Supergirl 4×13: “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?”, Arrow 7×14: “Brothers and Sisters”, and The Flash 5×15: “King Shark vs. Gorilla Grodd” reviews
Due to a variety of factors (among them, losing an hour to Daylight Savings Time, and Windows 10 taking forever to install an update) I wasn’t able to get these reviews out by Sunday. Sorry for the delay!
It was supervillain palooza this week in the Arrowverse! On Supergirl, we had the formation of the Elite. On Arrow, we had the Suicide Squad Ghost Initiative in action. And on The Flash . . . frickin’ King Shark vs. frickin’ Gorilla Grodd!
Supergirl 4×13: “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” review
Let’s talk about the Children of Liberty.
Thus far, they have been the bad guys of Supergirl Season 4. Not just the main bad guys, but almost the sole bad guys, to the exclusion of all others. Outside of the Elseworlds crossover, the only episode we’ve had that wasn’t about them to a certain extent was “Suspicious Minds”, the episode that introduced the Morai, and even that one was about a similar sort of anti-alien bigot.
It’s an unusual amount of focus for one these shows to put on a singular villainous faction. And after spending so many episodes with them, I feel comfortable saying that the Children of Liberty work better as an idea than as actual antagonists.
Conceptually, they’re interesting opponents. While Supergirl has pitted its hero against anti-alien villains before, there the bigotry served simply as a motivation for supervillains doing supervillain things (releasing a bio-engineered plague, sending a cyborg soldier to infiltrate the good guys, the usual). But the Children of Liberty are instead presented as a grassroots hate group, something that’s grown out of large numbers of ordinary people turning against aliens and banding together to turn their prejudice into violent action. The point of the Children of Liberty is to show that bigotry isn’t simply the province of over-the-top supervillains, but something that all too many people, your neighbors and your co-workers, maybe even your friends and family, can succumb to, can let turn them into monsters.
That’s a chilling and socially relevant idea. Trouble is, it doesn’t make for very interesting bad guys, at least not for a hero like Supergirl.
Part of the problem is something I’ve harped on before, about how the Children of Liberty (being just ordinary folks, most of whom don’t even seem to own guns) pose no threat to our superpowered protagonists. For a while at the beginning of the season, we had Mercy and Otis Graves backing up the Children of Liberty with resources and diabolical plans, but their more camp brand of villainy always seemed a bit out of place next to the grounded sincerity of Ben Lockwood and his ilk. And once the Graves siblings were killed off, all we had left were a bunch of yahoos in masks. Not only can they not do squat to hurt Kara (or anyone else with superpowers), but our heroes have spent almost as much time protecting the Children of Liberty from all the people they’ve pissed off as they have actually fighting them.
Another problem is that the Children of Liberty are such obvious, one-to-one stand-ins for modern American hate groups, to the point of using near-identical slogans. This season has been leaning hard into the idea of aliens as a metaphor for immigrants and ethnic minorities, and as long as it’s a metaphor for immigrants and ethnic minorities as a general concept, that works well enough. But when the xenophobes attacking them are so clearly “ripped from the headlines”, it draws attention to all the ways that Supergirl’s aliens don’t work as a metaphor for immigration in present day America (real life immigrants don’t have superpowers and spaceship armadas, for one thing).
Those are problems I and many other reviewers have already addressed. But there’s another problem with the Children of Liberty, a problem I hadn’t been able to put my finger on till now: they simply aren’t fun.
A fun villain may do horrible things, but their actions are outlandish enough, their mannerisms heightened and theatrical enough, that we can distance ourselves from how horrible they are, and instead get a giddy thrill out of watching them be bad. But the Children of Liberty? Their brand of evil is so similar to what we see in the news everyday, that emotional distance becomes impossible. Watching them spew hate and attack those different from them? It’s ugly, it’s upsetting, and on occasion it can be interesting, but it’s never fun.
They’re not meant to be fun, of course. They’re meant to be a grim reflection of social evils. But Supergirl isn’t The Wire, or even Luke Cage. It is, at its core, a light-hearted, superhero adventure. The main reason to watch the show is to simply have a good time. So devoting so much of the season to bad guys who are, by design, unpleasant to be around? It goes against what makes the show work.
I hadn’t quite realized how much the Children of Liberty arc wasn’t working, until “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” came along, and showed how this story should be handled.
