The Flash: A Welcome Anti-Vigilante

DC Comics' CW show for young adults defies the trend of turning superheroes into antiheroes.

The CW

Selling a live-action superhero for teens is a tough gig these days for DC Comics. Their current offerings include a plethora of heroes, but few role models. Instead of the wholesome Clark Kent of Smallville or Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, DC’s Superman du jour is Zach Snyder’s glum Man of Steel. In place of the tongue-in-cheek George Clooney, DC’s Batman is the morally troubled, forbidding rich-boy type played by Christian Bale. For adolescents who have outgrown Teen Titans, Marvel still dominates the market.

The CW—the network that made its name with beloved teen hits like Gossip Girl and The Vampire Diaries—is trying to change that with The Flash. Its new show is a spinoff from vigilante series Arrow, but in tone and look The Flash looks like it’s from a totally different Multiverse. With Arrow, the CW takes the Dark Knight legend and makes it darker. The show revolves around yet another billionaire playboy (Oliver Queen a.k.a. the Green Arrow) who spends his nights hunting down wealthy criminals. Arrow doesn’t merely swap the Batarang for a bow-and-arrow. With a protagonist who spent the first season killing criminals and subsequent ones battling the urge, the Wednesday night program carries DC’s familiar vigilante figure to its logical, if uncomfortable, extreme: If the Green Arrow weren’t wearing tights, he might be considered a borderline-psychopathic murderer.

The Flash, in total contrast, revolves around a costumed hero of unwavering morals: Barry Allen, a CSI forensic assistant working for the local Central City police. Though Barry is mostly a relatable everyman, his backstory is the familiar and sad orphan-making one—his mother died at the hands of a mysterious lightning man, and his father was wrongfully jailed for her murder. A young Barry is taken under the wing of the kindly Detective West (Jesse L. Martin), who raises him as his own alongside his daughter Iris (Candice Patton). Though flashbacks show Barry initially resisted West’s attempts to father him, Barry adjusts to his new life, and his anger toward the city’s police force soon fades. Before long, Barry is analyzing crime scenes for his adoptive father and secretly harboring an ambition to work out in the field.

This superhero origin story is related to, but not a direct consequence of, The Flash’s original family trauma. While the false imprisonment of his father definitely feeds Barry’s righteousness, it’s his physical transformation in a freak accident that sets him on the path to fighting crime. A late-night trip to the police lab unfortunately places him in the path of a major gaffe at the nearby S.T.A.R. Labs, and when a particle accelerator explosion blasts him with a bolt of green lightning, Barry’s knocked out for a full nine months.

Upon waking, he’s imbued with new “metahuman” abilities—like running faster than a speeding bullet and slowing down the world like Neo from The Matrix. It’s the sudden cool factor that awakens his slumbering superhero, which only enhances his strong sense of justice. Suddenly Barry’s doing his job better than ever before, catching the criminals who are eluding his human coworkers and even handing a petty thief who snatched Iris’s laptop over to his rival for her affections, the handsome Det. Eddie Thawne (Rick Cosnett).

The show combines superhero origin story with police procedural, structuring each episode so Barry requires both his superpowers and his CSI acumen to catch Central City’s latest villain. Barry wasn’t the only one enhanced by the particle accelerator’s detonation, which created an influx of murderous metahumans, and a real shortage of good ones. Every episode begins with initial crime-scene analysis to determine what new powers Barry might face, then ends up pitting him against some metahuman foes on various picturesque points of the Central cityscape. Detective West is initially resistant The Flash's efforts even though he knows it’s his adoptive son beneath the mask—but by the second episode, West accepts that some criminals (the kind who can control the weather and clone themselves, for instance) require unorthodox approaches. “For once in your life, do what I tell you to do. Go stop him,” West says to Barry of the cloner, reflecting the show’s wholesome spirit as an exercise in learning to cooperate with wiser figures.

