Assembling superheroes — and villains — has proven to be the big trend of 2016. Some of the big screen team-ups have ultimately done better than others — Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War represents “some,” Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad represent “others” — but the buzz for each was deafening. Over on TV, DC’s Arrowverse has expanded far beyond any fan could have expected; this fall will see the CW airing a whopping FOUR hour-long shows: Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl (an expat from CBS), and Legends of Tomorrow. That last one deserves extra attention.
Crammed with supporting characters from Arrow and The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow puts DC superheroes in a time travel story that owes a whole lot to ‘80s and ‘90s sci-fi. The show was guaranteed to be fun, but who could have thought it would be actually, seriously, really good?
Season 2 of Legends of Tomorrow, which kicks off on October 13, will dive even deeper into the rich DC tapestry as it introduces the Justice Society of America. But before all that madness, let’s quickly look back at some of the best episodes Legends of Tomorrow had to offer.
“The Magnificent Eight”
One pleasure of time travel TV shows is the preponderance of modern characters wearing period-specific costumes and making jokes about that age’s tragic lack of vaccines. Legends of Tomorrow ran with that premise for its entire first season, including when the show went to the American Old West late in the season to visit Jonah Hex, DC’s western bounty hunter.
“The Magnificent Eight” checks in at number six, because while it’s not a very important episode, it’s a whole lot of goofy fun. There’s nothing weirder than witnessing the tech-powered Atom (aka Firestorm), the superhero who flies around on fire, shooting up a bunch of guys with revolvers on horses. That’s so hilariously off-balance, I reveled in every second of it. Seeing Jonah Hex wasn’t bad either, even if he isn’t played by Josh Brolin (all the better, maybe).
“Pilot” (Parts 1 and 2)
I don’t envy the writers who had to start Legends of Tomorrow. Sometimes the show feels almost too big for TV, so to introduce so many characters — in a single season, mind you — is a tall order. That responsibility weighed down the first chapter of the pilot, but a helpful and more breathable part two brought everything together quite nicely. The big fight against “arms dealers and terrorists” in the gritty ‘70s is not a bad starting place for time-traveling superheroes either.
Shortly after the pilot (which was called “Pilot”) the Waverider crew found themselves in the Cold War-era Soviet Union, hoping to undo a technology snafu only for Rory (a.k.a. Heat Wave) and Ray Palmer (a.k.a. Atom) to wind up in a gross Russian prison.
The winning moment in “Fail-Safe” wasn’t the cute Prison Break reference (co-stars Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell reunited in Legends of Tomorrow), but the prideful moment of defiance by Victor Garber’s Professor Stein against the tyrannical Vandal Savage. It must have been nice for Garber, an out gay man, to speak Stein’s words of love and compassion against the cold-hearted antagonists. At the time of “Fail-Safe,” Russia’s anti-LGBTQ positions were pronounced in the headlines, making Legends of Tomorrow that week’s needed moment of hopeful wish-fulfillment.
“Star City 2046”
It’s difficult to fathom that the DC TV universe was built on Arrow, a show that had every intention of being a no-nonsense crime series. Now there’s time travel and exorcisms and guys who run faster than the speed of light.
So it was cool to see Legends of Tomorrow return to Star City in a dystopian future that pays homage to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. In “Star City 2046,” Oliver Queen, goateed and with one arm (like in the comic!) comes out of retirement to team up with Connor Hawke, his comic book son (though not in the series — he’s Diggle’s boy in this universe) against a new Deathstroke.
Most of the Waverider members take a backseat to the action — Rick and Snart have a nice subplot — and Arrow star Stephen Amell can’t quite rock the goatee like Oliver Queen should, but it was still bomb seeing Legends of Tomorrow take advantage of its premise and explore an alternate future yet-to-be.
“Night of the Hawk”
In a bit of Back to the Future aping, Legends of Tomorrow hit up Pleasantville in the ‘50s for another time-travel romp in the guise of a classic monster movie.
Correcting social injustices is one of the most important foundations for superheroes. Arrow and The Flash have unfortunately been agnostic to things like racial and sexual inequality, but Legends of Tomorrow proudly took up the responsibility in “Night of the Hawk.” Using the race-bent Firestorm — instead of white bro jock Ronnie Raymond, black teenager Jax (played by Franz Drameh) is the other half of the superhero duo — Legends of Tomorrow handled old timey racism as delicately as a truck. Heavy handed? Sure. Is that a bad thing? Not at all.
Besides, don’t tell me Vandal Savage as a Jimmy Stewart-type figure wasn’t actually awesome as hell.
Pushing the time travel theme in ways that no one could have guessed, Ray, Kendra, and Sara are (as the title suggests) left behind in the ‘50s when the Waverider is attacked and escapes without a way back. The three spend the next three years making it work, building a new life until Sara shortly returns to her old home: Nanda Parbat, the home of the League of Assassins, of which she is a former member. Or soon to be. Y’know, time travel is kinda wonky.
Since it’s not the season finale, of course things get wrapped up in too-neat of a bow. But for a few minutes, “Left Behind” upends Legends of Tomorrow, showing the consequences of time travel and the toll it would take on those who live for adventure.
“Left Behind” is one of my favorite episodes in this whole franchise, period. Emotionally devastating and incredibly smart about its goofy premise of “time traveling superheroes,” “Left Behind” is the high water mark of the entire Arrowverse, making full use of its mythology in ways that neither Arrow nor even The Flash could. “Left Behind” is why a show like Legends of Tomorrow had to happen: There is so much going on in this universe, it would be a shame if every corner weren’t explored.