Uncollected Thoughts: The Flash s05 e01

Now *that’s* more like it…

From being my favourite of the DC superhero shows, because it was such sheer fun and the perfect antidote to the forever gloomy Arrow, The Flash has tumbled down a long way for its insistence upon turning Barry Allen into a near carbon copy of Oliver Queen. This got so bad that by the end of season 4 I was prepared to switch off, like I have with Arrow and the terminally wet Supergirl.

But, to be fair, I decided to give season 5 the Four Episode Test, and I’ve just watched episode 1. So, what’s the initial verdict?

Well, first of all there’s a switch-up through the cast with Hartley Sawyer (Ralph The Elongated Man Dibny) and Danielle Picot (Cecile Horton) being promoted from recurring, and Jessica Parker Kennedy as Nora West-Allen, aka XS as the newest arrival. There’s also Chris Klein as season 5’s big bad who doesn’t really get a look in yet.

What’s being set-up is last season’s cliffhanger. Nora is Barry and Iris’s daughter from the future, thirty years into the future in fact. She’s supposedly stranded in time, due to the effect of negative tachyons. Bearing in mind the risk of damage to the timeline, Barry’s all gung-ho to get her back where/when she belongs before the excitable young woman gives anything away about what’s to come.

This hovers on the edge of extreme drippiness, especially in the formulaic scene with obligatory slow music when Barry discusses how, by meeting his daughter as an adult, he feels he’s been cheated out of all the ‘firsts’ a parent gets whilst their baby becomes a child and more. Even without the one spoiler I knew coming in, this counts as pretty blatant ironic foreshadowing, but it’s here that the season gets something that might all on its own be enough to sustain it.

Because according to that futuristic newspaper that was first introduced in season 1, The Flash will disappear in 2024 in some form of Crisis (seasoned comics fans will know what is being implied, some variation on 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, when the Barry Allen Flash was killed off, not to return for twenty years). Nora’s not here because she’s stranded. She’s here to spend time with the Dad she never knew, the Flash who, according to a new future newspaper she projects, from 2049, never came back.

There was a clever bit at the start when the customary opening credits monologue went to Nora West-Allen, not Barry, which justified the closing credits monologue in which she makes it plain she’s come back to do everything in her power to keep her Dad from disappearing.

Thinking about things logically, that gives her another five seasons before it all gets a bit critical, though I’m betting that by episode 22, The Flash and XS will somehow find themselves in 2024, dealing with it.

After all, the programme has already started to blur this simple human tragedy by having Barry do what Oliver Queen always does and keeps the whole thing to himself. No, we’re not going to tell Iris, even though she knows about that 2024 headline, we’re going to be completely fucking stupid as usual and do the one thing that drives me insane about this show, gah!

Anyway: there’s a couple of Easter eggs for us fans, such as Barry and Nora’s favourite desert coming from a place in Happy Harbor, Rhode Island, home of the real Snapper Carr (forget the stupid one in Supergirl, oh, and by the way, don’t ask. Please) and, incidentally, the first Justice League of America secret headquarters. And The Flash’s new suit is mentioned as having been designed by Ryan Choi, aka The Atom 4.

Speaking of that new suit… it’s taken them until season 5 but The Flash finally looks like the real Flash, in a bright red, non-leather, non-dark, non-stupid chinpiece costume, projected from a signet ring… It was one of those moments that veterans like me long to see and it made the whole episode worthwhile, just like that bit in season 2 where the two Flashes recreated the cover of The Flash 123. Sometimes I’m easily pleased.

We’ll see. If only they’d cut the crap, which is still there in embarrassingly large chunks. I doubt they will, since it’s all part of the show’s formula, but if they can come up with enough decent bits in between, and lay off the bloody angst a bit, i might get to next June still watching this.

How I began falling out of love with Superhero TV 2

They’ve renewed all the DC ‘Arrowverse’ shows on the CW Network, which is fine by me so far as Legends of Tomorrow is concerned but, barring a complete reversal of form in the last six episodes of the fourth season, I’ll be bailing out on The Flash before it returns later in the year.

