Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Why I love The Flash (And maybe you will too)

Imagine you took Spider-Man, moved him to a version of Vancouver where it's almost always sunny and instead of spider-powers... he could run really fast. (Like really, really fast.)

How would that still be Spider-Man? Keep the core narrative arc of becoming self-aware; the display of how "with great power, comes great responsibility." And that, my friends, is the primary reason why I like to refer to the CW's The Flash as "Vancouver Spider-Man." (Its older sibling, Arrow, will always be "Vancouver Batman" in my heart, even if I stopped watching it seasons ago.)

Basic premise: Barry Allen, "an ordinary forensic scientist", was chosen struck by lightning during an explosion of a particle accelerator and transformed into a speedster. Wait, let me translate if you've never seen the show: SCIENCE touched him and gave him speed powers.

It gave many people in Sunny Vancouver powers. The show calls them meta-humans. (In one episode a lady touched Barry and his Flash suit exploded. That's not something you expect to type when trying to keep the physical appearances of the cast out of your argument.) Oh, and not every antagonist has powers; a couple have fancy guns. But the guns were made by the same science-team who built the particle accelerator so it's kind of like having powers.

Most of Barry's friends and family know about his speed powers. These people are supportive of him and his desire to solve crimes by running really fast. They help when they can; they warn him when he's doing something dangerous. They selectively forget about due process. Without clear jurisdiction, because meta-humans don't publicly exist, maybe a vigilante member of the police force might technically be the right one for the case? (Just run with it. The show does.)

This reliance on teamwork is one of the key elements of The Flash that keeps me tuning in week after week.

Okay. No. That's a lie. I'm tuning in each week because nothing else on TV intentionally makes me laugh as hard as The Flash does. It's really about the jokes. (So many speed-related puns. So many.)

Ahem. Teamwork. Right. In all seriousness, the sheer amount of support that Barry receives—from the beginning of his endeavour into hero-ing—is astounding when you compare it to many superhero stories.

We are hitting media-saturation point for superhero stories. I know. I thought I was already there, but The Flash is actively working against much of what I don't enjoy in the recent trend of comic adaptations. Barry isn't a loner working in secret. The show's opinion on violence is that it's not to be glorified. A pessimistic attitude is not what creates the show's attempts at realism.

There is a joy to The Flash, an awareness that a show about a guy who can run super fast can only take itself so seriously. By which I mean that it only takes itself seriously when it needs to. A lot of the time it's silly and it knows it. There was a recent episode where a villain called Captain Cold spouted at least seven temperature-related puns while swaggering about the screen like MY LIFE IS SO GREAT.

Antagonists are something The Flash does remarkably well. The show currently executes the villain-in-our-midst trope in a way that I don't find off-putting. There isn't a "we are the same, so come do crime with me" thing happening here. There's possibly a "I want you to be your best self, nemesis, so I know I am the bestest when I beat you" thing happening. (I theorize it's a little more complicated than that, but let's stick to top level viewing for now.)

I wouldn't want to mislead you into believing it's a perfect show. It is by no means a perfect show; one could make a lot of arguments it's not even a great show. At the very least, The Flash has a serious issue of persistent misogyny. (Barry's primary motivation this season is to find out who murdered his mother.) The two main female characters, Iris and Caitlin, are damsel'ed almost every episode. Also, the pilot sets up a romance barrier of "this female character said no to dating, so her mind will be changed when she realizes the protagonist is special because he can run really fast."

However, The Flash also appears to be working against that trope. Iris is not currently dating Barry, and her No To Dating Barry held fast despite his confession of feelings. (One of the most pleasant surprises I've gotten from a CW show.) We'll have to see how long it lasts before her stable relationship with Eddie is destroyed or revealed to somehow be less ideal than a potential relationship with Barry. Wow, that was cynical. Prove my cynicism unfounded, show. Please. I would love to stop counting down until Eddie dies or becomes the Reverse Flash.

Ah, but Harrison Wells is the Reverse Flash. Right. Is he really? Let's hypothesize something, just for fun. What if Harrison Wells is Barry Allen from the future?

What if he got stuck in his past after failing to defeat the Reverse Flash and keep Nora Allen from getting killed, so Future!Barry adopted an identity (Harrison Wells) and went about ensuring Present!Barry became the Flash. Wells has an extensive knowledge of the speed power and what it can do. ("Maybe even cure paralysis." Ha ha, Wells, you're so funny.) Wells is focused on Barry mastering his powers and has gone to great lengths to ensure that happens.

Wells is also intensely concerned with Barry's well-being and safety. What if it's not because Wells is the Reverse Flash and he wants to beat the best version of Barry? There are little throwaway bits and scenes that take on a whole other meaning if Wells is helping Barry because Wells has come from a timeline or future where the Flash has already lost someone to the Reverse Flash.

But that isn't why I wrote this. There are so many other blogs tracking theories about the show, and the possibility of Wells being Future!Barry isn't why I watch The Flash. I watch it because my friends are watching it, too, and we are as a group discussing the thematics this possibility adds to the show.

Do you need to do that in order to also enjoy it? No. If you want to watch for no reason other than you'd like to know if Iris is ever going to date Barry, go ahead. Maybe you just want a laugh on Tuesday nights. The ability to engage with various audiences for various reasons is a sign of doing something right. And The Flash is showing each week how to do it well without having to be the most serious thing on TV.