State of the Multiverse Address Part 2:  The Flash and Supergirl

Posted in The Screening Room by - June 23, 2017

The Flash and Supergirl make up the bright and happy shows of the CW’s DC Universe, and that’s a major part of what made these two seasons kind of frustrating.  Let’s be clear, there were some very good things happening this year on both shows, but they each have areas where they need to improve, including one problem that I think they both share.  So let’s start with the Flash and see how well this year did and how it could be better.


Why So Serious?

There’s something about speedsters that makes us see them as the “fun” superheroes.  They’re quick witted and cocky, they run before they think, they’re carefree and impulsive and charismatic.  The concepts of this superpower are easily connected to a particular personality type more consistently than any other superpower, and to a degree, I think this is what we all like about speedsters, and this applies to all three generations of the Flash, from Jay Garrick to Wally West.  The Flash’s placement on the CW draws on this; as the second show created for this lineup, The Flash stands in direct contrast to Arrow, the dark and brooding Batman-inspired urban vigilante show.  The Flash is expected to be bright and fun and whimsical, and at its best, it is.  It’s worst moments tend to be those where it fails to live up to these traits, and unfortunately, there was a lot of that this season.

Let’s look at the basic plot and themes.  The recurring gimmick of this season was alternate timelines, the consequences of events that could go one of two ways. This concept is outlined with the season opener: either Barry’s mom dies and the timeline we know happens, or Barry’s mom is saved and the timeline of Flashpoint is born.  The Flashpoint premier was hit or miss, depending in part upon the audience; those who wanted to see the comic version were disappointed, because the alternate world of the episode was nowhere near as bombastically dark as the comic event; as an episode to introduce the season, however, it worked well.  To the episode’s credit, it actually is much truer to the stated concept of Flashpoint than the original comic; this is supposed to be a butterfly effect world, where everything is different because one little event was changed.  The comic drops all pretense of this concept by making huge, dramatic alterations to the core personalities of most of its character, in ways that could not possibly affected by a simple event change; there’s no way that one little change in time would make Wonder Woman, ambassador to the world of the peace-seeking Amazons, suddenly be a bloodthirsty warrior who impales children, you’re looking at an inherently different character. TV Flashpoint maintains alternate versions of the characters who make sense as the same ones we know, if things had happened just a little bit differently.

And this is necessary for the themes of the season; this concept of alternate takes on these characters, the exploration of how different people could be if one little event had been changed, is what fuels almost all the plots of this year.  Flashpoint sets up one big alternate, but once the timeline settles mostly back to normal, we keep seeing little changes; Cisco is incredibly bitter with Barry because the new version of the timeline has killed his brother, and Caitlin is increasingly aloof and isolated as she struggles with newfound ice-powers that also come with personality changing side effects.  The idea is interesting, but the application is flawed.  The first half of the season involves characters (who are at their most entertaining while being a fun group of friends fighting crime) not being very fun or very good friends.  The general meloncholy tone of the first 9 episodes is unfortunate because it doesn’t feel particularly necessary to the themes of the plot and it makes the show less entertaining.

The second half of the season is where the show buckles down and focuses on Savitar, this year’s speedster villain, and Flash’s vision of a future where Savitar murders Iris, and again the end result is far more mopey than is good for the show.  Admittedly, this is a horrifying prospect for these characters to live in the knowledge of, but the problem is that the show is less fun and less entertaining because of that.  When the news first breaks, it’s met with an actually pleasant sense of superheroic determination: they will stop this from happenng.  But it doesn’t take long for despair to sink in, and the show suffers when it spends too much time focusing on it.

The reveal of Savitar’s identity is a big deal that once more drives home the point of alternate timelines: Savitar is a dark version of Barry from a future where Iris had been killed by Savitar, and he has to complete the time loop in order to ensure his own creation.  In a lot of ways, this plotline felt like a much improved version of season two’s Zoom: season two’s plot gimmick was the use of Alternate Universes to show a dark mirror of the main characters, Zoom himself even believing that Barry would become him if he endured the right tragic circumstances. Part of the triumph over Zoom was that Barry does endure tragedy and doesn’t become the villain Zoom expects him to be.  The reveal of a dark Barry actually doesn’t undermine that message as much as it could have; they add a degree of separation by making Savitar a “time remnant” (an extra Barry created through a time loop) originally created to fight Savitar, but who took on a life of his own based on the dark feeling of tragedy and loss he was filled with; this simultaneously allows Savitar to represent the darkest parts of Barry and a terrifying ‘what if’, while not totally undermining the idea that Barry isn’t a supervillain just waiting to happen.  Where season two faltered was in trying to focus on surprise reveals, like Zoom’s identity, which confused the focus of the story; this year makes its thesis clearer, and the foreshadowing of Savitar’s identity feels much more intentional and carefully planned.  Even the relatively late reveal doesn’t prevent Savitar’s personality development from feeling complete, because the idea that he is Barry’s dark side means that we’ve been watching his development all year, even when we didn’t realize it.  Whether they intended it this way or not, season three is a more successful version of what season two was trying to be.

