The Flash: 308 “Invasion!” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
The CW’s DC universe has grown exponentially in the last couple of years, and there’s no better marker of its rapid expansion than the yearly crossover events. The first was essentially a trial run, consisting of regular villain-of-the-week episodes with special guest stars from Arrow and Flash, while last year’s crossover turned its eye towards world-building, teeing up Legends of Tomorrow with a beefed-up cast of superheroes including Hawkman and Hawkgirl and a famous comics villain in Vandal Savage. There’s no better reminder of how huge 2016 has been for this universe than the fact that this year’s crossover now packs in well over a dozen heroes from four different shows, from Supergirl to Firestorm to the Green Arrow.
For all the marketing’s declarations that this was a four-night crossover event, in reality The Flash’s instalment of Invasion! served as the real kick-off to the event – we even get a full repeat of the final crossover scene from Supergirl as Barry and Cisco hop over to recruit the Kryptonian. This episode had a hell of a lot to accomplish, therefore, tasked with bringing together the enormous cast of heroes and establishing the Dominators as villains, while progressing forward with The Flash’s own storylines. It’s downright impressive, therefore, that Invasion! is as good an episode as it is. Invasion! is an excess of riches, and it’s true to say that the episode packs in a little too much, with some sloppy storytelling cropping up here and there. Yet it passes the crossover litmus test with flying colours, functioning as a big, fun event with a boatload of great character interactions and some terrifically enjoyable action packed inside a regular Flash episode that expands out the season’s themes and character arcs to a surprising extent.
Every crossover has to walk a tightrope between using its united characters for reasons of pure fun as they spark off each other and rendering them as slightly superfluous presences who don’t really have a narrative justification to be there, and Invasion! nailed that balance for the most part. It never loses sight of the sheer fun of these diverse and wacky heroes bouncing off each other – some of the best moments of the night come in brief, surprising exchanges such as Supergirl’s enthusiastic attempt to memorise everyone’s names, and the conversation where Kara learns Heat Wave’s ‘colourful backstory’. Yet each faction contributes something important to the wider narrative of Invasion!, and almost every individual character has something of substance to do that justifies their presence, from more significant plotlines like Lyla’s investigations into the Dominators to fun character beats like Thea’s return to the Speedy identity because she wants to fight aliens.
What was surprising about Invasion! is that it holds back on the wider overarching story of the crossover and instead prioritises substantial character development for Barry. Indeed, the most significant story of the night isn’t the Dominators’ nefarious plans – it’s the wider repercussions of Barry’s Flashpoint mistake, which is revealed to everyone here. Last episode of The Flash dealt significantly with similar ideas as Killer Frost confronted Barry over the personal damage that he brought about, but Invasion! smartly uses its multiple perspectives to further Barry’s story of humility and his need to learn restraint.
For instance, the presence of the Legends of Tomorrow, whose express purpose is to fix unnatural time aberrations, allows Barry’s mistake to be criticised on a practical level, something The Flash hadn’t explored much before. While their arguments would be just a touch more credible if the Legends hadn’t been portrayed as pretty reckless themselves, it acts as a nice progression from Legends of Tomorrow’s ongoing explorations of the need to leave time alone, even if the circumstances are tragic and cruel. As Sara mentions, Barry’s reversion of a personal disaster at the cost of others, is an interesting counterpart to her own struggles against the idea of killing Damien Dahrk and thus saving her sister. The anger shown by her, and the other Legends, is entirely believable given their own recent experiences, as well as their wider perspective as people who exist beyond the numerous changes made to time. Meanwhile, Invasion! digs deeper into the personal cost of Barry’s actions by dealing with the only change that Barry hadn’t had to confront before, which is the erasing of Diggle’s daughter from the timeline. John Ramsey plays Diggle’s realisation of the life he never had with restrained but evident shock and quiet anger, powerfully communicating the recklessness of Barry in placing his own personal life over the lives of others. It’s more effective, actually, than a lot of what The Flash has been doing in its similar story with Cisco, because it explores the same ideas in an emotional way without belabouring the point and dragging down stories.
Meanwhile, Invasion! makes good use of two of the CW’s big hitters as two parts of a support structure that Barry needs to pull him out of his self-recriminations. Supergirl doesn’t affect the character arcs of others to the extent that, say, Oliver or the Legends’ do, but she slots into the role of the confidante and loyal friend of Barry’s nicely, with Invasion! utilising her good-heartedness and trustful nature to balance out the bitter anger of the other heroes felt towards Barry. Melissa Benoist is as charming and likeable as ever as Kara, bringing bags of energy to some of the later confrontational scenes that may otherwise have become a little dour and downbeat. Oliver, on the other hand, plays a really significant role as his old friendship and bond with Barry is satisfyingly brought to the fore. For all of the early presentation of Oliver as a Batman-esque loner who doesn’t play well with others, Stephen Amell’s performance really clicks when Invasion! begins to highlight the underlying similarities between Oliver and Barry as heroes, and thus the unique insight that Oliver has into Barry’s decision-making process.
As Invasion! shows, it’s actually Oliver who can show the most empathy towards Barry in this situation, because Oliver has experienced the same feelings of powerlessness at the loss of a parent, and thus can understand the burning, irrational desire to go back and change things, regardless of the consequences, in a way others cannot. Stephen Amell does a great job of portraying Oliver’s stoic, guarded sadness at the tragedies he’s witnessed, making for an interesting contrast with the overt emotionality of Grant Gustin’s capable, pathos-laden performance. An aspect of the crossovers that I’ve always appreciated is that, for all their disagreements and squabbles, mind-controlled or not, the heroes genuinely like each other and can understand the value that others can bring. The compassion and forgiveness that Oliver shows towards Barry and the rapport they share throughout as the two veteran heroes of the super-team is great to watch, but it’s also an important counterbalance to the animosity shown by the newer faces of the team, reminding us of the innate good-heartedness of these heroes throughout.
