It had been advertised for a little while before. The teaser commercial and trailer were fascinating. The Flash had reached another critical story arc mass and Arrow was continuing on. Moreover, in the wake of a disappointing season finale after two series of mixed bag episodes, with a Christmas Special to somewhat offset the anticlimax, the next series of Doctor Who would not come for another year. People – specifically me – needed a strange science-fiction program with an eccentric master time traveller in order offset these various factors.
Certainly, Arthur Darvill – formerly the Eleventh Doctor’s Companion Rory Williams – as the rogue Time Master Rip Hunter with the Waverider timeship co-piloted by a feminine artificial intelligence named Gideon – didn’t help in raising some of these hopes, or at least some unrealistic expectations. Then again, there is also the DC Comics universe and, particularly, the DC television cinematic universe to consider. You have a situation where an immortal tyrant takes over the world, but you have a renegade time traveller who recruits a calculating criminal and his psychopathic partner, a resurrected former assassin, an overly idealistic inventor, a down-to-earth skeptical young man and his older scientist mentor and partner, and two people who have been constantly reincarnated with mystical powers over time. Combine the fact that these characters come from both The Flash and Arrow television shows, and that both titular characters can and should have made cameos and you could have had an interesting scenario.
Captain Cold, also known as Leonard Snart and Heat Wave, or Mick Rory. Sarah Lance the White Canary. Ray Palmer The Atom. Jax Jackson and Professor Martin Stein who, together, create Firestorm. And Hawkman and Hawkgirl as Carter Hall and Kendra Saunders respectively. All together they are former villains and would-be heroes with conflicting interests, but when you add to the fact that Rip Hunter recruits them under false pretenses to save his wife and child from being killed by the evil immortal Vandal Savage and you have an interesting dramatic mess on your hands.
And these were just some of the possibilities. In the second season of the show, we are introduced to the television cinematic universe’s version of the Justice Society of America: a secret, elite group of superpowered and highly equipped beings formed and made before the creation of Dr. Harrison Wells’ particle accelerator, or the rise of the Green Arrow and his vigilantes many decades later.
You would think that with all of these options here, Legends of Tomorrow could have been a show that acted as something of an overarching plot with the occasional anthology episode and time-travel historical situation as well as an excellent way to reintroduce DC characters into a much wider television cinematic universe. Think about the existence of masked heroes and their superpowered counterparts along with some aliens for good measure included side by side with historical eras and events on Earth. The Marvel cinematic universe managed this to an extent, especially with Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter. Even Doctor Who, with its whimsical, weird, and zany mixtures of seriousness and the fantastic still includes enough historical elements with some third-dimensional human and sentient interactions to make the program interesting and relatable.
Legends of Tomorrow started off with great promise. You have these mismatched superpowered and unusually skilled individuals thrown together by the prospect of time travel, given the opportunity to break rules despite being told to obey them, and always find themselves bickering. When you watched those early episodes, for a time, it wasn’t unlike seeing a somewhat sanitized or lighter version of the motley crew from Guardians of the Galaxy trying to figure things out. Certainly, Leonard Snart, Mick Rory, and Sarah Lance’s wits and strongly independent personalities made for interesting foils against the more idealistic and intellectual bents of Ray Palmer and Martin Stein, with Jax not wanting to get involved in the insanity at all.
Conversely, as I said before, this could have been one group of Legends. The word “legends” could have been expanded to include the Justice Society and other heroes that…. aren’t necessarily known for always being in the limelight of history’s space-time continuum: or at least publicly so. You see, the first day I saw the trailer for Legends of Tomorrow, even before I saw The Flash/Green Arrow crossover where he is introduced, Vandal Savage gets built up in this cinematic universe as a truly formidable threat.
