinations. It was mostly fine, some of it solid.

         But the reveal that all the proceedings of the season were pre-determined by the Time Masters’ Oculus just cheapens everything: the conflict, the plot, the development, the obstacles, and the overcoming of those obstacles. Basically, we have just watched a show with no stakes. It is not a good twist this far into the game. Again, in a two-hour movie, with the tighter narrative, the twist works, because it’s sudden and unexpected, and you can build in clues to the eventual reveal. Ocean’s 12 has a late third act reveal that undoes much of what we’ve been watching thus far, but it pays off to understand the con. Something like The Prestige or Sixth Sense is enhanced by their late-act reveal, because it undoes what we’ve seen, but deepens the narrative. But in this drawn out, season-long mystery, it comes out of nowhere. People online have been saying you can see foreshadowing of it. And I guess you can, but not enough. The Time Masters are almost forgotten about entirely for much of the last third of the season practically until the reveal itself. So what you are watching up until then is two very frustrating things: a villain who is caught completely unaware and then gets away to fight again by sheer luck and because of the second thing – a team of heroes who are woefully, impossibly incompetent, and are undone by their own inability. Unlike the previous good examples, we are getting a reveal that does nothing to enhance the viewing. Because the reveal doesn’t make sense.

         Why then, if everything was under the control of the Masters the whole time, was a member of the team captured and turned into Chronos, a bounty hunter sent to kill them? Why was The Pilgrim, an even deadlier and more efficient bounty hunter, sent to kill their younger selves and remove them permanently from the timeline? Why did they allow the team to unite? Why did they allow Rip to embark on the journey at all, if everything was in fact, controlled by them from the beginning? If they wanted Savage to succeed in his plan to take over the world, why didn’t they simply remove the obstacles to begin with? On the outset, this sounds like I’m making a one of those completely reductive and frivolous plot hole arguments, where the story would be over in the first beat if this question were answered sensibly. “Why don’t the Fellowship fly the Eagles to Mount Doom?” Because then there’d be no story. But here, there is a story. And the reveal doesn’t help it. A better reveal perhaps would be as Rip brings Savage before the Masters Council, they set him free for the same reasons (Savage is the only one able to unite the world for when the Thanagarians invade Earth about a century later following his conquest) but then Savage kills the Council. This fixes one of many problems.

         One bigger problem though, is that Savage is a terrible villain. Like I said at the beginning, I was so excited for Vandal Savage to be the main antagonist of this first season. In the comics and even the cartoons he’s appeared in, he’s hyper-intelligent, super-strong, manipulative, charming, and intimidating. He’s one of the more successful curators of a defeat to the Justice League. He’s an immortal who has whispered in the ears of great kings, he has amassed great power and wealth over the millennia. Savage sank Atlantis. He was Vlad the Impaler, Jack the Ripper, advised Napoleon and Hitler, he’s behind Project Cadmus, he’s possessed the Spear of Destiny... my favorite accomplishment, he can tell you the vintage of wine by hearing it poured. None of this is the Savage we get to see in the show. He seems to manage to lead several cults throughout time, but we never get to see him be the brutal manipulator he can be, excepting “River of Time” where we see him slowly get into the heads of several of the heroes onboard the Waverider, and later in the same episode, when we see him single-handedly dismantle the team in physical combat.

         But like I said, throughout the rest of the series, we never see this badass threat that is Savage. We see him stumble and bumble into meeting the heroes (who he has re-remember every time) who, through their own stumbling and bumbling, botch every attempt to kill him or stop him. And yeah, the heroes are no better, unfortunately. Told repeatedly that they cannot interfere with time-fixed events, they repeatedly interfere with time-fixed events. Martin Stein helps cure a boy with an, at the time, incurable disease in the Wild West, everyone’s past selves are removed from the timeline to avoid assassination and hopefully the timeline just works itself out, and the team constantly has to correct mistakes they’ve made simply because they interfered. Even if the heroes aren’t their fully realized selves yet, and this is them learning how to be the heroes they’ll become, does that mean we have to start with them being completely unprepared and incapable? And there’s so many good heroes you’re starting with! Franz Drameh and Victor Garber as Jax and Martin Stein (combine to form Firestorm), Caity Lotz’s Sara Lance (The White Canary) from Arrow, Brandon Routh as Ray Palmer’s Atom, Dominic Purcell and Wentworth Miller as the criminal duo Heat Have (Rory) and Captain Cold (Snart), and Falk Hentschel and Ciara Renee’s Hawkman and Hawkgirl. It’s a more than capable cast, and they’re playing some of the most interesting characters of this entire TV universe that’s been created.

