By Jesse Schedeen
Warning: Full spoilers for the episode below.
The CW’s live-action DC Universe has grown by leaps and bounds over the past couple years. With so many great characters now added to the pantheon, the time was ripe for the network to go all-out and commission an ensemble show featuring an entire team of costumed avengers. Legends of Tomorrow might not have been the straightforward Justice League series some fans crave, but that’s really the source of its appeal at the end of the day.
Like The Flash before it, Legends of Tomorrow benefited from a great deal of setup in its sister series prior to its January debut. If anything, those other two shows suffered from the sense that more time was being devoted to paving the way for Legends than furthering their own ongoing storylines. But at least that meant that Legends was able to kick off with a firmly established team of heroes (plus a couple malcontent criminals). The first episode brought together a very eclectic bunch that included the Atom (Brandon Routh), both halves of Firestorm (Franz Drameh and Victor Garber), White Canary (Caity Lotz), Captain Cold (Wentworth Miller), Heat Wave (Dominic Purcell), Hawkgirl (Ciara Renee) and Hawkman (Falk Hentschel). These disparate characters were all untied by the show’s most significant new addition to the CW-verse, time-traveler extraordinaire Rip Hunter (Doctor Who’s Arthur Darvill).
Despite all the groundwork that was laid in the months leading up to the show, the two-part pilot did suffer from a slightly uneven pace and a surprising reliance on exposition early on. To be fair, it would have been foolish of the producers (who included Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg, Marc Guggenheim, Sarah Schechter, Chris Fedak and showrunner Phil Klemmer) to assume everyone watching Legends had done their homework. And as the premiere wore on, it set up a very worthy status quo for the new team. Rip and his merry band were charged with hunting the immortal villain Vandal Savage (Almost Perfect’s Casper Crump) across time and preventing his rise to power in the year 2166.
Exposition-heavy moments notwithstanding, the premiere did a a fine job of setting the ball rolling and showcasing the potential that comes with dragging a team of rookie heroes across time. It established a very cinematic look and feel for the show that ensured throughout all 16 episodes. The unexpected death of Hawkman (temporary though it was) also proved that there were real stakes to the conflict and the writers weren’t going to be overly precious with the characters. Unfortunately, the show lost a fair amount of momentum after that point. Particularly in the first half of the season, it felt as though the team was aimlessly wandering through the timestream without ever really making progress in their war with Savage. Even the better episodes during this stretch (including “Star City 2046” and “The Magnificent Eight”) were more about having fun with the unique setting and “fish out of water” premise than furthering the plot.
It didn’t help that Savage was a fairly underwhelming villain. In theory, there’s no better character to hinge a time-travel-related conflict upon. In practice, Crump’s Savage didn’t quite have the menace or charisma the villain really needed. His heavy Danish accent certainly didn’t do much to paint a convincing portrayal of a power-mad Egyptian warlord. This problem was compounded by the fact that Savage fared so poorly when held against this year’s other DC/CW villains, Zoom and Damien Darhk. Savage improved over time (particularly in the last few episodes), but generally Crump’s performances only stood out during the villain’s more extreme moments of villainy.
When the plot began to chug, it was mainly the character dynamics that kept Legends humming along. The writers generally made the most of these oddball heroes and their conflicting personalities. Darvill’s Doctor Who experience served him well in the role of Rip, who was equal parts scoundrel space cowboy, exasperated den mother and self-interested schemer. This season traveled to some fairly dark places with Rip, in the end giving the character a cohesive, satisfying arc as he learned to place the needs of his team over his own selfish desires.
The show also worked wonders for both Miller’s Leonard Snart and Purcell’s Mick Rory. Those two were always entertaining on The Flash, if criminally underutilized. Here, the duo underwent a profound transformation as they transitioned from remorseless criminals to selfless heroes. There were plenty of bumps along the way, with Rory’s fall from grace during the middle of the season serving as one of the more dramatic developments. And it all paid off marvelously in the final two episodes, with Leonard heroically sacrificing himself to save his team and Mick having to face life without his best friend. Best of all, the time travel premise allowed for a terrifically acted farewell to Leonard in the finale. That scene rivals the death of Tommy Merlyn and Barry Allen’s tearful farewell to his mother as one of the most emotionally resonant moments in the entire Flash/Arrow universe.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Legends this season was the fact that you could pick almost any two characters at random and have a very entertaining dynamic to explore. There was Sara bonding with Leonard and Mick or coming into her own as the unofficial co-captain of the Waverider. There was Ray bending over backwards to befriend the gruff Mick. There was Professor Stein and Ray constantly trying to out-science each other. And there was the tumultuous relationship between Stein and Jax, whch also paid off handsomely by the end of the season. Whatever the show lacked in compelling conflicts it more than made up for in characterizations.
Mostly. There’s a reason I haven’t mentioned Kendra and Carter yet. Along with Savage, the Hawks were easily the weak link in the chain this season. Carter was more a victim of sitting out the majority of the season than anything else. But Kendra rarely seemed to shine despite her copious amount of time in the spotlight. Renee’s performance rarely measured up to her co-stars. It would have helped if the writers allowed her to be a more proactive, aggressive character, in line with the comic book source material. Less references to her tenure as a barista in Central City would have been nice, too. That became a less than charming recurring joke throughout the season.
The other problem here was the forced love triangle the writers tried to build involving Kendra, Ray and Carter. Romantic drama has always been a hallmark of The CW’s DC shows, and when used properly it’s a nice counterpoint to all the brooding and superhero-ing. But it never really felt like the show needed a romantic subplot. Kendra and Ray never felt like a natural couple, and their romance essentially dissolved once Carter came back into the picture. It’s telling that the subtle romance between Sara and Leonard had far more weight than the Kendra/Ray/Carter triangle ever did.
Despite the problems with pacing and forced love connections, the show began to improve in a big way in the final stretch of the season beginning with “Leviathan.” Like most new shows, it seems that Legends just needed a few months to find its voice and build some momentum. It’s unfortunate that Legends had a relatively shorter season order and started living up to its potential just as the season was building to a climax. But in any case, the final four episodes did a great job of accelerating the conflict with Vandal Savage, building the drama both within the team and without and making the most of the relationships that developed over the course of the show.
The finale episode also deserves a lot of credit in how it set the stage for Season 2. For one thing, it jettisoned the weaker elements by killing off Vandal Savage and sending Hawkman and Hawkgirl on their merry way. For another, it built up an unpredictable new status quo by eliminating the Time Masters and diminishing Rip’s ability to peer into the timestream and seek out threats. But more than anything, it built excitement through the last-minute debut of Rex Tyler and the first utterance of the phrase “Justice Society” in the Flash/Arrow universe. Where both The Flash and Arrow ended their seasons on a weaker note (incredibly so, in the case of Arrow), Legends went out with a real bang.
It’s interesting to see where Legends of Tomorrow ended its first season in relation to where it started. Early on, the show’s plodding pace caused it to lag behind The Flash and Arrow. But the show eventually found its voice and managed to end on a stronger note than either of its sister series. Even in those weeks where the pointless romantic drama or the conflict with Vandal Savage failed to inspire much excitement, the memorable character dynamics made this show a joy to watch.
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