Debut date: September 20, 1990
Series legacy: Mostly forgotten and failed entry of superhero TV
Welcome friends, to the second Test Pilot Special Theme Week. We had such great success with the week devoted to Joss Whedon-produced series back at the first of the year that I thought it would be fun to take another stab at it.
Every day this week, a guest and I will take on a famous (or in a few cases, infamous) pilot focused on a famous comic book superhero. These characters have become massive properties in the film industry over the last 20 years (especially the last 10-12), driving many of the highest-grossing movies of all-time. This summer season kicked off with Whedon’s Avengers, perhaps the most anticipated film in the genre and one that succeeded all expectations. New Batman and Spider-Man films are soon to come. Superheroes are big business for film.
But on television? Geesh. Networks have attempted televised adaptations of popular superhero characters for decades, but most of them have failed, commercially, creatively or (in most cases) both. This theme will take a look at some of the high-profile attempts to make superheroes fly on the small screen and consider what worked and what did not.*
*Our discussions will focus solely on live-action superhero series. It is important to note that animated series centered on comic book heroes have thrived for years, and continue to do so. Surely there is more to the varying successes than simply visual effects and budgets, right?
Welcome to Wednesday, y’all. We’re smack-dab in the middle of our superhero theme week. If you missed the pieces on Batman and The Incredible Hulk, please take a look. Today, we move closer to the contemporary television landscape and tackle our first project that debuted after I was already alive: The Flash. Unlike our first two series, CBS’ 1990 take on the DC Comic character, The Flash lasted just one season and honestly, I (and based on the begging I had to do to get someone to write this with me, everyone else as well) forget it even existed. We’ll talk about why that is, among other things, today.
Joining me for this discussion is Adam Wright. Adam runs the always-growing TV Done Wright and you can follow all his rage and humor on Twitter. Adam comes at this pilot with an interesting perspective, and I’m excited to bring you his thoughts. Take it away, sir:
Let me first start by saying that I am not a huge comic-book fan. I’ve seen some of the popular movies based off comic-books, but my knowledge of back-stories and origins is very limited.
I know of the obvious: Batman, Superman, Spider-Man. These are the big guys. The Flash is one of the lesser known comic-book heroes. In fact, before I volunteered for this project, my only prior knowledge of The Flash was from that kid from the movie Daddy Day Care. Sad, I know.
Comic-book adaptations are tricky, much like movies and shows based off novels. They have the daunting task of staying loyal to the original material plus trying to win over new fans who might not know of the comic-book. People like me.
Going into the pilot of The Flash, my expectations were low. The series premiered on CBS in 1990, so one might expect that the Special FX will be bad. One might also expect some questionable wardrobe selections and some incredibly cheesy lines. But it’s the 1990s, baby. (ooops, wrong decade).
As a non-comic-book fan, I did have a few expectations based on my (somewhat limited) knowledge of superhero movies or shows. Knowing the origins of ones powers is key. Is the superhero’s alter-ego likable? Is the main villain believable and menacing, with an equally interesting back-story? Finally, for this specific project, I wondered if The Flash could be a fun ride, despite its age and time of release.
And somewhat surprisingly, The Flash was indeed quite fun.
Barry Allen is a forensic specialist in a family full of cops. Now because this is before the days of CSI:, poor Barry gets no respect for what he does. His brother and his dad were both “real cops”, after all. Barry is just a lab-geek. But not all is bad for Barry, he does have a smoking hot girlfriend. (Yes, that is important.)
All is not well in Central City, when a renegade gang of bikers are wreaking havoc on the city. One night while working hard on the case in the lab (trying to show his family he’s a real cop!), something disastrous happens. A lightning bolt hits the building, somehow gets inside, and strikes the shelve full of chemicals where Barry was standing. The magic shock strikes Barry as he lies in the pool of chemicals. His co-worker finds him unconscious, still literally shinning from the bolt of lightning (really).
Barry wakes up and wants back on the case right away. But he notices something is different. He’s fast! Super-fast! Like a ….well…you get it. Of course with every power, there’s a downside. His dog doesn’t like him, he eats everything in sight, crazy shit like that. So Barry seeks help Dr. Tina McGee who works for S.T.A.R. Labs, where they are experts in crazy shit. In fact, her late-husband was one of the lab’s “subjects” (nice backstory there).
With the help of Dr. McGee, Barry learns how to use his super-speed. Of course, he gets his uniform! If you keep in mind this is the 1990s, the costume could have been way worse. We all remember Batman & Robin.
