Legends of Tomorrow: 209 “Raiders of the Lost Art” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Superhero fiction is always a place for freeform experimentation, and all of the CW’s DC shows have featured plenty of wacky and ambitious ideas, such as the appearances of Gorilla Grodd and King Shark on The Flash, or the episode of Arrow where the heroes fought against a man whose entire body mass was made up of robot bees. Legends of Tomorrow, however, has really taken the cake in this department in its first two seasons, and this season in particular has been an agreeably bonkers showcase for some of the strangest parts of the DC canon.
Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet. This week’s midseason premiere, Raiders of the Lost Art, was packed with unapologetic, wall-to-wall craziness. It is as divorced from grounded emotional reality as this show has ever come, and it is, without a doubt, the silliest it has ever been. And, as a direct result of the clear intent on the part of the writers to go for broke and throw every crazy idea they had at the wall, it’s also as good as Legends has been since its introduction of the JSA back at the top of the reason. Put it this way: it’s an episode where Sara Lance rolls her eyes and sighs: “George Lucas has the Spear of Destiny”, which then has to be retrieved from the Legion of Doom. How could an episode like that not be good?
Raiders of the Lost Art’s main contribution to the myth arc of the season lies in the return of Rip Hunter, living as a perpetually stoned filmmaker called Phil in 1967 Los Angeles. Rip has been a problematic character for Legends when he has become a principal focus, as he always came across as an overly abrasive and brooding character in a cast that worked best when its characters could joke around and exchange references. Raiders neatly sidesteps that problem by inverting the usual portrayal of Rip with extremely enjoyable results. Arthur Darvill seems to be having a hell of a lot of fun in his portrayal of poor, confused Phil who spends most of the episode utterly baffled by the sudden attention he’s receiving from every time traveller under the sun. Soon enough, we’ll have to return to Rip’s traditional portrayal, and Raiders continually reminds us of his emotional importance to the original team members to provide some urgency to the mission to find him and bring his real self back. For now, though, Rip’s reintroduction ably complemented the light and breezy tone of the episode by providing further scope for comedy and the chance for a few meta jabs at the first season (the actor playing Vandal Savage is criticised for lacking menace, and it’s just so hard to guess what they could be referring to) rather than souring the tone as he could have done.
Rip’s presence segues into the main time aberration of the episode, in which George Lucas is spooked out of his plans to finish film school and therefore fails to make Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Celebrity historicals are nothing new for time travel shows – Doctor Who has made a genre out of it, and Legends has checked in with HG Wells and Civil War leader Ulysses Grant before – but it’s a really clever spin on that typical formula to present a celebrity who is very much a modern figure whose impact on our pop culture remains seismic. Raiders wrings every drop it can out of the sheer fun of Lucas’ involvement – it’s not that original to have a celebrity inspired to create their work by an experience with a time traveller in these stories, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable to hear Amaya implore George with the assurance that he’s their only hope, or to see Lucas and our heroes stuck inside a trash compactor searching for an item while the walls close in. Legends wears its geeky admiration for Lucas’ work (aside from Howard the Duck, sadly) as a proud badge of honour, and the irreverent enthusiasm on display in a storyline that surely constitutes wish fulfilment for the writers’ room makes up for the literalness of the storytelling that could have become a problem if the episode had taken Lucas’ role more seriously.
The real meat of Lucas’ involvement, however, lies in its impact on Ray and Nate. Linking their chosen vocations to the influence of Lucas’ work, with Ray inspired by Star Wars and Nate by Indiana Jones, is an ingenious move not just for the fun scenes it sparks (Nate and Ray’s overly intense interrogation of a frightened and confused Lucas is one of many comic gems to be found this episode), but because of the ultimately sincere and impassioned defence of art as a medium of inspiration that it makes. Raiders couldn’t make this point any more literally if it tried – Ray and Nate are instantly able to save the day once Lucas is sufficiently motivated to inspire millions with his filmmaking, showing just how entangled his films that are dismissed by some characters as frivolous and unnecessary are with their identities. This kind of celebration of the power that art of any kind can hold would be welcome at any time, but it’s especially timely now, so it’s pleasing to see that, in an episode that holds most of its plot points at arm’s length with a sheen of detached irony, the importance of movies to Ray and Nate is one that’s ultimately taken seriously.
