By Brian Lowry
The Flash makes his debut on CW’s “Arrow” in the Dec. 4 episode, and don’t worry, because if you blink, you won’t miss him. That’s because the fleet-footed hero actually won’t have any powers – yet – as he’s introduced in the first of a two-part appearance on the show, in advance of what will, if all goes according to plan, turn into a regular-series gig next season.
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In the good-news dept., Grant Gustin, perhaps best known for a recurring stint on “Glee,” seems like a savvy choice to play this youth-ified version of the DC Comics character, which not only dovetails with the CW’s overall profile but with the animated version of the Flash, who, as part of the Justice League, has occupied the role of youngish smartass.
Still, there’s something mildly ironic about the Flash – one of DC’s better-known second-tier players – potentially springing out of the rib of Green Arrow, who never really amounted to much until Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams made him socially relevant and angry in the 1970s. Since then, he has been portrayed as sort of a poor man’s Batman (including a stint in “Smallville”) – another billionaire vigilante with plenty of high-tech toys.
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The irony is Warner Bros. actually turned out a pretty good “The Flash” TV series back in 1990 – the year after Tim Burton’s “Batman” – with John Wesley Shipp in the title role as a more grownup version of Barry Allen. Alas, that was both an expensive proposition and ill-suited to CBS at that point, while lacking the intervening quarter-century of mainstreaming superheroes to get non-comic-book types past the very faithful red costume. (You can read a lengthy analysis of why it failed on comicbookmovie.com.)
Gustin’s Barry is still a science nerd, and also destined to be transformed by the always-superhero-friendly combination of chemicals and lightning. But after toying with launching him as part of “Arrow,” CW (perhaps wisely) decided to throw its resources into the pilot, which will give the producers more time (and presumably money) to invest in getting the formula right.
Based on a preview, Warner Bros. Television and CW have won part of the battle by finding the right leading man, but they still have to conjure enough super-speed action to satisfy the portion of the audience that – especially with a character like the Flash – will be disappointed if the show winds up being as soapy as “Arrow” normally is. (To be fair, this latest episode does feature a couple of solid action sequences, including a fight with a super-powered foe on a moving truck.)
This much seems pretty clear: If DC wants to regain some of the thunder that Marvel has stolen with its theatrical success, it’s going to need to take some swings with players beyond Superman and Batman. And after NBC passed on the Wonder Woman pilot and Green Lantern didn’t exactly light it up at the boxoffice, that leaves relatively few options, from obscure players like Hourman (actually an interesting proposition, if done right) and a desire to make Aquaman (also featured in a busted pilot) into a more seaworthy commodity.
If history is any guide, threading the needle with a character like the Flash, given TV’s budgetary constraints, won’t be easy. One need only witness the creative struggles on “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” to see that tension at work.
But with apologies to Arrow, looking around at DC’s available stable of heroes, if it can avoid the usual missteps, “The Flash” just might be the most promising weapon currently in its quiver.