Friday, January 27, 2017

Week 1 - Supergirl, The Flash, Arrow, and Legends Of Tomorrow Return in their Mid-Season Premieres

As 2017 rolls in, I made the decision that I wanted to start reviewing the DC CW shows as a unit, because I think watching them as a sort of variety mega-show as I have all this season (and did last night for their mid-season re-premieres) offers the best viewing experience. The weaknesses and flaws of one show are better handled by one of the other three. Each one handles a different aspect of what it means to be a comic book adaptation expertly, placing it at the forefront of its themes and delivery, while downplaying the rest and relegating them to the other shows. My appreciation of each of the shows individually is informed by how well all four shows perform every week. On the other hand, I do think it is a net positive enhancement for me, but is not a net loss for people who only watch one or two of the shows. Ultimately, if there's only a couple you really like and want to focus on those, it's feasible. Each of the shows operate surprisingly well when you consider their source material, a couple of which are rocky at best.

But it's such a unique moment, having four distinct shows center on a common universe airing almost back-to-back (and as of this week, two actually are back-to-back: Legends of Tomorrow follows Flash on Tuesday nights) that I thought it deserves a unique analysis. Hence this column. Where I will attempt to review everything happening in the DC CW "Arrowverse" (named after the genesis show) as a whole. Sorry to Gotham fans out there. All two of you. (No, but really, are people still watching Gotham?)

I'll be writing these up in their power rank order, least to best. So number four:

4.) Forget multiverse, where's more of THIS universe?
Got that Dutch angle goin' on. 

Kevin Smith, who himself has admitted he may not be worthy of helming a larger DC project despite his fanboy devotion, has proven quite capable in the director's chair for the superhero small screen. Previously directing the emotional "Runaway Dinosaur" and last November's ambitious "Killer Frost" for The Flash, Smith now moves over to Supergirl to direct his first episode there, and the title's a play on his aborted 90s Superman Lives, "Supergirl Lives."

Both Supergirl and Flash take it a bit easy this week, with a soft recap of events and projections of where we're headed next. Supergirl's big attention-grabber for this episode is an expansion of the universe off-Earth. For featuring two Krytonians, two Martians, a Daximite, and a Mos Eisley ensemble of alien bar-dwellers, Supergirl remains largely Earth-bound, and invaders are periodic. This is the first time we're getting to visit an alien world, and the implications in the episode of Earth's place in the larger universe are fascinating (Earth youngsters fit for work are a hot commodity in the slave trade?) Maybe humans aren't so useless in civilizations of the universe. And perhaps we can start seeing more of Kara and the DEO finding means of getting off-world more often.

Supergirl's greatest strength is its optimism. With that, there is a strong emphasis of family and belonging, as well as purpose and motivation. The character work for all four shows is the strongest asset, but Supergirl has charming and charismatic performers as likeable characters in spades. Comics can be incredibly cheesy, and the characters unflappably positive. Supergirl manages to temper that with grounded performances. The strongest relationship is the sisterhood of Kara and Alex. They look out for each other, and in the case of this episode, Alex blindly follows Kara through a warp gate to an alien planet as a rescue, with no guarantees that it works properly, or that they have a sure hope of getting home. Since the Invasion 4-part crossover, Supergirl is the show that offers us the most opportunity for storylines on other worlds, so I hope we see more of those.

I think my only complaint of the episode is that we aren't getting a lot of development with any of the myriad storylines that are now happening: Jimmy and Winn are moonlighting as the new Guardian (plus Winn has his own sub-arc through the episode, which does lead to a great line: "I'm NOT the Red Shirt!") and they're having a difference of opinion, Alex is dealing with her new relationship with Detective Maggie Sawyer (not to mention also coming to terms with coming out, particularly to herself) and it's a bit of a rocky start, Mon-El is attempting to find himself as his daily life keeps intertwining with Kara's, and there's also a double-life plot present with Kara continuing her uphill climb as a reporter to her difficult editor Snapper Carr. It's a lot to handle, and I don't think Supergirl is as deft at handling multiple and revolving plots as well as Flash (which tends to keep the number focused to 2 or 3) and Arrow (whose revolving plots tend to inform each other and overlap better). So the Guardian plot gets a little lost in the shuffle, and Winn and Alex's arcs feel rushed. It barely feels like a commercial break between Winn quitting the Guardian partnership and bemoaning the fact that he is incapable in the field, before he's thrust into a situation where he finds himself entirely capable in the field. Same with Alex, who careens wildly from honeymoon phase of new relationship bliss, to calling it off completely, to having to beg for one last (and according to Maggie, for real last) chance to make this work and not running when the going gets tough. Mon-El's trajectory is a little more clear, since he remains in the forefront of the episode with Kara, and by the end he's gone from part-timing as a bartender at the alien bar to asking Supergirl if he can help defend Earth alongside her, after seeing her remain brave and defiant even powerless and all odds stacked against them.

