The DC Comics Roots of The Flash, Arrow, and Legends of Tomorrow

The CW stable of superhero TV shows is capturing the spirit of the DC Universe in a way we never thought possible.

If you invited the roster of Legends of Tomorrow to a party, “they would be the most likely to burn the house down.” That’s how showrunner Phil Klemmer described the group of misfit superheroes and villains who make up Legends of Tomorrow, which will become the third DC Comics superhero show to hit the CW in recent years when it arrives this winter.

“We put these people on a spaceship and sent them throughout time because they will be like bulls in a china shop,” he told the press in July.  

Legends comes from the same minds behind Arrow and The Flash, two notable successes that boast spectacular core casts, with leads who have turned in character-defining performances and non-costumed supporting characters who have developed fan followings that rival that of their more colorful co-stars. Arrow routinely delivers some of the best stunts and fight scenes this side of the big screen while The Flash has special effects that are second to none on the networks.

But there’s something else that Arrow and The Flash have done that no previous DC Comics adaptation has managed to accomplish. They’ve embraced the inherent wildness and weirdness of a comic book history that developed over 75 years. This is more than the simple “shared universe” model that Marvel uses to great effect with its movies and TV shows. DC was known for an infinite supply of parallel universes and characters who passed on heroic identities from generation to generation, and where even secondary superheroes or sidekicks could find themselves as headliners, just like they have on Legends of Tomorrow.

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The Legends of Tomorrow roster certainly isn’t a who’s who of DC Comics’ most recognizable characters. When the biggest name on the team is comparatively obscure Silver Age superhero The Atom, it’s a safe bet that calculating potential action figure and t-shirt sales weren’t the driving force behind the roster. Instead, we’ve got a team that consists of The Atom (played by Brandon Routh) is joined by the similarly obscure White Canary (Caity Lotz), Rip Hunter (Doctor Who’s Arthur Darville), Hawkgirl (Ciara Renee), Firestorm (Victor Garber and Franz Drameh), and villains Captain Cold (Wentworth Miller) and Heat Wave (Dominic Purcell).

Legends’ reliance on DC’s second-string is nothing new, though, as Arrow and The Flash have been laying the groundwork for some time. That was by necessity, though. With Warner Bros. busy rebuilding heavy hitters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman for the big screen, those characters and most of their attendant mythology weren’t available for TV use when Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg, and Marc Guggenheim were ready to start branching out from the street level stories that characterized the show’s first season. Arrow turned that perceived weakness into a strength. Green Arrow has a history nearly as long as Batman’s and he starred in some fine comics, but never became a household name until Stephen Amell strapped on the quiver.

Arrow spent its first three seasons exploring some of the relatively unexplored corners of the DC Universe, introducing the Suicide Squad to new audiences long before Jared Leto and Margot Robbie stole that spotlight for the big screen, and turning longtime comics favorite Slade “Deathstroke” Wilson (played to perfection by Manu Bennett) into one of the best villains on TV. Arrow brought fans Brandon Routh as Ray “The Atom” Palmer, two different versions of Black Canary (the identity switch playing lightly on that character’s impossibly complex comic book legacy), relatively obscure Golden Age brawler Ted “Wildcat” Grant, and a guy named Barry Allen.

By comparison, The Flash had it easy. He’s a much more well-known character, with one of the most instantly recognizable costumes and power sets in pop culture, and the finest rogues’ galleries this side of Batman or Spider-Man. He also is indelibly tied to the more out there elements of DC Comics, notably their nearly infinite assortment of parallel universes containing multiple heroes and villains.

Instead of running from it, The Flash embraced it all, mixing obscure DC villains when disposable villains of the week were needed with more substantial arcs for his greatest foes, while telling elongated origin stories for secondary heroes like Firestorm and Vibe. The show dropped references to DC’s massive continuity-altering Crisis on Infinite Earths (a book that sends even seasoned DC scholars to their reference books to keep track of the characters crammed into every panel) as early as the first episode and delivered visual clues that had longtime fans of the comics salivating.

“One of the things we haven’t been shy about is embracing some of the pivotal stories from a lot of the various runs over the years,” executive producer Andrew Kreisberg told us at San Diego Comic-Con, “we’re not gonna stop doing that.”

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They certainly aren’t. The Flash season two introduces a Flash from a parallel universe, Jay Garrick. Garrick was the first comic book character known as the Flash. He slipped into publishing obscurity as superheroes waned in popularity after World War II, before meeting Barry Allen in “Flash of Two Worlds” in 1961’s The Flash #123. Jay became a semi-regular supporting player in various DC titles for the next fifty years, and a kind of elder statesman and mentor to younger speedsters. But like many of these other characters, when Teddy Sears brings him to life on TV, it will be his first real moment in the mainstream spotlight.

So, this is where we are now. When once forgotten characters step up to become co-stars on popular superhero dramas, and a virtually unknown group of heroes and villains can get their own show, one dealing with time travel, no less! “They cannot get along,” Klemmer joked in San Diego. “They have to get along because Rip [Hunter] has seen the future and he tells us that they’re legends, but they’re so clearly not.”

Well, maybe not yet.

But if Arrow and The Flash have taught us anything it’s that TV audiences are ready to embrace what comic book fans have known for years: that the characters from the margins of DC’s publishing history can be just as beloved as their more well known stablemates. If the almost uniformly impeccable casting decisions we’ve already seen on these shows hold true, and with Arrow season four, The Flash season two, and Legends of Tomorrow about to get underway, then television viewers should get ready to love (or love to hate) Mr. Terrific, Lady Cop, Killer Frost, Zoom, Hawkgirl, Rip Hunter, Atom-Smasher, Damien Darhk, Vandal Savage, Jay Jackson, Dr. Light, White Canary, Anarky, and many more…

This article originally appeared in the Den of Geek NYCC Special Edition Magazine. For more information on the magazine, click here.

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