The Discount Spinner Rack: THE FLASH (1990)

Over the last few decades, comic book movies have reached heights of storytelling and spectacle that readers could never have DREAMED of. But for every triumphant high—The Dark Knight, The Avengers—there have always been a good number of stinkers… some bad enough to become punchlines or talking points, but most mediocre and ultimately forgotten…

Until they end up here.

The Discount Spinner Rack is where you’ll find the worst, the weirdest, and the most puzzling of comic book movie misfires. We’ll take a look at the things that actually work and the parts that absolutely don’t, and decide whether it’s worth your time and your dime. In the end, movies will be marked down on a scale from $1.00 (a surprise gem) to $0.05 (better used for kindling). For this turn of the Rack, we’ll be jumping right into the fast lane with the pilot TV movie that launched the short-lived 1990 television series, The Flash!


Would you believe me if I told you that the Flash is probably the most important superhero in comic-book history after Superman himself?

Well, it’s true! See, comic book superheroes were having a rough time of things in the 1950s; the medium was under a heavy burden of parental and government scrutiny (thanks to the incendiary book Seduction of the Innocent, which asserted that comic books were directly responsible for juvenile delinquency), and masked crimefighters seemed to be on the way out to make room for westerns, romance books, and sci-fi stories. By the mid-‘50s, only Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Green Arrow were left standing from the glut of costumed characters introduced in the ‘30s and ‘40s (and only the first three were headlining their own solo comics). But DC did still have an anthology running called Showcase… and in 1956, DC editor Julius Schwartz used the book to re-launch the publisher’s defunct superheroes, starting with a ground-up reimagining of the Flash.

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Considering how notoriously long it’s taken to get an actual MOVIE about this guy made, it’s pretty ironic that this is the cover image on his first appearance.

The original version of the character, college football star Jay Garrick (created by Gardner Fox and artist Harry Lampert), had ceased appearing in DC books by 1951. But this NEW Flash (created by Robert Kanigher and artist Carmine Infantino) would be a completely different character: police scientist Barry Allen, who gains super-speed after being bathed in electrified chemicals that are stricken by lightning in his laboratory. Rather than appearing in pulpy crime dramas, this Flash would go on crazy sci-fi adventures involving things like fantastical super-weapons, telepathic gorillas, and time travel.

The success of the Flash would pave the way for DC to reinvent a slew of their older characters—such as Green Lantern, Hawkman, and the Atom—as slicker, Space Age icons. They even re-formed the all-star superteam the Justice Society of America as the Justice LEAGUE of America… which was a big enough hit to prompt rival Timely Comics1 to create their own superteam, the Fantastic Four. Which writer-editor Stan Lee followed with the Incredible Hulk. Then Spider-Man. Then Thor. Iron Man. Dr. Strange. The X-Men. The friggin’ Avengers. An entire renaissance of costumed superheroes was jolted into being by the arrival of the Scarlet Speedster in his red spandex tracksuit.

He may also be responsible for popularizing the concept of “jogging”, so, uh… sorry ’bout that.

But to be brutally honest… Barry Allen himself? A bit of a bore.

See, most of DC’s Silver Age heroes were generic, square-jawed, clean-cut ciphers (since the sci-fi concepts and colorful costumes were presumed to be the main draw), and Barry may well have been the biggest goodie-two-shoes of them all. There are no dead parents, murdered uncles, or exploding planets in this guy’s origins2; for his classic introduction, Barry’s motivation to become a superhero boils down to a simple “I have powers now; guess I should help people!” with no further elaboration or explanation3. The one and only personality trait he’s given is that he’s constantly running late—not so much to show that he’s absent-minded or thoughtless, but as a simple running gag (heh) about the fastest man alive always missing his appointments. Other than that, he was a buttoned-up, milquetoast square with a crew cut and a necktie—almost completely interchangeable with every OTHER new hero DC’d churned out in the late ‘50s.

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This guy is so boring, he barely has any reaction to being STRUCK BY F%$#ING LIGHTNING.

Still, thanks to his awesome powers, phenomenal costume, and KILLER rogues gallery (the guy may have the third-best supervillain roster in all of comics after Batman and Spider-Man), the Flash managed to stay prominent in the DC pantheon… until the 1980s, when flagging sales and disinterested readers would prompt DC editorial to KILL OFF Barry Allen in the multiverse-spanning Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover4, effectively turning him into the patron saint and ultimate martyr of the DC Universe (a role to which he was pretty well suited). So this is a character with a BIG pop-cultural footprint, ya’ get me? He’s the reason we have Marvel Comics, let alone an MCU! His creation shaped the entire trajectory of the fictional universe he was a part of, and every other superhero-based universe SINCE then.

