Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Moving Comics part 3: DC's TV in 2017

Supergirl Season 2 (CW, Mondays @ 8)
DC's Legends of Tomorrow Season 2  (CW, Tuesdays @ 9)
The Flash Season 3 (CW, Tuesdays @ 8)
Arrow Season 5 (CW, Wednesdays @ 8)

While Marvel properties have been having a rather stellar run in the theatres, Legion is their first TV output to match (if not exceed) that high standard.  DC Comics properties, on the other hand have been the reverse.  Their cinematic properties have faltered, making a ton of money but getting critically and culturally lambasted.  Their television output, under the guidance of executive producers Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg and Marc Guggenheim, have managed to create a unified superhero universe that's unprecedented.  There have been shows -- comedies and dramas alike -- that have been part of a greater world, spin offs and gimmicky crossovers that speak to a connectivity (hell, Richard Belzer's Detective Munch has appeared in a half-dozen shows at least).  But never before has such a universe embraced and built upon its connectivity on TV.

With Supergirl's second season moving from CBS to the CW, it's meant greater ties to the rest of the "Berlanti-verse" despite being set in a parallel dimension from it.  The move to the CW meant some cost-cutting, which moved the show from LA to Vancouver, losing the stellar Calista Flockheart as Cat Grant in the process.  But that loss has meant forward progress for Kara Danvers and the show in general.  New sets gave the show a fresh feel (the DEO's now stationed in a high-tech high rise tower instead of a dank cave complex), and the focus of the show has shifted from being less emotionally grounded and into more high-flying superheroics.

Cat Grant was both Kara and Supergirl's mentor.  Through Cat in Season 1 there was a very strong Girl Power message, one that was both fiercely encouraging and also grounded in some very harsh realities about the world.  Those themes and messages are less strong without Cat reaffirming them, but Kara's held strong in her defiance of conventions and stereotypes.  With change afoot, Season 2 also addressed Season 1's biggest weakness, Chyler Leigh's portrayal of DEO agent Alex Danvers.  Leigh has done an about-face and toughened Alex up this season, made her a fierce fighter, and has masterfully handled a remarkable coming-out story.  The romance between Alex and police lieutenant Maggie Sawyer has had it's rough bits of fake-out break-ups but overall it's been an extremely positive, meaningful and enjoyable partnership without ever feeling scandalous or sensationalized.  Cudos on that one.

This season has seen more comic-book elements infused, starting with an unnecessary but nevertheless charming 2-part appearance by Tyler Hoechlin as Clark Kent/Superman.  There was a great side story for J'onn J'onzz where he finds another martian living on Earth, only to discover after he's bonded with her that she's a white martian. James Olson (now heading Catco in Cat's absence) works with Winn (now a DEO Agent) as the crime-fighting Guardian against Kara's wishes.  A Daxamite (a nemesis race to the Kryptonians), Mon-el, arrives on Earth and Kara has to get over her prejudices to welcome him, train him, and get courted by him.  Chris Wood has a goofy charm as Mon-el which both works for the show and for Kara.  The effects are better this season (though it's still TV so it's still not perfect) and the show feels stronger this season, more entertaining, if a little less important.

Where Supergirl falters the most is in its stunt casting.  In theory it's delightful to see ex-Superman Dean Cain as Kara and Alex's dad, and ex-Supergirl Helen Slater as their Mom, and ex-Wonder Woman Lynda Carter as the POTUS, and ex-Lois Lane and ex-Hercules Teri Hatcher and Kevin Sorbo (respectively) as Mon-El's parents... but to be honest most of these people aren't great actors.  Hatcher acquits herself the best, but the rest verge on hammy, with Cain getting a fairly front-and-center arc which was painful at times.  But stunt casting has been a bit of a staple in the Berlanti-verse, fairly egregious in Flash as well, and I doubt it will stop.

Also in its second season and also feeling an upswing in quality due to some casting changes is DC's Legends of Tomorrow.  Season One was a goofy, fun, superhero-filled spectacle that would have been far better were it not perpetually bogged down with tedious Hawk-people stuff.  The ongoing threat of Season 1, Vandal Savage, proved less and less compelling as the season wore on since the Hawkman and Hawkwoman story became so dire.  Thankfully, the season ended with Savage's eradication, and the Hawk-people flying off into the sunset.  It also featured the death of Captain Cold, and it's really Wentworth Miller's absence that is most sorely missed this season.

