Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.
This installment: the Arrowverse’s Island of Misfit Toys continues to be its best offering.
Short version: Take two parts Doctor Who, two parts A-Team, one part Flash, and a dash of Brooklyn 99, and you get the most fun superhero show on TV.
The Legends are former assassin and team leader Sara Lance (White Canary); inventor and size-changing superhero Ray Palmer (the Atom); Justice Society of America member and protector of Zambesi Village Amaya Jiwe (Vixen); genius physicist Martin Stein and mechanic Jefferson “Jax” Jackson, who combine to become the nuclear powered Firestorm; forensic historian and metallic metahuman Nate Heywood (Steel, on the few occasions they bother to give him a codename); and pyromaniac former thief Mick Rory (Heat Wave).
They’re a band of misfits, outsiders, and one covert war hero (that’d be Amaya) who’ve made a life on the time ship Waverider protecting all of history, ever since they wiped out the last group in charge of that. (In fairness, they did have it coming.) At the end of last season, the Legends managed to prevent the assembly of villains they called the Legion of Doom from re-writing all of reality, but in doing so employed big enough paradoxes that they shattered all of time, causing countless anachronisms: people, animals, and the occasional building displaced in history. As the third season opens, the Legends are still wrapping their heads around the damage they’ve caused, when team founder/former captain Rip Hunter pops up. Seems that in the few minutes since he left the team, he’s spent five years (time travel) building a new agency to protect time and fix all of these anachronisms: the Time Bureau. And they’re quite adamant that they no longer require the Legends’ help, especially Rip’s protege, Ava Sharpe.
Six months of unsatisfying civilian life later (mostly, Nate tries to stay in the crime-fighting game, but tends to get upstaged by Kid Flash), the Legends decide they disagree with this assessment and steal the Waverider back in order to repair the damage they’ve caused.
But it turns out there’s a greater danger behind the anachronisms. Amaya’s people once imprisoned a demon named Mallus inside of the timestream itself, and the anachronisms are loosening his cage. Mallus recruits a new legion of villains to cause further damage to history in order to free him: returning villain Damien Darhk, his now-grown and similarly magically powered daughter Nora Darhk, Amaya’s least noble grandchild Kuasa, and on special occasions (ie. when the budget allows for it), Gorilla Grodd.
The Legends must occasionally avoid, sometimes work with the Time Bureau to find a way to shut down Mallus and what they tragically never called the Darhk Legion before Mallus conquers all of time. Conquers? Destroys? You know what I’m sure they explained but I kinda forget. Evil demon, needs to be stopped, after that I get fuzzy.
Along the way they pick up a cynical, magic totem-bearing hacker from their future named Zari Tomaz, who’s based on a DC-adjacent character whose superhero name they can’t really use anymore, lose a couple of team members to the annual Arrowverse crossover, and eventually bring Kid Flash on board as the Flash writers found it hard to come up with reasons why any threat they wrote couldn’t be stopped by two full-time speedsters by the second commercial break.
Having trouble deciding where to start. So many to choose from.
Fun With History: Legends of Tomorrow has stuck with the one thing that propelled them from the weakest Arrowverse show in their debut season (and this was the same year as Arrow’s least popular season, so ouch) to their best last year: embracing a spirit of zany, time-travel fun. There is very little brooding on the Waverider, just high-energy shenanigans as they blunder through history, hoping that they’re breaking things for the better. (They basically make that their motto.) And they also have even more fun with their historical guest stars.
Back in season one, what few historical figures appeared were just drop-ins. The child that Martin Stein risks history to save from illness turns out to be HG Wells, which means I guess Stein didn’t need to bother? A student in a science class Ray Palmer teaches in the 50s turns out to be Bill Gates’ father. That’s it. That’s literally the whole thing. There was no payoff. No point. In season two, they started actually having fun with their historical figures, and in season three, they doubled down on it. With historical figures scattered through time, they find all new hijinks to get into.