I said the Children of Liberty work better as an idea than as actual antagonists, and that’s how this episode uses them. Agent Liberty makes an appearance, sure, but the focus of the story is on the factions that have arisen in response to him. On one side, you have President Baker, trying to court the Liberty vote by building a giant, alien-killing laser weapon. On the other, you have Manchester Black and his newly formed Elite, who respond to the Children of Liberty and their ilk with overwhelming violence. And as villains, these characters are everything the Children of Liberty are not: they’re formidable, they’re fanciful, and above all, they are fun.
The Elite kick absolute ass, with a diverse range of superpowers, tons of combat skills, and wildly audacious plans: robbing Buckingham Palace and infiltrating the White House are just Steps 1 and 2 for them. You can compare them to real life anti-fascist movements, but their slogans and tactics aren’t meant to directly mirror specific, real world groups the same way the Children of Liberty’s are, so the fact that they’re so much more dangerous than the real “Antifa” isn’t a premise breaking problem. And they are a hell of a lot of fun.
Manchester Black oozes wit and charisma with every line he says and every gesture he makes. Menagerie is clearly only doing this social justice gig for the fame (and the chance to steal valuable jewels), and seeing her pose for a selfie with fans or criticize the camera work of their video manifesto is a hoot. The Hat is a guy with a magical, 5th-dimensional bowler hat, that he can pull all manner of weapons and hip flasks out of, and use as a throwing weapon like frickin’ Odd Job! And the Morai . . . okay, they can’t all be winners. But those first three may very well be the most enjoyable villains Supergirl has had since . . . I dunno, Mxyzptlk?
The Elite are clearly the highlight of the episode, but President Baker makes for a fine antagonist as well. The simple fact that he commands the U.S. military and has an orbital laser cannon makes him far more dangerous than Agent Liberty has ever been. You can certainly draw a comparison between his satellite laser project and a certain other construction project that our real life President is trying to get built, but since the episode doesn’t overtly compare the two, the fact that it’s not a perfect metaphor isn’t an issue. And he may not have the Elite’s supervillain charm, but his palpable insincerity during photo ops is at least amusing.
This was a great episode of Supergirl. It gave us a story that touched on relevant social themes, while still delivering the fun, action-packed ride we expect. It’s unlikely the Children of Liberty will spend the rest of the season in the same background role they had this episode. But the Elite are still out there, and a clearly out-of-his-depth Ben Lockwood is now working for President Baker, rather than trying to run his own, separate thing. That creates hope that the show’s writers have perhaps gotten a better idea of how to make the Children of Liberty work for their story, as a powerful social force that creates conflict, but not as a replacement for more grand, outlandish, and enjoyable villains.
- The way the words “including my adoptive sister Alex” were edited into the opening narration? Maybe it’s just ‘cause I’m used to it not changing much, but that felt awkward.
- I’m not sure what to make of President “John Sheridan” Baker at this point. At different points in the episode he seems like someone who’s sincere in his beliefs, like a slimy politician who only cares about poll numbers, and like someone who’s got a secret, more sinister agenda that we haven’t learned about yet.
- During the climax, a man with a 5th-dimensional hat fights an alien woman who shoots “raw dream energy” out of her hands, and that may be the most comic book thing ever.
- Twice Alex turned her back on Manchester Black during a fight so she could talk to Supergirl, and both times saw Manchester Black using that opportunity to get away. Despite what the show tries to tell us, Alex really isn’t that good at her job.
- Y’know, earlier this season, Legends of Tomorrow had a British anti-villain steal the Crown Jewels of England while the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” played on the soundtrack. Now Supergirl goes and does the exact same thing! Was it intentional copying? Or, if you ask American screenwriters to think of something for a British villain to do, is that just invariably what they come up with?
- Despite having a couple scenes set in Britain this week, the show has yet to delve into how any countries outside the U.S. feel about aliens. Don’t you think some of them might be upset at America unilaterally deciding to cut off all contact between Earth and other worlds?
Arrow 7×14: “Brothers and Sisters” review
So, after I spent my whole “Star City Slayer” review talking about the important role of family in Arrow, the show comes back from hiatus with an episode all but daring me to repeat myself. Well, guess what? I’m not gonna do it. “Brothers and Sisters” may be all about families (both blood and surrogate), but I’m gonna talk about something else.
Maybe it’s because I recently re-watched and reviewed the very first episode of Arrow, and reminded myself of how Oliver was at the start of the series, but the thing that leapt out to me about this episode wasn’t any of the stuff about family. It was how gosh darn mature Oliver has gotten.