When it started, The Flash was a perfect contrast to Arrow, showing much more of the fun side of superpowers, and the sheer joy of superspeed. Gradually, as the show’s worn on, it’s taken on more and more of Arrow‘s pervading air of seriousness, and its general woe-is-me, all-my-fault grimness. Barry Allen has turned into a junior league, not justice league, version of Oliver Queen, and it’s a pain in the neck.

The show’s been off air for four weeks, during which I haven’t missed it and despite a couple of intriguing twists along the way, there was one central point that left me despairing.

This season, the show has introduced a version of Ralph Dibny as The Elongated Man. It’s not particularly faithful to the original, but it does maintain the tradition of treating a man who can stretch his entire body in unpredictable ways as a light and humourous character.

This week, that proved to be a problem for Barry ‘The Flash’ Allen. Team Flash is up against The Thinker, a meticulous and superhuman planner. But Ralph keeps straying off the plan, trying to improvise, joking his way through, and it leads to Barry benching him, refusing to let him join the battles.

Of course, it’s Ralph’s unpredictability that’s needed to win the day, but before that, Barry has to go through the everything-on-me phase, grimly determined that Ralph should be just as miserable, sober, stone-faced and in lockstep with everything Barry says and does. And when he accepts that Ralph has his own way of doing things and always will have, we get this awful, cheap, cliche of a speech from Ralph about how the misery of his younger years turned him into a compulsive joker to conceal his fears. It really is the most awful piece of writing I’ve ever heard on The Flash.

So, I’ll stick around to see how the season wraps up, then, unless there’s some seriously refreshing twist, or season five offers up at least four Justice Society members as regulars, I’m out the door. Please, Legends of Tomorrow, stay as gloriously clunky, goofy and awkward as you are: I need you. (And more of Caity Lotz and Tala Ashe in bikinis won’t go amiss either).

The Trial of The Flash (x2)

A long time ago, in a Multiverse far, far away, DC Comics put The Flash on trial for Murder.

This was an extended, two-year plus run-in to Crisis on Infinite Earths in which it had been decided that the Barry Allen version of The Flash, the symbol of the Silver Age that was to pass before our eyes, should die. His writer, Cary Bates, set-up a scenario in which the Flash actually did kill one of his Rogues, the Reverse-Flash, albeit unintentionally, and to save a life, and had him put through a lengthy trial, in which he was actually found Guilty.

He then rather spoilt the outcome by having the Guilty verdict be the result of mental domination by one of The Flash’s future foes, leaving the door open for our favourite Speedster to bring this enemy down, and secure a new verdict of Not Guilty.

This all occurred between 1983 and 1985 and, although I did not normally read The Flash in that era, I did pick up the run about six months in and followed it until its semitragic ending.

The current season of The Flash tv show has gone for a change of pace in relation to its Big Bad Villain, eschewing another superhero and going for The Thinker, aka Clifford Devoe, an updated version of a Golden Age villain whose abilities lie in his brilliant mind and comprehensive plotting.

Which, in time for the mid-season finale, involved framing Barry Allen for the murder of… Clifford Devoe.

There have now been four episodes since the series returned after New Year, dealing with the Trial and Incarceration of Barry Allen. I’ve already excoriated the first of these as one of the most stupid episodes of American TV I have ever seen so I’ll not waste any more time on that.

But after two weeks of Barry moping around in prison, and discovering that the Warden has actually proved he’s The Flash, we got the resolution of this latest Trial of The Flash story (to all those getting their Flash fix from a certain major commercial TV company, ‘ware Spoilers).

Barry has been kidnapped into a super-special secret metahuman wing of Iron Heights, known only to crooked Warden Wolf where he is imprisoned along with all four of the new, bus passenger metahumans (don’t ask). Wolf plans to sell them to the annoying Amunet (Katee Sackhoff with a wince-inducing English accent and manner).

Team Flash works to frustrate this, Barry uses his CSI skills to create an acid that breaks everyone one, only to be intercepted in the Yard by Wolf and Amunet, who turns everyone against CSI Allen – aka – The Flash!

