Back in 2001, when the WB network debuted the Superboy series Smallville, the producers promised "no tights, no flights"… as though they thought it was bad business to put superhero stuff into a superhero show. That seems like a 100 years ago now. The WB has since evolved into the CW, and like the rest of movies and television, they've has become decidedly more cape-friendly. Between Arrow and The Flash, the network is a haven for longtime DC Comics fans — the kind who still have a hard time believing that characters like Deathstroke and Professor Zoom are popping up on their sets every week.
The change didn't happen overnight. Arrow's producers Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg, and Marc Guggenheim started out with just one moody masked vigilante and a secret lair. Then gradually, episode by episode and season by season, they built an entire team of guys and gals in colorful costumes. The Flash got up to full geeky power even faster; by the end of Season One, the show was routinely filling the screen with psychic gorillas and evil speedsters.
Now the Berlanti/Kreisberg/Guggenheim crew is attempting its most ambitious superhero series yet: Legends of Tomorrow, a time-hopping adventure featuring no less than seven classic DC characters. These aren't the household names, like Batman or Wonder Woman. This is a show about a handful of heroes that fans know well, but who don't exactly turn up a lot on bedsheets and lunchboxes.
So, for those of you who didn't spend hours of your childhood memorizing the schematics of Justice League headquarters, here's what you need to know about Legends of Tomorrow before it starts airing on Thursday, January 21st:
Who are "the legends?"
Over the course of Arrow's four seasons and The Flash's two, the shows' writers have delighted DC aficionados by weaving old favorites into the stories. The new team-up series continues that tradition right from the opening scenes, which feature Doctor Who's Arthur Darvill playing Rip Hunter, a mysterious "Time Master" first introduced in the comics back in 1959. It's Hunter who journeys to 2016 to recruit heroes (and crooks) for a crucial mission.
That group includes:
The Atom (Brandon Routh): An agreeable genius who built an armored suit that allows him to fly through the air and to shrink to the size of an insect. (To put it in Marvel Cinematic Universe terms: Imagine Ant-Man crossed with Iron Man.) In DC history, the Atom has had multiple incarnations, but the most popular premiered in 1961. On the CW, the character has been helping Green Arrow off-and-on since Season Three.
White Canary (Caity Lotz): A former trained assassin who was murdered and resurrected on Arrow, and has been dealing with the dark ramifications of losing and regaining her soul. An original to the TV series, she's the sister of — and inspiration for — Black Canary, a heroine whose comic book origins date back to 1947.
Firestorm (Franz Drameh and Victor Garber): A nuclear-powered flame-thrower who springs into action whenever a hearty young man and an aged physicist merge their minds and bodies. DC debuted Firestorm in 1978; The Flash added him in the middle of Season One, and then killed off half of the hero in the finale. In the current version, the professor and his new partner are still warily adjusting to each other.
Hawkgirl (Ciara Renée) and Hawkman (Falk Hentshcel): A frequently reincarnated couple who started out as ancient Egyptian warriors, with the power to sprout wings. A Flash/Arrow crossover late last year properly introduced the TV Hawks, who draw on elements from DC comics of the 1940s, 1960s, and 2000s.
Captain Cold (Wentworth Miller) and Heat Wave (Dominic Purcell): Two Flash villains who make use of, respectively, a freeze-gun and a fire-gun that they stole from the good guys' lab. The former has been part of the comic book Flash's "Rogues Gallery" since 1957; the latter since 1963. On TV, the pair have forged an uneasy truce with the hero, which may explain why Hunter trusts them. (Or it may just be that he needs someone to do the team's dirty work.)
What are the stakes?
