Too many “Legends of Tomorrow” may give conflicting answers to our heroes’ question: What makes a hero?

 

“The Justice Society of America,” Legends of Tomorrow, Season 2, Episode 2. Directed by Michael Grossman. Written by Chris Fedak and Sarah Nicole Jones

Spoilers for this and future episodes of Legends of Tomorrow

The challenge I have watching the initial episodes this season of DC on CW shows is that it is a lot of setup for the rest of the season. I don’t bother with Arrow, The Flash is extending repetitive mysteries about arc villains, and Supergirl is just absolute fun. While each of those shows has its supporting cast, and Arrow expanding its own cast this season, still these are shows focused largely around their titular characters, making the shows into the protagonists’ stories and having their develop determine the major themes being explored.

Legends of Tomorrow has the additional challenge of a larger cast of characters, potentially diluting show’s focus, struggling to juggle multiple storylines and potentially conflicting themes. There are shortcuts this season seems to be taking already, such as shifting Nate (Nick Zano) to the position of our hero on the Joseph Campbell journey, and removing Rip and promoting first Stein (Victor Garber) then Sara (Caity Lotz) as leader. Yet the addition of the Justice Society of America for this episode only enlarges that cast. The Society returns later this season, for a few reasons I’ll clarify in the more spoiler-heavy discussion below, so some focus had to be given to Rex Hunter, Commander Steel (Matthew MacCaull), and Vixen (Maisie Richardson-Seliers), while their teammates take a back-seat along with the as-of-yet unmentioned Legends.

What helps Legends, even when the focus is diluted among so many characters, is the camp. When your story has the heroes fighting Nazis, however, camp requires a deft hand–or else you get something as monotonous and dark as Hellsing. And this episode of Legends is not campy enough or dark enough for that kind of content.

After entering the Nazi submarine last week, Eobard Thawne, the Reverse Flash (Matt Letscher), pops up again to get the plot moving: he has an order from the soon-to-be-introduced Legion of Doom to recruit Nazi Baron Wolfgang Klassen (Christopher De-Schuster) to acquire the Askaran Amulet. Having given the orders to start the episode’s plot, Thawne also gives Klassen a super-serum to power-up against the Legends–and because Ray (Brandon Routh) will need that serum to do vague “tinkering” to it to give Nate superpowers and make him relevant to this series. The Society retrieves the amulet, the Legends leave the 1940s, while Thawne comes upon the Society later, kills their leader Rex while he is alone, and escapes with the amulet for whatever the Legion has planned.

That the plot to this episode can be summarized in that one paragraph does suggest another linear plot to this episode. There are side-plots introduced, such as Stein angling to lead the Legends, Nate desiring to prove himself to be what he thinks is a “hero,” and Ray and Vixen setting up a potential alliance or yet another romance for our unluckiest atomic love machine. I’ll write more about Stein’s leadership below, and there is not as much to say about Ray and Vixen’s partnership except that it demonstrates the snark hidden behind her usually hard demeanor, which got some of the biggest laughs from me in terms of contrasts and depth to her character. So I’ll focus on Nate’s story instead.

Nate is being set up as yet another white male lead in the DC/CW shows whose journey defines the plot, feeling he is in the shadow of the past. The wrinkle separating Nate himself from his predecessors is that, while Oliver Queen is overcoming a legacy of his parents’ darkness, and while Barry Allen is solving his mother’s murder to exonerate his father, Nate is one of our first legacy heroes in the Arrowverse, alongside Vixen. Last week, we thought he was on this time travel adventure because, as a historian, of course he would: he could be the Indiana Jones. This week, some of that appeal of the everyman on a hero’s journey is undermined by the revelation that he already knew his grandfather was the legendary superhero Commander Steel, one of the major forces of the Justice Society of America, a secret United States governmental organization fighting against the Axis Powers in World War II. So Nate gets to obsess about his grandfather’s legacy and how he must protect his life to preserve his own future.

This story interests me less: making Nate a smart historian serves as a superpower, whereas giving him a historical background and a superhero grandfather suggests he is fated to be a hero.

The good news is that Sara tamps down on Nate’s arrogance, reminding him that he has not seen what it takes for someone to be a hero. And Steel informs Nate that while superheroes are practically soldiers, being a soldier may not be the path for superheroism for Nate. (This is also a tangential name-drop, as Nate’s comic book counterpart is “Citizen Steel,” since he is not a soldier like his grandfather, Commander Steel.)