By the end of the two hour pilot, Barry aka The Flash helps stops and captures the leader of the biker-gang, Nicholas Pike, who is a surprisingly well-established villain character. Pike is a disgraced police officer and the former partner of Barry’s brother, the man he ends up murdering (which spurs on much of Barry’s actions in the second half).
The Flash did a great job covering the basic bases. They explained how Barry became The Flash (although I can’t stop laughing at the ridiculousness of the magic thunderbolt). Barry’s backstory is also interesting enough for us to cheer for him. How can you not cheer for the lab-geek who wants the respect of his family? The main villain of the pilot was also good; although I was disappointed he was captured so quickly. Why not let him free for a few more episodes? It just felt like a two-hour movie, leaving me no reason to continue watching.
Despite some minor problems with the cheesy dialogue/writing, the best part of The Flash is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. This pilot is actually funny at times. On purpose too! The writers were smart enough to throw in some snappy lines in there and great jokes. My favorite thing about the episode is that they made the most obvious sex joke. Here’s the scene: Barry and his girlfriend are in bed. She looks at him and says “That’s it? Done already? That was so….disappointing.” Then we see that they were actually watching a boxing match, which ended with an early knockout. I nearly died laughing. Not because the joke was hilarious, in fact, it’s painfully obvious to make a Flash/premature ejaculation joke. But I LOVE that the writers had the balls and sense of humor to go there. It’s a simple scene, but it sets the tone for the rest of the series. It shows the viewers that they could laugh at themselves.
The Flash only lasted one season on CBS. It was a victim of bad scheduling, being pre-empted by Gulf War coverage, and being shuffled around the schedule. Viewers eventually got tired and moved on. I haven’t seen any other episodes, but I’ve read that in future episodes the main villains became cartoonier. The most famous one was Trickster who was played by Mark Hamill. But despite the change in tone and big name guest-stars, the series was cancelled.
Why is it so hard for a comic-book series to survive? Personally, I think it’s all about longevity. I really enjoyed the pilot, but I also feel like it would have made a better movie. I have no interest of watching the rest of the episodes. And that’s the problem. How much can you stretch a story of the superhero? The villain after villain formula gets tiresome, like any other crime-procedural show.
We can look at Smallville as a major, decade-lasting success. Heroes inched its way to several seasons, although let’s face it only ONE of them were good. But superhero shows will continue to be a tough sell for television until someone finds a way to shake up the formula.
Thanks, Adam. Up now, my thoughts on the opening salvo of The Flash:
The first two entries in this theme week were working on something of a blank canvas as far as live-action superhero stories go. Both Batman and The Incredible Hulk tried some interesting things, some of which worked, some of which did not, but the conventions of a living, breathing superhero story had yet to be reified on either the small or big screen.
By the time CBS brought The Flash to television audiences in 1990, the superhero landscape was very, very different. Not only had series like Hulk or Wonder Woman came and gone on television, but most importantly, Tim Burton had just successfully brought Batman to the big screen in 1989, single-handedly altering the perception of what could be done with a comic book superhero in a live-action world.* As the first major television series in the post-Burton Batman era, The Flash had a great deal to live up to, and had the benefit of knowing what late 20th century audiences wanted from their superhero stories.
*It’s important to make some note of the Donner Superman films, which certainly primed masses of mainstream audiences to accept well-regarded live-action superhero stories. Donner’s films were definitely successful, though I would suggest that Burton’s Batman was on another level, both as a cultural phenomenon and as a catalyst in what we see in the opening episode of The Flash.
Unsurprisingly, The Flash, at least at the pilot stage, tries to ape much of Burton’s Batman, particularly aesthetically, and mostly struggles to reconstruct the same combination of visual flare and character complexity. This is to be expected for multiple reasons, including budget discrepancies between the two projects and the similarly massive margin of difference in creative capability between Burton and the guys who wrote this pilot script. And let’s be fair: The Flash isn’t Batman. Although I am not extremely familiar with The Flash, there is a reason there have been a half-dozen Batman films and zero focused on The Flash: The speedy one isn’t that compelling.
However, more odd is that it seems like Warner Brothers, CBS and the pilot’s producers were not entirely sure how much they wanted to lift from Burton. In the opening minutes of the pilot, there are random details, like a handful of older cars anachronistic with 1990 body types and Danny Elfman’s score, that made me feel like I was watching this story take place down the street from Michael Keaton’s gothic Caped Crusader.
