REVIEW: Legends of Tomorrow, Season 1, Episode 13: “Leviathan”

Sometimes a show needs to shake things up and have a giant Brandon Routh re-enact Pacific Rim. But Legends of Tomorrow still suffers from flawed representations of female characters.

My reviews lately tend to be not about whether an episode is good or bad. They’re more like extended analysis of ideas I see presented, as I’m more interested in discussion than assigning a grade to a show. The abbreviated version of this review if that “Leviathan” is a very silly episode that has numerous flaws in how it is representing its female characters. Yet at the same time as I am critical of those flaws, I appreciate that this show fills a gap in current pop culture: when other stories about superheroes emphasize the darkness, Legends of Tomorrow is a reminder about those moments of joyfulness in the superhero narrative. And I think having this episode air on #NationalSuperheroDay makes it valuable to have that joy and hope reinforced in a genre that misunderstands cynicism and grittiness for realism: when done well, you get Jessica Jones, and when done poorly, you get Man of Steel

This is part of a longer argument I have been working on, in regards to what Supergirl and other DC Comics television shows are accomplishing that the DC films and the Marvel ABC series are not: there is a sense of joy, hope, and fun to these stories that is not dependent on grimdark, cynicism, or a near-sociopathic pleasure taken out of images of violence and inhumanity. 

Like the theme of hope in Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow used tonight’s episode to emphasize one’s own agency over seemingly impossible odds. While Kendra (Clara Renee) was able to make her choice not to kill Savage (Casper Crump) lest she lose the chance to bring back Carter (Falk Hentschel), Ray’s words to Rip (Arthur Darvill) and Stein’s (Victor Garber) decision to save refugees emphasizes that, even in time travel, there has to be hope that some difference can be made. That is difficult in a world, fictional or otherwise, when the odds seem to be against the ability to make a positive difference in the world.

What makes such idealistic hokiness go down more smoothly is getting to see Ray turning into a version of Atom Smasher and knocking around the Leviathan for a few minutes.

And the show managed to do so without taking glee in people’s misery, as with the glee I saw in at least one audience member who was smiling and clapping loudly when Superman snapped Zod’s neck in Man of Steel. Legends presents a bright, colorful, and cartoonish fight between Ray and the Leviathan as having actual stakes for the safety of refugees. At a time when Supergirl is standing as a strong condemnation of the xenophobia and sexism that dominates this election cycle, thanks to a Republican Party and a frontrunner like Donald Trump that foster such hatred, I can’t help but over-read Stein’s repetition of the word “refugee” as resonating with current prejudicial judgments towards refugees who have been mocked and feared in this country. Sometimes that shining example to the world consists of people behaving decently to each other and using logic and empathy to make someone else’s life better. And sometimes that shining example is a glowing Ray Palmer knocking the crap out of a robot.

The fight between Ray and Leviathan is too silly and too sincere not to smile upon: Jax’s (Franz Drameh) reaction to the fight was similar to my own watching Pacific Rim in a theater. Ray and Leviathan duking it out is also so out-there as to be entertaining rather than dull. When shows like Agents of SHIELD have wasted so many opportunities to just have a superhero appear, to introduce mind-reading, and to act as if viewers have no idea what “transhumanism” is, I appreciate that Legends of Tomorrow says, screw it, have a giant robot pop up.

Oh, and have Rip refer to Savage’s army as “Shocktroopers”: not only is it frightening fascistic, but it is too comical, as a comic book element should be.

Legends of Tomorrow is not hesitant at embracing the silly aspects of the superhero genre. Just like with any genre, there are certain conceits and elements that are acceptable, so long as they are handled with respect to the characters, they are used in ways that are creative and not as cliches, they do not violate the rules set up to this story’s own universe and to realistic expectations of human behavior, and they do not reduce people to stereotypes. Where the silliness compromises a story is when it does not give characters compelling motivations, or when the filmmaking is compromised by confusing editing. In the latter case, I did not understand how Stein was stabbed: the way it was filmed suggested it was Rip who did so, if only to silence Stein’s legitimate concern about rescuing refugees. I cannot imagine that was the case, yet the setup of the scenes was not clear.

I was surprised by the revelation that Savage brainwashed Carter. What I do not feel to be realistic is Kendra refusing to kill Savage and lose Carter, someone with whom she has had almost no relationship except in flashbacks (a problem I approached lightly last week), and ignoring, first, that Carter will reincarnate, likely with his memories, and second, that there are other ways to restore his memories.

The show does suffer from flaws that remain. Snart (Wentworth Miller) convinces Cassandra (Jessica Sipos) with archival footage of her father releasing the global virus, and even as she initially doubts the veracity of this footage, her reaction doesn’t work for me. First, even at this point in 2016, let alone in the far future of Legends, footage can be doctored or poorly edited to misrepresent someone. Second, Cassandra’s willingness to almost immediately believe suggests, again as she admits, that she has always known.

