'DC's Legends of Tomorrow': TV Review

Legends of Tomorrow - H 2016
Jeff Weddell/The CW
Needs less talk, more action.

The CW's spinoff from 'The Flash' and 'Arrow' gets off to a bumpy start.

So far, more like Legends of Exposition.

After two of the smoothest pilot introductions imaginable with Arrow and The Flash, The CW's successful DC Comics pipeline experiences a hiccup with Thursday's (Jan. 21) premiere of DC's Legends of Tomorrow, a collection of oversized characters and time-travel paradoxes in search of a show — at least through its first two episodes.

It's true, of course, that even a spinoff from two hits (CW-sized hits) can't jump right into business without some introduction for new viewers. But fans of The Flash and Arrow have already watched Legends of Tomorrow gestate for the better part of two years, with large chunks of this fall feeling like nothing but already cumbersome foundation-building.

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The two-episode crossover, a highlight of last season, was wasted this season on a poorly paced introduction for snarling villain Vandal Savage (Casper Crump) and regenerating lovers Hawkman (Falk Hentschel) and Hawkgirl (Ciara Renee). The latter two characters join previously introduced Flash semi-villains Captain Cold (Wentworth Miller) and Heat Wave (Dominic Purcell), Flash recurring player Martin Stein (Victor Garber) and his Firestorm other half Jefferson Jackson (Franz Drameh), and occasional Arrow second fiddles Ray "The Atom" Palmer (Brandon Routh) and Sara "Canary" Lance (Caity Lotz) in a conglomerate that could be more accurately named Recognizable Background Players With No Meaningful Connections From CW Superhero Hits.

Part of why none of these characters ever felt wholly engaged in their original shows is that they were always temporary, always being raised in a lab for a spinoff. It was great, for example, when Lotz's Sara was kicking butt on Arrow, but fans of the comic always knew that Laurel was destined to be the Black Canary, so it wasn't shocking with Sara was killed off — and when she was resurrected, we already knew it was just to go elsewhere. Similarly, when Ray Palmer was building a robo-suit and making sparks with Felicity on Arrow, he was just an impediment for the romance most fans demanded and once he seemed to die, he'd already been announced for the spinoff. Captain Cold and Heat Wave were OK recurring baddies for Flash to face, but their most recent appearances were dedicated to softening their rough edges to get them ready to be protagonists.

There was nothing organic about the way Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg and Marc Guggenheim contorted to put Legends of Tomorrow together, but it seemed reasonable to hope that with the difficult work of introducing eight characters for a team-up series, maybe that would help the new show hit the ground running.

It does not. Showrunner Phil Klemmer joins Berlanti, Kreisberg and Guggenheim as writers on a two-part launch that might as well be starting from scratch.

The only new character is Arthur Darvill's justifiably glum Rip Hunter, a Time Master who lobbies to take steps to prevent the rise of Savage, an immortal dictator who appears on-track to complete world domination by sometime around 2166. Time Masters are entrusted with protecting the timeline, but Rip protests that if they don't save humanity, what are they saving the timeline for? Nobody interjects and says "Monkeys." Perhaps a fan of movies in which renegade heroes assemble a motley number of rogues to rob a casino, protect a village or take out a nest of Nazi officers at a remote chateau, Rip looks through old episodes of Arrow and Flash and finds the actors who didn't have regular contracts and offers them the chance to save the world, or something to that effect.

Even though Berlanti-verse viewers have already, as I've mentioned, invested time (pun whatever) in meeting the characters, Rip has to go one-by-one and collect them, not caring that a clock is ticking and nothing is really happening. Then, having assembled them, he has to explain the basic premise of the show to them. Then he gives them free will and lets them go off and discuss whether or not they want to be on a show of their own or would prefer to be second bananas on somebody else's show.

This is a great opportunity for all of the characters to repeat basic information about themselves and give their opinions on heroism and other stuff that has nothing to do with actually settling in and delivering a fun television show, and even once they've had discussions about participating, at least one character has to roofie another character, which is exactly what you want to see a hero do at the start of a TV show. And then even after they get back together, Rip has to explain the mechanics of the plot in more depth, because Legends of Tomorrow has a hook that is grand, but nonsensical.