But by the 20-minute mark, The Flash visually settles into the 1990s as if the earlier details were never there.* From there, this pilot struggles to find the balance between fitting alongside Burton’s Bat and embracing the Flash character’s obvious lighter, goofier traits. When the villain Pike is on-screen, ranting to his biker gang full of cronies surely disappointed they were rejected from The Joker’s gang (and therefore lost out on an opportunity to wear a sweet embroidered leather jacket and carry around boom-boxes), there’s an edge to the proceedings. Michael Nader brings a demented, frantic energy to Pike and his murdering of Barry’s brother is sufficiently handled in a 1990s kind of way.
*It’s almost as if Warner Bros. hoped to create a single universe of the DC Comic characters, shot a few scenes, and then decided, “Eh, that could NEVER be done!”
In contrast, almost every scene with Barry experimenting with or training his abilities with Tina plays about as well as you would expect they would. Sure, the 1990 television budget special effects lend a hand in the cheesiness, but so do most of the attempts to scientifically explain Barry’s condition.
Even the lighthearted moments that work – of which there are many, as John Wesley Shipp (aka Dawson Leery’s father) handles the confusion and inner-goodness of the character with relatable aplomb – fail to land as well as they could because they seem to be coming from a different version of the story altogether. When Barry first discovers his speed by trying to catch the bus and accidentally running all the way to the beach some 30 miles away, or when his dog cowls in the corner because he knows something is up, The Flash works, at least in those individual moments. But then the episode cuts back to the scarred Pike, rallying his devilish troops and the tonal whiplash is just too much, too disjointed.
Nowhere is Flash’s identity crisis more evident than in one of its most important elements: the costume. Like Burton’s Batman, this Flash has a costume – built by Stan Winston Studios I might add, so it’s not like WB and CBS phoned it in – that is super-rubbery, very form fitting and generally recognizable to those viewers familiar with the comic book or animated version of the character. The difference is that Michael Keaton was able to lurch in the dark in a dark-black costume while portraying Batman, while Shipp is stuck wearing a bright red get-up and is initially seen in it during the brighter light of day, leaving the imagination to do no work. Flash’s costume wants to be the Burton Batman costume, it wants to be cool. Unfortunately, it’s tomato red, inherently goofy-looking and, well, worn by The Flash. Not quite the opposite of Batman, but close.
Moreover, the disconnected versions of this pilot extend into the thematic exploration as well. As an origin story (yawn), The Flash presents the typical beats about accepting responsibility, being selfless, doing good, etc., but those tropes have to fit alongside some screwball-y pratfalls as Barry discovers his powers and the grimier revenge narrative that powers the tension with Pike. As a double episode, The Flash theoretically has the time to explore multiple angles within one complete story just as a film would, but the execution of and connection between these disparate angles leaves something to be desired.
It doesn’t surprise me that The Flash struggled to find a direction in its only season on the air; it embodies those struggles in these opening 90 minutes. The grittier elements in the pilot actually work just fine (even if they are Burton-lite), just as some of the lighter, character-focused bits hold up as well. But together, bouncing back and forth for a feature-length period of time, the tonal whiplash is tiresome, and ultimately detrimental to this pilot’s quality.
Really though, Adam might be right: A Flash story probably works best in film form. The character is even less interesting than Banner/Hulk, his origin is (generally) simple and even his super-power isn’t that visually involving. I appreciate how this pilot tries to give Barry quality reasons for putting on the suit, but there doesn’t appear to be too many places to go from there. Even if this pilot was great instead of merely fine (for a mess), I wouldn’t want to see more Flash stories. Great, he runs fast again.*
*Yes, I know it’s more than that.
Clearly, your mileage may vary on this and any character, but I have three prevailing thoughts after watching/writing three of these things: One, feature-length pilots are the worst. Just knock it off with that noise. How many double-shot pilots actually work that well? This is apparently especially true for stories with obvious, pre-known beats.
Two, some characters might not be applicable to a long-form adaptation, at least in a live-action, 42-minutes a week fashion.
And three, I think I hate origin stories. The prevailing thought is that the best comic book films are the second ones (see: The Dark Knight, X2, Spider-Man 2, Ghost Rider: The One Where He Pisses Fire) and so maybe television series should skip the origin stories – or at least not belabor the point. Because even when these pilots get some of the origin stuff right, like The Flash does at times, the impact is still minimal.
Conclusions on legacy: Somewhat successful at times, but also clearly confused as to what it wants to be