Legends of Tomorrow: 106 “Star City 2046” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Of the first season of Legends of Tomorrow, this episode looks to have been the most anticipated. From the title being unusually redacted at the start of filming to the announcements that Stephen Amell would be appearing as an older, bearded Oliver Queen with future Green Arrow Connor Hawke in tow, Star City 2046 looked like the episode that would finally catapult Legends to the giddy standards of comic-book fun that it’s aspired to from day one. Did it match the hype?
Star City 2046 is a really, really fun episode of Legends of Tomorrow. It’s also haphazardly written, poorly paced and based on time travel logic that seems to have been scrawled on the back of a napkin. It’s not a good episode of television in the orthodox sense, but it ticks just about all the boxes you’d want from a futuristic, post-apocalyptic episode of Arrow. It’s certainly the most fun I’ve had watching Legends, but also the most frustrated I’ve been watching Legends, and therein lies the intrinsic problem with this strange instalment.
The entertainment factor broadly stems from how Star City 2046 wholeheartedly embraces its source material in a way that very few other comic-book shows do. The episode is a parade of fan-service from start to finish, with appearances from characters who could never appear in Arrow or Flash, and the clear joy at embracing this whole new world that the Arrowverse usually can’t exploit carries the episode through the rickety connective tissue that’s used to justify the presence of these fan-pleasing figures. A 60 year old Oliver Queen scrapping against the son of his old arch-enemy kitted out in Deathstroke armour makes no sense on a logical level, but it’s too endearingly ludicrous to resist – the writers’ evident enthusiasm at tearing into this Arrow Beyond world prevents the episode from collapsing in on itself through sheer force of momentum. It’s gloriously self-indulgent, cashing in on all of the investment in this universe that the creators have accrued since Arrow launched in 2012 for an episode that’s both nostalgic in how it harks back to Arrow’s finest hour in season two with the presence of Deathstroke and forward-looking in how it focuses on the legacies that Arrow characters have left behind. God knows what viewers who haven’t watched Arrow would have thought of this, but for the people who have stuck with this DC TV universe from the start, this was a rewardingly bonkers twist on the Arrow mythology.
The two new characters present here were Connor Hawke and Grant Wilson, aka Green Arrow and Deathstroke Mark II. Neither is particularly fleshed out, and there’s a slightly misinformed implicit presumption here that viewer knowledge of these characters from the comics will be enough to make the audience emotionally invested in people who are pretty thinly written here, with just a few lines of back-story to add depth. But then again, it’s arguably enough that they’re in this episode in the first place, and contributing to the best, most dynamic fight scenes Legends has delivered since the pilot. It all depends how which lens you view this episode through, because by conventional terms, these characters are hollow shells in snazzy costumes. They’re extremely fun to watch on-screen, however, and from the perspective of a fan of DC’s mythology, it’s hard to complain too much about characters who have never appeared in live-action before just because they’re not that fleshed out. From the perspective of a reviewer… well, it’s less certain, because there’s so much more that could have been explored with how these characters feel about their situations that Star City 2046 entirely skips over.
And then there’s Old Man Oliver, who rounds out the cast of Arrow-related faces here. Inconsistent old-age make-up and vague backstory aside, the older Oliver was one of Star City 2046’s unquestionable successes. Stephen Amell’s charisma and star power is instantly palpable here, and his weary, embittered performance decently conveys the cynicism that’s set in with this future version of Oliver, who’s lost just about everything in the intervening thirty years since the Legends set off on the Waverider. It’s a really fun chance to see a drastically different version of a familiar face, and Star City 2046 effectively cashes in on the in-built audience investment viewers have in Oliver by framing his return to the fight as a rousing return of a long-lost hero. His return is incredibly satisfying to watch despite the fact that he’d been on screen for under ten minutes before that final fight, which shows Legends using the shared universe to its advantage in a similar way to how The Flash used Diggle earlier this week.
