Why The Flash Is the Best Superhero Show on TV

The Flash! Photo: CW

Throughout its first season, The Flash has sustained a level of quality that most other contemporary superhero dramas can only aspire to. This is partly because the show’s creators have the benefit of hindsight on their side. Showrunners Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg previously developed Arrow, a fun but flawed Batman-ified version of Oliver “Green Arrow” Queen’s adventures, for the CW with comics creator and TV producer Marc Guggenheim. But for The Flash, Berlanti and Kreisberg teamed up with Geoff Johns, the chief creative officer at DC Comics and the comics writer who (after comics writer Mark Waid) most recently made the Flash cooler than his bright-red outfit.

The CW’s Flash didn’t, in that sense, reinvent the superhero genre. Instead, its creators took a lot of established knowledge (including callbacks to the corny but decent 1990 live-action Flash TV show) and, well, ran with it. The Flash wrapped its first season Tuesday night — looking back, here are five reasons why The Flash is the best live-action superhero TV show (simmer down, Batman: The Animated Series fans, we can hear you grumbling through the internet).

1. A hero distinguishable from Batman.
If nothing else, Berlanti and Kreisberg’s work on Arrow helped them realize what a modern-day version of Barry Allen shouldn’t be: grim, gritty, edgy, or anything even vaguely associated with Christopher Nolan or Zack Snyder. Barry (Grant Gustin), a forensic scientist who is granted superhuman speed after being struck by a bolt of lightning, only has one skeleton in his closet, and it’s related to a man in a yellow suit called “the Reverse-Flash.” That mysterious villain is the man who really murdered Barry’s mother, not Barry’s wrongfully convicted father, Henry (John Wesley Shipp, the 1990 The Flash’s Barry Allen).

This plot point is understandably the thing that motivates Barry — a kid who can barely aw-shucks his way to telling his childhood crush Iris West (Candice Patton) that he likes her — to put on a red costume and fight criminals who are all empowered by the same mysterious particle-accelerator explosion that gave Barry his superpowers. Thankfully, Barry’s tragic backstory is not the source of unnecessary brooding. In fact, Barry flirts with Iris under the watchful eye of generically wary dad figure Joe West (Jesse L. Martin), gets feedback from a trio of nerdy scientists, and saves the day without any bathetic anguish. That may not sound significant, but it’s a sign that Berlanti, Kreisberg, and Johns have achieved something that many other creators have tried and failed to do: distinguish their hero from Batman.

That may not sound like an issue, but it’s one that many talented creators struggle with. When Bruce Timm, the Emmy-winning co-developer of Batman: The Animated Series, reflected on follow-up series Superman: The Animated Series, he admitted that one of the major problems he encountered was inadvertently making that later show’s villains too much like Batman characters and not enough like extensions of Superman (more on this shortly). Timm was being too hard on himself, but his comment reminds us that everyone, even a pioneer like Timm, inevitably tries to make DC characters more like Batman. This was true of Man of Steel, Zack Snyder’s Batman Begins–ified version of Superman; and of Arrow, Berlanti, Kreisberg, and Guggenheim’s TV version of Oliver Queen’s civic-minded, Robin Hood–type exploits.

The Flash is thankfully not treated as another Bat-clone. Barry has a dating life and colleagues he trusts. In fact, some of the greatest scenes in season one of The Flash stem from moments where characters talk about how they’ve withheld information and then sincerely and tearfully get back into each other’s good graces. Like when Iris, a Flash superfan, finds out that Barry has been lying to her about being the “scarlet speedster.” The Flash is light and idiosyncratic, as is made clear by the way a superintelligent gorilla named Grodd is teased and then treated like a major threat over the course of multiple episodes.

2. Consistently strong villain-of-the-week episodes.
And how about that Gorilla Grodd? Grodd is a dated, Silver Age villain who often feels too ridiculous to be real but is nevertheless presented as an over-the-top and absurdly powerful threat. Think of how hard it must have been to pull off a tonal balance when it came to nailing the inherent flamboyance of “Grodd Lives,” an episode that involves body-swapping, an anti-telekinetic crown, and a giant gorilla getting hit by a speeding train. (All of this in the same episode where Iris confronts Barry about his double life!)