Picture this if you haven’t already. There is, as I said before, an immortal villain. He has lived almost since the dawn of civilization. He has been spending millennia gathering mystical power, followers, and resources to eventually take over the entire world. Vandal Savage has outlived a multitude of leaders, heroes, and other villains. He has learned from the greatest philosophers, scientists, warriors and healers. And there is a scene where you see him, or his army of futuristic dark armoured soldiers with blaster rifles, who may or may not even be human but androids or cyborgs, taking over the entire planet with impunity. This is a dictator who has ultimately won global domination and it seems as though nothing can stop him. His future is inevitable.
However, there is one way to stop him. There is a man who is willing to violate his order’s dictum to change space and time to assassinate this tyrant before he ever rises to power. You see different characters and people and places in space and time. And you get this idea that maybe what unites all of these legends is a slow-burning story: a plan. Rip Hunter approaches all of them in different time periods and presents the truth of what is going to happen in the future if nothing changes. They have to cooperate and make alliances with each other. There are conflicts and different agendas but perhaps they get thrown by the wayside when it becomes clear that Savage is also planning to conquer all of space and time: thereby interfering with all of their lives, plans, and those that they hold dear.
I saw the show, before I actually watched it, as the long-game. You had the Legends in the present doing their part to sabotage Vandal Savage’s followers and cults in their time. You had the Justice Society, with stories of how each member deals with living in the 1940s or so, fighting Nazi and eventually Russian Communist and even ultra-nationalist American thugs and criminals to eliminate more of Savage’s resources and find out more about his master plan. I could have seen this as being the key: as each of them, with cameos from The Flash and the Green Arrow, doing their part to defuse and slowly dismantle this dystopian dictator nightmare future while dealing with more immediate threats. And then, eventually, Rip Hunter brings large numbers of Legends onto the Waverider to meet and face Vandal Savage head on. Imagine that process of world-building, a rotating kaleidoscope of characters every week, culminating into a mass television crossover of different heroes and villains through space and time to fight what seems to be the ultimate antagonist.
Then you add in some quirky humour and ridiculous but real moments and what you would have had was a messed up, but excellent classic where everyone does their part – even if some of them die, or fall, or betray their cause – to this one great moment. I saw this being the ultimate arc over a few seasons – something like a small Infinity War on television – and the end of the series.
But this assumption or fan vision of mine should have fallen by the wayside in which Vandal Savage was actually introduced.
Sadly, the issue stems from before Legends of Tomorrow. “Legends of Today” and “Legends of Yesterday” in The Flash and Arrow respectively portray Vandal Savage as essentially a bearded moustache twirling borderline invincible arrogant psychopath who has a major obsession with Hawkgirl and hatred for Hawkman. In this cinematic timeline, Savage was once a high priest in Egypt who was made immortal by a meteor strike that, after killing Hawkgirl and Hawkman, also brought them back and gave their powers and the ability to reincarnate.
Quite a few of Savage’s traits were derived from his comics depictions, but he was essentially made into a walking cartoon with fairly banal and petty goals. There is nothing particularly subtle about Vandal Savage or his plans and he lacks the three dimensions that could have made him an interesting villain like Eobard Thawne or Reverse-Flash with his machinations, his “frenemy” interactions, and his love for Big Belly Burger. Furthermore, making Savage’s immortality dependent on killing Hawkgirl and Hawkman through their various incarnations – instead of keeping his eternal life independent as it was in the comics – somewhat neuters the character and makes him dependent on relatively lacklustre protagonists: especially given that this and the meteorite somehow coming back Earth at different time periods becomes a relatively cheap way the Legends do end up defeating him in Season One of their series.
As for Vandal Savage’s opponents, I don’t really know what to say: except that it’s probably because of his contrived weaknesses that the Legends group was able to overcome its bickering and incompetence to actually kill the man. The show’s creators wasted an opportunity in changing up the different groups of Legends and instead stuck us with one particular team. Now, budget-wise that makes sense as I would imagine hiring large numbers of actors would have cost the show some considerable finances but this linear approach against one immortal villain of great power just felt too…. straightforward. In addition, if they had taken a more multi-temporal route or dealt with different groups in varied situations, they could have killed off some characters or replaced others with the potential to bring some of them back or team them up later. This is something that they did to a limited extent with the death and subsequent reincarnation of Carter, Rory’s betrayal and change into the Time Masters’ bounty hunter Kronos and eventually Snart’s heroic sacrifice towards the end of the first season, but they could have done so much more and created a variety of stories in that larger arc I could see.