          The weakest characterization is Hawkgirl, which is unfortunate, because they’re relying solely on her to kill Vandal Savage, because she’s the only one able to do so after Hawkman dies, and because of the curse. And just when we think we’re starting to get a depth to her character, it becomes her love story with Routh’s Ray Palmer, a relationship which has many bumps along the way, not least of which is the fact that she and Hawkman are destined to be together in all their incarnations, so any relationship with any person outside of that will always end in heartbreak. I mean, poetic and romantic, but really rather unnecessary except to pad out this show. Contrast it with what felt like the less forced and actually rather charming budding romance between Sara and Miller’s Snart, which never comes to fruition though we do get some closure before Snart’s death, and it’s an even more glaring problem to me.

          Both these sides though, some people feel are explained by the reveal of the Oculus, being that everyone has no agency over their actions, they are simply following a predetermined script. So any faults, any oversight, any inconsistencies are overwritten by the now-ever-present idea in the background of the Oculus. But again, if you’re investing 16 weeks into this TV show that is an hour long, and the Oculus isn’t something that gets revealed until week 14 or 15, it does nothing but add to the cumulative frustration of having invested so much time and expecting so much.  What I had said in The Flash post is that everything is done with cumulative value. Every detour, every sidestep, has something to do with the end goal of making Barry Allen The Flash. His love story with Iris, his insistence on helping Earth 2, the fury and frustration he feels in the finale, or even during his time in the Speed Force, all of this leads to something, and it leads to a better character and a better story at the end of it all. What Legends did was pad runtimes of their episodes with sideplots that amounted to nothing, characterizations that ultimately meant nothing, all to build to a reveal that made almost no sense.

          So what would I have changed about the show? Well, the opening premise is good, the only thing I would change is just straight up removing Vandal Savage from the proceedings. I hate it. Just make him Hath-Set. Because of Rip Hunter’s dalliance in the past Hath-Set acquires time travel capabilities, essentially becoming immortal. The Time Masters believe it is too dangerous for Rip to attempt to stop Hath-Set, especially because he was sloppy as fuck assassinating him in the past already. Rip goes rogue, and his assemblage doesn’t include the two Hawks. Part of the season is them having to find them before Hath-Set does. Half their meetings are confrontations amidst the Hawks’ various incarnations. Then, the eventual future plot is more interesting: Rip and co. manage to recruit Hawkgirl (perhaps even by way of Cinnamon and Jonah Hex in the Wild West) and Hath-Set manages to find a Hawkman incarnation who doesn’t know he’s the reincarnated Hawkman yet, and so brainwashes him to be one of his closest lieutenants. You can keep the curse storyline, since that was inherent to the Hath-Set/Hawks dynamic anyway, which allows Hath-Set to essentially become immortal, imbibing the blood of his lieutenant. I would also remove the Oculus, as well as the insistence of adhering to a timeline. If in fact there are “fixed points” in history and time, then the timeline auto-corrects itself anyway, despite interference from time keepers. Therefore, the team can intervene as they see fit. I mean, it didn’t seem to matter in the actual show anyway, some episodes were greatly affected by timeline interference, some were not, and simply hand-waved by throwaway lines. So let’s just remove it! Give us a real time travel adventure! Some of the episodes can require reconnaissance and restraint, sure. The Cold War episode set in Russia would require more undercover work, but that’s not every episode. Let’s change it up. And then that gives real stakes to the Time Masters attempting to apprehend or kill the Legends. I would remove the Chronos sub-plot because again, it doesn’t make sense anyway. Just have the assassin be The Pilgrim the whole time. So The Pilgrim is moving in one direction through time, the Legends are attempting to follow Hath-Set in another, and this necessitates more liberal use of the Waverider’s jump ship, because a couple of the team have to constantly split off and stop The Pilgrim from killing their younger selves. The Pilgrim was a great character, wasted in its potential, and far more threatening than Chronos anyway. It all leads to the ending, where the Time Masters instead arrest Rip and co. but Hath-Set kills the Time Masters. Now no one is supervising time at all. Hath-Set is free to move about the universe entirely. Hawkman awakens and he kills Hath-Set. But because they’re in the future, and at the edge of time, it doesn’t do anything to the timeline. Then the finale plays out as it did on the show, except Snart sacrifices himself to jump the Waverider instead of blowing up the Oculus. The team takes out Hath-Set in three different time periods with one change: Rory kills Hath-Set in his fight with Snart’s gun. Poetic justice.