Everyone, that is, except Hazard, Becky Sharp, the one with luck-powers. She’s turned over a new leaf in prison, helped by Barry’s encouragement, and she uses her ability to project bad luck onto everyone else, causing multiple deaths throughout, including Wolf but not Amunet (pity).

But then (and now it starts getting complicated or, to use another word, stupid), The Thinker intervenes, to capture all four bus metas, including Becky. Y’see, Devoe’s body is dead, but he’s developed this means of transferring his mind into other people’s bodies, which isn’t half freaking out his lovely (depending on which hairstyle she’s wearing at the time) wife, Marlee. It’s all part of his plan to kidnap the twelve bus metas, seven of whom haven’t yet been identified, and Marlize gets even more freaked when her husband sideslips into Becky and insists on dancing with her to their song (icky!)

Meanwhile. DA Cecile is one day away from conducting Barry Allen’s Appeal, on the grounds of new evidence, of which she has none, not one iota, Vibe and Killer Frost are prepared to break Barry out, but he refuses to leave until he can leave on a legal basis. Is this tedious little sub-story ever going to end?

Well, yes. Ralph (The Elongated Man) Dibny has discovered a new superpower this week: if he concentrates, he can look like anyone he wants. So, just as the Judge is about to gavel the appeal into next week, the courtroom door opens and guess who wheels himself in? Why, it’s Clifford (wink, wink) Devoe, not dead after all, and eager to help clear Barry Allen’s good name.

Remind me again, which section of the US Criminal Code covers impersonating murder victims. So much for Barry Allen’s insistence on only getting out if it’s legal.

And people wonder why I’m losing patience with superhero tv shows.

A Twitch of the Nose

Sometimes, just sometimes, little things mean a lot.

This week’s episode of The Flash introduces Hartley Sawyer as Ralph Dibny, ex-cop, Private Investigator, fulltime sleazeball, and the latest victim of season 4’s busload of new metas. Uh, Ralph Dibny, hello?

Ralph Dibny was created in 1960, by John Broome and Carmine Infantino, in The Flash 112, the eighth issue of Barry Allen’s series. He was Barry’s best friend after Hal (Green Lantern) Jordan and the first DC hero to make his identity public. He was the Elongated Man, who could stretch his body to impossible length. Dibny’s super-power was a rip-off of Plastic Man, then deep in comic book limbo, and he appeared the best part of a year before Mr Fantastic.

For us DC fans who go a long way back, he’s an old favourite, an oddball, slightly goofy and wonderfully innocent character, and part of the pain and effect of the killing of his wife, Sue Dibny, in Identity Crisis, was that the two were this perfectly matched, untouched pair.

The TV Dibny isn’t any of that. He was thrown off the Force, after exposure by Junior CSI Allen, for faking evidence, although this was to put away a killer who was going to get away with it. Now, he can stretch his arms and legs, and take a bullet to the forehead and only have it push out the back of his skull before it bounces back into shape (and the bullet falls out of his nose). And he’s going to join Team Flash.

I have my doubts. The CGI technology doesn’t yet exist that can make that kind of superpower – stretching – remotely plausible, but let’s wait and see.

But that little thing? One of The Elongated Man’s oldest traits is that whenever he smells a myatery, his nose starts to twitch, and in a comic, boy can it twitch!

And at the very end, when it turns out Dibny’s been hired by Devoe, this season’s big bad, as foretold last season, Barry confirms there’s something big going on. Dibny brightens up. “I smell a mystery!” he cries. And his nose twitches! They got it so perfectly! I am howling with laughter and the day is immediately 80% brighter!

Sometimes, they can get it so right.

