The CW's Legends of Tomorrow is a superhero show that promises time travel, death-defying exploits, scenery chewing, and then some.
It enlists the skills of outsize characters like Wentworth Miller's sneering Captain Cold, Brandon Routh's beaming Atom, and Arthur Darvill's time-traveling vigilante Rip Hunter.
It avoids comic book source material altogether, cobbling together a brand new hero team — a sort of Justice League, if you will — from its network siblings Arrow and The Flash.
It not only launches the so-called "Legends of Tomorrow" into the stratosphere, but sends them ricocheting throughout the history of time.
Legends of Tomorrow should be the most fun show on television. Instead, it is exhausting.
The creative team behind Legends of Tomorrow is so keen to get their characters a-fightin' that in the show's first two episodes, which act as a two-part premiere, everything happens at warp speed without much justification at all. In fact, they have to get through so much material so quickly that when a character resists joining up, he's drugged and kidnapped into complying.
Meanwhile, exposition weighs down almost every line of dialogue, chaining the show's aspiring heroes to uninspired banalities when they should be settling into their new roles.
And yet Legends still has a ton of potential, largely thanks to its talented cast. Before it can realize that potential, however, the show will have to course-correct from some seriously clunky, scattered missteps.
Here are five ways Legends of Tomorrow can get back on track.
1) Clarify the tone
It stood to reason that Legends of Tomorrow would have a different vibe from The CW's other DC properties. While snagging Atom and Caity Lotz's White Canary from Arrow allowed it to squeeze in some banter, the show tends to favor Arrow's dramatic arcs over The Flash's more lighthearted villain-of-the-week setup. Of course, Legends has also borrowed Captain Cold, Dominic Purcell's criminal Heat Wave, and Victor Garber and Franz Drameh's collaborative hero Firestorm from The Flash, which is generally a wackier, more joyful show than Arrow. Throwing them all together could be extraordinary fun — or, as the premiere proved, extraordinarily confusing.
Legends co-creators Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg, and Marc Guggenheim have plenty of room to embrace camp. After all, the team comes together through the efforts of Rip Hunter, a "Time Master" in a trench coat. But while Miller gets in some excellent snarls and Darvill visibly relishes the chance to play Time Lord after spending so much time on the Doctor Who sidelines, too much of the premiere is lost to tiresome fights between Firestorm's two halves, Atom just kind of wandering around and doing good in a Captain America sort of way, and Hawkgirl and Hawkman (Ciara Renée and Falk Hentschel) brooding their way through a dreary love story.
And all the while, Vandal Savage — the team's main nemesis, who really is named that — occasionally pops up to sneer menacingly and remind us how ee-vil he is.
What could be a campy good time instead comes across as muddled confusion. Going forward, it will be crucial for Legends of Tomorrow to get more comfortable with its characters and premise beyond their novelty. Then it will have a much better idea of where its tone should sit on the Arrow–to–Flash spectrum.
2) Don't worry about giving every team member a storyline in every episode
As you may have gathered by now, the Legends of Tomorrow cast is ... well, huge. The show's motley crew of superheroes, nerds, and villains amounts to eight series regulars, with a few other recurring characters nipping around the edges, waiting for their time.
The benefit of having a large ensemble is that you can throw the characters into a bunch of different combinations, making plenty of room for both existing and potentially exciting new dynamics. The downfall of having a large ensemble, though, is that you can get overwhelmed with the possibilities and cling too tightly to the belief that every episode must feature every character relatively equally.
That belief is a huge mistake.
Trying to give everyone in a large cast equal time just about ensures that no one will make much of an impression. Plus, it's much more obvious when you don't know what to do with a character in a given week but shoehorn them into a storyline anyway. Poor Drameh, for one, spends most of Legends' pilot stalking around Rip Hunter's time machine, being angry at everything and nothing in particular.
The pilot is particularly bad on the equal-time front, since it gives each and every member of the Legends of Tomorrow team a moment to consider their new fate, a moment to say goodbye to their old one, and a moment in which they question everything. It's not that this sequence of events is invalid, as far as reactions to a life-altering situations are concerned. But when there are eight to 10 people having this experience, it starts to feel repetitive.
