Legends of Tomorrow: 203 “Shogun” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
“A sword is only as strong as the man who wields it.”
The question of what it means to be a hero has dominated superhero fiction for decades. It’s understandable, really – most superheroes, even the most experienced among them, are plagued by doubts and deficiencies that are necessary to keep them going as interesting and dynamic characters. It’s particularly been a preoccupation of superhero television, in which we can see the origin stories of heroes play out over a much longer period than movies allow, allowing heroes to form over dozens of episodes, one small step forward at a time. This week’s episode of Legends is dominated by this theme, as we see the origin story of Citizen Steel play out while the rest of the more experienced heroes grapple with just how they define their own heroism.
Shogun isn’t as ambitious or as thrilling as last week’s barnstorming JSA episode, but it does maintain the looseness and confidence that has distinguished this young season, indicating that the writers have genuinely delivered on their promises of an improvement this year. Shogun works because it focuses on what Legends has always done best, which is to throw our heroes into a recognisable historical period and let them cause havoc, unchained from any complicated mythology or an overarching purpose. It’s also a little more focused than the similar historical episodes of season 1, delegating a few great moments to each team member but specifically zeroing in on the parallel stories of Nate and Ray’s battle to define themselves as a hero, and it’s confident enough to end on its own terms without a cliffhanger to clumsily link it into the serialised narrative. Shogun isn’t vintage Legends, drawing from the playbook of previous episodes so often that there are very few genuine surprises, but it’s an ideal reminder that Legends has improved itself notably by embracing the episodic, one-and-done style that last season was afraid to touch.
The core of the story here was Nate’s origin story as Citizen Steel, a plotline that sped forward with surprising briskness. It’s with Nate that Shogun illustrates both its greatest strengths, but also its frustrating flaws. On one hand, his origin story is deeply familiar stuff, which follows the classic structure almost to the letter (it’s perhaps intentional, but still notable that his story is almost exactly the same as Barry’s from the first couple of episodes of The Flash) with very few deviations to liven up the formula. Yet on the other, the execution is genuinely strong, with the blunt-yet-effective script and Nick Zano’s star performance working to create something that still hits the right notes.
It nicely builds off the idea of Nate as a legacy character in the shadow of his own grandfather from last week, with his thrilled enthusiasm right at the start of the episode instantly establishing the emotional stakes. Nate’s essentially battling to become the man of his childhood fantasies that seemed entirely unreachable, and the strong establishment of this interesting idea ensures that his crushed disappointment as, predictably, his powers fail to manifest is tangible and sympathetic, holding a little more emotional power than these moments typically do. Nick Zano’s performance walks a delicate tightrope between deep frustration and whininess – even when Nate is mired so deeply in his own self-pity or cocky enough to face off against the Shogun’s troops, he’s still someone you can root for because Zano keeps a strong handle on Nate’s positive intent, always framing each action as something that’s borne of a desire to help, no matter how ill-advised it actually ends up being.
In parallel, we have Ray’s story, which delves into the perennial insecurities that seemed pretty frustrating last week as Legends delivered familiar character beats that had become exhausted from overuse. That’s not a problem that totally goes away here – there’s more to Ray as a character than his self-doubt, and Shogun’s interest in a specific side of his character is so one-note that it limits itself a little, failing to really link this story to different challenges that Ray has faced in the past to make sure it feels of a piece with his continuing development. That being said, Shogun takes enough real steps in pushing Ray forward that it doesn’t feel like the show is in a loop covering the same ideas over and over – it takes last week and adds genuine stakes to it with real changes that force Ray to rethink things, as opposed to everything playing out in abstract with a vague affirmation as a pay-off like last week.
Having the Atom suit stolen from him is a smart storytelling move as it allows Legends to play with a more literal take on the idea that Ray’s heroism is innate and doesn’t require the suit – and after constant scenes of Ray looking sad and then requiring a pep talk to make him feel better in recent episodes, that’s somewhat refreshing and allows for a more convincing pay-off where Ray proves that his smarts outstrip the brute firepower of the Shogun’s armour. It’s also an interesting storytelling move for the future to actually go ahead and blow up the Atom suit, a sea change for the character that I wasn’t convinced the episode would actually try, indicating that Legends is working towards much more tangible character development for Ray by forcing him into a new situation that requires him to use a skillset, his technical knowhow, that’s been disappointingly underused in the show so far. Ray is often a problem character for this show, despite the best efforts of the always-endearing Brandon Routh who gets the chance to show off a spikier and more outwardly insecure layer of Ray this week, so for all the repetition that Shogun touches on, it’s ultimately encouraging that Legends is clearly pushing forward to new places with his development.
