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Legends of Tomorrow: In praise of difficult comics

Plus: Entertainment Geekly podcasts about the Berlanti-verse!

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The CW

On Monday’s Entertainment Geekly podcast, Jeff Jensen outlined a complete history of superhero TV shows. Now, we’re talking specifically about Legends of Tomorrow, the latest DC Universe series from super-producer Greg Berlanti. Listen to the podcast below, or subscribe on iTunes.

The assignment to watch Legends of Tomorrow got me thinking. Look, I know about superheroes. I read comic books when I was a kid. I’ve seen every superhero movie twice or more. I could name my 100 favorite X-Men and my 20 favorite alternate universe versions of Batman. (I liked when Batman was Green Lantern, but I loved when Batman was Superman.) (I don’t think Batman was ever Wonder Woman.) (That’d be awesome, though.)

But I have blind spots. A small one that suddenly became a big one: I’m not a devotee of Berlanti’s shows. That would be Arrow and The Flash on the CW — a network that suddenly went Full Syfy when I looked away for a second — and also Supergirl on CBS, plus kinda-sorta retroactively Constantine on Fox. I did watch the pilots for Arrow (Batman Begins with arrows) and The Flash (Spider-Man 2 with running instead of webs), didn’t pursue either series as an objective. Truth is, I felt like I had seen them both before.

Because, well, I have seen a lot of superhero stories before. I collected Flash comics when I was a kid, at a point in comic book history when any individual issue of the Flash could theoretically feature four different characters named “Flash.”

(Specifically: Jay Garrick as the Golden Age Flash, Wally West as former Kid Flash-turned-Actual Flash, the new Kid Flash that ‘90s focus-grouping insisted on occasionally calling Impulse, and nefarious Professor Zoom the Reverse-Flash. All this not to mention Max Mercury and Johnny Quick, who were basically just Blue Flash and Flash Cosplaying Aquaman; all this also not to mention Barry Allen, who was dead in the ‘90s and who thus only appeared in a mere ten thousand comics in the ‘90s).

In this moment of Peak Superhero, most of the stories I grew up reading are reappearing on film and television. I’ve come around to the idea that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, because the vast majority of human beings with wallets didn’t grow up reading comic books. Like, there are potentially-baseless rumors that the next X-Men movie after the next four X-Men movies will be called The Dark Phoenix Saga. In comic books, the Dark Phoenix Saga was one of the great weird ongoing stories in X-Men lore. It also happened five years before I was born, which means A) I know everything about the story, and B) I have lived through several adapted variations of the Dark Phoenix story, including the animated ‘90s TV version and the 2006 movie version and that time Storm was Phoenix.

Now, I’m not against adapting famous stories. I would definitely see X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga, mainly because I’m intrigued to see how Fox figures out how to make it all about Hugh Jackman. But more and more, I don’t feel like I’m the key demographic for superhero movies or superhero TV. Which is fine! Most people will never read the comic book version of The Infinity War, and will probably be very surprised by the two Infinity War movies. I read Infinity War, and I will see the Infinity War movies, but I will spend 2018 and 2019 being surprised by the movies that aren’t based on comic books I read a million years ago.

TO BE CLEAR: I’m aware of the fact that superhero adaptations can be very different from their source material. In fact, the superhero movies I tend to like the most tend to put radical new spins on their material. Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy is Mike Mignola’s Hellboy remade as a workplace sitcom arena-rock concept album; The Winter Soldier crossbred post-Watergate Captain America with post-9/11 Captain America and wound up with a perfect post-Snowden Captain America; The Wolverine pretended to be a miniseries about Wolverine fighting ninjas but was secretly Wolverine’s Leaving Las Vegas. Never forget that Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger recreated the Joker from scratch for The Dark Knight.

