How DC's Legends of Tomorrow is living its best life as TV's superhero underdog
"That's DC Comics," says co-showrunner Phil Klemmer, pointing across the street at the towering building that houses the publisher's offices, just a stone's throw from the Legends of Tomorrow's writers room at Burbank Studios. "They look down on us, both figuratively and literally."
This joke — which Klemmer cracked with a chuckle as we stepped outside for the writers' daily post-lunch walk around the lot mid-June — is classic Legends, irreverent and self-deprecating in equal measure. This show has poked fun at its network's "dare to defy" slogan; had a character say "hard pass" to last year's annual Arrowverse crossover; and ended its fourth season with three of its D-list superheroes dressing up as the titular heroes of Arrow, The Flash, and Supergirl because they realized the world they were trying to save wouldn't listen to them since they weren't as popular as the Trinity.
In fact, Legends of Tomorrow — which is featured on one of the five Arrowverse covers gracing the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly — has fully embraced the fact that it might not be as traditional as its caped brethren on The CW. "We're all more comfortable being underdogs," executive producer Grainne Godfree tells EW. "It's like the nobility of [The Big Lebowski's] The Dude. He's a slacker, but he's also a hero. We all like those slacker heroes."
The gloriously insane CW super-series is centered on a band of lovable screwups who attempt to defend history from a coterie of threats, including a murderous unicorn, an immortal tyrant, and a dragon demon. The subversive dramedy's cheeky sense of alienation from the rest of the Arrowverse is at least partially due to the lukewarm critical reception to its relatively conservative and uneven first season, which actually strengthened the cast and writers' bond. "It's definitely been us against the world," Caity Lotz, who plays Sara Lance/White Canary, says with a laugh. "We're so lucky there is that family element within the cast and writers. They take care of us, which is really nice."
In the wake of that uneven first season — which followed the titular time travelers as they chased after Vandal Savage (Casper Crump) — the producers took a hard look at the show to figure out what worked and what didn't. "Season 1 was kind of like the out of town part of a Broadway show and you have a chance to make it better," says executive producer Greg Berlanti. "[The producers] really embraced the thing that's different about TV than almost any other visual storytelling form: it changes as it goes." In season 2, Legends swerved into the wackiness of its premise — a bunch of nobody heroes jumping through time — and that impulse has only grown in the ensuing seasons, leading to the show's magum weird opus: The season 3 finale battle between the demon Mallus and Beebo, a giant blue Tickle-Me-Elmo-like toy that the Legends formed like Voltron. "When we make those kinds of decisions, there's this notion in the back of our minds of, 'People are going to hate this stuff,'" says Klemmer. "You start building the armor and being like, 'If they don't like, they don't get it. They're not sophisticated enough!' But then when people do like it, it's so surprising because, again, we, like the Legends, never expect people to accept us."
But accept them people have. The reviews have improved as the show has become more idiosyncratic and zany (see: the Puppets of Tomorrow and the Regency-era England-set Bollywood musical number). In December 2018, halfway through season 4, Legends landed on several critics' year-end-lists— and it's now frequently hailed as one of TV's best superhero shows. "We don't play it safe. The show isn't a traditional, 'Let's figure out how to package this and sell it to the masses.' I feel like it's really authentic and original," says Lotz. Adds Berlanti, "When I watch Legends, it reminds me the most of any of our shows, of reading the Marv Wolfman comics when I was a kid. It's funny. It's zany. It's still emotional. It's not too earnest in the wrong ways." This praise, though, has actually created a problem for the writers as they head into the fifth season (airing in 2020).
"If we become popular, are we going to lose our mojo?" wonders Godfree, explaining that the show's season 5 premiere is a mockumentary that sees the Legends adjusting to their newfound fame after publicly saving the world in the heartwarming season 4 finale. "They're famous for the first time and some of them are loving it. You have Sara, the stalwart captain who's the most suspicious of this [and] is not into it."
"We're interested in how fame affects people [in season 5]," says Klemmer. "I really like the idea of tempting the Legends, that they're still susceptible. Even though they sort of get over themselves after [the first episode,] I think you could always be tempted by the promise of getting to be a singular franchise-driving superhero."
The season's concern with fame also relates to the encores — a.k.a. reincarnated bad guys of history that season 5 bad big Astra (Olivia Swann) released back into the world of the living at the end of last season — the Legends will face. "It's like these people who were power hungry and attention-obsessed and, you know, wanted to rule the world. It's definitely similar to sort of fame culture we have today," says EP Keto Shimizu, with Godfree adding, "They have that desire for fame and notoriety, as opposed to the Legends who, because this is an ensemble show, understand the simple joy that comes from family."
Of course, the season's other main concern is the Zari (Tala Ashe) of it all. In the season 4 finale, Zari disappeared from the Legends and was replaced by her brother Behrad Tarazi (Shayan Sobhian) because defeating Neron erased the dystopian future from whence she came, which means her brother never died and she never got the air totem. Thankfully, that wasn't the last we've seen of Ashe's heroine, and the show will explore her relationship with Behrad in season 5. "That's the one energy we've never had," Klemmer says of their sibling dynamic. "That seems like it's going to be fun."
In addition to breaking season 5's story with Klemmer and Godfreee, Shimizu is also currently working on the forthcoming crossover, "Crisis on Infinite Earths," with the Arrowverse's other writers. Says Shimizu, "I'm there making sure that, no matter what happens in the massive craziness in the crossover, we have the characters that are participating in ['Crisis'] land in a very particular place." Knowing Legends, that place will probably be wonderfully weird.
DC's Legends of Tomorrow returns in 2020 on the CW.
This article has been updated to clarify that Shimizu, Klemmer and Godfreee are all breaking the story for Legends of Tomorrow season 5.
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