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In many ways, The Flash is one of the few comic book shows that simply gets it. Though the series often makes use of iffy storytelling, CW-brand melodrama, and underwritten female characters (CW-brand, also?), it counters these critiques by embracing a lighter tone, continually expanding the universe, and displaying a cast of characters I want to see triumph in the end. However, the series also carries with it strange issues that sometimes undercut the joy of watching “the fastest man alive.”
Speed Mode, Activate!
Flash, and speedsters in general, are usually depicted as having two modes: average Joe mode, where they move at the speed of a regular human; and speed mode, where they’re reduced to blurs of color. Rarely do we see the intermediate stage shown in The Flash episode “The Fastest Man Alive,” where Barry accelerates into speed mode, and rarely do we see speed-based heroes having difficulty processing information while moving so quickly. However, this on-screen portrayal of speed implies something that very few shows take into account. For instance, in “Who is Harrison Wells?,” Flash is faced with a man named Hannibal Bates who can change into anyone he comes into physical contact with. By their final fight, this fact has been made all-too apparent to Barry Allen due to Bates masquerading as both him and Eddie Thawne with almost disastrous results. Yet when the shapeshifter transforms into Caitlin Snow and says, “Wait, it’s me,” Barry stops for a second, allowing himself to get pepper sprayed in the face and punched in the stomach. Not only is this move ridiculous because the guy shapeshifted right in front of him, the representation of Flash’s speed should allow him to move out of the way with ease. And this isn’t the only time Flash has difficulty reacting well within his abilities. Instead of letting go of the flagpole Girder is using to throw him around, he continues holding on in the episode “The Flash is Born,” and in his first confrontation with Multiplex in “The Fastest Man Alive,” he’s grabbed by the shoulder and turns his head to one of Danton Black’s copies, but still gets punched in the side.
This would be an issue regardless due to the fact that Flash’s reaction time is supposed to be superhuman – and that if he can control how he perceives time, he’d probably control it enough to not suffer any avoidable pain – but speed mode makes it less about how quickly he moves out of the way and more about when he decides to press a mental button. The case could be made that having Flash act like an actual speedster would take away from the episode’s tension, but dumbing down the hero to accommodate the forty minute episode format shouldn’t have to be the answer.
Running Hot and Cold
In the same vein as when a character has difficulty fighting an enemy they should have no trouble with, in at least one confrontation Flash’s speed is completely overlooked. In “Revenge of the Rogues,” Flash is able to run between Captain Cold and Heat Wave twice before he’s even hit (the show’s usual way of accounting for the power differential between Flash and his enemies), but despite his demonstration of speed and his proximity to them, he doesn’t punch the Rogues or take their guns away; he has to force the pair to “cross the streams.”
There’s no doubt that the Ghostbusters reference is awesome and having Barry run circles around his enemies looks cool, but this move comes at the expense of the danger of the scene, the Flash’s speed, and the logic of their way of taking down the Rogues. The showrunners are definitely guilty of varying Barry’s power as it suits the story, but being more mindful of limiting Flash’s performance when deciding how to stage climactic fights he could easily win would preserve the real threat that Barry is facing in each episode.
The issues of Flash’s speed and reaction time certainly don’t completely hamper the viewing experience of The Flash. Despite prolonging or invalidating certain conflicts, enjoyment of the show doesn’t hinge on these components as much as it relies on the interactions between the characters and the promise of bigger and better things to come. However, I would like to see more effort put into thinking of ways obstacles can actually present a challenge to the Flash. With villains he can’t damage with his usual attacks (Girder), villains who can send people into an uncontrollable rage (Prism), and villains who multiply with each hit (Multiplex), the showrunners are clearly utilizing and adapting characters from the comics who can limit the efficacy of Flash’s power, but exploring how these villains could exploit their abilities to truly combat super speed, or framing the scene so Flash gets hit or trapped in a way that allows him to react commensurate with his abilities and experience, would likely make for more compelling stories.
Featured image via Blastr.