          What I said about The Pilgrim, a lot of wasted potential, for me sums up the entire first season. There were so many great characters, and such a marvelous opportunity, and it all felt thrown away for a rubbish twist. It looks like the creative team may have learned from their mistakes, and the teaser for the second season seems to be promising a lot. Outside interviews with the team also seem to suggest that they’re throwing more caution to the wind and going far more balls-to-the-wall for the second season, which seemingly is going to include the Justice Society, itself very exciting. The prospect of a new villain, a shake-up of the team, and more ambitious storylines that hold their own are all very good things to look forward to. I hope Legends can deliver, because I’ll be watching next season and I want it to be a successful show. I hope Routh’s Ray Palmer and Caity Lotz’s Sara Lance in particular return, because they were my favorites. Victor Garber as Martin Stein was a welcome addition to the proceedings this season (and he was such a good actor that it was mind-blowing he was doing a superhero show on the CW) and I also hope he returns. It was also a show that gave us a fantastic Jonah Hex, who I really want to be on the next team, because that guy was outstanding. I’m looking forward to season 2, but after this first season, I go into it cautiously optimistic.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

In Praise Of CW's THE FLASH

                I’ve grown up with the Justice League as “my heroes.” When I was a kid, I imitated the Power Rangers, the X-Men, Pokémon… But the Justice League, and indeed the DC heroes, were the stories and sagas I had to go and seek myself. Everything else, they were on TV everyday of my childhood. Superman, I sought out and bought a VHS anthology of the old Max Fleisher cartoons and a cassette recording of the Bud Collyer radio show. I had a recording of that episode where George Reeves’ Superman visits I Love Lucy. Batman, I had to stay up late to catch reruns of the 1960s Adam West series, or wait ‘til my parents had gone to bed so I could watch Batman Returns without getting in trouble. That animated series, along with Superman’s, and the Justice League’s later, became the standard-bearer for how I interpreted these heroes. Wonder Woman and everyone beneath the Trinity were even more difficult to find. But I did. I found their comics. And I loved them. They were all these normal people, who had been gifted with god-like abilities, and they used them for good.

People, older people, seem to think there was a point in our history where we were less cynical. If there was a time like that, it wasn’t during my childhood. Even during that decade of immortality that was the 1990s, I was surrounded by friends and classmates who thought every villain would just kick any pansy-ass hero’s ass, who found the villains to be cooler and glorified Darth Vader, Jason, or Shredder, who wanted anti-heroes to be just as bad as the bad guys, and thought heroes were too damn boring. As a wrestling fan, I knew the prevailing attitude: the heels were awesome, the faces were dorks. It’s the attitude that gave all the DC heroes (and the larger comic book world, but these folks in particular) their grittiness and psychological hang-ups: an inundation of cynicism, pessimism, but especially disappointment. People had been let down by their heroes in real life. So people wanted their hero stories to be more “realistic”, and to them, realism meant heroes weren’t realistic. No one was good for goodness’ sake.

                Which is why to me, the heroes of the Justice League have remained relevant. Because as the world has for real gotten darker, scarier, and harder and harder to comprehend politically, socially, and universally, there’s been an unexpected demand for our heroes to be brighter, bigger, and better than us. But they always were that. We chose to make them something else. They just needed us to believe in them again. We still want to relate to them, but we want them to be the best in us again.

