Berlanti Drops the Ball on CW-DC Universe

I have reviewed CW’s DC superhero shows since Arrow first appeared. Despite its rocky first half season, I had high hopes that it would find its footing in the second half of its freshman year and it did.

I was quickly won over by Grant Gustin’s charm as Barry Allen that mitigated Allen’s annoying factor from The Flash comics.

Last year Supergirl’s premiere had me ecstatic, if for no other reason than now when people ask me how to say my name I can say “Car-uh, like Supergirl!” I was won over by the writing, Cat Grant’s marvelousness, and the clever way the showrunners addressed feminist and character issues head on.

I went into Legends of Tomorrow with little background knowledge, but I watched mainly for Captain Cold and Mick Rory. It was a great revision of the chemistry Purcell and Miller had on Prison Break and even with a short season, I was in. So I ended last year excited about CW dominating a whole week with its DC shows. When Supergirl was in danger of cancellation, I was glad that it found a home on CW, where frankly, it should have been in the first place. CBS just wasn’t a good fit from the start.

So I was a happy geek girl, looking forward to my fall TV.  But it was not to be.

Warning: here be ranty spoilers…

I started to worry this summer when it was announced that The Flash was starting their year with a Flashpoint storyline. Because, um, no. Part of the reason I think these shows do so well on television is because week-by-week serial television is a good fit for week-by-week comics. They can tell focused, narrow stories as well as work on larger arcs. But when they try to take on huge over-the-top stories (as Arrow did last year), they flounder and lose their way. First, Flashpoint is a HUGE story. Too big to do justice to on a weekly television show where the scope just wouldn’t work without feeling like it was dragging on. (And the animated movie already nails it.) Second, CW doesn’t have access to the characters it needs to tell Flashpoint: Aquaman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. These characters are all vital to Flashpoint. So how was The Flash going to attempt this? I was worried. The only plus side I could see is that Flashpoint presented the opportunity to collapse the Supergirl/Flash universes. (And by the way the separate universes thing was a totally unnecessary plot point that has caused a ridiculous amount of trouble.) Whoever insisted on that point is an idiot.

My Flashpoint fears were confirmed with The Flash’s premiere. To begin with, while the premiere may have featured A flashpoint it wasn’t THE Flashpoint. As a side note, creative people: stop saying you love a specific storyline, saying you can’t wait to bring it to audiences, then do a storyline that isn’t the original storyline you said you loved so much. In the first episode Barry realizes altering the timeline by saving his mom has severe consequences. Except, they didn’t really. Wally was sick, and Barry was adjusting to his new life and losing old memories, but seriously, out of all the things that COULD happen, it didn’t really feel like a momentous enough event for Barry to change his mind. The original Flashpoint does (superhero armageddon, carnage, world-wide death and destruction), but this? Not so much. Inexplicably (and that’s a word that unfortunately applies to a lot of choices in CW’s DC premieres) Barry decides to undo what he’s done, goes back with Thrawn, resets the timeline (he thinks), and then heads home. But it turns out this has only created ANOTHER timeline, not returned him to his original one. In this timeline Cisco’s brother is dead, Iris and her father don’t speak, and Caitlin is on her way to becoming Killer Frost. But apparently for reasons not yet explained, this timeline is close enough for Barry to remain the Flash, not get the mind-erasing headaches, and not create a flashpoint. Things are not perfect, and Barry has some things to make up for, but he’s moving forward.

My problem is not that Barry has to pay for his time traveling sins, it’s the fact that it all seems too arbitrary. Barry doesn’t really pay. He doesn’t suffer, he doesn’t seem to learn, trying yet again to fix the timeline without really understanding what he’s done. (Why isn’t THAT something that the guys from Legends clue in on?) And despite one detail change in Arrow, there don’t seem to be any timeline effects outside of Central City. So here’s my question: why bother with any of it? What do you get, story wise, out of this that you couldn’t get with the old timeline? I’m happy to continue to watch Grant Gustin as Barry and the whole crew, especially since Wells is apparently back this upcoming week, and I love the characters. But the show has some serious issues it needs to untangle moving forward.

Last year Arrow had a rough year. It was uneven, didn’t seem to know where it was going, and didn’t serve a greater plot or its characters. As much as I loved seeing Constantine back on my television screen, I blame Arrow’s journey into magic land for a lot of its plot problems. It’s not a show that does well when it veers off the path of what it does well (the original trio, bad guy of the week, Oliver growing as an actual person), and last season was nothing BUT things off the beaten path. And it showed. The show suffered. It was all over the place. Damian Darhk and the entire show revolving around magical elements made Oliver a fish out of water which only compounded the issues already there like the writers reversing the Oliver-Felicity relationship; the (completely-unnecessary-even-if-you-hated-her) death of Laurel Lance; and the character bloat with the revolving door appearances of Roy Harper, Thea, and Malcom.

