Speed is the Key

The Flash, like some Speed-Force-infused Rodney Dangerfield, don’t get no respect.

Despite going through a respectable transition from Golden to Silver Age (and, in the process, inventing the multiverse), being a founding member of the Justice League of America, featuring some top-rate talent in his solo title, displaying one the most memorable — and unquestionably the most colorful — rogues’ galleries in comics history, spawning a football team’s worth of supporting characters, and sacrificing his life for us all during the Crisis on Infinite Earths, the Barry Allen incarnation has always seemed like a second-stringer among first-stringers.  He literally lost his identity more than once, going through more incarnations than his sometime-partner Green Lantern; he was often played as the butt of jokes on the Justice League cartoon series, and he couldn’t even sustain his own title after coming back from the dead.  While he was never the floating punchline that Aquaman became, the Fastest Man Alive never quite managed to outrun his reputation.

That may begin to change now with the debut of The Flash, a new live-action superhero series that debuted on the CW, whatever that is, two weeks ago.  A spin-off of the surprisingly successful Arrow on the same network (insert obligatory spiel about how ‘cinematic universes’ are the new black), it stars Grant Gustin as Barry Allen.  Gustin was previously known to me as the cartoonishly villainous Sebastian Smythe (now there’s a name from Flash’s rogues’ gallery), an antagonist on Glee who managed to stand out as particularly ridiculous even on one of the most ridiculous shows on television.  He’s much better used here; eschewing the typical square-jawed straight-shooter act we used to get from every Silver Age superstar, Gustin plays him as flawed but not too flawed.  He keeps a few of the more enjoyable character tics from other media portrayals of the Scarlet Speedster — particularly his habit of always being late and his need to eat copious amounts of food in order to sustain his hyper-fast metabolism, a joke which works especially well as Gustin is slight enough for a strong breeze to blow him away — but gives him a new and generally entertaining blend of youthful exuberance and romanticism.

One of my greatest going into The Flash was that it would too strongly resemble its television parent.  Many critics have gone gaga for Arrow, but I can’t see what the appeal is; the cast is utterly charmless, the action and storylines are generally tedious and overwrought, and the mood is altogether too mopey and self-serious, leaving only pandering inside-baseball references for fanboys to maintain interest.  I was completely bored by the first season, and didn’t see the vast improvement in the second  that others did.  When I found out the new Flash series would be derived from it — they share two executive producers — I worried it would contain the same gunky self-importance.  But while it’s still early in the series’ existence (the second episode only aired this week), it’s so far managed to hook me in a way that no superhero series has in the current wave of comics-derived entertainment.  Vancouver has so far made a nice stand-in for the well-developed Central City; the stories have been strong enough on their own, with neither the elaborate flab of Arrow or the audacious incompetence of Gotham (a show that’s only gotten worse since its rickety premiere); and it’s doled out some references to events and characters from the comics (including a fascinating tease of the Crisis) without making them too essential a part of the fun.

And the fun is what distinguishes The Flash from most of its competition.  It’s not that the show doesn’t play as a Modern Age comic, or that it lacks some requisite, and unfortunate, elements of grim-‘n’-grittiness (the choice to give Barry Allen a murdered mother to darken his backstory has so far done nothing to make the show any better).  It’s that these elements don’t dominate the proceedings, as they do in Arrow, or clash with other elements of the story to make the whole thing seem confused and disjointed, as they do in Gotham.  While never quite coming off as simplistic, The Flash — both the show and the main character as played by Gustin — makes being a superhero seem like, well, a hell of a lot of fun.  It’s not really a return to Silver Age sensawunda, but it definitely makes zipping all over the place, saving people while wearing a ridiculous outfit, seem like a grand adventure rather than a vile chore imposed by random tragedy.  Gustin does a good job of selling this, and he’s abated by Carlos Valdes as Cicso Ramon, a young S.T.A.R. Labs scientist who tricks him out with most of his boss gear.  (Cisco Ramon happens to be the civilian identity of certified Justice League Detroit non-star Vibe, who I’m hoping will never, ever appear on the show.)  The show manages to maintain a solid emotional foundation (mostly through Barry’s relationship with Iris’ father, Jesse L. Martin, rather than his snore-inducing non-relationship with Iris herself, so far a go-nowhere role that Candice Patton appropriately goes nowhere with), but there’s a feeling so far, made explicit in the second episode, that the writers want the show to contain the kind of excitement that used to come from reading comics before they started catering to surly post-adolescents.

The direction has been very competent so far, with some nifty special effects that aren’t so showy that they get in the way of the story.  The scripts would probably seem third-rate compared to what we’ve come to think of as quality television these days, but given the level of competition it has in other superhero shows, from the merely directionless (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) to the embarrassingly stupid (Gotham), it manages to shine just by not tripping all over itself.  The dialogue is breezy, the plots don’t have any glaring problems, and they’re actually bothering to give people personalities rather than just character tics.  The cast is a real crapshoot; there’s no ringers thrown in to anchor the many lovely but inexperienced young actors, so any given seen can drift off at any moment; Gustin seems to be having a good time, Tom Cavanagh is meaty and delicious as the enigmatic head of S.T.A.R. Labs, and Danielle Panabaker is game as Cisco’s partner in science, but Patton and Rick Cosnett as Eddie Thawne are going to have to improve if they’re going to assume the importance in the show that their characters have in the Flash mythos.

It’s hard to know what to attribute the success of The Flash to.  (It’s also a ratings hit, at least so far.)  After all, it’s still early, and they’ve got plenty of time to screw it up.  The presence of Geoff Johns as a creative force is tempting to cite, since he at least has a familiarity and an enthusiasm for the comic, but he’s also been one of the prime offenders in taking comics away from the direction the show is headed so far.  The next six or seven episodes should be critical, as they introduce much more of the supporting cast, and will see the blossoming of a number of seeds planted early on (including the likely appearances of many more members of Flash’s rogues’ gallery, as well as the characters who will eventually become Firestorm).  It will probably never be great television, but if it maintains its current level of quality and sustains the mood of excitement it’s brewed up thus far, it will zip along as the most enjoyable show in a genre that’s gotten noticeably worse as it’s gotten more popular.

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