Sometimes it pays to be skeptical.
When news of what would eventually become Legends of Tomorrow first popped up, the concept seemed, to put it in the kindest possible words, contrived. A team made up of Sara Lance, Captain Cold, and the Atom? What. It seemed like a something that had come into being not because somebody had had a fantastic fucking idea for a story that required these characters, but because The Powers that Be wanted to make some money out of characters from Arrow and The Flash that no longer had homes in those shows and needed a concept that could accommodate them as well as other assorted DCU B- and C-listers.
Now that the pilot has come and gone, it now seems that the initial suspicions were correct: Legends of Tomorrow is a show that exists primarily to give its characters something to do.
The concept of Legends is most efficiently described as Suicide Squad meets Doctor Who. In an attempt to stop future world conqueror Vandal Savage from becoming Vandal Savage: world conqueror, time master Rip Hunter recruits a motley mix of good guys and bad guys to travel across the timeline and impede Savage’s rise. It’s actually a decent concept, and one that is completely at odds with what the series wants to do.
Time travel, as a storytelling device, tends to open up a world. If you’re not super-worried about the mechanics, time travel makes it possible to introduce every sort of concept you might want to introduce without having to do too much legwork to justify it. Want a story starring a mute sword-user, a princess, a super-scientist, a frog knight, a robot, a cavewoman, and Vegeta if Vegeta were a cult leader? Time travel means you get to have that story, and to be as bananas as possible without breaking suspension of disbelief Here, however, it has the effect of making the Arrow-verse’s largest story feel tiny.
Rip Hunter is going to be traveling all through time in an attempt to stop Vandal Savage. He could, in theory, recruit people from anywhere in the DC Universe. However, because of the way Legends of Tomorrow was conceived, he instead recruits seven people from 2016 United States. Why? Because these are the people the producers wanted to sell to the audience. The show’s attempts to justify this are flimsy, nor is there any that really works: time travel, done right, also has the effect of sucking all the urgency out of a ticking clock, so there’s no reason why Rip couldn’t just take his time and recruit the best possible people.
Instead we get these guys, and about half of them work, if you’re being charitable. Sara Lance (Canary) and Leonard Snart (Captain Cold) fare best, largely because they became fan favorites due to their strong identities. Mick Rory (Heatwave) is fun, but largely because he’s in the orbit of the other two characters; he’s never convinced me as an individual. Rip Hunter and Ray Palmer, I don’t really care for: they’ve got white male hetero hero problems, and I’m not here for that. Jackson, one half of Firestorm, is fine but feels like a placeholder character, and I keep wanting him to be a her—the series’ current gender ratio is not promising—and to not be from the present; not only would it have the benefit of making the team less artificial, it would have given the pilot one less character to deal with, and gotten rid of the appalling scene where he’s drugged by Martin and kidnapped in order to get him to answer the call to adventure.
On that note, what the fuck, show? As much as I like Victor Garber (SpyDaddy is everything) I haven’t cared a whole lot about Martin Stein—he’s largely there to sound smart—and this episode just makes me hate him. There is no universe in which his actions are okay, and the dude got of waaaaaaay too lightly. The moment Rip found out about that, he should have parked his ass down and left him in 2016. And while it’d be one thing if the show were to actually play him as sinister, I really don’t think that’s what they’re going for, and it’s a huge false note in a pilot filled with them.
Then there’s the Hawks. This is a couple with a lot of baggage, both from their complicated continuity and DC’s insistence that they’re somehow interesting characters. Their previous introduction in December’s The Flash / Arrow crossover had not endeared them to me, and nothing changes here; they’re exhausting. I’m one of those few who didn’t like Shayera in Justice League / Justice League Unlimited, and even that version would have been far preferable to what we have here, which annoys me more with every passing minute in which she is not kicking Carter Hall in the balls.
Because Carter Hall? Is the worst. He’s every trope of “heroic” masculinity personified, and none of it makes him compelling or fun. It says a lot that in an episode with a “hero” who roofies and kidnaps his partner, Hawkman is still the character I want to see quartered, ground up and fed to mice.
The Hawks exemplify how this series can feel both daring and completely lacking in ambition. The pair’s shtick, as established, is that they reincarnate multiple times throughout history. Why, then, do we need to have the 2016 versions around? The show could have easily kept the actors on ice for a bit, and then reintroduced past or future versions of the characters, and brought those onboard. Yes, this means the pilot is left without a whole lot of plot—the Hawks are integral to the team’s first time jump, which involves rescuing the son the two conceived in another life—but since that’s all boring as heck, it’s no great loss.
(I will bet everything that one or both of the Hawks will eventually be killed off and replaced with another version, but that’s not the same thing.)
So conceptually, the show is a mess, one that isn’t helped by the execution. There are ways in which one can make a pilot episode featuring lots of characters sing—J.J. Abrams did it twice with Alias and Lost—and that’s without the benefit of five episodes designed purely to set up the series. Here, however, everything feels plodding and miserable, with only two scenes that stood out as enjoyable: the conversation between Sara and Laurel Lance, and the bar scene with Sara, Captain Cold, and Heatwave. These scenes, it’s worth noting, have little to do with time travel or the whole Vandal Savage biz: the Lance sisters scene is about Sara making her choice, but it is largely portrayed through the context of her history; the bar scene is just characters having fun by kicking ass.
The rest is all super-heroes by the numbers, the sort of thing that becomes less and less excusable as the genre continues its conquest of our TV and movie screens. Vandal Savage is a dud of a villain; he’s been around for three episodes now, and I can’t at all buy him as the sort of guy who can conquer the world if he didn’t have three thousand years to do so. The future world we briefly see has nothing to distinguish it from dozens of other post-apocalyptic hellscapes. Similarly, the show’s vision of the 1975 has nothing to help it stand out, nor does the show have anything to say about the era.
And then there’s the time travel itself, which becomes a mess in the space of a single hour. I’ll admit I didn’t initially give this too much thought, but once one does, the contradictions begin piling up, the most notable being that Rip cares a lot about not altering or damaging the timeline—he chooses these particular characters because they can allegedly be killed without altering it—except insofar as it stops an event that affects the whole world, in which case altering the timeline is a-ok. Pick one or the other, bro.
In the end, the main issue with Legends of Tomorrow is that it feels both too derivative and yet not derivative enough. Fans of Doctor Who will find this premise very familiar, but the show, as is, has little of Who’s charm or sense that everything can happen, which is something the current incarnation of Who showcased from day one—killer store mannequins, and is potentially this show’s trump card. Similarly, the show, due to being a TV show and having TV show concerns, loses a lot of the inherent uncertainty that makes something like Suicide Squad so fun. Imagine if the show had the freedom to change protagonists at will, so that the line-up is shaken up every six episodes or so, so that by the end of season two we had a team composed of say, Sara, Nyssa al Ghul, the Hourman robot, Lobo, a cowgirl version of Hawkgirl, the Shaggy Man, Sarah Rainmaker, Scandal Savage, Emerald Empress, and Mademoiselle Marie. Now that show would be fun. Legends of Tomorrow could get there, but it’s got a lot of bagagge to get rid of before it can do so.