Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Too Much TV: "INVASION!" (November 28 - December 1, 2016)

The CW network runs superhero shows four nights each week. It picked up Supergirl after CBS decided the ratings didn't justify the expense, and promptly reduced expenses while actually improving the special effects and the overall tone of the show. While the show is now on the same network as The Flash, Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl remains in its own separate universe, despite what many fans saw as a golden opportunity to integrate the show into the larger "Arrowverse" when Flash did its version of DC Comics' Flashpoint event, in which Flash fundamentally altered reality by going back in time to stop the murder of his mother. It was most likely thought by Greg Berlanti and his writers that the Arrowverse was incompatible with the overwhelming everyday presence of not only Supergirl but Superman (who was introduced as a recurring character with an actual face and voice this fall), while Supergirl could not accommodate the everyday presence of all the costumed heroes who ply their trade on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. However, what's the point of a multiverse, which is what the CW now has, if the universes can't cross over?

Flash had already visited Supergirl's universe last year, when their shows were still on separate networks, so all you needed was a proper pretext for the Maid of Might to return the visit. Berlanti's team found this in a nearly 30 year old DC miniseries about an invasion of Earth by the Dominators, a species fearful of our planet's native and resident "metahumans," to use DC's catchall name for superbeings. On TV they would invade the Arrowverse Earth, giving Flash the idea that the best way to beat an alien invasion was with the help of a more powerful alien. So far, so good, except that Supergirl precedes Flash on the weekly schedule. Therefore, Flash and his colleague Cisco "Vibe" Ramon transported themselves to what we learned later was "Earth-38" (DC Comics hosts anywhere from 52 to Infinite Earths) after a couple of abortive attempts for the last few minutes of a Supergirl episode that had at most a thematic (and that perhaps accidental) relationship to the invasion concept. In it, Supergirl learned that her Kryptonian people had developed a bioweapon to repel alien invaders of their planet by killing anyone without native DNA. Evil Earthlings discovered the weapon (inexplicably called "Medusa" by the Kryptonians) and re-engineered it into a plague for non-human residents of Earth. I'm giving you just enough of the plot to explain why some Arrowverse fans, some of whom claimed to be watching Supergirl for the first time, felt that billing the episode as part of the Invasion! crossover was a bait and switch. Yet if anything this is typical of Berlanti's scattershot approach to storytelling, maddening to those who prefer the more focused, less crowded Marvel shows on Netflix. Berlanti's writers typically load their shows with vast casts of characters, then struggle to find things for all of them to do, often at the expense of the main character's storyline. So while Supergirl's near-irrelevance to the crossover was disappointing, it didn't scandalize me as it did other viewers.

It did, however, force an awkward chronology on the crossover. After seeing Flash recruit Supergirl to fight the invaders, viewers returned on Tuesday to find the Dominators just arriving on Earth. They were unappealing, unimpressive creatures, naked unlike their comics counterparts and apparently content to lope across the world on foot instead of traveling in vehicles outside their spaceship. Of course, both clothes and vehicles probably would have strained the special effects budget for these shows past its breaking point, but this apparent creative indifference to the series' villains betrayed their macguffinesque essence. The alien invasion, almost until the end, only provided that pretext for gathering all the Berlanti heroes together to bounce off each other. Even on that understanding of what Invasion! was actually about, the series only functioned as a crossover little more than 50% of that time, primarily during parts two (The Flash) and four (Legends of Tomorrow). By coincidence or design, part three would be the 100th episode of Arrow, the founding show of the whole shebang, and that hour inevitably was caught up in a conventional commemorative sort of storyline. At the end of Flash, the Dominators for some reason beamed Green Arrow, some of his supporting players, and former supporting player The Atom onto their spaceship. On Arrow they were imprisoned in individual pods and subjected to what was meant to be a mutually-reinforcing fantasy of how all their lives would have been different had Oliver Queen and his father not been lost at sea all those years ago. Why the Dominators should have done this is still unclear, though one character speculates afterward that the aliens may have been trying to harvest information from their subconsciences. If so, it benefited them little, and the device itself was severely defective, since our heroes almost immediately began having flashbacks to their real pasts. Their interactions only served to break the illusion down more quickly, it seems, but the whole thing was really a pretext, or should I say excuse, to bring back some actors whose characters had been killed off in previous seasons. While all this was going on, Flash and Supergirl fought some random supervillain who had some sort of technology they needed and there was much of the banter Berlanti fans enjoy so. On its own terms Arrow wasn't a bad episode, and that seems consistent with reports that the show has improved on its disastrous fourth season, but I'm sure more casual fans expected something more fully integrated into the main storyline of the week.