This does, however, bring up another issue, and that is the plague of repetition that Flash has been suffering from.  Season one’s arc was an extremely well handled story of Barry fighting an evil speedster, training to be faster so he can prevent his enemy from hurting the ones he loves, ultimately failing but somehow managing to stop the villain anyway, and the villain being revealed to have secretly been a close friend and ally the whole time; seasons two and three have now both done the same plotline with only very subtle variations on the concept.

The bottom line here is that the season may have had some well written plot points, but it undermined itself by being too melancholy for its own good and repeating the same formula for the third year running.  Next season will need to let us have more fun with these fun characters and attempt to give us something new if it wants to break The Flash out of this rut.


Stronger Together

Supergirl was an odd duck this season, so let’s start with the positive, and there was a lot of it: this season utilized aliens as a metaphor for refugees in a very smart way, it gave us what is considered one of the best coming out stories of the last couple years, it gave us one of the best ever non-comics interpretations of Superman, and it definitely won the ‘timeliness award’ of the CW this year by titling its season finale “Nevertheless, She Persisted”.  The problem is that none of these things seemed to happen on the same show.

You weren’t really watching Supergirl this year, you were watching four or five loosely connected shows: You had The Adventures of Supergirl, an action show about Kara fighting the xenophobic CADMUS while trying to turn Mon-El into a nice guy; you had Star-Crossed, a romance about Kara’s epic, doomed love story with Mon-El in the face of an impending invasion from his homeworld; you had The Darkest Place, the dark and gritty crime drama starring Jimmy Olsen as the new street vigilante Guardian and his hacker pal Winn; you had The Martian Chronicles, a drama about Martian Manhunter and Miss Martian learning how to live with each other when they come from two different sides of a Martian war; and you have Alex, the story of a young woman finding love, and herself, in her new life as a lesbian.  All of these shows were happening at the same time, and episodes would bounce between their plots, but none of them seemed to connect to each other, outside of the occasional segue point at CatCo Media or the DEO Headquarters.  This was, in part, because the main ensemble got split up into pairs that rarely seemed to interact with each other.  This show has a strong ensemble, but I legitimately don’t remember the last episode where more than two of them at a time had a meaningful conversation with each other.  The first season did separate Supergirl’s superhero life from her civilian life (and their respective supporting casts), but it worked the whole season to slowly integrate those casts into each other.  This year decided to not just keep them separate, but to split them each up even further.

Beyond the cast, another reason for the lack of cohesion for the season was because the main plot itself felt disjointed, particularly in the transition from CADMUS to the Daxamites as the main seasonal antagonists.  To their credit, the idea of having two major threats is a good one, because nothing grinds these shows to a halt more than trying to stretch ten episodes worth of A-plot over a 22 episode season, but the problem was that CADMUS, the initial major threat, were the main opponents of the season up until episode 15; the Daxamites, whose threat becomes the thing the season finale hinges on, barely show up as characters with just 8 episodes left in the season, giving them not nearly enough time to establish them as interesting or credible threats or letting them tie in particularly well to the main themes of the season.  They don’t even really become threats until the invasion itself begins in the last 3 episodes.  Again, to the show’s credit, the finale brings in enough details planted throughout the season that it gives a strong sense of cohesion that wasn’t really there up until that point, but for the majority of the season this disconnect is ever present.

