Rollingstone – Midway through Legends of Tomorrow‘s Season Four finale, one of the show’s misfit heroes finds himself in hell, hanging out with supervillain Vandal Savage. Savage was the big bad of Legends‘ misbegotten first season, an over-the-top creep on a show with too many characters it had no idea what to do with. His brief return here, as smiling comic relief, is a wink to how far Legends has come over these four seasons. Once it was an overly serious collection of spare parts with no real reason to exist. Now, it’s not only my favorite of the CW’s lineup of DC Comics shows, but my favorite current superhero show, full stop.
Where Arrow, The Flash and Supergirl were all based on long-running comics properties with plenty of pre-existing narrative architecture, Legends was a hodge-podge. It took characters who’d outlived their usefulness on Arrow and Flash, threw in a handful of other B- and C-listers from those stories and gave them a time machine to go after Savage. It was a mess. There were too many characters, many of them with powers that were either too expensive or overly capable of solving story problems, to regularly deploy. The first season focused on the least interesting characters. The cast was game, but you could occasionally see a look of bewilderment cross the faces of actors like Brandon Routh (size-changing engineer Ray Palmer, a.k.a. the Atom) or Victor Garber (scientist Martin Stein, a.k.a. one half of the nuclear-powered Firestorm), as if they weren’t sure what they were doing here or why they were needed. (That the team had two resident geniuses in Ray and Martin was one of many redundancies.)
Starting with Season Two, the Legends creative team embraced the extraneousness of it all. The fact that these were heroes nobody else had any need for became text rather than subtext. The Legends knew they were unwanted screw-ups, and the series developed a necessary and endearing sense of humor as a result. That season pitted the team against a crew of bad guys from the other shows, each of them vastly more charismatic and entertaining than Savage had been. The following season kept Neal McDonough around as omnipotent villain Damien Darhk, while adding a new wrinkle: The Legends’ previous antics had broken time itself, so they also had to fix historical anomalies. (In one episode, they find Helen of Troy in 1937 Hollywood on the verge of inadvertently stealing Hedy Lamarr’s career.)
The show has also smartly kept churning through characters, rather than letting them burn out. Of that unwieldy original cast, only Routh, Caity Lotz (as martial artist and team leader Sara Lance, a.k.a. White Canary) and Dominic Purcell (as gruff ex-con Mick Rory, a.k.a. Heat Wave) remain. Some characters have come from other shows (Matt Ryan even came from NBC’s long-canceled Constantine). Others, like historian hero Nate “Steel” Haywood (Nick Zano), were more wisely pulled from the DC archives. And a few, like cloned government agent Ava Sharpe (Jes Macallan), were created specifically for the show.
Where Legends was once serious to a fault, now it’s endlessly playful. It acknowledges the fundamental silliness of the material in a way that so many shows of this genre are reluctant, if not embarrassed, to do. This has been an internal struggle among both superhero fans and creators for decades, going back at least to the Sixties Batman TV show with Adam West. Some demand you take the capes and code names seriously no matter what. Others quickly grow tired of the gloom and grittiness and just want to smile. The other Berlanti-verse shows are all capable of lightness (The Flash in particular operates best in that mode), but they have an unfortunate tendency to default to angst. Legends recognized in time the benefits of leaning into the inherent lameness of its characters and the convoluted nature of time-travel stories. It’s the kind of show not afraid to conclude a season with a climactic battle between an all-powerful demon and a giant-sized cuddly children’s show puppet named Beebo:
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