The Importance of Villainy for DC’s TV Heroes

There’s one thing that every superhero really needs in their story, even more than powers, and that’s a villain. And not just any old villain, but a good one. Someone or something that not only poses a credible physical threat, but challenges everything that makes them a hero in the first place. Without a good villain, the story always suffers.

(Full spoilers to follow)

The two superhero shows most in need of repair coming into this latest TV season were Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow. Arrow‘s fourth season had a strong potential villain in Damien Darhk, but the season as a whole was a total mess. Despite a terrifically hammed up performance from Neil McDonough, the overall plot and his own motivations were wafer-thin. Legends based its whole season around stopping the immortal Vandal Savage, whose only power turned out to be the ability to suck all the charisma out of a scene, and made for an incredibly weak and uninteresting story as a result.

But both these shows stepped up their game in a huge way this year. There are so many things both Arrow and Legends did right that they previously did wrong, from pacing to character work, but the main thing that leaps out to me is the handling of their antagonists. For Arrow, this was Prometheus and for Legends, it was the Legion of Doom.

Prometheus on Arrow

Prometheus worked wonders for Arrow. Always 10 steps ahead, he started as a masked mystery slowly revealing more and more of himself as he began to unleash his plans to take down the Green Arrow. Immediately we were told that this confrontation was personal, soon revealing that Prometheus’ father was killed by the Arrow during the first season. His motivation is much more than simply killing Oliver Queen and his team; he wants to destroy him first. Watching Prometheus break down Oliver piece by piece has been gripping and also justifies why the confrontation can believably last the whole season. Prometheus challenges Oliver in a way that Darhk didn’t, making him question everything about his crusade and his legacy.

The reveal that Prometheus was actually newcomer Adrian Chase was a pretty great twist, but it’s the timing of the reveal that made the arc work so well. We got just the right amount of Prometheus as a masked monster, building up this fearful image but also never forcing the question of who was underneath. This made the sudden, mid-season unmasking with zero fanfare even more surprising, but it left us with plenty of time to get to know the real Chase as a character. The episodes following the reveal are some of the strongest Arrow has offered in a long while, climaxing with “Kapiushon” as one of the best in the whole series, because it gets into the heart of the Oliver/Chase relationship and allowed Josh Segerra to create a truly terrifying villain.

After the disaster that was Vandal Savage, Legends had a lot of course correcting to do. But the answer seems almost obvious in hindsight. The Legends cast were built out of the other shows’ cast-offs, the spare supporting characters who didn’t fit in anywhere else. Why not do the same for the villains? Season 2 saw the Reverse-Flash recruiting Damien Darhk, Malcolm Merlyn and Captain Cold to help him rewrite history so that their fates would turn out for the better. This a pretty solid motivation for the whole group, especially since for some of them it is literally a fight for survival. Darhk and Cold know that they die in the future and Thawne himself is constantly on the run from the time wraith looking to correct the aberration that is Thawne’s existence.

Matt Letscher as the Reverse-Flash on DC's Legends of Tomorrow

Putting these villains in a room together proved to be endlessly entertaining enough on its own, but it made for a wonderful reflection of the Legends crew, but also provided solid character work for some of the more veteran cast. Dealing with Darhk, the killer of Laurel Lance on Arrow, provides excellent meat for Caity Lotz’s Sara Lance, who proves to be the stand-out lead this time around. There was the highly entertaining “Moonshot”, which stuck Brandon Routh’s Ray Palmer in a space pod with Thawne and saw the two scientists bounce surprisingly well off each other. Recruiting a brainwashed Rip Hunter to the Legion offered a very personal challenge to the Legends as a whole team, him being responsible for bringing them together in the first place.