Not yet, but…

Green Arrow – No such thing as a bad character: Part 7 – Two Stories

I’ll declare an interest here because the two stories I plan to discuss now are my two favourite stories involving Green Arrow. One of them is a very controversial series, with many detractors, whose charges cannot be easily dismissed or disregarded, but which had a massive impact on the DC Universe.
The writer of both was best-selling thriller writer Brad Meltzer, known for high-powered, tightly-plotted, fast-moving thrillers with a background in Law, power and Washington. And a closet Green Arrow fan, as evidenced by the Easter Egg in one of his early novels, when the lead character went into a meeting with four aides named Oliver, Dinah, Roy and Connor.
Kevin Smith had continued Green Arrow after ‘Quiver’, but, coming from a film background, he had no concept of, or feel for the monthly deadline, so it was not unwelcome to DC when he left. I am assuming that the approach to Meltzer, who had also never written for comics before, was made with a view to extending the ‘prestige’ aspect of the series coming from an established writer from a field with less public contempt than comics.
Meltzer agreed to write what was originally a four part series, subsequently expanded to six, but only once he had come up with something that he believed impacted on Green Arrow, and added something Oliver Queen’s history. What finally inspired him was a conversation with a close friend who introduced him to the concept of ‘porn-buddie’, that is, a trusted friend who, if anything happens to you, will go straight to your home and remove your porn stash before anyone else gets there.
It seems an improbable inspiration, but Meltzer immediately saw the relation to superheroes, and especially to one who had died and been restored.
‘The Archer’s Quest’ begins at Ollie’s gravestone, with a meeting with Clark (Superman) Kent. Ollie wants to know who came to his funeral. Clark, having gone through this himself, tries to dissuade him but eventually produces the paparazzi pictures that the Daily Planet bought up and kept from publication. Ollie checks off family and friends one by one, until he finds a face he doesn’t recognise: a stranger at his funeral, who has seen all his ‘family’s real faces.
He asks Roy (formerly Speedy, now Arsenal) Harper to trace the stranger through his CIA connections, but Roy deals himself in to accompany Ollie – a nostalgic Green Arrow and Speedy outing. The stranger is Thomas Blake, aka Catman, a prominent and recurring Batman villain from the Fifties, virtually ignored since then. Meltzer plays Blake as over the hill and pathetic: overweight, an abuser of woman, a clown.
(Within two years, Gail Simone would transform Catman into a charismatic and complex character in Secret Six , which reminds us that there is no such thing as a bad character.)
But Blake is a McGuffin. He has been sent to the funeral by The Shade, a former Golden Age Flash villain, taken up in the mid-Nineties in James Robinson’s Starman series, and transformed from a villainous cypher into a charismatic and complex character, which reminds us that there is no such thing as a bad character. The Shade is Ollie’s ‘porn-buddie’: that is to say, that after the deaths of Barry (The Flash) Allen, Superman and Hal Jordan, Ollie realised the need for someone who, if anything happened to him, would get in there, collect all Green Arrow’s artefacts and destroy them, leaving nothing to connect Queen’s name to his secret identity, and nothing to expose his loved ones to reprisals.
But the Shade sent Blake, who is apparently trustworthy, to the funeral because he was not prepared to get that close to the Justice League. Similarly, there have been a handful of things, important things, that he has not been able to access. This sets up the spine of the story, where Ollie and Roy take to the road to retrieve theses.
It’s partly a history lesson, partly an interesting exercise in what Ollie truly values from his former life. At least one item is a new addition: a hitherto unrevealed gift from Barry Allen, a replica of his signet ring, in which he stored his costume, and one of a set given to his JLA friends, each containing their own costumes.
Like the ‘porn-buddie’ notion, it’s the kind of idea that only a novelist would come up with, who’s used to regarding the world of his characters in a wider context than just the relevance to the actual plot.
It takes most of the journey for Roy to accept why Ollie had not entrusted this ‘executorship’ to him, though Ollie’s logic is impeccable: everyone dies, they’re in a job where death is an ever present risk, but the Shade is immortal.
