The Flash: Moving Forward or Standing Still?
Off the top of my head, I can think of several characters that have changed dramatically from when they first appeared, but surprisingly few that we actually saw. Batman is the most obvious victim of this. In Batman: The Animated Series, he was dark and brooding, yet still maintained a witty (if low key) sense of humor. Hell, he even laughed in some episodes (I’m going to put the toothy grins down to animation errors).
Then along came The New Batman Adventures. This Batman was an embittered and angry crime fighter, who very rarely even quirked up his lip into the semblance of a smile. And this version of the character has continued on into Justice League and its Unlimited companion.
Justice League was arguably the first DCAU show to finally have some real character development. Justice League Unlimited only amplified this effect. Through these two shows we have been able to see characters interact and grow into a family of sorts, different relationships and rivalries gradually growing until they reach some kind of natural outcome. The most obvious of these developments, is, of course, Hawkgirl and Green Lantern’s romance.
But that’s not all we’ve seen. We’ve watched Superman wrestle with his inner demons and his struggle to redeem himself in the eyes of the people he lives to protect. We’ve seen Batman and Wonder Woman’s… ‘difficult’ relationship. Hell, we’ve even seen characters from Batman Beyond developed on this show.
But, as J’onn would say, “Let’s put a pin in that theory for another time.”
I’m here to talk about Wally West; The Flash. We’ve seen other characters change and grow from their initial appearances. Has he grown from the speedster we first met way back in the Superman: The Animated Series episode 'Speed Demons'?
In my opinion, I think he has. In the aforementioned episode, we basically got the low-down on a character who is, for all intents and purposes, rather unlikable. He's cocky, rude, loud and a womanizer. In short, he's an ass.
Not a good start.
However, it’s important to note that the Flash’s appearance here was not meant to be a precedent to a Justice League or Flash show. The creators had the difficult task (as they did with all Superman: The Animated Series crossovers) of condensing the key aspects of the character into one 22 minute slot, while still giving Superman (it is, after all, his show) and the villain enough coverage. Not an easy feat by any stretch of the imagination.
And, in the comics of the time, that was indeed the Flash’s personality. In order to contrast him from the straight laced and very Superman-ish Barry Allen Flash, the writers of the comics decided to make the Wally West Flash much more impulsive and cocky. However, this generally grating attitude was a result of Wally feeling inadequate of the Flash mantle, struggling to make the transition from carefree sidekick Kid Flash to full blown hero The Flash. Eventually, he grew out of this phase, and, if you read about the adventures of Wally West in, say, Geoff Johns’ run, you will find a Flash very different from the one depicted in ‘Speed Demons’ and Justice League.
However, when it came time to use the Flash again in Justice League, the creators fell back upon the personality they had established in Superman: The Animated Series. But this was not because of misinterpretation on the part of the shows production team; they needed someone to fill the ‘wise cracking youth’ slot on the team. Who else could conceivably fill that gap? John Stewart? Wonder Woman?
This does not mean that they were not at fault, however. The Flash of the first season falls victim to the problem that plagued the show in its early episodes; bland characterization, relying on the situation to excite the viewer, rather than the characters that are in said situation.
Now, when I say ‘bland characterization’, I do not mean that they lacked interest. But in their zeal to make each member different from one another, the creative team neglected to give their characters real personalities. Flash was the young, impulsive member, Green Lantern was the hardass military guy (I swear, he didn’t get along with anyone in Season 1), Hawkgirl was the tomboy while Wonder Woman was the prom queen…
So far, so Teen Titans.
Just so I am clear, I am in no way insulting Teen Titans. It is simply a well known fact that the creators of that show were intending for a very simple outlook when they developed the characters for the series. The creators (and the viewers) of Justice League, however, were used to something a bit more… mature.
Obviously, the show in question is intended for children, but the magic of the DCAU shows is their potential appeal to everyone, be they child, teenager, or adult. By relying on stereotypes when they developed their team members, it gave a sense that they were talking down to the viewer, basically pointing out which ‘slot’ each Leaguer filled.
However, there were exceptions to this regarding the Flash. ‘Paradise Lost’ gave us a glimpse of the Flash’s first redeemable feature; his heart. Before that point, Flash had been, as said before, loud, rude, and very ‘surfer dude’. However, his angry response to Diana’s banishment showed something else to The Fastest Man Alive beside the brash, womanizing exterior. This went on in the excellent three part episode ‘The Savage Time’, where Flash yells at Hawkgirl for leaving Green Lantern behind. There was a fierce loyalty to his friends beneath his light hearted demeanor.
