State of the Multiverse Address Part 3: Legends of Tomorrow

Posted in The Screening Room by - July 11, 2017

And here I’ve saved the best for last. That really is the easiest way to describe it: this was the best season this year, by a long shot. Frankly, it gives the best seasons of any of these shows a run for their money.

To get an idea of what made this season so good, the first place to look was the story itself. Legends is already based on the delightful premise of a dysfunctional band of superheroes who have access to a time machine, and all the hijinks that ensue. This year upped the ante by adding in an equally dysfunctional band of supervillains, bringing together the most deliciously scenery-chewing bad guys from shows past, giving them the ability to time travel, and thus even more hijinks ensue. At the heart of the conflict, both sides are trying to find the Spear of Destiny, the spear that pierced the side of Christ, which has magical powers and can rewrite history. This is hands down the most insanely cartoonish plot I have seen in a live action superhero property, and this series owns it. Honestly, out of all of DC’s live action properties, and even most of Marvel’s, this is the project that feels the most like I’m watching a comic book come to life, in the best possible way. But in terms of actual quality, there was just so much they did right, that I have to go through this point by point and outline the big ones.


It Was Fun

This is the easiest place to start because it’s the most big and obvious difference from the rocky first season; this year, the show threw aside the things that previously held it back and really let loose. It’s actually a credit to the intelligence of the writers that they picked up very quickly on what went wrong last year, because the worst parts of last season (Hawkman, Hawkgirl, Vandal Savage) were all gone by the end of the finale, leaving this year free to just pick up and go without even needing to explain why the team was dropping its weakest links. Rip Hunter was also free from his burdensome, doomed crusade of year one, and even in a reduced role was a much more entertaining character. And that’s part of the key: the show didn’t just shed its weaker players, it shed its tragic trappings.

The concept of inept superheroes travelling through time is just so prime for goofy, lovable entertainment that it was a huge shame season one dropped them in the middle of a story that was destined to end in tragedy and where they were literally not allowed to win throughout the season. This year recognizes that the stories that are best made to highlight the show’s strong points are zany blockbusters that show off the ensemble’s comedic abilities, while embracing the craziness of the premise. Even at its weakest this year, the show was never not entertaining.


Character Development

This has actually been a strong suit of the show since the beginning; even among the problems of the first year, most of the character writing was strong. A major part of this is how the show is built. It’s an ensemble piece without a specific character being the lead, and this gives them a lot of freedom when it comes to individual characters. A show like Arrow or Flash needs to make their lead character fit into a ‘relateable protagonist’ mold, and they can’t stray too far from the basic personality traits grafted onto them, or hold beliefs or make decisions that are too far outside of an acceptable norm (not without it becoming a major plot point, at least). An ensemble, however, represents a balancing act, where all the characters are allowed to be more unique, or even extreme, because for every character who some audiences dislike, there’s another character for those audiences to latch onto. The Legends, with their disparate, even adversarial personalities, work extremely well together in this regard.

Beyond this, the show does a great job of developing personalites and dealing with character arcs without attempting to fundamentally change who these people are. There’s a balancing act at the heart of character development, in that characters are not allowed to be static and unchanging, but changing too much makes their personality seem inconsistent. With Legends this year they don’t try to change who these people are, but we do get to see them learning how to better deal with their issues, like Sara’s obsession with altering a past event she cannot be allowed to change, or Mick’s uncontrollable animal nature. The character traits and emotions behind these issues remain, but the characters learn how to channel them better.

Lastly, there are no wasted characters. This is an issue that particularly plagues Flash and Supergirl, with certain cast members that never seem to get focused on because the writers don’t always seem to know what to do with them. Caitlin Snow, of Flash has never been a lot more than a slow build to Killer Frost, and Supergirl spent the whole year unable to utilize Miss Martian properly, and kept Martian Manhunter unconscious for large sections of the finale. Legends, on the other hand, gives everyone the time to shine. Again, part of this is the general setup of the show: by making every episode take place in a new time and location, it forces a greater attention on the core cast, which they benefit from greatly. There is no character this year who doesn’t have some amount of a seasonal arc. Some may be stronger than others, but there is one for every member, and it’s fantastic to behold.


Attention to Detail

While the first half of the season was a series of delightful adventures, the second half is where it really became apparent that this wasn’t just a fun season, it was a very well written season. The moment that really set it off was the George Lucas themed “Raiders of the Lost Art”, where it became clear that the recurring references to Star Wars and Indiana Jones were not just cute Easter Eggs, they were setup for the plot of an episode midway through the year. This was not an isolated case. There’s many threads throughout the season that keep popping back up periodically, like Mick’s repeated request to go to Aruba, Ray’s gluten intolerance, Sara being a delightfully crappy liar, or the tapestry found in the first episode illustrating Ray being knighted; some of these are just character details that add a layer of consistency, but some are foreshadowing for major storyline moments. This eye for detail adds a wonderful layer to the series as a whole, but especially helps in fleshing out the characters themselves.


