Thursday, May 04, 2023

The Most Ouroborotic Man Alive

Well, The Flash, history's longest-running live-action DC superhero show, 

Oh my god, he's IGNORING "Smallville"!

is wrapping itself up and at last we have finally seen "our" Barry save his younger self from Reverse-Flash the night his mother died.

He's up against Matt Letscher as the Reverse-Flash who, although he is the "real" Eobard Thawne (appearance-wise) and is more believably petty and obsessive than Tom Cavanagh (who was always hard to believe was wasting his time and talent fussing with goober Barry Allen), simply lacks MENACE.  He's more like some **** at the office who ate the last cruller, saying, "Oh, I'm sorry, did you want that? Somebody's havin' a bad day!" After nine years, it's still not possible to believe Letscher and Cavanagh are playing the same character (a problem that Zach Levi and Asher Angel don't appear to have solved in the big screen Shazam films, either).

I'm not entirely certain they weren't told they were doing a new '"Freaky Friday" series.

It was certainly satisfying and surprisingly well done, especially considering that much of this final season has left fans, ahem, underwhelmed, to say the least. Many have theorized that the beginning of the season was crappy precisely because the show-runners were focused on the wrap-up tetrology, but I'm not sure I subscribe to that zero-sum analysis of production quality.

It was, I suppose, how the show had to end. 

You're a closed circuit, Barry;
you're got the answers in the palm of your hand.

But it does highlight a problem with the show and with the Flash in general that I have discussed before. Specifically: the Flash is about...


Pardon me that tautology, which seems like a stupid statement of the obvious.  What I really mean is that Flash stories are inordinately inward-looking and their subject matter is the Flash mythos itself, rather than external threats and situations.  Batman, Superman, et al.--they deal with threats that arise outside of them and that threaten people and things other than them.  On average, they are not the cause of the problems they have to solve and the problems they have to solve are problems for OTHER people, not merely themselves.  

For example, most of the icons in Batman's rogues gallery (the Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman, Riddler, et al.) are presented as pre-existing, operating criminals whom Batman steps in to put a stop to.

Two-Face's origins are bit more...

Similar lists of villains could be made for most heroes. Even Lex Luthor, a villain who is famously obsessed with enmity for Superman, didn't start that way.  He was just a classic mad scientist, whose schemes Superman kept foiling. His later obsession with Superman was rooted in a retcon in Superboy story, twenty years after his first appearance.

Adventure Comics, #271 (1960)
BTW, fire extinguishers were invented in 1819, Lex.

How often is it mentioned "How Great Lex Could Be If Only He Weren't Obsessed With Superman?"

Answer: very often.

This, I'll mention in passing, is why I always so disappointed (angry, really) when fans and writers try to apply this template to the Joker (of all people).  

Frank Miller is to blame for this.
And quite a lot of other things, truth be told

As if the Joker would be so weak as to be obsessed with ANYONE other than THE JOKER.

The Joker #7 (1975)
I can't believe I'm saying this, but ELIOT S! MAGGIN shows here a more sophisticated and deeper understanding of the Joker and Lex Luthor than most modern, pretentious writers.

In fact, most of Flash history was written like all the other heroes.   His classic foes

Unimaginatively called "The Rogues"

follow the traditional model of "existing crooks whom the heroes intervenes against".  Their particular flair or gimmicks may be informed by the fact that they have to face a superhero, sure.  But that's not their GOAL. It's neither their origin nor their purpose.  They aren't ABOUT the Flash.

That's this guy's job.

That's the Reverse-Flash's literary function. He has NO other origin or purpose other than messing with Barry. It's right there in the name.  He was DESIGNED to be what Luthor evolved to be: a perfect "anti-fan", but one who is also a mirror version of the hero.  Luthor is very much NOT Superman.  


Other heroes have such villains, of course.   Batman has a score of them, most obviously Catman.

Deadshot, with his mean-girl taunting action, will always be my favorite.

Just kidding! No one can EVER replace Killer Moth in my funny bone of funny bones.

But Eobard Thawne is way better than all of those poseurs, and there is a reason. The Reverse-Flash is the combination of FOUR separate concepts: the Hater (the character who was created to and exists to hate the hero); the Stan (the character obsessed with the hero); the Competitor (the character designed to be the hero's threatening competitor); and the Anti-Hero (the character designed to be the opposite of the hero).  It's like somebody made Superman a smoothie out of Lex Luthor, Jimmy Olsen, Vartox, and Ultra-Man. 

Which would still smell and taste 100% like Vartox, by the way.

Eobard Thawne's a triple-espresso with cane sugar and any character in any of those categories is going to pale in comparison; "Sure, but he's no Reverse-Flash!"

So, you can't fault the Flash Mythos for having one villain who is its hero's perfect counterpart and using him as such.  Flash may have more powerful villains but none can possibly be more symbolically resonant.

The Reverse-Flash is where it started. But just as Eobard Thawne became increasingly obsessed with Barry Allen/the Flash, so too did Flash storylines. Over time they became more about Barry Allen and his twins and descendants and Iris and his supporting cast and persecution by Thawne and Iris's murder and Barry's trial for his murder of Thawne (with its own absurd outcome, absurd even by Flash standards).  When Wally became the Flash, it was really more of the same because, naturally, Wally was... another obsessed Flash fan, worried about his legacy and THEN... the SPEED FORCE concept hit, and ...

Well, since THAT, it's been a runaway train to see how far and how fast and how frequently the Flash can shove his head up his own mythos.  

Often an impressive feat.

