Why I’m Watching… Legends of Tomorrow
by Thom Yee
When you break superheroes down to their base concepts, the one thing that probably draws us all to them is their superpowers. For all of its apparent faults, my favourite moment in Avengers: Age of Ultron is when all of the Vision, the Thor, and Iron Man combine their individual energy blasts to take down Ultron. It’s one of those glorious, everyone-gang-up-on-the impossible-threat moments (à la George Perez) that really made me love that movie, but like any other story, a good superhero story needs at least a little more complexity than “People! With powers!” On television, though, most shows have had a problem even getting that first part right.
In terms of genuinely good serial fiction, the first really good superhero show was probably Heroes. Early on it told a strong, compelling story with a clear narrative direction, but unfortunately its creators didn’t have an idea where to take it past its first season, and pretty quickly it fell into a pattern of weak storytelling and illogical, go-nowhere plots that forced its heroes into acting against their own established natures. What’s worse, it became a show whose very nature began to work against itself, where superhuman prophecies dictated the course of nearly every season, the most valuable superhumans were the multiple characters/plot devices who could negate or steal other people’s powers, and all-powerful characters who could manipulate space and time either had to be severely depowered or written out entirely. The whole thing became a game where powers were either a storytelling crutch or obstacles to be written around.
With the “Berlanti-verse” of DC heroes that’s come into television prominence over the last few years (so nicknamed for Greg Berlanti, their executive producer), first with Arrow, then The Flash, and now with Legends of Tomorrow, it feels like we’ve gotten back to a place where the stories are about people with powers rather than writing around the powers that people have, and its made for some of the strongest superhero television we’ve ever seen. There are scenes from The Flash that can make grown men cry, and while these are scenes that rely on their superhuman elements to occur, they lean much more heavily on our emotional investment to work. There’s an incredibly earnest nature at the heart of shows like The Flash, a core of heroism and understanding the cost of that heroism, and it’s for that reason that I keep watching them.
1×01: “Pilot (1)”
For as many moving pieces as there are in DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, it’s a pretty easy show to understand — time traveller recruits a team of superhuman heroes and criminals to save the world from an immortal threat. Except for the time travel part and the superhuman part and the immortal part, it’s not that different from any other ensemble adventure series. That’s hopefully good news for Legends of Tomorrow’s prospects, but it also totally misses the point of the show. Where Arrow may be designed to draw in a certain type of audience that’s looking for action and mystery, and The Flash tends to attract audiences looking for high-flying (or at least fast-running), sci-fi stories, what becomes clear after watching the pilot episode of Legends of Tomorrow is that it’s a show for hardcore nerds.
Right now, superheroes are everywhere, on all popular platforms, and that’s something that us comicbook nerds aren’t taking for granted. This is an insane world we’re living in, it’s insanity what we’re getting to see right now, the bigger-than-life heroes and over-the-top villains being played by real actors, the movies and TV shows being made by real directors and writers, heroes are fighting heroes and onscreen adaptations are being made based on our all-time favourite stories, and right here in this moment we nerds are standing in shocked disbelief that we get to talk to regular people about obscure characters like Rip Hunter or how good (or not good) Hawkman’s wings look in real life.
With this pilot episode being split into two parts, it’s difficult to go too far into Legends of Tomorrow simply because we’ll have to wait till next week to see how the episode resolves itself, but what I can say right now is that I like what I’ve seen. For the most part. At first the episode feels very Doctor Who, with a timelord (or Rip Hunter, time master in this case), British-sounding actors, a ship that seems bigger on the inside, and even a lead character who many will remember as a former companion of the Doctor himself. With his request to change the timeline and defeat the villain Vandal Savage rejected by the council of time masters, Rip sets off on his own to recruit a team of legendary superbeings to thwart this immortal threat, gathering the size-changing Atom, the assassin White Canary, the elemental Firestorm, the winged warriors Hawkman and Hawkgirl, and supercriminals Captain Cold and Heatwave.
It’s all pretty conventional stuff, especially for comicbook fans, but pretty soon the show starts to set itself apart as cracks quickly form among the team members and the very structure of the show itself. When Chronos, an agent of the time masters, first shows up and scans a pair of innocent civilians to determine their significance to the time stream before killing them, I wondered why he felt so comfortable in his later, relatively haphazard attack on our heroes, and that’s when we find out this show’s big secret: these people aren’t legends, they’re no one. Taking them from their normal lives, their absence from their established worlds, will have no effect on the time stream, and that’s such a great device for putting a huge chip on all of these characters’ shoulders. It’s still a little suspect that they would all be plucked from the same point in time considering Rip should have all of time to draw his heroes from, but at least it still makes a sort of sense and closes one of the base illogicalities of the show.
If there’s one, clearly identifiable weakness, it’s that the show feels very rushed in its first episode, and that’s unfortunately somewhat inevitable with a cast of more than nine major characters to serve. For the most part I feel like the episode did a remarkably good job introducing all these new characters and giving them their own moments, but there’s also a noticeable lack of time spent on letting the gravity of the situation set in. As much as I’m willing to give this show credit for making the most of the time given, it’s not as if the writers absolutely needed to fit everything into this first episode, and I hope they’re willing to let the storytelling decompress a little bit in the future (or the past). If not, I feel like there’s a very clear ceiling on how far this show can reach and how good it can get.
At this early stage I’m just happy to see characters with exotic powers like Firestorm or the Atom being rendered so well on screen. That’s enough to keep me with the show for the moment, but what will keep me long term, what’s kept me with a show like The Flash (even after ignoring all of the silliness and sloppy storytelling the Berlanti-verse shows tend to have) is the weirdly effective emotionality so regularly on display with these shows. When Kendra and Carter, the reincarnating Hawkman and Hawkgirl, first meet up with the professor who, oh so conveniently, knows everything about Vandal Savage and how to find him, and we find out he’s actually their son from a previous life, there’s a surprisingly effective and discernible connection between the three characters, and it makes what happens in the show matter more than it otherwise would. If the creators can keep this sort of thing up, Legends of Tomorrow won’t just be a mere curiosity, it’ll be a good show.
Thom’s Legends of Tomorrow — “Pilot (1)” final score
Items of Note
- Per Degaton!
- You just drug and kidnap Jax? Imagine how much worse that would seem if he was a woman.
- So Cisco is just making everybody’s uniforms now? They can’t make, like, a white leather outfit on their own?
- What time is the Reverse Flash from again?
- “I’m determining whether you are integral to the timeline. Judging by your Dodge Neon, you probably aren’t.”
- Still don’t know how I feel about the wings completely disappearing every time they hit the ground.