The revelation that Barry Allen's (Grant Gustin) return from the Speed Force is the cause of all of the new metahumans plaguing Central City in season 4 of The Flash doesn't come as much of a shock. Twelve metahumans were created by dark matter striking the passengers of a bus when Barry re-emerged, but not all of them would be rogues for the Flash to face. In this week's episode 'Elongated Journey Into Night', we learn that one of them turns out, after some initial doubt, to be not just a hero, but a classic DC Comics superhero character: Ralph Dibny, better known as the Elongated Man (Hartley Sawyer).
The Flash has ramped up its comedic elements this season, zooming away from the angst, doom and gloom that pervaded throughout the prior season where a future version of Barry himself was the villainous speedster Savitar. The lightness of season 4 is palpable, and the addition of Elongated Man to the main cast as a recurring character gives The Flash an added spark of Silver Age comic book shenanigans. Who is this bizarre, stretchable plastic man (who is not Plastic Man, DC Comics' other elastic hero) with the unusual superhero name? Let's take a (not too) elongated journey into the history of Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man:
Related: Where Is Wally West Going?
ELONGATED MAN IN THE COMICS
Flash Fact: The Elongated Man was only created in 1960 because editor Julius Schwartz didn't realize that DC actually already owned the rights to Plastic Man. Nevertheless, DC's second stretchable super sleuth was created by writer John Broome and artist Carmine Infantino, debuting in The Flash #112. Ralph Dibny was born in Nebraska and grew up fascinated with show business and the "India-rubber men" contortionists he watched at local carnivals. Dibny learned that they all drink a soda called Gingold, which was derived from gingo, a rare fruit from the Yucatan. Teaching himself chemistry, Dibny created a highly concentrated version of Gingold, which granted him super elasticity if he drank it every few days, turning him into the Elongated Man. Similar to the mistrust TV Barry showed Dibny, the comic book Flash at first suspected Dibny of being behind several crimes in Central City, until they teamed up to catch the actual criminals. Barry and Ralph would go on to be fast friends, often teaming up as two crime fighting detective superheroes.
The Elongated Man is significant in DC Comics for a number of reasons. He was one of the first superheroes to publicly reveal his identity, which fueled his desire for celebrity. Ralph was also considered one of the DC Universe's greatest detectives. With his wife Sue, Ralph was a happily married superhero and one half of a husband and wife detective duo. The Elongated Man was a member of the Justice League of America during its Silver Age 'satellite years', and he remained part of the League when the team went through its maligned 'Detroit' era (which introduced the heroes Vixen, Steel, Gypsy and Vibe, all of whom are now huge parts of the Arrowverse TV series). Later, the Elongated Man and Sue joined Justice League Europe alongside the late Barry's successor as the Flash, Wally West. (Ralph would tease Wally mercilessly about not being as fast or as good as his uncle Barry, the real Flash).
Ralph's good times came to an end in Identity Crisis, the sordid 2004 mini-series that revealed Sue Dibny had been raped by the super villain Doctor Light and Zatanna subsequently magically mind-wiped Light and several members of the Justice League (including Batman) to make them forget. Sue was murdered in Identity Crisis, and a distraught Ralph sought to solve the mystery of his wife's murder, eventually learning the killer was Jean Loring, the wife of Ray Palmer, the Atom. Ralph died in the 52 series, but he and Sue were reborn as undead ghost detectives and later as Black Lanterns. By this point, DC had contorted the Elongated Man and Sue Dibny characters almost beyond recognition. After the 2011 New 52 reboot, the Elongated Man was revealed to be part of the Secret Six, but his resurgence (hopefully in all of his classic glory) in the current DC Rebirth continuity has yet to occur.
ELONGATED MAN ON THE FLASH
In The Flash, Ralph Dibny is a former Central City Police detective turned private investigator and he is, by his own admission, a dick - he even crossed out the word "Investigator" off his door and replaced it with the word "dick". (The woman named Mrs. Broome who was Dibny's client is named for John Broome, Elongated Man's creator). We learned when Barry was a rookie in the CCPD, he became rivals with Dibny, who was kicked off the force after he planted evidence and lied about it in court. Like in the comics, Barry hated Dibny at first, and vice versa. However, Barry is inadvertently responsible for Dibny's newfound ability to stretch himself to epic proportions, as opposed to the comic book magic potion of Gingold. For TV Ralph's origin, the dark matter released from Barry exiting the Speed Force polymerized Dibny's entire cellular structure so they elasticized. The Flash references Gingold subtly by having Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker) create a liquid compound that allowed Dibny to better control his stretching.
Ralph's powers on The Flash thus far line up accordingly with his comic book abilities. The limits to how far the Elongated Man can stretch his body parts haven't been firmly established on the show, though he was able to stretch his arm far enough to catch an escaping helicopter (another ode to his first comics appearance where criminals tried to frame Dibny using a helicopter). However, the Elongated Man traditionally doesn't have the elastic versatility to transform himself into various shapes like Plastic Man, or to a lesser extent, like Mr. Fantastic of the Fantastic Four do. The show played the body horror aspects of Ralph's transformation for laughs - being the Elongated Man is simultaneously kind of cool and kind of gross. Dibny's trademark nose twitching when he "smells a mystery" thankfully made it into the show intact.
The Flash offers a somewhat darker take on Ralph Dibny, but certainly one which honors the comedic essence of the character, thanks to sharp, witty writing and a biting performance by an ideally cast Hartley Sawyer, who made Ralph equal parts irritating and likable. Ralph's future wife Sue Dearborn is not yet on the horizon as Ralph is undergoing his initial origin arc before he gets to meet the woman destined to be his significant other. Barry and Ralph's antagonistic relationship has plenty of room to grow into their comic book friendship - Ralph even admitted he liked the Flash before Barry unmasked himself to him - now that Barry has offered to train Dibny in how to use his powers and be a superhero as part of Team Flash.
Dibny rejected Barry's suggestion to give himself the superhero name 'Plastic Man' - "That's the worst name I've ever heard," Dibny scoffs. This seems to be an Arrowverse in-joke, as it's not unlike Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) dismissing Malcolm Merlyn's (John Barrowman) season 1 suggestion of naming himself 'the Green Arrow' before doing just that 3 years later. But maybe, when he ultimately accepts 'the Elongated Man' as his codename, which is bound to be a suggestion by Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes), Ralph should get his elastic ears checked. It's a weird name, though it suits this weird hero. It's definitely not a stretch to say the Elongated Man will be a big part of The Flash throughout its breezier and more lightheartedly fun 4th season.
The Flash airs Tuesdays @ 8pm ET on The CW.