'The Flash': The CW's New Superhero Show is Complex, So Far

Just under the surface, the earnest Barry Allen suppresses his darkness in the hope of freeing his wrongly convicted father.

The Flash

Airtime: Tuesdays, 8pm ET
Cast: Grant Gustin, Candice Patton, Danielle Panabaker, Rick Cosnett, Carlos Valdes, Tom Cavanagh, Jesse L. Martin
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: CW
Creator: Greg Berlanti
Air date: 2014-10-07

I had an opinion about The Flash after seeing the pilot on 7 October, but I know pilots don’t always represent series very well. So I had to wait for the second episode to confirm. And then the third.

I’m used to the dark underbelly reveled by recent superhero flicks and shows, you know, the post-Frank Miller, brooding good guy filled with hate, revenge, regret or some other (or other worldly) motivation. It's the underbelly revealed by almost every superhero show that isn’t written by Joss Whedon.

And so I wasn’t prepared for a character who is so, well, earnest. The Flash’s Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) is earnest. Barry is a somewhat naïve nerd, working a nerd job in the Central City Police Department's forensics lab. This Quincy wannabe is bright with little more than young adult angst to color his daily routine.

Barry Allen's story became less routine when S.T.A.R. Labs launched their new particle accelerator and an “accident” occurred and the uncontrolled reaction sent some kind of energy through Central City. Allen was hit by “lightning” from this energy and gained mental and physical super-speed, as well as one hell of a metabolism and an appetite to match.

There is darkness to be had here. Early in young Barry’s life, his mother was killed in front of him by something that can only be described as a Flash-like being swirling around his living room. Barry’s father, Henry Allen (John Wesley Shipp), was convicted of the murder and has since served 20 years in prison. Not the ideal life for a kid, but the child Barry (Logan Williams) was adopted by Detective Joe West (Jesse L. Martin) and raised with his daughter, Iris West (played by Amina Elkatib as a child, Candice Patton as an adult), in what is apparently a single parent household.

Both Barry and Iris seem well adjusted, with the exception of his understandable attraction to the beautiful and sister-like Iris. This tension is brought into clear view in the episode titled “Going Rogue” where Arrow’s Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards) makes an appearance, nearly throwing herself at Barry, who met her previously, during a guest appearance on Arrow. After he literally chases her down on a train, they share a conversation about how perfect they would be for each other if they weren’t pining for other people. I recall a similar conversation when I was Allen’s age. I’m sure I’m not alone. The writing here is earnest.

There is darkness to be had here too. Tom Cavanagh’s perpetually calm and smiling Dr. Harrison Wells, the former head of S.T.A.R. Labs, is a murderer and a liar, this we know so far. And he is probably worse. There are hints that he not only created the event that transformed Barry into the speedster, but also that he did so with Barry in mind. It isn’t clear yet if the peripheral fallouts of various other “metahumans”, those who also gained powers through the “accident”, were expected or not. Their existence seems to intrigue Wells, who is now collecting them in the amazingly clean remains of his particle accelerator.

Just under the surface, the earnest Barry suppresses his darkness in the hope of freeing his wrongly convicted father. The equally earnest Joe West's darkness emerges occasionally in his guilt over being the lead detective responsible for convicting the elder Allen. Wells' darkness is less submerged, visible in well-timed revelations designed to intrigue viewers with a complex character who is just starting to show his true colors.

There is darkness as well n the metahumans transformed, and in those humans who gain leverage through S.T.A.R. Labs. For all of its earnest good-will toward Allen, and Dr. Wells’ oft repeated admonition that this is all to protect Barry Allen, S.T.A.R. Labs and its creator are the source of all things evil so far. The meta-humans created the night of the “accident” as well as the human, now called Captain Cold (Wentworth Miller), who stole, then applied, a freezing ray gun from S.T.A.R. star Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes). Ramon and S.T.A.R. teammate Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker) make up what remains of S.T.A.R. Labs post-accident brain trust.

As with any good show, you can see the train wreck coming but you can’t know exactly how the cars will fall (please note this is a metaphorical train wreck, not the train wreck in episode four from which Allen saved everyone before being temporarily frozen out by Captain Cold).

There is darkness here in the minds of the earnest writers (Greg Berlanti, Gardner Fox, Grainne Godfree, Geoff Johns, Andrew Kreisberg, Harry Lampert, Alison Schapker and Kai Wu, so far). They must remain earnest to keep this show balanced between darkness and light on that knife’s edge. That is its charm and its attraction. Sure, we watch for the impending train wreck, but if the writers can keep the show balanced on the edge just before the train wreck, in that blurry shockwave of unstable chaos that arrives before the first car derails, then they will keep me and many others watching.

There is light amid the darkness. The Flash sports a great cast, visually well-designed sets and effects, and the pace and atmosphere reflect the deft hands of directors and crew. But a superhero show can’t live on those elements alone. As Stan Lee discovered in the '60s, the modern superhero needs to be complex, even vulnerable, and his fictional world needs to be as messy as our world. Comic books have become increasingly non-escapist commentary on modern life. Television shows get lost when networks push to resolve things too early, to make things too easy to understand, to eliminate conflict and turn down the darkness.

There is darkness here in my fear that the CW will try to make The Flash too earnest, too mass appealy as its characters evolve. The Flash should never become Gotham, but it does need all that darkness just under the surface. Darkness is the engine that will keep this show running.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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'Foxtrot' Is a 'Catch-22' for Our Time

Giora Bejach in Fox Trot (2017 / IMDB)

Samuel Maoz's philosophical black comedy is a triptych of surrealism laced with insights about warfare and grief that are both timeless and timely.

There's no rule that filmmakers need to have served in the military to make movies about war. Some of the greatest war movies were by directors who never spent a minute in basic (Coppola, Malick). Still, a little knowledge of the terrain helps. A filmmaker who has spent time hugging a rifle on watch understands things the civilian never can, no matter how much research they might do. With a director like Samuel Maoz, who was a tank gunner in the Israeli army and has only made two movies in eight years, his experience is critical.

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