Monday, October 6, 2014

Pilot Review: The Flash

The Flash (Tuesdays at 8:00 on The CW; Premieres October 7)

The second of three new DC Comics-based shows is The CW's The Flash, starring Grant Gustin (Glee) as the titular superhero. While technically a spin-off of the network's popular Arrow, as Gustin had a two-episode arc in that show's most recent season, this new take on the World's Fastest Man differs heavily in tone and execution. The Green Arrow and The Flash may exist in the same television universe, but they couldn't be more different. Whereas Arrow is dark and brooding, The Flash is silly and over-the-top, the way comic book adaptations used to be

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that darker and more intense adaptations of comic books and superheroes are bad. Quite the opposite, actually. Many superheroes' backstories and motivations lend themselves well to this style of storytelling. Batman, for example, lends himself perfectly to this method of reinvention, which is why Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy connected with so many viewers. But the trend of bringing darkness to other characters doesn't work nearly as well. Arrow could stand to have a bit more levity and a bit less gravitas, as could Thor in the Marvel films (I can't be the only one who thought The Dark World took itself way too seriously for a movie about a Norse God fighting alien elves). This summer's biggest hit was Guardians of the Galaxy, a comic book adaptation that embraced its inherent camp qualities and delved more widely into using humor in superhero films again. The Flash is wise to more closely follow this example, rather than the one set by Nolan, because The Flash is a pretty silly character. In this version, he is Barry Allen (Gustin), a young forensic scientist working for the Central City Police Department. As a child, Barry witnessed his mother's death and his father's subsequent arrest for her murder. He is taken in by his best friend Iris (Candice Patton) and her family, led by Detective Joe West (Law & Order's Jesse L. Martin). As Barry grows up, he sets his sights on finding out the truth about his mother's death and clearing his father's name. One night during a rainstorm,the Particle Accelerator, a device invented by Dr. Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanaugh) that will change the face of modern science, explodes and Barry is struck by the aftershocks, leaving him in a coma for months. When he awakens, Barry discovers he has the ability to move at incredible speeds and thus becomes The Flash. But the problem is that the explosion created several others with superhuman abilities, and they use their new powers to commit crimes. Flash to the rescue!

The Flash's biggest strength is that it feels like a comic book adaptation. There are moments of darkness, of course, but there is more joy in this pilot than there has been in the entire first two seasons of Arrow. Barry is happy with his transformation, and he takes delight in showing off his new powers to his scientist friends, and he's proud to use his power to fight the bad guys. That's a stark contrast to its parent show, in which Oliver Queen has no real superpowers and takes down underground criminals, often being painted as the villain himself. And the types of villains The Flash introduces are in a totally different ballpark. In the pilot, the main villain is a bank robber who can control the weather. The closest Oliver has come to something like that on Arrow is fighting a drugged-up Slade when the Mirakuru gave him super strength. But the crime on Arrow is firmly rooted in the mortal world, in humanity. The Flash introduces actual superheroes and supervillains to that world, so it'll be interesting to see how that plays out on Arrow. Will these types of characters make their way over to Starling City, or will they confine themselves to Central City? It's a possible game-changer, and I like that about The Flash. It's not afraid of being silly and funny. Some of Barry's first words when he wakes from his nine-month sleep are, "My coma gave me abs?" Lines like that wouldn't fly in a more serious adaptation, and the show is stronger and more entertaining for going there. It doesn't feel like a cheap imitation of its parent series, or a rip-off, or a way to cash in on its success. The Flash feels like its own entity, and being presented this way gives the show a raison d'etre: this is a different, more classical, way of bringing comic book characters to the small screen. They don't need to be moody loners shuffling through the depressing world we all live in; they can be saviors, beacons of hope through the dark times.

As for the actual production of the pilot, I couldn't be happier with Gustin's performance as Barry. He's full of life and youthful optimism, despite his background and upbringing, and his powers bring out that side of him. They aren't a burden or a curse, but a positive means to affect change in his own stagnant life and the lives of those around him. Gustin exudes this positivity, not to mention charm and endless excitement. Watching him step into the newly-updated Flash costume (which looks modern but still very close to the classic, of course with a scientific explanation for its existence) and inhabit this strange, silly character is an absolute joy. His supporting cast is a mixed bag. Jesse L. Martin has an emotionally resonant turn as Barry's boss and father figure, but everyone else is still finding themselves, particularly newcomer Carlos Valdes and Danielle Panabaker (Justified) as Doctor Wells's genius helpers (at least they're not as obnoxious as the genius helpers on Agents of SHIELD). The script by Arrow writers Andrew Kreisberg & Geoff Johns is a little too tidy, with very few chaotic threads left open, but it has a sense of fun that is largely absent from DC Comics adaptations like Arrow, Gotham, Man of Steel, The Dark Knight films, and others. The Flash doesn't take itself too seriously, and that works in its favor to create a breezy, light, action-packed hour that shouldn't be missed.

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