Early in this episode, a moment came that many of us had been dreading. The moment when Oliver and Felicity learn that, after everything they did to put Ricardo Diaz in prison, after everything Oliver sacrificed, after everything he and Felicity endured while he was at Slabside, John almost immediately plucked Diaz right out of prison and put him on the I Can’t Believe It’s Not The Suicide Squad. While I can’t speak for everyone, I was certainly expecting this to turn into a big fight, full of accusations of betrayal, and yet another fracture in Team Arrow after last season gave us far too much of that.
We got a bit of that between John and Felicity, but Oliver? My jaw practically dropped at how well he took it. Stephen Amell gives an amazing little performance when Oliver first finds out. He groans, he runs his hands through his hair, and with those two simple gestures, he tells us everything we need to know about how Oliver’s feeling, all the frustration and disappointment this news can’t help but bring. But then that moment passes, and when Oliver speaks, it’s to tell John that he understands.
He doesn’t necessarily agree, but he understands. All of them have made alliances with evil people, and with personal enemies, to stop some greater threat. Oliver spent most of Season 3 working with Malcolm Merlyn, of all people. He knows John wouldn’t make this choice lightly, that he must have what seem like very good reasons for taking such a chance with Ricardo Diaz, so he doesn’t let this come between them.
Had this been a single instance of Oliver being so mature and understanding, it would already be noteworthy. But this episode kept the mature Oliver train going.
When he confronts Felicity about her plans to kill Ricardo Diaz, he doesn’t turn it into a lecture. He could have. Premeditated murder is something it’s often worth lecturing people against. But Oliver admits that, while he made a decision not to kill anymore, he can’t force that choice on her. She needs to decide for herself whether killing Diaz is something she can justify doing, and while he clearly hopes she’ll choose not to go down that path, he expresses that hope with gentleness, rather than a harsh rebuke. Remembering the Oliver of Season 1, who badgered Helena Bertinelli about her plans to assassinate criminals, even as he himself was snapping necks and shooting people through the heart, the attitude he takes here shows the amazing growth Oliver has made in seven seasons.
The one place Oliver backslides is with the new relationship in his life, with his sister Emiko. With her, his over-protective instincts towards family kick in, and he tries to take over her life and her mission, to make her do it the way he believes is best. But even here, it takes remarkably little for Oliver to be shown how he was wrong, and he has the good grace to apologize to Emiko for his behavior. If this were Barry Allen or Kara Danvers, this sort of learn-a-lesson-and-make-amends ending would feel tired and old hat. But coming from Oliver Queen, such a pathologically stubborn and prideful man, the ease with which he admits he was wrong is awe inspiring.
Perhaps I’m being influenced by the knowledge that Arrow is not long for this world. It’s recently been announced that, after this season is over, Arrow will return for just ten episodes in the Fall before closing up shop for good. After seven years on our television screens, Oliver Queen’s journey will soon be coming to an end. It makes one take stock of just how far he’s come, and how much he’s grown.
There will undoubtedly be more trials and tribulations for Oliver before the series wraps up, but for now, there’s something comforting about seeing the calm, reasonable Oliver of this episode. The years we’ve spent watching him suffer, often because of his own mistakes, have not been in vain. It’s been a long and uneven process, but Oliver has grown from the emotionally damaged man who first returned from Lian Yu. He’s become a wiser person, a more well-adjusted person, and for the moment, at least, a happier person. The pure joy that radiates across his face when Felicity tells him she’s pregnant? My heart just melted for the guy, because after everything he’s been through, and how much he’s grown, he’s earned this moment of happiness.
Yeah, the flashforwards tell us that’s not going to turn out so well, but to that I say: shssssh!
- We’ve yet to have a true Big Bad for this season, but it’s looking like, after a few episodes of the vaguest possible buildup, Dante is going to be that Big Bad. There’s not much too him yet, but at least he’s a calm badass with awesome knife skills, so he’s got one up on Diaz.
- Actually, John tells us that Dante is “a million times worse” than Diaz. And Diaz, as Season 6 kept telling us, was far worse than anyone our heroes had gone up against before. Even the immortal wizard who almost blew up the world. For some reason.
- Speaking of Diaz, I’m sure a lot of people cheered when he went up in flames. But while that could be a death scene, it could just as easily be a here’s-how-this-character-got-fire-control-powers scene. Time will tell.
- The bit where Emiko gripes about Oliver touching her things? That is an adorably sibling-esque quarrel for them to have.
- Lyla was kind of stupid this episode. She outright tells Diaz that, after this Dante business is over, they’ll either throw him back in Slabside or just plain kill him. Not exactly an incentive for him to stay on-mission.
