Where Did the Optimistic, Fun Flash of Yore Go?
Spoilers for Season 2 and 3 of The Flash follow. You’ve been warned, pal.
One of the most striking things about The Flash to me was its cheery, optimistic, almost happy-go-lucky tone. It was a breath of fresh air in a world where we’re oversaturated by, well, lack of saturation. The color that may have once been in DC movies can only be found on the cutting room floor, it feels. Edgy superhero stories, movies, and shows are a dime-a-dozen, and always have been, placing humorous or light-hearted standouts like The Flash in a… certain light, let’s say.
It was this somewhat easygoing take on superhero stories that drew me to The Flash in the first place. It’s also the reason why I found myself wondering just what it was about this season and the last that made me feel like something was… off.
It kind of hit me all at once, as things tend to do: the show was embracing a very grim, almost dark tone. As Barry’s war against Zoom escalated, the stakes were raised higher and higher, and for the most part, that’s fine. But the tone changed to reflect these raised stakes, bringing about a much darker, moodier version of the show, one that’s left a bit of a strange taste in my mouth.
There are many reasons why the show underwent this shift in tone, and surely, all of them are valid.
For starters, consider the concept of multiverses and how breaches are explained in the show’s universe. They’re essentially rips, tears in the universe that allow people (or creatures) to travel into “our” universe. What’s especially notable about these separate Earths is the fact that for the most part, Earth-2 houses the evil versions of Earth-1 beings. Aside from a few notable exceptions, the cast that we’ve come to know and love all inhabit a very dark, moody place.
When these dopplegängers entered Earth-1, they didn’t just bring themselves; they brought their motivations, their beliefs, their own understandings to bear in this parallel version of Earth. In ways both figurative and literal, they made Earth-1 darker. The show, as a whole, changed to reflect this as the war between The Flash and Zoom reached a fever pitch.
The end of the last season also reflected this, as their victory over Zoom proved to be costly, ultimately leaving it feeling very bittersweet, almost hollow. Barry sacrifices himself (or rather, a time remnant of him does) to stop Zoom–consider that for a moment. There’s a timeline somewhere that doesn’t have a Barry Allen anymore. The darkness brought on by Earth-2 to Earth-1 has spread to a separate timeline, costing them their Flash. Before this, Barry ends up losing his father when Zoom kills him to try to prove to Barry that they’re actually very alike.
Such sacrifice and loss are mainstays of the superhero genre, often to the point of being overdone. Its implementation here in The Flash felt altogether strange, if not somewhat dissonant. It should be noted, though that strange doesn’t necessarily mean bad; it’s just, well… it’s different, and interestingly so.
Take Flashpoint as another example. Barry goes back in time and succeeds in saving his mother from being murdered. He goes back because the then-current reality he was living in just wasn’t making him happy. He knows he can’t go back to the way things were, not without his father, so he tries to give himself the next best thing.
Ultimately, his actions permanently alter the universe (as far as we can tell), inciting some incredible changes in the current timeline that have only just begun to resolve themselves. Caitlin begins to show signs of meta-human powers, Iris and her father were (up until episode 2) arguing, not speaking to each other, Cisco was really sad over the death of his brother. I don’t know about you, but watching sad Cisco not want to name a villain was a real punch in the chest.
This is all to say that if there was an in-universe way of essentially underlining and bolding the statement that things will never be the same, this was it. The Flash that we all once knew is, for all intents and purposes gone, fundamentally changed by his hand.
In-universe reasons aside, take a look at the context of where The Flash lies in relation to the rest of the DC Television Universe. The CW’s Arrow served as a companion to The Flash for quite a long time, and between the two of them, they were able to establish an entire television universe. Arrow, though, was tonally different from The Flash, often taking the (once again) darker, moodier, almost noir-y perspective of the movies, applying it to television. This served the characters and the show well, to be sure, but as the “Berlanti-verse” continued to grow, that same tone bled over into The Flash. It felt, in a lot of ways, like this tone was just the thing to do.
Consider the DC Movie Universe (aka the Snyderverse) as well, which wears the grim dark gritty mood like it’s going out of style. Aside panning from critics and fans alike, the movies sell, and they keep people (and their money) in the seats. Rumors and statements abound regarding studio meddling, driving these movies towards such tones in the belief that “grim, dark, and gritty” are what the people want. Suicide Squad, for example, was supposed to be a different take on the DC universe, but ended up being more of the same for a lot of people. It found its fair share of rumors and curious glances as reports emerged blaming studio meddling for its poor handling.
Now as the movie universe continues to double down on the overdone tone, one is left to wonder if the television universe is also changing to reflect such tonal decisions. Both Zack Snyder and DC president Geoff Johns have gone on record to say that they love and encourage the separation of these two universes, but one has to wonder if that separation ends at just preventing connected storylines or narratives. These two universes can be separate, with one not having a thing to do with the other, but behind the scenes and creatively speaking, they still come from the same source.
I’m not trying to suggest that The Flash‘s darker tone is coming from studio meddling; rather, I’m wondering if the show, which in a lot of ways serves as a reflection of ourselves and our supposed tastes, is changing because it just doesn’t do to be “nice” or “optimistic” anymore. Just as Earth-2 fundamentally changed Earth-1, and just as Barry’s actions during Flashpoint changed Earth-1, we similarly impact and change the shows and media we consume.
With the introduction of Supergirl to the “Berlanti-verse,” one worries again whether this prevailing trend of moodiness will take advantage of the newfound proximity between the shows. Supergirl certainly stands at the other end of the spectrum, tonally speaking, and her character absolutely reflects this. It’ll be interesting to see if and how the show will change as it continues its life alongside these other shows.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m still a fan of The Flash. I’m still watching every week, and I’m still invested in each of the characters–which, I guess, would explain why I’m writing 1200+ words on the gradual tonal shift I’ve noticed in the show. While I’m enjoying what’s happening and this seemingly new direction the show’s taken, I find myself reminiscing and thinking back on a somewhat brighter show, a show that I probably won’t get to see again.
And that, more than anything else, is the bummer.
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