Another sticking point (especially from a Flash fans’ point of view) was how inexperienced and generally ineffective Wally was when it came to the use of his powers. The most blatant example that comes to mind is ‘In Blackest Night’, where a stray piece of rubble knocks Flash clean out. However, this was forgivable; this was a learning experience for the creative team, usually used to only having to storyboard a maximum of three characters.
Also, the very nature of the Flash’s powers make him difficult to use in any kind of fight situation without making him look like an idiot. Bruce Timm once jokingly said that he wished they could kill him off, because he could conceivably be everywhere and defeat everyone before they could even move. So, some toning down was required, as it was with Superman for his own series. However, how effectively Flash used his powers reflected his personality as well; his constant trip ups and falls showed a certain immaturity and lack of strategy on his part.
The second season brought further developments in both his personality and the use of his powers, the most notable of this obviously being ‘A Better World’, which not only displayed the Flash using his powers in interesting (and let’s face it, downright cool) ways, also firmly showed his importance to the League as a whole, much like ‘Hereafter’ did for Superman.
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” and this was particularly true of the Justice Lord universe’s Flash. Although there were undoubtedly other extenuating circumstances (Lex Luthor becoming President of the United States, for one), it is the death of the Flash and the loss of his young and idealistic view of right and wrong that prompts Justice Lord Superman to do what he does, and continue to do so.
There were other episodes in the second season which highlighted the Flash in some way or another (‘Only a Dream,’ ‘Eclipsed’ and ‘The Secret Society’), but none of those episodes displayed the Flash’s importance and place in the League more clearly and powerfully than ‘A Better World’.
Then, of course, came the first season of Justice League Unlimited, and the great disappearing act that was the Flash. Of course, he popped up in ‘Initiation’ and ‘The Return’, but these were cameos at best. A pained grunt does not an appearance make.
The reason for this, it has been revealed, was because the creative team were giving him a break in an attempt to evolve the Flash’s character beyond the ‘comedy relief’ he was in past seasons. However, he returned in the Season 2 (or 4, depending on what episode guide you read) episode ‘The Ties that Bind’, basically the same as he was before.
Although not particularly enlightening on the Flash front, it gave the viewer a look at another aspect of the Flash’s character not glimpsed before; his desire to be taken seriously as a hero. It is implied through his dialogue to Elongated Man that the reason he didn’t appear in Season 1 of Justice League Unlimited was because the League considered him somehow less of a mature hero than the rest of the original seven:
“Better than being treated like a teenage sidekick! I was one of the original seven!”
However, the creative team made sure not to allow the Flash to slip away again, featuring the Flash in some kind of speaking role in episodes such as ‘The Doomsday Sanction’, ‘The Balance’ and ‘Flashpoint’. In each, he displayed his role at the seven seated conference table (figuratively and literally); to keep the original seven League members on the right track, as this quote from ‘The Doomsday Sanction’ indicates:
“How long is this going to take? I thought we had an island to evacuate.”
And then, later in the same episode, we see a troubled frown from the Flash following the sinister and still downright disturbing Doomsday ‘execution’. Just that simple frown speaks volumes about the Flash’s character.
The difference in these episodes compared to his role in earlier Justice League episodes is that the other League members gradually begin to listen to what he has to say, even if they do dismiss it outright (for example, Wonder Woman’s quick dismissal of Flash’s above statement).
And then we come to the episode that had Flash fans (myself included) overjoyed; ‘Divided We Fall.’ However, the more important part of the episode is not in fact Wally’s incredible defeat of Brainthor, but rather his confrontation with his ‘Reverse Flash’ counterpart:
“Slacker! Child! Clown! We have no place among the world’s greatest heroes!” “Says you! I’ve got my own seat at the conference table! I’m gonna paint my logo on it!”
This shows leaps and bounds in Flash’s character, if only in a subtle way. First of all, let’s look at how easily Flash deflects his counterpart’s blows, both physical and verbal. As the ‘Reverse Flash’ picks upon everything that Wally stated in ‘The Ties that Bind’, he easily dismisses them all, not once doubting himself or his resolve, just like the other heroes (with the obvious exception of Superman). The fact that he even jokes about it proves that he and the writers are comfortable with his place as the comedy relief of the group; the difference being he is the comedy relief with the big heart.
