WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS. LOTS OF SPOILERS. WELL, QUITE A FEW ANYWAY. LOOK, IF YOU’RE WORRIED ABOUT BEING SPOILED, GO FOR A WALK FOR A COUPLE OF WEEKS AND COME BACK WHEN WE DO THE INDIVIDUAL REVIEWS AT UK VIEWERS PACE IN A FORTNIGHT. STILL HERE? OKAY…
2016 has been the year of the crossover when it comes to comics-related film and TV. With Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman duking it out, then teaming up, and Cap having his third nominally solo outing corralled into a mini Avengers 3, the tone and the bar has been pretty much set for your superhero antics on big and small screen.
Heck, even Deadpool got in on the act, enjoying an impromptu threesome with X-Men Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead in his fourth-wall rochamboing outing what seems an ice age ago.
But with four years of shared-universe stirring, from that first appearance of Barry Allen in Starling City, the Arrowverse inhabited by Green Arrow, Flash, et al, has long been a melting pot of crossovers and team-ups between the various shows.
So, with the Flash having already been on Supergirl, Green Arrow regularly showing up on Legends, and Olly and Barry turning up on each other’s shows so often they might as well have season tickets, how were Berlanti, Guggenheim and co going to up the stakes for this year’s big event crossover (aka, sweeps season ratings grabber), having managed to spin a whole new series out of last year’s?
Well, by doing something that, by virtue of Supergirl having switched to the CW, none of their predecessors could — tell an epic superhero story across four consecutive nights.
Or rather, three and a bit. For while the character of Supergirl might have played a key part of the Heroes vs Aliens storyline, the show itself is only tangentially linked — with a brief hint at the start before Barry and Cisco perform their impromptu Sliders tribute act at the end to drag Kara into their universe.
Each of the other three episodes has to fit two challenges: to tell the “Invasion” story juggling the now epically-swollen cast of the crossover, and yet fit in the ongoing storylines of each of the respective shows as well.
Thus The Flash’s episode is more about emotional consequences, as the rest of the characters learn about what Flashpoint did to their lives — both in blatant ways (Dig finds out about baby Sara) and in subtle ones (the circumstances of Robert and Moira’s deaths have changed, with Oliver now witnessing both — no wonder he’s more grumpy than normal…)
Meanwhile the Legends Of Tomorrow instalment is tied into time travel and the consequences of the team’s actions in the past, with both Dr Stein and Cisco learning important and painful lessons about meddling in time – the former gaining a daughter, the latter helping cause the invasion in the first place — that put Barry’s Flashpoint meddling into sharp relief.
To make everything fit, there have been a few liberties taken here and there. HR, Wally and co only show up in the Flash episode. Olly’s new recruits only feature in the Arrow episode, and even then Evelyn is missing entirely. Likewise, new Legends Amaya and Nate’s involvement comes only in their show (explained away in one line of The Flash instalment – “Nate and Amaya are back watching the Waverider”). And while some big emotional beats are covered off in the various episodes -(Stein’s flashbacks, Cisco and Barry reconciling, Oliver coming to terms with who he is… and what he’s become) don’t expect to see much in the way of references to Prometheus or Savitar in here.
And then there’s Arrow’s episode. Not only does it have to fulfil the aforementioned two requirements, but it also happens to the show’s 100th episode, meaning a chance — or obligation, depending on what side your bread’s buttered — to celebrate programme’s five-year history.
It does so by subverting one of the challenges — fitting Arrow’s traditional modern/flashback structure into the “Invasion” story – by having members of the team abducted by the Dominators and put into a hallucination of an alternate life, where Oliver and his father never got on the Gambit and the events of Arrow never really unfold and he lives with Thea, his parents and his fiancee Laurel in the Queen mansion. Oh, and where Diggle is the Hood.
The Arrow celebrations throw a tonne of appearances from the past at us, from the welcome return of Jamey Sheridan as Robert to a cough-and-spit appearance by Neal McDonough’s Damien Darhk. Presumably Manu Bennett was slightly too busy to return, though: Deathstroke here is silent and masked rather than the gruff Kiwi we all know and tolerate.
The increased (or shared, depending on your point of view) budget and time of three episodes to tell one story means a bit more bang for your buck visually, with the CGI-rendered Dominators lifted virtually straight from the pages of the Invasion! DC crossover strip drawn by Todd McFarlane in the late ’80s.
The strip forms, at least in concept if not in execution, the basis and the rationale for the invasion — that the Dominators are concerned the rise in meta-humans on Earth will lead to them becoming a threat, eventually creating a meta-bomb to wipe out these new super-powered humans.
As a result we get some lovely visuals, with spaceships flying over Central City in scenes reminiscent of a Matalan Independence Day, and Supergirl and the Flash travelling across the USA to take out whole groups of Dominators on the familiar streets of New York. If nothing else, “Invasion” confirms that the Supergirl/Flash Benoist/Gustin pairing is one of the best on TV just now.
However the crossover serves some of the core characters better than others, most notably Diggle, rendered into little more than a punchbag and comic relief in a helmet, and Ray, who’s basically just there. Perhaps in a way that’s understandable; David Ramsey and Brandon Routh, likeable and nuanced performers both, often serve as the heart of their respective shows and with so much going on here, giving them the kind of scenes they excel in would feel a bit lost.
But perhaps the worst served is Kara. Admittedly she is, by the very nature of being Supergirl, ridiculously overpowered in this story, but she’s at first mind-controlled by the aliens and then unnecessarily benched by Oliver because he doesn’t know how to deal with her. It feels like the writers admitting they don’t really know how to best use her in this setting; she’s effectively sidelined in the Arrow episode, and barely features until the final battle in the Legends one.
It feels like a terrific waste of Melissa Benoist both as a performer and Supergirl as a character. The writers do have a get-out clause if they think she’s overpowered for the story; she’s from an alternate Earth, so they could say the sunlight here’s on a slightly different wavelength and she’s slightly less powerful.
That said, the final moments of the story are lovely, as Oliver, Kara and Barry bond, before the original two heroes, the Flash and Green Arrow, head to the pub as friends and equals to talk shop and get drunk.
There are some nods and in-jokes, as you’d expect in there, including a lovely one at the end as Ray Palmer remarks how much Kara Danvers looks like his cousin — a chapeau tip to his all-too-brief time in the blue and red himself. There’s also a subtle X-Files reference and a surprising Torchwood one. Plus a far cheekier gag as Kara refers to the new gang as Earth’s mightiest heroes. Back off, Marvel lawyers…
”Invasion”’s not a bad run of episodes by any means, but feels shallower and more disjointed than the four episode, four-night epic it was pitched as. But there are some genuine flashes of brilliance and visual spectacle in there, along with some engagingly emotional moments — not least giving Oliver a chance to say a proper farewell to his parents, and a thrilling final fight set, not in a warehouse for once, but high on a rooftop, in broad daylight, with a city all around.
It’s not quite Avengers Assemble, for all the superficial similarities in plot, but as a piece of event television, kudos to all involved for pulling it off. The only problem now is where you go from here. A five-night event dragging in Constantine? Or maybe we’ve hit peak crossover… and the only way is down.
Review by Iain Hepburn