See, Vandal Savage is a bad guy. We know this because his name is Vandal Savage and nobody named Vandal Savage can run a no-kill animal shelter. ["I'd like to address the humanitarian council." "What's your name?" "Vandal Savage." "Hmmm. I'm skeptical about your motives."] He also has a General Zod beard and if you look closely at pictures featuring history's worst moments, Vandal Savage is peeking in the background like a malevolent Zelig.

But when it comes to actual world domination? He kinda sucks. Thousands of years of immortality and he's still working to foment disorder and undermine social institutions, which makes him a much less urgent threat to society than global warming, processed sugar or the Criminal Minds series. Hunter and our Octet Of Limited Relevance have to journey back to different points in history where Vandal Savage has been wreaking his unique brand of low-impact havoc, and they have to ... I'm not sure I could explain what. They have to kill him, but killing immortal people isn't easy.

For the purposes of the first two episodes, it's off to 1975 and a series of mini-adventures involving a mixture of mystical objects and scientific mumbo-jumbo constantly hitting speed-bumps whenever Rip has to show up to explain the making-it-up-as-we-go-along time-travel rules. The mini-adventures split the group up into different permutations with certain helpful skill-sets, often leaving the other characters literally sitting around the time machine doing nothing.

A crippling problem rapidly emerges as you realize that the thing about populating a show only with broad supporting characters is that there's no center, there's no still point. Every once in a while a Con-Air works (and many people don't think Con-Air worked), but you're more likely to get a mess than a cohesive story. Routh's Ray is the most conventionally heroic, but he's square to the point of caricature. Purcell has fun grunting one-liners like "I love the '70s!" after a bar brawl set to Captain & Tennille, but even after all his time on Flash, the writers haven't figured out how to make him say anything "normal." Bit by bit, Miller has refined a delivery of hipster supervillainy, a boredom with his own evilness, and he also can't be given casual conversation. Hentschel and Renee just aren't very good yet and they have enough trouble acting around their goofy masks and goofier Egyptian backstory, so they can't anchor the story. And while Garber and Drameh are both good, they're two very different men who have to hold hands to become one hero and nobody's wanted to play with the subtext yet.

That leaves Lotz as the best candidate to become a lead, but the opening two episodes have decided that Sara Lance wasn't loose and goofy enough for this new series, so everything that made her tortured and interesting gets immediately undercut or undone. Again, none of these characters were brand new for Legends of Tomorrow, so there's no excuse at all for them to be so ill-used.

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All of this could be overcome if Legends of Tomorrow were packed with great set pieces. It is not. The premiere has that great bar brawl and a lot of talk. The second episode does open with a big scene involving many of the characters utilizing their powers or high-tech weaponry, but it's also a showcase for how a little (pun whatever) of The Atom goes a long way, effects-wise, and how Cold and Heat Wave don't have many destructive moves, either. The paradoxical side of that episode includes lots of snide mockery of the '70s and Profession Stein cockblocking his younger self. It's too convoluted for fun to ensue.

From its pilot, Arrow established its brooding hero, its stunts and the building blocks for its team. From its pilot, The Flash led with a wildly likable lead performance and hinted at the charming ensemble around him.

Despite springing from those two platforms, Legends of Tomorrow can't make its characters jell, can't clarify its narrative mission and can't get out of its own way and stop talking. Berlanti, Kreisberg and Guggenheim (plus Chuck vet Klemmer) have all earned some benefit of the doubt in this universe, and by the fifth or sixth episode, Legends of Tomorrow may have found its footing, but as a vehicle to get things moving, this almost couldn't be worse.

Cast: Wentworth Miller, Caity Lotz, Dominic Purcell, Brandon Routh, Arthur Darvill
Creators: Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg, Marc Guggenheim and Phil Klemme
Showrunner: Phil Klemmer

Airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on The CW.