And Nate does prove his mettle when he is an expert historian and comes to drive Steel away from the rampaging Nazi Berserker Klassen (but leaving Mid-Nite [Kwesi Ameyaw] behind for some reason). Bombers arrive and destroy the Nazi Berserker, so Steel thanks Nate for rescuing them–and then, in a moment of unintentional comedy, the bombers also hit Steel and Nate, and as the latter is revealed to be a hemophiliac, he is not able to recover easily even with future tech (even though GIDEON’s (Amy Pemberton) same future tech was able to regenerate Snart’s hand last season–so, so much for consistency).

The bad news, however, is that Nate is still going to get superpowers, because he already has those abilities in the comics. And it repeats the same story we already tackled last season with Ray. I have a similar complaint below about how this episode repeats the same story it did last season with Stein, which I will turn to later. For now, to explain the problem of empowering Nate, I have to write about the problem of Ray.

In this episode, Ray and Vixen are captured by Klassen, who used the super-serum to make himself into a version of Captain Nazi from the original comics. Ray and Vixen free themselves, with Ray making good use of the microscope (SCIENCE BLUDGEON!) and a chair (Vixen imitating Black Widow in The Avengers film). Ray feels shame when Vixen reminds him he is the only one without superpowers–which is a foolish way to write both characters, as both do depend on their items, Ray on his shrinking laser suit, Vixen on her totem, that technically makes both of them far more superpowered than most people. (Granted, Vixen gets another great line, telling Ray that even without her totem she still outclasses him in martial arts and weapons.) Before escaping Klassen’s lab, Ray puts his superpowered intelligence to work to alter the serum to power up himself later. Before he can pursue his experiment and risk turning his handsome face into the Hulk, Ray learns of Nate’s injuries and gives up the serum to say Nate–and to make Nate his own guinea pig, but we all choose to ignore that. Seeing Ray give up that superpower and actually save Nate’s life, Vixen is impressed, saying that was truly heroic. I don’t know how Vixen ever thought doing that kind of genetic experimentation is “heroic,” and neither does this episode, so the dialogue falls flat for whatever relationship, platonic or romantic, this show is establishing between the two, and it is not holding my interest right now.

The cliffhanger at episode’s end plays more like an episode of Young Justice, where it gets tiresome that the villains are this over-powered, thanks to Thawne’s future knowledge. So, Thawne could have just taken the amulet from the Nazis and instead has the Nazis transport it, then expects the Society to capture it as part of a United States black ops mission, then Thawne, counting on the fact that the Society is a governmental secret not known in its time, sneaks into the Society, kills Rex, and steals the amulet. So, Thawne could have just gone with the Nazis himself to take the amulet himself, and he doesn’t? Why? That is such a circuitous strategy to achieve the same end. I could see one reason for Thawne’s strategy, that being that, so long as people think the amulet disappeared, and since no one knows the Society to find the amulet there, then Thawne can speed on in and take the amulet without anyone in the history books knowing.  

Speaking of circuitous paths, this episode spends a long time bringing Sara to her logical position as leader of the Legends. If it wasn’t clear last season, when she piloted the WaveRider in Rip’s (Arthur Darvill) absence, and that she is the most experienced and capable fighter and strategist on the team, then her replacement of Stein as narrator of the opening title sequence should have been enough. The problem with this delay in giving her the obvious role is that it does not provide an obvious benefit to the story or to much characterization. Perhaps the delay helps us develop Stein, as it reminds us that his arrogance is one of his worst enemies, as he assumes leadership simply because Rex, another white man, thinks he is the leader. Sara does not make a power-play, and it is only when Stein says she is the true leader in front of Rex, that she is given the role. So, the show will only let her assume leadership when a white man tells another white man she is the actual leader? This transference of power by what men say is awkward; that I, a man, is saying all of this about this script, also compromises my argument, since I am being ignorant of a lot of my own privilege.

But to my point about Stein: there are diminishing returns to the reminder that he is arrogant, and the repetition of his poor behavior, episode after episode. Unless the show wants to reduce Stein to an archetype as they have with the crude Mick (Dominic Purcell) and the young Jax (Franz Drameh), this is not character progression but character stagnation.

