This Week In The Arrowverse: 12/03/2018 – 12/09/2018: “Time Travel’s Weird, Isn’t It?”

Supergirl 4×08: “Bunker Hill”, Arrow 7×08: “Unmasked”, Legends of Tomorrow 4×07: “Hell No, Dolly!”, and The Flash 5×08: “What’s Past Is Prologue” (100TH EPISODE) reviews

It was a busy week in the Arrowverse. Next week is the epic “Elseworlds” crossover, and after that the dreaded Winter hiatus. So, except for Legends (which is doing its own, equally insane thing the week of the crossover), this week’s episodes function as mid-season finales, tying up a lot of the plot threads established so far this season, and opening up whole new ones for when they come back in 2019.

And on top of that, we got cage fights, buildings being lifted into the sky, lots of time travel based cameos, and the cutest little kitty in the world!

Oh, and the 1990 Flash fought the Monitor. No biggy.

 

Supergirl - Bunker Hill

Supergirl 4×08: “Bunker Hill” review

Agent Liberty is not like the villains Supergirl has faced before. While many of her bad guys have gone down more easily than you’d expect, the show has always tried to present them as formidable, physical threats to Supergirl. Not so Agent Liberty.

Oh, while he was working with Mercy and Otis, they provided him with kryptonite bombs and alien parasites that could give Supergirl a good thrashing. But left to his own devices, Agent Liberty is little more than an ordinary guy with some good public speaking skills. He doesn’t have superpowers, or a degree in mad science, or the money to hire people who do. All he can do is rabble rouse other ordinary people into carrying out their worst impulses.

The show doesn’t try to pretend that Agent Liberty poses any sort of direct threat to Supergirl. The danger with him is that, while Supergirl can defeat him with ease, it does nothing to stop the prejudice and intolerance he’s helped foster in the public. Quite the opposite: in publicly arresting Agent Liberty, Supergirl has made his supporters more energized, and more able to turn public institutions against her. This is compared to the Battle of Bunker Hill, a famous example of a general winning a battle, but in doing so, losing the war.

It’s an interesting approach, one with more thematic heft and relevance to our world than your typical supervillain. But I’m not sure it’s a story Supergirl is equipped to tell.

Because, while in real life you can’t stop a movement just by winning a few battles and beating up a few bad guys, in superhero stories that is exactly how the world works. People come to the genre because they want to see over-the-top battles with epic stakes.

Supergirl isn’t a deconstruction of the superhero genre; it doesn’t present itself as a typical superhero story only to tear down and critically examine the conceits of the genre. It’s as classic an example of the genre as you’re likely to see on television, embracing the full spectrum of superhero tropes with unapologetic glee. So even when the show takes on a villain who can’t put up any sort of fight, but who’s plans can’t be stopped by fighting, they still need to have big action set pieces each episode . . . and that does some odd stuff to the story.

Namely, it kinda turns Agent Liberty into the protagonist.

There’s not usually much excitement to be had in watching an overpowered hero demolish a helpless villain. And even when there is, it’s not gonna eat up much screentime. To compensate for that, much of this episode is told from Ben Lockwood’s perspective. We discover Manchester Black in the Lockwood home just as Ben does. The story follows Ben as he tries to find a way out of this situation, with Manchester remaining a largely enigmatic antagonist. The conflict is not “how will Agent Liberty be stopped?”, but “how will Agent Liberty get out of this one?”, because watching someone in a position of weakness struggle against a superior foe is so much more exciting than the reverse.

People are naturally inclined to root for the protagonist in any given story, especially if that protagonist is the underdog. Add in the fact that, this week, Ben Lockwood doesn’t do anything villainous until the closing minutes of the episode, and that he’s trying to protect not just himself from Manchester Black’s wrath, but his wife as well . . . it almost goes beyond making him a protagonist, and into straight up hero territory. If you watched this episode in isolation, with no knowledge of the terrible things Agent Liberty has done previously, would he have anything less than your full sympathy?

Now, having a sympathetic villain is not a bad thing; some of the best superhero stories ever made have been built around the idea. The problem isn’t that Agent Liberty is portrayed with sympathy, in and of itself. It’s that he’s also used to represent a type of real world evil that the show wants to rail against, yet his physical weakness, and the show’s need to have tension and action scenes in each episode, turn him into the victim rather than the victimizer.