Everything is about a problem WITH or FROM the Speed Force, or a threat to IT or the Flash (or his supporting cast).  Almost to a point where an objective observer would step back and say "you are not the solution, you are the problem; if the Flash and everything associated with him went it away, everyone else would not only be fine but much better off" (which is really not a situation you want your hero to be in).  Unsurprisingly, the show wound up having the same problem the comics did.

I'm fond of many things about Geoff Johns' approach to mythic consolidation, but his retcon of Barry Allen's origin contributed enormously to this problem.  In case you don't already know, "Reverse Flash killed Barry's mother and framed his father who went to jail which is why Barry became a CSI and thereafter the Flash" is a wholecloth invention of Geoff John's Flash Rebirth.  It has zero pre-Crisis precedent.  Pre-Crisis Barry needed no tragic backstory.  He was on the police force and got superheroes, so of course he fought crime; what ELSE would you do with a superpower?!  The only hero who needed a tragic backstory was Batman, because it gave him a reason to develop his "powers".

But Johns's retcon turned the Flash mythos inward-looking tendencies and now set the baseline at "fetidly inbred".  Reverse-Flash and the Flash created each other.

Where on earth did a young Geoff get such a ridiculous idea?

I mean, yeah, if there is any two characters for whom it's in character it's Flash and the Reverse-Flash but... that's the problem.  It's an ouroborotic mess that makes for a lovely sci-fi short-story, but as the basis for a superhero mythos it's constricting.

"Ouroborotic" is a Classicist polite way of saying "self-fellating".

There are various interpretations of What the Myths of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, et al. symbolize. I've discussed many such theories myself.  But none of them have been "two comic books fans pissed off at each other about which one has their favorite hero right" which is pretty much what Barry (fan of Golden Age Flash) versus Eobard (fan of Silver Age Flash) is about.

Now every time I try to check in on what's going in Flash comics it's an impenetrable wall of Speed Force / Flash Legacy /Speedster Character jargon that I shut down.  

Nobody writes comics like THAT any more.

I still remember that issue of the Flash, even though I read it 30 years ago.  How many of the comics you've read lately (Flash or otherwise) will you be able to say that about...?


Anonymous said...

You're absolutely right that killing off Nora West was the start of bad things. Two elements you touched on a little but I'd like to amplify:

1) Barry's adventures became all about changing the past and then dealing with the fallout OR inadvertently reinforcing the outcome he was trying to avoid. You'd think that a guy who's all about running would be more forward-looking.

2) Barry's big challenges became all about people who were faster than him. "Getting faster" is not a compelling way to defeat an opponent who's faster than you; narratively speaking, it just means that the writers have written away the other person's advantage. Let's contrast with Hal vs Sinestro: while Sinestro may be the most overrated villain ever, his entire point was that he was someone Hal couldn't have an equal power ring fight with. Hal was forced to think his way to victory, which usually meant punching Sinestro. ("Wait, when things hit my head, I fall asleep, so maybe I can make Sinestro fall asleep too.") Barry, as a police scientist, could have drawn on his wits to defeat opponents faster than him, maybe. Anyway, the reason the Rogues were fun was that they WEREN'T just a speed vs speed battle; Barry had to find ways to counteract their powers.

You mentioned Wally and how he became all about preserving Barry's legacy, and ... yeah. The best thing that ever happened to Wally was Barry's return, because it finally freed up Wally to be his own man, rather than Barry's placeholder. And while Wally didn't appear in comics all that often for the longest time, look at where he is now: he's his own character with his own properly-earned family (and a happy home life, how nice is that?).

- HJF1

Scipio said...

Your amplification is appreciated. It's a topic that really can't be OVERemphasized since so many people have just swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. After all, what is the premise of the one and only Flash movie ever? Barry ****s up the universe out of self-interest. Great hero. Solving the problem you created doesn't inspire me, but perhaps that's why they picked Ezra Miller.

"the reason the Rogues were fun was that they WEREN'T just a speed vs speed battle; Barry had to find ways to counteract their powers." Ain't THAT the truth. In the Silver Age (and to a lesser degree the Bronze Age), heroes were expected to have to THINK in order to defeat their foes. Were their solutions stupid? Of course they were; but that's incidental. The point is they didn't simply grunt, buckle down, or 'level up'. Getting faster isn't always an option and shouldn't be when you're already supposed to be the Fastest Man Alive.

Smart Superman writers are always the model to follow. With such an overpowered character, they know that the best way to handle him is to put him in situations where his powers don't really help.

Bryan L said...

I was going to cite Superman as well. Weak writers just introduce more Kryptonians. Good writers come up with ways that force Superman to actually think.

The Flash has the same problem. As currently depicted, the Flash is omnipotent. If he can move at the speed of light he can be anywhere on the planet virtually simultaneously. Having him get "faster" isn't the solution to that power level. Weak writers create the Flash family equivalent of other Kryptonians, people who can equal the Flash's speed. You need opponents who can challenge him on other levels. But there are very few writers who are capable of writing those types of stories.

And the issue of the Flash that I remember most is the one where Wally is in the movie theater and feels something touch the back of his neck which triggers the speed force. He realizes a gunman has sprayed bullets all over the theater and he has to find them all in a dark theater before people die. Another William Messner-Loebs story. Generic villain, incredible setup, amazing challenge for the Flash to overcome. Flash Volume 2 #30. That story is fucking brilliant.

Scipio said...

'where Wally is in the movie theater and feels something touch the back of his neck " YES. That was AWESOME. Messner-Loeb didn't write stories that Changed The History of The Flash For All Time. Instead he wrote Flash you remember decades later. We need more writers like that.

Redforce said...

How WOULD Vartox smell? Probably like Dale Gunn, except with Old Spice instead of Aqua Velva.