(With over 500 shows airing each year, it’s only natural most television watchers eventually resort to binge-watching series. In my new column Binge Mode, I’ll be periodically sharing thoughts on the shows, old and new, I’ve been marathoning. As such, the following review contains spoilers for the entire season being discussed. Duh.)
With 376 episodes aired since its debut in October 2012, The CW’s Arrowverse has become the most sprawling, network-dominating franchise this side of Law & Order universe. Over that time, all of its long-running live-action shows – Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow – have calcified their serialized formula into an impressively reliable device for dense storytelling, building out unique worlds and personalities for each show within that similar framework.
Refined by over 260 hours of produced television, the CW DC formula is painstakingly familiar at this point, for better or worse: each one has pretty much the same strengths and weaknesses, similar abilities to deliver small scale spectacles while bumbling awkwardly to pace themselves through the massive episode count each show is given (for most, 22-24 episodes, with LoT and the recent addition Black Lightning offered shorter production orders). Bad romance plots and wonderfully crafted references to the DC multiverse, great production design and laughable special effects… to love the CW’s heartfelt, melodramatic, tiresomely lengthy universe is to take the good and the bad with each new season.
Recently, I sat down and watched through the first season of the C-List Super Hero Spin Off of the Arrowverse, Legends of Tomorrow, which aired in the spring of 2016 opposite the second halves of Arrow‘s fourth season, and The Flash‘s second season. On the surface, Legends of Tomorrow seemed like a shrewd, calculated bit of programming for The CW: take a bunch of actors the network loved, but couldn’t realistically keep involved on their current shows, and mush them together in Rip Hunter’s Waverider spaceship, Guardians and the Galaxy-ing the shit outta of their C-squad of heroes – The Atom, The White Canary, Firestorm, and Lincoln Burrows and Michael Scofield with cool guns – for the sake of filling the spring schedule with even more DC-flavored television.
The first few episodes of the series feel like a victim of the network’s focus group approach I noted above: the personalities of each character clashed together without much resonance, and outside of the mystery of “what time period are they going to travel to so they can make generic references?”, there wasn’t a lot of intrigue to Rip Hunter’s quest through time to stop Vandal Savage, and Legends of Tomorrow struggled to find its way early on. It takes until the sixth episode, “Star City 2046”, for even the plot to get interesting – and that’s only because the show teases us with Diggle’s son as Green Arrow, with a bitter, one-armed Oliver Queen to boot. But with the lamest incarnation of Deathstroke in recorded history, and the wasted opportunity of taking the The Dark Knight Returns reference even farther with a truly anti-capitalist Oliver, the small teases of character we’re offered with Captain Cold and White Canary in that episode are buried under the same bullshit that plagues the five episodes preceding it.
And then “Marooned” hits, a quasi-bottle episode that in theory would congeal the show’s individual aspects into something coherent, and instead mires the show in some of the clunkiest interpersonal relationship material I’ve seen in the Arrowverse (and this is a universe where Thea Queen’s had multiple romantic story lines). Of course, I’m talking about the Ray Palmer/Kendra Saunders love story, which initially debuts as a prime example of why these series should have shorter episode orders; left to fill space, the inclination to have these people fuck and get dramatic about it is run deeps through the heart of all the series I’ve mentioned so far, and it never feels like anything but a waste of time. In “Marooned”, which introduces this as a laughable love triangle between those two and Jefferson Jackson, it destroys any sense of momentum the season had been building to that point.
However, it’s the Ray/Kendra relationship that is the catalyst for the most interesting arc of the season, beginning in episode 9’s “Left Behind”. After being stranded in 1958 for two years, Ray and Kendra are “rescued” from the life they’ve built together, and brought back to the Waverider to resume their mission. This causes tension between them, because Ray wants to stay in 1960, and Kendra desperately wants to return to the mission of taking down Savage and saving The Timeline (the single most annoyingly overused phrase in the series, I might add): slowly, what appears to be a lame romantic dispute between two wildly underdeveloped characters, gives way to the deeper exploration of the series: what does it mean to be a hero?
That seed of an idea blossoms in the tenth episode, “Progeny”, is perhaps the first real episode of the series that is firing on all cylinders. When the team travels to 2147 to stop Savage from mentoring a young tyrant-in-waiting who is destined to unleash a virus on the world in 2166, the team has to reckon with the difficult decisions of trying to save the future. They attempt to kidnap the young bastard in the hopes of affecting the time line enough, but it doesn’t matter: as the characters are fond of saying through the series, “time wants to happen”, and suddenly the team is thrust into a debate about fate vs. destiny, and how much control we have over anything. While a thoroughly pedantic trope for a science fiction series to explore, Legends of Tomorrow takes this moralistic dilemma, and cuts it down into something more powerful as the season continues, culminating in the season’s penultimate episode, “Destiny”.
I’m willing to forgive a lot of the bullshit that comes between those two episodes – Kendra’s struggle to choose between Ray, and a dude she’s banged for over 4,000 years, silly politics involving the Time Masters council – because of how strong the thread is between “Progeny” and “Destiny”, and how it represents a truer vision for the potential of the series. In “Destiny”, each member of the time traveling team has to decide what their impact on the time line is going to be: what makes our lives memorable, to ourselves and the ones we love? When our lives inevitably end (again, time really wants to happen), do we want society to remember a heroic action, or our friends to remember the smaller moments that unite us? Without a family, can one be remembered at all?
When the series began, Rip Hunter brought each character on board under the false pretense of their lives being insignificant (he really wanted to flip a middle finger to the genocidal time council that employed him, but that’s besides the point): he offered them the opportunity to be legends, to leave an impact on the entire time line of history. “Progeny” forced characters to reckon with the ambiguity of saving the world from its own future: how do you know what will make you remembered as a “good person”? Is it the one heroic action you commit, or the sum of everything you decide to do in life? Other shows like The Good Place or BoJack Horseman have very definitive answers for this question: Legends of Tomorrow doesn’t, often exploring the idea that the universe is so fucking random, there’s often no way to tell what will end up being the right or wrong decision, the heroic or the cowardly, the legendary or the dangerously misguided.
Ultimately, Legends of Tomorrow posits, is that we can try and shape our destiny however we may – but our attempts to do so dishonestly have consequences. Captain Cold is able to redeem himself as a somewhat honorable man, but does so at the cost of his life: and on the other side of the coin, Rip Hunter’s selfish parade through time guarantees he can never save his own family, blinded by his own pain and driven by egotistical notions that he, and only he, could save the time line from the powers that be. Where Legends of Tomorrow really found its stride was in those moments: propelled by those two lead stories, normally lame B-plots like Martin trying to be fatherly to Jackson have a lot more pathos, grounding their silly inter-generational bickering in something much more emotional as Martin tries to guide Jackson to being, essentially, a better version of himself.
The season finale “Legendary”, is a bit of a letdown from the high of “Destiny” – but after 17 episodes of stretching out maybe seven episodes of actual story, it’s no surprise the final episode runs on fumes until it drops its obtuse references for what’s to come in season two, in the form of a dude named Rex Tyler who can’t land a time ship worth a damn. Again, it’s emblematic of DC shows as a whole: great premieres that don’t hit second gear until halfway through, followed by a strong second act that slowly dissolves into nonsensical chaos as it barrels towards a climatic showdown, before hitting the semi-reset button and signing off for the season.
But for those five episodes where Legends of Tomorrow really hits its stride and becomes the swashbuckling time adventure it promised (save for a super lame Jonah Hex appearance in an otherwise strong hour in the Wild West), DC’s strange spin off series offers a glimpse of a series on a slightly smaller scale, with much bigger – and much more promising – ideas and worlds to explore. With its fourth season scheduled to begin in October, there’s certainly plenty of…. time for them to figure it out (yes, that’s a fucking lame way to end a review, and I’m going to own it. Set time drive to max, Gideon!)
– I can’t get over how lame the Hawkgirl material is for pretty much the entire season. If Hawkgirl isn’t thinking about a man, she doesn’t really have much to do but spar with White Canary (inadvertently teasing a much, much more interesting potential romantic pairing).
– The dissonance between the younger and older halves of Firestorm are perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the show: Victor Garber outshines Franz Drameh in every scene of the series, something that feels both a byproduct of writing and performance for the characters of Martin and Jefferson.
– I still don’t understand the convoluted history between Hawkgirl/Hawkman and Vandal Savage, and I do not wish to.
– Caity Lotz and her stunt double run circles around everyone in this series; White Canary’s fight scenes are always more kinetic and powerful than anyone else’s (maybe because most of them rely on SFX magic, but there’s still some impressive work done by all the White Canaries on set).
– Rip Hunter fucking suuuucks, and boy, does the third act of this season realize it just in time (I gotta stop making these terrible jokes, I’m sorry).
– the costuming on this show really needs to take some direction from the Timeless production crew: the difference in the two shows and their ability to convey time periods is almost baffling.
– Hawkgirl is in her suit so little compared to the other characters on this show, it is silly.
– Heat Wave’s arc this season is all over the fucking place, but I really like the underlying dynamic of a lost soul just trying to find a home where he – in all his crazy, wildly violent ways – felt like he belonged.
– the Captain Cold/White Canary romance that suddenly appears at the end of “Destiny” is so fucking lame, it hurts.
– thanks for checking out my new, semi-regular column! I may or may not write more about Legends of Tomorrow in the future; if you have a show you think I should binge and write about, let me know!