… So it’s kind of a shame that the first time he made it to the screen5, he was riding on someone else’s coattails.

The Ultimate Avenger“? Uhhh… you sure you got the right universe here, copy writer?

In 1989, Tim Burton’s Batman set the box office on fire with its stylish, unique interpretation of a classic superhero—and it wasn’t long at all before every producer in Hollywood was trying to recreate its success. But while MOST of these early attempts involved reviving long-forgotten pulp heroes like Dick Tracy, the Shadow, or the Phantom6 (… for some reason…), CBS Entertainment president Jeff Sagansky had the brilliant idea of actually adapting another COMIC BOOK superhero to capitalize on the Batman hype—assigning writing team Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo (Trancers, The Rocketeer) to develop a weekly television series about the Flash7. The duo whipped up a script for a two-hour pilot movie that was satisfying enough for CBS to commit to a series order… for what would turn out to be one of the most expensive TV shows ever produced (at the time).

Mind you, this was well before anyone was willing to spend a billion dollars on a TV show about hobbits and elves.

The pilot episode of CBS’s The Flash cost $6 million to produce by itself, and every subsequent episode was another $1.6 million ($300,000 more than an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation). A big part of that was the show’s intensive special effects: the Flash’s powers had to be rendered optically, which required long, tedious set-ups of the actors moving in slow motion, and multiple exposures of the scenes being chemically processed to create the distinctive red streak of the Flash himself. The series was also LOADED with practical explosive effects and stunt work… and perhaps the most costly expense was the impressive Flash costume itself.

Though studio execs had initially pushed for the Flash to be dressed in “a tracksuit with LEDs on tennis shoes”, De Meo and Bilson convinced comic artist and Rocketeer creator Dave Stevens to draw up a concept design for a classical Flash costume with a darker shade of crimson; pointed, Batman-esq nose and furrowed, angry brow; gold lightning accents; and red boots. Four complete costumes would end up being produced for the series, costing a total of $100,000 to build. The suit was developed almost literally in the Batman mold: sculpted foam rubber muscles were glued onto a spandex undersuit, giving the hero a rippling physique8. There was just one teeny, tiny problem: the actor cast in the lead role, John Wesley Shipp (known at the time for his work on daytime soap operas), already HAD a muscular physique and a big frame—so when you slapped this muscle-bound suit on him, he suddenly looked like Schwarzenegger suffering from a serious allergic reaction.

It’s hard to sell a character to audiences as “super fast” when it looks like he can barely MOVE.

The Flash’s pilot episode debuted on CBS on Thursday, September 20th, 1990 at 8 p.m.—deliberately opposite NBC’s massively successful Cosby Show9 in an attempt to draw away younger viewers. Unfortunately, ANOTHER network had a similar plan: the fledgling Fox network, which moved its new prime-time animated series The Simpsons from its Sunday airtime into a Thursday timeslot for its second season.

Now, while The Flash did pretty well in the ratings regardless—garnering more than ten million viewers a night for nearly all of its episodes—The Simpsons became a legitimate phenomenon, dominating the pop cultural conversation and dwarfing its competitors. CBS would shift The Flash to an 8:30 timeslot halfway through the season in a desperate attempt to course-correct, but given the show’s massive budget and repeated pre-emptings for Gulf War coverage and the 1990 World Series of baseball, the network ultimately decided that the ratings weren’t worth the investment, and cancelled the series after only a single season.

It turned out the one foe the Flash couldn’t overcome was Bartman.

The Flash may have turned out to be a one-season wonder, but it nevertheless garnered a pretty sizable cult following. Over the course of its twenty-two episodes, it evolved from a fairly self-serious pulp series to a colorful, creative, comic book-y adventure show—introducing three honest-to-God supervillains (Michael Champion as Captain Cold, David Cassidy as Mirror Master, and most famously Mark Hamill as the Trickster—here re-imagined as a zany homicidal maniac in a transparent attempt to give the Flash his own Joker10) and even featuring a dystopian alternate-future episode!

