Byline: A. Spruiell/Black
“My name is Barry Allen, and I am the fastest man alive…”
The opening preamble for CW’s THE FLASH is always the same, starting as above. Barry Allen, summarizes his own story, one of an ordinary forensic scientist turned supersonic hero imbued with the power of the mystical “Speed-force” after a particle accelerator explosion. The show, however, now approaching its fourth season, is on the precipice of becoming as repetitive as that opening voiceover.
The Flash is still a moneymaker for both Warner Brothers and the CW, easily considered the most popular show in the growing DC Comics TV universe. And while it’s network counterpart, Arrow, has suffered from fan backlash to some questionable creative decisions the past two seasons, The Flash has been lauded for being more light, more fun and more willing to embrace the ridiculousness that belies most, if not all, comic book stories. The show’s continued popularity masks a central, and vital, problem though: Barry Allen seems to be running in circles.
The show’s continued popularity masks a central, and vital, problem though: Barry Allen seems to be running in circles.
Season three began with high hopes, as the show was slated to tackle one of the most famous Flash comic book storylines of all time: Flashpoint. Barry Allen decides to use his powers as the Flash to go back in time and prevent the murder of his mother, Nora Allen. This decision completely alters the timeline for everyone and results in seismic changes for the DC universe. For example, instead of losing his parents, Bruce Wayne is killed in the alley robbery and his father and mother, stricken by guilt, become Batman and the Joker respectively. Wonder Woman leads the Amazons in a world war against Aquaman and the Atlanteans after he ends their affair and she murders his wife, Mera. Superman is a government lab rat being held prisoner by the US government, Cyborg is America’s premier protector and superhero, and Barry is no longer the Flash, introducing major doubt that he can fix what he has broken.
Without access to all of the central characters from the original, this was a daunting task for the writers of The Flash. Rewriting a legendary storyline, or adapting it for your own purposes, is always a risky endeavor because it stands the risk of stepping or mimicking the original in so many way. The arc was set up by season two’s finale which showed Barry’s decision to alter the timeline, but none of the consequences. At the start of the season 3 premiere, we are introduced to some of these myriad changes.
After defeating and caging his mother’s attempted murderer – the Reverse Flash – Barry finds both his mother and father, alive and well. Barry’s adopted father Joe West is still a detective, but has been driven to alcoholism and indifference toward the greater good. Barry’s adopted brother and sister, Wally and Iris West, are now a brother-sister crime-fighting team with Wally imbued with the Speed-force and taking the moniker “Kid Flash”.
At first Barry is blissfully unaware of these changes, content to live life with his parents and none of the responsibility that being the Flash entails. From there, as opposed to exploring this new world, Flash abruptly reverted back to the original timeline with very little explanation by the end of episode one. This lands in very stark contrast to Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which explored a similar alternate universe storyline, but continued to explore it for a full six episodes. That appeared as a tease to fans of the show, compounded by a return to an increasingly familiar storyline. A new, devastating speedster arrives in Central City to challenge Barry and combat their apparently crippling insecurity. This year’s winner was Savitar, the apparent “God of Speed”.
Besides looking like a dime-store, “cereal in a bag” version of Megatron from Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, Savitar was a reversion to a well-tread storyline. Seasons one and two both featured speedster villains – Reverse Flash and Zoom, respectively – who hid their identities until midseason or later and Savitar was no different. That repetition has caused the reveal to lose a large percentage of its impact. It’s much like when someone tells you there’s a twist in a movie before you see it and now you’re watching the whole time, waiting in anticipation for the twist to come. The famed “ah-ha!” moment loses almost all of its juice.
And therein lies a central problem with the show: without a compelling central mystery or villainous plot to drive the plot, the writers seem to rely on emotional upheaval to fill the void. Part of The Flash’s original appeal was its fresh and earnest take on the genre. Most superhero dramas – especially those on the CW – are plagued by overly emotional plot devices and an inability to directly connect with the source material (Black Canary on Arrow, Jimmy Olsen on Supergirl). The Flash once took that on with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and earnest joy from its main character, and has now instead adopted a sort of morose acceptance of it
In season 3, this has morphed into a show with no real emotional balance or direction, resulting in abrupt tone shifts and curtailed reactions. The characters act against their own self-interest, and their previous characterizations. One week Barry and Iris are engaged. Then two weeks later, she gets mad that he wants her to live to see the wedding, and calls it off. Then she changes her mind within one episode, only to have Barry decide that he can’t take it anymore. And nobody reacts to any of this with any kind of lasting emotion. They’re sad in the moment, sure, but it’s more of a “comment on their Facebook wall” sad than anything real. The show becomes more frustrating than enjoyable.
In season 3, that has morphed into a show with no real emotional balance or direction, resulting in abrupt tone shifts and curtailed reactions. The characters act against their own self-interest, and their previous characterizations.
And even those emotional notes start to wear thin as you see the same situations occur in the same three sets, over and over and over again. Someone will reveal a secret that directly jeopardizes the team’s mission, everyone reacts with the mild disappointment you usually see when Trader Joe’s is out of cookie butter. Some twosome will have a conversation about it in the hall, and by the next week, it’s as if it never happened.
Most egregiously, the show somehow managed to make its titular hero into – for lack of a better term – a complete dick. Barry isn’t the happy go-lucky hero he began as, and that’s to be expected, but he also has lost most of the selflessness that made him a hero. His aims are selfish, and he repeatedly acts without thinking of the consequences for others. Much of season three’s emotional beats were spent watching Barry try to apologize or make amends for some egregious wrong he performed the week before. He might take time to think about his S.T.A.R. Labs family on occasion, but the rest of Central City? Screw those, jerks.
He shirks his responsibilities at his actual job (which does nothing to explain his fully furnished, 2,500 square foot, two story, downtown apartment. Iris writes copy for a newspaper; she ain’t paying for it). Barry sees any non-“Big Bad” villains as repeated annoyances rather than dire threats. And as such, we, the audience, see them that way, too. It leaves us looking forward to the next major revelation for the season instead of focusing on that particular episode. The villains are written as if they are disposable because they are. With a hero like Flash, whose rogues gallery is famed for its vast interconnectedness, we should be seeing villain’s storylines more often, sewing discontent among themselves and forming tenuous, ultimately doomed, but entertaining alliances to take Barry down.
In a way, the CW is almost handcuffed by the having so many different DC products on at the same time. Marvel’s Netflix universe works because it allows shows to be self-contained, but has loose connective ligaments to a larger plot. The CW is constantly adding more and more moving parts on the fly, so characters move back and forth between programs based on convenience, not plot. Two of the Flash’s most iconic villains – Captain Cold and the Reverse Flash – **SPOILER ALERT** met their demise on Legends of Tomorrow, with the Flash not involved AT ALL. What kind of sense does that make?
Based on recent reports, season 4 expects to be a departure. The season ended with a major change and cliffhanger, but given Flashpoint’s expedient resolution, fans are wary to take it seriously. The reported main villain for the season is NOT a speedster, but rather Clifford DeVoe, “The Thinker”, a man with psionic abilities who could also exist as a non-living AI upon his death. Quite the departure from the seasons before it, but a welcome one if executed correctly. Still a ratings winner for the network, the CW is unlikely to get rid of the Flash anytime soon. But with the glut of superhero entertainment available, fans are unlikely to offer the same courtesy. The show needs a fix, and it needs it fast.
Run, Barry, run.
Season 3: 6.5/10