For me, I think, it all comes back to the Amazing Spider-Man problem. I know too damn much about Spider-Man to ever care about Uncle Ben being alive. The first Spider-Man comic I ever read was about Spidey fighting the second Green Goblin. Around the same time, he was also fighting Hobgoblin and Demogoblin, and then the first Green Goblin came back to life. I’m not saying these stories were all good, per se. But 2/5 of the existing Spider-Man movies are about Spider-Man meeting the Green Goblin for the first time. I can’t pretend to get excited about that.

I have, I admit, found myself feeling faintly nostalgic for an older kind of superhero story. A story that doesn’t think you need to see Batman and Superman meet, again, for the first time. A story that doesn’t need to spend the first half hour of the movie inventing Ultron. A story that doesn’t require you to wait patiently for 10 years while Bruce Wayne goes through puberty to become Batman. A story that throws you right into the deep end of character crossovers and hazy continuity, and expects you to keep up.

Bonus points if there’s time travel.

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There’s a moment early in the second episode of Legends of Tomorrow when Neal McDonough walks onscreen. The year: 1975. The place: An auction hosted by an immortal supervillain who’s willing to sell a nuclear bomb to the highest bidder. (It’s the kind of auction where you bid by firing your gun into the air.) McDonough appears to be cosplaying You Only Live Twice-era Blofeld, wearing the kind of gray Dear Leader outfit preferred by Totalitarian dictators and protagonists of late-70s sci-fi films. McDonough has maybe three lines. A fight breaks out, involving acrobatic kicks and superpowers and two heroes with wings. The nuclear bomb goes off — and gets absorbed by Firestorm, an atomic superhero made of two different people.

All this before the title of the show appears onscreen.

Legends of Tomorrow features several characters specifically introduced in Arrow and The Flash, although all those characters were concepts in comic book lore for decades. One of the initial main characters in Legends of Tomorrow is Hawkman, a character introduced in 1940. That makes Hawkman only a couple years younger than Superman and 34 years older than Wolverine.

So you feel, watching Legends of Tomorrow, like you’re coming in late to a very long story. There are appearances by a couple Arrow characters. One scene, in particular, barely made any sense to me. There’s a character named Black Canary, played by Caity Lotz, who had an oddly pivotal role in Mad Men as Don Draper’s kinda-niece. And there’s another character, apparently also Black Canary, played by Katie Cassidy. They’re sisters, and they’re fighting — like, actual martial arts fighting. They talk about resurrection, and time travel, and Cassidy suggests that Lotz should change her codename to “White Canary” as an act of self-realization and brand reconfiguration. And then Caity Lotz joins of a team of people to pursue an immortal maniac across time and space.

There are a lot of pleasures in Legends of Tomorrow. Former Prison Break star-brothers Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell play Captain Cold and Heat Wave, two villains created before Joss Whedon was born, whose powers can be quickly summed up as “Cold Powers” and “Heat Powers.” Miller and Purcell are on a wild scenery-chewing wavelength, and Miller in particular seems to be channeling the Adam West Batman TV show. (Typical Captain Cold line: “You don’t break into the candy store and steal one gumball.”) They’re cartoon mustache-twirlers, and it’s a kick to see how Legends just throws them next to people like Rip Hunter or Martin Stein, played by Arthur Darville and Victor Garber with various stages of nerdly fussy-melancholy.

But the main pleasure of Legends of Tomorrow is how completely it dives into the deep end of everything potentially weird and off-putting about comic book storytelling. The main characters of Legends are every kind of superhero — supernatural, science-fictional, resurrected. There’s not really any logical reason why a bank robber with a freeze gun and a superhero with the ability to absorb an entire nuclear bomb should be in the same room — never mind if that room is inside of a time machine.