Like I said, clinging to a belief in heroes is difficult, because so many in our real world disappoint us, because nothing can be so black and white and clear cut in reality as a battle of good and evil is. But comics, mythology, is not clear cut. Comics are messy, confused, poignant, melodramatic, sad, uplifting, enlightening, relevant, reactive. Sometimes, our mythology reflects the times as they are. And other times, they have to be escapist. And escapist is when comics and their characters get to be their best. They don’t always have to be completely removed from our own reality, but there needs to be a touch of optimism and a purposeful striving to be better in the writing of our myths. It’s that optimism that distinguishes them from the real world.

Fantasy and fiction are not just our chance to create a different world, but a world that we ourselves would like to see, a better world than we have in our lives at present. And our real world feels bogged down by natural disasters, by humans at their worst and monstrous, by powerful evils who control the world and wish to keep themselves on top, by powerless leaders who are corrupt, by a dying planet, by more and more news that sounds more and more hopeless everyday, not to mention an infinite amount of data being poured into the internet by people complaining, calling each other out on pointless shit, by belittling each other, and by harping on the slightest flaw in any person who dares to try and be better than they are. Every motivation is questionable. Every agenda is political. Every action is judged and scrutinized.

It’s why a show as unabashedly optimistic as The Flash continues to amaze me, two years running. Last night was Season 2’s finale and, with no spoilers, the show has managed to avoid any sort of second season slump. It managed to dig deeper, go bigger, and make us believe.

When I think of each of the heroes of the Justice League, there’s a few words I think of that boil down their essence to me, and why I am captivated by them. Superman: hope. Batman: loyalty, vengeance. Aquaman: destiny, honor. Martian Manhunter: tragedy, legacy. Wonder Woman: compassion. Often portrayed as a warrior, she understands the most important lesson of fighting: fight only when you must. Diplomacy, logic, science, reason, must first prevail. Failing those things, we fight. And that’s unfortunate for everyone else, because that’s what Wonder Woman is best at. Green Lantern, particularly Hal Jordan, is service. “Space cop” is sometimes used to jokingly refer to the Lanterns, but Jordan has taken an oath to serve and protect, and he upholds those values. I always find it fascinating the Lantern and Flash dichotomy, because Hal can be described, “right place, right time.” Abin Sur, a dying Lantern, crash lands nearby Hal, and gifts him the Green Ring of Willpower. The Flash, Barry Allen, is “wrong place, wrong time.” Struck by lightning and a cocktail of chemicals, he becomes The Fastest Man Alive. Hal becomes a hero seemingly because he has no choice. Barry becomes a hero because he does.

The show and the recent comics have given Barry more of a personal motivation behind becoming The Flash, which is the death of his mother, Nora. But for me, Flash has never needed this. Prior to this, he is the only one in the League who becomes what he is because he chooses to. He was initially driven neither by circumstance (Manhunter, Lantern, Green Arrow) or necessity (Batman, Cyborg), or destiny (Superman, Aquaman, Shazam) or lineage (Wonder Woman, Hawkgirl), Barry gets to choose to become a hero. That is a powerful idea. It also gives him a distinguishing characteristic amongst his League compatriots.

                But the other big aspect for me about The Flash is the obligation of family. Read deep enough into the comics and practically everyone related to The Flash is a fellow speedster, or at the very least a do-gooder. And they are also a family. There aren’t too many other places in the DC Universe where a family is emphasized. The Shazam family is one, and the Bat-Family, as it’s referred to, are certainly an important non-traditional family but that’s not their main function. The Flash and his family, the Allens and the Wests, have all sorts of squabbles and dynamics: the kids growing up, obligations to each other and to life, living up to others’ legacies, feeling a sense of connectedness that defies any expanse of existence. And to place at the center of this entire universe the death of one boy’s mother, makes Barry’s choice deeper. I initially wasn’t keen on the idea of this backstory, but the show has made it important, enhanced Barry’s decision rather than reducing its impact. Nora’s death was of course a major arc of the first season, but “The Runaway Dinosaur” just a couple weeks ago helped us understand Barry’s processing of grief and loss, and allowed him to come to terms with allowing that death to affect him. Again, the emphasis of a family learning about each other and understanding their relationships and impacts on each other becomes especially powerful (and difficult) when one of those people can no longer grow and learn and teach from the relationship. Batman’s parents, who were also lost and was the incentive to Bruce Wayne creating his superhero identity, quickly become non-entities, brought up occasionally as reminders, but lacking major influences in Bruce’s life. Barry however, never feels far from that night where he lost Nora.