I have tremendous affection for Supergirl, but villains have never been one of its strong areas. Cadmus are legitimately unsettling and some of the season’s best episodes have been the ones built around their plots. Lillian Luthor at the head of Cadmus has made for a mostly strong antagonist, especially when sharing scenes with Lena. The problem is that Supergirl definitely cares more about its heroes than its villains, just like many of the MCU entries. Rhea still has potential going into the final two episodes of the season, with her Daxamite invasion and her personal connection to Kara and Mon-El, but so far her overall character and Teri Hatcher’s performance haven’t done anything to overly impress me. Once again, she has a more interesting relationship with Lena than she does with Kara, which is a problem when the show is meant to be about Kara.

Savitar attacks on "The Flash"

Compared to the other shows, The Flash has had the biggest problems with its villain treatment, one that really has hurt the season as a whole. Savitar has been a classic example of a story getting lost in the mystery of a character and forgetting to actually give us a character. He makes for an intimidating visual, towering above the heroes in his armour and surrounded by trails of white lightning, but what else has there been to him as a character? The idea of Savitar being this mythical speedster was a little interesting at first, but all that went out the window when The Flash made it all about his identity. In contrast to Arrow, the pacing and the treatment of the reveal was simply poor. The reveal was dragged out for so long that it lost almost all its impact, and the episodes leading up to the unmasking had all but guaranteed Savitar was a future version of Barry anyway.

Revealing Savitar’s identity so late in the game leaves The Flash nearly zero time to get into why the character should be interesting, why is a big shame. Even in the following episode, Savitar only has two or three minutes of screen-time and now we only have two episodes left in the season. It’s a waste of what should have been a compelling character, lost in an attempt to create hype instead of a good story. The focus on Savitar saw several other villains with potential get side-lined, including Doctor Alchemy and Killer Frost.

Alchemy was immediately interesting, something different than the previous speedster villains and sufficiently creepy and threatening in his own way, while Killer Frost has been a particularly great development for Caitlin, finally giving Danielle Panabaker some meaty material to work with. Doing Killer Frost and Savitar at the same time, both core members of the cast turned villains, means one of them gets inevitably shafted and so Frost has ended up as Savitar’s sidekick/henchman. Comic fans have been waiting since the start of the series to see Caitlin become Killer Frost and it’s a waste to see her regulated to the B-plot.

Danielle Panabaker is Killer Frost on The Flash

The Savitar twist is frustrating for one more glaring reason: it’s nearly the exact same story they’ve used twice now. The Reverse-Flash and Zoom both turned out to be members of the team in disguise and Savitar is now the same, even if it is the main character instead of a supporting one. It worked well for Thawne, a little less so for Zoom and now for Barry it’s just painfully repetitive. Even Alchemy turned out to be Julian, as viewers almost immediately guessed when the two characters were introduced at the same time. Repeating these ‘twists’ so often makes them easy to spot and tremendously unimpressive when they are finally ‘revealed’.

It’s a symptom of the larger structural issue that’s affected this season. Savitar has been the Big Bad from the very start and the focus has always been on him, even though the story was unable to progress until pre-set times in the season. Agents of SHIELD has shown how overlapping mini-arcs within a show can do wonders for the quality of the story and it makes me wonder if this season of The Flash would have been stronger if it had structured itself in the same way.

There’s still time for Savitar to redeem himself if the final episodes of the season are played correctly and the same goes for Rhea on Supergirl. The shows just need to use their limited time correctly and give us a reason to give a shit about these villains, especially for Savitar. Legends already wrapped up its second season and remained incredibly entertaining right until the end, in no small part thanks to the Legion of Doom and their ability to chew through any and all scenery. In Arrow we have the final confrontation with Prometheus looming closer, bringing back multiple fan-favourites for a showdown that looks to be incredibly satisfying for long-time fans of the show. I really thought Arrow was lost after Season 4, but ironically it was Prometheus that seems to have saved it.

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Ross Topham

If there was an award for procrastinating, Ross Topham would probably be late to the ceremony. Hopefully he's writing something worthwhile instead and we'll see that awesome, upcoming space opera novel sometime soon...

Ross Topham

If there was an award for procrastinating, Ross Topham would probably be late to the ceremony. Hopefully he's writing something worthwhile instead and we'll see that awesome, upcoming space opera novel sometime soon...

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