Legends of Tomorrow: 210 “The Legion of Doom” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
The Arrowverse has played host to dozens of major villains over time – from small fry villains of the week like Plunder or Vigilante to imposing Big Bads who have menaced the Flash, Green Arrow, Supergirl and the Legends for seasons a time. Despite all this time spent establishing the antagonists, however, very few of the DC shows have ever spent much time on the perspective of the villains. What exactly they get up to when they’re not planning their tenth or eleventh attacks on their chosen nemesis, therefore, has mostly gone unrevealed.
From the opening monologue from Damien Dahrk and the red-tinged titles with the villains’ emblems smashing in, it was clear that The Legion of Doom aimed to change that. There’s still plenty of face-time for the Legends this week, but all the big action sequences and most of the complicated character dynamics are left to the eponymous villains. And that’s just about the best choice the show has made all season. The thing is, it’s difficult to find the balance for a villain in terms of how their actions are presented. Are villains meant to be despicable? Pitiful? Scary? That’s a trap season one fell into with Vandal Savage, as Legends kept changing its mind as to whether Vandal Savage would be imposing or camp as a villain.
This season, however, there’s been none of those doubts. As The Legion of Doom so exuberantly displays, it’s figured out that villains are fun. More so, certainly than the heroes. Eobard Thawne, Damien Dahrk and Malcolm Merlyn are depraved monsters who all commit evil acts for enjoyment, but their unrestrained morality, cripplingly overinflated egos and complete self-interest are very, very entertaining to watch. It’s clear that the actors are having the same fun as we are, too. There’s no subtly or careful craft in the performances in the Legion scenes. Letscher, Barrowman and McDonough deliver all their lines in a hiss, a half-shout, a sneer, or all three, and it’s the broadness of their performance and willingness to display the ostentatious evil of these characters without any need for nuance that makes their interactions so purely enjoyable as they snipe at each other and manoeuvre their own selfish agendas into position.
The Legion have always been incredibly fun villains to watch, and The Legion of Doom leans into their classically campy moustache-twirling with a lot of success, but there’s also a substantial effort here to alleviate some of the issues of their earlier portrayals and to click a more sustainable dynamic into place for the rest of the season. A big part of this is the way the episode re-asserts the driving individuality of the team’s members after last week made Malcolm and Damien look a little like generic goons. That portrayal never really made sense – these are all people who have executed impossibly elaborate villainous schemes on their own in the past, after all – and The Legion of Doom implicitly recognises this as Malcolm and Damien chafe at their constrictive roles and lash out at the very suggestion that they could be ‘underlings’. For perhaps the first time this season, it feels like three Big Bad villains are stuffed into the same room, and the result is a really effective team dynamic that acts as a neat foil to the ragtag teamwork of the Legends, and establishes just how contrasting their approaches are in a way that’s consistent with their prior characterisation. All three members see themselves as the heroes of their own story, with their own viewpoints that are objectively correct, and they play out enjoyable funhouse-mirror versions of the Legends’ roles – Eobard as the domineering and dictatorial leader, Malcolm as the backstabbing strategist, and Damien as the psychotic muscle. While the Legends may hash out their differences and amicably reconcile them, the idea of compromise and of listening is utterly alien to the Legion, who are more disposed to yell their differences at one another and then pick fights to the death when things don’t go their way. It’s a really fun twist on the usual story arcs that take place within the Legends that exploits the Legion’s skewed morality for great comic and dramatic effect, and it’s explored to its fullest extent thanks to the generous amount of screen-time afforded to each relationship in the Legion.
The Legion of Doom’s most important contribution to the season, besides being a refresher from the ‘historical of the week’ format, is to give each member of the Legion a reason for hunting the Spear of Destiny that doesn’t undercut their unapologetic villainy. For Damien, that’s always been simple, but made clearer here – like a twisted version of Rip from season 1, he wants to rewrite history to erase something awful happening in the future and to carve his own destiny from there (and, also, kill lots of people along the way). Malcolm arguably gets the most sympathetic motivation on paper – to rewrite his pitiful and washed-up existence to restore who he once was, until you realise that doing so would mean horrible, awful things for those who Malcolm has hurt. The opening flashback is a necessary one, finally providing some vital context for his presence that sets out where he’s been since Arrow season four, and it’s a succinct way to convey the desperation of Malcolm’s situation in which he’s been comprehensively rejected in his desires by everyone and everything, up to and including life itself. As for Eobard…
Well, that’s where things got interesting. It’s always fun to see Matt Letscher’s interpretation of the character, but none of his appearances after The Flash’s first season finale made any sense whatsoever, rationalised mostly by incoherent mumblings about Speed Force and stable time loops. By presenting a non-specific version of Eobard who could just as easily have come before The Flash season 1, Legends logically seemed to be avoiding confronting this at all. The Legion of Doom, by contrast, steers into the mess that defines Eobard and offers up a satisfying, thrilling answer to that question that, within the bounds of comic-book science, makes a pleasing amount of narrative sense. It’s even more impressive that Legends clears up this lingering confusion by diving even deeper into Flash’s mythology with the appearance of Black Flash, formerly known as Zoom, who now skulks around the Speed Force in hopes of finally wiping the impossible Eobard from existence.