As season 2 of Legends opens, Rip Hunter (Arthur Darvill) has scattered the Legends throughout the timeline in order to save them, seemingly sacrificing himself in the process.  For the first half of the season, as the team collects itself, Hunter is absent, meaning a bit of a power struggle as the team searches for a new captain of the Waverider.  It reasonably falls into Caity Lotz's able and convincing hands as Sarah Lance/White Canary.  She's a no-nonsense captain with a great love for her crew.  It works perfectly.  They're joined by two new crew members.  Vixen (Maisie Richardson-Sellers), a member of the 1940's Justice Society of America comes aboard after her lover and teammate Hourman is killed by Reverse-Flash, and Nate Heywood (Nick Zano), a historian who discovers the presence of time aberrations and manages to become a crew member and gain powers of steel hard skin in the process (becoming Citizen Steel).

Vixen and Nate are vast improvements over Hawkman and Hawkwoman as cast members.  Vixen is a personal favourite superhero of mine, and while it's unfortunate that scheduling with the actress playing the modern-day Vixen (last seen in Season 4 of Arrow) didn't work out, Richardson-Sellers' Vixen sells both the 1940's conservative attitude and fierceness of the character.  Zano has found excellent chemistry with Brandon Routh's Ray Palmer, as a pair creating a humorous duo of goofy, nerdy boys with toys that subs in for the lost duo of Captain Cold and Heat Wave.

This season's key adversaries are also vastly more interesting than last season's Vandal Savage.  Pulling villains from Arrow and The Flash and teaming them up as "the Legion of Doom", we get tremendous scenery chewing from John Barrowman reprising Malcolm Merlyn, Neal McDonough resurrecting Damien Darhk and Matt Letscher as Eobard Thawn (the Reverse-Flash).  One episode this season puts the spotlight on them as a dysfunctional team, and it's rather glorious watching them play off each other.  Their narrative thrust is finding the parts of the Spear of Destiny.  Scattered across the timeline by Rip Hunter, Thawn needs the spear in order to re-write history so that he can still exist at all.  The other two are just in it for the power.  It's such a wonderful comic book-like set-up, the show, for its limited budget really tries to embrace the goofy fun of particularly 1970's-era team-up books.

The shows plots find it traipsing through some very nerdy scenery or interacting with some very nerdy pop culture icons.  One episode has the team interfering with George Lucas' film school education then having to ensure he creates Star Wars, or else Nate and Ray won't be the nerds they are today.   Another finds them in Camelot (much to the woe of my Arthurian-loving wife), while a third ties them to J.R.R. Tolkien during the first World War.  As fan-service, there are definite worse ways to go about it, and these plots all tend to have a very self-aware aspect to them.

If there's a weak point, it's in the show's inability to use its heroes powers correctly.  Firestorm rarely emerges, probably because it's expensive to set Franz Drameh's head on fire for too long, but given how powerful that character is, and how useful he could be in almost every situation, they need to at least come up with some reason why Jackson and Stein aren't transforming all the time.  The Atom's shrinking power, likewise, has been used sparingly, and when it should really be more effectively used it isn't.  That's the problem when a show could use a big budget, but doesn't have it, it makes far too many out-of-character and irrational decisions for them in order to compensate.

Overall though, the cast is extremely well integrated.  They are a charming lot and they connect well together so even if this were a different time-travel show without any superpowers or comics-connectivity it would still be highly enjoyable to watch.  Sure, it's goofy, but it knows it, and it knows how to have fun.

Which is more than I can say for The Flash in its third season.  I call this the "mopey Barry" season, which is disingenuous because every season seems to be "mopey Barry" season.  But this one has been even more so.  The show ended last season with Flash having learned no lessons at all and messing with the timeline yet again by saving his mother.  This season starts with "Flashpoint", a messed up reality where Wally is the Flash and Barry's losing both his memories and powers, and bad things are happening.  Only Eobard Thawn, a time aberration himself, knows what's going on, and Barry has to plead for Thawn to go back in time and kill his mother to set things right.

