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For a series about a super-speed character, The Flash has often felt like it’s running in place this season. The time-travel machinations of the first few “Flashpoint” episodes have given way to uninspiring antagonists and half-cooked melodrama. With regards to the former, “Shade” presents a new shadowy villain for the Flash to fight. As the character’s name might imply, however, Shade is barely present in this episode except as a convenient punching bag. When Shade first appears, he surreptitiously murders a stockbroker by rising from the concrete beneath them. A promising enough start. When Team Flash learns of the presence of its latest superpowered foe, Barry expresses a desire to capture him quickly so that they can focus on finding Alchemy. Barry’s impatience manifests itself in the script for this episode, as Shade is summarily subdued without any exploration as to his motivations or personality. Presumably Shade is an agent of Alchemy, since the timing of his last attack coincidentally coincides with Alchemy’s attempt to turn Wally to the dark side of the force (more on that later). Unfortunately, that connection isn’t fleshed out (so to speak), leaving us with a disposable villain in Shade who has no intrinsic value to the episode aside from a power set and a visual that looks cool on TV.
The lack of depth to the antagonist seems like a wasted opportunity, but it’s far from the only one. This season of The Flash has presented (Dr.) Alchemy as this year’s Big Bad but so far the results have frankly been unimpressive. Alchemy’s deal is that he lurks behind the scenes and gives characters who had metahuman abilities in the pre-Flashpoint universe their powers back. In “Shade,” Alchemy turns his sights to Wally as he tempts him with visions of his Kid Flash life. The past few episodes have teased the idea that Wally yearns for his missing powers—this causes conflict with Barry, Iris and Joe, all of whom express concern for Wally’s need for speed. But because Wally is essentially a good kid, he doesn’t give into temptation and instead works with Team Flash to set a trap for Alchemy.
The Wally-yearning-for-his-missing-powers subplot in this episode is serviceable enough, but the overarching plot that it serves remains questionable. Or to put it another way, Alchemy is (thus far anyway) an exceedingly weak antagonist…and, as I’ve mentioned in an earlier Flash review, a ridiculously attired one at that. Simply put, it’s hard to care about Alchemy because there’s been absolutely no insight into his motivations for giving characters their powers. The Flash writers would likely argue that this opacity is part of a larger mystery, but so far this mystery has been terribly uninteresting. Alchemy is part of a larger unfortunate tendency in The Flash to write cookie-cutter villains with simplistic motivations; they do bad things because they’re bad, as opposed for reasons based in real human emotion. Compare the villains that appear on The Flash to those on Supergirl: the latter CW superhero show has proven itself to be much better at offering sympathetic antagonists with real-world motivations that audiences can relate to, making their ultimate defeats meaningful. As of now, Alchemy is in no danger of being that sort of character.
Another chronic issue with this season of The Flash has been the development of interpersonal relationships between characters. One of the things that made the show fun in its first two seasons was watching the relationships in Team Flash, specifically between the core members of Barry, Caitlin, and Cisco. Their friendship and camaraderie felt like the relationships you or I might have in real life, which helped balance out the metahuman madness. Unfortunately, Season 3 of The Flash seems to have forgotten this central element. For reasons that elude understanding, the writers seem to think that the Caitlin-becoming-Killer-Frost plotline is a good idea. It gets pursued further in “Shade,” as Cisco gets a Vibe-vision as he and her fighting in their respective costumes. This is enough to compel Cisco to reveal Caitlin’s secret to the gang; this understandably upsets her as she points out that it was her secret to reveal, not his. Even though she forgives him later, I think her initial instinct was right on.
I suppose my main objection to the Killer Frost storyline is that it follows the tired trope of the girl or woman who gets awesome powers that she’s unable to control. It’s unfortunate that The Flash has taken a strong female character like Caitlin Snow—she has a Ph.D., for God’s sake!—and made her a mewling mess who relies on others—her mother, Cisco—to solve her problems. It also seems indicative of the show writers being unsure about what to do with the character and giving her superpowers (a similar problem also plagues the Supergirl writers with respect to James Olsen). Even Iris gets into the wanting powers act once Barry tells her that she too has powers in the pre-Flashpoint universe. When Iris expresses doubt about her contribution to Team Flash, Barry reassures her that “there is no Flash without Iris West.” It’s not surprising to see Barry as the voice of reason about superpowers not being the attribute that solely defines a person. If only the other characters saw it that way.
This Week in References
The appearance of Shade in this week’s episode is a letdown if you’re a DC Comics fan, given how fascinating and multi-layered The Shade is in DC Comics. By the way, why does The Flash drop the definite article in his name? He sounds so much cooler with it…
We also get a quick cameo at the very end of the episode of Savitar, the self-styled God of Speed. Created by seminal Flash comics writer Mark Waid and artist Oscar Jiminez, Savitar gained his speed powers after flying an airplane hit by lightning during the Cold War. He’s also leader of a speed-based cult, which is a detail The Flash will likely repeat as it would be too similar to Alchemy. As exciting as it was to see this character, however, the visual was…er, a bit off-model. Guess we’ll have to see more next week to be sure he isn’t another villainous dud.