Unfortunately, the future fun is tied up in storytelling foundations that feel arbitrary and confusing. The time travel mechanics of the show haven’t been too much of a drag until now (they’ve been nonsensical, but it’s been background nonsense), but they’re intrinsic to the episode’s story here, with the idea of a ‘potential future’ fuelling Rip’s motivations throughout the episode. They make even less sense than before when dragged into the limelight – the talk about the dangers of changing the future because it’s always in flux doesn’t really bear any scrutiny, and that’s a real problem when Star City 2046 is constantly drawing attention to these dangers. I’m not a stickler for watertight logic as long as the show is accomplishing its goals, but Legends is going to need to put a bit more thought into its time travel if it’s going to continue to mine the very concept for drama in the future.
The remainder of Star City 2046 is conventional Legends, for better or for worse. Snart and Rory’s conflict is undoubtedly the strongest sub-plot here, because it’s a conflict that’s been brewing for several episodes now, accumulating nuance as Legends has worked to add shades of grey to these ‘villains’. Both have flirted with morality in recent episodes, so their clash here was richly rewarding to watch – a satisfying progression of their character development that’s grounded in a genuinely interesting study in the changing psychologies of these two men. Snart’s quickly being pulled over to the side of the angels, which is a compelling and well-acted character arc in itself that’s continuously building on the foundations laid by The Flash, but the intrigue of his arc is compounded by the first meaningful exploration of what this change is doing to his partnership with Rory. It’s really great to see Legends use Rory as more than just comic-relief for the second week running – although it’s interesting to see that Star City 2046 presents Rory once again as the unapologetic psychopath after his brief acquisition of a conscience last week, only this time it’s exploiting the dramatic potential of that unrepentant villainy instead of comedy. It’s the story of two life partners who are naturally drifting apart, but one member is desperate to maintain remnants of that former bond no matter what – that’s an inherently interesting conflict, even if it’s been used dozens of times before in numerous works of fiction. But hey, who cares about a familiar conflict when the two people fighting are super-villains with cold and heat guns travelling through time? It’s a simple conflict that doesn’t overshadow these extremely colourful characters, and that’s a good display of balance from a series that’s often struggled to replicate that elsewhere.
On a less serious note, back at the Waverider, a love triangle was unfolding between Kendra, Ray and Jax. This isn’t a particularly well-written storyline, taking a tedious teen-drama concept and applying it to people who are in their 20s and 30s, and it seriously impinges upon the flow of the more serious action in Star City, meaning that the episode suffers the tonal whiplash of cutting between dark post-apocalyptic action and cheesy teen drama. Despite the scripting issues, however, this subplot had some entertainment value, which is just about 100% down to the endearing performances delivered by all actors involved (Ciara Renee seems to work a great deal better with lighter material, as does Franz Drameh as Jax). The actors bring energy and charm to a subplot that’s utterly tedious on paper – so while it’s still a bit of a drag on the episode, especially towards the end, it’s nowhere near as bad as it could have been (which is a bit of a back-handed compliment, but it’s the best I can give).
Star City 2046 is an odd episode. It works as a silly, ambitious slice of comic book TV with reams of fan-service and entertaining fight scenes, and that’s the sort of thing Legends should be excelling at. But at its best, Legends has shown glimpses of the potential to become something deeper and more meaningful than just 45 minutes of barmy escapism, and that potential to excel as a piece of drama is on display in the Snart/Rory conflict here. So by that criteria, Star City 2046 is a disappointingly muddled piece of drama with extraneous subplots and an ultimately hollow centre, with no real emotional investment or thematic depth on display. Strangely, it’s those two things at the same time – the best and worst of Legends stacked right up next to each other, and it’s hard to tell which of the two matters more at the end of the day. At the very least, this was an entertaining experiment with a different kind of story, transplanting Legends’ customary sense of fun to a darker setting. Whether that experiment came off… I’m not entirely sure.