Heck, the whole plot about Kara, Nia, and Brainy trying to track down a woman before Agent Liberty kills her? Turns out that woman is Agent Liberty’s wife, and he was trying to protect her. Once again, an episode ends with our heroes coming to the bad guys’ rescue, saving them from the far more dangerous people they’ve pissed off.

Supergirl this season wants to tell a story with more depth and real world relevance than it has in the past. Yet, by following the conventions of the superhero genre, by making each episode revolve around fighting and physical danger, it keeps undermining its own themes.

In a show less beholden to the action/adventure format, a villain like Agent Liberty could work. Episodes could focus on the horrible effects his bigoted propaganda is having on society, without having to introduce a more direct, physical threat that upstages the lead villain, makes him seem harmless or even heroic by comparison.

But that’s not the kind of show Supergirl is. I’m not sure that’s the kind of show anyone wants it to be. So maybe, when it returns for the new year, it should stop trying to be.

Stray Observations:

  • I ragged on this episode a lot because it’s yet another example of the show undermining its own themes. But taken simply as a piece of adventure storytelling with no greater thematic weight, it’s plenty of fun. The detective trio of Kara, Nia, and Brainy was a particular highlight.
  • I notice that, when fighting people, Brainy never directly hits anyone. He just dodges and misdirects them so that they hurt themselves. Is this just his particular style, or does he have some restriction on causing direct harm to others?
  • Supergirl lifting the factory off the ground was friggin’ awesome, but I’m kinda disappointed she didn’t go a step further and fly the whole thing over the nearest police station.
  • After Agent Liberty is arrested, Jimmy (a masked vigilante whose identity recently went public, and who’s trying to maintain respectability as head of CatCo) says, “Gonna be hard for Lockwood to come off reasonable now that everyone knows he’s a psycho in a mask.” I’m not sure if the writers meant for this to be ironic.
  • The ending, where the President demands Supergirl’s secret identity, doesn’t make a lot of sense. He refers to her as a government employee, but it’s never been clearly established whether Kara officially works for the DEO or not. And even if she does, the DEO’s existence is supposed to be a secret from the general public, anyway. But putting even all that aside, how is Supergirl’s real identity not common knowledge at the DEO? I can’t think of any specific examples of Kara showing up to the DEO in her civilian clothes, or talking about Alex being her sister in front of random agents, but I feel certain that must have happened at some point.

 

Arrow - Unmasked

Arrow 7×08: “Unmasked” review

Any episode that follows “The Slabside Redemption” is going to feel a bit small in comparison. Last week was the epic conclusion to Oliver’s prison saga, a tour de force of non-stop action that brought storylines built throughout the season to a breathtaking climax. It falls to this episode, then, not to smash the status quo apart with a wrecking ball, but to meticulously build up the new status quo the series will have going forward.

To that end, the plot of “Unmasked” is the most old school piece of standalone storytelling that Arrow’s done in ages. A murder at a gala, connections drawn between different victims, a sleazebag rich guy with some hired goons, a showdown in a night club: it’s almost a retro-throwback to the kind of stories Arrow did all the time in its first couple seasons. Given that the bad guy, Max Fuller, is a minor character who appeared way back in “Lone Gunmen”, the third episode of the series ever, I’d say reminding viewers of the old days was very much the intent.

We need that grounding in the familiar, because Oliver must now approach this familiar plot in an unfamiliar way. Since the end of Season 6, we’ve been wondering how Oliver could continue being the Green Arrow now that the world knows who he is. So far, that issue has been tabled while Oliver served his time in prison, but now that he’s out, the question must be asked: what role does Oliver now have, in Star City and in this series?

Obviously, Oliver’s not going to stand aside after someone’s killed right in front of him. That’s just not how he’s built. But he can’t go back to his old way of doing things without heading right back to prison.

For a while, the episode toys with the idea that Oliver might take a less direct role in the superhero action from now on. There is a new Green Arrow now, someone who can shoot arrows, leap from rooftops, and do all the vigilante stuff Oliver used to do. With that role filled, Oliver can serve simply as a civilian consultant to the police, doing a little investigating, getting into a few fight scenes if trouble comes his way, but no longer donning the costume and beating up bad guys on the regular.

