|Arthur Darvill (right) and members of the cast of Legends of Tomorrow.|
There is no question that DC is doubling down on its efforts to compete with Marvel's multi-platform media juggernaut – and with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice coming in March, and Suicide Squad and Justice League in the wings, that fight is about to come to the big screen with a vengeance. So far, however, its small screen offerings have been lighter and less compelling than Marvel's recent, more creative, successes – most notably, Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Agent Carter. With the premiere of Legends of Tomorrow on The CW last month, DC now has four primetime shows on the air. Legends of Tomorrow joins Arrow (now in its fourth season) and The Flash (currently in its second) on The CW, while Supergirl premiered on CBS in the fall. Latecomer though it is, Legends just may be the best of its lot to date – it certainly is the most fun.
Legends brings together talent from both CW shows, in front of and behind the camera. Writer/producer Phil Klemmer (Chuck) joined the Arrow team of Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg, and Marc Guggenheim to create Legends of Tomorrow. The story opens in a dystopian 2166, with the "immortal tyrant" Vandal Savage (Casper Crump, fresh off his guest appearance on Arrow and The Flash) conquering the entire planet. In an effort to save billions of lives (including those of his recently-slain wife and child), Captain Rip Hunter (Arthur Darvill, Doctor Who) resigns his commission as a Time Master, steals a time ship, and travels back to the 21st century to assemble a mix-matched team to bring down Savage once and for all. Hunter quickly collects some of the most colourful and entertaining characters from the Arrow/Flash universe: including Leonard "Captain Cold" Snart and Mick "Heat Wave" Rory (played with glee by the Prison Break duo of Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell); both current halves of Firestorm, Professor Martin Stein and "Jax" Jackson (Victor Garber and Franz Drameh, respectively); and frustrated tech billionaire, Ray Palmer (Brandon Routh, Superman Returns), aka Atom. Joining the time-travelling team are Hawkgirl, aka Chay-Ara, aka Kendra Saunders (Ciara Renée) and Hawkman, aka Khufu, aka Carter Hall (Falk Hentschel) and a recently resurrected (White) Canary, Sara Lance (Caity Lotz).
Fortunately, the series isn't quite the dog's breakfast that this laundry list of characters may make it to be. The mixture of heroes, demigods, assassins, and villains – each with something to prove, and little to lose – thrown together by circumstance and forced to resolve their differences in order to "save the world" gives the two-hour pilot a satisfying, if familiar, Guardians of the Galaxy-feel (because if you're going to steal, steal from the best). And on the subject of "homages", casting former Doctor Who companion Darvill (namely, Rory "I was plastic!" Williams) as Captain Hunter seems to intentionally invite comparison with that other time traveller who breaks from his more disciplined ilk, steals a time machine, and goes out on his own. To its credit, derivative though it may be, Legends more than owns its multiple provenances, and the result (so far, at least) is consistently a blast.
These early episodes – true to the established genre – are largely concerned with team building, establishing characters, and developing relationship. Even though our main characters (with the exception of Captain Hunter) were all introduced in the other CW shows, Legends doesn't require any prerequisite viewing. I can testify to that directly: I am only up to date on The Flash, having abandoned Arrow in the middle of its rather joyless first season, but Legends more than establishes the characters and their personal histories as they all get to know one another.
I have waxed enthusiastic about my love of time travel stories on the pages of Critics at Large before, so I will not go into it again. (If you are interested, feel free to look here, and here, and here, and here. Oh, and here.) One of the less celebrated pleasures of popular time travel stories is that though they often make little sense, watching a story struggle – often in vain – with its established premises can actually be entertaining in itself. In Legends, for example, our heroes are fighting to hinder Savage's century-long plans for world domination, but somehow have to do so without interfering inordinately with the established time stream. (How, for example, setting off a wayward nuclear weapon in rural Norway counts as "minimal interference" isn't dealt with directly.) SyFy's 12 Monkeys, whose first season hadn't yet seemed to figure out precisely what rules of temporal mechanics it's playing with, is a good example of that entertaining struggle. Legends also invites the same Gilligan's Island problem that 12 Monkeys has: the minute they succeed in their mission, the story comes to an end. As a result, every episode needs to balance small victories against larger failures. On the last point, "ironic" time paradoxes often help, whereby an apparent win turns out to set in motion the very event they were trying to subvert. The trick – as any long time fan of Doctor Who can testify to – is keeping character and heart more central than the intricacies of cause and effect. And, most often to its credit, Legends is more happy to play the comic book adventure card rather than angst over the physical laws of the universe, leaving the audience to enjoy the genuine pleasure the show in having its characters clash swords, sprout wings, shoot nuclear-powered blasts from their hands, and just generally kick some ass.
What Legends has, and what the other DC shows still lack, are genuinely compelling actors and characters on screen. (This isn't true across the board however: Kendra/Hawkgirl remains a work in progress, though separating her from Hawkman is certainly a step in the right direction.) After two seasons of The Flash and a half year of Supergirl, there are still few if any members of their main casts that I care about at all; the relationships are painted broadly and the emotional intelligence of the characters is frustratingly erratic (e.g. Supergirl's current love-quadrangle storyline grows more distracting every week). Only four hours into Legends of Tomorrow, and – between the incomparable Victor Garber, who steals every scene he's in, Miller and Purcell's gruff, mercenary duo, and Darwill's ability to inhabit Hunter with humour and gravitas – these characters already matter more to me than any from the other shows. I suspect this has a lot to do with the fact that half the main cast is over the age of 35, keeping the millennial angsting to a minimum and merrily breaking with the "young heroes" format that DC/CW has been holding to since Smallville .
Legends of Tomorrow will air its fifth episode on The CW on Thursday, February 18.
– Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.