And how an argument about time-travel almost threatened my marriage.
Not to get all 21 Jump Street (the movie, not the TV show) on you, but there are times it’s really strange to reflect on how different some aspects of culture are from when I was in high school in the 90s. More specifically, I’m talking about the shift in geek culture to becoming something more mainstream and accepted across all genders. But in my youth that hobby was still something that only the boys were into. I can’t think of a single girl in my class who would have done anything but let her eyes glaze over during a discussion of which resurrected Superman was the real one, or how Batman was going to recover from a broken back. It was less a “No Girls Allowed” club in fandom and more of a self-segregation, but the point stands: there was no reason to assume girls had any interest in geek pursuits.
I’ve been with my wife nearly a decade now and at the time we met, her geek literacy was seriously lacking. I’ll put it this way: she’d never seen a Star Wars movie when we started dating. Friends was her Star Wars. Even as we went through the dance of making each other watch our favorite films (I force-fed her the Star Wars and Superman films, she made me watch Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead and Adventures in Babysitting,) I knew I wasn’t going to make a true convert of her. That was fine. She had her interest, I had mine. Every now and then she’d sample some of the geek wares and either dive in or reject it. After checking out Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the series became something she binged in a matter of weeks, but in contrast, Star Trek: The Next Generation became something that chased her out of the room.
Thus, I had no expectations she’d ever become a viewer of The Flash. As it happened, she the living room just two minutes after the premiere began, intent on doing work on her computer while I watched. Five minutes later, I noticed the laptop had been put away and she was giving the show her full attention. Verdict at the end of the hour: “That was really good!”
The show immediately got elevated to our highest priority: we watch it immediately and we have to watch it together. Here’s what’s impressive about the series, developed by Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg and Geoff Johns: it’s not exactly the Flash I grew up reading, but it FEELS right. I’m a Post-Crisis era DC guy, so to me, Barry Allen is dead, Wally West is the Flash and Linda Park is his one true love. It’s not a direct translation of the comic book, but there are enough “dog whistles” to hard core fans that we feel like these writers are honoring the history.
Geeks have a not-undeserved reputation of being very tribal. Newcomers to the hobby – particularly females – are viewed with suspicion by a subset of fandom. The older I get, the more exhausted I am by fan purity tests, where it feels like it’s not enough to love something, but you have to love it in the right way. Star Trek deals with this every time it reinvents itself. It was so exhausting to hear longtime Trekkers bash J.J. Abrams’s film just because it had the nerve to shoot wide and bring other fans into the tent. Now I wonder if it was just another way of trying to keep them out: “Stay away. You have to EARN the right to watch this film/read this comic/love this TV show.”
The Flash is a wonderful primer on the DCU, and it works for new viewers while the Easter Eggs for geeks like me don’t get in the way of the story. A good example of this came in the third episode. Caitlin Snow (who comic readers know will become the villain Killer Frost) has a speech about her fiancé, who was killed in the particle accelerator explosion at the start of the series. This was alluded to in the pilot, but only in the third ep did she say his name: “Ronnie.”
I’d been half-listening and that word brought me out of it. “Did she say her fiancé was Ronnie? Oh.. WOW!” My wife looked at me as if to say, “I don’t get it.” In what was the first of many “Professor Bitter” moments, I explained that they just hinted her fiancé was Ronnie Raymond, who would have become Firestorm in the particle accelerator explosion. To her, the scene was just a passing detail. To the fans, it was a sign announcing: “Someone’s coming!”
Occasionally I realize that the Berlanti shows have turned my wife into someone who knows the histories of such second-tier characters as Firestorm, the Martian Manhunter, Vibe and Red Tornado and I just marvel at how effectively they are a gateway drug to the wider history of the DCU. It’s all the more remarkable for how often earlier TV shows shied away from going too deep into the lore, especially this early in their run. The original Flash series in the ’90s only tentatively mined their more comic-booky villains, trying to fit them into a “realistic” world. Lois & Clark also used mostly original villains, and when it utilized comic antagonists outside of Lex Luthor, their interpretations tended to land on the far side of camp. Even Smallville barely tapped the wider comic mythos until nearly the second half of its 10 year-run. That was when we got Green Arrow, the JLA, the JSA, the Legion of Super-Heroes, Doomsday, Supergirl, Kandor, Zod and Darkseid.
