When The Flash began back in 2014, I grew to love it very quickly.
In part that was simply because of the level of quality it maintained – I’d still argue that Fast Enough, the first season finale to The Flash, is one of the best episodes of the show to date, as well as being one of the best episodes of superhero television in general – but also because it offered something a little different to what we’d seen before.
The Flash was coming at a point when superhero properties felt particularly desaturated and cynical – with Arrow on the small screen and Man of Steel exploding into cinemas, The Flash was a meaningful step in the opposite direction. It was a programme that set itself apart from the rest through its hope and optimism, its bright colours and cheerful tone, and most of all by how fun it was.
That was at a point when superhero properties were even less common than they are now – arguably, it was the success of The Flash that opened up the floodgates to let in so many more. When The Flash first debuted, the only other superhero TV shows were Arrow and Agents of SHIELD; in cinema, Age of Ultron was still a year away, and Man of Steel 2 remained an immediate possibility.
Since then, though, there’s been a huge boom in terms of both television and cinema. The Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to progress, and the DC Expanded Universe continues to stumble forward; both have a slate of films planned out until the early 2020s. In terms of television, we’ve seen the addition of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, with Iron Fist, The Punisher, and The Defenders all still to come; there’s also a further three Marvel television properties planned, with Runaways, Cloak and Dagger, and Inhumans all at varying stages of development. And that’s still not all of them – they’re just the ones that are already airing or confirmed to be in the immediate future. (To say nothing, of course, of programmes like Lucifer or iZombie, which adapt comic book properties, even if they’re not strictly superhero shows in their own right.)
In tandem with The Flash, there’s been further development of the DC slate of superhero programming – we’ve seen both Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl, with a fifth show, Black Lightning, now promised to be in development. We’ve also had a run of Constantine (now returning as an animated series) and Gotham continues to carve a strange and subversive path through the Batman mythos.
On the one hand, this is great news for a certain type of fan – there’s so much to choose from. But by the same measure, it also means there’s a lot of competition; not everything can survive.
The Flash is in little danger of being cancelled, obviously; the DC programmes bring in a huge amount of revenue for the CW, and they remain consistently popular amongst audiences. But if The Flash is to last ten seasons, reaching the promised “Crisis” in 2024 – and seeing how long Supernatural has run for, there’s little reason to believe that isn’t the eventual aim – it’s going to have to do more than be “a little different” to continue to set itself apart from the rest of the superhero world.
In a way, the shows that operate alongside The Flash are becoming its greatest threat; Arrow, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow – and likely eventually Black Lightning – all work from fairly similar formulas to The Flash. (This was particularly evident in Supergirl season one, which mimicked the structure of The Flash season one fairly closely.) While it’s undeniable that each show executes the formula well, when four programmes are executing the same formula in the same way each week, it does start to get a little tired.
And so The Flash needs to evolve – it has to grow beyond the formula it adheres to so closely, and stop sticking to the same structure with every episode. After all, there’s surely only so many times that Barry running faster to beat someone who is also fast can be considered a satisfying payoff to a year of television, no?
The upcoming musical episode is a good first step in this direction; it’s embracing the stranger side of The Flash’s mythos, and making the programme distinct once more. It’s still not enough, though; after all, a one episode diversion isn’t going to take the pressure off the other twenty-three.
The Flash should celebrate and embrace the stranger side of its potential – it has to, to stop it from growing stale.
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