Episodic Storytelling Perfected

Another great improvement from the first season was their decision to make almost every episode take place in a completely different setting, with a mostly self-contained story. This was handled well on both an episodic basis and in the structure of the ongoing seasonal arc. Think for a moment about how stakes work in an ongoing piece of media. If you have an action scene in the middle of the season where it comes down to a life or death struggle between your protagonist and an opponent, there’s only two ways this can end: either the hero will die or the hero will survive. Those stakes break the story. If the story is ongoing and this is anywhere outside of the finale, you can almost definitely assume the hero is going to survive the fight because if they don’t the story is over, and we already know there’s several more episodes. The ending to this conflict is telegraphed by the nature of the story.

This was the problem with season one. Nearly every episode boiled down to our protagonists trying to kill Vandal Savage, something we knew they couldn’t accomplish until the end of the season because as soon as they did the story was over. The villain couldn’t be permanently stopped, the heroes couldn’t be permanently killed, therefore the season was one long stalemate until the last minute. This season completely turns that around.

The first area where they fixed this was in standalone episodes. The strongest episodes of season one were consistently the standalones, with mostly complete stories. Those were few and far between last year, but they made up a much larger percentage of this season, which was great. The second fix was the slower building structure of the season as a whole. They didn’t just jump us into the overarching plot, they opened the first several episodes with the team reacting to their new status quo as guardians of the timestream while hinting at evil machinations behind the scenes; then they introduced us to a conflict for a few more episodes over a mysterious couple of medallions; then they introduce the idea that the medallions are a map to the location of the Spear of Destiny, introducing a new conflict. They didn’t make any of these sections go on any longer than they had to, and as a result the season had way more momentum throughout the year. This is likely helped in part by the reduced length of the season; the midseason finale is consistently the point where the main plot really takes over, and in the other shows this means a full 14 episodes spent on plots that tend to only have about 8 episode’s worth at best. Legends’ 17 episode order is mostly there to ensure a greater special effects budget for less episodes, but it also forces the writers to be more economic with their storytelling, which keeps the show running at a brisk, satisfying pace.

The third area where these improvements really shined, though, was that the plot itself was made to keep up these stakes. The medallions are a map not to the Spear of Destiny itself, but to the broken up pieces of it, meaning that episodes at a time focus on the team trying to obtain a single piece. Again, none of these episodes were story breaking one way or another; both the heroes and the villains could conceivably capture the piece at the heart of any given episode, and the pieces change hands multiple times throughout the season. The story progressed smoothly, getting us closer and closer to a grand finale, raising the stakes slowly, but effectively, until the point where it was ready to deliver an epic conclusion. It worked because they were smart in their choice of story to tell, as well as in how they told it.


A Sense of Triumph

I’ve talked about this before, but the one of the single biggest problems across these DC shows is a lack of triumphant endings. We have now had 12 seasons of these shows, and out of those, only 2 of them have ended with unambiguous victories. Oliver keeps losing loved ones and fails to prevent mass destruction in his city; Barry is rarely allowed to actually be the one to solve the major problems on his own show and also keeps losing family members, even stating directly at the end of season two, “We just won. We just beat Zoom. Why does it feel like I just lost?” Supergirl managed to give us one great, full victory in the first season, only for the second year to end with the idea that sometimes winning can only come at great personal cost, which is not on its own an inherently bad message, but its also one we’ve had hammered into our brains at the end of almost every season of every one of these shows.

This was the background this season came in on, with even Legends’ first year ending with the team killing Vandal Savage, but failing to prevent the death of Rip Hunter’s family, which was itself the impetus for the entire show’s premise. This year gave us the single greatest victory I think any of these shows has delivered for a season finale. They win. Full stop, they win. They defeat the bad guys; they don’t lose any friends or allies doing so, and even bring back a teammate who had died previously. They don’t just win by force, they win by virtue; the villains lose in part because their evilness is a weakness that the heroes don’t have, as evidenced by the Legion of Doom’s inability to function as successfully as a team. The Legends win through hard work and perserverence and good old fasioned heroism, and it feels amazing.