Elsewhere, the broader ensemble doesn’t receive as much of a significant arc, but there’s still some really strong character moments here. In particular, it’s noteworthy just how fun the character interplay becomes with the introduction of Vixen to the team full-time as a straight-laced foil to the gruff Mick. Shogun mostly takes its time integrating Vixen into the team and sketching out the function that she’ll perform, but the back-story provided here puts her in an intriguing place going forward. Vixen’s characterisation is just the right mix of familiar and refreshing, reflecting the Legends in many ways with her powers directly deriving from legacy, but also offering something new to the team with her deep cultural ties due to her status as the protector of her home village. Furthermore, she brings out the best in Mick, a character who can often slip into the background due to his oblique dramatic role, both in terms of coaxing out some of the best lines he’s been given in quite a while (his enthusiasm over ninjas was oddly adorable) and clearly seeing through his brawler façade with an incisiveness the rest of the team can’t muster. Dominic Purcell and Maisie Richardson-Sellers have a fun odd-couple rapport in their scenes with their constant bickering underlying the difficulty of two people with polar-opposite worldviews coming to understand and respect one another, and it’s a new dynamic that holds a lot of promise, both for comedy and drama, in the coming weeks.
Naturally, this episode being a samurai-movie homage and all, it’s unsurprising that Shogun is chock-full of sword fights. They’re elevated above mere cutesy homage, however, by strong direction from superhero TV stalwart Kevin Tancheroen (who’s now done the rounds on all of the CW superhero shows, alongside several episodes of Agents of SHIELD) that combines kinetic, thrilling choreography that doesn’t shy away from the visceral violence of the fights with a strong grasp on character throughout. The final showdown splinters into a series of fights that all involve different sets of characters, and each hero’s fighting style is carefully crafted to deepen our understanding of who they are, from Sara’s effortless, graceful swordfighting illustrating how in touch she is with her assassin past, to the blunt-instrument brawling of Mick, whose approach to battling ninjas is to punch them as hard as he can. It results in action that delivers with both style and substance, with thrilling visuals compounded by a careful eye on each member’s individuality and different approaches as opposed to just lumping them in. Legends’ set-pieces are typically of a more traditionally sci-fi ilk with lots of visual effects flying about, so it’s really fun to see the show take advantage of its numerous historical settings to deliver action that’s new and refreshing each episode, in this case leaning on practical effects and tangible choreography for action that’s grittier and more focused than usual.
Shogun is mostly concerned with telling its own close-ended story, and thus stays in Feudal Japan for most of its run-time, but there’s definitely a hint of big things to come in the future bubbling under the surface, clearly shown in Jax and Stein’s hunt for Rip’s secret compartment aboard the Waverider. The message they find inside isn’t fully shown, but it’s revealing enough who sent it, and from when – none other than Barry Allen in 2056, who’s clearly in some pretty urgent need of help. It’s not entirely clear just how this is going to play out, but it’s a tantalising tease for the future nonetheless that’s full of intriguing possibilities both for the season arc and for the upcoming crossover. At a guess, it’s probably involved with the arrival of the Dominators, the alien race who will serve as the antagonists for the Invasion! crossover next month, but it could equally link back to the Reverse Flash, whose activities are always going to be inextricably tied up with his nemesis. Either way, this could be just the tip of the iceberg for something fascinating, and it’s a pertinent sign in an episode that’s a little more restrained in its ambitions that Legends is still planning huge things for the future.
Shogun is a reasonably low-key episode of Legends by its standards, and doesn’t do a whole lot new as it frequently strays into repetition, but it delivers its familiar story with enough bonkers energy and affecting character beats to keep up the notion that this show really has righted itself and focused on what it does best in season two.