The Good: Well-conceived, Generally well-executed, Good performances, Fun allusions/connections, Some decent lines
The Bad: Exposition used to define characters, Accelerated plot/character development
The Basics: “City Of Heroes” smartly established The Flash and makes for a good start to the latest DC Entertainment franchise.
I have, for the most part, avoided the DC Comics-based television shows. The truth is, an entertainment company that hasn’t been able to launch a smart or successful television series centered around Wonder Woman since the 1970s, but has done two “young Superman” shows does not garner a lot of respect from me. That the shows Smallville and Arrow were launched on the CW, a network that appeals to a much younger, action adventure-oriented demographic than I am a part of certainly factored against me getting into their DC Comics-based live-action shows. That was, however, until they picked up The Flash. Two years ago, I spent the year immersed in the graphic novels that focused on The Flash and I became a bit of a fan. In fact, while Wonder Woman is easily my favorite super hero, it is Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash, who is my favorite super villain. So, with the release of The Flash on television, my wife and I decided it was time to give DC Entertainment a fair shake and we sat down to the pilot episode, “City Of Heroes.”
“City Of Heroes” was an episode I had to sit down and watch three times before I was actually comfortable with reviewing it. The reason for this is actually simple and something I have not been burdened with when watching movies and Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. from the Marvel Cinematic Universe: I knew too much. Having studied The Flash, it was virtually impossible for me to watch “City Of Heroes” without oohing and ahhing at the in-jokes and DC Universe references. “That’s a cute way to get the symbol,” “They’ve added this character so they can give Barry a mentor, something he didn’t have in the books; they need it for exposition,” “Oh, is [last-minute spoiler] a Monitor?!” as I was going through the episode with my wife (who has never been into comic books, graphic novels, or movies and television shows based upon them. So, I had to silence the Flash geek inside me and watch “City Of Heroes” again for what it was, not what it “should” be.
“City Of Heroes” is an archetypal super hero origin story and it was co-written by Geoff Johns. In addition to being one of the world’s foremost experts on The Flash – and a man who has to be the best friend of the Warner Brothers legal department for the way he manages to avoid anything that could possibly lead to a lawsuit from his actions – Geoff Johns is the Chief Creative Officer of DC Entertainment. That means that he’s the man responsible for the way DC Comics properties are translated into films and television shows. He is the one who is spearheading the parallel television and movie efforts for DC Comics properties and quite possibly the best chance Warner Bros. has to compete with Disney’s Marvel Cinematic empire.
Geoff Johns is also a ridiculously smart guy and it shows with “City Of Heroes.” “City Of Heroes” takes the labor of translating one of the two most complicated heroes and his environment (the other being Aquaman, for whom a satisfying series is still beyond the range of television special effects) into a workable show. Johns and his team (co-writers/co-executive producers Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg) launch “City Of Heroes” with an unpredictable adversary. Instead of starting the show with Captain Cold, the Weather Wizard is the first villain the titled hero must confront. And instead of fidelity to the goofy conceits of the DC Comic books upon which the show is based, The Flash is established in “City Of Heroes” as a metahuman in a city soon to be besieged by metahumans who are villains. While that in itself is beset with problems (seriously, it takes all of the adversaries The Flash will face nine months to figure out their powers, too?!), it eliminates one of the resounding issues with the awesome Rogues gallery of villains the Flash faces (why/how do these criminals keep getting their gadgets back?!).
So, “City Of Heroes” works to introduce a new story of The Flash and his world in the twin cities of Central City/Keystone City in America’s Midwest . . . and it does so remarkably well.
Fourteen years before he was a Central City Police forensics scientist, Barry Allen was just a kid who was bullied by his peers and who awoke one night to lightning in his family’s house. As his mother is trapped by yellow and red lightning, his father tells him to run, but he is suddenly teleported away by the yellow lightning. When he returns to his house, his mother is dead and his father is being led away, accused of the murder. Barry Allen arrives late to the latest crime scene where the Mardon brothers are the lead suspects. Allen’s work on the crime is interrupted by his chance to visit S.T.A.R. Labs on the day they are activating their particle accelerator. Under the guidance of Harrison Wells, S.T.A.R. Labs activates a particle accelerator that is set to change human understanding of physics. While Detectives West and Chyre investigate the farm the Mardon brothers are holed up on, the particle accelerator malfunctions, sending out a wave of energy. That wave destroys the plane Clyde Mardon was escaping the farm in and knocks Barry back into a shelf full of chemicals.
Nine months later, Barry Allen awakens from a coma to learn about how the world changed in his absence. Harrison Wells is now wheelchair bound and Allen was kept at S.T.A.R. Labs where he recovered, though his cells were in a state of accelerated movement. Trying to return to his life, Barry Allen discovers that he can move at super speeds. With the help of Wells, Cisco Ramon and Caitlin Snow from S.T.A.R. Labs, Barry Allen begins to explore the range of his powers. While the Central City police officers hunt down a bank robber who is able to harness the power of the weather, Barry gathers the forensic evidence that suggests that Clyde Mardon is the suspect they are looking for. But Mardon’s survival is not just the answer to a single case, it is the legacy of Harrison Wells’ particle accelerator and it sets Barry Allen on a journey that makes him into the super hero who calls himself The Flash!