Just Plain Being Clever

Finally, they took their premise and just ran with it. In many cases, this meant that they centered episodes around unlikely concept pairings, like Confederate zombies or Inception and dinosaurs. But in other cases this meant the writers were willing to experiment with the format itself. I mentioned before that there was some excellent character development this season, but by no means was that limited to the protagonists. One of the great departures from form was the episode “Legion of Doom”, which focused its attention on the villains and their dynamics rather than the heroes themselves. It didn’t just spend extra time with the villain’s plot that episode, they fully crafted a story arc for them, with character explorations and hurdles that it was pretty charming to watch them overcome. The characterizations (and revelations) from this episode could be seen through the rest of the year, with moments in episodes like “Moonshot” taking the time to remind us of the villains’ humanity.

The exploration of the villainous teamup at the heart of “Legion of Doom” was also perfectly mirrored by the next week’s time displaced Christmas episode “Turncoat”. Now, I love the fact that these shows have committed to having some kind of Christmas episode nearly ever year, but when you look at how the seasons are typically built, you can see where they struggle with it. The episode closest to Christmas also happens to be the mid-season finale, which is usually reserved for big revelations that will shape the course of rest of the season. The episode right before is typically the big annual crossover, so that’s not necessarily a good place to bump Christmas, and any earlier means having a Christmas episode in mid-November, so they’re essentially forced to combine big seasonal turning points with Christmas, whether it’s tonally appropriate or not. Legends took a different approach by surprising us with a Christmas episode in February. For a moment, it seemed weird, as if it was meant to be aired earlier and just got bumped, but the episode actually addresses this through conversations about the time travellers losing track of time (and with it, a sense of normalcy), bookending an almost mini-arc right in the middle of the season that was all about the humanity of both the villains and the heroes.

The idea of a Christmas episode coming at any point in the season was frankly brilliant for a show all about time travel, and was just one of many delightful little details that showed off how clever the writers were being with their premise and the themes of their show. There’s a throwaway gag right in the middle of the episode “Doomworld” that really serves as a synecdochy of this. I mentioned in the Flash review that there’s a huge difference in the premise behind comics Flashpoint and the show’s Flashpoint; comics’ Flashpoint is essentially all about creating a bombastically dark, alternate version of the DC Universe, which left many fans disappointed by the show’s version which was focused on the relatively smaller differences between a slightly altered timeline. For anyone hoping for the spectacle of the comics’ approach to The Darkest Timeline, “Doomworld”, the episode where the Legion of Doom gets to rewrite history, is for you. And in it there’s a little moment where Eobard Thawn, in this timeline a world-renowned scientist, gets to talk down to the President, who is not so subtly revealed to be our very own Trump. On the one hand, it’s a cute little Trump-slam, but on the other hand think about how much information revealed across multiple shows this joke had to piggyback on to get here. The other shows, in particular during the crossover this year, already established that the Presidents in-universe are not the same ones we’re familiar with. By the time the villains finally get to use the Spear of Destiny, we’ve been told many times that the Spear is magic and doesn’t come with all the negative side effects of time alteration through time travel (like the ones we’ve seen in Flash); it’s clean and precise, so any changes across timelines were clear choices made on the part of the wielder. So for the show to go out its way to tell us that the President of the United States is a different person from the one we’ve seen before tells us that this was an active choice of pure evil on the part of the Legion of Doom, and while that’s pretty funny in its own right, it’s also an example of how many moving parts these writers are conscious of and using to tell these stories.


Could It Be Better?

And that’s just what this season came down to; clever use of a lot of elements to tell one of the best single seasons of any of the shows in this TV Multiverse’s history. Were there some issues? Sure. The episode set in Japan relies on some tired ‘white savior’ tropes; Nate and Amaya’s romance feels wholly unnecessary (though to the show’s credit, it’s arguably one of the least frustrating romances in these shows’ long history of terrible romances); the idea that the heroes’ maintain the timeline, even when it means they can’t fix things they want to see fixed, feels underexplored and mostly just an accepted piece of time travel media. Going forward, there’s a few changes or improvements that the show could definitely benefit from.

The first is the need for a balance on the rules about changing history, and the bottom line with this is that there is one major complaint I have from a storytelling perspective for this season: the Spear of Destiny doesn’t have any lasting impact. It gets used, sure, but that use gets undone. The Spear sits there the whole season like a Chekov’s gun, waiting for its one big shot sometime in the future, but by the time the season is over, the good guys have never been allowed to use it. The show makes this a matter of principle on the part of the heroes, but why that’s the case is never fully explained.

