How Getting Weird Made ‘Legends of Tomorrow’ TV’s Best Superhero Show

This column contains some spoilers for the fourth season of Legends of Tomorrow, now available in its entirety on Netflix.

Midway through Legends of Tomorrow‘s Season Four finale, one of the show’s misfit heroes finds himself in hell, hanging out with supervillain Vandal Savage. Savage was the big bad of Legends‘ misbegotten first season, an over-the-top creep on a show with too many characters it had no idea what to do with. His brief return here, as smiling comic relief, is a wink to how far Legends has come over these four seasons. Once it was an overly serious collection of spare parts with no real reason to exist. Now, it’s not only my favorite of the CW’s lineup of DC Comics shows, but my favorite current superhero show, full stop.

Where Arrow, The Flash and Supergirl were all based on long-running comics properties with plenty of pre-existing narrative architecture, Legends was a hodge-podge. It took characters who’d outlived their usefulness on Arrow and Flash, threw in a handful of other B- and C-listers from those stories and gave them a time machine to go after Savage. It was a mess. There were too many characters, many of them with powers that were either too expensive or overly capable of solving story problems, to regularly deploy. The first season focused on the least interesting characters. The cast was game, but you could occasionally see a look of bewilderment cross the faces of actors like Brandon Routh (size-changing engineer Ray Palmer, a.k.a. the Atom) or Victor Garber (scientist Martin Stein, a.k.a. one half of the nuclear-powered Firestorm), as if they weren’t sure what they were doing here or why they were needed. (That the team had two resident geniuses in Ray and Martin was one of many redundancies.)

Starting with Season Two, the Legends creative team embraced the extraneousness of it all. The fact that these were heroes nobody else had any need for became text rather than subtext. The Legends knew they were unwanted screw-ups, and the series developed a necessary and endearing sense of humor as a result. That season pitted the team against a crew of bad guys from the other shows, each of them vastly more charismatic and entertaining than Savage had been. The following season kept Neal McDonough around as omnipotent villain Damien Darhk, while adding a new wrinkle: The Legends’ previous antics had broken time itself, so they also had to fix historical anomalies. (In one episode, they find Helen of Troy in 1937 Hollywood on the verge of inadvertently stealing Hedy Lamarr’s career.)

The show has also smartly kept churning through characters, rather than letting them burn out. Of that unwieldy original cast, only Routh, Caity Lotz (as martial artist and team leader Sara Lance, a.k.a. White Canary) and Dominic Purcell (as gruff ex-con Mick Rory, a.k.a. Heat Wave) remain. Some characters have come from other shows (Matt Ryan even came from NBC’s long-canceled Constantine). Others, like historian hero Nate “Steel” Haywood (Nick Zano), were more wisely pulled from the DC archives. And a few, like cloned government agent Ava Sharpe (Jes Macallan), were created specifically for the show.

Where Legends was once serious to a fault, now it’s endlessly playful. It acknowledges the fundamental silliness of the material in a way that so many shows of this genre are reluctant, if not embarrassed, to do. This has been an internal struggle among both superhero fans and creators for decades, going back at least to the Sixties Batman TV show with Adam West. Some demand you take the capes and code names seriously no matter what. Others quickly grow tired of the gloom and grittiness and just want to smile. The other Berlanti-verse shows are all capable of lightness (The Flash in particular operates best in that mode), but they have an unfortunate tendency to default to angst. Legends recognized in time the benefits of leaning into the inherent lameness of its characters and the convoluted nature of time-travel stories. It’s the kind of show not afraid to conclude a season with a climactic battle between an all-powerful demon and a giant-sized cuddly children’s show puppet named Beebo:

Beebo shows the Legends of Tomorrow who’s boss.

Yet that acknowledgement of its own stupidity has actually freed the Legends creative team to do better by the characters. Nobody’s bothering anymore to insist on their awesomeness relative to their super-peers. (There’s even a scene in the Season Four finale where three of the Legends have to dress up as Supergirl, Green Arrow and Flash for a commercial, because they know their own identities are too obscure for anyone to care.) Instead, the show gets to tell sincere character arcs — Sara and Ava’s tenuous romance, Nate trying to reconnect with his bureaucrat father (Thomas Wilson) — that are informed in part by everyone’s insecurity about not being good enough.

Season Four finds the Legends chasing down a bunch of monsters and other magical creatures that had been released from hell due to the team’s previous bumbling. It’s more appealingly ridiculous than ever, with the group doing battle with unicorns, a fairy godmother and a kaiju, among others. They defeat one monster with the songs of James Taylor, while a visit to Jane Austen’s England somehow finds room for a Bollywood musical number — and it makes sense in context. The eighth episode, “Legends of To-Meow-Meow,” is a particular blast: Groundhog Day meets Back to the Future Part II, as the Legends keep trying to fix a mistake in the time stream, only to make matters worse each go-round, with the team at various points turning into Charlie’s Angels, a bad Eighties action-movie pastiche and… more puppets.

Oh, and there’s a demonic nipple.

If you had told me back in the bad old days of Vandal Savage, Hawkman and Hawkgirl that Legends of Tomorrow would eventually be the only one of the CW’s superhero shows I watched regularly, I’d have laughed. Just not as loudly as I do, in a good way, at how wonderfully dumb the series has turned out to be.

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