DC's Legends of Tomorrow: A Eulogy For The Best Arrowverse Show
In what other show would Barack Obama encounter Gorilla Grodd, and J.R.R. Tolkein help save the world from Damien Darhk?
Fridays are supposed to be the beginning of the weekend, a relief from the stress of the week. But just before the weekend of April 29th began, the CW finally gave the official notice that DC's Legends of Tomorrow was being canceled after seven seasons. It's a painful cancellation for its devoted fanbase, possibly fueled by an impending network sale, that leaves us on a heck of a cliffhanger. It feels like a good friend has left us.
It was the third or fourth show to join the Arrowverse, depending on whether you consider Supergirl's CBS season as being a part of it. Legends of Tomorrow shouldn't have worked. It all started with a terrible pitch: What if we took a bunch of side characters from different shows and made them time travelers?
And for the first season, that was kind of true. Like many other shows with devoted fanbases--Star Trek: The Next Generation and Parks and Recreation come to mind--it took the show a while to find its footing. The first season was overly dramatic, centering on the show's least-likeable characters--Rip Hunter, Hawkman, Hawkgirl, and Vandal Savage--and on characters' bad decisions, unnecessary secrets, and worst of all, a love triangle.
A few episodes into Legends' second season, though, the adults left the room and then didn't bother to check on the weird kids for six seasons.
Things immediately strayed into the bizarre, with Reverse-Flash/Eobard Thawne migrating from The Flash with his other face--played by Matt Letscher instead of Tom Cavanagh--to antagonize the Legends. He was later joined by Arrow villains Damien Darhk (Neal McDonough) and Malcolm Merlyn (John Barrowman) to form the Legion of Doom. Throughout the season, the Legends would fight confederate soldiers, meet Jonah Hex, take part in the first full-size Arrowverse crossover, and meet all manner of historical figures from Al Capone to George Washington. Ray goes to the moon with Thawne, forcing them to work together to get home. The villains win and rewrite reality temporarily, creating the first of many alternate timelines the show would explore.
This second season felt gleefully unburdened compared to the first. It made great use of previous villains, for one. This is something both Marvel and DC shows struggle with. Villains tend to be a Big Bad for a season, they're killed, and then they're gone for good. They're rarely given the opportunity to resurface the way villains do in the comic book source material. Damien Darhk, for example, was a badly-written Arrow villain that brought stakes that were much too high for the show about the man who shows colorful pointy sticks and his girlfriend who hacks things with her iPad. Against a team of time travelers that include an atomic man, an atom-sized man, and someone who can summon any animal they want, though, he's a much better fit. Darhk would go on to recur throughout the show, first as a villain, and then as a begrudging anti-hero, redeemed by his daughter and the Legends' relentless optimism. He developed into a sympathetic character that was the perfect definition of a recurring villain, and was given room to change and grow throughout. He's one of my all-time favorite characters in the Arrowverse despite his rough patch on Arrow, and it's all thanks to Legends.
The show also became absolutely unafraid to be silly and in active conversation with its fanbase. When a stuffed animal named Beebo inadvertently became an oracle to a band of vikings, the fandom latched onto him, making him a hilarious recurring character. The Season 3 finale had the Legends transforming Voltron-style into a giant Beebo, and then showing its Shaolin style to a time demon.
Legends also got metatextual--making fun of itself and of television--in a way that calls to mind something like NBC's Community. For example, that time demon, Mallus, is voiced by character actor John Noble. In the episode "Guest Starring John Noble," they kidnapped John Noble from the Lord of the Rings set, where he played Denethor so that they could have him pretend to be Mallus to try to manipulate an evil character into doing, you know, less evil. So they had the actor who plays the part of the villain, play himself playing the part of the villain.
Later, the show would goof around with parodies and do great send-ups of TV genres and other tropes. Sara Lance once told a character that the crew wasn't allowed to talk about MacGuffins before she'd had her coffee. MacGuffin is the term used in storytelling critique to talk about the item everyone is after--the Holy Grail, the Allspark, etc--but which isn't actually the point of the story. They parody Star Trek, Friends, and more. But it was always, always with the intention of telling us something about the characters.
