Late in Thursday night's premiere of “Legends of Tomorrow,” a character wonders if this motley collection of DC Comics heroes and villains have been brought together for a time-traveling adventure less because they're the legends of the new CW drama's title than because they're unimportant enough in the grand scheme of things that they won't be missed in their absence.
On the one hand, “Legends” probably has to give voice to this theory, because it's been hard to look at the show's development, and its cast, and not think that most of these characters were chosen because “Flash” and “Arrow” have no use for them. On the other, acknowledging the sketchy nature of this team – Atom (Brandon Routh), Firestorm (Franz Drameh and Victor Garber), White Canary (Caity Lotz), Captain Cold (Wentworth Miller), Heat Wave (Dominic Purcell), plus relative newcomers Hawkgirl (Ciara Renee), Hawkman (Falk Hentschel), and the group's time-bending would-be leader Rip Hunter (Arthur Darvill) – does nothing to fix the problem.
The writer/producers involved here – including Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg, Marc Guggenheim, and Phil Klemmer – have plenty of experience with both televised superheroics and team dynamics. Though “Arrow,” “Flash,” and even “Supergirl” started out as solo hero shows, both quickly placed their heroes at the center of a group – some in costume, some not (and some of them now joining “Legends”). But those shows have a clarity of purpose and tone that's lacking for most of the two-part “Legends” premiere. It's easy to understand why, individually, the creators wanted to do more with Atom, or Captain Cold, or Firestorm, but not enough thought's been put into how they're meant to fit with each other and the rest of this huge ensemble.
The many mismatched parts make “Legends” feel like several different shows competing for supremacy, with some more engaging than others. I would gladly watch a whole lot more, for instance, of Garber's Martin Stein coldly dismissing the accomplishments and intellect of Routh's Ray Palmer. (Routh was so much fun on “Arrow” last season that he seemed ready to carry his own show; instead, he's fighting for elbow room with everyone else, even though Ray is given one of the better motivations for being part of this group.) The spine of the series, though, is the millennia-old feud between the Hawks and their immortal foe Vandal Savage (Casper Crump, who in a show where most of the actors chew the scenery, manages to enjoy the fullest meal every time he appears), and whether in the “Flash”/”Arrow” crossover that introduced them or in these two episodes, none seem worth the bother(*).
(*) In the comics, Hawkman has a history so convoluted, and so frequently changing – in some versions, he's a reincarnated Egyptian prince; in others, he's a cop from another planet; in still others, he's somehow both at the same time – that the only reason writers keep trying to untangle that mess and use him again is because his costume is one of the most visually striking in the whole medium. “Legends of Tomorrow” keeps things relatively simple with the reincarnation angle, but gives both Hawkman and Hawkgirl uninspiring brown leather uniforms that make them look like off-brand Wolverine cosplayers.
“Doctor Who” alum Darvill essentially gets to play the Doctor and Rory in the same show: confident and stoic guardian of the timeline one second, exasperated babysitter to a bunch of superpowered idiots the next. “Legends” is aspiring to something more overtly humorous than either “Flash” or “Arrow” (the head of the CW has compared the show to “Guardians of the Galaxy”), and Darvill's good at playing that particular frustrated note, but that comical side of Rip Hunter doesn't track particularly well with the tragic backstory that led him to put this team together in the first place.
(Similarly odd: a subplot in next week's episode where Martin Stein fears he has Marty McFly'ed his marriage out of existence, even though the show never addresses the idea that he's leaving his wife behind to go on this adventure through time.)
There's a tradition in superhero teams whose members seemingly have no business working together, some of them with great creative success. (Marvel's Defenders – including, perhaps, the upcoming Netflix version with Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and company – has always fit this mold.) And the creative team has gotten over early bumps before, like the huge growth curve “Arrow” displayed over the course of its first season. So it's possible they can figure out in time how best to make all these huge personalities feel like they belong on the same show.
We're not at the comic book TV saturation point yet, but there are now so many of these shows that they need a reason to exist beyond filling a niche that's already overflowing. “Jessica Jones” figured out how to a superhero story in a way that felt wholly new and gripping. At this early stage, “Legends of Tomorrow” feels more like “Agents of SHIELD” at its outset: a way to extend the brand by any means necessary, and worry about what the show actually is later.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org