                All this makes Flash and company ripe for a family-friendly comedy/drama on The CW, where things can get sweet and saccharine and sad real fast. But something curious that I think people are starting to realize, is that a show with heart and optimism doesn’t have to be without its darkness, and it doesn’t have to be completely devoid of tragedy and dilemma, but it can also do those things without diving into melodrama and terrible soap opera performances. A show that is optimistic doesn’t mean it’s all fluff and meaningless, likewise it doesn’t have to get so dark that we are now in the gritty/grim-dark extremism and sadism of the 90s. But I don’t deny that it doesn’t sound crazy: a TV show about a superhero, adapted from comic books, is a compelling show, well-written, well-performed, and genuinely thrilling as well as touching.

                But The Flash has managed to do all this. Where I think Arrow is a mixed bag of quality and inconsistency, where Jessica Jones has a superhero who is trying hard to not be a superhero and the show reflects that, where Gotham is an utter (sometimes fun) mess, Legends Of Tomorrow is incredibly camp and falls on the lighter fare of the spectrum, where Daredevil is incredibly, unforgivably brutal, and where Supergirl can occasionally verge too far into soap opera territory, The Flash manages to balance everything beautifully, while shying away from nothing that make superheroes and comics great. There are moments of comedy and snark, deftly acted scenes of pathos, fully realized, consistent characters who straddle the line of realistically relatable and fantastically fictional, fight scenes of good versus evil, brainstorm scenes of goofy plans and science talk, couples’ mounting romantic tensions, families getting to know each other and avoiding disappointing each other while sometimes fighting out of love, occasionally too-on-the-nose dialogue, wackadoo plot necessities… like The Speed Force.

                Practically the first big storyline is Barry learning, understanding, and entering The Speed Force. Even in this rant, I can’t fully begin to explain to you The Speed Force. It’s such a batshit insane plot device, so delightfully comic books, that I never thought they would ever attempt it on the show. But there it was, staring at me right in the face in the first season. There was Barry Allen, traveling through time, having the multiverse revealed to him, seeing glimpses of the alternate, infinite Earths.

It felt like the initial Avengers movies were shying away from anything too crazy and only now getting to something truly other-worldly like Doctor Strange, or even previous to this, in the X-Men movies when they finally introduced Juggernaut and they said, “He’s a mutant! Forget the Jewel of Cyttorak! We can’t get into aliens and all that! WHO SAID KREE SKRULL WAR!” and even Phoenix was, misguidedly, a latent sort of “mega-evolution” that was kept locked away in Jean Grey’s mind all along, instead of its likewise otherworldly origins, it feels like the team behind The Flash just went, “FUCK IT! PUT IT ALL IN!” and we immediately had so much on the table: Speed Force, Gorilla Grodd, King Shark, Earth 2, Supergirl, time travel, doppelgängers.

                And what’s most impressive, is that it still works as a TV show, not simply a comics adaptation. Of all the shows, it feels the easiest to put in front of a non-comics fan and have them genuinely enjoy it. Anecdotally, that’s been the reaction I’ve gotten from people I’ve introduced the show to. My favorite, a girl I worked with, had to suffer practically daily almost all of us in the office talk endlessly about comic books, TV shows, and movies. But when Flash went up on Netflix, she binged it… and fell in love with everyone and everything. When you make the characters just relatable enough, but you keep what makes comics special and distinct, you get something truly beautiful and effective.

   Perhaps we’ve also grown more accepting of what can be done on television and what characters will pass for drama: we have the two Winchesters on Supernatural, vampires on all kinds of shows like Vampire Diaries, ghosts, aliens, and mind-fucks like Lost or post-apocalypse shows like The 100. I came of age when drama was almost exclusively realistic. Yes, centered on places ripe for drama: The West Wing, The Sopranos, House, but still people and problems we could relate to and understand. It’s inherently more difficult to ask audiences to buy into characters that are not human. But if you can give them enough human qualities, if you can make them relatable enough, we will embrace them. Look at what Wall-E does with no dialogue. Or any of the Pixar movies, really. And look at the unbridled success of the Avengers, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, now. Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner, Clint Barton, Natasha Romanoff, Thor… all incredibly gifted and truly special, but by emphasizing the humanity of those characters just enough, we suddenly have compelling characters that we embrace. At the center of it all, there have to be characters that we care about.

