Review: Legends of Tomorrow (CW, 2016 – )
If you like the other CW superhero shows, this is more of the same. If you don’t like the other CW superhero shows this is more of the same. Glossy American superhero action remake of Doctor Who. Uneven writing, unwieldy ensemble cast with bumpy chemistry and the subtlety of a baseball bat to the face, and without the do-gooding charm of The Flash or the growling angst of Arrow.
Take a group of supporting characters and guest stars from your airing superhero shows (some of whom are surprisingly famous), stick them in a dysfunctional team together, have them led by American Doctor Who-light on a haphazard trip through easy-to-costume historical settings, to fight an implausible bad guy… welcome to Legends of Tomorrow. The latest DC based superhero property to show up on the CW, LoT features the time travelling rogue Time Master, Rip Hunter, played by Doctor Who alum Arthur Darvill. Rip has journeyed back in time to assemble a team of misfit heroes and rogues in order to fight the immortal sorcerer and warlord Vandal Savage (Casper Crump). Unfortunately, while only slightly more implausible than all the other teams of superheroes who fight ridiculous villains, there is a real lack of cohesion of vision to this show. But for ease of description, think of it as Justice League: The C-listers, or The Diet Avengers.
Darvill’s Hunter is a man on a mission to avenge the deaths of his wife and child at the hands of übermensch and functionally immortal Vandal Savage while trying to pretend this is actually about saving the world. He decides the best way to do this is to recruit a team of heroes and villains from The Flash and Arrow shows… ostensibly because they have little effect on the timeline and therefore are disposable agents. However it ends up feeling like these characters were recruited because they were available and the actors who portrayed them were interested in a solid paycheck from the superhero gravy train. So, despite their different backgrounds, personality traits, and radically divergent moral compasses, Hunter hopes that this random group will be able to come together to defeat Savage. You have to love an optimist. This results in a fairly bloated ensemble cast or superheroes who are all vying for attention and screen time.
While Arrow and Flash have successfully portrayed superhero teams and supporting characters, they each had a single heroic character to form the focus of their shows and the other characters, no matter how likeable or interesting, were clearly in supporting roles to that heroic lead. The characters functioned to support the hero, even while the show explored their interpersonal dynamics. LoT does not have that. While Darvill’s Hunter is ostensibly the leader of the group, his character never comes across as ‘the hero’ and doesn’t serve as the focus of the show. In fact Hunter appears to be the support character back at the base directing the actions of the hero and feeding intelligence to the team, much like Felicity Smoak from Arrow, and Cisco Ramone and Caitlin Snow from The Flash. While integral to their respective shows, the eagle-eyed among you will notice that neither show is named after them and the driving vision of these shows are the missions and trials of their titular heroes. The shows might explore the team dynamic and the interpersonal relationships of the crime fighting band as a central tenant but the guiding narrative arc remains located squarely on the central hero. Hunter’s main function seems to be to drive the bus and complain when his poorly conceived plans don’t work.
So who are the other ‘heroic’ characters that split the focus of the show? Team Arrow is represented by Brandon Routh and Caity Lotz who reprise their roles of Ray Palmer (aka The Atom) and Sara Lance (aka White Canary, formerly Black Canary) respectively. Routh’s character is essentially a technology genius with a supersuit that can shrink, fly, and shoot lasers, and is definitely not a combination of Ironman or Antman in any way whatsoever. Lotz’s White Canary is a resurrected assassin with rage and bloodlust issues, and does not fill the role of Black Widow or Bucky Barnes or the team. Her name change is due to the fact that her sister Dinah Lance is portraying Black Canary in Arrow and apparently it wouldn’t do to just give her a new name. Team Flash is represented by Victor Garber, Wentworth Miller, Dominic Purcell, Ciara Renée, and Franz Drameh. Garber and Drameh play Dr. Stein and Jefferson Jackson respectively, the two people who combine to form the hero Firestorm. While Renée reprises her role as Hawkgirl, Miller and Purcell play the over-the-top villains/anti-heroes Captain Cold and Heat Wave.
As you can see there is a veritable plethora of characters vying for screen time, character development, and storylines. Unfortunately the writers can’t seem to choose who they want to form the key focal point and as a result the show jumps unevenly between them. Miller and Purcell dominate the scenes they are in with Miller smirking, snarking and drawling through every moment of screen time to milk it for all it is worth. Purcell on the other hand dumps restraint out the window and angrily chews his way through scene after scene with hilarious exuberance. Garber’s slightly prissy academic clashes with Drameh’s angsty teen in almost every scene they are present in. However at least they have one note characters, unlike Routh, Lotz and Renée, who are left fairly ill-defined and directionless as their characters drift and lurch in varying directions seeking some trait to hang on to.
These last points are a little harsh as there are some genuine moments when all the characters get to shine, entertain and captivate. The bar-room brawl from the season première was great with Lotz, Purcell and Miller gleefully tearing up the screen to a fun soundtrack. In fact, Lotz really comes into her own when her character is given a chance to beat up bad guys and punch villains in the face. Routh’s straight man and overly earnest good guy routine provides the necessary target and punchline for a number of zingers and quips, and he gives the team the feel good factor necessary to root for them. Renee’s confused and recalcitrant portrayal of Hawkgirl/Shayera/Kendra is entirely fitting with her character coming to grips with her life as a re-incarnated warrior priestess. Garber’s dripping delivery of arrogant put-downs proves he can quip with the best of them. Even Darvill’s slightly desperate need to fulfil the mission is convincingly portrayed with pathos and empathy. The show has great moments, it is just a shame that they never seem to tie together into a cohesive whole.
The worst aspect of all this is that due to the large cast, the short season arc, and the desire to show exaggerated, nonsensical action sequences, all tied up into neat weekly story arcs you are never given the chance to truly engage with any of the characters and invest in them. Fewer characters with well-developed team roles would serve this series better if they want to do a weekly adventure series. Split focus and ensemble narratives work in shows like Game of Thrones because the series takes its time and lets the story lines develop over the course of the season, rather than rushing to tie everything up neatly week after week. So the showrunners might want to pick which type of show they are doing instead of trying to have it all.
The actual team missions are the usual fare of steal something, find something or fight something in a fairly irrelevant saga of trying to stop/kill an immortal. Something doomed to failure for at least the first season as that would derail the entire raison d’etre of the show. The time travelling element still rests uneasily as the writers try to get to grips with a workable system. But I can’t criticise that too much given that time travel is notoriously difficult to do well or to do consistently. With Marvel and DC trying to outdo each other in film and television franchise mega-narratives, this is one more bloated body in the superhero war, but in this case the casualty seems to be the viewer. If you are looking for a show that demonstrates the breadth and depth of genre to tell mature stories and engage in interesting narrative, re-watch Daredevil and Jessica Jones. But for those looking for yet another action-based superhero show with quips galore, melodramatic gestures, and stirring speeches, then dive right in, but be careful as the story is shallow.