So when things resume in episode 2, they aren't as they should be.  Flashpoint has fractured time, and as a result some things are the same as the were, but with slight differences all across the Berlanti-verse.  Even the show's most delightful character, Cisco Ramon, is brought to the depths of mopey-land when he learns that Flashpoint, in some respect, caused the death of his brother.  Gah.

Flashpoint has also unleashed the "speed god" Savitar who has a particular thirst for vengeance against Barry Allen.   Savitar, through his emissary Dr. Alchemy, has been returning superpowers to all the people who had them in Flashpoint but lost them in this timeline.  We learn who Alchemy is rather quickly, but there's a mystery as to who Savitar is which the show teases for far too long with not enough conviction.  Yes, another speedster nemesis with a mysterious alter-ego, and unknown motivations with a hate-on for the Flash.  That's three seasons in a row.  It's not necessarily badly written but it is direly repetitive.  Plus Barry's trying to change time, again, this time the future since he's trying to prevent Iris death at Savitar's hands.  This has led to some immensely annoying side stories about Barry and Iris's relationship as they try and work through feelings only people in TV shows have when they're badly written and in need of some kind of conflict.

Flashpoint has also give Caitlen Killer Frost's powers, and the psychotic alternate personality to go with it.  New cast member (and former Draco Malfoy) Tom Felton brings a great disdain for seemingly everything he encounters and is actually a good addition to the team.  Tom Cavanagh shows his range as the new Wells from Earth 19, who has none of the smarts of prior Wells' but 10 times the caffeinated energy and gusto.

This season of Flash has made plenty of mis-steps but having Barry, who's supposed to be the bright center of this TV DC Universe be brooding and mopey and a genuine dick to both Wally and Jesse Quick on a regular basis has soured me on the character.  The show has underwhelmed at almost every turn (a two-part Grodd episode promised a grand goofy story but budget concerns led to something direly lacking in imagination).  That Flash has gone from bright spot to lowlight of the Berlanti-verse is very unfortunate.  It's not for quality of acting, but just poor decisions made for the characters in the writers' room at almost every turn.   Only the Supergirl crossover, Duet, in which Grant Gustin, Melissa Benoist and a host of willing Berlanti-verse participants are caught up in a 1940's romantic gangster musical, showed any true sense of sustained fun (the fact that awkward Iris/Barry relationship drama had to dominate the preceding weeks as set-up was much, much less fun).

Compare this to season 5 of Arrow which has hands down been its best season to date.  Propulsive storytelling has made it a must watch every week, not the sometimes chore it had been in previous season.  While past years have seen a lot of holding patterns and filler episodes, every episode of Arrow this season drives the story and characters forward into the next one.  Not all sub-plots have been outstanding, but the cast, their chemistry and some genuine emotional arcs have all more than made up for it.

What season 5 has done for Arrow, though, is admitted that it started out entirely on the wrong foot.  Arrow in season 1 was an anti-hero, a Punisher-style dark vigilante who was out killing people in the name of justice.  The show managed to be successful and popular, and since its development comic book heroes became more mainstream and accepted so dark turns and cheesy drama are not as necessary in creating a new show.  As such, Arrow has for three more seasons been trying to back-track on it's portrayal of Oliver Queen: murderer, and create a genuine, hopeful hero.

This season though, the showrunners have decided to tackle that troubled past head-on.  The villain of the season, Prometheus, knows Oliver's secret identity and is out to ruin his life.  The team learn that Prometheus is the son of one of Oliver's victims from season 1, and Prometheus is set on making Oliver suffer for his sins.

Oliver also has been elected mayor of Star City, and negotiating that role with his other activities has become exceptionally difficult, especially as one bleeds quite literally into the other.  On top of this, Oliver and Quentin Lance are still reeling from Laurel's death at the end of Season 4.  Thea has quit the life and Diggle has returned to the army.  Green Arrow has inspired others to fight on the streets, which leads Oliver to recruiting a new team Arrow, with Artemis, Wild Dog, Mr. Terrific and Ragman becoming a surprisingly endearing and unique crew.   On top of these new recruits, there's another crime fighter, dubbed Vigilante, cruising the streets, doling out justice the same way Oliver used to.