As mentioned above, what’s particularly impressive about Invasion! beyond its shrewd usage of the myriad heroes crossing over is that it works pretty well as a Flash episode in its own right, moving forward with the loose threads of Wally’s newfound speed and Cisco’s feelings of betrayal towards Barry and finding a logical, interesting way to integrate them into the wider crossover narrative. Of the two, it’s Wally’s story that’s the most successful. It may dabble in some tired ideas of ‘protectiveness’ and secret-keeping, but Invasion! wisely pivots away from those familiar tropes and instead focuses on Wally’s own understandable emotions of disappointment, and a confusion that he’s not allowed to put the power that he loves so much to good use. It fits nicely into the overall team-up of heroes elsewhere, because it’s ultimately a story of the limitations that can be put upon power, told side-by-side about a story of seemingly unlimited power that becomes unchecked with the Dominators’ mind control of the heroes.
Wally’s disappointment is easier to sympathise with given the sheer mass of role models that he can witness throughout, and the gargantuan nature of the threat, both of which serve as good justifications for his feelings and ensure that they don’t just come across as petulance – it’s easy to take his side in the argument. Therefore, it’s a satisfying and cathartic wrap up for Wally to have his brief moment in the sun by saving Oliver and Barry (he gets knocked out five seconds later, but points for the effort!), which allows for his potential to be recognised by an unexpected ally, Wells. It’s a relationship that makes good storytelling sense, allowing for Wally’s journey into assuming the identity of Kid Flash to keep moving forward while creating a strong parallel between a trainer and a trainee who are both outsiders in STAR Labs, limited by the other team members’ prejudice towards them.
Cisco’s anger, on the other hand, is a bit more of a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s commendable that The Flash is committing to a longer-term, and more incisive indictment of Barry’s actions, and it’s realistic that Cisco would find it difficult to forgive Barry given the extent of the change that Barry brought about. Yet Invasion! makes clumsy use of that interesting motivation, placing Cisco in the unenviable position of acting as the barrier for the collected team, spilling the Flashpoint secret at a time that was clearly inconvenient and thus creating a schism in the team that led to the vast majority of the heroes failing in their mission and falling under mind control. In an episode that makes the logical choice for most stories that fits with the characters’ ongoing development, Cisco’s likeable characterisation is put aside as he becomes a frustrating plot device to further the story, as his actions are a little too extreme for what we know of his character, even taking his grief into account, as we don’t get much more of an insight into the nuances of his feelings.
Admittedly, there are moments of sloppiness elsewhere, as the episode struggles to fit absolutely everything into its brief runtime. The Dominators are pretty dull villains for the most part, with their overarching plan and individuality left decidedly hazy. That’s justified to some extent by the choice to place our familiar heroes as the antagonists for the final act instead, but it’s a little disappointing that the overarching bad guys of the whole crossover are relatively generic aliens. Likewise, there’s perhaps one plotline too many in there, and the easiest culprit here is Stein. The problem isn’t with the nature of the plotline, which could point to some interesting changes for the professor, but with its relative irrelevance to what’s going on elsewhere. It’s one story that should probably have waited its turn until Legends’ episode, and signifies the bloat that can creep in sometimes as Invasion! piles on the characters and conflicts.
One thing that absolutely isn’t in question, however, is how joyfully fun Invasion! can be. It’s enjoyable throughout, running off its character interactions and rapidly unfurling plot, but it really reaches new heights in the final act where the heroes come to blows, making the most of the thrills that such a large collection of familiar heroes can provide. The final sequence is a real highlight as the Flash and Supergirl race across the city, firing and dodging heat vision blasts, and as the Green Arrow pulls every trick in the book as he goes toe to toe with Spartan, White Canary and Speedy. It’s the kind of freewheeling experimenting with characters and bombastic, splash-page visuals like Barry dodging a heat vision blast while running up a building that really elevates these crossovers. At their heart, there’s a childlike playfulness to these stories that clearly shows a love for the material, and a desire to straightforwardly present the heroes in all their glory in live action rather than deconstructing them as the DC movies seem intent on doing.
Invasion! is only the first part of three, and the episode potently reminds us of that with a great cliffhanger that sees Team Arrow plus Ray and Sara beamed up to a Dominator ship despite the efforts of Barry, splitting up the team and putting a great deal of the heroes right into the enemy’s hands. It’s a really fun lead-in to tomorrow’s alternate-reality episode of Arrow, finally allowing the Dominators to come across as genuinely imposing threats as they effortlessly wipe half of the collected heroes off the board before they’ve even noticed. We don’t have to wait long to find out what they have planned for Team Arrow – tomorrow, it’s Arrow’s turn to pick up the baton as Oliver finds himself in a mysterious new reality in the show’s celebratory 100th episode…
Invasion! is an extremely fun start to the ‘Heroes v Aliens’ crossover, delivering plenty of great character actions and splashy visuals while linking nicely into The Flash’s continuing exploration of the consequences of Barry’s decision-making. It’s let down to some extent by some slightly slapdash writing that puts plot over consistent characterisation and it’s undoubtedly overstuffed, but it’s a very promising opener that keeps up the Arrowverse’s hot streak of crossovers.