Another big problem this year was romance.  I’ve written about it before, but the people behind these shows just have a hard time writing romance in a way that isn’t frustrating, and Supergirl this year was no different.  Now, Alex and Maggie make it to the list of the three least frustrating romances across all of these shows, though it’s worth mentioning that even once they were a couple their recurring episodic arc tended to break down to ‘will this disagreement be the end of their relationship?’, but the real problem here was Supergirl and Mon-El.  And look, there is a lot to unpack about their romance; you could argue that Supergirl shows no interest in Mon-El and turns him down multiple times, but he keeps pressuring her into a relationship until he gets what he wants; you can point out that on many occasions she sets boundaries that he clearly oversteps in about 30 seconds, but she is supposed to forgive him every single time; you can criticize that he is carefree and thoughtless while she has to take the responsibility for both their actions, which kind of turns her into a den mother rather than a lover.  These are legitimate concerns that should be brought up in this, and a number of fictionalized romances, but to me, the biggest problem with this couple is that they are boring.  Mon-El is a boring character with boring powers and a boring backstory and ongoing arc; everything positive about him is based entirely on his actor, Chris Wood’s natural charisma, and even that I personally found questionable.  I had a hard time keeping myself interested in his story and his and Supergirl’s middling chemistry, and I found myself resenting the fact that he had so much screen time when there were characters and relationships I was much more interested in watching.

And this was perhaps the biggest flaw of the season; it wasn’t as much what they did that was entirely the problem, it was what they could be doing instead.  Before we knew Mon-El was in the space pod that landed last season, it could’ve been anything: it could have been Krypto, it could’ve been Power Girl, it could’ve been the bottled city of Kandor.  What we got instead was a frat bro with basic super strength.  When the show decided to unceremoniously drop the Kara/Jimmy romance and give her someone new, they could have introduced anyone to fill the love interest role, from her time displaced comics’ paramour Brainiac 5 to this season’s best new character (and fan favorite pairing) Lena Luthor.  Instead we got Mon-El and a dull relationship that made Supergirl the less interesting member.  It wasn’t just Mon-El that was subbing in for more interesting fare; CADMUS of the comics specializes in enhanced clones and genetically engineered psychic creatures, while in the show all we got was a small handful of people with some tech pilfered from Lex Luthor’s private vault.  Mon-El of the comics is associated with the Legion of Superheroes, a team of superheroes who live in the future and occasionally pull Superman or Supergirl to their time for weird, sci-fi adventures; instead we just got the story of how he learned responsibility.  Even when we got to the big alien invasion season finale, of all the interesting species DC has to offer, from the shapeshifting Durlans and White Martians, to the mind controlling Despero, to the barbarian despot Mongul, what they gave us were the Daxamites, basically Kryptonians with less interesting powers.  Part of the deal with the Superman family is that they themselves are very basic, so you have to write extra interesting stories to keep the audience engaged, and their mythology is rife with awesome potential because of that.  This season refused to delve very deeply into that potential (despite season one’s occasional Silver Age fare), and we’re left with very basic stories.  This is made worse because existing properties have already covered almost all the basic stories you can do with Superman; we’ve already seen Superman fight aliens with similar abilities to his own (multiple times), it’s not any more interesting just because Supergirl is the lead instead.


Finding the Balance

Ultimately, I put Supergirl and The Flash together because I feel like they share a common issue: both shows are indecisively straddling the line between sci-fi and fantasy.  Yes, both shows are decidedly sci-fi, with aliens and superpowers that are given an explanation through vaguely believable scientific means, but the problem is that they also feature a lot of elements that don’t quite make sense when you think about them too long.  By leaning more decidedly into either direction, they could fix these problems.

First, I suggest The Flash be written more as science fiction.  It kind of has to, considering the show features a scientist hero who hangs out with other scientist heroes who all got their powers from a science experiment run by a scientist villain.  The stories focus on forensics and time travel and parallel universes. Science is in the blood of the show, and that really shouldn’t change.  Once more to their credit, they’ve done a pretty good job of utilizing and even explaining their concepts, like the time remnants and the some of the rules of time travel found between Flash and Legends of Tomorrow, but there’s still the occasional inconsistency, like what current event affecting Barry does or does not affect Savitar.  The number one area where this concept really needs some work, however, is the Speed Force.

The Speed Force of the comics is really not as confusing as it sounds; it was made with the goal of creating a unified theory of speedster powers and utilizes the long pondered question of what would happen if an object went past the speed of light.  Long story made simple, the Speed Force is a plane of existance where the energy that powers speedsters comes from, and it can be reached physically by going past the speed of light.  Once you’re inside it, you’re kind of stuck there, unless something outside it can draw you back to the regular world.  Yes, it does get somewhat metaphysical (it’s pretty much confirmed that the Speed Force as a place is like an afterlife for speedsters and directly accesses heaven), and yes it’s used a bit as a catch-all to explain various details (why don’t speedsters need to eat to maintain metabolism, why aren’t speedsters affected by friction?  Because Speed Force, that’s why) but the ultimate goal is one of explanation; the Speed Force creates a set of rules that explain how speedsters work, and gives writers a solid base that they can then bend and play with to create dramatic, emotional narratives.