The new cast members this season have almost all been fantastic additions.  Rick Gonzalez as Rene/Wild Dog is phenomenal, having instant rapport with every cast member, and Josh Segarra has been fascinating to watch as D.A. Adrian Chase, and while Juliana Harkavy as Dinah Drake/Black Canary (the fourth one now) hasn't been given much of a spotlight, she's proven an appealing supporting character and a more convincing Black Canary than Katie Cassidy did last season.

With Oliver's chickens coming home to roost, the flashback thread (usually the least appealing part of the show) takes on more meaning.  This being season 5, the flashbacks need to lead directly into Oliver's return to Starling City as a murderous vigilante, and it has.  Just like the main plot, which deals with Oliver's past actions, so to does the flashback plot.  Oliver goes to Russia, joining his Russian mobster friend from Lian Yu (season 2 flashbacks) to help with a promise he made to another Russian in the Season 4 flashback.  This has led to Oliver's initiation into the Bratva (occasionally referenced throughout the show's run, but particularity in Season 1, again the showrunners really dealing with some spurious decisions from the past) and facing the fabled Kovar (played by Dolph Lundgren in the best stunt casting possible).  An encounter with Talia Al Ghul becomes inspiration for Oliver's fractured persona, originating the Man in the Hood, and, late in the season, delving deep into Oliver's ruthlessness and the toll (or lack thereof) that it takes.

It's a superbly executed and incredibly well acted season.  Even some questionable choices turn out to have real purpose in the show.  It's been incredibly smart, it's portraying Oliver in the best possible light (facing up to his past), and Stephen Amell has been absolutely phenomenal working through Oliver's twisted emotions.  I wish the series had started this strong.  Whereas I feel little to no desire to go back to previous Arrow seasons (despite generally enjoying them), I would rewatch this season again.  It's a tour-de-force, all around, with action choreography that has few rivals on TV.  My only hope is that they stick the landing of this one, but given that the season finales of Arrow have always been strong, I don't have too much concern.

Before I go, I have to talk about the 3-part Supergirl-Flash-Arrow-Legends crossover.  While Supergirl is a starring player in the crossover there's only brief moment at the end of her episode that leads into it, with the whole thing really launching with the Flash's episode.  When I heard they were basing this off of the 1989 event comic Invasion, I was very excited.  Invasion remains one of the best superhero event books ever made.  My disappointment came quickly, however, when I realized that the Dominators of the comic were ugly snarling beast and not the devious intellectual society of the comics.  We really spend no time with them as adversaries and as a result the who "Invasion!" story kind of falls flat.  Their whole objective and the reasoning behind it somewhat adheres to the comic that inspired it, but without establishing them as actual characters it's hard to see them as much other than fight fodder.  On top of that the threat seemed too small scale, and fights in the usual Vancouver warehouses and rooftops were well choreographed but altogether repetitive given what we've seen.

On top of that, the crossover wasn't as cohesive as I would have liked.  I had hoped that since all these shows are overseen by the same producers, that they would be able to make it one big event.  Alas, each show sort of did their own turn at bat, with few supporting cast members crossing over from episode to episode.  It would have been far more delightful to really engage all the cast members with one another throughout the three episodes and build some unique dynamics between characters.  It has been done on more contained crossovers (Joe West and Quentin Lance, Cisco and Felicity), but it would have served all the shows well to truly cross over.  It's the difference between reading an event comic and reading the tie-in issues of regular series.  This felt like a trio of tie-ins, not the event.  That said, Arrow's 100th episode which coincided with the crossover was a fantastic episode of Arrow, but probably somewhat frustrating to Flash or Supergirl viewers who don't watch the show as, like the entire season 5, it really drew on the past and the demons Oliver has to face.

Finally, at the end of Invasion, the comic, the Dominators unleashed a meta-gene bomb which killed a few heroes, mutated a few others and created a bunch more.  Something similar would have really benefitted the Berlanti-verse as a means of explaining the appearance of even more superheroes as the shows run on.  Missed opportunities.