                And it seems silly to say, but the characters are the heart of this show. I love all these characters. We just have it in our minds how a character should be. I definitely have an image of what Barry Allen is, who he is. But Grant Gustin suddenly makes him a person that I can understand, laugh with, admire. He brings it to another level. He’s different from what I imagine him to be from the comics, but it’s a good different. It’s him embodying the archetype of The Flash for me. It’s like I’m meeting the guy that The Flash of the comics is based on, the man behind the legend.

When I first started reading Flash comics, Barry and Iris were already together. So I love Iris. I wasn’t immediately in love with Candice Patton, but she has won me over this season, as she has begun to take more immediate agency in the proceedings. I wasn’t sure about Keiynan Lonsdale as Wally either, and some of his initial episodes were iffy for me, but he has since won me over as well. He’s smart, he’s determined, and he’s going to make an awesome speedster when they finally pull the trigger. One guy I of course loved immediately was Jesse L. Martin’s Joe West, but that’s because Jesse L. Martin is absolutely the best, always. He’s the best detective from Law & Order (I will fight anyone who says otherwise, especially if you think it’s Benjamin Bratt). He’s the best part of the Rent movie. And he’s stellar on this show. Everyone has these complicated double roles they all have to play, and Joe’s is this confident father figure to Iris and Barry, but with Wally he has this other role as so unsure, but he’s trying to make the best of it.

                Carlos Valdes was the one I was most nervous for. Vibe has never been my favorite character in the comics, portrayed rather inconsistently, as he’s been kind of the runt of whatever team he’s placed on. But Carlos has given the character a lot of heart while maintaining his role on the show as the pop culture wisecracker. He’s come into his own as well. Again, thinking about that duel role, Cisco is smart and gifted, but with his superpowers, he is still learning them and understanding them, and he goes from fish in water to fish out of water so fast and flawlessly.

                The most striking part for me is how good the cast is as a unit, how they work together and how fascinating it is to watch them shift pairings and dynamics constantly. Every episode asks for different combinations of people working together on different things and in different capacities, and each person gets a chance to shine. They make every moment work, because they’ve given us real characters to get behind. There is a quiet moment during “Invincible” just last week, where everyone is together, and it feels right. It’s not forced, it’s not clichéd. They are having dinner, and they are at peace. It’s a “quiet before the storm moment” to be sure, but it doesn’t reduce the impact of how special it feels. By contrast, the gang all sitting and eating Chinese food at the end of a Supergirl episode a while back just doesn’t bring with it the same sense of home.

    On top of this, the show has managed to introduce a lot of twists and turns, some of them interesting, some of them are still loose ends, a lot have been batshit insane, but I haven’t a complaint among them. They’ve all done their job as plot devices of raising the stakes, adding depth to characters, layering the plot, or laying the tracks for a future event, or, and as is often the case on the show, all at once. The characters continue to exercise agency over events and deal with consequences as they arise. It never feels like thin avatars working through plot formulas. They are people working through life. And life in the Flash universe is crazy. Also, it’s not to say that everything’s perfect. Certainly, there were a couple episodes that functioned as filler between the bigger episodes. Occasionally, a character is far too earnest so as to become melodramatic. But the good so far outweighs the bad that these moments are fleeting.