All these progressions are perfect and much needed for all three of the characters, like I said it just felt rushed to get there, as if a couple transitional scenes are missing from the framework. But we have Mon-El and Winn stepping up. Guardian is likely to become a larger point of contention for the group. We also have some hints at a wider mystery in the tag, with some hooded figures searching for Mon-El. Add to that an odd exchange between Mon-El and the slave trade aliens where one bows, and you can understand why some internet theorists are positing that the humble Daximite may have royal origins from his destroyed planet.

3.) Borrowing from the past, calling the future 
The youngest cast for CSI ever, CSI: Central City

The Flash like I said has a similar problem this week as Supergirl. It serves much more as a recap and setting up of the new status quo: Alternate-Earth Harry Wells opens the Star Labs Museum, Cisco goes from adamently against this waste of time to helping by marketing and renovating the museum for its real opening as well as inspiring Harry to continue his pursuit of dreams, Caitlin turns to Julian for help supressing her powers and he eventually decides to join Team Flash, Wally goes from hero-in-training to full Kid Flash even going as far as to catch the villain of the week, Iris learns of her future fate while Barry continues to try and prevent it.

The Flash's strong point is how soap opera it can be. The themes are simple. They center on a love story between Barry and Iris. The morality of the characters is clear. Every character reveal or next beat is marked by a new twist and wrinkle. What Flash does better than a soap opera though, is that the characters are learning and growing. No twist is a throwaway. It all loops back on itself and the result on the characters is cumulative.

That's what makes watching the multiple plots of The Flash more enjoyable than Supergirl and sometimes even Arrow. The plots and their associated characters move together despite different external goals. While Harry strives to find his purpose, Barry struggles to change the future, and Caitlin learns to look to others for help. In one scene, Caitlin relays to the team that no one can do it alone. And that has implications for everyone. It's what makes Cisco help Harry, it's what makes Barry and Iris choose to tell the rest of the team about Iris dying in the future (they still do not tell Joe though, for fear of what he might do at the cost of his own life), and it's what makes her reach out to Julian, and eventually what makes Julian accept the team and vice versa.

The villain of the week, a little like the central conflict of Supergirl Lives, is mostly incidental, dwarfed by the ideas at play and the growth of the characters from beginning of the episode to the end. What edges out Girl of Steel for the Scarlet Speedster this particular week is that Supergirl, much as her cousin does in comics, remains a beacon and there's not a whole of growth for the title character. Whereas Barry learns an important lesson (something Ollie has been learning over on Team Arrow before the winter hiatus) about not keeping secrets, about being honest. Barry has a more proactive role this week, more than just inspiring the others around him.

The storytelling of this episode is fun and it's got my interest piqued for the remainder of the season. Cisco vibes Barry back to the future he saw where Iris dies. They take in some headlines from a nearby news broadcast and dictate them back to the team in the present. Their thinking is that if they can alter enough major events leading up to this moment, they can change the future. The main villain in fact proves this, as originally Barry apprehends him, this time leaving it to Wally. We now know a lot of things that are going to happen leading up to the final confrontation with Savitar, I am now solely focused on how the creative team gets us there.

The tag has another mysterious woman arriving from a portal that looks like a parallel world (as opposed to elsewhere on the timeline) who is apparently searching for Wells. A stalker from H.W.'s parallel Earth? We shall see!

A couple of the headlines pointed to episodes we already know are happening: The Music Meister, Gorilla Grodd, and Killer Frost.

Looming over the Flash is the mystery of Savitar's prophecy: one will fall, one will betray them, and one will suffer a fate worse than death. Rumors and theories abound, but it seems Iris is at present the one likely to fall. But my money is on Joe, who trades his life for hers. Harry, Caitlin, and Julius are the obvioius choices for betrayal, which makes me feel like it's not one of them if TV has taught me anything. Unfortunately, The Flash has taught me something different in its 3 seasons, which is exemplified by this episode's plot: there is no trick. We're going to do exactly what you all think, but watch how cool it is to get there. Everyone could see the Zoom/Jay/Man in the Iron Mask reveal coming, but the episodes building to it were phenomenal. Flash constantly reminds us that it's not about the destination. It's a theme that haunts the Barry Allen character consistently. It seems pretty obvious that Barry suffers the fate worse than death, as he will suffer through both a friend betraying the team and losing a loved one (again). But maybe this one seems less twisty. After all, why wouldn't Savitar simply say that Barry would suffer a fate worse than death? Why leave that one vague if it's meant for Barry? Perhaps it's Wally. A pretty current arc in the comics is Wally's disappearance and about ten years missing from the memories of everyone in the DC universe's life. Wally becomes one with the Speed Force and everyone forgets about him. Could they be speeding us toward something similar on TV?

