Monday, November 17, 2014

Making a Run (heh) at The Flash

My name is Clovis and I’m the fastest blogger alive.

Okay, so that’s clearly not true given how long it’s been since I’ve published a post, but I couldn’t resist the into when talking about yet another of the pantheon of new comic book properties that are showing up on our airwaves. I speak of The Flash, of course; The CW’s Arrow spinoff chronicling the story of Barry Allen, the Fastest Man Alive.

No.  The other fastest man alive.  The white hipster-y one.

Like Arrow before it and Gotham alongside it, The Flash is another of DC Comics’ superhero stories.  Barry Allen is a forensic scientist working in Central City when he is working one night in his lab and is struck by a stray lightning bolt and falls into a wall of chemicals.  When he comes to, he finds himself with the ability to move at super speed and quickly becomes a crime fighter facing off against other oddly-powered individuals.  As with my Gotham review, this one is going to get nerdy, folks.  If you’d prefer to skip all the comic book talk and jump straight to the TV show, you can jump ahead.

Wow, what a flashy character!

The Comic Book
So here’s the fast and dirty (get used to it guys, the puns are irresistible on a topic like this) on The Flash:  Barry has super speed.  He can run faster than anything else on the planet, fast enough to run on water and generally muck about with physics in all sorts of fun ways.  He can vibrate his atoms to allow him to do things like pass through walls.  He can also, on rare occasions, transcend and travel through time due half to Einsteinian physics and half to comic book hand-wavium.  He is motivated by an almost naive desire to do good partially stemming from seeing his mother murdered mysteriously as a boy.  He is also always, ironically, late to everything.

The character is actually one of comic books longest-running legacy characters.  It’s also notable for being one of the first comic book characters to introduce the idea that a super hero could age out of his or her role and be replaced.  The character of The Flash originally dates back to 1940, the Golden Age of comic books, and was a college student named Jay Garrick who gained his super speed after inhaling water vapor. (Yes, really.)  In 1956, DC Comics streamlined its storytelling process, the first of MANY times it would do this, and integrated all its separate characters into a shared universe.  In the process, The Flash was given a different identity, costume, and background and was now Barry Allen, forensic scientist who gets his powers through that aforementioned lightning bolt.  Barry Allen would later be replaced by Wally West, the character’s nephew in 1986.  I bring this up because each time The Flash became a different man, the other characters still continued to exist.  This made The Flash as an identity something that could be passed down, a radical concept to comic books.  For a sense of perspective, consider that with a few stunt-stories, Batman has always been Bruce Wayne, Superman has always been Clark Kent, Iron Man has always been Tony Stark, and Peter Parker has always been Spider-Man.

The people who make red spandex are basically kept in business by these guys.

This sense of legacy in the comics is what has always given The Flash a certain emotional heft to it.  Barry recognizes Jay as a predecessor, while Wally comes to utterly revere Barry after becoming the Flash himself due to, shall we just say, unfortunate events related to Barry.  As such, The Flash as a character is always imbued with the notion of time being a precious commodity and the idea that we’re all racing toward an ending that’s coming faster than any of us would like it to.  Despite that gloomy notion, The Flash as a character is almost uniformly written as an optimist.  In all iterations, from Jay to Wally (and beyond, but that’s getting more detailed than you want, trust me), The Flash represents the character who, possibly more than almost any other super hero, does what he does because he believes in the best of people and just wants to do the right thing.

Okay, non-comic books fans.  You can come back now.

"Faster than a speeding bul... oh hey wait..."

The TV Show
I’ll say right away, like Maggie Cats said a few weeks ago, The Flash had one of my favorite new pilots this season.  Almost everything about the way the show has presented its key characters and its premise has been on pace right from the start.  Barry (Grant Gustin), initially introduced last year as a guest character in Arrow, is established at the start as a forensic scientist working for the Central City police department.  He’s been drawn to a life in law-enforcement after seeing his mother murdered under HIGHLY mysterious circumstances as a young boy.   With his father convicted of the murder, Barry was raised by family friend and police officer Joe West (played by Jesse L. Martin) who raised Barry as a sorta-sibling to his own daughter, Iris (Candace Patton).  Barry’s father, btw, is played by John Wesley Shipp who played The Flash in the short-lived 1990s era TV version of the same character.  In the pilot episode, Barry is struck by a stray bolt of electricity as the result of a catastrophic accident at STAR Labs, a sort of CERN-esque research facility headed by Dr. Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh).  When Barry awakens six months later, he finds that he has acquired super speed as well as an enhanced physiology that has increased his endurance and his ability to heal.  What is a young man to do in this situation?  Fight crime, naturally.

From there, the show plays out as you’d expect from The CW.  We’ve got your over-arching mystery (what was that strange yellow blur that killed Barry’s mother in their own home all those years ago?), your healthy dose of love-triangle (Barry is, natch, secretly in love with Iris who sees him like a best friend and is herself involved in a secret relationship with her father’s rookie partner at work), an assortment of enemy-of-the-week villains (turns out that stray bolt of electricity didn’t just affect Barry), and a possible twist (the good Dr. Harrison who helps Barry establish his heroic identify may not be all that he seems to be).  The thing that makes all of this work, honestly, is the speed at which this story progresses.  There’s no denying it – The Flash moves quickly.

Pictured: Rush hour in the speed lane.  I'll stop.

Unlike Arrow’s season-long brooding, Barry gets into this hero thing before the end of the first episode. All the major plotlines are introduced, the outlines of each character’s development are laid out, and we’re, well, off and running.  Seriously, more happens in the first thirty minutes of the pilot episode than you see in most seasons of an HBO series.  The show is also undeniably fun.  The Flash as a character is universally depicted in the comic books as someone with a sense of humor.  He’s Peter Parker without all the personal hard luck.  In keeping with that, you’re not going to find much in the way of personal agonizing or tortured development here.  Barry wears bright red and yellow and speeds around at 300mph in the middle of the day.  Unlike Arrow’s Oliver or even any of the numerous iterations of Batman, there’s no need to only operate at night.  In a cameo scene with Oliver Queen, Ollie even calls this out when urging Barry to use his powers to help his city.  “You can inspire people in a way I never could,” he tells Barry.

The Easter Eggs
Of course, in addition to all this actual mainstream drama and adventure, there are TONS of bones thrown for nerds like me.  After the STAR Labs accident, a broken gorilla cage bears the name “Grodd”, implying something has gotten out.  Barry’s first speed tests occur at a Ferris Air testing field.  One of Barry’s superhero support team members is Francisco “Cisco” Ramon.  The other is Caitlin Frost.  Caitlin’s fiancé, tragically killed during the STAR Labs explosion, was Ronnie Raymond.  In the comics, every issue begins with the same phrase: “My name is Barry Allen and I am the Fastest Man Alive.”  Because every episode begins with a brief recap of what’s come before, take one guess what the voiceover begins with?  And at the risk of avoiding spoilers, I won’t even mention several other major plot points and characters introduced in the first few episodes that potentially point to some MAJORLY big (and spoiler-y) things that DC Comics and Warner Brothers appear to be ramping up for all their comic book properties, including a few possible implications for those big movies that you might have heard were recently announced.

Um. Spoilers?

Bottom line? Watch this damn show.  It’s fun, it’s adventurous, it’s breezy, and it’s got some great action with a nice dose of frothy character mush.  Nerds will feel respected, everyone else will just enjoy a good story playing out. 

The Flash airs Tuesday nights at 8/7c on The CW.

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