The Flash: Why It Works, Against All Oddsuser 8 months ago
SPOILER WARNING: THIS ARTICLE WILL ASSUME YOU HAVE WATCHED UP TO S03E09 ‘THE PRESENT’. READ ON AT YOUR OWN RISK.
The Flash is a very silly TV show. Ridiculous, some might say. It follows a man capable of running faster than sound, who does battle on the regular against villains with names like Captain Cold, Mirror Master, and Reverse-Flash. Its…let’s call it cavalier approach to the laws of physics would make even the writers of Star Trek Voyager blush. It asks you to believe that a gentleman armed only with a freeze ray and a parka can often prove a match for a being that can dodge bullets, run up buildings and travel through bloody time.
Yet despite this rampant absurdity, it remains one of this writer’s all-time favourite shows, has a massive fanbase, and can attract five million viewers in the US alone on a good day. Why is this? Let’s take a look at the two main reasons.
EMBRACE THE MADNESS
The Flash is a show that’s proud of its origins. In an era where franchise seems to be fecklessly ticking off the words “gritty” “grounded” and “dark” before their latest incarnations ever reach the screens, The Flash embraces its own zaniness and runs with it (pun very much intended). The show’s predecessor Arrow often fell afoul of this problem, drawing many (often justified) accusations that the showrunners were trying to create a version of Batman with added medieval weaponry. So far though, The Flash has managed to competently balance the heavier elements of its storylines with its characteristic fresh-faced innocence.
The titular character first appeared in Flash Comics #1 (November 1939) with Jay Garrick being the first Speedster to carry the mantle. Back then, Garrick gained his powers through the inhalation of “hard water vapours”, the concept of the Speed Force being some years away from invention – along with many of what we now consider cornerstones of The Flash. Indeed, the character wasn’t even owned by DC at this point, but by All-American Publications, which would eventually merge with DC and help to form the company that we know and love today.
These days of course, Barry Allen is the version of The Flash most familiar to fans and the public eye, the latter being largely thanks to the success of the show. In many ways, the show actually tones down some of the more eccentric excesses of the comic. The suit is a darker, more subtle red, cutting a more practical-looking form against the traditional skintight scarlet get-up it takes inspiration from. In the comics, Barry can move at many millions of times the speed of light and perceive events that take less than an attosecond to occur (one quintillionth of a second), whereas in the show he can crack “merely” hypersonic speeds. There’s no knowing just how fast Barry will be able to run once the show eventually ends, but it’s unlikely to reach the insane heights of the source material. That being said, the current main unpleasant chap Savitar is capable of truly phenomenal velocity – he’s as fast to Barry as Barry is to a normal human being, and then some. Savitar is the self-proclaimed God of Speed, a claim that’s hard to argue against when faced with such overwhelming power. If this pans out to be true and he’s not a normal human gifted with a greater-than-usual link to the Speed Force, it may be the case that Barry will not be able to defeat him simply by becoming faster, as he did with Eobard Thawne and Zoom (plus a couple of other neat tricks).
Throughout the history of comics, the current mysteries of science have always been used as a convenient tool for characters to gain power – like the aforementioned hard water vapours. Take, for example, one of Marvel’s old favourites – radiation. The greatest miracle/terror of the 20th century was a highly enigmatic concept to the general public in the 50’s and 60’s (and, arguably, even today to a certain extent). This provided the perfect avenue to allow the strange and unknown to create the fantastical – Bruce Banner unlocked his grumpy alter-ego through exposure to gamma radiation. Peter Parker developed arachnid-esque abilities via the bite of a radioactive spider. These days of course, we know that exposure to large amounts of radiation gives you only one superpower – the ability to die real quick.
The show continues this mad-science tradition through the use of the particle accelerator explosion, and the “dark matter” that was released into Central City as a result. As of right now, modern science has little to no idea what dark matter even is, much less the effects it might have on the human body – which makes it a perfect, zeitgeisty way to enable the appearance of the Metahumans. Perhaps in several decades, once this particular mystery has been solved, another area of the undiscovered will provide the means to create the superpowered.
The show really allowed itself to cut loose with the introduction of the multiverse that was set up during the season 1 finale. A trip to Earth-2 was the first order of business, giving the characters a chance to gawk at the retro-futuristic furnishings of an Earth that had followed a vastly different evolutionary path. From there, multiple other Earths were discovered, including the home of Supergirl (which helped to smoothly explain the character’s transition from CBS to the jointly-owned CW network), who would later join Barry, The Green Arrow and The Legends of Tomorrow in a four-part crossover smorgasbord, Invasion!. By the time Team Flash were looking for a replacement Harrison Wells, they could casually flick through various universes to find a suitable candidate like something out of Rick & Morty.
Such mind-bending concepts like time travel and multiverse-hopping are met with the same starry-eyed bewilderment that is key to the show’s charm – in a more realistic scenario, the characters would huddle together fearfully in the corner of STAR Labs, unable to grapple with the unending cosmic revelations that were being foisted upon their feeble human minds. Thankfully, The Flash takes the insanity all in its stride, and us along for the ride.
HEART AND SOUL
The show would be a vastly inferior affair were it not for the supporting cast, the network of family and friends that have supported Barry since day one. When a new villain appears on the scene and needs a campy name, Cisco Ramone always steps up, usually before inventing some groundbreaking piece of tech or another to help The Flash overcome them. When he’s critically wounded in battle, it falls to Caitlin Snow to patch him up and let his healing factor do the rest. When some warm, fatherly advice and a guiding hand is needed, Barry’s adoptive father Joe West is there for him. Joe is probably one of the strongest characters within the show – certainly this writer’s favourite – which is impressive considering he’s an original character that doesn’t exist in the comics. His steadfast principles and moral compass have had an incalculable effect on Barry, helping him to transform from a traumatised kid into the kind of man who can handle vast power being thrust upon him.
The theme of family is strong and vibrant throughout the show – this writer has lost count of the number of times a tearful hug or a forgiven confession (often followed by a tearful hug) has brought a lump to the throat. It can also be translated in a variety of ways. Harrison Wells of Earth-2, for example, was prepared to do unspeakable things to ensure the survival of his daughter, the only thing left in the world he cared about. Barry’s deep desire to bring his mother back to life and fix his troubled past has led to some foolish actions on his part. Generally though, the show explores the theme of family helping to make people stronger, and overcome seemingly impossible odds. Sure, it’s sometimes hokey, overwrought and convenient. But the striving of the show to ground the preposterous in the humanity of its characters is arguably one of its strongest assets. The backdrop of a story can be as unrealistic as you care to make it, but if you fail to provide a solid window into that story via strong characters, it will always fall flat on its face.
And truly, you would need to have a heart of stone to not tear up watching The Runaway Dinosaur just a little bit.
The Flash is by no means a perfect show. It has a habit of repeating its own tropes, sometimes the crimes against science are too much to bear (“ultraviolet cold signatures”, anyone?) and its camp silliness is certainly not for everyone. It has a few weaker characters – Iris and Wally West come to mind foremost in this regard, though both have shown improvement in recent episodes. Ultimately however, it remains a highly enjoyable, fast-paced slice of superhero entertainment that acknowledges exactly how nuts its premise is and makes few apologies for it. In a world that can be so intently focused on the macabre, the unpleasant, and the horrifying, it makes for a refreshing 45 minutes a week. The day that the entertainment industry forgets how to just have fun with itself will be a very depressing day indeed.