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After a relatively self-contained 100th episode of Arrow, a series best that provided necessary breathing room for The CW’s massive small-screen undertaking, “Invasion!” concludes its story in bombastic fashion with DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, returning to the crossover paradigm set up in The Flash as our heroes reckon with their past mistakes (and the mistakes they made while travelling to the past!) while figuring out how to combat a potential extinction-level event. It’s big, messy, bombastic, and changes the face of DC’s television multiverse in a number of interesting ways. Most importantly however, it has a laser focus on its characters, their warmth, and their desire to better themselves and rebuild their bridges.
I could very well stop there; the Arrow-verse (or what have you) has an immensely thoughtful understanding of why these stories work, transcribing them from their operatic Golden and Silver Age roots and grafting the narratives onto the perfect live-action vessel: the soap opera. All four shows have seen notable improvements this year, and Legends’ decision to broaden its narrative scope to general “time aberrations” as opposed to a single villain (albeit aberrations caused by a whole group of bad guys!) allows them to go smaller with their stories week-to-week, telling contained personal and inter-personal tales within a larger framework and against the backdrop of period-specific sets and costumes. It’s been unafraid to deal with race, gender and sexuality, often more directly than one might expect, but this week its content with dedicating a third of its runtime to the characters from its parent shows (the likes of Barry, Cisco and Felicity) and a third to a somewhat isolated story involving Martin Stein’s own “time aberration.” That remaining third? Well, that’s where the fun happens.
And by fun I mean time-travel, of course. It wouldn’t be Legends without time-travel.
Historian and superhero nerd Nate Heywood/Citizen Steel tracks down the first Dominator invasion in 1951 so the heroes can return the favour from the previous episode, i.e. extracting information from their enemy. He brings along Amaya Jiwe/Vixen, whose amulet grants her the strength of the animal kingdom, Mick Rory/Heatwave, a reformed arsonist still working on the “reformed” part, and The Flash and Arrow’s techie BFFs Cisco and Felicity. Why? Because they want to time travel and see some aliens, a decision that feels just right for shows that have seen an uptick in their focus on fun this season. Putting them in the same space as fellow nerd Nate (who can summon an indestructible exoskeleton, but wears a red, white and blue superhero costume anyway!) is fun enough already, but putting them aboard The Waverider, the Legends’ artificially intelligent time-ship, boy that’s a whole other level of enjoyable.
It’s a shame Cisco and Felicity don’t get to hang out more often. Unless my ears deceived me, I’m pretty sure they broke out into an impromptu rendering of a Ciara and Missy Elliott song when they first boarded the futuristic time-vessel, but it’s not just their relatable penchant for pop-culture references (never used as a substitute for actual heart and humor; though the locale being the starting point for The X-Files' alien presence is a welcome wink) that makes them the most fun elements of their respective shows. They may be the support staff to titular superheroes, but they hurt like the rest of us, sometimes at the hands of those very heroes, and their innate goodness and desire to help people allows them to take on the role of moral compass. Felicity does this for Cisco here, whose grudge against Barry isn’t just any other oopsie. When the Flash went back in time to save his parents, undoing all the mistakes he made had various ripple effects, including the death of Cisco’s brother. It’s the ultimate externalization of Barry’s selfishness affecting others, and it has affected Cisco more than most.
In pursuit of a Dominator straggler, the Legends find themselves captured by a shadowy government agency in need of rescue, which is where “Tech Support” Cisco and Felicity get to flex their advanced weaponry muscles and shoot up some men-in-black. The leader of this unit, known only as Agent Smith, operates in a similar capacity in 2016, luring the the Flash, Green Arrow, Supergirl, the Atom and White Canary to what they believe is a meeting with the new President, but is actually the revelation of a much bigger plot. When The Dominators arrived in 1951, it was shortly after The Justice Society of America had formed and disbanded (the Justice League precursor introduced on Legends this season) and their sole reason for scouting Earth was the appearance of metahumans; potential threats to the universe that they hoped to neutralize before they became problems. In ’51, Smith and his agency made a treaty with the aliens, resulting in sixty five years of uninterrupted peace.
That is, uninterrupted until Barry Allen began messing with time.
A staple of the DC “crisis” is the Flash’s centricity to universe-changing events. Barry’s Flashpoint meddling didn’t just affect the supporting characters on these shows, it rippled across the universe and alerted The Dominators to a potential threat to their existence. Their terms? Earth will be left alone if the Flash surrenders himself. If not, they’ll drop a bomb to wipe out the metahumans, and any humans within the blast radius.
