Note: Spoilers for The Flash season 4 and slight spoilers for Supergirl season 3 follow
I’ve been a big fan of The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, and Black Lightning since they started. I used to be a fan of Arrow but stopped watching for a variety of reasons. I am also very much looking forward to the upcoming Batwoman tv series. However, while I do love these shows, I understand and accept the range of (legitimate) criticisms many others have with them. More specifically, the superhero shows on the CW, with the exception of Black Lightning, struggle with finding a balance between telling good individual stories and season arcs. The overemphasis on main plots and big bads in these 20+ episode seasons is tiresome and detracts from developing their characters sufficiently.
The Flash season 4, Supergirl season 3, and even Legends of Tomorrow season 3 all suffered from focusing too much on their season-long plots and side characters. Supergirl season 3 left many podcast commentators, critics, and fans disappointed. Kara seemed to become a side character in her own show, with other characters stepping into the spotlight. The Flash‘s main cast suffered heavily for the introduction of and focus on ephemeral side plots and characters. Most of them did not have ample time to develop further as characters. This left their fans from previous seasons feeling disappointed as well.
While Legends of Tomorrow has suffered as well from this big bad syndrome, especially in its mediocre first season, it has fared far better than its sister shows by embracing filler episodes that give side plots to its main characters. By embracing the silliness and randomness of its premise, Legends has become many fans’ favorite DCTV show.
By taking its audience on random adventures in each episode, often barely mentioning the main season plot, it succeeds where the other shows haven’t. In seasons 2 and 3, it embraced the promise of its premise of time-travel and gave its characters standout side adventures where audiences could acquaint with them. As a result, we loved Sara, Amaya, Zari, Mick, and the rest of the crew even more. However, it too suffered from the shoehorning in of the main season plot into individual episodes, with “jigsaw puzzles” (a term the Legends of Tomorrow Podcast coined) being a constant. It’s time for other DCTV shows to embrace the filler.
Embrace the filler
Often when we hear the word “filler” regarding tv it’s pejorative. One might ask “Why are the writers wasting time on these side stories?” “Where’s the main plot?” It’s understandable to have this reaction. However, filler can often result in some of the best episodes of a tv series. Filler episodes often offer crucial character moments and side adventures to flesh out the characters audiences love so much on these shows. Beloved anime series, for example, like Sailor Moon, Dragonball Z, and Inuyasha had plenty of filler episodes of side plots to develop their characters as three-dimensional people.
We can actually look to examples from the Arrowverse to exemplify this. The time loop episode “Here I Go Again” from Legends was one of the series’ most acclaimed. Critics and audiences similarly loved “Enter Flashtime.” Both episodes had little to nothing to do with the main “big bad” of the season. They gave ample room for audiences to acquaint with their main and side characters as people. We as an audience did not have to (for once) be reminded of the looming threat of the main villains and what their “ultimate plans” would be. We could enjoy the wackiness and dramatic tension of the show for what it was through the characters.
As with many of their current properties, DC tv and film media needs to looks to Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s DC Animated Universe (DCAU) on how to balance between season arcs and individual fillers. Hell, the first two seasons of Justice League didn’t even have main big bads. They instead relied on a series of incredible mini-arcs to make a great anthology of stories. Sometimes you don’t even need a big bad or season arc to enjoy a show at all. The characters themselves can more than carry the weight.
Case Study: The Flash Season 4
20+ episode/season series that devote all or most of their episodes to dealing with the “big bad” become tiresome. This was clear with season 4 of The Flash in which our heroes had to find the “bus metas.” They were a lazy McGuffin to kill time as they delayed the final showdown with The Thinker. Episodes dragged as we went along with these side characters, and (spoiler) the vast majority of them ended up dead. There was little to no reason to care about them except for the purpose they served to the main villain. They weren’t fleshed out characters and detracted significant time from our main team. If the season had episodes focusing more on Caitlin’, Cisco, Barry, Iris’, and (if he was still a regular) Wally’s struggles, it would have vastly improved. These would have provided character moments and insights to make viewers love and appreciate them more.
One arc I would have liked to see more of was Caitlin dealing with Killer Frost. The season scattered these episodes throughout the season. Her arc didn’t have any clear resolution in the finale, and was only given a cliffhanger scene for season 5. Cisco’s story fared much worse, as his only arc was breaking up with his girlfriend from another earth. The season relegated him as a side character for the rest of the season. Iris fared much better than she had in previous seasons, but even her arc had issues.
Often episodes designated to showcase her alone would have interference from Ralph Dibny, Harrison Wells, and other new characters. While she had badass moments (the sword fight with Marlize Devoe specifically) her arc still suffered from interference from other side characters. Instead, the writers decided to make Ralph, a new character, the main focus along with the other bus metas. The glaring issue is that the season ignored developing its main characters in favor of the side characters. The overemphasis on the ephemeral characters and plots in season 4 detracted from the crucial development of our main cast.
Season 5 of The Flash has to make a concerted effort to have its characters drive the plot and not the other way around. The creators have been touting that it will focus more on “family” and go back to basics with its main characters, which is a positive sign. Despite the issues Supergirl season 3 had developing its main hero, the series finale had a cliffhanger that indicates a much more personal arc for Kara. Legends will hopefully continue its eclectic trend going into season 4.
We watch superhero shows for a variety of fun adventures with our heroes. We do want compelling villains, but we want to have them in quantities that make sense. For these series, a variety of villains (unconnected to the main villain) increases their longevity. We go along with their main and side journeys, getting to know them better. The interference of a main big bad/plot has too often interfered with that character journey on these shows. Through having them undergo a variety of experiences instead in individual seasons with the base requirement of a seasonal theme, the Arrowverse could go far with telling better and richer stories for their amazing characters.