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.