That detail is interesting in terms of not reducing Cassandra into a blind follower of her father. People tend to hold to their preconceptions, regardless when new evidence shatters them: in this case, the new evidence given to her seems not to have shattered an idealized image of her father, so much as reinforce a lingering doubt she already had. Without an additional scene in this episode, such as at least one scene with her and her father before she turns against him, Cassandra’s a realization without sufficient buildup: I wanted to see what kind of a relationship she has with her father, and whether that relationship would warrant her to turn against him so readily. If she had a loving relationship with her father, then her lingering doubt is surprising but not necessarily unrealistic; if she already had a contentious relationship, then the revelation loses impact.

And I think one way to have addressed this problem would have been not to wait until so late in the series to reveal that Savage has a daughter. Legends includes many women in one-episode supporting roles but not as part of the main cast, the current team limited to only Kendra and Sara. It is also why I would love for one episode that did not have Kendra and Sara discuss Carter and/or Ray, which would be far less annoying if this show’s team had at least half of its members be women. Our own world and the United States have populations that are majority female and seeing as we are beyond the point that we can tolerate anything less.

Imagine the difference the show would have if the villain throughout was not only Savage but also his female lieutenant, Cassandra. While this structure poses its own problems, such as having a female sidekick in a supporting role to a male villain rather than taking center-stage, it would also allow the relationship between Savage and Cassandra to be revealed slowly, leaving some mystery as to her identity before this episode confirms that, yes, they are father and daughter. This setup also would allow the show to reveal dimensions to Savage so that, through his relationship with his daughter, he is developed. I think an apt comparison would be to the relationship between the Shredder and Karai in the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series: Shredder retains his immorality despite his obvious concern for Karai, whether as his daughter or as a pawn, and Karai’s conflicted loyalties allow her to be developed as a far more complex character than her father, which makes her fall into villainy a bit more interesting than someone, like the Shredder, who is only a maniac.

While I want an increased number of women in this show, this is not simply to have characters be women when that is not suited to the story and the interactions of the characters; it means that, first, you write stories that do reveal the variety of human interactions, and we do not have enough stories in popular culture that look at the lives of women in these stories; and second, you have to write female characters as you would any character, to show all the various experiences in the world, and that means not simply as being in romantic and sexual relationships with men, where their lives seem to be centered only around those relationships. Having Hawkgirl’s story be around Hawkman is a standard of the original comics; that does not mean that adaptations must do likewise, shown most successfully in the animated Justice League where Hawkgirl’s story is not only around any man, and that her romantic relationships are developed with focus on her own motivations as a Thanagarian, as a superhero, and as an atoner.

The revelation that Carter has been brainwashed as one of Savage’s soldiers is a twist that I appreciated: despite of course Falk Hentschel being credited in an episode when he was written out of it, I had assumed he was credited only because of the flashbacks and not because his character would return. The revelation also finally shows Savage as a capable strategian rather than someone whose victories depend more so on the ignorance, pride, or ethics of the superheroes. While I prefer the cool calm of Phil Morris’s performance of Savage in Justice League, as the character gloats at Kendra, Casper Crump is finally given some dialogue that allows him to truly appear as maniacal as I wanted the character to be.

With Savage now captured by the team and locked on the ship, Legends of Tomorrow finally addresses what many viewers have shouted for so long: instead of leaving Savage behind, take him on the ship and hold him captive. This delay to do so when Rip had numerous prior opportunities to do so is frustrating, so the payoff in next week’s episode needs that climax. Savage’s imprisonment on the team’s own ship is the equivalent of Loki allowing himself to be taken to the Helicarrier in The Avengers: that moment allowed Loki to demonstrate again his already apparent abilities at deception, and Savage is sorely in need of those qualities to be a more interesting villain, if we are to believe that his immortality allowed him to be truly so shrewd as to take over the world.

Stray Observations

  • Rory (Dominic Purcell) was in fine form tonight, whether rhyming with Rip (“Killer, klepto, and pyro.” “Bingo”), or snarking at Kendra, with some self-awareness how the show has avoided having him actually burn people (“I’m going to need you to burn something.” “About time”).
  • And Ray and Kendra had some excellent almost Whedon-esque dialogue tonight (not the exact quotations): ““And I think I have a way to stop the giant robot that’s coming to kill us.” “I am about to kill an immortal madman, and you’re about to fight a giant robot.”
  • Finally, Ray’s actually well-written and well-performed appeal to Rip was appreciated. Whereas other superhero shows have bothered me with telling rather than showing, whether Arrow leaving some dialogue to hang that did not need to be spoken, Agents of SHIELD having two minutes of excruciating exposition, or The Flash reminding us for the third time that Zoom sees Caitlin as like his mother, I appreciate that at no point does Ray say the obvious: the reason he is the one listening to Rip’s mourning of his lost son and wife, and the reason Ray is the one to remind Rip to have hope, is because Ray himself lost his fiancee. This is either a happy accident on the part of the show, or the writers have enough confidence that viewers can figure all of this out without needing to be hit over the head with it.
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