Season One review (2016) by Daniel Tessier
Since 2012, The CW – the joint network launched by CBS and Warner Brothers – has been the home of live action superhero TV. At least, that is, those series based on DC Comics, whose catalogue of characters includes, most famously, Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. In 2012, the network launched Arrow, a superhero/crime drama based on the comics character Green Arrow. Starring Stephen Amell as Oliver Queen, Arrow was a popular success, and began its own linked family of spin-offs, nicknamed “the Arrowverse.”
Under showrunners Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Kreisberg, Arrow developed from a fairly realistic and gritty series to something stranger. The series began to introduce comicbook staples like magic, parallel worlds and metahumans – people granted miraculous abilities through various unlikely means. Grant Gustin made his first appearance as Barry Allen in Arrow's second season, spinning off into his series as “the fastest man alive” on The Flash. The Flash was equally popular, and it was only a matter of time before a further spin-off was devised. (In the meantime, CBS itself launched Supergirl, starring Melissa Benoist, which was then picked up by The CW and incorporated into their expanding multiverse.) Berlanti, Guggenheim and Kreisberg developed the concept for a spin-off series; not based on any particular comic series, but is instead a show constructed, perhaps a little cynically, to profit from the popularity of the previous shows by featuring as many characters as it could from their recurring casts. Writers Phil Klemmer (Veronica Mars, Chuck) and Chris Fedak (Prodigal Son, Deception, and also Chuck) were recruited as showrunners for the first season.
DC' s Legends of Tomorrow was launched in January 2016, partway through Arrow's fourth season and The Flash's second. To begin with, Legends of Tomorrow was a little uninspiring, but as it went on, it became the most consistently entertaining, heartfelt, redemptive, and creative series in The CW's superhero show roster. Unlike most other superhero shows, Legends isn't based in and around one city with occasional excursions further afield (OK, sometimes very further afield), or even one time period. It's more like a comic strip version of Doctor Who, continually jumping from one time and place to another, with each episode usually taking place in a new setting. Also like Doctor Who, which calls on well-remembered villains and monsters for fan-pleasing appearances, Legends has an enormous back catalogue of superheroes and supervillains to call on from DC's many, many publications.
The first episode sees the time traveller Rip Hunter recruit a mismatched group of heroes and villains to become the Legends of Tomorrow, travelling through time in a space/time ship called the Waverider to battle the immortal warlord Vandal Savage. Hunter is played by Arthur Darvill (Doctor Who, Broadchurch), who basically plays him as the Doctor, swaggering about in a long coat, being exceedingly British and acting as inscrutably as he can. Aside from the ill-fitting macho name, Hunter is a pretty strong and sympathetic character, largely thanks to Darvill's likeable performance. Having lost his wife and son to Savage's mission of world conquest in the 22nd century, Hunter now works for a powerful organisation called the Time Masters. While he allegedly recruits his new team because they are legendary figures, it's revealed he actually takes them on because they're a bunch of also-rans who can safely be removed from history with no major consequences. That's what makes the Legends so easy to root for: ultimately, they're a bunch of losers, idiots and scumbags who come good.
Rips' original recruits include:
• Sara Lance, aka the White Canary, played by Caity Lotz (Mad Men, Death Valley). One of only two members of the cast to last through the entire run so far, Lotz first played the character on Arrow, where she was a vigilante and former assassin. Having been resurrected by mystical means after her death, Sara has issues with rage and self-control to begin with. Lotz gets the chance to explore more aspects of Sara's character, making her, ultimately, the heart of the series.
• Ray Palmer, aka The Atom, played by Brandon Routh (Superman Returns, Chuck). A wealthy inventor who has created an armoured supersuit that allows him to shrink and fly, Ray's a bit of a mix between Marvel's Iron Man and Ant-Man, but is a thoroughly upstanding chap and very much the conscience of the team. First appearing on Arrow, Ray gains the nicknames “Boy Scout” and “Haircut” from the more criminal element of the crew. The original talks about the spin-off that became Legends were centred around giving the hugely likeable Routh his own show.
• Leonard Snart, aka Captain Cold, played with sardonic aplomb by Wentworth Miller (Prison Break, Dinotopia). Never knowingly underplaying the role, Miller eats the scenery as the career criminal turned antihero. Originally a recurring foe of The Flash, Snart becomes more heroic working as part of the Legends. Other cast members often seem to be trying to outdo his arch delivery when portraying villainous versions of their characters, a technique we've named “Captain Colding.”
