If only all our problems could be solved by running...
For almost two seasons, CW’s Flash has been retreading the same tired tracks in a world where running fast solves every problem. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been great, but S.T.A.R Labs seems to be running out of bright ideas.
As much as I enjoy the show, the characterisation of Barry Allen couldn’t be more wrong. This is a character Batman described as the person he would have hoped to be had his parents hadn’t been murdered. Barry’s mother was killed, and his father blamed, yet he still turns out as one of the most good-natured men in the DC universe. He’s always been the light-hearted moral compass of the JLA, shown to be the one who keeps them in line. But in this series, Allen is constantly doing an impression of Oliver Queen, who himself is most often impersonating Batman – much to fans’ chagrin.
At every turn, the scarlet speedster finds himself stubbornly heading towards trouble and away from the sensible choice. He tries, like Queen, to take the blame for everything, to keep everyone at a distance and overcome every problem with the exact same approach. While Queen is moving forward, campaigning to be Mayor to stand up to Darrk in the light, Flash is moving fast, but going nowhere.
Fight scenes have been pretty bland one-hit KOs so far. There are notable exceptions, like being able to hurl lightning bolts or creating speed mirages, but the majority of Flash’s fights happen the same way. In fact, he doesn’t even bother to use the lightning bolts or mirages in most battles. He’d rather just run.
Sometimes it’s towards his enemies, and sometimes away, but there never seems to be a plan. In the episode, King Shark, Flash starts running circles around the towering beast – literally, not metaphorically. He doesn’t throw any punches, kick up dirt, or use the lightning. He just circles…like a shark.
Arrow is as well-known for his archery as Flash is for his speed, but that doesn’t mean that every episode starts with him using his bow. There are times when he investigates and interrogates. Times when Felicity takes the lead with her cyber skills, hacking databases or gaining entry to a building. Times when fisticuffs is the order of the day.
But with Barry it’s always running. Run, run, run and run some more. And if that doesn’t work, there can be only one answer. Run faster!
For Arrow, when his first approach doesn’t work, there are a number of other ways to get what he wants. There are times when the day has been saved through Diggle’s connection to A.R.G.U.S, through the Lance family’s connection to the SCPD, or through Felicity’s tech skills. Other times, it has required inventive uses of the bow and arrow, fighting skills or their surroundings to take their opponents down. Flash’s team lacks this diversity of options.
It helped that Arrow and the team never shied away from killing, or at least maiming, and had a much more varied plot structure, owed to its more extensive set of sub-plots. While Arrow and the team fight for control of the city, or to stop the Triads, or get dangerous drugs like vertigo off the streets, Flash only ever seems concerned with minor one-off struggles with no wider implications or enduring subplots. It is usually enough to defeat the villain de jour. Who, where and when are often inconsequential.
The how of it all can generally be placed in one of two categories. Barry runs fast, or the team comes up with a sciencey doohickey.
To defeat Girder, he ran faster from a long distance; to defeat the Mist he ran until the villain tired; to defeat Trajectory he ran fast enough to jump a long distance. No matter what the situation or who the villain is, almost everything in Flash’s world can be accomplished by increasing speed – a feat accomplished by sheer willpower or a pep talk from Iris, Joe – or even himself.
Failing that, the Starlets (can we please start calling the S.T.A.R Labs team this?) invent some strange device with pseudo-science mumbo jumbo which incapacitates the villain, or makes Plan A suddenly feasible.
This is the equivalent of Team Arrow inventing a new arrow every week (which admittedly would be fun). Just once it would be nice to see Barry engage in an actual fight with a villain, or actually dodging attacks rather than fleeing to a safe distance until Cisco or Wells come up with a plan.
In the comics, Barry is confident, outgoing, witty and optimistic. But in the show, they made Barry a whiny lovestruck puppy pining over his half-sister. He spends all his time worrying that things won’t go well, from romantic interests, to his battles with the season’s nemesis, and everything in-between.
I don’t know who told TV execs that friendzoned characters are fun, but someone needs to tell them the truth. (Unless they’re Felicity. Friendzoned Felicity was awesome.)
Despite an entire first season being told that Barry’s greatest weakness is trusting people, the show has been full of monotonous refusals to tell people who he really is. The logic of not telling loved ones that you’re a superhero has never made sense in the first place. They’re not endangered by knowing about a hero’s secret identity, they’re endangered by being the loved ones of a superhero. That makes them targets. Not telling them just leaves them in the dark about why they’re being kidnapped every week.
But in season 2, with Joe, Iris, Cisco, Snow, many of the Legends (including enemy, Captain Cold), and Team Arrow all knowing his secret identity, how would it make the slightest difference to let Patty Spivot in on it, too? Especially when she had already worked out the truth.
At every opportunity, Flash turns towards angst and grief and reasons to brood, rather than reaching for some higher purpose, where Central City and the lives of Barry and those around him, can be said to be improved by his existence. That’s is something we need to see in Flash, as a contrast to Arrow’s grim Star City. They need to be our analogues of Superman and Batman, especially in a world where the Man of Steel breaks necks and the Dark Knight uses guns.
Crises of Confidence
Instead of becoming that beacon of hope, Flash remains plagued by doubts, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. It’s so trite now, I’ve all but memorized the speech: “For too long now, I’ve been running away from things…” Which, of course, leads to more running around foes he has no hope of beating.
Other than a coffee named after the hero, which they spend way too much time hyping – it’s almost as if they’re paid to promote it by a real coffee chain who sell a drink called a Flash – we don’t see any lasting effect the hero has had on the city. Iris doesn’t play Lois Lane well enough to show the media angle, and too little time is actually spent in the city to learn anything about the people of Central City.
We don’t even see the news, unless they want to show a very Golden Age monologue from the likes of Geomancer. Our world is constricted to half a dozen areas. We’ve seen more of Earth 2’s world than we have Earth 1’s.
Reverse Flash, Trajectory, Zoom, Jay Garrick, and presumably Wally West. Need I say more?
If Flash is ever going to move on, the writers need to find new ground to cover. New emotional dramas that require more than brooding and angst, more than aggression or grief. They need to choreograph fight scenes that show Barry using his head, rather than just running and hoping for some new effect, or a gadget from the Starlets. They need to show Flash as a hero to the people, by showing the people, and giving us the warm, friendly, beloved character we know from the comics. We need a happy hero for once, and a hero who knows he can win, because he can imagine new uses for his powers. Not just because the script called for him to win.