Much of the time, at least in the first season, the show didn’t know whether to make fun of itself in an exaggerated or over the top manner, or to take itself dead seriously. And, strangely, that actually benefited it for a while with that ad hoc Guardians of the Galaxy but roguish Inglourious Basterds or Dirty Dozen mentality. Unfortunately, just like The Flash and Arrow it fell to melodrama with the inevitable forced romances: especially what would occur between Ray Palmer and Kendra. Apparently, Kendra is not the best woman to date, for Cisco Ramon or Ray, or anyone because for all she is gentle and kind, she will always – inevitably no matter what life she leads, experiences she has, or houses and board games she plays – fall into Carter’s rotation again with an “Oops guys. Sorry about that. It is fate” mentality. It was painful to watch and, to be honest, it didn’t make me particularly feel for Kendra and it was a relief to see her go with “Cardboard Carter” at the end of the series, if only because they fell into a trope that you could see happening a mile away.
Between those elements and the empty, superficial historical backgrounds that can truly get you to appreciate the 1930s to 1950s period piece details of Agent Carter, the show only held continued fascination for me due to the antics of Captain Cold, Heat Wave, and others when they weren’t have forced romances or contrived morality plots and riffs of off literature and popular culture that are sometimes funny, but often just awkward to experience even vicariously.
I think one other problem with Legends of Tomorrow something that the other two shows and television these days shares. A long story arc and character development is more difficult to undertake for viewers that grew up on melodramatic, drawn-out plot lines. There is something refreshing about The Flash just resolving an issue quickly and getting on to the next or Agents of SHIELD defying villain reveal slow burn tropes and defeating them while dealing with another issue almost as swiftly. But with Legends, you are dealing with an antagonist who by his very nature possesses vast amounts of time and adaptability to the time periods with which he exists. You need to have protagonists that live in those times or can adapt in their own way. They don’t have to be sane or orderly, and they can also be over the top, but I think that adding more third-dimensionality in the characters could have helped a lot in the grand scheme of things. Certainly, I was more interested in watching Snart and Rory evolve over time, along with Sara Lance who changes from a haunted former assassin dealing with her Lazarus Pit blood lust into the new leader of the Legends after Rip Hunter disappears at the beginning of Season Two.
Many others have gone into more detail about other issues with the series, if you will pardon the unintended pun given the media into which we are delving. But I think I am going to finish what can politely be called an article, this rant, off by further talking about what I wish we could have seen instead.
For instance, I think the greatest problem was revealing Vandal Savage right away. Crossovers are all very well and good, but I think having him indirectly mentioned in the other shows might have benefited Legends in the long run: slowly building up the rumour and threat of this immortal scourge. What I found interesting myself is how, in the show as it is, we find out that Savage can actually create other immortals. It’s true: by giving them the blood of Carter, after Carter was killed in combat with him, he was able to make a few of the cultists he raised over the years to worship him as a god, a form of longevity and a limited version of immortality and invulnerability that allowed them to come back from death for a time. And then, that was it: the show never mentioned this phenomenon again, though to be fair it was because the Legends had retrieved Carter’s body at that time.
But what if Vandal Savage found a way, independently, to grant some of his followers a measure of his power. What if Savage himself hid in the shadows, or in plain sight and let some of his immortal followers act in his stead? You know, how dictators throughout history have used body-doubles to protect themselves, or distract enemies and mess up their intelligence of their movements? Perhaps that is closer to Rai’s al’ Ghul or Doctor Doom territory, but I can’t imagine an immortal man of science and sorcery always placing himself out in the open, unless it was a double or a servant to throw the protagonists off of what he’s really doing.
