Legends of Tomorrow: 202 “The Justice Society of America” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Across its first season and in last week’s season premiere, Legends of Tomorrow has undergone one long identity crisis as it struggled to figure out what kind of show it wanted to be. Would it be a dark, personal drama about a brutal dictator with Rip Hunter’s tragic family history at the centre? A zany time travel show where the heroes barrel through historical periods and meet numerous celebrities? A weighty sci-fi story about people struggling against their own smallness in the face of the universe? Legends played at all these ideas, sometimes simultaneously, but it never really settled on one specific version of itself.
It’s for that reason that this week’s episode, The Justice Society of America, is so encouraging for the future of Legends, as well as being a really strong episode in its own right. It’s an episode that knows what it wants to be from the get go, committing to the aesthetic of a big, brash Silver Age bumper issue with a deluge of gung-ho heroes and a dastardly villainous plot so nonsensical it could only be cooked up in the confines of a comic book. Is it logically watertight and narratively complex? Absolutely not, but that’s absolutely the intention in an episode that finally commits to being completely and utterly bonkers. There’s a clarity of purpose to the episode that allows it to accomplish its goals in a way last week’s premiere struggled to do with its muddled execution of its non-linear narrative – in a rarity for Legends, that gap between intent and execution feels incredibly small this time.
The headliner here, clearly, was the eponymous super-team that the Legends found themselves entangled with here. The JSA certainly acquitted themselves well in an opening fight scene that ranks among some of the most ambitious, purely fun set-pieces the Arrowverse has cooked up thus far. The two minutes are stuffed to the gills with impressive moments of fan-service like Obsidian draining all the sunlight from the area, Stargirl wielding her cosmic staff to take Firestorm down and Vixen using her animal spirit powers to wipe the floor with Sara, and it’s hard not to love the scene just because of those really cool moments. However, the opener serves more of a purpose than just visual fanservice, instantly establishing the JSA and the cohesiveness that’s crucial to the contrast the episode will draw between them and the Legends. Those defining moments for each character look great, with surprisingly strong visual effects that sketch out how the six heroes play their own vital role and contribute to the efficient larger whole of the team, shown by just how fast the fight ends with the JSA triumphant.
The Justice Society of America doesn’t try and replicate that charm offensive again, for good reason (the visual effects budget, for one), but it does zero in on the team’s narrative purpose to use their presence for the benefit of some strong character development. Individually, some members do fade slightly into the background after the opening fight – Obsidian, Dr Mid-Nite and Stargirl get the short end of the stick with only a handful of lines between them – but the team as a whole serves as a smart way to cast a new light on the dysfunctionality of the Legends in the light of the loss of their leader, pushing the team’s overall development forward by forcing them to find a new status quo post-Rip. Most pertinently, that means a choice of new leader for the Legends, an arc that manages to flesh out refreshingly new sides of Sara and Stein, two characters who can often be stuck in a rut. For Stein, The Justice Society follows on from last season’s idea that he’s the principle beneficiary of the past’s narrow-minded bias towards ‘old white guys’ (as Jax puts them). it’s hardly a powerful confrontation of white privilege, but his arc isn’t afraid to deconstruct that idea and expose his inefficiencies when chucked into the privileged place of authority that society allows him to have. It also, briefly, allows Victor Garber to show off his impressive voice by belting out Edelweiss to a group of Nazis as a distraction, which more or less solely justifies the episode’s focus on Stein anyway.
It’s dramatically interesting to see the ugly, entitled side of Stein emerge as he barks orders and snaps at his teammates when his leadership falters, and Victor Garber plays that less admirable side of the character well, bringing in enough of his usual character tics to ensure that Stein’s unsympathetic portrayal is recognisably tethered to his character as we know it. The arc, however, only truly comes to fruition when it pivots round to reveal that it was about Sara all along, a fact that becomes obvious the moment that Stein steps aside. The Justice Society doesn’t lampshade Sara’s leadership skills too heavily to ensure that it’s something of an immediate surprise when it comes, instead opting for a smarter and subtler accumulation of hints that she’s cut out for the role across the episode, from her quick thinking in battle to her recognition of Nate’s haemophilia. It’s a choice that, as Stein points out, fits perfectly as the next step in her arc given the capability she’s showed off in distress throughout the show and pushes her into a really new interesting place as a character that opens up some much more varied stories beyond just her angst after Laurel’s death. Caity Lotz has always had the charisma of a lead character, and she fits just as snugly into the heightened responsibility of the role just as well as her character does – she’s one of the best performers in an all-round strong cast, so the beefed-up role almost feels like a reward.
