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In Praise of the Optimism of The Flash (The CW Series)

Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer

Finally, a superhero who likes having superpowers and being a superhero.

I need to start this article with a bit of an apology and disclaimer. I’m about to talk (at length, most likely) about the television series The Flash, but I’m behind the curve here. At the time of writing this I’m trying to catch up on episodes that have been sitting in my DVR since December of 2014. I just finished watching “The Man in the Yellow Suit” and am working on “Revenge of the Rogues”. But what I really want to talk about is the episode “Power Outage”, which originally aired all the way back on November 25, 2014. This episode caught me completely by surprise, in the most refreshing and enjoyable way possible. I don’t know if what was set in motion is still speeding along, but even if there have been more recent developments that nullify my thesis, I still love this episode for how it chose to depict its superhero.

I don’t think I need to issue a spoiler warning, but please note that I will be giving away the end of this episode, so read on with fair warning.

Very briefly, The Flash tells the story of the DC Comics character of the same name. In this show Barry Allen is a young forensic scientist working for the Central City police Department.On the night that S.T.A.R. Labs’ experimental particle accelerator goes online it promptly explodes, releasing a huge wave of strange energy. Barry is struck by lightning (and the wave) and given superhuman speed powers. He decides to use his newfound powers to help people.

“Power Outage” is only the seventh episode of the first season, and The Flash is still very much operating in “Freak of the Week” mode (turns out the energy blast from the particle accelerator gave lots of people strange powers, and almost none of them have Barry’s good intentions), but the show has made some strides in terms of world/mythos building (“The Man in the Yellow Suit” was particularly excellent in this regard). But Barry hasn’t been The Flash for very long, and in “Power Outage” he encounters a metahuman (a person with superpowers) who must frequently siphon electricity and electrical energy to “feed”. The metahuman discovers he can siphon Barry’s speed force, and proceeds to gorge himself like he’s at an all-you-can-eat buffet. In the aftermath, it appears that Barry has lost his superspeed and is once again normal.  

Okay, here’s the thing. This happens in the first ten minutes, and I IMMEDIATELY thought that Barry would spend the bulk of the episode remembering what it’s like to be normal, and would be relieved to be such. He would need to get his powers back by the end somehow to defeat the metahuman, and he wouldn’t want to. He would look at his powers as a burden and view the mantle of a superhero as a weight too heavy to bear. He would ultimately, reluctantly accept being re-powered, but we the audience would be told in no uncertain terms how tough it is to be a hero. If Barry were live-tweeting his life there would be lots of sad-face emoticons and #WithGreatPower and #superheroproblems hashtags.

Imagine my surprise when NONE of this happened.

Instead, Barry is devastated by the loss of his powers. The idea of returning to normalcy depresses him. He not only loves the simple thrill of exercising his speed powers, but loves being The Flash. He looks at being a hero as a privilege, something he was meant to do and be. When the remnants of the S.T.A.R. Labs research team (who have been helping Barry understand and develop his powers) think they have a way to repower him, they are hesitant as it is untested and may be dangerous. Barry is the one who pushes them over the edge of indecision, insisting they give it a try. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised, as this mirrors the same optimism on display in the show’s opening sequence, which you can watch below:

Pay particular note to the manner in which Grant Gustin (Barry Allen) says “I am the fastest man alive” and “I am The Flash;” Gustin infuses those words with enthusiasm and delight. He’s practically giddy. Contrast that with the much darker and serious intro to the other hit CW show (and DC Comics adaptation), Arrow:

I think the reason I find this episode of The Flash (and the series in general) so refreshing is because of the optimism suffusing it, and in particular, its hero. Barry Allen loves his powers and loves being a hero. That is indeed a rare trait these days. Consider:

In Arrow, Oliver Queen is stranded on a hellish island for five years then returns to Starling City to become a vigilante out of sense of guilt and duty to his dead father. He strains under the weight of keeping his secret identity from his friends and family, and loses several of them during the course of the show, casualties and collateral damage in his fight to save his city.

In Spider-Man 2 Peter Parker is briefly de-powered (sort of) and gives up being Spider-Man, and as “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” we see he’s never been happier to be the normal nerd he’s always been inside:

In Christopher Nolan’s much-acclaimed The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne explains to love-interest Rachel Dawes that Harvey Dent’s rise to power will bring an end to the need for him to be Batman. I couldn’t find that scene, but here is another, where Bruce is equally ready to abandon the cape & cowl to avoid becoming what would be necessary to fight the Joker:

In Man of Steel, Clark has never been more of an alien and outcast, never felt more different and alone, to the point that he wanders the planet, keeping himself isolated and cut off from any personal relationships. Oh, and his dad is so paranoid about keeping Clark’s superpowers a secret he lets himself die in a tornado, rather than risk Clark exposing himself by saving him.

And though it’s too early to judge, one clip from Avengers Age of Ultron suggests Tony Stark has had it with being Iron Man, or at least longs for the day he can retire when he asks Steve Rogers, “Isn’t that why we fight? So we can end the fight? So we can go home?” It certainly seems that he creates Ultron as a means to protect Earth (“put a suit of armor around the world”) without the need for The Avengers, which horribly backfires.

Daredevil, particularly as written by Frank Miller and Brian Michael Bendis, has had a long and tortured history. The price Matt Murdock has paid being Daredevil, in terms of personal injury, trauma, and loss has been astronomical. The new series on Netflix seems poised to venture down this road.

The Thing has never felt comfortable in his stony skin. Bruce Banner lives in terror of his powers manifesting as The Hulk. Mutants and members of the various X-teams are hated and feared in equal measure by much of the human populace some of whom have called for their extinction. Spider-Man literally gave the world the axiom “with great power comes great responsibility”. Batman very well may be mentally unbalanced. Superman has been depicted as a Christ figure, talk about the weight of the world on your shoulders. Hal Jordan was so tormented by the loss of Coast City he became the avatar of Parallax, the embodiment of fear.

Need I go on? Granted, comic books and their adaptations aren’t always pity parties and aren’t always doom and gloom. However, it’s clear there has been enough dark and gritty realism and negativity written into these stories and characters to influence our expectations.

Obviously, Barry may and likely will change and develop as the show continues and he struggles with greater threats and bigger, badder rogues. I’m sure the stakes will rise and Barry won’t always view his powers as a gift. I’m sure the time will come when his shoulders will sag from the weight of his heroic mantle, but for now, I’m happy he views the glass not just as half full, but overflowing. And i hope it doesn’t form too many leaks.