In the far future, the world has been conquered by a dangerously gifted, uncommonly cruel immortal named Vandal Savage (who's been plaguing the DC Universe since 1944, and here is played by Casper Crump). Rip Hunter is searching through the timeline for an era when Savage is weak enough to be defeated. But there are complications aplenty. In both the past and the future, the team meets unexpected resistance, which they have to find a way to skirt without calamitously altering history — something that's not always easy with the chaotic Captain Cold and Heat Wave riding along. Meanwhile, a fellow time-traveler named Chronos (an old Atom adversary, created in 1962) is tracking the group; and Hawkman and Hawkgirl are struggling with the knowledge that each of their lifetimes thus far has been cut short by the very man they're now pursuing.
Will anyone from The Flash or Arrow be dropping by?
Yes, but only occasionally — which is probably for the best, given that Legends of Tomorrow is already so cluttered with characters that it's going to be hard to give the core seven their due in every episode. Also, by the end of last year Flash and Arrow fans were beginning to grumble about how much time each of their favorite shows was spending setting up LoT. It's probably time to give those crossovers a rest, and let the series tell their own stories for a while.
Who else will we see?
There's a very good chance that as Hunter's heroes skip through time, they'll cross paths with other refugees from the comics, making their first TV appearances. One confirmed visitor will be Valentina Vostok (Stephanie Corneliussen), who in the 1970s was the Doom Patrol's Negative Woman, before losing her powers and becoming a secret agent. Keep an eye out also for former Firefly star Jewel Staite, who's been booked to appear late in the season in the role of an inventor.
What about Supergirl?
Boy, that'd be something, wouldn't it? But it's probably not going to happen. Although Berlanti and Kreisberg are producers on CBS's Supergirl (alongside Ali Adler), the logistics of a cross-network cameo are pretty daunting. That said, at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour, the CW's president Mark Pedowitz said he's not opposed to a visit from Supergirl someday, if everything can be ironed out. And consider this: If Superman's cousin Kara were going to make a surprise appearance on another show, the jam-packed, freewheeling Legends of Tomorrow just might be the one — whether this season or the next. (If there is a next.)
Is this a series or a miniseries?
At the moment, the plan is to tell a single 16-episode story, broken up into little episodic adventures as "the legends" zip back and forth. But if the ratings are good, there's no reason why the CW couldn't order another season. The premise is certainly flexible enough. At the TCA press tour, Berlanti compared Legends of Tomorrow to The Dirty Dozen and Ocean's 11, and said he sees the show as a dramedy about a dysfunctional family of outcasts. Another batch of episodes could put these same misfits into a different kind of plot; or it could make lineup changes, taking advantage of the people already kicking around the parent shows. Arrow has Mister Terrific, The Flash has Dr. Light, and the online-only CW Seed's animated heroine Vixen is reportedly about to debut in the live-action Arrowverse. The DC Universe has spawned thousands of characters. The possibilities for new additions are endless.
Is Legends of Tomorrow going to be the most awesome new show of 2016?
It definitely has potential. The complicated plot is concerning — the show's two-part season premiere tries to cover a lot of ground in just a couple of hours — and the teeming cast seems at time to be jostling for position. But Legends of Tomorrow's action sequences are eye-popping, taking all that the Arrow and Flash creators have learned about stunts and special effects and fitting them into complexly choreographed fights, resembling the splash pages of comics fans' dreams.
Plus, the advantage of building the show mostly around established characters is that these actors already know the right beats to play. Nearly all of them, save for the relatively new Hawkfolk, have been the MVPs of past Flash/Arrow episodes: Miller with his snarly scenery-chewing as Captain Cold; Routh as the over-eager Atom; Lotz as a confident, kickass Canary; Garber and Drameh as the mismatched pieces of Firestorm, and so on.
At TCA, Pedowitz compared Legends of Tomorrow to "popcorn," calling it a big, fun show that's like a mix of Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Who. "It takes your mind off the troubles of the world," he promised. In other words: This is the kind of unapologetic fantasy escapism that used to scare TV executives. Now it's rapidly becoming the norm — which means that if this show succeeds, our tomorrows could get a lot more legendary.