The other big arc of The Justice Society came with Nate, the new addition to the Waverider. Nate was a fun addition last week, but his role was reasonably thin and the premiere failed to really bring impact to his introduction into the Legends – thankfully, his arc here is much more substantial, giving us a much better sense of what makes Nate tick and where his character may be going in the future. He’s a familiar archetype – the heroic normal guy who’s always wanted to help people, but lacks the ability to head into battle – but The Justice Society of America adds power to his journey by exploring the relationship between Nate and his grandfather, JSA member Commander Steel, in a way that shines a light on the more unique aspects of Nate’s character. Nate is a classic example of a legacy character in the comics, in that he’s someone born in the shadow of a legendary superhero and is eventually destined to take up the mantle, and The Justice Society’s exploration of the way in which Nate has dreamed of emulating even the smallest aspect of his grandfather yet has been held back by pure rotten luck (with his medical condition) is a really heartfelt angle to come at that idea.
Nick Zano is an innately likeable actor, and he captures that difficult feeling of wonder and disappointment when confronted with the flesh-and-blood version of someone who he’s constructed as a symbolic figure from wartime photographs and airbrushed historical accounts with finesse, adding pathos to Nate’s journey towards discovering that heroism is a whole lot more attainable than he dreamed possible. It helps that Commander Steel is one of the JSA members who gets the spotlight here, because he becomes a pleasingly fleshed-out foil for Nate in his strong journey from as a distanced, stoic figure who carries himself as the public hero Nate imagined to someone who’s just as flawed and vulnerable as Nate is. Nate’s arc was one of the most emotionally gratifying stories that this packed-out episode served up, providing the beating heart and sentimentality that tethered all the craziness to something a little more human, just like it did last week.
Admittedly, not everything hits the mark in this episode. The character arc that feels the least thought-out is Ray’s, because it’s essentially just a reheated version of Ray’s principle journey last season from feelings of inadequacy to a true hero. We know that Ray feels insecure about his lack of powers and reliance on the constantly unreliable Atom suit, and that the idea that he’s not a hero because of that is a sore spot for him is a point that’s been made again and again. The Justice Society of America offers very little new to that arc, with Ray once again needing outside affirmation from an ally – in this case, Vixen – that, yes, he is a hero despite his lack of powers. I felt the impact of Ray’s choice to give up the super-serum to save Nate (and most likely activate his Citizen Steel powers), but not a lot more really resonated in an arc that felt distinctly pedestrian when held up against an episode as ambitious and freewheeling as this one. Hopefully Legends will find a new angle for the character in the episodes to come, because the last thing Ray needs is another repetitive character journey after Kendra last season.
Another sore spot for this episode is more minor, but still noteworthy, which is the final fight scene that brings in a hulking super-soldier to square off against the united Legends and JSA. The Justice Society is already packed with pricey visual effects with the JSA’s powers and numerous action scenes, and the Hulk knockoff felt like one ambitious element too far, with the visual effects looking distinctly poor even considering the CW’s notoriously tight budget. The effects model looks unconvincing in his uncanny-valley cartoonishness and weightlessness (he just bumps into people and they go flying), which detracts a little from a final set-piece that’s otherwise gloriously dumb fun as the superheroes wipe the floor with a legion of Nazis. It’s churlish to really grill the episode for this, because it’s essentially a problem born of excessive ambition, a flaw that’s much more admirable than most, but it does highlight that Legends does sometimes need to know its limits a little more and work within them.
The Justice Society is a fun romp for the most part with not a great deal of peril involved, but the final scene certainly packs a punch, bringing the stakes of the conflict back into sharp relief with the death of Hourman at the hands of the Reverse-Flash, who’s still meddling with time and looking for mysterious artefacts to aid with the Legion of Doom’s plan (that’s potentially the most comic-booky sentence I’ve ever put in a review). It’s hard to feel much sadness at the death of a character we didn’t get to know all that well, but the intent of the death is explicit – to establish that the Reverse-Flash and his villainous pals are gunning for the JSA and are happy to meddle with the timeline to do so. In that regard, it’s a well-executed twist, eliciting that same sense of dread and shock that the Reverse Flash’s similar appearances in The Flash season one brought about, establishing him once again as an incredibly formidable opponent in a way very few other bad guys can match. It’s a relief after the dumpster fire of Vandal Savage to have a bad guy who’s genuinely interesting as well as intimidating, another sign of how Legends has begun to really acknowledge its past mistakes and diverge from them.
The Justice Society of America is a bold statement of intent for Legends that it’s no longer experimenting and working out what tone and narrative focus works best. Like the best episodes of season one, it’s extremely fun in how it leans heavily into the comic-book insanity of its storylines, especially with the memorable presentation of the JSA, but the sheer sense of fun is complemented here by character work that’s, for the most part, genuinely compelling on a dramatic level. There are flaws here that drag down the instalment, such as a tendency to repeat itself and a slight excess of ambition, but for the most part this was an hour of television to put a smile on the viewer’s face – a concentrated blast of joyfully dumb fun.