2.) Don't believe the hype 

After two seasons of Arrow being a dumpster fire lost in the woods (not a good place for a dumpster fire) I cannot believe how hard and well the show has bounced back. It harkens back to its first two seasons: raw, unapologetic, dark and gritty but done well. Also, like Flash, the characters have grown up. Diggle is a man betrayed by the uniform he wears. Felicity has loved and lost. Ollie trains a new team, one of which has already betrayed them, and while he's also mayor, it seems like he's now losing the war against evil on two fronts, making him find his honesty and has galvanized his sense of justice. Thea is absent this episode, but she's come into her own this season as she essentially calls the shots from the mayor's office. Rene and Curtis were the highlight pairing of the episode for me, finally confronting a lack of character development for both of them as of late. Only Ragman is left a little in the dust for this episode, but that's bound to happen. We already had some wonderful work with him and Ollie and then him and Felicity before the winter hiatus.

Prometheus' impact on the team is still being felt, which thins the team's resolve, leaving Felicity to power through and be not only the voice of reason, but the voice of justice as Laurel Lance returns to the fold under mysterious circumstances. Everyone is happy to see her, but Felicty remains skeptical. It's one of my more favorite uses of the character, and I really never thought I'd ever like anything Felicity was doing on the show ever again. But she's soon proved right, as Laurel reveals herself to be the Black Siren, the evil meta from the parallel earth where everyone's just the evil version of themselves.

It's still unclear though whether a version of the good Laurel is in there and she worked with Prometheus simply out of self-preservation, or if this is an irredeemable Black Siren whose love died on the Queen's Gambit when it sank. Ollie certainly believes, even by the end of the episode that there is hope to bring her around. Felicity is unconvinced. I like the development of these traits in these characters, as they're attributes so often associated with the other person. It's important to see these charcters develop realistically as well as independently.

This is Arrow's strength: it is the most realistic of the quartet. And when I say realistic, I don't mean that it's true to real life, just that there are very real rules that govern this reality they occupy, one of parallel universes, of time travel, aliens, and metas, but the characters remain true to themselves, they develop realistically, and react as people do. During the Invasion, Ollie wanted a minute to digest everything before jumping into training the ragtag group of heroes to fight the alien invasion. He lamented the fact that when this all started (and he's speaking both as a character and to the fourth wall) it was just him, this guy with arrows and vengeance on his mind. Now he's surrounded by the fastest man alive, a group of time travelers including the once-dead sister of the love of his life, and an alien from a parallel Earth. The world externally has changed for Team Arrow, but their mission and their hearts remain the same.

There's a lot less fluff to Arrow than there is to Flash. While Flash's characters also develop, they feel more lifted from comics. Arrow's ensemble gets mad at each other, they disagree, they try to articulate, they struggle and cry, they take a moment. It's always been exemplified in their fights: Arrow's fight sequences are brutal, hard-hitting, and more realistic. Legends looks too choreographed. Supergirl and Flash are metas, and their fights require some fantastical elements. I don't want to keep reusing it, but it feels much more raw. Again, it's dark and gritty done right. When dark and gritty became everyone's perogative in the 90s and 00s, it went too far. We didn't need ultra-violence and anti-heroes. What it meant was that not everything was solved right away, that people walked away from conversations unsatisfied, that not every villain was captured, and that at every point, difficult decisions are made. Flash almost always ends with everyone together, they are a family. If there are fights, people make sure they know they still care. In Arrow, difficult truths are confronted, people are devastated and they are changed because of the chaos that wrecks their lives, and often they have to hold it all in. We see it get to Curtis in this episode and it takes Rene to talk reason to him. We see it happen to Felcity too, and Ollie and her fight for most of the episode through it. Diggle is scared and doesn't know how to react to the man recruited by Ollie to help him, D.A. Adrian Chase (whom we all know is Vigilante, right?) until he actually does it, in a choice that looks like extreme desperation and ingenuity.

It creates a story, a thru-line. This episode starts right where the last episode before the hiatus left off, with Ollie looking at a revived Laurel. Arrow doesn't bother with a refresher, leave that to the more convoluted Flash and Supergirl. Arrow remains focused and uncluttered. And we're on a clear trajectory to the final confrontation with Prometheus.