That’s way, way bigger than we could’ve expected, but the narrative payoff is also timely and inter-personal. Cisco’s own meddling in 1951 led to the return of The Dominators in 2016, forcing him to realize that Barry’s devastating mistakes in time stemmed not only from selfishness, but from a desire to do the right thing. Dealing with the past and all that comes with it has been the connective tissue during this crossover, and while Barry predictably decides to sacrifice himself to save the people of Earth, bringing him back full-circle to selflessly atoning for his mistakes, Cisco’s forgiveness and the support of the various teams convinces him to stick around as they fight to save humanity.
Everyone believes in the Flash.
The theme of dealing with past mistakes extends to Stein’s story too – his recent interaction with his past self in 1987 seems to have had the opposite effect of Barry’s on John Diggle’s story. While baby Sara Diggle no longer exists, Stein has returned to a present where he has an adult daughter he doesn’t remember, an error he needs to fix. A full life he’s missed out on even though to her, he’s been with her all the way. The Legends have been tasked with protecting time itself, but once Stein is able to look past Lily’s existence as a mistake and sees her warmth and brilliance, he’s caught between his duty to the universe and the desire to safeguard a single life. There’s no easy answer here, especially in the wake of Barry’s mistakes coming back to haunt everyone in such an overwhelmingly massive way, but Stein decides to choose love over a logistical science that all but guarantees consequence. It’s the same advice he gave himself back in 1987, telling him to focus on his family instead of burying himself in his work as a physicist, and it’s what led to Lily’s creation in the first place.
The Dominators set up shop all over the globe, but their focus is Central City, apparently the new home of the Hall of Justice! (In design, if not in name). There are your usual plot contrivances to spice things up. There’s some sort of agonizing neural transmitter that’ll only work if devices are placed on all the aliens at once, and Oliver being an asshole to Supergirl, not trusting her because she’s an alien. Well, he gets what’s coming to him and almost dies, but Supegirl saves his ungrateful ass with a smile. A massive team of superheroes runs toward an even more massive team of aliens on a rooftop, while the Waverider, piloted by Sara and Cisco, attempts to thwart an exponentially more massive bomb, followed by Barry and Kara racing against each other to take out as many aliens as they can across the length and breadth of Central City!
It’s all incredibly cool, and very much about the character moments – Oliver’s nod to Kara as he realizes his mistake, Stein using his daughter as motivation to save the city – but it’s also not the focus of the episode, even if it is the climax. It lasts only a handful of minutes, perhaps too neat a culmination for such an all-encompassing threat, but the reason it works (as does the crossover as a whole) is because the entire story is propped up by great characters and the personal tribulations they overcome. Oliver and Sara got a glimpse into what their lives might be if they’d never experienced tragedy – they’d be content, but their lives wouldn’t be as full without the drive to help people. “Invasion!” makes even the Arrow alumni look at the bright side of life, and Diggle gives Barry the one piece of advice Oliver keeps refusing to heed: healing isn’t so much about seeking forgiveness as it is learning to forgive yourself.
The heroes are commended for their work by the new President (notably, a woman of colour – Earths 1 and 38 have women in charge, and Beyonce is a senator on Earth 2!), and while the world is going to be very, very different moving forward now that aliens have made their way all across the globe, the heroes will still work in relative secrecy, though perhaps with some help from the Government. An Earth-1 D.E.O. perhaps? It seems somewhat likely, but this is by no means a resolution that returns the world to its old status quo. Cisco gives Sueprgirl a device that would allow her to essentially cross-universes at will, Supergirl turns Oliver into a hugger (a shocking development!) and in the background of the heroes’ celebration at the not-Hall of Justice, a production design detail hints at a secret STAR Labs satellite in the works. So many crazy things have happened on these shows, things involving humans, Martians, Kryptonians and Thanagarians, what’s one more on top of it all?
But again, all this massive multiversal jargon would be for naught if it weren’t for the characters. This “Heroes v Aliens” crossover, one that involved time-travel, mind-control, aliens, alternate-realites, dimension-hopping and nearly two dozen superheroes with all sorts of cool powers, ends in the best way possible: with Oliver and Barry, burdened heroes finally on a healing path, sharing a drink and ribbing each other about which of them would win in a fight.