Now consider. Think about what would have happened if Savage had been introduced in Legends and everyone thought this mad, megalomanical man was him: only to realize later that he was just an insane, delusional servant who believed he was his master. In reality, Savage is someone else: someone who existed in prehistoric times like his comics counterpart and only survived because of a comet. He has seen the best and worst of humanity. After surviving a kill or be killed world, he is barbaric for a while but has phases where he is more careful and sometimes genuinely helps people. I could even see a story where one of the Legends groups goes back in time, or exists during a period where he is actually the good guy and they have this moral quandary of whether or not they should kill him for his future crimes. Perhaps he wants to take over the world in the future because, simply enough, after watching cycles of history he doesn’t think humans can rule themselves and that a powerful, wise, eternal ruler would be better for the whole species.
You could still have the Thanagarian threat in there somewhere and have Savage, the real Savage, explain why the world needs to be united. You could even have the Time Masters working with him again as their best chance and from their calculations in a kind of “has Saruman the Wise traded reason for madness” mentality. Perhaps you can build a path further from this, yet more world-building. We already had the Dominators introduced in another DC television crossover. So why not deal with the Thanagarians after Savage is dealt with?
Maybe this is the best way to introduce them and show that the Hawk couple aren’t human at all but their consciousnesses pass on from body to body over generations as some form of natural life support for their species: slowly changing their original imperialist scouting mandate over time after their first deaths. Perhaps this life support system was the meteor that changed Savage and others as well: eventually leading the former to realize what the Thanagarians are. And maybe the groups would start to realize that killing Savage has consequences: that there is no world government or empire to stop the Thanagarians…. and despite themselves they begin to question what they have done. Or, conversely, Savage could have been influenced by more powerful, ancient forces near the Source Wall such as a world named Apokolips: with its Parademon soldiers and their god ruler Darkseid…. and with him gone, the only one who knew of the dark god’s threat and tried to prevent it from happening to Earth, there is nothing to stop Darkseid from coming to Earth and completing his Anti-Life Equation. It would certainly be a nice tie-in to bring Supergirl and her cousin from their alternate Earth along with others to make an even larger Crossover event than Legends could have been.
I think any of the above could have made Vandal Savage more captivating instead of just making him a jealous, psychopathic immortal that needs to kill people in a love drama in order to keep existing. By having a more interesting villain, even one with a sense of humour like Eobard Thawne, you determine how the heroes will react: by quipping back and even having moral issues fighting them. A show is only as good as its antagonists. But these observations are also part of my own personal preference, so you have to take them for what they are.
But let me end on a more positive note. There is a reason why I keep watching Legends of Tomorrow despite of my criticisms. Unlike Marvel, most DC heroes and even villains are embodied ideals. They represent what one should aspire to, or conversely, keep themselves from becoming. However, what Legends does it is gathers a mixed bag of heroes and villains and others in-between: some with codes of honour, others with failed ideals, some looking for a fight, and still more that want to be better. It actually shows them interacting and evolving: putting aside their differences to do some fun and interesting and sometimes even touching things. The Legends know they are not perfect and it reflects on their show: which is why Season Two, for all it still has similar issues, isn’t as bad as its predecessor because it doesn’t take itself seriously and it just does what it wants. The antagonists, the Legion of Doom, match the Legends with a dark form of quirkiness and you just want to watch the interplay between them. As some have already observed I’m sure, it’s all in good fun and even if the navigation between the characters as ideals and as people doesn’t always succeed, at least they try.
So perhaps I didn’t get what I thought I would from this series, but I will enjoy watching these characters try to do better and if I get some laughs out of it, I can more than live with that. Either way, Legends of Tomorrow has accomplished one other goal, even if it hasn’t been as efficient with the others. It has definitely made itself memorable.