Him becoming Green Arrow again might have seemed inevitable, if we hadn’t just spent the last seven episodes with Oliver out of costume and cut off from the main crimefighting action. The series has shown a willingness this season to break away from its established format and formula, so Oliver donning the hood once again was not a sure thing.

And when he does put it back on . . . I’ll admit, until now my thinking was that, if Oliver became Green Arrow again, it would be as a return to the secret identity trope. Thanks to the new Green Arrow showing up while Oliver was in prison, there can now be a green clad, arrow shooting vigilante in Star City without anyone suspecting it’s him. I figured, if Oliver were to replace the new Green Arrow, and be a bit more discrete about slipping away to put on the costume, the show could easily return to Oliver fighting crime secretly as a vigilante.

That the show doesn’t go this way is commendable. While a handy solution to the secret identity problem, that would have felt too much like backtracking, undoing major events just for more of the same-old, same-old.

Instead, we now have Oliver fighting crime publicly, with the support and approval of the SCPD (or at least the precinct Dinah’s in charge of), no longer wearing a mask when he goes into battle. This episode doesn’t explore the full implications of this change, merely doing the setup for it, but the effects on the story going forward could be tremendous. Oliver’s never had to worry about things like warrants before, or being sued for police brutality, or having every bad guy he fights know where he lives. It’s created new possibilities and new dynamics that promise to reenergize the series.

This wasn’t a standout episode of Arrow, by any means. It was good, just not particularly great. But as a statement of purpose, a demonstration that the show can still do these sorts of old school episodes, while also shaking things up enough to still feel fresh, seven seasons in? This was exactly the sort of episode Arrow needed.

Stray Observations:

  • Once again, hallway fights are where superhero fight choreography goes to shine. It’s been long enough since we saw a suited up Oliver fighting his way through hordes of henchmen, that the expert and brutal fight scenes at Club Poison were super satisfying.
  • I don’t know if bulletproof drapes are in any way practical, but I absolutely love ‘em.
  • I also continue to love Laurel’s awkward new place with the heroes, with it now being Lyla’s turn to ask, “We’re friends with her now?”
  • One thing this episode that didn’t work so well was the changed dynamic between Oliver and Felicity. They want to sell us on Felicity being a much darker character now, and Oliver being upset by it, but really, her actions here aren’t much different from things she’s done before, and are still pretty mild compared to a lot of the things Oliver has done. I mean, he seems surprised that Felicity would even own a gun, let alone use one against an attacker, forgetting that this is the same woman who hacked a nuclear missile and blew up a city just a few years ago.
  • Another thing I’m not too keen on: Diaz is back. At least they seem to be setting him up as a “boxed crook”, rather than just letting him get away again. Still: ugh.
  • Some more stuff happened in flashforward land this week, which could potentially go some interesting places. Though I was kinda bugged by how Dinah walked straight up to that bartender and said, “We’re looking for Blackstar.” Can you actually just go up to random bartenders and ask questions like that? It seems . . . rude.
  • Oh, and it looks like the new Green Arrow is Oliver’s heretofore unmentioned half-sister. Neat.

 

Legends - Hell No Dolly (2)

Legends of Tomorrow 4×07: “Hell No, Dolly!” review

So far this season, Legends has been content to focus on telling fun, standalone stories each week. There’s been character development, some changes to the status quo, and a few hints about a baddie that John’s running from, and about Hank’s “Project Hades”. But until now there hasn’t been much attention paid to what the overarching story of the season could be; it’s just been one wacky monster-of-the-week after the next.

And it’s done a great job with those monsters-of-the-week, but as we close in on the season’s halfway point, it’s time for the larger storylines to start rearing their heads.

There’s still a new magical fugitive to catch this week, involving a trip to Old New Orleans and battles with demonic dolls, but the episode’s focus is elsewhere. We finally delve into just what happened to John since last season, while Mona discovers some sinister forces at the Time Bureau that are presumably what Project Hades was about.