Arrow’s season opener seems to undo everything Oliver has learned and accomplished in four seasons. He’s back to killing. He’s driven away everyone close to him. He’s not doing anything right and making bad choices. Then there’s the bizarro jump with Felicity completely out of his romantic life but staying as his sidekick? And apparently dating a cop we’ve never seen? Diggle seems out for a while. So returning to the foundational three, the easiest way to course correct, is out the window for at least the short term. The addition of the baby vigilantes only continues the too-many-characters issues from last year. As does the addition of Rag-Man, another supernatural figure who uses magic. The only plus side I can see so far is that the beginning of season five means that at the end of this year we will have exhausted the timeline of bad flashbacks and can stop having those.

Supergirl’s problems are two-fold. The first stems from the actual move from CBS to CW. In the premiere the DEO suddenly has shiny new digs (just blocks from Alexis’ apartment!) for no real reason. I mean I get that changing shooting locations from LA to Vancouver was a cost-cutting decision, and it makes more sense to have it shoot there with the rest of the CW shows. But are you telling me that you couldn’t have filmed ONE scene that showed the DEO cave being compromised by baddies (again) or being blown up, or anything really that gave us something tangible to justify the shiny new set? Even a throw away line about it no longer being secure would have done the trick.But I can live with the little dumb things. What I’m going to have a really hard time with moving forward is the reduced role of Cat Grant. They’re already laying the groundwork for her exiting the show, or at least having a greatly reduced role. And this is a HUGE mistake.Cat Grant has not only been a mentor figure to Kara in the show, and not only does she have the best lines and dialogue, but she’s the commentary figure for the show, and everything Supergirl stands for. She’s been the voice for the feminist issues, the commentary on the presentation of Supergirl, and just amusing as hell. But this was not the only misstep in the premiere. After spending almost an entire season setting up the James Olsen- Kara Danvers relationship, in the premiere Kara just changes her mind. Case closed. No reason really (Kara has to find herself, really?) just done.

Tyler Hoechlin as Superman is an okay addition, with some cute moments in the premiere but I’m not really sure why he’s there. As with Flash and Arrow, my question is, what are we getting out of these choices? Because I don’t see why the showrunners are making these decisions. The only issue of course is that having Superman on the show at the beginning of the second season draws focus from Supergirl’s story. One of the downsides of the first couple of episodes of Supergirl (and that practically EVERY reviewer mentioned) was how many times they referenced Superman. How is Supergirl supposed to be viewed on her own merits, and seen for her own story if she is only presented as Superman and that girl?

By the time I reached the end of this week, CW’s DC shows had me totally depressed. It looked like all my hopes were hanging on Legends of Tomorrow’s premiere. And it almost worked. The idea of the Legends having to act as authority figures, standing for justice, is not just ironic, but a fun premise, bound to supply plenty of entertaining storylines. The premiere had time travel to the 1940s, Einstein, Nazis, and the nice addition of Dr. Nate Heywood as a historian who has noticed historical anomalies (we’re going to ignore the fact that if he’s in THIS timeline he shouldn’t remember that history is different but whatever). His visit to Oliver Queen seemed a little forced, but Mick Rory as the storyteller was fun. The episode set a fun tone, and I was feeling really good about my hopes being redeemed. Until the last few minutes. In which Rip Hunter, their unlikely captain who was the glue that held the misfits together, disappears from the show. Cause, reasons? Will he be back? Who knows. Was there a good reason why he left? Um, not really. Does it add anything to the story? Nope again. Not even the appearance of the angry young Justice Society of America kids at the end got me excited.

It could be that Berlanti and his team have taken on too much. It could be that they are spread too thin, aren’t scheduling enough time together to plan and avoid these plot mistakes. I don’t know. I love all of these shows and characters so I hope they all get their stuff together. Arrow I think is in the most trouble, as this is not the first season that they’ve had problems with uneven storytelling. The Flash hit it out of the park from its first episode so here’s hoping that these are just some missteps and they find their groove soon. Supergirl has me the most worried. Too many changes for no good reason. Legends was always the most different of the shows, and it was clear from the announcement last year that they’d be rotating characters in and out, so it had built in flexibility. We’ll see.

In the past Berlanti has been good about course correcting his shows.

Hopefully he’s listening and starts addressing these issues. If not, that crossover week is going to be a train wreck.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karra Shimabukuro is a Ph.D. student in British and Irish literary studies at the University of New Mexico. Her research focuses on how folkloric characters (especially the Devil) are represented in literature and popular culture. She regularly writes reviews for The Journal of Popular Culture and The Journal of Folklore Research Review, and she is also a regular presenter at the Popular Culture National Conference. She is a self-professed geek girl and can be found at scholarlymedievalmadness.blogspot.com.

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