In season three, Julius Caesar tries to recruit a fraternity’s spring break toga party; PT Barnum gets his hands on a sabre-tooth tiger; Helen of Troy sparks a literal war between studios when she turns up in the Golden Age of Hollywood, accidentally damaging decades of technological advancement by stealing a breakout role from actress/inventor Hedy Lamarr; Napoleon Bonaparte must be prevented from getting his hands on a copy of Abba’s “Waterloo”; Viking explorer Leif Erikson decides against bailing on his new discovery North America when his sister embraces a time-displaced, fuzzy, blue, Tickle-Me-Elmo-esque doll named Beebo as their new god of war, I swear I am not making any of this up. Those are all real episodes* and it is glorious.
(*Fine, the Napoleon thing was a background gag they came up with as an excuse to put most of the cast is disco clothes for a week, but still.)
(This isn’t to say that it’s always fun and games. Legends gets sad too. They cut me a couple of times this season, cut me deep.)
#Avalance: The relationship between Sara Lance and rival-turned-ally Ava Sharpe was well developed, and Ava made a fun addition to the show. She won over the audience for a reason. Also I kind of love that if social media can be believed, actresses Caity Lotz (Sara) and Jes Macallan (Ava) are pals now, and ‘ship their characters as much as their fans do. Also nice to be watching a CW show where a romance plot doesn’t incite riots from a portion of the fanbase.
Keeping Up With the Darhks: Neal McDonough’s Damien Darhk was a delight back when he was trying to kill Green Arrow, but he’s flourished as a nemesis for the Legends. The faster-paced and goofier atmosphere of Legends fits his style of gleeful villainy better than the dour, grounded aesthetic of Arrow. The sheer joy he takes in villainy makes him too fun a villain to ever want to see defeated forever, and Courtney Ford brings the same level of campy fun to Nora Darhk that Neal does to Damien. Throw in John Noble as the voice of Mallus and it’s a stacked deck of evil. Also, and this is important, Damien celebrates being resurrected with both his powers from Arrow season four and his memories from Legends season two restored by having a fight scene choreographed to 90s jam “Return of the Mack,” and it makes sense in context of the episode. Not so much in this clip but here it is anyway.
But other than being delightful menaces played by top notch actors, the villains are also deeper characters than you’d expect. Damien is driven above all else by love for his daughter, compromising his commitment to the plan now and again, and making him more three-dimensional than he’s ever been. Nora is trying to raise an ancient demon and build a relationship with her father, who she hasn’t seen since he was killed when she was a kid. Kuasa, also back from the dead (apparently?) after the events of the Vixen animated series (which I should try to watch sometime), just wants to undo the destruction of her village… and keep her grandmother from continuing to hook up with that nerdy super-powered historian from the future, which could erase Kuasa’s existence. Mallus… Mallus is a literal demon whose unprisoned existence would be bad, I guess? Look, they can’t all be winners.
Zari and Ray: Zari is a fun addition. Actress Tala Ashe has a great dry wit that worked well for the character. She also played wonderfully off of Brandon Routh’s more upbeat Ray Palmer, who this season was tweaked into a perpetually cheerful, unbreakably positive Ray of sunshine (sorry) with a love of musicals and a faith in people that gets him into a little trouble here and there. Together they’re a fun double act, and this has been Brandon Routh’s most entertaining season as Ray Palmer… which is saying something.
Also Zari was rightly praised as a positive, non-stereotypical Muslim superhero, especially for the episode where she tries to explain to perpetual glutton Mick why she’s fasting until sundown. There isn’t another comic TV show with a hero who observes Ramadan.
New Friends: Matt Ryan’s back as John Constantine! Delightful. I wanted this for two years and now it’s happening. Also Kid Flash moving here from Flash is a decent fit.
WHAT DID I SAY ABOUT WRITING OUT RIP HUNTER. WHAT DID I SPECIFICALLY ASK YOU TO STOP DOING.
Fine, I guess this season they used him similarly to Flynn Rider on The Librarians. He turned up at the beginning, the middle, and the end, and in between was off doing more big-picture stuff while the team chased anachronisms, but I don’t like the way they seemed to be weaning the show off of him. I don’t like it at all.
Okay, fine, sure, with Sara captaining the Waverider and his protege Ava Sharp gradually taking over the Time Bureau, there isn’t a clear need for Rip, so maybe it’s not such a bad thing to… no, no, you cannot make me approve of this.