The show… has not quite done that.  To a degree, they almost feel like they were working backwards with the goal that they needed to get to the Speed Force but hadn’t established all the details that the Speed Force was created as an explanation of.  They haven’t had any mention of reaching the Speed Force by surpassing the speed of light, the Speed Force has never been used to explain things like Barry’s metabolism (the show still inconsistently shows him eating a lot to offset his speed powers’ energy burn), and they’ve confused things further by personifying the Speed Force with shapeshifting entities.  For a time, the show avoided the idea that the Speed Force connects to heaven (I assumed they were avoiding the comics’ concept that the Judeo-Christian religious mythology is true, though Legends threw that out the window), but the season finale this year ends with Barry being taken into the Speed Force with overt afterlife undertones, an emphasis being placed on this being penance or punishment for his meddling with the timestream and entering the Speed Force being his time to rest.  The show has disconnected their version of the Speed Force almost entirely from the comics’ sci-fi foundation, making it a purely metaphysical thing, and that kind of blurs the ideas behind what genre the show is sticking to.

Supergirl, on the other hand, needs to embrace the idea that it’s a fairy tale.  The Superman family might be sci-fi characters in the basic explanations of how they do what they do, but on some level they’ve always worked under fairy tale logic.  There’s probably no greater example of that than the glasses.  A pair of reading glasses is all it takes for Superman, or anyone in the Superman family, to become completely separated from their world famous alter ego in the eyes of all civilians and friends.  In a purely sci-fi story, this concept is laughable, but the reason it works is because there’s an underlying logic to it that may not be purely realistic, but is meaningful and impactful.  James Olsen, in Supergirl season one, said it perfectly: people can look her right in the face and only see Supergirl, not Kara Danvers, because the world can’t believe that there’s really a hero in their midst.  Is this a realistic reason?  No, but it’s not supposed to be.

And throughout the finale, I couldn’t help but ask myself questions that were similar, but without that shield of fairy tale logic. Supergirl challenges the Daxamite Queen Rhea to one on one combat, with the fate of the world in the balance, but who gave her that authority?  She promises that if she loses, the armies of the world will lay down arms and surrender to Daxamite forces, but when did she clear that with anyone?  The solution they end up going with is to release an amount of lead into the atmosphere that will prove lethal to the Daxamites, but not to humans, but how does their device spread that much lead that quickly, and in what form?  What are the long term ecological effects of this kind of move?  You aren’t really supposed to ask these questions, partly because there are no real answers to them and partly because the story isn’t about these details, but the fact that the show leans sci-fi encourages me to ask them anyways.  If the show wrote its stories and presented its heroes with problems and solutions with more of an emphasis on the feel of it, the fairy tale nature of it, even in a vaguely sci-fi setting, those questions could more easily be ignored or overlooked.  If there was a more metaphorical meaning behind these threats and characters, then the stories would have a cohesion that worked more; characters this year like Parasite and Biomax didn’t have much impact, because they were being treated like sci-fi characters and the keys to defeat them were very simple, easy sci-fi solutions; but if they had been more representative in nature, they could have been much more interesting.

This was actually something the first season handled very well.  There were themes that were clear and present behind almost every episode, with the villain of the week in many situations tying directly into that theme.  The big season finale involved a supposedly unbreakable mind control device, but Supergirl succeeds in freeing the minds of the civilians by reaching them with an inspiring speech and appealing to their emotions.  And that’s the key here; the stories of Superman, and Supergirl, may have the trappings of sci-fi, but they are not tales of pure logic and realism, they are tales of emotion and inspiration and catharsis.


 

So those’re the problems with both Supergirl and The Flash this year.  Once more, make no mistake that these shows had some very strong elements this season. Supergirl was doing a lot of things right, even if they felt disconnected, and this season of Flash was pointedly a much stronger version season two, even if it had to repeat itself for the third time to get there. Even Arrow gave us its strongest season in years, even if it was grim and lacked a feeling of triumph. But never fear, even with three shows so far that delivered decent, but flawed seasons there’s still one left, and I’ve saved the best for last.

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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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