This was the “everyone yells at The Flash” episode of The Flash and by the halfway point, we were starting to wonder if the whole thing was ill-conceived. An angst-filled personal life is a hallmark of most superhero stories, but there’s always a point at which it becomes overdone. When virtually every supporting character is yelling at or being a jerk to the main character, it makes them all look bad because all the supporting characters look like dicks and the main character looks like a wimp and screwup who surrounds himself with terrible people. There’s a reason Stan Lee struck gold when he created lovable loser Peter Parker; because there was a perfect combination of “frustrating screwup surrounded by jerks” and “guy who’s doing his best surrounded by people who don’t get him” that managed to make him identifiable to the audience but also at just enough of a remove for the audience to judge him for his mistakes. Barry Allen, at least as he’s been conceived for the comics, isn’t a lovably annoying screwup. If anything, he’s the bright-eyed good guy who inspires people around him. So all the yelling at Barry parts in the first half of the episode had us seriously irritated.
The thing is, without overstating it too much, Grant Gustin has the qualities of an old timey earnest actor in the Jimmy Stewart mode (if not quite at Stewart’s level of prowess), which means he can make a lot of the material work, when we suspect most actors his age would have a hard time pulling it off. It’s a portrayal that’s very Christopher Reeveian in tone, which is refreshing in this angst-filled age of super-f’d-up superheroes. It’s also the highest compliment we could pay him. So when you have virtually every other character yelling at him, it doesn’t make you wonder if Barry has what it takes; it makes you wonder why he doesn’t tell literally every person in his life to kiss his red-leather-clad ass.
It doesn’t help that some of the relationships come across almost literally incestuous, what with Barry not only working alongside the man who raised him, but the man who put his real father in jail. All while pining after what is, for all intents and purposes, his adoptive sister. That is a LOT of baggage to saddle any character with so early in their story; especially such a lightly and earnestly portrayed one. It’s just an odd setup, and when they delve into it as they did with this episode, it doesn’t come off any less odd.
But to be fair, the resolution to the conflict with Detective West and Barry’s L’il Lab Buddies actually worked quite well and the way they resolved it made us realize that the creators know what they’re doing. We were annoyed in the first half because we feared that this all indicated a far angstier take on the character than we wanted to see, and like we said, it tended to make everyone look bad. But it all resolved itself so declaratively that we assume the creators wanted to address the whole grim superhero thing dead on – and then completely deflate it. All that cranky yelling and worry evaporated because Barry Allen is so damn likable and more importantly: a HERO, all-caps required, please. “We were all struck by lightning that night” is an objectively TERRIBLE line, but Gustin is sweet enough to almost make it work and it left us a little relieved that they weren’t going to shy completely away from the innate hokiness of the character.
But Iris is still a huge weak point as well as a huge disappointment because she embodies the self-absorbed/slightly mean superhero girlfriend/unrequited love interest that only worked in a very different time. It’s true that the original comics Iris, as she was conceived in the ’50s, was a fairly open Lois Lane ripoff; that classic superhero girlfriend combination of smart but somehow clueless at the same time – and meddling in practically everything. It’s a character trope created to appeal to mid-Century 10-year-old boys who think girls are icky and annoying. It doesn’t quite work in an all-ages TV show in 2014. She comes off both dumb and either outrageously naive or a bit of a game-player. “Oh, Barry. You’re always so mopey around me. Do you mind if I make out with my boyfriend in front of you, while you stare at us, sad-eyed?” Considering how effectively the creators addressed and then shut down the angsty superhero tropes this episode, we have hope that at some point we’ll find out that Iris is more than the cliche she appears to be.
Incidentally, this doesn’t mean we’re predicting any less angst for this guy. These are the same people who brought us Arrow, after all; a show about a guy with a Robin Hood fetish whose life is one gigantic, violent soap opera. Barry will have plenty of personal problems and chances to scream and cry on camera, we have no doubt. But we tended to take this episode as a declaration that no matter what, this is a relatively lighter take on the modern superhero and Barry is pure-hearted in an almost medieval “chivalric knight” kind of way.
In other news, and to our ecstatic delight, they’re really digging down into the DC comics B-to-D List character roster early. Part of the problem with Gotham’s “Here’s almost every major player in the Batman mythos all at once” approach is that it feels like the show has nowhere to go. We got one major Flash villain last week with the Weather Wizard, but Multiplex (this week’s bad guy) is not only not a Flash villain, he’s a fairly obscure villain, which means they can pretty much do whatever they want with the character. Like we said last week, it’s going to get old if every villain got their powers from the same accident Barry did, but we can’t deny they seem to be having some real fun with the concept by pulling out these totally left-field adversaries with extremely weird, only-in-comics powers and abilities. This is no Christopher Nolan-esque attempt to make this world seem “realistic,” thank Loki.
Comics fans got even more fun “a ha” moments with appearances (short lived) by Simon Stagg and his bodyguard Java, who was an unfrozen caveman in the comics but here is a big African-american guy, which doesn’t make for the best optics. If this means an appearance by the DC character most associated with Simon Stagg, then we couldn’t be more excited by the prospect – and more curious about how they’d make that character design work on camera. Another exciting easter egg: the mention of Caitlin’s supposedly dead boyfriend, Ronnie. We won’t give it away, but nerds will know the deal.
Nerds always know the deal.
And to be totally nerdy, there’s a slight disconnect between The Flash’s stated top speed of 350 or so miles per hour and the fact that he’s not only barely visible when he moves, but that he can speed himself up to the point that he can recite an entire monologue to Iris about his true feelings for her in the time it takes for a sugar grain to fall a millimeter. Yeah, that’s a little faster than 350 mph, writers. On the other hand, the speed effects look even better this week than they did last week, especially the shot of him plowing through the Multiplex clones, which reached almost cinematic levels of quality.
Speaking of which, nerds, how about that treadmill scene, hunh? Downright… cosmic. This tends to reinforce the idea we have that Barry is only going to get faster as the story progresses.
Once again, a really fun hour (despite all the cranky people in it) that shows these guys really know what they’re doing and this series knows how to have fun.
[Photo: Cate Cameron/The CW]