Decades later, the 2014 Flash TV series would incorporate a plethora of homages to its 1990 predecessor: using S.T.A.R. Labs as Barry’s home base, giving guest spots to basically ALL of the surviving 1990 cast members11, and working John Wesley Shipp into the show in MULTIPLE ways (first as Barry’s incarcerated father; then as Jay Garrick, the Flash of Earth-3; and finally as the 1990 Barry Allen Flash HIMSELF, who would end up repeating history by giving his life in the massive Crisis on Infinite Earths TV crossover in 2019).

Not a bad running gig! (Nyuck-nyuck-nyuck!)

So the legacy of this series was more of a marathon than a sprint… and proved to hold out in the long run!

But how did it all start? Did The Flash set out on its long, winding race on the right foot? Or did it… er, stumble… after hearing the… starting… pistol?

… Look. I’m reviewing the pilot, okay?

Sorry—I guess I just RAN OUT of good puns to use.

The two-hour pilot episode was De Meo and Bilson’s pitch for the Flash as a character to general audiences. Even though it clearly sets the table for an ongoing series, it also works as a standalone entertainment—complete with nearly cinematic production values, great special effects, dynamic cinematography… the whole nine yards. It basically IS a Flash movie!

So what does a 1990 Flash movie… LOOK like? How did these filmmakers adapt one of the wonkiest and most fantastical comic book characters in the history of the medium into a mainstream, multimillion-dollar prime-time contender?

I mean, apparently this is such a befuddling question even NOW that the only solution Warner Bros. could come up with was “put Batman in there!”

IN THIS ISSUE: “What if the Flash… were just like Batman?

… Of freaking course.

Okay, I’m simplifying a bit… but it doesn’t take much digging to spot the places where The Flash is cribbing diligently from Burton’s Batman. There’s the general dark tone; the retro/modern production design (complete with heavy ‘40s art deco influences and tons of wall murals); the aforementioned rubber muscle suit; a theme song composed by Danny Elfman; a newly-introduced dead relative to motivate our hero’s turn to costumed crime-fighting; and a main villain who also, incidentally, happens to be the guy who killed said dead relative (leading to a trite “you made me!” speech near the end of the episode). The opening shot of Central City is a matte painting of a dark, moonlit cityscape with buzzing neon signs for fleabag hotels, steaming gutters, and rusted-out water towers12. In a press-kit interview for the series, Danny Bilson even went so far as to call their take on the Flash “Batman’s cousin13, which is… maybe just a tiny bit demeaning?

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Also, is EVERY city in the DC Universe just a dank, crime-riddled hellhole?

Despite all of this… inspiration drawn from Burton’s film, the one place that The Flash DIDN’T borrow from the Dark Knight is in the offbeat, neurotic characterization of its lead hero. No, Bilson and De Meo’s Barry Allen is still very much a square-jawed, straight-shooting blank slate… but with a few thoughtful details filled in that make him ever-so-slightly more complex and interesting.

To start with, this Barry has a pretty big chip on his shoulder. In the opening scenes we learn that Barry comes from a family of cops: his father Henry (the inimitable M. Emmett Walsh) was a uniformed beat cop for thirty years, and his older brother Jay14 (Tim Thomerson) is a rising star on the force. Henry fawns over Jay as his heroic ideal of a police officer, while disparaging Barry and his crime-lab job at every opportunity as not being “real” police work. So Barry starts out with something to prove, which he does by pushing himself too hard, getting defensive whenever anyone criticizes the police force, and working overtime at the lab—which is why he ends up being there at 3 a.m. when a lightning bolt blasts through the window and hits a rack of chemicals he’s working on, causing them to EXPLODE IN HIS FACE and super-charging his metabolism.

It’s a helluva stunt, too!

It’s funny to see a show from this time period painting crime scene investigation as boring, unromantic geek-stuff when just ten years later, the wildly popular CSI: Crime Scene Investigation series would recontextualize the profession as cool, cutting-edge detective work15. As it stands, though, The Flash gets a lotta mileage out of Barry’s embarrassment at being “just another finger-print duster”. But there IS a weird dissonance here between the way the character is written and the way he’s cast. Because there’s an implication in the dialogue that Barry doesn’t have, like, the physical qualities necessary to be a street cop? He’s written as if he’s a skinny bookworm-type—a Peter Parker, too frail and weak to do the physically demanding work of a uniformed police officer (and who had to promise his parents that he wouldn’t try to join the force, because they were worried about his safety). So when he gains the power of super-speed, it gives him the edge he’s been missing to go out there and fight crime.