It’s an interesting approach, keeping most of our well-established heroes busy with a routine filler plot, while newcomers John, Charlie, and Mona get the bulk of the screentime and deal with the more significant storylines. It’s a testament to Legends’s skill as an ensemble show that it never feels like undue importance is being placed on the “B-team”. In just a few short episodes, these characters have established themselves well enough in the Legends ensemble that having them carry such weighty storylines feels natural.

These stories also start exploring some of the darker material that was promised this season. Mona’s plot starts off as a full-blown wacky sitcom, complete with ridiculous misunderstandings, but takes a turn for the dark as she confronts the agents abusing the kaupe. Meanwhile, John’s grief over Desmond, and the guilt he feels for sending yet another innocent to Hell, all to stop a demon who’s just coming back anyway, is a sharp pivot into tragedy. But it’s leavened with just enough humor, mostly involving Charlie’s shapeshifting attempts, that it never feels out of place. Plus, it ends with Zari being turned into a cat, which is about the most Legends thing ever.

However, all the plots, both serious and comedic, do end a bit suddenly. Turns out this episode is a two-parter, to be concluded in next week’s mid-season finale. It’s the sort of every-plot-reaches-a-cliffhanger-at-once ending you don’t normally get on this show, and it can be a little off-putting to see the ending credits come up and realize, “Wait? That’s it? None of this is getting resolved?”

But still . . .

Okay, look, I don’t normally talk about next episode promos here. I don’t wanna spoil things for the people who don’t watch ’em. But let’s just say, based on what I’ve seen of next week’s episode, this episode’s cliffhangers look to be paying off in the best, most Legendsy way possible.

Stray Observations:

  • Desmond isn’t required to do much beyond be handsome and generically nice, but he was decent enough in what we saw of him. On a meta level, though, it’s kinda hilarious that the gay love interest is literally fated to die tragically, and him not receiving a tragic death breaks all the rules of the universe.
  • The show gets a lot of mileage out of characters who seem to have nothing in common forging a bond. But with Mick and Ava . . . I think Sara might be fighting a losing battle there.
  • Mona got the biggest laugh of the episode with, “What about the man-meat?”
  • Something that consistently elevates episodes of Legends are Caity Lotz line deliveries and Tala Ashe facial expressions. Special highlights this week: Sara saying, “There’s no such thing as B-team!”, and Zari’s disgusted reaction to Ray’s new moustache.
  • Also, Ray’s new moustache. And “I moustache you to calm down.”
  • Every season the Legends break time, and every season the effects are worse than the time before. First it was just history being “unmoored” without the Time Masters guarding it. Then random people and objects got transported throughout time. Then magical monsters got spat out across history. And now . . . Zari’s a cat. I don’t know where they go from here.

 

The Flash - What's Past Is Prologue

The Flash 5×08: “What’s Past Is Prologue” review

Did I expect too much from The Flash’s one hundredth episode?

There’s nothing that says a hundredth episode has to be a special event that pulls out all the stops. It’s just an arbitrary milestone, especially now that needing one hundred episodes to get that sweet syndication money is far less of a thing.

But the premise of this episode, with Barry and Nora traveling back in time through the events of the last four seasons, revisiting some of the show’s most pivotal moments and imposing villains, seemed to promise that the show was looking to pull out all the stops, to create a spectacular celebration of its own history.

So I’m kinda bummed all we got was a clip show.

Oh, it’s not a conventional clip show. While there’s some reused footage from previous episodes, many scenes from the past were re-shot for this episode, showing them from new angles and new perspectives. And there are quite a few new scenes from the past, showing us events we didn’t get to see the first time around.

But the fact is, little that happens during Barry and Nora’s trip to the past matters. They observe what happens, in Nora’s case for the first time, but that’s about it. Their interactions with characters in the past are limited, and designed to have little to no effect on anything. You could replace this trip to the past with Nora watching old Star Labs security footage of the events in question, and little of significance would change.

The plot is simply an excuse to revisit the highlights of the show’s history, nothing more. When the episode itself references the Season 2 episode where Barry traveled back in time to Season 1, and had many significant interactions with the characters of that time, this episode’s hands-off approach to the past can’t help but feel disappointing in comparison.

