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.