I suspected The Flash was racing in the right direction when Grant Gustin first appeared as Barry Allen last year on Arrow. Unlike that show’s star, the sculpted Stephen Amell, Gustin’s a lean, athletic young man. And unlike TV’s original Flash, the even more muscular John Wesley Shipp – who starred in the character’s short-lived 1990 TV show and now plays Barry’s dad – he’s perfectly suited to play a hero designed (by comic book artist Carmine Infantino, who created his iconic red-and-yellow costume) to be a runner.
But Gustin’s appearance accounts for just a fraction of his appeal in the role. He’s so effortlessly charming, with a natural, infectious smile, and so good at delivering dialogue that alternates between tech speak and the awkward cadence of a lifelong wallflower, that his casting is arguably the best pairing of actor and superhero since Robert Downey Jr. first donned the armor of Tony Stark.
Executive producers Greg Berlanti and producer Andrew Kreisberg have surrounded Gustin with a cast of characters who, like the Flash himself, hit the ground running. Tom Cavanagh brings an air of mystery and a tortured guilt to Harrison Wells, the S.T.A.R. labs scientist who inadvertently “creates” the Flash (and a host of other metahumans) when his particle accelerator explodes. As Wells’ employee, Danielle Panabaker demonstrates a knack for comedy even when refusing to smile in the wake of her fiance’s presumed accelerator death. Carlos Valdes’ Cisco Ramon has an infectious enthusiasm for his job as Team Flash’s resident fanboy, the audience surrogate who not only makes Barry’s “toys” but will name the members of his infamous rogues gallery. Jesse L. Martin finds thoughtfulness and warmth in a role all too easily played with one note – that of the world-weary police detective. As on Arrow, the cop is the leading lady’s dad, but Joe West is also the man who raised Barry when his father was wrongfully arrested for his mother’s murder, thus giving him a greater sense of responsibility for Central City’s new champion. In the role of Joe’s daughter Iris, Candace Patton doesn’t have a lot to do in The Flash‘s pilot, but she has an easy chemistry with Gustin that makes believable their characters’ lifelong friendship.
As for the premiere episode’s plot, it more or less follows the origin story of the Silver Age Flash (co-created by Infantino, writer Robert Kanigher, and editor Julius Schwartz), expanding it with a worthy opponent in the Flash’s longtime enemy the Weather Wizard (here known as Clyde Mardon, a bank robber fleeing Central City whose plane is caught in the particle accelerator blast). It even recreates a specific panel from that origin tale, as it appeared in Showcase #4 (October 1956’s “The Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt”), in which Barry, unaccustomed to his recently sped-up senses, watches a waitress spill a tray full of food in slow-motion.
Those early comic-book tales of The Fastest Man Alive are still among the most enjoyable superhero stories ever created, and certainly the most entertaining Flash comic books. Largely because they so perfectly convey the unique joy and wonderment that superhero comics can, at their very best, deliver – as well as the kind of euphoria we hope we’d experience if we were granted superhuman speed. The new TV Flash‘s greatest achievement may be in capturing a similar sense of wonder, with all its wide-eyed innocence, while establishing a mythology necessary for a slightly more realistic take on the character. It’s worth noting that The Flash is the first live-action DC property to ignore the grim template of Christoper Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy since that trilogy began with 2005’s Batman Begins. Kudos to Berlanti, Kreisberg, and director David Nutter for recognizing a principle at the heart of Marvel’s blockbuster films – that there’s more than one way to tell a superhero story.
The creators just as smartly dispense with the soap operatics that marred the early episodes of Arrow. Instead of pandering to the CW’s once core audience of pre-teen viewers, they invite audiences of all ages to not only enjoy, but to be a part of the Flash’s adventures. That’s a lesson learned from perhaps the most successful superhero TV show of all time, Batman: The Animated Series. In that series’ best episodes, Bruce Wayne defeated his foes not with his money or gadgetry but by outwitting them, by using his mind, a tool available to every viewer. Likewise, The Flash‘s pilot emphasizes that, in the end, Barry’s powers alone can’t stop his enemies, that he too must be cleverer than they are. It results in the kind of immersive experience that all the IMAX 3D in the world can’t offer.
If future episodes of The Flash are as entertaining as its first, the show will enjoy a deservedly long and healthy run. I for one am ready to ride the lightning.
The Flash airs Tuesdays at 8/7c on The CW.