This review of The Flash “City of Heroes” contains spoilers. You can read our spoiler-free version by clicking here.
The first episode of the CW’s anticipated new superhero drama, The Flash, is an impressive, albeit imperfect, piece of television. It’s slickly produced with some fine special effects, boasts an excellent cast, and it walks the line between being a thorough nerdfest for DC Comics stalwarts while still feeling like a CW drama.
The basic beats of this episode should feel familiar to any fan of Flash’s history. Barry Allen is a young police scientist who discovers he has incredible speed at his disposal after he is struck by a mysterious bolt of lightning. He ends up using his unique combination of super powers, police know-how, and scientific acument to become a superhero, aided by a high tech team of assistants from STAR Labs. Of course, the same accident which gave Barry his powers (the lightning bolt was the result of a particle accelerator accident) also unleashed mysterious energies out into the world, and not everyone with super powers has the best of intentions.
In terms of tone, The Flash goes to great lengths to establish that it is almost the complete opposite of Arrow. It’s a much sunnier show…literally. Mostly, it’s daylight in Central City. This ain’t Starling, and it couldn’t be any further from Gotham. While The Flash‘s lighter approach is refreshing, it’s a touch squeaky-clean. In fact, most of the supporting cast lacks that moral ambiguity or sexual energy that was on display in even the the earliest Arrow episodes. This is clearly by design, though, and nearly every major character is defined by their optimism and their intelligence rather than the “serious issues” that were used to introduce the folks on Arrow two years ago.
Grant Gustin’s Barry Allen owes more to charmingly earnest superhero squares like Peter Parker than a smoldering bad boy like Stephen Amell’s Oliver Queen. The tragedy in Barry’s past drives him, to be sure, but it doesn’t torment or define him. Playing Barry with such a light touch is quite a relief from much of DC’s other live-action output over the last decade or so, and Mr. Gustin’s performance should connect well with comic book fans and those new to the character. There’s some steel in this performance, though. There are several moments where it’s clear that Barry has made the decision to use these powers to help, regardless of whether or not anyone else is going to help him do it, and Grant easily makes these transitions.
As for the obligatory love story, the relationship between Barry and Iris comes off as a bit on-the-nose here (it’s a pilot, we expect these things), but I suspect that Candice Patton and Gustin will work this out in short order. Comic fans know these two have a bright (if complicated) future ahead of them, and it will be fun watching these two get us there. Jesse L. Martin as Barry’s police force mentor/surrogate dad, Detective Joe West, and the two have some fun back and forth throughout the episode.
Arrow fans have already had a look at Danielle Panabaker and Carlos Valdes as Caitlyn Snow and Cisco Ramon, two STAR Labs employees who help Barry come to terms with his new powers, so those two have a bit of a head start on their characters. Both are fun, and along with Tom Cavanagh’s mysterious Harrison Wells they take care of any necessary sci-fi exposition to help get folks who might be unfamiliar with Flash’s powers up to speed. STAR Labs is central to this show’s mission statement, so it’s safe to say that we’ll get lots more superpowered action on The Flash throughout the season.
Really, though, I can’t say enough good things about the core cast. Right off the bat, they seem to have a better feel for one another than, for example, the Arrow cast did in its earliest episodes. The Flash has the benefit of learning from that show’s early missteps, and it looks like they have. I expect that the chemistry is only going to improve in future episodes, too.
The Flash pilot packs an awful lot into its brief running time. though. We see Barry’s backstory, meet his friends and co-workers, and then get a complete Flash origin, from lightning bolt to power discovery to costume, a battle with a supervillain (the Weather Wizard, in all but code name), and plenty of DC Comics easter eggs (more on those down below). It’s fun and it looks great, but it causes a few hiccups.