Now, I understand on a narrative basis why using the Spear creates complications; every member of the team pointedly has something they’d like to see changed, and if one person gets a change, why can’t everyone, and pretty soon you’ve erased the entire reason several individuals have for being superheroes in the first place. So you can’t really go all out. Secondly, some of these changes are tied up in the other shows; Sara’s big temptation is to resurrect Laurel, and that can’t happen because Arrow killed her off with the purpose of replacing her with a more interesting character. She’s not coming back because there’s no room for her. Lastly, it could feel somewhat cheap. One of the major recurring themes across both Legends and Flash is the need to accept the losses of the past and look forward to the future, frequently illustrated by the ability to change time but the emotional need to let it go. It’s a decent theme (somewhat undermined by the fact that Flash takes place in a timeline already altered by a supervillain to make it more tragic, but the heroes aren’t allowed to fix that because for some reason it would break things), but the theme becomes frustrating when it gets harped on for too long. These are superheroes; they are defined, in part, by being power fantasies and wish fulfilments; they should be allowed to do things that we can’t do for the sake of audience catharsis.

Personally, I firmly believe that the Spear of Destiny should have been used to bring back Captain Cold as a member of the team. This covers the bases of the other issues; Cold could be the great big compromise. He’s someone who is valuable in some way to almost every member of the team, so even if no one got their personal wish fulfilled, they could have one big return for all of them. Secondly, it could be a sweet counterbalance to the recurring (if sometimes grating) theme of accepting loss; with all the sacrifices these people have made, it would be nice to see them, just once, get something back. And lastly, it would be a boon to the show as a whole. Wentworth Miller is easily one of the most entertaining actors in any of these shows, something that the shows themselves made clear by contriving numerous reasons to see him again this year. To wit, he’s been pulled out of earlier points in his timestream twice this year, and appeared as flashbacks, holograms, and hallucinations elsewhere in the season. Clearly the shows want to use him, and audiences want to see him, why couldn’t they just let us have this.

The second area of improvement would be representation. To be fair to the show, they’ve got decent diversity in their cast already, with women, people of color, women of color, and queer representatives, but it could still be doing more. Of the eight member team, five of them this season were straight, white men. That’s a bit much. This was actually the biggest strike against newcomer Nate; much like Mon-El, the issue wasn’t so much what he was, it was what he could have been. An extra spot on the team could have gone to anyone, but instead we got a new character who added nothing to the team that they didn’t already have. Nothing against his character or his actor, who was charming, but the opportunity arose for greater diversity and the show did not take it. This is something I hope to see improved next year, and as far as this is concerned, there’s good signs already. The very first new character to be announced is Andrea Tomaz/Isis (the name will almost definitely be changed), who is being portrayed here as a Muslim woman from the future. This is a very good start, but to the people in charge of casting Legends of Tomorrow season 3, I challenge you; no new straight, white men as main members of the team. You can do more.


 

Lastly, the show could stand to develop the individual mythologies of certain characters. While the show has done an excellent job of fleshing out characters’ relationships with each other, it has not delved too deeply into the mythology of individual members (other than the Hawkpeople from season 1, but that was tied to the main plot). You could argue that this is the downside of the ensemble format, but they have taken the opportunity on occasion to focus certain episodes more prominently on individual characters; it would be great to see this done with some of their deeper lore and mythologies. The Atom of the comics frequently deals with microscopic worlds and races; wouldn’t it be amazing to see the whole team shrunk down, only to find themselves trapped in an alien civilization all contained on a speck of dust? For a show that is frequently very clever, they didn’t do a whole lot with Vixen’s powers. She used rhinos and gorillas for strength and jungle cats for claws, but they didn’t really explore the more interesting things she’s capable of. I’d be interested in seeing her using the venom of a poison dart frog or the echolocation of a bat or more conceptual abilities like the stubbornness of a mule to resist mind control (oh yes, that’s happened). I’d absolutely love to see her role as a Life Elemental explored, and see the show play with concepts like the Red or the Green, the mystical connections between the animal world and plant world, respectively. Imagine the team desperately needing information, and the only way they could get it would be for Vixen to communicate with the Parliament of Limbs, the representatives of the Red. These opportunities for greater depth of lore extend to the time travel format of the show; the only major historical figure in DC’s catalogue we’ve really seen so far is Jonah Hex, but imagine if we could get Viking Prince (and his time travel romance with Canary from the comics) represented on screen; we’ve been to Camelot, but we could still see Etrigan the Demon or Shining Knight; with the upcoming season being all about time displaced people and things, we sure better be seeing Lady Blackhawk, the time displaced WWII aviatrix who teams up with Canary in the comics.

So maybe the show’s still not 100% perfect. That’s not a huge complaint, few things are. It didn’t stop them from delivering a magnificent year. When this season was good, it was excellent. When it was at its lowest points, it was still incredibly entertaining. It was smart, funny, had a ton of heart, and like the very best superhero stories, it made you feel optimistic and inspired. In short, it was legendary.

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He is a staff writer for Kulture Shocked, specializing in comic books and superheroes. Part-time web comic writer and full-time insomniac, he lives in Texas and writes think pieces for fun. Approach cautiously; he is usually very tired and probably isn't paying attention.
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