- The Suicide Squad Ghost Initiative didn’t last long, huh? Kinda makes you wonder what the point of bringing back so many old villains was if this is all they’re gonna do with them.
- The friendship between Felicity and Laurel continues to be a delight. I loved seeing Laurel be so sweet and supportive, while still being her give-no-f*cks self. Though the way she was so familiar with everything that pregnant women do or need to do? Made me wonder if Laurel had a kid of her own back on Earth-2.
The Flash 5×15: “King Shark vs. Gorilla Grodd” review
It’s “King Shark vs. Gorilla Grodd”. The title alone tells you everything you need to know about this episode.
Not that it’s a constant slugfest between those two. In truth, the titular brawl only takes up a few minutes of screentime. No, what that title is announcing, what it’s deliberately calling to mind, is that this episode is a sendup of old school, sci-fi monster movies (Cisco even refers to the big fight as a kaiju battle, to make things more obvious).
The story’s a regular hit parade of classic monster tropes. King Shark is cast here as the savage and destructive but ultimately good-hearted monster, in the vein of King Kong or Gamera. Like most such monsters, there’s one human (usually either a beautiful woman or a young boy) who’s able to communicate with him, to understand him, and bring out his gentler side. And he’s given contrast via a more unambiguously evil monster, with the only solution to this two-monster problem being, in the words of Ken Watanabe: “Let them fight.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be a sci-fi monster movie without lots of scenes of scientists standing around, speculating on the nature of the monsters, debating what should be done about them, and using some wonky science to turn the tide of battle (though, admittedly, that last one’s a Flash staple anyway). Taking fun facts about real animals like sharks, then extrapolating them into bizarre powers or weaknesses for their giant monster versions is absolutely something those movies would do. Even the metahuman cure plot, while part of the season’s arc, here works perfectly as the sort of moral quandary such movies often have, where scientists worry that a discovery of theirs will be used for evil.
And the way the big showdown ends, with a lightning bolt reviving the good guy monster, and letting him use electrically charged fists to beat the bad guy monster? That is straight out of King Kong vs. Godzilla. All we needed was King Shark picking up Tanya and climbing a skyscraper, and the homage would be complete.
If you dislike or are indifferent to films like Godzilla vs. Mothra or Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, then this episode probably won’t do much for you. But if you grew up on these sorts of monster movies, and continue to enjoy them in all their cheesy glory, then this episode is a terrific recreation of everything that makes them great. And given how The Flash has been falling into a bit of a rut, letting the Cicada plot dominate everything, it was wonderful to see them take a break from that focus on something different and fun.
There’s not really much more to analyze with this episode. Oh, there are some character beats I could talk about, and I could try dissecting the ethics of how Barry used the metahuman cure. But really? This episode is just a wonderful treat for anyone who likes a good old fashioned kaiju movie and wants to see one of the most ambitious CGI-monster battles network TV has ever done.
(It’s no Beebo vs. Mallus, but then, what is?)
- Part of why I didn’t want to dive too deeply into the metahuman cure thing? It seems like the writers haven’t been communicating with each other very well about it. A few episodes back, we had Cisco and Caitlin pledging that it would never be used on someone against their will. But then later episodes had Barry planning to use the cure to depower Cicada, and everyone (Cisco and Caitlin included) seems onboard with it. But now they both seem shocked that Barry would use the cure on someone without their consent, as though that wasn’t what they were planning this whole time. And at the end when Barry says maybe they can convince Cicada to take the cure, he acts like the thought of using the cure on Cicada is a brand new idea he just had, not something he proposed three episodes ago.
- Joe is back! It’s good to see Jesse L. Martin up and moving again, and Joe proves once again that he is just the best dad ever (well, so long as there’s no horribly unnecessary secret for him to keep).
- The way Iris wore her hair in one long braid that hung over her shoulder, coupled with her black tank top, was giving me serious Lara Craft vibes.
- In Season 3, people constantly giving Barry shit for Flashpoint got irritating. Now that we’ve got some distance from it, though, and it’s not such a constant barrage, I adore Lyla throwing a little Flashpoint dig Barry’s way.
- The way Sherloque uses his deductive insights (and a bit of personal experience) to play cupid for two people he met on this case? That is such a Hercule Poirot move.
- After Nora came into this season seeming to know everything about everyone, it’s nice to have her finally get to where she can admit, “The Flash Museum just straight-up got a lot of stuff wrong.”
MVP of the Week: Whichever Central City resident celebrated the Grodd/King Shark fight with a Simpsons gif.
They’re doing God’s work.
Question of the Week: What’s your favorite supervillain teamup in the Arrowverse?