Except… have you SEEN John Wesley Shipp? The guy’s HUGE. He’s six-foot-one and an obvious fitness nut—so even at 35 (the age he was when he was cast as the Flash16), the dude had the physique of an underwear model.

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PICTURED: someone too frail to join the police force, apparently.

But aside from his “nerdy” profession, Barry’s about as wholesome and all-American as it gets. An early scene with his parents, his girlfriend, and his brother’s family all talking and laughing around the dinner table is like something out of a family movie—or even a sitcom—rather than a dark, serious superhero adventure film (note that, as dark and grimy as the urban environments are, the suburbs are consistently sunny and colorful)17. The framing feels deliberate; there are some definite Reagan-era fears here about urban crime and degeneracy threatening “decent” suburban families and social stability, not to mention the rampant valorization of the police as an unambiguous positive force in society (even when they outfit the cops we DO see in, I kid you not, the exact same tactical body armor vests that the Detroit police wear in the film RoboCop). It could all rather easily turn into an off-putting conservative polemic… but thankfully, De Meo and Bilson get us to care about the characters more than the overall moral framework (which is frankly pretty rote for the time period).

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I’m just saying, though: it’s a moral framework that’s aged like warm milk.

To wit, Barry’s relationship with Jay is a genuinely sweet brotherly bond! We get a couple of scenes of the two of them ribbing each other, establishing a history, stuff like that; Jay is really emotionally supportive of Barry, even going so far as to openly say “I love you” near the start of the episode (something that was GENUINELY shocking to hear exchanged between two men in a TV show from 1990). Man, the writers do a spectacular job of getting you to like this guy and genuinely care about his relationship to Barry… which is good

… because SURPRISE TWIST, he gets murdered by the main villain halfway through the pilot!

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Can’t have a superhero without a dead relative to motivate him now, can we?

See, the pilot opens with the city under siege from a terrible, seemingly insurmountable criminal threat… something so diabolical and unstoppable, the police are all but powerless to stop it: a motorcycle gang!18 It seems the entire leather-punk population of Central City has joined together as a criminal commune19 living under an abandoned dam on the outskirts of town—and to supply it, they make hit-and-run raids into the city as the Dark Riders, with blood-dot logo jackets and glowing neon bombs to blow up cop cars and unwary bystanders. Leading the punks as their unquestioned leader is Nicholas Pike (Michael Nader), a corrupt ex-motorcycle cop who’s believed to be dead and who literally wrote the book on motorcycle police procedures (which is why the Dark Riders are so good at escaping from the cops). Pike’s a lunatic, of course, and he also has a burning vendetta against his former partner for trying to bring him in while he was still on the force (leading to his faked death and facial scarring)… said partner, inevitably, being Jay Allen.

Now, Pike is a decent enough heavy—Nader is all gravelly whispers and leathery scowls in the role—but this guy is no supervillain. Sure, he’s written as a charismatic leader who galvanizes the disenfranchised and the marginalized20 into joining his cult of personality… and sure, his main motivation seems to be a general desire to crush the police force and “rule” the city with an army of criminal hooligans (to what end? Who knows!)… but all this is at odds with his underplayed, thuggish persona. Pike has no dimensions beyond the obvious; this is a textbook “bad guy”, here to hit all the necessary beats of a status-quo affirming narrative about good guys and bad guys, cops and robbers, civility vs. anarchy. Which, y’know, is fine. This isn’t The Wire; this is a show about a guy in a red suit who runs really fast and punches criminals in the face.

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Sometimes you just want the hero to fight an unambiguously evil, scar-faced biker dude.

And speaking of the guy in the red suit… let’s get to the Flash himself, shall we?

Barry’s developing powers eat up a big part of act two. Unlike the comics, wherein the Flash’s speed is absurdly fantastical (the guy’s moving faster than light and traveling through time in literally his SECOND story) and never seems to wear him down, here Barry tops out at around the speed of sound… and it’s not without its costs. The show explores Barry’s emerging super-speed from as scientific an angle as possible: suggesting that his muscles and tissues would have to transform to handle high-speed activity; actually addressing friction (his street clothes are left in tatters whenever he runs in them); and asking where all of the energy he expends COMES from (this Flash has to consume ridiculous amounts of food to fuel his hyper-charged metabolism—a recurring gag that the show would lean on for its entire run). Barry doesn’t understand what’s happening to him and he initially can’t control his powers, so he ends up seeing a specialist at a federally-funded research facility—S.T.A.R. Labs—named Dr. Tina McGee (Amanda Pays).21

Seen here, desperately trying to figure out how to use the 1990 version of Google Maps.