Elsewhere, on the Waverider, Raiders pairs Stein and Mick up to deal with Mick’s hallucinations of his deceased partner. Every Legends episode has a plotline that’s completely detached from the main narrative thrust of any given instalment, and Mick’s story fits that bill here. Yet there’s actually a lot of insightful developments in Mick’s characterisation to be found here that culminate in a succinct but effective conclusion about the dissonance between Mick’s idealised version of himself as the emotionless, amoral crook, and the person he’s actually become who’s beset with emotions and inclinations towards morality he neither wants nor understands. The conclusion of the plotline is predictable from the get-go, but that’s very much the point, with all talk of secret devices and ‘time ghosts’ serving as transparent excuses to put off the obvious conclusion that mirrors Mick’s own mental processes. Admittedly, this is all coming a tad later than would make complete sense, as Snart has been off the show for so long that it requires the show to dredge up the particulars of plot points that occurred at the back end of last season, but that doesn’t take away from the important developments in Mick’s character that cast his character in a complex new light in his new role as one half of a partnership that’s vanished.
Elsewhere, the Legion of Doom are still plotting away in their goal to complete the Spear of Destiny in order to alter reality how they see fit. Malcolm Merlyn and Damien Dahrk are a constant presence in Raiders, determinvedly hunting down the Legends at every turn, and there’s definite fun to be had in this ever-so-slightly ridiculous power struggle that constantly ends in a stalemate (how many times have Sara and Dahrk fought this season?). The Legion are still very fun villains to watch, and there’s a sharper sense of how they work as a unit here, with Merlyn and Dahrk as the muscle who perform most of the legwork and Thawne as the leader and strategist whose appearance signals that the situation for Legends has just deteriorated big time. However, it would have been nice to have some actual characterisation for the villains here. Merlyn and Dahrk’s dialogue is almost entirely concerned with their pressing mission to find Rip and capture the Spear, and it doesn’t delve any deeper into their specific motivations for going out of their way to travel through time. Malcolm, in particular, is a bit of a blank state, because we’ve had far less time to get to know this particular version of him and what makes him tick, which makes the similar lack of details offered on his own reasoning a little frustrating. Dahrk and Merlyn are good villains when they’re written correctly, as Arrow shows, but they’re being reduced from fearsome former Big Bads to glorified goons with Stormtrooper level aim who are constantly in need of an assist from Thawne. Hopefully next week’s episode, which promises to be more Legion-centric (well, it’s called The Legion of Doom, so no surprises there) will delve more into the specificity of their threat. Moustache-twirling and MacGuffin hunting is fun, but long-form villains need a little more depth if they’re to become sustainable antagonists.
Another nitpick with the episode is that it doesn’t quite flow coherently as you would hope. Once the George Lucas aberration is revealed about halfway through, the episode loses its singular focus on Rip and never really gets it back despite the obvious links that Rip has to Lucas. The balance isn’t quite there, as the dazed and confused Rip seemingly mills around the Waverider until he settles down and accepts his predicament while the Legends are busy trying to save Lucas from the Legion of Doom, so Rip’s sudden, albeit brief return to vital importance when he takes a pep talk from Gideon and pretends to be his ‘real’ self is a little jarring given how almost all of the build-up to this pay-off lies back in the first act. There’s a lot to be said for the way in which Raiders of the Lost Art gleefully charges through its plot despite the obvious coherency issues instead of taking its time to pivot between plotlines – that was absolutely the best approach for an episode with this much plot as this. Yet the episode can’t entirely outrun its unusual construction, which packs in stories that would easily fill two separate episodes and meshes them together, and it means that, at times during the episode’s midpoint, it can be a little uneven as the episode struggles to figure out what story it wants to tell.
Nonetheless, for the most part, Raiders of the Lost Art is Legends at the top of its game – throwing all concerns regarding logic and realism to the wind and diving headlong into stories that only a show as high-concept as this could even think of tackling. With its introduction of a long-term MacGuffin for the Legion and Legends to scrap over, it offers up greater clarity about the story of season two while sowing the seeds for intriguing potential stories with Rip as he returns to his original identity, and Mick, when Snart makes his promised return as a member of the Legion of Doom. Most of all, it’s just plain fun, and it’s clear that Raiders has no higher ambitions than providing a story that’s ceaselessly enjoyable to watch unfold. Legends has entered 2017 with a stirring reminder of the improvements it’s made this season – if it keeps it up, we’re in for a hell of a ride within the final half of the season.