And if Sara’s ascension was to make Rex aware how foolish he was to assume the lone woman on the team is the leader, so much for that, as we never hear his mea culpa, and he is dead by episode’s end anyway. It is also confusing why Rex would be so implicitly dismissive of the younger members of the team, who happen to include a white young woman and a black young man, when his team is far more diverse in age, race, gender, and sexuality than we traditionally expect of the 1940s. While this is not how I traditional think of the time period, I know enough about the 1940s to know that there are enough exceptions to suggest it is accurate to the moment of representation to have such a team as this. It is also not realistic that, in that time period, that the world as it was somehow would also not create such a diverse team. This is not shown to use as a celebration of diversity for its own sake but the ability of the fighters: at no point does Rex point to his colleagues and use their identities to dismiss them as colleagues, implying his confidence in the Society members is in their abilities. That Stargirl (Sarah Grey) is canonically not from the 1940s iteration of the team and is a partial legacy character to both Starman and the duo Stars and Stripes, that Dr. Mid-Nite is cast with a black actor, Kwesi Ameyaw, while being originally white in the comics, and that Obsidian’s (Dan Payne) sexuality was only confirmed long after the 1940s: all of these examples emphasize that Rex likely sees this team as valuable by their skills regardless their identities.

So, why is it, when it comes to leadership, he looks at Stein and sees him as the leader? Is it only age? Or is there another reason? Given how close Rex is to Vixen in this episode, with each calling the other “Dear” and “Sir,” and given her grief at his death, maybe there is something more complex: that Rex is full of contradictions as many characters are. This returns to the complaint I had about Joe West’s insult that Barry was somehow feminine for being emotional: if in our world people are prejudiced, even bigoted (as shown in the Republican nominee for President), then I should expect such prejudices in characters. It is when those characters are given such prejudices without larger significance that the choice to have a character act as such has limited payoff.

To review: Nate is told he does not have to change who he is to be a hero–then is forcibly given a super-serum that, as we see in next week’s preview, is going to give him a steel-like exterior that looks worse than the very well-done effects on the similarly metal-covered Girder in Seasons 1 and 2 of The Flash. That is character stagnation. And Ray again is doubting himself, with a lie used to say he is not a hero or powered, so that when he proves he is heroic and powerful, which we already knew, it is treated as some new discovery when it is not. That is again character stagnation. And Stein is still a blowhard.

This episode therefore had problems with plot, logic, and characterization that needed a good dose of camp to overcome it–and it failed. Maybe this episode could have spent more time making the Justice Society more old-fashioned in a funny rather than prejudicial way, a la the Justice League two-part episode “Legends.” Maybe the episode needed sillier villains: if you are going to do Nazis, make them objects of ridicule as they deserve to be treated, as occurred in The Blues Brothers or any Mel Brooks story, and much less like the vague dull flat set of villains as here, Hellsing, and other stories. Or make your Captain Nazi look as goofy as the Shaggy Man and not a Hulk knockoff with effects like something out of Doctor Who.

Or use more Mick. His lines about Vixen being “hot,” and his drawn-out vowel sounds continue to make him the winning character in this show. Instead, the episode was trying to give focus to Steel, so he can develop Nate; Vixen, as she will be joining the Legends (spoilers); and Rex…so we can kill him off. Oh, and Obsidian will be back–sort of. And as he will have a different actor next time, I guess that is why he said nothing in this episode and was masked the entire time.  

Random Observations

  • Aside from the mythology gags mentioned above about Citizen Steel and Captain Nazi, this episode also features the Justice Society of America, a precursor to the Justice League in the comics.
  • Jax gets to flirt (poorly) with Stargirl and complain about Nazis condemning black musicians. Not a lot for him to do this week–not even smash a Nazi into a drum set.
  • Ray refusing to heil Hitler was goofy but in keeping with his character, and the kind of camp I wanted in this episode, given how long and awkward that exchange was before Ray decided, “Screw it,” and punched a Nazi in the face.
  • It also was hilarious to have the fast-paced jazz as the soundtrack to the nightclub fight.
  • But less impressive was the opening fight. While the fight shows Rex Hunter’s skills at timing and managing his team (since this show gave him good timing rather than his time-related powers), Obsidian’s shadow abilities, and Dr. Mid-Nite’s ability to see in the dark, the lighting was so poor in the scene for the viewers to make out action. There were some good touches with the lighting off of Firestorm’s flames and Stargirl’s staff, yet the use of lighting obstructed whatever the fight was showing off.
  • Yes, Victor Garber, Broadway performer, can sing. Looking forward to that Supergirl/Flash musical episode!
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