There’s also the fact that, both in promotional material and within the episode itself, this was billed as Barry and Nora coming face-to-face with arch-villains Savitar, Zoom, and Thawne, but the delivery on that was quite lacking. Savitar only appears in one scene, never interacts with our time traveling duo, and with no events playing out any differently from how they did the first go around. Teddy Sears is brought back to play Zoom for the first time since Season 2, but outside of recreating events we’ve already seen, he only gets a cameo appearance, delivers a couple lines, and then is removed from the story with no fuss.

In a way, I suppose it’s not surprising that Thawne is the one villain from the past who really gets to shine this episode. The problem with The Flash revisiting its own history is that so much of that history is itself trying to revisit the show’s history, to recapture the magic it had back during its first season, the only one that fans are unanimous in praising. And a lot of that magic comes from Tom Cavanaugh as Eobard Thawne.

He gets the largest role of any past character this episode, and it is every bit the fan-pleasing delight you’d expect. Cavanaugh takes him through rage, glib humor, and expertly concealed menace with aplomb. That the hundredth episode spends so much of its journey to the past on Thawne, and on events from his time on the show, is the clearest statement yet that, four seasons later, The Flash is still hearkening back to that time as its glory days.

How well is that working out?

Well, everything involving Nora here is great. Her reactions to the tragedies and hardships her parents have been through recapture the heartfelt naivete of Season 1 Barry, while her mysterious agenda working its way through the background of episodes recaptures a lot of what made Season 1 Wells so captivating (that she’s apparently working with him in the future helps, too).

However, the episode also sees The Flash falling into same trap it has many times before, with the heroes coming up with a big plan to stop the Big Bad, only for it to fail miserably, the bad guy to get away, and everything to get set back to square one. It’s a frustrating way to stretch out the main conflict, and it’s arguably the chief flaw of the last few seasons. Yet, despite looking back through its past this week, that’s one piece of its history The Flash still fails to learn from.

Look, I don’t want to end this review on a down note. This was a fun episode, even if it wasn’t as amazing as it should have been. And, that misstep with Cicada aside, most of what it establishes for coming episodes has got me very excited. I suppose, had I come to this episode blind, not knowing it was the one hundredth episode, or knowing anything about the plot, I might be writing a rave review here. But raised expectations are a cruel, cruel mistress, and I’m sorry if they made me a bit of a downer.

Stray Observations:

  • Both Thawne and Sherloque call Nora “clever girl”. It could be they’re both just Jurassic Park fans, but it would be one of the show’s more amazing twists if Sherloque was Thawne in disguise. Remember, Sherloque was brought to the team at Nora’s suggestion, and with the revelation that she’s working with Future!Thawne, she might be maneuvering Past!Thawne without his knowledge.
  • While the writers probably have something big planned for Cicada, would anyone really be upset if this was where his story ended? Obviously, you can’t have the heroes explain all the details of their plan to the audience beforehand and still have it work perfectly. But Caitlin trumping Cicada through metahuman powers that he can’t turn off? That would have been a satisfying enough way to end a mini-boss, with the ongoing Nora and Thawne story keeping us hooked for the future.
  • I’m gonna assume the Zoom who got nabbed by a Time Wraith was another time remnant, otherwise the past just got seriously forked.
  • I know it didn’t happen long enough ago for anyone to be nostalgic for it, but I’m still kinda bummed they didn’t make a stop off in Season 4.
  • Don’t listen to the rest of the team, Ralph. That was the perfect moment to play “Back in Time”. I’m just waiting for someone on this show to play, “FLASH! (ah-ahhhhh) Savior of the Universe!
  • Given how many codenames get thrown around on this show, you’d think conversations like the one about the “Dagger Dampener” (or “Sir Dampsalot”) would be a lot more common.
  • Cisco and Wells/Thawne’s abortive handshake/fist-bump attempt is the biggest laugh-out-loud moment of the week (and a nifty visual callback to the famous Wells-kills-Cisco scene).

 

MVP of the Week: Barry Allen of Earth-90

Arrowverse - 1990 (3)

I never watched the 1990 Flash TV series. But just being the last man standing in that field of dead heroes, and standing up to the friggin’ Monitor (a character I never expected to see in live action) is a damn fine introduction.

Question of the Week: What episode would you like to see characters travel back in time to revisit?