                It’s a lot like Barry Allen’s Flash himself, who moves so fast that he sees and comprehends all of time simultaneously: all elements occur in every moment, and he realizes the scariest, greatest part: life is still constantly in motion, growing, changing, never stopping. Again, no spoilers for the finale, “The Race Of His Life”, but it is like all those things, all those plot devices happening at once: we get deeper characterization, layout for season 3, wrap-up of this solid season, and higher stakes for our characters. The last three episodes have been emotionally taxing for everyone, and we’re not allowed to dwell on any one moment before the next one is hitting us in the face. Barry is told to run, because he has to keep up, and we, like Barry, have to enjoy the moments while we can. Barry and his family on the show are teaching us to enjoy those moments, because there are so many, and they will be so many different things for us. They will make us laugh, make us cry, make us fall in love, make us angry, surprise us by our inability, surprise us by our rising to the occasion, disappoint us, enrich us. We have to slow it all down in our minds, process each part, love the time we’re given, find our meaning and our significance, and remember the most important stuff, because before we know it, that moment, like so many others, is in the rearview mirror.

I’m grateful to The Flash, because in two seasons it has managed to teach us what superheroes can be, and what they can mean. Society has changed, experiences have changed, but our heroes represent our values, and those haven’t really changed. We’ve wanted them to wear different masks and create different meanings for us, but really, what they represent for us hasn’t changed. And to have a show on the air adapted from a medium that until recently was not seen as important or impactful, with characters that are earnest with no agenda, quirky without being ironic and detached, and heroic without being burdened while still presenting an internal struggle, a world that is so much our own but at the same time distinctly fantastical, and at the heart of it all is a family of love, that is really phenomenal. And as far as TV Rants go, I cannot recommend CW’s The Flash enough.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Remembering The Macho Man

A couple days ago, it was the 5th anniversary of the death of the wrestler known as Randy Savage. I say wrestler, but in a good way, Randy was so much more. He was larger than life, he was a performer, he was an artist, he was a method actor, he was a committed athlete, a gifted speaker, an intense personality, and a genuine guy. Was he always the good guy? Much like his wrestling persona, he wasn’t always, but that is unimportant.

Regardless, Randy became someone to be admired. And that’s difficult, especially in the era that he was most popular in, a time when heroes were very all-American and Hulk Hogan-like, and all the heels were so dynamic. Flair was flamboyant and a chickenshit, and yes he got cheered but we loved to hate him, and we loved to see him get his ass kicked. Most of the rest of the heels were more worthy of our boos, because they thought themselves so superior to all of us: Rude physically, Iron Sheik mentally, Jake The Snake psychologically, Mr. Perfect in every way. Savage, for all intents and purposes, was supposed to be a heel. He was egotistical and flamboyant. He was jealous and territorial, fighting off people, denying an inferiority complex while exhibiting all the behavior of one with a superiority complex. He sometimes cheated to win (although so did Hogan, and no one demanded you do anything other than cheer for him) he sometimes interfered in matches he had no business interfering in, and he for the most part seemed certifiably unstable and insane.

But the problem was he was a heel in every aspect except his ring-work. He didn’t work like a heel. He didn’t necessarily work like a face either. He was just an excellent worker. He was smooth, proficient, psychologically sound, and it made sense, because he was more work-rate size than the upper card faces and nowhere near imposing enough to be a monster heel in that time. But Flair was the flamboyant-out-of-the-ring/dirty-player-in-the-ring heel. Savage would talk and boast and yell and scream that he was better than everybody and he would beat anybody, and the problem was that when he got in the ring, he did just that. He was Intercontinental Champion and was a fighting champion. He took Steamboat to the limit at Wrestlemania 3 before losing by being outsmarted and overworked. He was World Champion, and lost only to Hogan because his jealous rage got in his way. Perhaps that was the problem. It was a template that would be followed by Shawn Michaels years later as he flowed from heel to face to heel to face again. There were even shades of it in CM Punk during his most elevated prominence. Savage would just not get out of his own way. He was never content with his accomplishments. He couldn’t be convinced or reasoned with verbally, and even physically he was never willing to accept when he’d been put down. And it was this fiery, irascible, dangerous personality that should have made him hated. But he was so goddamn charming and convincing on the mic, and so compelling in the ring, that it presented a conundrum to people like me. I loved Savage, but I also hated him. I was always a little scared for Miss Elizabeth’s safety. I never thought Savage would purposely hurt her, but I always worried that him flying too far off the handle would lead to her being caught in Randy’s own crossfire.