The story ends as far as the plot demands, with Ollie repackaging his recovered assets and writing another ‘will’ to the Shade, but at the last crossing out the ex-villain’s name and substituting that of Roy. But its real revelation, and the core of what Meltzer wanted to bring to the story, to Ollie, precedes that. The first object recovered was, supposedly, the easiest, the Certificate presented to Ollie to commemorate his membership of the Justice League, reproduced faithfully from the original by Mike Sekowsky, over forty years earlier. But Ollie lied to Roy: you don’t get the easiest first, you get the most important first. Behind the Certificate is a photo: for years, Ollie has told everyone that he knew nothing of his son Connor until meeting him at the ashram when Connor was an adult, but the photo is of Ollie holding the baby Connor. He has lied to everyone: he knew of Connor all along, knew that he’d run away, unable to take responsibility for his own child. And he’s lying still, because the photo remains a secret. It’s a moment of illumination, into Ollie, and into his own knowledge of himself.
‘The Archer’s Quest’ was a Green Arrow story: Meltzer’s other series, Identity Crisis, was a company-wide crossover that was not about Green Arrow, but featured him prominently throughout.
Identity Crisis was the first of DC’s summer crossover events for four years, after an unbroken run of events from 1985 to 2000. It was not originally planned as such, but rather as a small, intimate story, which at heart it was: the story was of the death of a superhero’s wife and the investigation of her death, revealing a very personal and intimate motive. But this small, intimate story opened doors into parts of the DC Universe that had long been closed, and whose opening shed something other than light on corners many people would have preferred to keep dark.
And though the world was neither threatened nor remade, Identity Crisis had a more profound effect on DC, becoming the springboard for several years of controlled and organised stories and developments, than any story since Crisis on Infinite Earths had literally remade reality.
Green Arrow’s prominence in the story, though its principal effects did not personally touch on him, was an expansion of Meltzer’s ‘porn-buddie’ concept. Since Superman’s death, and Ollie’s, the superhero world has become more organised, so that when death comes, there is a set procedure, for contact, clean-up and investigation. The case is Ollie’s: though the detection is carried out by others (notably a superbly offstage Batman in the first half of the story), Green Arrow is case manager, and it’s a mark of the long transition the character has undergone that the guy who shoots arrows, who is far outweighed on the scale of sheer power by the vast majority of those others involved, is not only accepted, but also credible in that role.
The opening of the story is a smoothly controlled, bravura display of shifting viewpoints, revolving around an initially mysterious Now. Ralph (Elongated Man) Dibny is teamed up with a younger hero investigating a situation: their conversation whilst on stakeout slides forward from the past, alternating with a series of flashforwards to different heroes, at different times after Now, each receiving unpleasant news. At least one veteran reader saw Now coming and approached it with little pleas of ‘no, not her’. But now was the moment a fearful Ralph, racing against disaster, gets back to his apartment – an apartment protected by the most serious and scary security the Justice League in its various human and alien technologies and genius individuals can supply – to find his wife Sue dead, her body burned almost beyond recognition.
It was a shock in itself for the older reader. Ralph and Sue had been around since 1960, a loving, cheerful, lightweight and sunny couple, without any enemies: it was a serious step in the direction of cruelty to kill off Sue Dearborn Dibny, especially in the face of the loving build-up in Ralph’s conversation with Firehawk, and the one piece of information his brilliant deductive skills could not anticipate: that Sue was, at long last, pregnant.
Sue’s death rippled out across the entire superhero, and supervillain, community. Everyone looked to their loved ones and feared someone who could get so thoroughly behind their guard, exploit their worst fear. Ray (The Atom) Palmer saved his divorced wife Jean Loring from a hanging, but Tim (Robin) Drake’s father Jack was killed by the broken-down, stumblebum Captain Boomerang, who was also killed.
The villain, unexpected as it was, and clumsily as it was revealed, turned out to be Jean Loring, who had wanted to cause some kind of crisis affecting everybody’s loved ones, in the hope of luring Ray back to her. She’d used one of his spare costumes and size and weight controls to enter Sue’s apartment, shrink and get into her brain, intending just to ‘rough her up’, but miscalculated and set off a brain seizure. But that Loring did have a history of mental issues, it would have been an unsuitable, stitched on ending, but even with the addition of continuity, it still felt strained, unrealised.
But Sue’s death and Jean’s guilt were just the thread to lead us from beginning to end. What mattered in Identity Crisis, what sparked all the controversy about its contents, which provided the basis for the years of interconnected stories to follow, was the worms that crawled out of the cans opened in pursuit of the truth.