There’s a strain of comic book storytelling that strives toward realism, that struggles mightily to cut through or even delete these characters’ long history. When the first wave of truly successful superhero movies hit in the early 2000s, they tended to focus on the most famous elements of their characters. (Again: Think of how many times Spider-Man fought the Green Goblin, and how he never fought Carnage.) At the same time, Marvel’s Ultimate line brought forward the big idea of restarting comic book history from the beginning, updated with new fashion and hip references to Freddie Prinze Jr. Just in the last few years, both Marvel and DC have undergone continuity restructuring events. At one point, DC relaunched their entire line with #1 issues: The easiest way of assuring new readers, “You don’t need to know anything to dive in.”

I started reading comics in the aftermath of the first major reboot, when Crisis on Infinite Earths restarted the DC Universe from something like the beginning. There are plenty of pleasures to be had in restarting something — nobody who saw Batman Begins could deny that. But I love how Legends of Tomorrow represents one of the first real attempts by a superhero TV show to do the complete opposite: To hit the ground running with multiple characters leapfrogging across settings, with occasional drop-bys by familiar faces.

Like, Neal McDonough’s character on Legends actually appeared, with some frequency, on Arrow. I didn’t know this when I saw him on Legends, and part of the fun of that kind of storytelling is how it makes a fictional world feel full. It’s narrative as a George Perez illustration, where even the most minor background character seems to have a full rich history.

Legends of Tomorrow doesn’t really have a direct basis in comic book history, but it reminds me of one of the great overlooked comics of the late ‘90s. In Avengers Forever, a time traveler named Kang the Conqueror unites several different Avengers from throughout the superteam’s history. There’s Captain America, but there’s also Songbird, and there are two different Ant-Men at specific moments when they weren’t called Ant-Man. The team’s adventures involve two different major Avengers supervillains: One is a giant floating alien head, and one is the evil time traveler Immortus, who is coincidentally the future version of Kang the Conqueror.

Avengers Forever was written by Kurt Busiek and Roger Stern, at a cultural moment when the decades-long history of Avengers was viewed as a feature, not a bug. Each issue sees the team hop to one or three different eras or alternate realities. At one point, the team meets a cosmic trinity called the Time Keepers, who exist somewhere in the fourth dimension. At another point, the team discovers that humanity will become a fascist universe-trampling empire, and the far-future Avengers will be that empire’s jackbooted stormtrooper army.

This may sound goofy, and it kind of is. You understand why, just a couple years later, Marvel greenlit The Ultimates, which starts the history of the Avengers over from the beginning. When Whedon wrote the first Avengers movie, he used The Ultimates as a clear template. I’m not sure anyone will ever use Avengers Forever as a template for anything. You hear a lot of rumors about Marvel’s plans for Infinity War, and one thing I hear all the time is the notion that the Marvel Cinematic Universe will have to reboot, with a younger Iron Man and a new Thor and a Captain America who slept for a hundred years after World War II.

Fair enough. Marvel Studios has succeeded above all as an exercise in careful architecture: If they restart their universe, I guarantee they’ll already have it planned out four phases in the future. But I prefer the far-flung, full-crazy adventures of something like Legends of Tomorrow, which isn’t afraid of diving deep into several different strains of comic book mythology.

Like, in the long lead-up to The Dark Knight Rises, people wondered if a Batman movie could actually kill Batman. Death lingered in the air in the lead-up to Avengers 2, when everyone wondered if Hawkeye might bite the bullet. Right now, you’re probably at least halfway wondering if all this talk of Hugh Jackman leaving after Wolverine 3 could mean Logan’s healing factor finally gives out.

Compare that to Legends of Tomorrow. By the end of the second episode, Hawkman is dead. It shouldn’t be a big deal: This Hawkman has died 206 times, and he remembers every death. The weird joy of Legends of Tomorrow is that Hawkman’s 207th death actually does feel important. Most superhero stories on the big and small screen remove their characters’ history. But that has a strange effect: By removing the confusing continuity, it also restarts the characters from their own beginning, leaving you in the strange position of knowing what’s going to happen to them before they do.

Legends goes in the opposite direction: It demands you to understand that these characters have a long history. You might not know where they’ve been — but that also means that, for once, you have no idea where they’re going next.