Marvel Comics’ original super group, the Fantastic Four, has always been a family first and a super team second. On the other hand, DC’s Justice League and Marvel’s Avengers function more like exclusive clubs, complete with charters, by-laws, and elections for membership. The core of the Fantastic Four — husband, wife, brother, best friend and, later, children — has expanded over the years, as families are known to do, to include a wide range of other relationships. But throughout, the family has always remained central. This family relationship has remained a focus of comic book storytellers, off and on, from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to Jonathan Hickman. Film versions have been less successful at capturing this dynamic, although they’ve tried. (Some fans insist that Disney’s The Incredibles is a Fantastic Four movie, and one that does succeed in telling a family story first and a superhero story second.)
While the Fantastic Four is clearly the premier example of the importance of family to the superhero genre, it’s not alone. DC Comics, especially, has a long family tradition. And because of DC’s longer continuous history of superhero storytelling, its families tend to be broad, multi-generational affairs. In the 1970s, DC even published books with “family” in their title. The Superman Family was an anthology series that included stories about numerous characters from Superman’s long history. Likewise, The Batman Family told stories of Batman, Robin, Batgirl, Alfred, Man-Bat, and the Huntress (the Earth-2 Bruce Wayne’s daughter), among many others.
While not earning the official family title bestowed on DC’s most celebrated casts, the Flash provides perhaps the finest example of the importance of family tradition among all of the DC heroes. After all, Barry Allen as the Flash took up the mantle of the Scarlet Speedster from the earlier World War II-era Jay Garrick. Then, when Barry Allen was famously killed in 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, his young sidekick, Wally West (previously known as Kid-Flash), changed his yellow costume for Barry’s red one and carried on the tradition. In the 30th century, Barry’s descendant, Bart Allen, assumed the powers of his ancestor and became the hero known sometimes as Impulse, sometimes as Kid-Flash, and sometimes as just the Flash. Add to this mix a host of other heroes with super speed powers that have been folded into the Flash storyline through the years and the Flash Family may be the most intergenerational family of them all: Johnny Quick, Jesse Quick, Joanie Swift, Max Mercury — the list could go on and on.
It strikes me as fitting that CW’s The Flash manages to put family at its center. Far from being a strange fit for a sci-fi superhero drama, the family is actually true to the spirit of the character of Flash comic book stories that have been told over the last 50 years. In the latest episode, “The Fast Lane”, family is at the forefront, as characters wrestle with just what they are willing to do for their family and with how much of themselves they are willing to give to save those they love.
First of all, Iris (Candice Patton) is consumed with worry over her newly discovered brother Wally (Keiynan Lonsdale) and his need for speed and obsession with drag racing. Meanwhile their father, Joe (Jesse L. Martin), struggles with how to best fit Wally into his life and to understand responsibilities as a father to the son that he, until recently, never knew existed. Frankly, I’m impressed at how quickly I’ve come to like Wally’s addition to the cast. Lonsdale seems perfect for the role, and his character has provided space for both Patton and Martin to shine.
At the same time Barry (Grant Gustin) is beginning to come to terms with his relationship with the new Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh) and the seeds of a new father-son dynamic between the two are planted in this episode. The original Wells was always a second (or third) father for Barry, and the new Wells is less willing to play that role. Barry’s relationships with his three fathers — Joe, Wells, and his real father Henry (John Wesley Shoop) — have always been central to his character, and it’s good to see the new Wells beginning to step into the role filled by the old Wells.
Wells, however, has other worries. His daughter Jessie (Violett Beane) is being held captive by the dark and sinister Zoom (Tony Todd) over on Earth-2 (which Wells rightfully keeps insisting is Earth-1 as far as he’s concerned.) In order to save her, Wells has taken some pretty drastic measures in the past (including the murder of the Turtle); in this episode, he struggles to decide if he’s willing to sacrifice Barry as well.
The arrival of Earth-2’s Wells has proven a boon to actor Tom Cavanagh. Last season his Wells was a bad man forced to do good; this season, he’s a good man forced to do bad. Cavanagh plays it marvelously and is especially good at letting the character express his annoyance and frustrations at his new family. No one walks the likeable/unlikeable line with quite the finesse of Cavanagh’s Wells.
There’s also some cool stuff in this episode about closing the breaches between the two Earths, as well as a top-notch villain of the week named Tar Pit (Marco Grazzini). Even better, the family drama and superhero action come together pretty neatly in a scene that had me shouting at the TV screen.
Family is at the heart here, however, making The Flash one of the best family dramas on TV today.