That left Legends of Tomorrow, which reportedly has improved on its disastrous first season, though you couldn't have convinced me with the first two episodes I saw this fall. Legends was the master class in Berlanti chaos theory; send a bunch of mismatched characters caroming in all directions and hope at least one of them does something fans will want to see more of. Since I never bothered reviewing this show last season, let me explain that a time traveler assembled a motley team of other shows' supporting characters and unimpressive newcomers to combat TV's underwhelming version of comics' immortal supervillain Vandal Savage.Having seen him off, the surviving "Legends" seek out alleged anomalies in time and usually cause more mischief than they correct. The show's approach to history is usually insulting, but it excels in using none of its characters to their full potential, except perhaps for the sardonic Mick "Heatwave" Rory (Dominic Purcell), once a foe of Flash and now the man with every episode's best lines. However improved it may be, I think there was an implicit acknowledgment that the Legends are the awkward squad of the Arrowverse in the fact that their part of the crossover played the most like a true crossover -- as it had to, being the conclusion -- and less like an episode of their own show.

While one of the Legends, Dr. Martin Stein, (Victor Garber) discovered a Flashpoint complication of his life in a daughter who didn't exist before Flash's meddling in time -- which somehow went undetected by the history-regulating Legends but was noticed by the Dominators -- the main character arc this hour belonged to Cisco Ramon, who despite helping Flash to Earth-38 back on Monday was on the outs with his fleet friend. In an inexplicable attempt to wreck the funniest character on all four shows, the Flash writers made Cisco mad at Flash for not going back in time to save his brother Dante, an occasional supporting character who had died offscreen. In time Cisco's anger cooled, only to rekindle in obnoxiously redundant fashion once he learned that Dante's death was not merely a sin of omission but a sin of Flash's commission, a consequence of the Flashpoint event. Cisco thus spent most of the crossover undermining what authority or credibility Flash had, only to face his comeuppance on Thursday, when he joined the Legends on a trip to 1951, the time when the Dominators first visited Earth, and helped rescue one of the aliens from some men in black bent on dissecting him. Cisco's thought was that the Dominators would remember this human kindness, but it actually only reinforced their belief that a breakout of superpowers such as the Legends displayed made Earth a threat requiring destruction. So Cisco learned that anyone can succumb to the temptation of good intentions and make honest, unwitting mistakes, and so he refuses to allow Flash to sacrifice himself by surrendering himself to the Dominators as they demanded, and presumably they'll be buddies again by the next regular episode of their show.

That only leaves the nearest thing to a proper invasion we see all week, and its defeat when Flash, Supergirl and Firestorm -- the composite being formed by the merger of Martin Stein and Jefferson Jackson (Franz Drameh) -- neutralize the dreaded metabomb, apparently the only such weapon the Dominators possess, or at least brought with them. It's all over then but the chest-beating, which comes in brazen form when Supergirl dubs Flash and Arrow "Earth's Mightiest Heroes" -- a term you may have heard elsewhere and may strike some as copyright infringement. I can say with some certainty that it was the best Legends of Tomorrow episode I've ever seen, but that's a case in which any praise is damning. But to be fair, while it was far less as a whole than it could have been, Invasion! was pretty entertaining on the geeky level it aimed for -- while Netflix/Marvel partisans and some comic book fans despise Berlanti's "cheesiness" that's what many people want from superhero shows --  and actually convinced me to give the new seasons of both Arrow and Legends another chance. I don't agree with those who prefer Berlanti's multiverse unconditionally to the "grimdark" tendencies of DC's movie universe, but I can understand and sympathize with what many still like about it, in all its earnest and endearing awkwardness.


hobbyfan said...

I think it's that same "scattershot approach to storytelling" that undermined the Green Lantern movie 5 years ago. After all, Berlanti worked on that, too, and somehow, because the movie still made a ton of money, he was entrusted with the DCTVU.

What he needs, more than anything, are more veteran comics writers (i.e. Denny O'Neil, Marv Wolfman) who can help the TV crew (Marc Guggenheim is no help at all, as he's totally clueless) straighten out the mess that's been made.

Invasion! as I see it:

Supergirl: They could've put "Medusa" aside and given more time to the crossover, but they opted for the "sweeps stunt" approach. Bad idea.

Flash: Too much soap opera for me. Loving the Hall of Justice homage at STAR, however.

Arrow: The episode had a been there, done that feel, since they did something similar on Supergirl last season. Unoriginal for episode #100.

Legends: May have hit its peak, depending on how this week's mid-season finale plays out. Not seeing Citizen Steel as anything more than comedy relief, if only because the actor who plays him, Nick Zano, is better known for sitcoms (i.e. What I Like About You), and Steel's look is a ripoff of the X-Men's Colossus, but with patriotic colors.

If things regress, be not surprised if Legends gets pink-slipped after it ends its season in March. Remember, it's moving to Tuesdays next month.

Samuel Wilson said...

Green Lantern had all kinds of problems, but trying to give too many characters different things to do wasn't one of them, while soap opera has been part of the GL concept since the start of the Silver Age. The movie's big problem, aside from the inadequacy of Ryan Reynolds, was its imitation of comics retcons that worked on paper because they foreshadowed things with which longtime readers were familiar (e.g. Sinestro becoming evil)but went nowhere on film because casual viewers didn't know and weren't made to care.