DC’s television properties are generally not very good shows. I’ve been watching Arrow and The Flash in real time for two seasons now, and I’ve never made bones about the fact that I think Arrow is a remarkably shallow show with an underdeveloped ideology that apes liberal values while promoting things like the efficacy of torture and devaluing its women characters. The Flash honestly isn’t much better, but I’ve always been willing to give it a pass simply because it’s a show that isn’t ashamed of its identity as a goofy superhero series. The CW’s newest entry in the DC universe, Legends of Tomorrow, is more in the vein of The Flash than Arrow thankfully (with a huge heaping of Doctor Who for good measure, though I’m pretty neutral on that series), but after watching its inaugural season I’m not sure how I feel about it long term; the early episodes had a lot of promise, but I’m kind of apathetic about the ending.
Getting into more specifics, let’s look at The Flash and Arrow in turn, because I thought they both had pretty flawed finales, but for surprisingly different reasons. What I realized as I was wrapping up the second season of The Flash is that while you have all the fun parallel universe stuff going on (that stuff’s my jam; I am a pretty committed X-Men fan after all), the basic structure of the season was practically identical to the first season. The Flash is confronted with a rival speedster who’s not afraid to do all the terrifying things you expect someone with super speed and poorly developed morals to do. This rival’s identity is unknown, but he’s clearly bad news, and so Barry and his crew do everything they can to help Barry get fast enough to beat said rival. Then, three quarters through the season, it’s revealed that the rival speedster’s identity is actually that of Barry’s mentor figure, and so they have one final showdown that’s basically about who can run faster.
This structure’s kind of infuriating because the early part of Season 2 of The Flash did so much to point the audience towards a different story arc. There was even an episode early on that dealt with Barry’s anxiety over trusting a new mentor after the last one turned out to be a supervillain; now that it’s happened twice, Barry better have a severe complex next season, or the writers are seriously dropping the ball on this thread. Anyhow, the point is that you can only feint and do the same plot so many times in a row before the audience is going to notice. I know there are some challenges in coming up with an arc villain who is a credible threat to the Flash without just making them another speedster, but it’s superhero fiction; the writers can come up with something that’s plausible enough with some generous hand waving.
On the subject of the finale itself, everything simply felt poorly motivated all around. Zoom reveals that he wants to race Barry because he plans on using the energy from their running to power a multiversal bomb, which is perfectly fine as a motivation for a nihilist villain; what’s weird is that Barry is completely invested in going along with this idea simply because Zoom’s threatening to kill all his friends and family (the power of this threat isn’t necessarily unrealistic; the emotional component of having your loved ones personally killed versus them being annihilated along with everyone else shouldn’t be underestimated, even if a simple utilitarian examination of the problem renders the threat empty). Barry’s been doing some really stupid stuff all season, so I’m willing to accept that it’s just part of his character that he sucks at thinking through consequences. With that factor, it makes sense that his entire team would agree to lock him up in their illegal prison for metahumans (“Barry, you don’t make good decisions when you’re upset; take a time out.”). What doesn’t make sense is why after everything goes south after the crew tries to stop Zoom without Barry’s help, they just let Barry go on with his original plan to do exactly what Zoom wants. Really, if Barry’s as fast as he’s supposed to be (and it seemed like the show had established pretty firmly that Barry was fast enough to beat Zoom after he got his Speed Force upgrade) then there’s nothing to explain how things play out. Yeah, Zoom has Joe hostage, but that doesn’t mean Barry can’t get Joe to safety (for that matter, the fact that Barry had no opportunity to save Henry Allen is pretty sloppy too).
