Tonight, The CW takes its first step in officially expanding its roster of DC Comics heroes, as The Flash makes his debut, complementing his bow-favoring ally, Arrow. But it isn’t a checklist of villains or a mission from his parents that propels Barry Allen’s story; instead, a blessing of superhuman abilities sends him on a quest to decide what it means – and what it may cost – to truly become a hero.
The pilot, written by executive producers Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg and Geoff Johns (Arrow) introduces crime scene investigator Barry Allen (Grant Gustin), a young man scarred by the murder of his mother at a young age – a crime for which his father was convicted – later taken in and raised by Detective Joe West (Jesse L. Martin), alongside his daughter Iris (Candice Patton). When an experiment of the brilliant Dr. Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh) goes awry and leaves Barry comatose after being struck by lightning, he awakes to find Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker), Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes) and Wells himself eager to unlock the secrets that have now made Barry the ‘fastest man alive’ – and given him a clue to finding his mother’s real killer.
With Arrow beginning as a solo story, the showrunners have clearly learned that an ensemble cast is a wise move, as the spoiler-free synopsis above establishes the many faces and personalities that Barry will have joining him from the very start of his superhero career. And it’s not the only sign that the writers are smoothly moving from one CW superhero to the other – making the transition a shockingly painless one – assuming viewers have been drawn to either Arrow or Smallville before this show.
Despite a short resume, Grant Gustin (90210, Glee) managed to win over plenty of skeptics when he was first introduced in Arrow Season 2, in what was originally intended to make way for a backdoor Flash pilot. In the end, The CW determined that Gustin – and the writers who captured the character faster than expected – needn’t prove himself, instead ordering the series to pilot. So it’s no surprise that the most promising part of the series premiere is, undoubtedly, Gustin’s protagonist.
When placed opposite Stephen Amell’s brooding vigilante, it wasn’t hard for the actor’s blend of ‘charming underdog’ and a clear desire to do the right thing to win over audiences – especially those for whom the dark tone of Arrow failed to please. In the premiere, it is Gustin’s ability to play both sides of the coin – a boy who smiles while helping those around him, and a man still obsessed with finding his mother’s killer – that creates the show’s foundations; even making the less-than-stellar bits of dialogue only slightly intrusive.
Bets have been hedged in casting both of Barry’s father figures as well; with Jesse L. Martin (Law & Order) experienced in playing a good-hearted detective, and original Flash series star John Wesley Shipp playing Barry’s father Henry (a character largely unexplored in the comics). Credit brilliant planning or simply luck, but where Gotham followed a similar strategy (springing for proven talent alongside newcomers) and struggled with onscreen chemistry, that doesn’t seem an issue for either Martin, Shipp or Gustin.
The cast is completed with Barry’s adopted S.T.A.R. Labs ‘support team’: Carlos Valdes as the optimistic and permanently-thrilled Cisco Ramon, Danielle Panabaker as the distant, no-nonsense Caitlin Snow, and Tom Cavanagh’s academic mentor. While all three are up to their tasks, they may prove the only divisive members among audiences, since their characters – at first glance – fit cleanly into established stereotypes (likely to give some an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. vibe), the show’s writers will need to make them more than a caricature – and fast.
The trio is indicative of one of the main concerns we have of the premiere: pilots must, by nature, contain a wealth of hints at the stories, characters, and conflicts that rest in the show’s future. With The Flash, that is most certainly the case. But beyond Barry’s new powers, the wealth of metahumans emerging into the world, the changing relationship between he and Joe, and his quest to prove his father’s innocence, the writers have established plenty of arcs – all of which seem important, and urgent.
Fortunately, the premiere does, despite the similarities, manage to steer clear of the moody bickering and tone of Arrow‘s own ensemble team of vigilantes. More enemies will start to appear that may become more of a challenge; and where Barry’s enemies are concerned, the writers will certainly need to up their game.
It would be kind to simply say that the premiere’s villain is uninteresting; in truth, the weather-controlling criminal blessed with metahuman abilities alongside Barry is cheesy, predictable, and responsible for the most eye-rolling moments of the premiere – as well as the clearest sign that The Flash could borrow plenty (of the wrong stuff) from Smallville. It was to be expected that the showrunners wouldn’t dispatch one of The Flash’s more memorable enemies in their first episode, but the bar must be raised considerably (as was the case with Arrow, replacing disposable ‘monsters of the week’ with a lengthy Deathstroke conflict) for the antagonists of the series to be more than cannon fodder.
Concerns or risks aside, there are plenty of surprising strengths and some interesting choices from director David Nutter when dealing with Barry specifically – this is his story, after all – ranging from narrative to structure. For starters, the decision to squeeze an entire superhero film’s worth of Barry ‘discovering’ his powers into mere minutes seems a counter-intuitive move (at the premiere’s end Barry has adopted The Flash’s name, costume, and mission). But it’s Gustin’s ability to seem concerned, horrified, curious, and thrilled with his new abilities – in quick succession – that will (or won’t) provide new viewers with a way into the story.
The confidence that the showrunners are placing in their leading man’s ability to keep audiences captivated is evident; seen in the ‘show, don’t tell’ scene revealing how Barry spends his evenings digging into his mother’s case, and driven home by the fact that the episode’s climactic battle likely isn’t the special effects spectacle some viewers will be hoping for. The Flash’s solution of essentially ‘running really fast’ will give the show’s detractors a bit of ammunition.
But for those viewers who have been successfully charmed by Gustin, the emotional side of the climax – Barry finally ceasing to be a victim or bystander in his own life, and become a hero who takes action at his own peril – will be just as satisfying as the confrontation itself. Even Oliver Queen seems genuinely in awe of Barry’s heroic spirit, in a brief cameo cementing the two shows as two sides of the same coin; it never seems that The Flash is trying to convince audiences that what it’s showing is cool – instead further emphasizing that the premiere, at least, has a heart.
[MILD SPOILERS FOLLOW]
Nowhere is that more evident than in the most pleasant surprise of the premiere: a closing scene between Barry and his incarcerated father, Henry. The chemistry between Gustin and Shipp was said to surprise even the show’s producers (with reports that Shipp’s role was increased as a result), and doesn’t disappoint. Its even more surprising since the scene is relatively unnecessary for a pilot, having little impact on the plot, leaving no doubt that The CW is looking for a warmer, more family-friendly superhero than Starling City’s bow-wielding guardian.
With one episode under its belt, The Flash has planted the seeds of enough continuing story lines and character arcs to sink or swim by, and established itself as something distinct from the dark, grim, and moody world of Arrow. That lighter, more fantastic world makes the elements reminiscent of Smallville feel at least less jarring, but make no mistake: even if The Flash can stick to its core themes of family, loss, and true heroism, the writers will have a challenge on their hands if they hope to do each of the embedded characters and plots justice.
Given the polish of the cast and chemistry – and the massive cliffhanger dropped at the premiere’s close – The CW has taken the launch of another Justice League member into live-action drama quite seriously. Thanks to the experience of the production and writing team, DC Comics has another strong pillar in their TV stable, and a worthy companion to Arrow.
The Flash airs Tuesdays @8pm on The CW. Check out a preview of the series above.
Follow me on Twitter @andrew_dyce for updates on The Flash as well as movie, TV, and gaming news.