Meltzer was bold enough to throw in his biggest revelation as early as issue 2. Issue 1 ends after Sue’s funeral, with superheroes splitting off in all sorts of directions, to hunt down possible culprits. Silently, secretively, five current and former JLAers slip away to meet a Ralph transformed from grief to vengeance, to hunt Dr Light.
Dr Light was a Sixties-created villain, who could manipulate light and lasers, but he had been treated as a joke, an incompetent for two decades. On the surface, he was an unlikely prospect as villain, but the sextet were certain. And when the new Flash and Green Lantern, Wally West and Kyle Rayner, suspicious of that certainty, add themselves to the party, an explanation becomes necessary and it all starts to get nasty.
Light wasn’t always an idiot. Once he was a nasty piece of work, and never more so than when he found Sue Dibny alone in the Justice League satellite. Light attached Sue. More than that, he raped her. He was caught in the act by the returning Justice League and was beaten down, but not without realising how he could hurt them in future: how he’d give light-shows of his actions in prison, how he’d hunt out Sue again when free, and other people’s wives and girlfriends.
So, in an echo of Watchmen‘s insistence upon a rigid reality and truth, the heroes voted, by a margin of 4 v 3, to not merely take all Light’s memories of the scene, but to try to change what was in him that spurred him to be this violent, this hurtful. The change was made by Zatanna, the magician girl, and it went wrong, robbing Light of his brilliant mind and turning him into a buffoon.
It destroyed, at a stroke, everything that DC’s superheroes were or had been supposed to be from the Silver Age on, but it did so with a hard-eyed realism that said, in effect, if you want the fantasy of beings with amazing powers clashing against each other, you have to accept the reality of this.
And with the reader reeling from that revelation, suddenly the heroes had to swing into action, with only enough time to indicate that the incident with Light was not the first time they had wiped villains minds.
In fact, this referred to an actual JLA case of the late Seventies, where a band of villains had exchanged minds with the JLA, taking their bodies over: Meltzer applied the remorseless logic that the first thing they would have done would have been to remove their masks, necessitating the wiping of their memories after their eventual defeat.
This last came out after a furious knock-down fight in issue 3 with Deathstroke, a mercenary hired by Light to protect him. Ollie’s description of the scene of Light’s rape had included a vivid panel depicting Light fighting off seven heroes simultaneously: by a fluke chance, in the battle against Deathstroke, a tableau occurred that replicated that scene, hero for hero. The sight breaks Light’s conditioning, restores his memories, restores his full and very dangerous mind, and raises his levels of hatred to the stratosphere. It also changes fundamentally the relationship between hero and villain, the ground rules. But in Light’s moment of realisation he generates a powerful hologram, that only The Flash seems fast enough to see. It’s of Light under attack, but this time by eight heroes, not seven: Batman is there as well.
It takes until almost the end of the story for West to go to Ollie with that vision and ask him openly about it, and it’s Ollie’s refusal to answer that opens us up to the ultimate game changer: they took Batman’s mind as well.
Batman had been there for Dr Light’s take-down before rushing to the next emergency. But, because it was Sue, this time he came back, in the middle of Light’s magical lobotomy. And he went bananas. A horrified Zatanna froze him physically, and then the Justice League took the decision to delete ten minutes of their friend and ally, Bruce Wayne’s memories as well.
What would flow from that, forward and backward, practically sustained DC for the next year and a half, and rumbled on for much longer.
Many people hated Identity Crisis, for what it was, what it did. In a single series, it tainted everyone’s youth and innocence, by destroying the sweetness and the naivete of the Silver Age and, at a stroke, reducing the heroes to the same moral level as the villains. People hated Sue Dibny’s rape, especially when it was used against such a likeable, nice woman (not that rape ever distinguishes between its victims). If you want to be picky, it was never explicitly stated that the rape actually happened: the crucial panel is a close-up of Sue’s clenched hands, and it is for the reader to decide how much time elapses before the next panel, when the JLA teleport back into the satellite. But, let’s be honest, to reject actual rape on a technicality would be to undermine the story.
So, not a Green Arrow story, but one in which Green Arrow played a significant role, a confirmation of his place among the circle of the DC Universe’s.
It was, for me, Green Arrow’s peak.