Tina, a British scientist whose husband died in an experiment for the U.S. government, becomes Barry’s secret confidante—convincing him not to go public lest he end up in the hands of intelligence agencies eager to exploit his abilities. She gives Barry a “Soviet prototype deep-sea suit22 that can handle the friction and pressure of super-speed (so he can run freely without destroying his clothes23), and the two set about testing the limits of Barry’s newfound speed and metabolism. But when Jay is killed, Barry enlists Tina to help him capture the Dark Riders—asking her to build a mask and gloves for the suit to protect his identity, and requesting a lightning-bolt logo as a deliberate counter to the Riders’ blood-dot logos (“Pike’s been terrorizing the city; well, I’m going to terrorize him”). No idea where she came up with the winged earpieces, though…

And thus, Barry Allen becomes… the Red Ghost!

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… No? How about “the Scarlet Specter”? “The Vermillion Apparition”?

Okay, no, they actually do settle on calling him “the Flash” in the pilot. But they also go through the Batman ’89 “superhero as vague urban legend” routine—calling the Scarlet Speedster a “red ghost” or a “demon”. It’s a cute, even clever attempt to steal some of Batman’s gravitas, since the Flash really CAN pop in and out of places instantaneously and would be hard to prove the existence of. But man, they take the whole “dark, spooky urban legend” thing a BIT too far: Barry, at one point describing the apparition to a suspect during an interrogation, ominously intones, “he was as red as blood, wasn’t he?” And there’s a lot of moody, atmospheric lighting used to make the Flash look like a scary, imposing presence any time he shows up on camera (when lit from above with that furrowed brow and pointy nose, he looks a LOT like Batman himself).

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… See what I mean?

But the thing is, it doesn’t work—because the Flash has no mystique. We know exactly who Barry is, what’s going through his mind, where the suit and the powers came from… we’ve been following him on EVERY STEP of his journey to become the Flash. It’s really hard to accept him as a cool, mysterious presence now, since we’ve already seen him having dinner with his family and walking his dog and eating several pizzas in a single sitting. (There’s a reason Burton’s Batman opened by introducing the urban legend FIRST, before showing us Bruce Wayne and his relationship with Vicki Vale.) Worse, when Barry TRIES to be intimidating or intense, Shipp just gets loud, barking out his lines and overselling the anger (you can tell the man got his start on soap operas). So the pilot’s approach to the Flash as “Batman’s cousin” really falls flat.

Though he does, admittedly, get a cool “mysterious” moment or two.

It’s not the only place where the show stumbles, either. See, the pilot prominently showcases Barry’s relationship with Iris West (Paula Marshall)—his one true love from the comics, whom he eventually married. But in an effort to contemporize the character a bit (and maybe distinguish her from the far more iconic Lois Lane), Iris’s profession is changed from reporter to computer graphics artist—which they conflate entirely with “modern artist”—and so she dresses like a Culture Club reject and spends the episode fretting about a gallery exhibition of her work (that Barry predictably misses). It’s an admirable attempt to update the character… except it leaves Iris entirely adrift in her own, disconnected storyline. She has nothing to do with the Dark Riders, or the Flash… she’s just there to create arbitrary relationship drama when she rebuffs Barry’s overtures of marriage24 and temporarily breaks up with him a half-hour in. (Don’t worry—they make up twenty minutes later.)

It seems clear that the initial idea was to set up a love triangle between Iris and Tina (as Barry has several flirtatious moments with the doctor midway through the pilot). But apparently the producers felt that Iris was a narrative dead end, because she’s written out of the show by the next episode—setting up a Moonlighting-esq “will they/won’t they” dynamic between Barry and Tina while also giving the writers leeway to match up a single Barry with rotating romantic interests (or to play up some dating misadventures for comedy).

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His one true love, of course, will always be Earl, his golden retriever.

Even so, the pilot is not a bad movie, all told! But it does feel like it’s… missing something.