Because his crime-fighting is sanctioned by the police, Barry is effectively the anti-vigilante—a significant departure from DC’s shtick of turning heroes into antiheroes.  It’s also a minor departure for The Flash character, who in recent screen adaptations has been relegated to playing the cocky loner. On the Justice League animated series, he was a self-described “stud” who questioned the tactics of uptight control freaks like Batman and the Martian Manhunter. On Smallville, his character was initially the town’s resident thief (later seasons had him becoming a more beneficent friend to Clark Kent, but the self-centeredness, he maintained). In the most nuanced of these depictions, the short-lived 1990 CBS series The Flash, John Wesley Shipp played the a dark and witty version of the crime fighter, who undercut his ridiculous, themed foes with sarcasm as well as speed.

The Flash, on the other hand, restores the idealistic, earnest spirit of the original comics. A remarkably faithful adaptation among other throwbacks, the CW show retains Barry’s endearing tardiness, his conviction that Iris is his one true love, and above all, the lightning motif.

A lesser series might be sheepish about the preposterous scientific event that gives Barry his powers, but The Flash revels in the campy weather theme. When Barry wakes up from the coma, he asks “The lightning gave me abs?” The first episode’s villain can control the weather. And when Barry meets up with interconnected CW hero buddy Arrow, the audience gets a lightning-themed elevator pitch for the entire show:

Barry: "What if I’m not a hero? What if I’m just some guy who was struck by lightning?”

Oliver (of Arrow): “I don’t think that bolt of lightning struck you, Barry. I think it chose you.”

Barry: “I’m just not sure I’m like you, Oliver. I don’t know if I can be some vigilante.”

Oliver; “You can be better. Because you can inspire people in a way I never could, watching over your city like a guardian angel, making a difference, saving people. In a flash. “

The lightning isn’t just a convenient narrative shortcut (or a popular Juniors-section tee-shirt logo) but a fitting theme for the series, where the hero is an ordinary guy whose powers are coincidental, a result of sheer dumb caught-in-the-electric-storm luck. At one point in the second episode, Barry comes to the metaphoric conclusion about his relationship to his city: “We were all struck by lightning.” In other words: Everyone, superpowers or not, is a hero. The cute, if nonsensical, statement is yet another departure from the tortured DC men who fight crime only as an outward projection of their own inner turmoil. While those depictions complicate the ideas of good and evil as categories that aren’t necessarily clear-cut, they also promote the ideal of a hero as a self-centered victim who dwells on his pain, rather than attempt to overcome it.

The Flash, on the other hand, is overcoming. At one point in the comics, Batman says of The Flash, “Barry is the kind of man that I would've hoped to become if my parents hadn't been murdered.” This is, of course, complete nonsense. In the comics, like on the show, one of The Flash’s parents is murdered, and the other is totally absent, but the juxtaposition is revealing. Totally distinct from Batman, The Flash isn’t using his powers to nurse a grudge; he’s building on his preexisting interest in crime-fighting within the boundaries of the law. It helps that the Central City police, unlike Gotham’s force, appear relatively incorrupt so far. But television doesn’t need any more of that at this point (see Fox’s new show Gotham, where abuse of the badge runs rampant), and The Flash belongs to a different mold anyway. It’s a show that prizes communal values, a view echoed by showrunner Greg Berlanti on Twitter, where he urges teens to watch with their parents.

These moral messages in part make this DC series more Marvel—a televised, extended lesson on Uncle Ben’s aphorism “With great power comes great responsibility.” But in execution the show hews more closely to the native DC-CW collaboration Smallville, where the origin story of Superman was in part an origin story for everyone—a weekly lesson in municipal and familial responsibility complete with three separate father figures and a few younger mothering types.

It’s a welcome return to the civic hero for DC. In this era of selfish men in tights, The Flash’s total difference from other protagonists currently onscreen (including DC’s forthcoming Constantine) raises the question of why some of the most popular heroes are violent self-aggrandizers—instead of those selfless few whose personalities always had the makings of a hero.