Watch it here.
DC’s Legends of Tomorrow pilot has just closed out a landmark week for superheroes on television, and in the process, helped usher in a grand new era. It burst through the gate fully formed, without any need for origin stories, and with the kind of gusto you can only expect from the likes of Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg. The show’s impending presence was initially a burden on Arrow and The Flash, nudging them off course in order to set up the new venture in a couple of crowded, less-than-stellar episodes last year, and while the show itself might take a few weeks to figure out how to balance all its moving parts, it’s a start that makes all the Starling and Central City distractions feel worthwhile. It’s also not exactly the show it was advertising itself to be, which may be the best thing about it.
As the trailers have long indicated, the show is about second chances. In the year 2166, a re-born Vandal Savage finally achieves his goal of global domination, urging Time Master Rip Hunter to break protocol and alter the existing timeline. In order to give the world a second hope, he recruits a whole bunch of heroes (and a couple of villains) from our time, people he claims will one day be remembered as legends. Ray Palmer/The Atom now works with The Green Arrow, but after the world thought him dead not so long ago, he realized all his technology meant nothing in the face of truly doing good for humanity. The former Black Canary Sara Lance was actually dead, and now that she’s been reborn, she’s looking for a purpose too. Jax Jackson and Martin Stein, the two halves of Firestorm, were also each given new leases on life by Team Flash, as were Captain Cold and his buddy Heatwave, although theirs involved a bit of blackmail, and they’re likely going to be the exception to every rule. And of course, you have Kendra Saunders and Carter Hall, who have been literally reborn as Hawkgirl and Hawkman for the 206th time. Rebirth in and of itself is nothing without purpose, and the decision at hand for each character is whether or not they’re going to embrace the purpose laid out in front of them by Hunter, and be remembered as they are in his time.
Palmer consults with his friend Oliver Queen, a man with his own renewed purpose. Sara, the old Black Canary spars with her sister Laurel, the current Black Canary, who gives her a new name and a new outfit. Stein and Jax disagree on whether or not they want to travel to the future, but the lifelong quantum-enthusiast makes the decision for him. Creepy! Kendra and Carter have a winged battle in order to decide their plan, and the hot & cold crew of Mick Roary & Leonard Snart? Well, they decide to go along because it’ll be a good opportunity to steal history’s greatest treasures. Within its first fifteen minutes, the show has already packed in a whole bunch of really fun superhero stuff and fleshed out where each of these characters are coming from, and before you know it, it’s off to the races… in 1975.
There’s little use in my describing the entirety of the plot, because you’ve either seen the pilot or you haven’t. It’s an episode that draws all these disparate elements from the DC TV universe together and binds them by a singular belief about their destinies, which is a nice enough notion, but also one that the show recognizes for its biggest fault. Destiny is in itself an abstract in storytelling, and a pre-determined destiny is hard to make interesting, which is why the show pulling the rug out from under us, and from under the characters, is a decision I can’t help but admire. These people weren’t chosen because they’re meant to be great. They’re chosen because their existence had little to no effect on the future, and finding this out is a pretty devastating blow. It also makes the show far more personal and immediate. Similarly, the Vandal Savage expert the team tracks down isn’t just any historian. He’s the son of one of Kendra and Carter’s previous incarnations. Everything the show does in this episode is to make the stakes more personal for each character. For Hunter, it’s about stopping his family’s fate from befalling the families of others. For Kendra, it’s about her finally realizing how big all this truly is, how she’s at the center of it, and how she has the power to end it. For Jax, it’s about finally finding the kind of acceptance he’s missed since not being able to play football. For Palmer, and for the rest of them, it’s about something as complex yet as simple as the desire to matter. The road ahead is no longer about abstracts. It’s not about ‘the future’ or about ‘destiny’ – it’s about each and every one of them, forging their own path despite being told they amount to nothing.
After the season one finale of The Flash, our own Meredith Borders made an important point about Eddie Thawne. He was a blank slate with the ability to change the future and decide his own destiny, partially because he didn’t exist in the comics. Except for Sara, all these characters do exist in the pages of the DC Multiverse, but the nature of that concept is such that this TV universe we’re witnessing may as well be part of it. That’s certainly cool to think about from a geek perspective, the idea that with 52 parallel universes out there, the characters from your favorite comic could collide with their counterparts on TV (at least in theory), but it offers up another way to look at these shows and their relationship to the comics, in a manner that’s more than just about Multiverse logistics. The Flash’s basic premise is that’s it’s a deviation from another timeline, which one can very well assume is the timeline found in the comics, but Legends of Tomorrow has no comicbook equivalent. This was never a story that took place, either in the comics or in the future that Rip Hunter is from, which makes its characters’ desires to matter all the more potent. They’re forging a path that should not exist. They’re a team of C and D-list characters attempting to alter their real-world history and our comicbook history in the process, should they succeed. I have a feeling they will.
While it’s a few steps from nailing its larger action scenes – the shootout at the ship felt helter-skelter and distinctly off-balance – it’s scenes like White Canary (in costume!) hanging out at a bar with Captain Cold and Heatwave before getting into a brawl that’ll really decide how this show is going to go down. It’s thrown a really strange, almost random group of characters together, something usually reserved for the comics, and while the comics could easily follow suit, the advantage the show has is its incredibly endearing cast. Even if seeing comicbook superheroes do comicbook superhero things isn’t enough to get you excited, it’s hard to ignore the chemistry between the likes of Prison Break brothers Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell as they ham it up amidst puns about temperature, or Victor Garber and Franz Drameh as an old white physics nerd and a young black football star who are forced to co-exist in the same body from time to time (while their head is maybe a little bit on fire), or anyone else in the cast for that matter.
Despite needing to craft an introduction out of a whole bunch of plates that were already spinning, the Legends of Tomorrow pilot feels like a breath, or rather a gust of fresh air, packing in a whole bunch of fun (and cool sci-fi ideas) without being bogged down by the minutia of superpower logistics and troubled pasts. These are good people who want to find a way to make their second chances matter, and the show’s first episode only has a couple of wrinkles that I’m sure it’ll iron out in time. It borrows the Team Flash/Team Arrow/Team Supergirl formula, but makes all the characters superheroes, and that’s the kind of enjoyment I just can’t pass up.