For instance: the climax revolves around an armed siege in the Central City Prison. Barry is about to run into the fray… but then he collapses, his abnormal metabolism causing him to randomly crash after using his powers too much. Tina resuscitates him—and then, against her objections, Barry runs off to stop Pike anyway (disabling Tina’s S.T.A.R. Labs van so that she can’t follow him).

The Flash arrives at the prison and tear-gasses the HELL out of it, incapacitating Pike’s army and driving Pike to escape into the sewer (abandoning Lila—his lady friend and most ardent, loyal follower25—in the process). The Flash zooms after him, knocking Pike off his bike and closing in for the big final confrontation. But then—oh, no!—he has another slowdown, and Pike starts kicking the sh*t out of him, knocking him into a service hatch and leaving him for dead.

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This is gonna look pretty embarrassing on Barry’s next Justice League performance review…

Pike finds an exit and climbs out into a power relay station26, seemingly free to get away…

… but then the Flash just… gets back up, catches up with Pike, and easily overwhelms him with his powers (creating a vortex to blow Pike into a power cable, electrocuting him, and then tying him up for the cops). That’s… kind of it.

So the ONE major factor that makes the difference between Barry winning or losing a battle against the guy who killed his brother is an arbitrary fluctuation of his metabolismthe superpowered equivalent of a sugar crash? Something that is, apparently, entirely out of his control?

Also, this happens. Because if you’re going to steal from Batman, you might as well steal EVERYthing!

Now let’s look at another story element: Jay Allen’s silver triathlon medal. (Stay with me, I’m going somewhere with this.)

Early in the episode, Barry returns a silver medal that Jay’d won in a triathlon in high school (jokingly giving it back to him as a birthday present). Then after Jay is murdered, Barry finds the medal in Pike’s hideouta trophy Pike took, and a symbol of who Barry is fighting to avenge. And finally, the medal pops back up at the end for a heartwarming scene between Barry and Shawn, Jay’s son. Barry explains the STORY behind the medal finally: that Jay was competing in a triathlon as the last man on a relay race, and when the baton got to him the team was in dead last. But Jay took off running, and beat all but one other racerwinning the silver medal.

… But y’know, if that race had been just ten yards longer, man, he would have won the gold,” Barry tells Shawn, “because Jay didn’t really get beaten. He just ran out of track.” Shawn says he misses his dad, and Barry tries to console him. “Anytime you need me, I’ll be there for you. I couldn’t run like your dad… but I’ll be there in a flash.” It’s a sweet, poignant, well-acted moment… and yet it feels treacly and maudlin because it doesn’t connect with the story up to this point.

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Hell, this kid only pops up in, like, two scenes!

Y’know what’s MISSING here? A very, very simple connection: Jay was an athlete, and Barry’s slow-down problem is an athletic onehe’s over-exerting himself.

Seriously, we just needed a SINGLE scene (or even a couple of lines of dialogue) earlier in the pilot establishing that Barry isn’t as good of a runner as Jay is, and featuring Jay giving him some kind of advice (“control your breathing”, “pace yourself”, ANYTHING) to tie everything together. Then, during the big finale, you call back to that scenewith a voice over, a flashback, or just Barry doing the thing Jay suggestsso that when he gets back up and races over to beat Pike, it feels earned. It would give Jay’s bond with Barry greater meaning in the narrative, and the silver medal more symbolic punch.

Suddenly, with this little adjustment, a THEME emerges: Barry’s strength isn’t just his superpowers, it’s his loved onesthe people like Jay, Iris, Tina, and his parents, whom he cares for and who have helped him to become the person he is. Pike, by contrast, is a narcissistic user who abandons his followers (even poor, dedicated Lila) to save himself. So when they finally have their big face-off, Pike is fighting alone… but Barry has the memory of Jay, and Tina, and everyone else in his life spurring him on, giving him not just the motivation to win, but the means.

(By which I mean, Jay should have appeared as a Force ghost to give Barry a pep talk.)

As it is, though, The Flash still works as a simple adventure story. There’s not a lot of subtext here… everything’s pretty surface-level, and there’s not much nuance or ingenuity to the telling. But as a pilot, it does the job of setting up a world and characters that you want to see more of27 (even if a couple of those characters—like Iris and Police Chief Arthur Cooper [Robert Hooks]—would get dumped when the pilot went to series).