These characters were not static, and even throwaway jokes became central to the characters. Zari, during a time-loop episode, learned that hardened thief Mick Rory had a secret knack for writing romance novels, and that would later become an important part of his character rather than a silly joke that made fun of someone having feelings and expressing them. Throughout his six seasons with the show, Rory evolved from a hardened criminal to a loving (if very surly) father and someone proud to be part of the Legends team.
It's tough to write stuff like this, that winks at the audience but doesn't do so at the expense of the characters, and Legends deftly balanced this throughout its run.
Something that would be a problem for other shows became a strong point for Legends: a huge, revolving cast. The first season saw the exit of three of the Waverider's characters, and that began a tradition that would last through the show's run. Each season would see some characters leave the show and others join. That meant that the core crew from Season 1 dwindled until only Sara Lance was left, but it also brought great characters like John Constantine aboard the team's timeship.
Actress Maisie Richardson-Sellers joined the show as Amaya Jiwe, and later shifted to the role of Charlie, a shape-changer who became stuck in the form of Jiwe and eventually came to like it. Matt Ryan joined as John Constantine, but would later play Gwyn Davies. Tala Ashe played two wildly different versions of her character, Zari; one a flannel-wearing, donut-loving hacker, and another from an alternate timeline where she was a Kardashian-like fashion-first media mogul. The show took care of its actors like that, giving them both reasons to stay on the show if they wanted, and to flex their acting chops by playing different characters and sporting different looks.
Even characters that felt so random and weird at first became beloved members of the group, such as when a change to the timeline replaced Zari with her brother, the lovable stoner Behrad. The missteps here were few and far between, with even initially obnoxious characters like Gary Greene finding a way to fit into the show and grow into a full person.
Throughout its run, the Legends would contend with historical time anomalies, resurrected souls from hell, aliens, and mythological creatures, making sure that things never felt like a villain-of-the-week treadmill. Despite the show being of a similar budget, if not smaller, budget as compared to other Arrowverse shows, Legends were constantly ending up in new locations and time periods, the set designers and directors never made these feel cheap despite how cheap they probably were in reality. The show wasn't overly concerned with realism, but instead understood the fine line between capturing the essence of something and slavishly recreating every detail.
Legends was so silly and true to itself throughout its run that it made the other Arrowverse shows look worse by comparison. It was unafraid to transform itself and take chances to give its cast and characters the room they needed to flourish. It felt the series was playing a prank on the network and all of the other shows. As devastating as it is that the show was canceled, it's hard not to be grateful that we got seven seasons of this utter nonsense.
I wish we'd gotten to meet Booster Gold for more than the last half of the Season 7 finale. Donald Faison would've fit in with the Legends crew swimmingly. We would've been able to say goodbye to Sara Lance and the Waverider.
Legends of Tomorrow shouldn't have worked, but the writers and cast loved the show so much that they willed it to work. They molded and chiseled away at it until the worst parts fell away to reveal even more silliness and personality. There are still Arrowverse shows on the CW; the Flash will get a Season 9, Superman and Lois a Season 3. But as the CW prepares to sell itself off to the highest bidder, it looked to shave off shows that weren't quite so successful. Legends slid under the radar for so long, and it feels like someone finally checked the books and realized that, somehow, this show was still being filmed and aired by the network.
As Legends of Tomorrow dies, it's hard not to see it as the beginning of the end of the Arrowvers. And that doesn't even account for the fact that it was cancelled on the same day as Batwoman, effectively ending both of the network's LGBTQ-led superhero shows at once. Both Legends and the Arrowverse were weird, ambitious experiments that, despite flaws, worked better than they should've. For those of us that found Legends of Tomorrow, it was a true gift of a show, a gem in the CW's crown and one of the few superhero shows that stood out as offering something different from the overdramatic, apocalyptic tone of so many other superhero shows and movies.
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