Legends of Tomorrow: 101 “Pilot, Part 1” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Across their fall runs, both The Flash and Arrow have been laying the foundations for a brand new expansion of the surprisingly expansive universe DC has carved out. On The Flash, we had a new Firestorm and the introduction of Kendra Saunders, alongside a Captain Cold episode that appeared to show a softer side of the villain while on Arrow, Ray and Sara returned from the dead in quick succession. With a two-part crossover turning Kendra into Hawkgirl with introductions for Hawkman and Vandal Savage to boot, everything was set for Legends of Tomorrow, the incredibly ambitious third entry to the Arrowverse. With a bonkers premise and sizeable cast, how did the first outing for the Legends fare?
A premise involving eight disparate DC characters with complex and often baffling back-stories who have never teamed up before travelling about in time to take down an immortal dictator is certainly an unwieldy one, and that’s reflected in the fact that Pilot, Part 1 is often weighed down heavily by the burden of all the set-up it needs to perform. Despite some seriously clunky storytelling, however, this was a seriously fun and enjoyable first outing that ranked highly in terms of entertainment, with considerable promise for the series to grow into something more substantial as it (hopefully) overcomes these early, unsurprising, growing pains. Sure, this has got a long way to go before it reaches the thematic depth of its slightly classier superhero brethren, but it’s encouraging at least that the episode actively improves as it goes on, culminating in a final act that certainly indicates that Legends of Tomorrow is heading in the right direction.
Admittedly, the first 15-20 minutes are pretty rocky. The first act of Pilot, Part 1 is stuffed to the gills with fairly dry exposition about the emotional states of our cast as the episode doggedly pops from location to location, showing characters doing exactly what we’d expect them to be doing at this point in extremely truncated two-minute snippets, followed by a scene on a rooftop where Rip delivers another exposition dump about Vandal Savage (complete with handy facts from our team to add to the pile). It’d be wrong to call this portion of the episode a slog, because the insanely rapid pace at least gives Pilot, Part 1 the momentum necessary for it to avoid collapsing under the weight of all the set-up, but it’s nonetheless pretty dramatically inert, with the size of the cast meaning that the individual scenes simply aren’t long enough to deliver any substantial character explorations – it’s simply ‘this is Atom, he’s fighting crime, this is White Canary, she’s depressed’ in a manner that feels overly mechanical, with very little finesse to elevate this above what feels like mildly entertaining admin work.
The episode picks up a little when we shift to the characters deciding to arrive, because, while the episode continues to spread itself thin with very little time for each character, Pilot, Part 1 does begin to try and explore the psyches of the characters in some kind of depth. Ray’s inferiority complex, carried over from Arrow, is a solid and sympathetic character motivation that both lends Ray a distinctive characteristic other than ‘geeky heroism’ and links in nicely to the episode’s final twist, and the scene with Laurel and Sara manages to convey more about their relationship than the entire post-resurrection episode of Arrow did, as well as recalibrating Sara in a much more enjoyable direction. Plus, this section gives us Heatwave telling Captain Cold that they became criminals because ‘we hate working and we love money’, so it’s certainly an improvement on what came before. Unfortunately, this section does give us the egregious moment where Stein drugs Jax into going on the time ship against his will – a development that paints Stein in an extremely unsympathetic light. It’s dealt with in an acceptable fashion later, but it’s frankly a bizarre storytelling choice that leaves a bit of a bad taste in the mouth due to all the unfortunate implications it entails.
Then, after the characters agreed (well, not Jax, but hey) to join Rip, it was off to 1975 to find the convenient Vandal Savage expert. It’s here where Pilot, Part 1 really starts to find its feet by exploiting a key advantage of this strange, motley group of good and bad guys – fun and unexpected combinations of characters. You wouldn’t expect Sara to hit it off with psychopathic criminals Captain Cold and Heatwave, but their unlikely instant friendship is a comic highlight of the episode, leading to one of Pilot, Part 1’s best scenes in the bar fight. It’s not particularly vital for the narrative, but it’s nonetheless a thoroughly enjoyable scene that utilises Guardians of the Galaxy-esque period background music as well as a couple of great gags (Heatwave’s ‘I LOVE THE 70s’ moment, although excessively shown off in the trailers, is a classic moment of ridiculous scenery-chewing from Dominic Purcell) in style. It also helps that Caity Lotz, Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell are some of the more confident performers in the ensemble, and their instant rapport instantly adds a quirky charm to the episode.
