How Legends of Tomorrow Became the Most Entertaining Comic Book Show on TV

TV Features DC's Legends of Tomorrow
How Legends of Tomorrow Became the Most Entertaining Comic Book Show on TV

The CW’s superhero extravaganza, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, is probably the goofiest show on television right now. It’s also one of the best. But that wasn’t always the case.

Born out of The CW’s successful Arrow and Flash series, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow was billed as an epic superhero crossover turned into a weekly series. The elevator pitch is pure gold: Superheroes on a time traveling space ship—basically, Doctor Who with a whole lot more punching.

Initially, the series realized that promise with a few positively huge Season One episodes, including an arc that sent the team into the future for a front row seat at the end of the world. But the drama faltered, with bloated two-part episodes that could’ve easily been completed in an hour, and big ideas shuffled away in an act or two. The ideas were there, but not the execution: A romp to the future filled with potential, showing what happens if the heroes fail? Wrapped up in 42 rushed minutes. A by-the-numbers prison break storyline set in a Russian gulag? Stretched, without justification, to two full episodes.

The series’ first year was also hampered by its season-long mission to take out the immortal villain Vandal Savage (Casper Crump), which grew stale after the umpteenth time Savage and the heroes butted heads with no real resolution. It was merely wheel spinning—occasionally fun and silly wheel spinning, but wheel spinning nonetheless. Still, for all its faults, Legends was a ratings hit for The CW, and the network brought it back for a second season—fortunately for us. The creative team worked out the kinks and then some.

Here are the four ways DC’s Legends of Tomorrow became the best comic book show on TV:

1. Mixing up the team dynamics

Season Two shook up the cast just enough to create some fresh combinations, adding Maisie Richardson-Sellers’ Amaya and Nick Zano’s Nate to the existing roster. Then, they actually gave the original team members some juicy character arcs. Sara (Caity Lotz) took over the team as its new leader, while Ray Palmer (Brandon Routh) grappled with who he is outside of his Iron Man-esque super suit. Sure, that plot line borrowed from Tony Stark in Iron Man 3, but it worked. Even Victor Garber’s exposition-spouting Martin Stein was given an adult daughter thanks to some time travel shenanigans, which finally found the stuffy scientist at the center of a story with heart.

The biggest change, and arguably the best, was Sara’s promotion to captain—making Legends one of the few comic book shows (alongside Supergirl and Jessica Jones) to put a woman in the lead role. Lotz seemed to relish the challenge, as the season charted her character’s growth and maturity, learning to lead and make decisions that affected more than just herself. That came to a head in Tuesday night’s finale, in which Sara (literally) rises to the occasion to save all of reality, bringing her story full circle. Not bad for a reformed assassin, right? Much of the season may have been framed around the quest to rescue original team leader Rip Hunter (Doctor Who alum Arthur Darvill), but it took leaving the team without a leader for Legends to find its footing.

2. Pulling a Twilight Zone

With regard to the wider creative approach, producers Marc Guggenheim and Greg Berlanti decided to go for broke with the premise in Season Two, and that’s when the misfit team of heroes started to click. More than any comic show on the airwaves, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow wears its quirky, weird and downright silly origins with pride. Season Two checks off the bucket list of every offbeat idea and cool time period the writers could throw at a whiteboard, and I mean that in a good way: A Civil War-set episode with zombie soldiers; a trip to the 1940s to meet the legendary Justice Society of America; a straight-up samurai story set in 17th century Japan; the hijacking of Apollo 13 by a super villain; a trip to the Cretaceous period to fight dinosaurs. It’s the mind-altering Steve Ditko comics you remember reading as a kid, paying homage to everything from Jurassic Park to Star Wars along the way, all tossed into a blender and turned into a weekly television series.

Much as The Twilight Zone used its sci-fi setting to subvert expectations and tackle real world issues from unexpected angles, Legends, albeit a bit goofier, has tried its hand at tackling pressing issues, too—including race and prejudice. In “Abominations,” Jax (Franz Drameh) goes undercover as an enslaved man in the Civil War-era South, and eventually leads a plantation revolt after freeing a group of enslaved persons. It’s all in the midst of a zombie attack, but still, it tackles the real emotion of a black man from the modern day getting a first-hand look at the hate of the past.

3. The Legion of Doom

In the villain department, this season Legends ditched the Big Bad approach for an all-out super-team of super villains, picking the cream of the crop from the past several seasons of Arrow and Flash and bringing them together as a de facto Legion of Doom. The shake-up worked so well that a recent episode, appropriately titled “The Legion of Doom,” focused exclusively on the villains—and it proved to be a highlight of the season. Led by the classic DC Comics baddie Eobard Thawne (Matt Letscher), who is literally fighting to save himself from being erased from existence, the writers have managed to give the villains motivations that add up to more than the generic world-domination beat that made Savage so dull in Season One. Round it out with the charisma of John Barrowman’s Malcolm Merlyn and Neal McDonough’s snarky Damien Darhk, and you can almost find yourself rooting for the bad guys.

4. Keeping it light

As we’ve seen the past few years, there are a lot of ways to approach a comic book story. Understandably, many of those (led by Marvel’s acclaimed Netflix efforts, Iron Fist excluded) are proving to be on the serious side. The majority of Legends’ own CW brethren are heading that way, too. Arrow has always erred on the dark side, and even the typically cheery Flash is in the midst of a brutal struggle to save a key character from being impaled to death by a vengeful speed god in the future. But Legends? It’s dealing with a wacky brainwashing story, trying to track down the mythical Spear of Destiny (which is capable of rewriting reality), and hanging with the Knights of the Round Table in Camelot.

Even the season finale was basically a high-stakes play on Back to the Future II, with the future version of the team traveling back in time and sneaking around to fix things while avoiding their past selves. Everything goes sideways and they break the time stream, of course, and the closing shot of the season is a T-Rex roaming the streets of Los Angeles. Because—well, try not to think too hard about it.

These are heroes who want to have a little fun while saving the world, and even when it occasionally gets so silly that it barely makes sense, you’re having so much fun you don’t even care. It might have taken a while to get there, but with time travel, superheroes, surprising settings, epic twists and quippy one-liners by the spaceship-load, Legends is finally becoming legendary.

Trent Moore is an award-winning journalist and professional geek. You can read more of his stuff at Syfy Wire, and keep up with all his shenanigans @trentlmoore.

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