Now, setting all that stuff aside (like I said, The Flash is not a pretentious show, so I’m willing to cut it some slack as long as it’s entertaining), the really infuriating thing about the Flash finale is that it ends by setting up Flashpoint as the primary plotline for next season. Now, I’m cool with the time travel and parallel universe stuff. I’m just not sold on the idea that The Flash has to delve into all the dark stuff surrounding Barry’s mother’s murder. I like this show because for all its melodrama trappings it’s a relatively lighthearted series. There’s peril, but mostly we’re watching the characters have fun being superheroes (my favorite moment of the series is still a scene from the first season where Barry and Joe are cracking up over the fact they can have fresh pizza from Coast City any time they want because of Barry’s speed); veering off into Barry’s traumatic past feels like a turn towards making the show go dark, and I just don’t think that’s the right direction.
Speaking of things that shouldn’t be so dark, let’s talk about Arrow now. I have to say up front that this was not my favorite season of Arrow. I thought the first season was goofy and overwrought, but Seasons 2 and 3 were plenty entertaining. Season 4 just felt really aimless in comparison. I think that thematically there were a lot of struggles to redefine Arrow as belonging to the same universe as Flash, which I’m guessing is the more popular of the two shows at this point. The Flash is silly, and it’s filled with patently absurd pseudoscience, but it’s firmly positioned as a sci-fi superhero show; Arrow by contrast was always just an action show where the heroes wear colorful costumes but don’t actually do anything superhuman. This season, they tried to embrace their comic book roots more firmly, but instead of upping the absurdity with extraordinary human stuff (there’s a strong tradition of superheroes who are just regular humans in peak physical condition with a bunch of gadgets) they decided to go for a weird mystical thing where the key to beating the villain, who’s basically a D&D wizard in a nice suit, is embracing some metaphysical stuff about hope as an actual force to counteract his magic. It dovetails with the season’s major themes of hope versus doubt and a person’s ability to find redemption, but the end result just feels really clumsy to me.
Now here’s where my opinion on the two finales diverges. Where I think the Flash finale was perfectly entertaining but riddled with character problems that strain plausibility, I was fully on board with all the decisions that all the characters were making in Arrow. Oliver doubts his ability to beat Damien Darhk until he has an eleventh hour epiphany about the importance of trusting your friends to support you; this makes perfect sense in the context of the show and what the writers have been doing all season with Oliver’s character arc. I’m even cool with the ending resolution that Digg and Thea decide to quit vigilantism so they can get their heads straight after they made some very questionable decisions this season; all the character stuff makes total sense to me. I just found that I didn’t care about anything that was happening. The Arrow finale is supposed to be full of tension and all these moments for emotional highs with thousands of nuclear missiles flying through the air and Oliver making a couple of stirring speeches to rally Star City around both his personas in the contexts where they’re most needed. On paper it’s all very textbook, and I don’t have an issue with any of it. On the screen… well… I couldn’t get excited about any of it. Part of that might be my own viewer’s fatigue (it’s been a long time since I followed any television series in real time, and I kind of hate it, but it’s the only way to stay current on CW shows without paying extra to see them), but I think there’s also just something about this most recent season of Arrow that’s been off. Also, and this seems like a really obvious criticism, but the flashback plot of Season 4 was really boring on pretty much every level (there’s no narrative tension left when you know that Oliver will get some interesting scars but otherwise he’ll be fine, and his pretty female companion of the season will end up dying tragically), so that was a quarter of every episode that I just wasn’t invested in.
I know there’s a three month break now, but I’m already dreading jumping into next season for all these shows. The CW’s announced it plans on doing a four-way crossover event with The Flash, Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow, and now Supergirl, which is changing networks (I’ve not even tried to keep up with Supergirl this season; I had hoped I could catch up later, but since it’s going to CW I’m doubtful the first season will be made easily available to binge now). Like I’ve already mentioned, I really don’t like having to schedule out time each week to watch television, and the idea of having to set aside four hours each week strikes me as super daunting (this isn’t a communal activity that I do with friends, so it’s one of the most introverted pastimes I have; that makes it hard to prioritize). I expect I’m probably going to spend some time this summer thinking about whether I really enjoy these shows enough to continue committing to them.