I’m slightly less certain on the plotline concerning the professor – the idea of Hawkman and Hawkgirl meeting one of their kids who vividly reminders them from one of their past lives is a great way to exploit their reincarnation for drama, but the Hawks are unfortunately a bit bland at this point (especially Hawkman, whose generic personality isn’t helped by Falk Hentschel’s slightly sleepy performance), so the big dramatic moments of the storyline such as Aldus’ death don’t land with quite the impact you’d hope. I can’t grumble too much, however, because the Aldus plotline quickly heated up with the introduction of Chronos the temporal bounty hunter. By design, Chronos is a blank slate, but his appearance led to a hugely enjoyable fight scene that delivered all the exciting, effects-fuelled entertainment you’d expect from this kind of premise while holding back on the amount of characters involved, leading to a scene that’s thoroughly enjoyable to watch yet retains its coherence, with Aldus and the Hawks as the clear centre of it all. I’m sure we’ll get plenty of scenes with the entire team involved in the future, but it’s encouraging that Pilot, Part 1 combined dumb entertainment with the kind of restraint necessary to keep the fight scene coherent and focused… ish. Chronos, sent by the Time Masters, then led us onto a discovery that Rip’s proposal wasn’t entirely honest…
On one level, the following twist with Rip is pretty derivative – the tragic back-story adds dimension to the character, but a dead wife and son is the kind of thing you’d find on the first page of any book of tragic back-story clichés (if those exist). I’m willing to overlook Rip’s generic backstory, however, because the reveal that Rip hand-picked the team not because they were ‘legends’, but because they were insignificant to history, is a surprisingly strong development that gives the entire team a conflict that each member will deal with in different ways, and a compelling, substantial personal goal of becoming the legends Rip spoke about at the start to link this motley crew of heroes and villains together. The scenes with the characters deliberating over their status as insignificant nobodies are, despite being a little rushed, considerably more dramatically accomplished than anything the first act served up, with the first signs of actual character arcs clearly beginning to emerge.
Aside from a cliffhanger with Vandal Savage that sets up next week’s Cold War shenanigans, Pilot, Part 1 closes out with the team, if not fully formed, beginning to put aside their own insecurities and misgivings about each other in a bid to change their own fates. It’s a bit neat, perhaps – a brief cutting of corners in order to have the traditional statement of intent for the following episodes that pilots always close out on – but the episode does finish on a high note, having corralled the extensive cast into a relatively coherent whole. There’s still plenty more set-up to be done, but there’s a sense that Legends of Tomorrow has done the bulk of the necessary exposition, and can finally get on with the stuff it clearly does best – big, flashy and colourful comic-book action with some broadly drawn character work thrown in.
Pilots are tricky, and pilots involving a large cast of complicated comic-book characters are… well, pretty damn tough. While Pilot, Part 1 begins in a jittery and unfocused manner, dutifully doling out insubstantial character introductions alongside dry exposition, and remains fairly messy throughout, this is a solid start, especially considering the mammoth task the writers had set themselves. It’s agreeably fast-paced, the cast is generally solid (Arthur Darvill continues to display one hell of a knack for deadpan humour after Doctor Who) and, most of all, it’s exceptionally dumb fun that knows it’s dumb fun, and actively revels in it. In time, hopefully, it’ll add substance and moral ambiguity to all this dumb fun, providing compelling drama that matches the fun fight scenes and character interactions. Under the stewardship of the team that capably run two very good superhero dramas already, and with reams of potential clearly evident throughout, there’s no reason to believe why Legends of Tomorrow won’t keep building on this encouraging first episode.
It doesn’t stand up well to close scrutiny, and there’s some major flaws in the show’s DNA such as a tendency to spread itself too thin that will need to be ironed out, but Pilot, Part 1 nonetheless sees this new, ambitious venture kick off with a thoroughly entertaining and occasionally inspired opening episode.