Hopefully, future episodes will feel secure enough to dive into the mysteries without affording every single character time to process them. Maybe the show could even give a couple folks occasional weeks off, Game of Thrones style. (As a caveat, I will say that I hope Captain Cold stays on my television forever.)
3) Don't fight natural chemistry; follow it to somewhere new
This is a lesson every television show would benefit from learning sooner rather than later. You can plan for two characters to work together or end up together, but if the actors don't mesh, there's no point in forcing chemistry where it doesn't exist.
There are two combinations of characters in the Legends pilot that represent the best and the worst of what the show has to offer thus far.
The worst is Hawkgirl and Hawkman. Not only are they Legends' weakest characters by a mile — probably because they get relatively little backstory versus the others, a surprise considering they're winged heroes with reincarnation powers who are also a couple — but they also fail to make much of an impact because Renée and Hentschel look like they'd rather be anywhere else. As the rest of the cast fully commits to the absurdity of playing time-traveling superheroes, Renée and Hentschel stare at each other, dead-eyed, and expect us to believe they're in love.
The best is the diabolical trio of Captain Cold, Heat Wave, and White Canary. Captain Cold and Heat Wave are gleeful thieves; White Canary is a frustrated assassin who recently died and came back to life. None of them gives a single damn about following the rules. Together, they're a hell of a lot of fun; a scene in which they fight their way out of a '70s-era dive bar is one of the best parts of Legends' two-episode debut.
Take note, Legends: You're way more appealing when you let natural character dynamics do the talking.
4) Figure out what, exactly, time travel means in this universe
While I would happily watch a whole hour of Captain Cold and White Canary teaming up for a bar fight in the past, I would also need to know what, if anything, such an event would mean for the present-day timeline.
In the first two episodes, Rip Hunter repeatedly pleads for everyone to keep out of time's business, lest they explode everything, or something. His pleas are repeatedly ignored ... with relatively few consequences. At one point, the Legends even meet up with a younger version of Martin Stein (Garber) to get help on a mission. It's cool if in the Legends universe meeting your younger self doesn't muck up in the future. But it's also confusing in the context of Rip Hunter's frequent warnings.
Someone asked about the rules of time travel on Legends at the recent Television Critics Association winter press tour. There was a pause, and then a long, nervous, "Uh..."
Though the show's producers did try to explain a few things, their answer was essentially, "Time travel isn't real, so it doesn't matter." And that sentiment actually sums up how messy Legends is so far in terms of world building — which can be catastrophic for a show that depends so much on having a fun and intriguing setting. It could learn a thing or two from one of its parent shows, The Flash, which takes place in the same universe as Legends and has managed to contextualize a whole parallel universe without handwaving any inconsistencies with, "It's not real, so it doesn't matter."
Just because time travel isn't real doesn't mean it shouldn't feel real, especially on a show that's built entirely on time travel.
5) Lean into the pilot's best idea: The Legends of Tomorrow aren't actually great heroes
After blasting through exposition and boring us to tears with the Hawks' ancient marriage woes, Legends does manage to hit on a fascinating idea: What if a group of people with D-list abilities banded together to achieve something approaching good?
Halfway through the pilot, Rip Hunter reveals that he didn't actually assemble this team because they were fated to be "Legends of Tomorrow," as he initially promised. In fact, it's rather the opposite: He assembled this team because they were the people who had the least effect on the future. He selected them as extra insurance against messing up the timeline.
Everyone realizing they were chosen for their insignificance is a heartbreaking moment. They all react differently. Some attempt to swallow their disappointment, others give in to rage, a few wallow. For a brief spell amongst the chaos of the episode, this colossal letdown makes every member of the team stand out in their own unique ways. And when they come back together and resolve that they will be Legends of Tomorrow, dammit, it rings far truer than the six brief recruitment scenes that brought them together in the first place.
If Legends of Tomorrow is going to redeem itself by the end of its 13-episode debut season, it will need to stage more scenes like this one. It will need to make us understand why this group would stick together — and if it's because they're the heroes no one asked for, all the better. There are enough shows about superheroes that people can rely on. We might as well try out the second-string players for a change of pace, as long as they can keep that pace somewhat steady.