The necessity of getting all of this information out there in the first episode results in some character beats that are hit a little too heavily and a few instances of characters explaining who they are to each other (and the audience). Had The Flash been assured a season order from the outset, this story would have been better served with a two-parter or a two hour premiere. In particular, the pep talk Barry gets from Green Arrow (with an American flag waving in the background, no less!) feels artificial, and it’s the only scene where things threaten to grind to a halt. This is a pretty minor complaint, though. It’s something that you kind of have to deal with in a spinoff like this, and when next these two characters meet it should be a little more interesting.
And, because this is a CW show, there are a few moments that feel a little too hip for their own good (there’s a “twerking” joke that already feels dated). Still, there are few directors out there who handle a pilot as efficiently as David Nutter (who also directed the pilots for Arrow and Smallville, not to mention countless other episodes of genre TV shows), and considering everything that has to get done in a compressed period of time, this is a tight piece of storytelling.
Don’t worry, though, superhero fans are going to approve of The Flash. The show is true to both the spirit of the character’s comic book roots and the general rules of the DC TV Universe already established over on Arrow. Once Barry is in that suit (which looks much better in motion than it does in photos) and moving at top speed, well…there’s no doubt that everyone involved understands the Flash and the world he operates in. We even get the obligatory “Flash unwinds a tornado by running against it” scene that has been done in countless comics
There are plenty of opportunities for DC easter egg hunting, from the subtle to the not-so-subtle. It’s safe to say that we’ll see the entirety of Flash’s legendary rogues gallery (one of the best in all of comics) as this series unfurls, and there’s potential for a great many more DC characters to make appearances. We know that Firestorm is coming soon, and that certainly won’t be all.
I’m not the biggest fan of the particle accelerator being ground zero for every villain that Flash is going to face, but I do understand that if you aren’t going to have to pull off a new villain origin story each week, for the sake of expediency, this is what has to be done. If you’ve been digging the way Arrow has hinted at its expanded DC Universe during season two (and that should continue in season three), then get ready…The Flash may take that to another level.
All in all, this is a promising start. I expect most of these kinks will be worked out nicely in the first few episodes as everyone settles into their roles. After all, it took Arrow almost an entire season to really find itself before emerging in its second season as a comic fan favorite. The Flash builds nicely on Arrow‘s success and formula, but has an identity all its own, and right out of the gate, it’s the most unashamedly nerdy superhero show we’ve ever seen. That’s a very good thing, in case you couldn’t tell.
And then there’s that ending. Holy moly, that ending! I had to write an entirely separate article about that ending, that’s how important it is. You can read it right here.
– That is absolutely and unquestionably the Reverse-Flash who is responsible for the death of Barry’s mother. This is a plot point ripped right out of the pages of Geoff Johns (who happens to be the show’s executive producer) and Ivan Reis’ The Flash: Rebirth comic.
– Ferris Air needs no introduction, does it? What I wouldn’t give to see Hal Jordan get reinvented for this show…
– Detective Fred Chyre is another Geoff Johns creation. It’s a damn shame they killed him off so early, because I really enjoyed Al Sapienza’s brief time on screen here (“My father gave me that pen…before he died”). Maybe there’s a chance he can be brought back?
– Henry Allen is played by the great John Wesley Shipp, who, of course, played Barry Allen on the gone-too-soon original Flash TV series in the early ’90s.
– Gotta love the monkey cage with the name “Grodd” on it. Grodd will almost certainly appear this season. Honest! Greg Berlanti told us so!
– Remember the name “Thawne” because it’s going to play heavily into future mysteries on this show.
– If Harrison Wells is from the future, is he…Professor Zoom? Abracadabra? Oh, we’re going to have fun with this one.
– Don’t worry, Weather Wizard will be back. Or at least his brother will be. They’ll find a way.
– That’s Wally West’s future wife Linda Park on the news broadcasts!
– The scene in the diner where Barry’s perceptions shift is a brief homage to The Flash‘s first appearance in Showcase #4 in 1956.
– That last scene is a big fat reference to Crisis on Infinite Earths. I freaked out about it for a thousand words over here.