Moving past that… I love the fun tone, I definitely do, but maaaayyyyybe it undercut the stakes a little? All of time and space was theoretically under threat from Mallus, but I just didn’t feel it, you know? Last season they showed us what a Legion of Doom victory would look like, with Mallus they asked us to take their word for it. (We needn’t discuss Vandal Savage from season one. Ever again.)
…Man, this one is not easy. Which to pick? “Here I Go Again,” where Zari gets stuck in a time loop? They earned name-dropping Groundhog Day on that one. “No Country For Old Dads,” in which Ray, Nora, and Damien have to team up against Younger Damien? Real-life spouses Brandon Routh and Courtney Ford had amazing comic chemistry and it began the road to possible redemption for both Darhks. “Guest Starring John Noble,” (yes that’s what it was called, yes this is real life, apparently) in which the Legends notice that Mallus happens to sound exactly like Denethor from Lord of the Rings, and recruit actor John Noble to con Nora? That’s a lot of highlights and I haven’t even mentioned Rip Hunter and Kid Flash going to 90s Japan for drunk karaoke.
Forget the goddamned “Snyder Cut,” give me an extended edition of that.
But ultimately it has to come down to one of two episodes. I don’t know for sure that they had Leonard “Captain Cold” Snart’s Earth-X doppelganger Leo “Citizen Cold” Snart stick around for two episodes post-“Crisis on Earth-X” to ease the pain of the crossover’s conclusion, but if they did, it worked, and since Wentworth Miller’s take on the various Snarts has always been one of the highlights of the Arrowverse, the season’s high point can only be one of those two.
(“Crisis on Earth-X” doesn’t count, that really played as its own four-hour event, not episodes of each individual series)
But which to pick? “Beebo the God of War” introduces the cuddly giggling toy Beebo that the fans embraced as their new god, has a great planning montage, and involves Leo providing grief counselling via puppet. That’s a tough line-up to beat. But “Daddy Darhkest” has Leo and John Constantine, and one of the better Ray and Zari team ups.
Tough call. But I’m going with “Beebo.” They were on that week.
Also hard. They really brought their A-game this year. I guess… maybe… you know what, I’ll admit it, “Amazing Grace,” in which pre-fame Elvis Presley gains dominion over the dead, ran out of steam partway through. And the white male preacher from 1950s Tennessee being convinced that rock’n’roll music isn’t evil by a black man and a Muslim woman after one speech rang kinda false. That combo would have trouble getting through to white southern preachers now.
There are so many people doing such good work on this show, and everybody except maybe Kid Flash gets a great spotlight episode (Kid Flash comes closest in his recruitment episode, but drunk Rip Hunter overshadows him. Poor Wally. Always the sidekick), but the heart and soul of this show (plus all of the best fight scenes… save for the final duel against Mallus that cannot simply be described…) remains Caity Lotz as Sara Lance. Oh captain my captain, long may she reign.
Tips For Next Season
You know, Constantine was such a fun addition for his two episodes (and two cameos) that you should consider making him a regular– oh, that’s happening? Huh. Okay.
I’ll just have a Coke, then.
(Also there’s a couple of things in the finale I’d like you to walk back, if that’s okay, thanks much)
Overall Grade: A-
My only concern is that they might go a little too far with the wacky irreverence. Like how Happy Endings started overdoing the rapid banter just a smidge in their third season.
[spoiler title=’Also…’ style=’default’ collapse_link=’true’]Also, you can’t kill two of my absolute favourite characters AND my favourite villain in the same season and get a full A, you just can’t, that’s the way it is. I hold that nonsense against Game of Thrones, and I’m holding it against you. That’s three of my original five absolute favourite characters gone, with only three new absolute favourites added. Yes that evens out to the same number, shut up.[/spoiler]
Next time in this feature… either I’ll finally get around to finishing The Gifted, or I won’t and it’ll be time to cover Black Lightning. Only a week left on that one. Maybe hop on Netflix and try it out.
Next time in general: my subconscious is a jerk.