One of the most exciting things about The Flash is it’s clearly created by people who know that people read superhero stories for the supervillains. The show’s version of Flash foes like Girder, Golden Glider, and the Weather Wizard all satisfy diehards’ need to see favorite characters treated with respect. But those same characters almost always feel real in the new Flash TV show, from the Glider’s flirtatious interest in Barry’s techy friend Cisco (Carlos Valdes) in “Rogue Air” to Hartley “Pied Piper” Rathaway’s (Andy Mientus) jealous rivalry with, uh, also Cisco, in “The Sound and the Fury” and “Crazy for You.”

Rathaway’s two-part story arc in particular proved that The Flash isn’t just pandering to a choir of established fans. His arc is surprisingly involving, as is Tony “Girder” Woodward’s (Greg Finley) story in “Power Outage.” These characters aren’t major in the comics, but they are treated with the superhero equivalent of procedural plots and surprisingly effective action scenes. The Flash is not, in that sense, stingy, like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a show that mysteriously dispenses with cameos and allusions to the Marvel Universe as if they were scarce commodities. And it’s not like Arrow, another show that generally limits its focus to one major villain per season. Instead, The Flash TV show emulates Johns’s popular run on The Flash comic-book series, and makes the members of Barry’s “rogues’ gallery” an integral part of the series’ appeal, highlighting each one in their own episode. (Check out “Rogues,” one of the most fun collections of Johns’s terrific and now-influential Flash stories.)

3. Visually arresting action sequences.
While kicking and punching and superpower-using is generally a central part of any superhero narrative, very few live-action superhero products actually feature memorable or even immediately exciting fight scenes. That’s a general problem with contemporary action cinema, one that’s unfortunately symptomatic of modern directors’ budget-minded tendency to smother poorly choreographed sequences by covering, and not directing, already-overedited action scenes. But because the Flash moves faster than any other man on Earth, episode directors have to get creative when they show him taking down a baddie. The Flash’s fight scenes generally present action through the speed-ramping technique that Zack Snyder abused throughout his adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300: Characters move in slow motion, then speed up, then slow down again, or vice versa. This is a clever solution to a problem that the 1990 The Flash could never really get around due to relatively crude computer-generated green-screen technology.

Generally speaking, The Flash’s fight scenes are impressively impressionistic. Barry’s fight with Danton “Multiplex” Black in “Fastest Man Alive” is an imaginative highlight of season one for the way that it visualizes a fight between a blur and a roomful of the same guy. And the scene where we finally see a slowed-down flashback version of Barry’s climactic first fight with the Reverse-Flash looked terrific in “Tricksters.”

These CGI-heavy fights require exact knowledge of who’s standing and who’s moving where and when, since all of those scenes need to be pre-visualized. So while practical effects are normally more exciting than CG special effects, The Flash’s action scenes are the exception that happily proves the rule.

4. Love and community matter.
Let’s face it: Most superhero shows don’t do romance very well because they don’t do female characters very well. Arrow’s Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards) is a perfect example of this. As Oliver Queen’s quirky motormouth love interest, Felicity is supposed to be geek-chic but is actually just annoying. Thankfully, Patton and Gustin not only have chemistry, they also have involving character arcs. “All Star Team-Up” is an exceptionally diverting double-date-type episode that complicates Barry’s close-but-no-cigar relationship with Iris by making Iris look less compatible with Barry than Felicity.

There’s also a corny but solid sense of community that makes even perfunctory team-ups, like the one that paves the way for next year’s Legends of Tomorrow spinoff in “Rogue Air,” seem believable. You come to anticipate the little quirks that define Barry’s support team, like every time Dr. Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh) mysteriously wheels out of one of S.T.A.R. Labs’s darker corners to make a well-timed observation. You grow to care about The Flash’s characters, even in scenes that are as maudlin and calculating as the one where Iris realizes that Barry is the Flash at the end of “The Trap.”

5. It doesnt abandon the looks from the books.
Too many superhero shows and movies seem to be designed with the goal of alienating the least number of new viewers as possible. This usually means that colorful costumes no sane human being would wear are the first casualty of page-to-screen adaptations. But eventually, all relatively functional outfits start to look alike, and you just want more brash, cosplay-esque costume designs. Arrow doesn’t always succeed towards that end, but it does try (Kitana’s outfit in last week’s episode is terrible, as is Deadshot’s ‘scope eyepiece). Thankfully, The Flash is good enough that it can make even this look like this. The Flash may not be the ne plus ultra of comic book shows, but it is everything we could hope for from a TV show about the Fastest Man Alive.

Why The Flash Is the Best Superhero Show on TV