Of course, there's also a mysterious woman at the end of Arrow. Two if you count the now-revealed Talia al-Ghul in the flashback sequence. But the tag features the next likely Black Canary. We'll see if she's suited up in time to join them against Prometheus.

1.) A new kind of hope 
Can't wait for that Power Rangers movie.
If Flash is soap opera and melodrama, Arrow is dark and grit, and Supergirl is fairy tale, then Legends is great big unapologetic fun. And when it's not trying to take itself so seriously, it seriously shines.

This episode epitomizes that. The plot uses the oft-used Spear of Destiny to bring both the Legends and the Legion (Eobard Thawne, Damien Darhk, and Malcolm Merlin) to the late 60s where a lobotimzed Rip Hunter is making his college thesis film. It's a zany episode that allows for some of the best ensemble work by the Legends, a lot of meaningful fun with the MacGuffin and the time travel ramifications of the show, and I can't beliee how menacing they managed to make John Barrowman and Neal McDonough. (It's hard for me to see them as anything but the very friendly Captain Jack Harknes and the really not menacing in the least M. Bison from Legend of Chun Li.) 

What I really love about the time aberration that they have to correct is that there's personal meaning to the characters we're watching. George Lucas is Rip's prop master and he quits the film and film school after the attack of the Legends and the Legion. Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark are never made, undoing the inventor and historian histories of Ray and Nate respectively. They have to embark with Vixen on getting Lucas to relent and go back to film school. Along the way, they manage to fit in a set piece that likely inspires the iconic trash compactor scene from A New Hope. Sometimes in similar time travel shows, the character who has a personal connection the mistake they must correct is someone the heroes meet at the top of the story, it's not often it's one of the heroes (although this was used to great effect with Dr. Martin Stein's past self and future daughter before the hiatus).

I also loved the acknowledgement of the first season's lack of a good villain. Vandal Savage deserved so much more. And his lack of real villainy and threat in the first seasons was one of the problems. This is addressed with the Legion of Doom. The second problem was the ensemble splitting up constantly, or bickering constantly, plus too much deadweight in the cast. This has been solved by cutting out a lot of the deadweight (though Rip looks like he'll be tagging along again), or replacing the useless Hawkgirl with the much more capable Vixen. Putting Sarah in charge of the crew has led to a much better dynamic amongst the team. The bromance of Ray and Nate is awesome, and keeping the ensemble together more often has led to much better episodes this season. If there is a team split off it keeps the dynamic of the main team strong, while we get an interesting subplot. For this one, it was Martin and Rory investigating Snart possibly haunting Rory. It's a pairing we don't get to see often.

With Flash focusing on its two speedsters, and Arrow still getting their ensemble work together, and Supergirl still being a mostly one-woman show, it's nice to see an ensemble that sticks together, works together, and actually gets stuff done. And if this George Lucas-centric episode is any indication of its tone and overall style moving forward, I'm very optimistic about the second half of the season being even stronger than the first half.

Supergirl - B-
The Flash - B
Arrow - A
Legends of Tomorrow - A-

Best scene: The final Legends fight starting from the trash compactor to the escape on the Wave Rider is fantastic.

Best feel-good moment: Big fan of Cisco and H.W. finally getting along at the opening of the Museum.

Most inspiring moment: Supergirl taking multiple tazes to protect the kidnapped Earthlings is pitch perfect Kara.

Best pairing: Tied between Marty and Rory on Legends or Barry and Wally finally getting that Flash/Kid Flash dynamic down.

Most important current storyline that I'm thinking about because of the current social issues: Alex and Maggie's relationship I think has been done incredibly well. I feel like TV and movies are still trying to get non-cis relationships right in their portrayals but this one feels the truest to me. Alex coming out to Kara played like how I've heard a lot of my friends' stories play out and that heartens me.

Most forgotten character this week: I almost said Jimmy Olsen, but he does have the opening Guardian fight before disappearing for pretty much the whole episode. Instead, the honor goes to J'onn, whose Martian DNA can't survive the atmosphere on Maaldoria to lead the rescue. So he sends a sun grenade with Alex to restore Kara's drained powers after being under Maaldoria's red sun. 

Favorite little scene: Mon-El covers himself with the blanket on the couch when he sits next to Kara and admits he wants to be a hero. The slow burn on this relationship is also wonderful. They're quickly becoming my favorite couple of the Arrowverse.

Best dramatic moment: Felicity's got a ton, but I'll pick her direct confrontation of Laurel while Black Siren sits in her cell. She's got some cutting lines there.

Speaking of cutting lines, Best Felicity/Cisco/Jax/Winn one-liner: I already mentioned it, it's Winn's "I'm not the Red Shirt! YOU'RE the Red Shirt!"