By the end of The Flash’s third season, we all knew something needed to change. I proposed 10 things that needed to be changed, actually, and soothsayer that I am, most were addressed: Iris got a real storyline, the Bus Metas provide some decent villain-of-the-week action, Earth-2 Harry is back on the team, and Wally West is off with the Legends who seem like they could actually use him. Plus, Cisco did get a real date (and more!), Killer Frost makes regular appearances, we haven’t had to deal much with the Speed Force in Season 4, and there’s no speedster villain (although the DeVoe storyline has been stretched beyond sense for awhile now).
All of this adds up — along with a renewed commitment to a light tone — to a season that is miles ahead of Season 3. But there is still something missing, and I think it comes down to the two elements that weren’t addressed, elements that may be two of the most key factors of the show. And both deal with, unsurprisingly, Barry Allen.
Before I say any more, I want to make it clear that I have no beef with Grant Gustin. I think Gustin is exceptionally good in this role, and he takes whatever the writers give him and commits to it fully. He can fight, sing, cry, and give a heartfelt talk on command, all while being extremely charming in the process. The beef I have is with Barry, and whenever I bring this up to fans of the comics, they say that Barry Allen was always kind of a goober who was set up as a hero, but was never very good at it. In fact, I’m often told, “the most interesting thing that Barry Allen does in the comics is die.”
Ok, but the CW’s The Flash is built around a Barry Allen Flash, and according to the show, he’s supposed to be a hero. He’s also a little bit of a goober sometimes, and that helps make him relatable. But the problem in Season 3 and Season 4 is that he’s also just bound and determined to make the worst decisions possible, and never learns from them. Iris has had to take over leading the team because Barry isn’t very good at it. Barry also essentially put himself in jail on a misguided principle about not running away, even though he broke a fellow inmate out to deposit him at a meditation retreat and was okay with his teammate pretending to be a dead man in order to free him. Barry tends to go into every Meta situation without a real plan (or a good plan, and never a backup), he’s terrible at mentoring other Metas, and he has really weird rules about who can know he is The Flash (basically, anyone who has a 1:1 conversation with him is eligible). And this is all related to Team Flash — don’t get me started on Barry’s failures as an employee of CCPD, a job he never seems to show up for (or solve anything for these days, predating his “indefinite leave.”) It makes one wonder … is Barry actually good at anything?
This is a problem, especially for a season that has sidelined Barry and his powers quite a bit during the Iron Heights storyline and beyond. DeVoe is a different kind of villain than Team Flash has faced before — he’s not a speedster, and so Barry trying to “run faster” is not the issue. (DeVoe is another problem entirely, mostly given his lack of discernible motivations besides “gimme all the powers.”) But there are plenty of other things that super speed is good for, and it would be nice to see more scenes of Barry helping out his fellow Central City citizens from time to time with lesser crimes rather than always bumbling around until a nuke needs to be catapulted into space or something.
The Flash has certainly had scenes where Barry stops non-Meta criminals in the past, usually as part of silly intros, or like in the early episodes of this season when Ralph Dibney was joining the team (as Barry trained him, poorly). But what if there was a serial criminal mastermind who wasn’t a Meta, or trying to get powers? Could Barry actually use his forensic skills in tandem with his super speed to do some good?
One of the central tenets of most superhero stories is the balance between a character’s secret life as a hero and their life as a regular person. Kara Danvers has a job and relationships outside of being Supergirl, and both are important to her for different reasons. Black Lightning’s Jefferson Pierce is first and foremost a dad, then a leader of the community as a school principal, and just now re-exploring the use of his powers to fight an evil that is poisoning his community. In another positive example of this balance, the Legends of Tomorrow are mostly sequestered on the Waverider together, but the show puts in a lot of time exploring their friendships and relationships beyond just chatting on the deck together, because that’s more important than the crazy timey-wimey stuff (fun as it is) that they get into.
Even Arrow sought to course-correct this a little bit with the introduction of Oliver’s son (along with some attempts to make Oliver’s tenure as mayor matter), although now William’s basically living in the bunker with the rest of them. And yet, at least Arrow is dealing with what it means to be a full-time hero, and the cost of it. Just because The Flash wants to be lighter again doesn’t mean that it has to lose a sense of stakes or find ways to be emotionally grounded. Lab banter and a few weird side-plots about gestational telepathy will only get you so far. Barry needs a purpose outside of each season’s Big Bad.
What would help would be for Barry to have a regular job again that he shows up for (conveniently as I mentioned earlier, he’s been put on indefinite leave at CCPD — that’s not a good thing for this show). But more importantly, we need Barry restored to being the smart guy we know he is. At least then when he makes mistakes there’s something to it rather than, “There goes Barry making yet another boneheaded decision.” Characters have to make mistakes to create drama, of course. But when they consistently make dumb decisions that could have been prevented (especially if Barry ever actually listened to Iris’ advice on things), it’s just frustrating.
While The Flash has certainly improved with Season 4, something still isn’t quite working. Maybe it’s because that this deep into the season, it’s apparent that like DeVoe, there’s no clear sense of who Barry is now or where he’s heading. The villain makes the hero, and in this case, a double dose of mysterious motivation is not helping. Barry needs to bring something to the team besides speed and stubbornness, and he (as well as the team, frankly) needs to be better connected to life outside of S.T.A.R. Labs. We need a reason to root for him again. We need a hero.
The Flash airs Tuesday nights on The CW