“City Of Heroes” is something of a rushed pilot, but a good one. The character of Barry Allen, of course, has to turn into The Flash. Did he have to do it in the first forty-five minute episode? Apparently, the executive producers thought he did. What this means for “City Of Heroes” is that Barry Allen’s arc is ridiculously rushed. Perhaps the most clever concept Johns and his team bring to “City Of Heroes” is that Barry Allen does not have any sort of innate control over his superspeed initially. He runs into things and the first time he notices that anything is wrong, time appears to slow down for him at an utterly inconsequential moments. “City Of Heroes” finds Barry mastering his speed in record time, which seems to undo the concept that Barry will actually struggle to find his footing. Barry Allen has not figured out how to vibrate through solid matter and he has not figured out how to tap the Speed Force for time travel (though the battle occurring around his mother certainly indicates he will), but the bulk of his abilities are realized by the end of “City Of Heroes.”
In a similarly rushed way, Detective West comes around to Barry’s perspective on the fourteen or fifteen year-old murder of Nora Allen after only one incident. That seems a bit forced.
While Barry Allen is pretty clearly established in “City Of Heroes” – he is a perpetually-late, brilliant, and has a Sherlock-style forensic style surrounding his investigative abilities – the secondary characters range from clever allusions to generic establishing phrases that are thrown in for an obligatory sense of characterization. Chyre is a character who actually became deep and vital in The Flash under the pen of Geoff Johns; his presence in “City Of Heroes” is cool and helps to defy expectations (Chyre was a perpetual survivor, so killing him off in the pilot episode’s teaser was delightfully unexpected!). The obligatory crossover with Arrow might have been a kick-ass moment for Arrow fans, but it lacks real resonance within the episode and poor Danielle Panabaker! Panabaker plays Caitlin Snow and the character in “City Of Heroes” could easily have been a generic scientist who helps study Barry Allen and guide him – a liaison between Wells and Allen. Instead, in an effort to give viewers some aspect to care about, Snow is given a backstory. Unfortunately, her backstory is delivered right in the episode as exposition that is so clunky that Panabaker’s best performance is managing not to roll her eyes as she tells Barry how her future is over and fiancé is dead.
“City Of Heroes” manages to define how The Flash will unfold: like The 4400 (season 1 reviewed here!) or Friday The 13th: The Series (reviewed here!), The Flash will be a hunt for those affected by the McGuffin. In this case, the McGuffin is the particle accelerator accident. It has left Central City with a flood of metahumans, many of whom have been engaged in criminal activities. Clyde Mardon just happens to be the first, currently most-active metahuman that S.T.A.R. Labs is hunting down. The casual nature of the activity of other metahumans both highlights and undersells the premise of the show: if so many metahumans have been active for nine months, why is so much of the city still standing in good repair? Either way, “City Of Heroes” gives Barry Allen a decent initial purpose: he will round up other metahumans.
Peppered throughout “City Of Heroes” is what appears to be the longer running arc of the entire series. Eddie Thawne works with Joe West and the presence of a newspaper from the future indicates that Professor Zoom is obviously related to the death of Nora Allen and the television incarnation of the DC Cinematic Universe is moving toward Crisis On Infinite Earths (reviewed here!). The Flash, then, has the potential to be like The X-Files (reviewed here!) oscillating between “Freak Of The Week” bottle episodes and episodes that define the long arc “Mythology” stories. Given the buzz surrounding The Flash so far and the style of “City Of Heroes,” it seems like the Freak Of The Week stories will dominate the first half of the season, at least.
What makes “City Of Heroes” work so well is the quality of the writing. Johns and his co-writers have some wonderful lines (“Why would god need to rob banks?!”) and cute allusions (Cisco wearing a “Bazinga!” t-shirt is fun) that establish what will be Barry Allen’s corner of the DC Universe well. Moreover, the young cast is led successfully by Grant Gustin. Gustin leaps into the role of Barry Allen well-enough, though he seems like Andrew Garfield on a television budget. Gustin is articulate and good-looking, but he lacks individual presence in “City Of Heroes” to call his performance distinctive. Still, he is credible as a young genius.
The rest of the cast is fleshed out well-enough: perhaps the most recognizable performer is Jesse L. Martin as Detective West. Candice Patton is youthful and energetic as Iris and Rick Cosnett leaps into the role of Eddie Thawne in a believable and handsome way. Tom Cavanagh is appropriately intriguing in his performance of Harrison Wells, which makes him the man to watch in “City Of Heroes.” Even Chad Rook starts the franchise off well by infusing Clyde Mardon with anger and confusion that establishes the villain in a believable fashion.
Ultimately, “City Of Heroes” is a good start to The Flash and there is enough in it to make one want to tune in again!
For other works with Al Sapienza, please check out my reviews of:
House Of Cards – Season 1
Prison Break – Season 1
[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into The Flash - The Complete First Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the debut season here!
For other television episode and season reviews, please visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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