(My lovely “boss” at Winchester Family Business had put out the call for someone to write up Flash reviews on TV for the Rest of Us. I volunteered and, for the lead up to the premiere, decided to review all the old episodes as well.)
You know the day I realized I was old? The moment it dawned on me that I’ve lived through TWO Batman reboots, TWO Spider-man reboots and now TWO attempts to put the Flash on TV.
Not that I’m complaining (about the Flash, anyway). I am a DC fanboy though I don’t begrudge Marvel their success at the movies (I mean the Avengers was freaking awesome). Of the comics, besides the “big 3” that all comic lovers love (Superman, Batman, Spider-man), Flash is what I would call a soft sell. No one has to tell me twice, “read this flash story!” (A hard sell – like Green Arrow – would require a plethora of recommendations – hence a sign of how good the TV show, “Arrow” is, it actually won me over.) Heck my favorite moment from the Justice League cartoon show involves the Flash (bet you can guess what it is). So yes, in the ancient past of 1990, I was pretty pumped that Flash would be on TV and I remember watching several episodes (even if some things flew over my young head at the time). How does it hold up today?
Recap: Police crime lab tech, Barry Allen, gets struck by lightning. It hurts so much he practices dodging until fast enough. Meanwhile a biker gang terrorizes the city with their balls.
Review: I don’t blame some people for complaining about Batman because his shadow always seems to cast a pal over the other heroes. I don’t mean in story, I mean in the real world. Nolan’s trilogy was popular enough that many blamed it for the tone in Man of Steel (a not unfair charge). Likewise it’s pretty obvious in this pilot, first aired Sept ’90, was plenty influenced by Tim Burton’s Batman which had just aired in June ’89. They even got Danny Elfman (composer for Batman) to do the show’s theme music. While the look of Central City doesn’t have the gothic or art deco look of Gotham, it still has a dark tone to it, with most of the action taking place at night. If you haven’t ever read a Flash comic, here’s a hint: he’s a pretty bright hero, not just literally (in the case of the red suit) but setting wise as well with adventures happening frequently in the daytime. They also have the villains trying to be intimidated by him (calling him things like “a ghost” – like if he was Batman) which is kind of funny because the Flash doesn’t really NEED to be intimidating.
Typically the story arc in the superhero story is that a menace arises which the normal forces of society just can’t handle, hence the need for someone to go “above and beyond.” The Pilot’s threat is… a motorcycle gang. True they seem to have extra gear to make them more of a threat than normal (including glowing green explosive balls) and a leader that “knows all the police moves” but it’s still hard to take them that seriously when a single steel cable or a stick in the spokes (which the Flash later uses!) could take them out. At times it seems almost comical that the police can’t handle this threat especially as, being on CBS at the time, we’re not allowed to see REAL brutality and ruthlessness from the bikers. They also establish that he can heal quickly but try to keep him somewhat limited by requiring vast amounts of food and having dizzy spells.
Despite being 24 years old now, I admit the special effects hold up pretty well. This was still in the early days when computer graphics were still too expensive for wide use (the most we see of them are, in fact, the computer screens running what has to be Windows 3.1) so there’s a lot of practical effects and animation. The worst of it is when Barry is running head on at the camera. The best is when they let camera tricks and our imagination do the work like when Barry dismantles a bike in the one second it’s off screen. I also have to compliment the suit. It’s not quite the armor or spandex look of comic movies at the time or even today but an odd felt-like mix of the two. Of everything from this series that sticks out the most as it was really original and still nothing seems like it out there. At times, however, I do wonder if it hindered the actor any as quite a few times in it he seems unable to throw much of a punch – at times it’s hard to believe anybody was hurt (or maybe John just isn’t much one for fisticuffs). Also the stunt man who flew through the air after the lightning strike has my sympathy as the way his hip hits that one shelf looks like it must have hurt.
Still it’s not all just plot and special effects in this extravaganza, but a pilot is also supposed to set up the characters.
- The two officers,
Biggs and WedgeBellows and Murphy do well enough as comedy supporting cast. They’re not on screen much but we can already tell that they’ll be our “grounding” characters, often serving as audience proxies on viewing the goings ons.
- The family was solid with several classic character actors though I admit at first I thought it was a grandfather-father-son between the Allens rather than father-brother-son it turned out to be. Ah the days when actual adults were cast and on screen.
- Iris West wasn’t too bad, though she didn’t have a lot to work with beyond “put upon-significant other”. Still kudos to the show for throwing us a curve ball by having the canonical love interest end up dumping the lead. Also, is it just me or does Paula Marshal look a LOT like Demi Moore in some shots? Henceforth I shall call her: not-Demi.
- I’ll admit that at first I thought Tina McGee was an invention for the sake of the show but no, it turns out she was from the comic, just not Barry Allen’s run (pun intended) but Wally West’s. Amanda Pays does well and her lovely accent makes all the exposition easier on the ears. Though… is it me or does she look a little like Linda Hamilton?
- Last we have the start of the series, Barry Allen. While the broad character strokes of Batman, Superman, and Spider-man are generally known in popular consciousness Barry not so much beyond “good guy” making him practically a blank slate for both the writers and John Wesley Shipp to interpret as they wish. Heck, in the comics Barry is blond! (blond hair is a rarity among male superheroes)
- So between Iris and his hair, the show’s clued us in that while they’re inspired by the comics, they’ll be putting their own spin on it. John does a pretty good job of being a likable chap and he brings a lot of classic charm to the screen. Still his acting does trip up a bit when he finds his brother’s dead body. I’m not sure what went wrong there but I had a stronger reaction to his later relating and talking with his nephew than what should have been the show’s dramatic height. The guy does cheerful very well, sorry not so much.
Conclusion: It’s strange looking back at just how much TV has changed in my lifetime and I don’t just mean tech changes like cell phones. The camera shots are all very static without much in the way of artsy angles or dynamic close ups. The Foley work is practically nonexistent with the sound consisting only of dialog or the soundtrack. You know something plot relevant is happening when it gets a sound like a police siren or telephone ringing. When the shootout happens at the jail you’ll probably feel like something is weird before you realize that gunshots are being heard in far fewer numbers than guns present (i.e. you only hear 1 or 2 bangs when there’s clearly 4+ guns being shot on screen). There’s also no arc set up, the shows at this time preferring an episodic structure.
All in all it’s not a bad start and at 94 minutes it’s almost a superhero movie on it’s own.