Legends has always lacked the defined individuality of its counterparts due to its patchwork cast siphoned off from Arrow and Flash, but it’s flourished when it’s embraced this status and used it to exploit all the crazy parts of the wider DC mythology that other shows have teed up with their own stories. Black Flash is a truly great villain for Eobard, and his threat is made abundantly clear with the effective image of Eobard Thawne visibly shaking at the sight of him in a scene that milks the thrill of seeing such a niche and surprising character realised in live-action for all it’s worth. Providing a villain for a villain is a neat device that brings some much-needed vulnerability and humanity to a character who has always been presented as more or less invincible, and it’s a good way to start laying the groundwork for Eobard’s inevitable defeat. Just wait until he stops running… It’s a great advertisement for the benefits of a shared universe in ensuring that plotlines can so easily interweave in a way that’s narratively convenient for the shows and exciting for those of us who love this kind of interconnectivity – we already know that Black Flash will be showing up on The Flash at some point, so now he can come in fully-formed and build upon this imposing introduction.
The Legion of Doom is light on heavy emotional arcs, but it does deliver a leap forward in Stein’s character arc as the lingering thread of his time aberration daughter is fully resolved. It’s a strongly executed conflict that does what the best episodes of Legends do: take patently absurd sci-fi gobbledegook and turn it into affecting human emotion. The mechanics of Lily’s existence might be complicated, but the feeling of existential fear and doubt that comes with being told that your existence was an accident that isn’t even remembered fully by the ones you love isn’t, and Legends smartly chooses to place a considerable focus on how powerful this confused reaction would be. Victor Garber and Christina Brucato are great in their dialogue scenes – they’re at once entirely different, with Garber’s mad-scientist act clashing with Brucato’s more obvious warmth, and united in their enthusiastic passion for what they do, and there’s a tangible sense of history and meaning to their unique father-daughter relationship that’s impressive considering how little time they had to craft it. The only real niggle here is that it’s flattened into a somewhat easy conclusion by the end. There are some intriguing wrinkles to the story, such as when Stein muses on the uncertainty of whose ‘reality’ counted the most given they have two different sets of memories, but the ending, although affecting and well-performed, is a pretty typical resolution to a character conflict. It’s a story that undoubtedly benefits from the lack of other heavy character arcs going on aboard the Waverider as it builds nicely to the revelation of Lily’s true nature and then explores the fallout in detail, but it would have truly hit home if it had committed to the complexities inherent in it as opposed to sticking to the formula to the end.
And then there’s poor Rip, who continues to have the very worst of luck at every turn. The Legion of Doom makes ‘Phil’ into a perpetually confused bystander to the petty games of the Legion, used as a pawn by people who constantly disagree about just what that pawn should be and/or as a sounding board for grievances about the other team members, showing at once funnier and more vulnerable sides of Arthur Darvill’s engagingly weird performance. The biggest twist with Rip, however, comes at the end, and it comes as a surprise given how everything seemed set for Rip to get back to his normal place in the Legends by the end of this. By swerving and using his transformation to pivot even further away from bringing Rip back to normal, Legends is managing to maintain the volatile uncertainty that has made his return to the show so interesting. The Legends seem on much shakier ground with a twisted inversion of their old friend running around, so his move to brainwashed assassin is another intriguing way to upend the Legends’ mission once more and to add another stumbling block on their path to defeating the Legion. Granted, it’s a bit jarring to cut so abruptly to brainwashed Rip shooting George Washington in the face from the Legion’s futuristic base, but hey, it’s about as definitive a statement of intent for the newfound joy in craziness that this show has found recently as you’ll get.
Legends has often failed to capitalise upon its surges in quality in the past, but The Legion of Doom is an impressive improvement from last week’s great episode. It revels in its opportunity to present an inverted version of the traditional formula, and uses it not only for fun, but to flesh out how these egomaniacal bad guys could ever find a joint purpose compelling enough to put aside their own self-interest for a minute. It’s a stirring reminder of how Legends has gone from a black sheep to one of the most consistently entertaining superhero shows out there, endlessly assured in its commitment to silly, fan-servicing and audacious fun delivered with all the self-awareness you’d hope for. Watching Legends now, with its plots that are impossibly to sensibly summarise and commitment to parts of the mythology that would seem far too niche to adapt into live-action feels like watching the first season of The Flash that did so much to open the floodwall for superhero TV like this. This show sure has come a long way.