And when you look at it as an adaptation of those early Flash comic books… maybe that simplicity is appropriate. There’s something about the basic, no-frills storytelling here that captures a little bit of that silly Silver Age magicwhere heroes are charming, square-jawed everymen with dorky one-liners, and the bad guys cackle and crow about “taking over” a whole metropolitan city. It’s colorful and goofy and fun.

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You’d never catch the Dark Knight cracking a smile on a rooftop!

IS IT WORTH YOUR DIME?: Oh, sure! As far as pulpy Batman knock-offs go, this one is probably the best of the lot. The effects are cool, the characters are likeable, and the action’s solid throughout. But the pilot is only the tip of the iceberg; if you really want the full Flash experience, ya’ gotta see the whole show!

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How else can you see Mark Hamill dressed in a far-too-revealing leotard?



  1. Dat Suit, Baby!: … Alright, as much as I joked about how bulgy and over-the-top that Flash costume is… it DOES look pretty cool, right? It’s got the elegant simplicity of the comic book design, but overlaid with an art-deco aestheticin particular, with the stylized wings on his ears. The V-shaped belt borrowed from Wally West’s costume looks really cool28, and I love how the chest logo is so long that the bottom tip of the lightning bolt is, like, glued to his abs. It’s a slick design that definitely lives up to the “wannabe Batman” aspirations of the producers while still honoring the look from the comics!
  2. The “Fastest” Man Alive: Two-thirds of the way through the pilot, Iris comes back to Barry’s apartment and the two of them decide to get back together (after the aforementioned break-up). They start canoodling, then smooching, then we get the signature ’90s cross-dissolve to a dark bedroom strewn with abandoned clothes, tilting up to the couple half-naked in bed… when suddenly Iris exclaims “I can’t believe it was over so quickly.” Barry asks if she’s disappointed, and she disdainfully responds “well, yeah! After all that anticipation, why bother?” Barry sighs, turns away… then pulls out a remote control and switches off a Pay-Per-View boxing match on his TV, muttering “twenty bucks for a fight that’s over in two rounds.” Awwya’ got me, show! I see what you did there!29
  3. CSI: Central City: Even though the show spends every moment it can disparaging crime scene technicians as the “nerds” of the police hierarchy, it also sells the concept of lab techs as next-gen detectives. We see them collecting soil samples from tire treads, processing clothing for particles and contaminants, and then reaching the inevitable “there’s only one place in the city where THIS substance comes into contact with THAT one!” conclusion to lead to the bad guys. It’s a satisfying little side-setting for the show; gives it that pleasant touch of watching competent professionals doing their work, and they don’t romanticize it TOO much (as in, half the time they’re stuck waiting for circa-1990 “Macintosh Classic” desktop computers to process the 35 MB worth of data they’ve uploaded into it):

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    Facebook used to take FOREVER to load.
  4. High-Speed Cleaning: Early in the episode, Barry spots Iris pulling up to his apartment complex and goes into a mild panic because the place is a mess. But suddenly he gets a twinkle in his eye, and, as she starts walking towards the building, he zooms around the room, cleaning up at super-speed. It’s a cute little bit of wish-fulfillmenty’know, “moments when having super-speed would come in really handy“. But even though it initially seems to be going well, by the end Barry accidentally stirs up a vortex in his living room, sending clothes and magazines flying into the air and shredding them through the sheer velocity he’s moving at. By the time Iris knocks at his door, the room is a disaster again (worse, even, than before), and when Barry sheepishly answers the door, Iris takes one look down and screams, “Barry—your shoes are on fire!
  5. Shirley and Danny: In one of the rare cases of this show being ahead of the curve when it comes to Batman connections, the musical score for the pilot (and the subsequent season) was composed by Shirley Walker: a frequent collaborator of Danny Elfman’s who would go on to do the music for Batman: The Animated Series in 1992. Walker’s score for the series is spectacular—she comes up with really dynamic, evocative themes and motifs for major characters and genre elements (her best work is much more apparent if you watch the whole season, as nearly every episode has its own distinctive theme music). But the central theme that she works with is the main title march, which is written by Elfman himself: a dark, mysterious, but high-energy theme that, IMO, rules:

NEXT ISSUE: For the twenty-fifth entry into the Discount Spinner Rack30, I’m taking a look at a film I’ve wanted to really get into for a WHILE: the shockingly incompetent, nonsensical, ugly, virtually-unwatchable clusterf%$# that is 2016’s Suicide Squad!