I also never expected that the most intense fight of my marriage would be about the temporal mechanics of The Flash’s time travel plots. The later seasons have treated time travel so haphazardly that it’s best to just go with the flow, but in season one, there was a stricter logic guarding things. Mid-season, we learned that Harrison Wells was the Reverse-Flash, who hailed from the far future. We also learned that from his point of view, he’d killed Barry’s mother over a decade ago. We’d seen that battle in flashback, but it was a clash still to happen from Barry’s point of view.
My wife was utterly confused by this, insisting that all this twisting didn’t make sense. I assured her it DID make absolute sense. “You have to look at it from Wells’s point of view. He’s born in the far future, grows up, becomes the Reverse-Flash and then travels back in time to, say, 2019 to begin his confrontations with The Flash. One of their battles sends them back to Barry’s childhood, where he kills Barry’s mom, only to be stranded in the year 2000. There he spends the next fifteen years laying the groundwork for his plan.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“Okay, let’s try it from Barry’s POV. Now Barry still has to meet the Reverse-Flash…” And I talk it through that way. Again, my better half insists it doesn’t make sense that some of this stuff has happened for Wells, but hasn’t happened for Barry. Thinking she’s confused and assuming Wells is meant to live through their conflict a second time, I try to clear that up as she keeps interjecting with questions and assertions that this doesn’t track.
Somehow we find ourselves invested in this fight. My assumption is that she thinks I’m gaslighting her as her vocal tone raises accordingly, while I’m frustrated that both my explanation isn’t clear enough and that she isn’t following it. I’m talking voices raised, interrupting each other, emphatic hand gestures, the whole works. I’m gonna get grief for this, but my wife and I have rarely had a fight in the time we’ve known each other, and we’ve NEVER had the sort of fight where you feel your blood pressure raising the more impatient you get with the other person.
This goes on for AT LEAST ten minutes. And I don’t mean that in the way where most writers exaggerate and say something that took 30 seconds was “five minutes.” No, I clearly remember this debate starting after The Flash ended at 9pm, and us calling a truce at some point around 9:13. That was the point when I offered to draw a Doc Brown-style diagram and she insisted, “No, I GET what you’re explaining. I’m just telling you that it doesn’t make sense!”
Agree to disagree.
Incidentally, this is why she doesn’t watch Legends of Tomorrow, because it leads to arguments like this. She tuned in for the recent crossover, and it took all of ten minutes for her to ask, “Wait, if everyone’s spent three eps ripping into Barry for changing history, why is Cisco going back to the first alien encounter in the ’50s with them?” I give it a moment’s thought and say, “Maybe they’re meant to do that because it’s already a part of history.”
I had just provoked an icy stare from her that could have chilled Killer Frost. There might have been a little “Do you really want to have this debate?” in there. I chose the only winning move: “Let’s agree to not discuss this.”
So as long as we steer clear of debates on temporal mechanics, The Flash and Supergirl are two of our favorite shows to watch together. It also thrills me to realize that if Berlanti Productions can bring a total non-fan like my wife into the geek tent, there have to be scores of new fans being bitten by the DC bug.
The best part is that it didn’t take turning these characters into grim, brutal, “realistic” personas to do it. Melissa Benoist is allowed to play a sweet, charming version of Supergirl. It’s an unabashedly cheery and optimistic depiction and that sunniness has been gone so long from comic adaptations that it’s again a novelty. Grant Gustin’s Barry Allen might be slightly more prone to brooding and moping, but at his core, he’s a fun, decent guy. That’s what’s getting fans invested who have no idea who “Hank Henshaw” and “Eobard Thawne” are.
Maybe there’s some version of these shows that could succeed on the charms of those actors without being so inspired by the comic books. Seeing so many elements of those mythos ported over shows that the creative people behind those shows are willing to go the extra mile to translate what has endured for so long in another medium. They don’t just strip-mine the most basic aspects, they work hard to replicate the feel of the comics so that the people who love the TV show first probably can find an easy transition to the source material, if their interest is so piqued.
Most of all, I’m grateful that The Flash and Supergirl have been able to let me not only share with my wife a mythology that’s meant so much to me since I was a kid, but that it’s made her a legitimate fan of it too. Fandom shouldn’t be about who’s the biggest expert or who’s most earned the right to love something. It should be about sharing the stories and characters that matter to you and making them matter to others too.