The friendship and subsequent meltdown of said friendship with Hogan was all Savage. It put Hogan on the defensive, which you rarely got to see, and there could have been big things for Savage with the face of the company in his corner. But there is at least some truth to the idea that if he’d maintained it, Savage would always be second fiddle to Hogan. And like I said, he wasn’t content with playing second fiddle. He was deserving of the top spot. There was no one else like Savage. And some fans as we’ve gotten older will be quick to mention that Hogan was a more capable worker than he was allowed to be in WWF. And while I acknowledge that, it doesn’t change anything. He worked a style that got him over, and whether it was him or the company mandating that all his in-ring performances look the same, they were bland. Watching Savage was exciting. He worked a different style against Hogan than he did against Flair than he did against Perfect or Steamboat. Hogan’s story in the ring was always the same. And maybe the old adage is true, that Hogan was the name that got people into the arenas, and it was workers like Savage that kept them coming back for more. But in a fair world, it’s someone like Savage who is the top star, because he was a star.

So there was always this conflicted mix of emotions watching Savage. He was my favorite wrestler, hands down. I wanted him to succeed but I also wanted him to be safe, and be reasonable, and not shoot himself in the foot constantly. The fact that he did made him this surprisingly tragic figure of the wrestling world. I say surprisingly, because it’s a rather complex characterization for a titan. He was already good at what he did, he was already fire on the mic, he didn’t need his psychological hang-ups to keep him relevant.

Or maybe he did. Years later, he’s cited as one of the greatest characters and performers to come out of that era, or any era. And maybe that’s precisely because he was so complex. I, and so many others, wanted Randy to be the winner of all things, but knew that he was at his best when he wasn’t.

It’s a difficult role to play, especially in an arena so unique as wrestling, where winning and losing and titles and all are scripted, but the connection the performers make to the audience is very real. Randy was never hard to love. He was magical, he was always on, he dazzled in the ring, he was funny, frightening, fascinating.

And I miss him. There’s so many designations in wrestling fandom, like in other fandoms. There’s people who legitimately loved Hulk Hogan. There’s people who loved Hogan for his work in Japan and not in WWF, because they’re alternative like that. There are people who loved Savage or Warrior, simply because they weren’t Hogan, and they aren’t going to be told who to cheer for. There are also people who love Savage retroactively, because they realize later, as they got older, and as they got smarter, that he was the better worker, that he was an acumen meant to be admired. But there are also those, and you could hear them whenever Pomp And Circumstance boomed through any arena across the country or even the world, that loved him because it was Randy Savage. Those lines get blurry here and there, but I was in that camp from the time I turned on a wrestling program. The first match I ever saw on video was Savage and Warrior’s Retirement Match at Wrestlemania VII. And I loved them both. But Savage was the one you could connect to, you could see his eyes, you saw his face, and you saw his ability. After that, I was hooked. And I’ve been a fan ever since. Wrestling’s seen some dark days, and it’s been through some shitty days. But it can be beautiful. Savage was one of those to watch if you wanted to see wrestling at its best. When I was a kid, I didn’t understand all that was happening. I didn’t get what Savage was mad about all the time. I barely understood that he was a character. All I knew was that even through that uncertainty, I couldn’t stop watching him. I looked forward to him on commentary. He was the only reason I watched WCW. He was the only reason I even bothered to watch TNA. He’s the reason I’m a wrestling fan. I go back and just marvel with newfound appreciation matches I was enthralled with as a kid. The way he came to the ring, simultaneously a warrior ready to fight, and a king surveying his kingdom. The way he argued with the ref, and what unbelievable things he must’ve been yelling at them and how was it they never corpsed in his face. The way he ran the ropes. The glide from one move to the next. The effortless body slam and the almost machine-like way he’d then make his way to the apron and the top rope. The way he flew with that top rope elbow, and the way that he made it look absolutely devastating. 

There was and never will be another one like him. And that gets said a lot, and it gets placed on a lot of wrestlers, but that’s just the nature of the business. The good ones (and yes, a lot of the bad ones) are so uniquely gifted. But Savage was the complete package. And he could have had any promotion in the world revolve around him. Heel or face. It didn’t matter. They cheered because it was Randy. I miss the Macho Man. I miss Savage. I miss Randy. Randy was a hero.

From The Gorilla Position, Rest In Peace, sir.

Epilogue - My favorite promo: