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Superhero Stories: If You’re Not Doing It Like ‘The Flash,’ You’re Doing It Wrong

Superhero Stories: If You're Not Doing It Like 'The Flash,' You're Doing It Wrong

When it came time to evaluate “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” I used a simple metric: How much is it like “The Flash”? In the space of a single season, which ended last night with the crackling and eventful “Fast Enough,” the CW series has come awfully close to the Platonic ideal of what a comic-book adaptation should be.

There are any number of factors that make “The Flash” such a success. In Grant Gustin’s Barry Allen, the show picked a lead who can convey childlike enthusiasm, grown-up regret, and young adulthood’s combination of untutored hesitancy and go-for-broke heedlessness. (There’s a smidgen of twentysomething horniness as well, but “The Flash” is a determinedly PG-rated show.) Showrunners Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg surrounded him with a strong supporting cast, especially Jesse L. Martin as Detective Joe West, Barry’s surrogate father and moral compass; Tom Cavanagh as Harrison Wells, a brilliant but mysterious scientist who is eventually revealed to be Barry’s nemesis, Eobard Thawne; and Carlos Valdes as Cisco Ramon, a socially awkward genius who acts as a stand-in for comics fans, gleefully providing each of Barry’s metahuman assailants with a colorful code name. (The show, it must be said, does substantially less well by its female characters, including Danielle Panabaker as an accomplished scientist who, in “Fast Enough,” had to ask her colleagues to define a singularity, and Candice Patton as Iris West, Joe’s daughter and Barry’s lifelong love, who spends nearly the entire season in the dark about both Barry’s superhero identity and his true feelings.) 

Berlanti and Kreisberg have mastered the art of feeding longtime Flash aficionados plenty of delicious Easter Eggs — casting John Wesley Shipp, star of the 1990’s “Flash” show, as Barry’s imprisoned father, peppering the dialogue with brisk references to the Justice League and Green Arrow — without devoting themselves to fan service full time. Because so many fans of “The Flash” are already fans of the character, whose convoluted comic-book history involves a slew of temporal paradoxes and alternate universes, the show’s approach to marketing has been surprisingly, perhaps uniquely, spoiler-friendly, ending nearly every episode with the equivalent of a Marvel-movie “stinger” teasing future developments. And they’ve also proved to be dab hands at world-building, introducing characters from “The Flash” on “Arrow” months before “The Flash” actually debuted, and using both shows to pre-launch the forthcoming “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow,” a time-traveling team-up show that will apparently take “The Flash’s” nuttiness several steps farther.

The Flash’s history is full of the kind of comic-book eccentricities that almost never make it to the screen, big or small, but every time “The Flash” makes its viewers ask “Are they really going to…?” the answer is almost always, “Yes.” And with an unstable wormhole still sucking up pieces of Central City at the conclusion of the show’s first season, it’s entirely possible the craziness has only just begun. It’s that willingness to embrace superhero comics in all their giddy insanity that differentiates “The Flash” from other superhero shows, and, indeed, from virtually every other current screen iteration of the form. As the A.V. Club’s Noel Murray put it in his season-long review, “there’s something refreshing about “The Flash’s” willingness to get the superhero details right first and foremost, rather than trying to fit them into a larger statement. It’s not that “The Flash” is dumb, or that it lacks ambition, but its goals have been more, ‘Let’s tell a story that involves time-travel and ray-guns!’ than, ‘Let’s comment on the 21st-century security state.'” Or, to quote a tweet he cites in that review:

The “Fuck it, here’s a psychic gorilla” approach is invigorating next to the po-faced grimness of “Gotham” and “Arrow,” the latter of which has the misfortune to turn especially humorless just as its channel-mate was reminding us how much fun these stories can be. And it shows us what’s missing from so many of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s movies as well, with the partial exception of Joss Whedon’s two “Avengers” movies and James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Simon Pegg was buried under an avalanche of Internet ire for suggesting that the boom in comic-book and genre fare reflects the “infantilization” of society, but the truth is, there’s something undeniably silly about people with magic powers dressing up in funny costumes and fighting evil — and that silliness, rather than comic books’ Achilles’ heel, is integral to their power.

Comics, and the stories derived from them, touch us precisely because they evoke the moral certainties of childhood, the desire for just and morally pure icons to whose level we can aspire — “heroes,” I think they’re called. The best of those stories also question that desire or complicate it: What it might be like to actuallybe that hero, and what would become of a world that came to rely on them? It would certainly be a more interesting place, psychic gorillas and all, but it would also be a more dangerous one, a place where, say, a man might have to decide whether to travel back in time and prevent his mother’s murder, knowing that act might erase untold swaths of the world he knows and loves. It’s not a quandary you or I are likely to face anytime soon — unless you are secretly the Scarlet Speedster, in which case, hi, big fan — but it turns on an elemental question: Should you try to right the wrongs done to you in the past, or accept them as part of your life and move on with it?

What “The Flash” lacks is the kind of consistent metaphorical depth that Whedon is so good at tapping into: He knows how to use Buffy’s slayer destiny or The Hulk’s ferocity as tools for exploring our decidedly non-super lives, while some weeks on “The Flash,” Barry’s powers are principally a means of exploring how fast he can run. But that metaphorical quality — what Murray calls “theme-iness” — can also overwhelm superhero stories, or serve as a means of preemptively defending them against the argument that comics are “just for kids.” At its worst, it becomes what “Animal Man’s” Grant Morrison memorably called “trotting out the Nietzsche and the Shelley and the Shakespeare to dignify some old costumed claptrap,” a not-especially-sly to Alan Moore’s “Watchmen,” which with Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” laid the groundwork for comics’ apparently permanent transition into the mainstream.

“Watchmen” and “The Dark Knight Returns” were striking in their depiction of the dark side of superheroism, but that darkness has become an oppressive cliché, best embodied in the hilariously Stygian trailer for “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” “The Flash” can be a surprisingly emotional show, especially when it’s delving into Barry’s relationship with Joe and his biological parents, but it never forgets to have fun, and its episodic structure allows it to throw away episodes on the kind of larkish diversions that Marvel’s mass-engineers products will never find room for. Not every comic-book story needs to be like “The Flash”: The world which, say, Batman or The X-Men inhabit has always been a grimmer place, and that’s fine. But while “The Flash” has its flaws, most of them linked to the restrictions of producing 20-plus episodes a year on a relatively modest budget, it’s a shining light in the darkness, leaving everyone else in its dust.

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