• Mick Rory, aka Heat Wave, played by Dominic Purcell (Miller's co-star on Prison Break). Where Snart uses a “cold-gun,” his partner in crime Rory just likes to burn things. The most outwardly villainous of the original team, Rory goes through a few worm-turns before becoming one of the most loyal, albeit most volatile, Legends. A firm fan-favourite, Rory will stick around for a good while, but the first season sees him temporarily booted off the team by Snart himself.
• Professor Martin Stein, played by beloved Broadway actor Victor Garber (Titanic, Argo, Alias), the brains of the group. He joins with Jefferson “Jax” Jackson, played Franz Drameh (Attack the Block, Hereafter), to become one of DC's strangest superheroes, Firestorm. A nuclear-powered hero with Jax's body but Stein's voice in his head, Firestorm is a powerful character but is most notable for the fun camaraderie between the middle-aged white scientist and the enthusiastic young black mechanic.
• Carter Hall and Kendra Saunders, aka Hawkman and Hawkgirl. More superheroes from The Flash, Carter (German actor-dancer Falk Hentschel) and Kendra (actor-singer Ciara Renee Harper) originated in Ancient Egypt and have been repeatedly reincarnated with little-to-no memory of their past lives. Oh, and they can fly. Eternal enemies of Vandal Savage, they fight him through their lives, being killed off by the immortal villain again and again. Carter doesn't even make it through the opening two-parter, but a subsequent reincarnation, Savage's soldier Scythian, appears later. He's not missed; the character has little personality and Hentschel doesn't do much to fill in the gaps. Kendra, on the other hand, has one character trait: telling anyone who will listen that three months ago, she used to be a barista.
Neither Hawkman nor Hawkgirl make it to the second season, and unlike many characters or actors, make little impact on the series as it goes on. They're indicative of a real problem with the first season, which is that it's just too serious about itself and, well, often just a little boring as a result. Even the charismatic Casper Crump, the Danish actor who portrays the immortal Vandal Savage (actually a combination of that comics villain and another, the Ancient Egyptian villain Hath-Set) struggles to make his villainy stand out, always seeming like he's holding back a more entertaining performance. Similarly, the final original member of the Legends, the Waverider's computer AI, Gideon, has little character in this first season. She's voiced by Amy Louise Pemberton, a talented voice actor, who nonetheless is wasted here as the terribly English supercomputer. Pemberton is the only actor other than Caity Lotz to remain on the cast throughout the series, and has such better material to work with as the series develops.
That's not to say that the first season is without entertainment. It boasts some excellent directors, who really raise the material, including Rachel Talalay and Alice Troughton (both of Doctor Who) and Olatunde Osunsanmi (since of Star Trek: Discovery). Most notable amongst them is the great Joe Dante (Gremlins, Innerspace, The Howling), who directs episode eight, “Night of the Hawk,” a fun slice of comedy-horror.
The characters immediately start messing about with time, with chaotic consequences. There's a fun silliness to the idea of trying to fight a villain simultaneously in multiple points in his timeline, especially with someone who's been around since the time of the pharaohs. The series' writers don't waste the opportunity to revel in DC's back catalogue, able to bring in characters from any era they want. Episode ten, “Progeny,” features Cory Grüter-Andrew as Per Degaton, the time-manipulating villain who once appeared as part of the Injustice Society, who becomes a dictator and prodigy of Savage. The following episode, “The Magnificent Eight,” is a fun western romp, guest-starring Johnathon Schaech (The Outer Limits, Sleepy Hollow) as the scar-faced bounty hunter Jonah Hex of classic comic All-Star Western. This episode also has the twist of featuring Anna Deveare Smith (Nurse Jackie, The West Wing) as Cinnamon, who happens to be Kendra's earlier (but physically older) incarnation.
These kinds of temporal shenanigans are part of what Legends does best. The other part is the heartfelt character work that the best stories revolve around. Episode nine, “Left Behind,” sees Sara, Ray and Kendra stuck in 1958 and not picked up for another two years. In this time, Ray and Kendra, who are already falling for each other, build a life together, while Sara reverts to her deadly life as an assassin, having to be pulled back from the brink. Episode six, “Star City 2046,” sees the Waverider arrive in the future of Arrow, witnessing the possible dystopian future of their world. Throughout the season, the Legends are pursued by Chronos, a time-travelling bounty hunter, whose identity, while not exactly a shock, has massive repercussions for the team.
The season ends in climactic and chaotic style as the Legends take down Savage in three different timezones, abandoning temporal logic altogether. It all just about hangs together, much like the series as a whole. In its first season, Legends of Tomorrow isn't quite there, but it has all the ingredients it needs to become the absurdist hit it will later be: madcap time travel, unlikely plots and characters we've grown to care about. All it needed to do was let itself go and really embrace the silliness of the concept.
Published on June 14th, 2022. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.