When Season 3 rolled along, we were shown just how far the Flash has come. In Season 1, his reaction to any woman who could slip into a bikini could be summed up by a line in the Static Shock crossover, ‘A League of Their Own’:
“Hello, ladies.” His reaction to the confident Fire in ‘I am Legion’ is, of course, anything but. As I have mentioned earlier, Flash’s womanising antics stemmed from insecurity with himself in the comics, and it is conceivable that is the case in ‘Speed Demons’ and Justice League (this is more than likely the situation, taking into account the Kid Flash mannequin seen in ‘Flash and Substance’). And, after finding self gratification in episodes like ‘A Better World’ and ‘Divided We Fall’, he has finally grown into a man that doesn’t feel the need to cover his insecurities with a loud, brash persona, as shown by how he responds nervously (and often incoherently) to Fire’s advances.
Another interesting development in ‘I am Legion’ is Flash’s newfound brother/sister relationship with Shayera, something that would have been impossible with the Flash of old. It’s almost difficult to believe that this is the same Flash that asked Hawkgirl for ‘mouth to mouth’ in ‘Eclipsed’.
However, the most clear indication of the Flash’s development is the superb episode ‘Flash and Substance’. In this episode, we see a Flash that actually has a life outside of the costume (showing that the creative team have moved away from the idea that, in Dan Riba’s words, ‘Flash sleeps in that outfit’), and a very comfortable one at that – he’s good at his job (in a police forensics lab - a surprising move for the usually portrayed as dim Wally) and very popular in his workplace.
Then comes his appearance in costume, and only then do we get such a crystal clear display of what makes the Flash the Flash. Adored by the public of Central City, the Scarlet Speedster is shown to be the most ‘public’ hero, even more so than Superman. For while the Man of Steel is loved and appreciated in Metropolis, it is highly doubtful that he is on a first name basis with the cab drivers of the city, or that he would volunteer to paint a citizen’s fence. As a public hero, Superman is still rather aloof, perhaps as a side effect of his default mode of transport; flying, whilst the Flash is always on ground level.
The earlier mentioned newfound attitude to women is further reinforced by Flash’s nigh on ignorance of Linda Park in ‘Flash and Substance’, whereas if she had made an appearance in Season 1 or 2 of Justice League, it is highly doubtful that Flash would have ignored her in such a way.
Something else that had radically changed is how the other League members perceive him, which is why Batman and Orion were the perfect choices as counterpoints to Flash’s light-hearted world. That Batman, the most dark and brooding member of the League, can see the Flash’s heroic qualities, shows how serious the Scarlet Speedster is about his chosen vocation. Orion, representing Batman’s old point of view, helps to accentuate this.
Also, by using Batman, the creators have (I presume unintentionally) provided a rite of passage of sorts, using the first (and arguably the best) DC character of the DCAU to judge the Flash. If Batman, the bar at which all other superhero shows are measured, understands and respects the Flash, it implies that the fans of the show can stop thinking of Flash as the inexperienced and immature teenager he was earlier in the show.
In ‘Flash and Substance’, Orion says;
“Central City builds statues to this fool… who makes bad jokes… who wastes his time with pitiful men like the Trickster… I don’t understand.”
And Batman is correct in his response. Orion doesn’t understand what the Flash is about. Orion is still mistaken even at the end of the episode, when he states;
“Now I understand; you play the fool to hide a warrior’s pain.”
Again, he has missed the point brilliantly. The Flash doesn’t use his humour because he is hiding some kind of fierce warrior (or any serious insecurity) inside; he uses humour because he feels like being funny. His humour does not show any kind of immaturity on his part; on the contrary. When faced with an emotionally heavy situation, he doesn’t make a nervous joke; he goes with his gut emotional reaction. Just look at his response to Shayera and J’onn’s (respective) departures from the League.
The very epitome of the Flash is that he is one of the few superheroes who does not begrudge his special abilities from day to day; he simply loves being the Flash, and is a superhero and helps people because he feels like it, not from any kind of responsibility. His reasons for becoming a superhero can be summed up by his line in ‘Flashpoint’:
“People need us. We help them.”
Keeping this aspect of his character in mind, the creators of the show have managed to create a likeable and relatable character out of a stereotype that could have easily continued. They have performed the difficult task of developing a character while still keeping what makes the character iconic intact. Before, his constant jokes and one-liners were to hide his insecurities, not to mention to continue his role as ‘young jokester’ of the team. Now, they prove only one thing:
The Flash is a mature superhero. He’s just not serious about it.
“Dude; the bad guys went down, and nobody got hurt. You know what I call that? I really good day.”